Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lent 2015 - The Paradox of Praxis

Lent begins with Matthew 6 - "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven."  That verse serves as prelude for a litany of otherwise holy behaviors in which the Gospel writer elucidates that doing something, even something good or holy, has a prerequisite of proper intent if it is to be efficacious.

That Ash Wednesday's Gospel lesson for today is always this reading is no accident.  Like me, perhaps today is the mark in time on your calendar to begin doing something or to refrain from doing something.  In this age of persistent self disclosure at least, and full on TMI at most - fueled by the ease social media, the caution of Gospel today places us in a bind.

For heaven's sake--we want to share everything we do and where we do it.  

To be sure, some of our Lenten "disciplines" make mockery of what the season is about.  Chances are if you're giving up something for Lent it is likely something you do disproportionately anyway.  Let's say you're fasting from something for Lent.  That's all well and good.  How much of what you're giving up for 40 days has such hold during the normalcy of life that it rises to the top of your list when considering what to give up? And, how quickly will that from which you fasted rush back in come Easter?  Or if for Lent you're not fasting from something but taking on what end, and why only now, if it's something good, did you wait until today to start?And then there's the biggest question:  Will having fasted from it or taken it on clarify who Jesus is and who you are as his disciple?

Historically, Lent leads catechumens to the waters of baptism on Easter.  It leads them not only to the water but into the community of Christ.  It is here, in Christian community, that we begin to take on the practices of faith, stand with and for those pushed to the margins.  And why?  If Lent's purpose is to draw us closer to Christ in community, then rest assured that to find him, that's where we've got to go.

John Wesley ministered among the poor in no small part because he experienced Christ among them.

Who's on the margins in the places where your Christian community exists?  Want to find Jesus this Lent?  Go there and you'll discover a depth of presence that will overwhelm. Make those otherwise excluded a part of your Christian community.  Bring their context into your own not because they need you, but because you need them.

Or, you could just give up chocolate, Diet Coke, cussing, and to decide to exercise and eat right for 40 days and show us all how you're doing.  As Jesus says in Matthew "truly I tell you, they have received their reward."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Sacrum Facere"-- Marcus Borg

As the words of acknowledgement and remembrances for the life and witness of Marcus Borg come pouring in, I'm prompted now to bring my own. 

I heard he'd died  yesterday but sat with it awhile. The temptation to rush and post something like "breaking news" is not fitting the style of the man being remembered. 

A few thoughts this morning as I reflect on him:
     1. To my colleagues and friends, if you have to preface your acknowledgment of his death with how much you didn't agree with him, then own up that such an acknowledgment through this medium is more about your perceived need to cover your own backside than to earnestly pray God's peace to someone in their dying. 
     2.  I met Marcus on a couple of occasions during what was a very regular stop at Calvary Episcopal's Lenten Speaker Series. The benefit of those brief encounters brought together with reading his words and observing through video his very professorial and deliberate approach to teaching provided a conduit through which I felt as if when I was reading him I was in his classroom. 

     3. The question of my believing what he wrote is irrelevant. I do know this. On several matters about the faith, about my faith, it was he (often in partnership with Dom Crossan) who gave language and form to what I long felt but had not words to express. Or at least they did it in such a way that I could hear it.   

So when I preach repentance as announced in Gospel, among the other things ascribed to it's meaning, I hear "to go beyond the mind you have."  The Church will never fulfill its truest call to bring everyone round the Table until it can do that. I can't be all I'm called to be until I do that, too. 

Holy Week, sacrifice and atonement are the places where most he made his mark on me. At last, words that resonate in my spirit with the God who Is.  Is life made sacred because it just is or by what one does with it?  

    4. Marcus' body of work is significant and it will endure. I am made better by his contribution to the conversation. I am challenged and confronted by questions he raises. And maybe that's the point. Lord knows we've got far too many talking heads content to cash in and validate what we already think, believe.   But to those like Marcus who turn the prevailing view on its side for insight at a different angle, even and especially if what it reveals distrurbs as it enlightens, they are truly blessed to be a blessing. 

Marcus would be quick to say "Life is short. And we haven't much time to gladden the hearts of those on the way with be swift to love...make haste to be kind."

And if that's his last lesson to us, it may well be his best. 

Sunday, December 07, 2014

And Now He Knows

I'm a grandfather now.  I know, right?

