Saturday, December 29, 2007

On the Fourth Day of Christmas . . .

Miss me?

A conspicuous absence, I grant you.

Nothing to say, have I? Hardly.

But, ironically, during this time of year pregnant with meaningful topics on which to reflect, I've not been terribly motivated to bring thoughts to the keyboard. At least not yet. Some of the issues around why that's been the case will have to be processed through some other medium than this one. To date, this blog has been the slipstream for my wonderings - those that are random, and those I more carefully construct.

There is some cathartic work to be done by me, however, and I feel that process will necessitate a fairly revolutionary tact to enact - a pen to paper, and the product of that work will likely see no one else's eyes but my own.

This will still be the primary conduit for my thoughts and theological reflections. There are several posts coming - randomized streams of consciousness that I've thought - "I need to remember this one and flesh it out."

Among them -
  • The REAL war on Xmas (fodder for my sermon, "Refugee Messiah" to be preached on Christmas 1, December 30)
  • Reflections on Steve Martin's extraordinary memoir "Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life."
  • Fascination with Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God."
  • Joining the world of the Ipod, and loving it.
There's more cooking. Some of my favorite topics - politics in a presidential election year; the Tigers; movies of varying flavors - you know, the usual.

So, for the sake of having one more post in 2007 (and I need one more to equal last year's post total, not that I'm competing with myself, or anything), unless something hits me before then, this will do it for now.

In the words of Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim,

"God bless us, everyone."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Party Planner, At Your Service

So, among my other vocational options, should this whole ministry deal tank, is planning parties. Last weekend was the culmination of months of planning to celebrate my wife's 40th birthday.

Yes, I know, she's just 40, I robbed the cradle. Actually it was the other way around, but that's another story for a venue other than this one.

Anyway, motivated by the desire to throw a good party, especially for her, and, too, a healthy dose of ego to say "yes, men can throw good parties, too," I worked to pull this together. Even took a bit of a second job these last few months to pay for it.

About 30 friends and family members, plentiful food and beverage, and a cake that everyone told me was jaw dropping (to which I'll only say this, it ought to have been) - it was a good night, a very good night.

And while she knew it was coming, I think she was surprised by the reality of those who came, and celebrated with her.
We all need those moments to feel affirmed, important - that our lives matter.

And sometimes, we just need an opportunity to party.

When when you need such an occasion, call me - we'll see what we can work out.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Monday, December 3 - A Day in the Life

I don't know how to say this except for the truth it is.

Last Monday, December 3, was one helluva day.

It was a day in which the administrative duties of my position necessitated action on my part that is never pleasant, and was, in this instance, painful. Necessary for the big picture, but painful. I had lived with the reality of certain decisions through the weekend, so there was plenty of time to build up a good case of dread before meeting the moment head on.

And I had a severe case.

It was a day in which the character of the Church I serve was being asked to consider a new way of being for the sake of Methodist ministry in the city. And, while I have committed to the presence and place of Methodist ministry in the city, that does not mean that every model floated my way is "the one." Being calm and discerning on a day that isn't calm, is pretty tough to pull off.

But it was how my day ended that was the most surprising of all.

My wife and I were among 20 or so others who had been invited to dinner at the home the senior pastor of one of Memphis' mega-churches. I was there with clergy and spouses who are leaders in their denominations, from across the city. Black and white, men and women, Catholic, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalian, AME, and, Jewish.

And that last one's why I was there. If I was on Micah's list to be at something like this, then I'm there, no questions.

Curious, sure - but I trust him implicitly.

So, there we all were, names of people that anyone who worships in the city would know, except, say, for mine.

It seems there's a growing awareness among clergy leaders in the city that we can't change the city for good unless we know each other, and not as professionals - just as people.

We are people of divergent faith traditions and world views, bound by one thing - we all know we each have inherent value because we are made in the image of the Divine.

A few folks I had told I was going to this were most curious about what I would have to say after having done it.

We'll, here goes.

I believe the effort to be genuine, and I will continue in it.

My mother is fond of saying, of those whose power and position seemingly places them in higher regard than say, other folks, "they put their pants on just like you do, son, one leg at a time."

There was no pretense that night. True hospitality, and the opportunity for community among those of us who find our vocation leaves us remarkably lonely, is a means of grace that should never be ignored.

Kristy and I left 3 hours later, not sure what all had happened, but we were glad we were there.

I wrote our host, Craig, an email. We didn't have a chance to do much more than the small talk that night, so, I wanted him to know who I am. He's someone I had only heard of, but never met.

I was braced for someone I did not meet.

Rather, I discovered an open heart.

Because this email says a whole lot more about me, than him, I include it here:


I'm left with sense of gratitude from our time together in your home Monday night.

What I found was an intentional effort to put away job, status, size of pulpit or congregation, to join together in fellowship at table. A fellowship framed from no other allegiance or perspective than this - we each are made in the image of the Holy One, and thus, have value.

The desert monastics talk about the importance of welcoming the stranger. It is not so much because it is the "right thing to do," although it is. Rather, they held that we welcome the stranger because in him or her resides some element of the Divine that we have not yet seen - and, invariably, it is something that most fits the empty space in our spiritual journeys.

I believe that is true. I preach it. I am certain that most, if not all in your home Monday night do, too. The real issue is one of integrity. Can we, who are called to be spiritual leaders for God's precious children, practice it in our own lives?

It is a question I try to check myself against. Although we did not have opportunity to meet other than the general small talk, I want you to know how deeply and honestly I sensed that from you. And, I wanted to affirm that from both you and your wife.

In addition to my own practice of ministry for over 20 years, I am a preacher's kid. The issues associated with clergy families and their quest to live, love and grow as any family - coupled with the external pressures and expectations of others, have always been present in my life. Even more, I have written and led on the question that, over time, the rigors of the job, with all that seduces and tempts, we clergy find that years on, we forget who we are first and foremost - not merely people charged to do extraordinary things in the name of the Church - but simply sinners saved by grace whose discipleship must continue to be nurtured and tended even as we lead.

All of which is to say - this gathering, whatever it was, and whatever it is becoming, is a means of grace. To that point I bear witness.

In my congregation we use the language of "radical gospel hospitality." Saint John's is an interesting group of people, at an important season in it's life. We are not homogeneous about anything - I have some of the most liberal and conservative people you'll ever know sitting in the same worship space at the same time. What we've determined about ourselves is simply this - of all the labels we carry - politically, theologically, social standing - there is no label that matters to us more than the One who calls us to Table - together. So, if that's true, we believe there is a place at Table for any one. For everyone.

It is not rhetoric. We truly seek to practice that, and I've watched extraordinary things happen in our small band of believers simply because they choose to hold Jesus in common more than any other affiliation.

That is a bit of me that I bring to this table of our mutual fellowship. And I know I will be all the more complete by having you, and the rest of our brothers and sisters there, too - bringing the real stuff of who they are into our common experience.

Micah said this is about "being." I'm all over that. There's plenty enough "oughts" and "doings" in my life right now that I can handle. To have a place, a safe place - sanctuary to come to. That's a blessing.

Thanks, Craig.

The Peace is breathe it in.

He was quick to respond - and right after the holidays, we're having lunch.

Not out of curiosity, I suspect, but out of the genuine hope that there's something of the Sacred in each of us we'll need each other to discover.

When the day started, I was waiting to get home, grab my favorite glass and pour up a couple of knuckles worth of Pritchard's to ease the pain of the way the day had gone.

By the time to day ended, I was thankful, at peace, and ready, with gladness, to bring this day to its end. The glass never came out of