God knows I'm not the first man to be a grandfather, but I am a grandfather for the first time.  And there's some things I've learned:
  • Every cliche' about being a grandparent may be trite but could not be more true.  Anyone who's watched the unreserved posting of Facebook pics on my page knows this already.  And I'm just getting started.  If that's too much for any of you, feel free to unfollow now.  And if you're of the mind that you're likely to roll your eyes or say "here he goes again" when more Mia shows up, drop me now.  I'm not bothered by it.  Pleasing people who are my "friends" on Facebook is not the barometer by which I measure my happiness.  Showing off my girl is.
  • I was asked before Mia came by someone who knows me very well what my first words would be to her when I held her for the first time.  I hadn't thought of that.  But what came out of me when I finally got to hold her (apparently in the pecking order of family systems, grandmothers get first dibs...not sure if that's right or fair, but it just is.), with eyes welling and my breathing labored because she took mine away, was this: "You're who I've been waiting for."  That's deeply loaded for me, probably more than even I can recognize at this point, and certainly more than I'm willing to speak to through this medium.  At a minimum I know what my Granddaddy meant to me (I only knew my grandfather on my dad's side), As if I didn't need it before Thursday, I've another compelling reason to be the man I'm called to be, for Mia.
  • Given my vocation and the community of those who share in that work as well, there's nothing like a baby being born in December for "Advent" references to come fast and furious.  Baby, December, Advent....I see what you did there.  Enough.
  • And then there's my son, Andrew.  Watching him go through what I did with him over 22 years ago wasn't at all strange.  It was more "circle of life" like.  It's not that I'm proud of him, although I am.  I just watched him be who he is--loving, attentive, present.  He's a great father. That doesn't mean he won't make mistakes, he will.  And he will learn.  He will grow.
Since Andrew was a little boy up to now, we've had this father/son banter when I'd tell him I love him he'd say "I love you more."  

And I'd say, "not possible."

Yesterday, watching him buckle Mia into the car to drive away from the hospital (and I was a blubbering mess about that), all I wanted him to do was let us know when they got home and that they were OK.

I gave him ample time to get home and settled when I texted him:
"Home?  Everyone OK?"
His response: "Yes sir, Just finished settling in.  Nap to ensue while Mia sleeps."
Me:  "Great."
Andrew: "Love you so much."
Me: "Love you son.  And now you know how much."

Truly, now he does.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

And Justice For.....

So we pray. 
We pray for Ferguson. 
We pray for unity in the Church. 
Calls to prayer are always in order. Although prayers in the abstract seem to divert us from the moment that is. Calls to prayer also presuppose that people haven't been praying all along...which seems presumptuous. 

But what are we praying for? 

If the sum of our prayers is to match outcomes with our preferences then whatever it is we're praying, it's more like "our will, not Thine be done."

Micah tells us that the Lord requires us to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."

To "do" justice is not an act of passivity. It is to match one's engagement in the world with at least as much spiritual energy exerted in the utterance of the prayers in the first place. Jesus' prayer is that God's realm and will "be done on earth as it is in heaven."

It is an advocacy for a world where the justice we seek is not retributive...that's the justice we're wired to exact if left to our own devices. It's the kind wherein we want make sure the good guys and bad guys each get exactly what they both deserve. And guess who gets to determine that?

Justice we pray for is measured by how the least of us, the ones without voice and representation, the ones on the outside looking in have access, place, voice and value measured against those who, by nothing more arbitrary than their birth claim ownership to all of the above. 

It is not justice hoped for. It is justice worked for. 

Otherwise, as people in power, we are just like those to whom another prophet once spoke:
"For from the least to the greatest of them,everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush." Jer. 6.13-15

Lord have mercy. 
Christ have mercy. 
Lord have mercy. 

Monday, September 01, 2014

I Lift Up My Eyes

Our fall worship series calls us to gather around the Psalms.  There’s 150 of them, of all kinds and genres.  We all know all of some and some of many.  We know more verses from Psalms than we probably think we do.  In the introduction to his commentary on The Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says:

When people of faith gather around the Hebrew scriptures, the focus is often the book of Psalms.  This collection of songs has powerfully influenced worship, theology, ethics, and piety for centuries.  The book continues to influence contemporary readers with is eloquent poetic language, which communicates directly to the life circumstances of contemporary readers…This central biblical book continues to capture the imaginations of readers today as they seek to pray and live faithfully.  [Psalms, Brueggemann & Bellenger  NCBC].

                More than a Bible study, per se, what I invite you to is to live the Psalms with us over the course of the series.  The worship moment - from the visuals you’ll find in the sanctuary (thanks to Brian and Kayla Earwood), to the music, the liturgy, the prayers - the choral selections, we are setting the space for us to live with and through these ancient prayers and praises.  Our aim is to set the space where we can connect with these words in the context of our lives here and now.

                There are six Psalms around which we’ll bring our focus.  We are preparing a booklet containing all of them (and a pdf version will be available for download), together with some suggestions for daily prayers(including apps for download on your mobile device).  We ask that you commit to read the Psalm of the week each day. 

                Rather than seek to cover the full range of the Psalms for the series, we sought Psalms that speak to us out of which the homily will emerge.

                Our schedule is as follows:
                                September   7   Psalm 121 “I lift up my eyes to the hills…”
                                September 14   Psalm 130  “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…”
                                September 21   Psalm   51  “Have mercy on me, O Lord…”
                                September 28   Psalm   77  “I cry aloud to God…that he may hear me”
                                October       5   Psalm 133 “How very good it is when kindred live in unity together”
                                October      12  Psalm 47   “Clap your hands, all you peoples….”

Of all the things about St. John’s for which we should be most thankful – our servant ministry; our glad welcome of all God’s children not regardless of who we are but precisely because of who we are, who we love, the journey we’re taking; the loving spirit of our fellowship—we all need take time to reflect in whose name we do what we do.  Each time we gather, we should pause and bear witness to the reality of God’s presence in our midst.  How have we, how have you seen the “God moment” at St. John’s, in your daily walk?
                Lift up your eyes with us, and together let us know and praise the One from whom our help comes.

Monday, August 04, 2014

In Response to the Current Humanitarian Crisis along the Border

The following ran in the August 4, 2014 edition of "The Commercial Appeal."

In Response to the Current Humanitarian Crisis along the Border

We, leaders of faith communities throughout Memphis and Shelby County, together with agencies specializing in the ongoing care of children, unite to speak to the humanitarian crisis in which over 57,000 unaccompanied children, between the ages of 3 months and 17 years are encamped within the borders of The United States.  Projections of increasing numbers of children to come notwithstanding, in this current moment we hear the cries of these children who are already here.  Believing that silence in the face of what is before us is both morally unacceptable and unfaithful we come together to offer ourselves in partnership with governmental agencies to provide care for these children. 

No matter the cause, no matter our paths to God, we believe there are moral and religious imperatives calling for a compassionate response in keeping with the very faith we claim.  Our holy scriptures compel us to action:

“Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19.33-34

In Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus said that our care for the hungry, the sick, and the stranger is an outward and visible sign of our love for him:  “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” - Matthew 25.40b

The Quran says “Be kind to your parents, relatives, orphans, the destitute, your near and distant neighbors, your companions, wayfarers..” Ch.4 V 36

"By the breath of children God sustains the world." Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 119b

“Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it. Hebrews 13.1

We live and serve in Memphis, “the city of good abode.”  We respond to crisis.  We come together. This is what we do.   As we did with victims of Hurricane Katrina, as we’ve done and continue to do for the sake of quality public education for our children, we summon the best parts of us to find a way out of no way.  It defines our character as a community. 

We recognize this moment requires a partnership between government and faith communities.  We invite leaders at the local and state levels to join us. Such a partnership and the process developed to provide any of a number of services for these children while long term solutions are sought could be a model easily replicated across the country.  We have been blessed with the gifts and graces of compassionate hearts and logistical skill sufficient to make that level of impact on our country.

We affirm the mandate to respond to this crisis ever aware of the continual humanitarian crisis at home, for the cries of our own city’s children ring loudly in our ears, too.  We renew our commitment to work together for their sake believing that “love doesn’t divide, it multiplies.”  We invite all faith communities to join us in this work believing it to be a witness of our character as people of faith and as citizens of this place we call home.

Eric Brand, Bellevue Baptist Church
Greg Diaz, Nueva Direccion
Earle Fisher, Abyssinian Baptist Church
Eddie Foster, Second Presbyterian Church
Micah Greenstein, Temple Israel
Johnny Jeffords, St. John’s United Methodist Church
David Jordan, Agape Child and Family Services
Larry Lloyd, Memphis Leadership Foundation
Johnny Long, Hope Church
Steve Montgomery, Idlewild Presbyterian Church
Eli Morris, Hope Church
Scott Morris, Church Health Center
Steve Moses, World Relief
Billy Posey, Hope Church
Kenneth Robinson, St. Andrew AME Church
Josh Ross, Sycamore View Church of Christ
Stacy Spencer, New Direction Christian Church
Sandy Willson, Second Presbyterian Church
Rolando Rostro, Iglesia Nueva Vida Church
Debra Kirkwood, Bethany Christian Services
Michael Allen, Catholic Charities of West Tennessee

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Table Around Which All May Gather

I guess it was the my first Friday night at The Way when it hit me again...a memory, a thought I had shared before when I served here.  Those kinda things happen frequently these days.  I see projects that were first imagined years ago come to fruition.  There's a lot of "oh yeah, I remember when we talked about that."  Kinda cool, really, to see dreams realized.  Hang on...we ain't done dreamin’ yet!

Sitting in the sanctuary on a Friday night is a special thing, if you haven't done it yet, what are you waiting for?  It is among the most wonderful of things to see people come fully aware of how broken they are and finding food for the body and the soul in their gathering.  As I said from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago, this is one of the two services of worship St. John's celebrates each week.  It’s my aim to transplant some of the “soul” of Friday night into the life of our Sunday morning gatherings.  If you're curious about it, "come and see."

Anyway, I'm sitting in the pew as the music begins.  Although I have played The Way three times before, it was through the eyes of one coming in to do a thing, not as one who is pastor of the place where it's being done.  It was through that lens I observed the dissonance between a service being led, a meal being shared, and an open invitation to the reality that, as John says, "We love ya and God loves ya and there ain't nothing you can do about it," and the thing around which the Church gathers to share the Holy Meal, the altar, relegated to the corner because it's in the way.

Didn't need "The Way" to remind me that what we have is "in the way."  I've long felt that as we worship together at St. John's.  There's nothing wrong with an altar...for Cathedrals and Queen Churches it is most important. 

But way back in the late '70's, a St. John's pastor spoke to the reality that on the corner of Peabody and Bellevue, the Queen was dead.  We are heirs of that pronouncement.  The ministries of love, service and justice that exist now and those to be born in our future flow out of that understanding.

St. John's, like most Protestant mainline churches, is an amalgam of theological and liturgical influences in its architecture, none of which have been taught well to the succeeding generations.

A little St. John's architectural history:
What you see now when you look at the chancel is not what's always been.  In fact, the chancel has undergone multiple transitions across the years to adapt to the ministry opportunities of the day.  The original configuration (1907) of the church chancel looked like this, with a center pulpit, exposed organ pipes, and yes, the wood is much darker than what we have now.  That original configuration is consistent with “preaching houses” of the revival era.  The “preached” word was the primary thing.

In 1953, it was renovated moving to a divided chancel, the covering of organ pipes once exposed, and establishment of a pulpit on the east and lectern to the west.  Affixed to the south wall of the sanctuary was the altar.  What you see in the picture is closer to what you know, the biggest difference being the position of the choir.  The establishment of a permanent altar communicated an understanding of the importance of the sacraments….one consistent with the general liturgical leanings of The Methodist Church in those days.  That is, very penitential…”we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under Thy Table.”  Sacrament is a sacrifice in this modality, and the altar is the place wherein it is re-enacted.

In 1978, gone was the red velvet hanging over the altar and commissioned was the wall hanging that remains to this day, even as we use other artistic expressions seasonally that cover it.  The significance of the imagery on the woven piece reflects the totality of the understanding of God and the Holy Sacrament.  It is also on this work that we see enshrined the butterfly as the living symbol of St. John’s, her ministry, her mission, and the power of the resurrection of a church receiving new life through servant ministry.  A symbol so significant for us that it is our church sign on the corner.

    Almost 15 years ago, the configuration of the chancel changed again.  Our ministry of music was making a big impact on our worship life.  Because it was growing, space was needed to accommodate.  So we changed to what you know.  And what of the altar?  It was literally ripped off the south wall with plywood serving as backing and placed where you see it now.  It is heavy, has been patched together more than once.  If you sit in the choir loft, your view of it is particularly unappealing.  Truthfully, it was never meant to be anything more than it was built to be…an altar, a permanent, non-movable structure.

So what do we do now?  We are a people of Table.  We “celebrate” Communion.  Our liturgy bespeaks a “Great Thanksgiving.”  We are a people open and welcoming, and we need visual signs in our worship space confirming that truth.  There’s a practical sensibility to this as well as theological.  You don’t move altars.  You do move tables so that all may come around it.  The Table of welcome needs to be present at every service, including The Way.  It needs to be far more flexible for our Sunday worship than it is.

Last week I shared an idea with the Church Council.  While nothing has been done in any official capacity, I do believe it a proper time to make this symbolic shift serving both a functional and theological need.  Let’s commission a Table be built for our sanctuary.  From the multitude of artisans we know, I believe we could find someone to serve this purpose that is a “Memphis” soul.  Let it be beautiful in its simplicity, yet profound in its message:  here, in this place, around this table, all are welcome – and together we accept our call to bring around the Table with us those longing to know home.

And let us dedicate this Table around which all may gather to the glory of God and in the memory of the leader who set us on the footing for servant ministry…the very thing that gives us life today…from the food pantry to the soup kitchen, to Feast for Friends, to The Way, to the Community Garden, to Empty Bowls, to Bruce School, to so many more that have been as well to those yet to be…. the Rev’d Frank Lewis McRae.

What a celebration is in store!  Let’s make this happen…together.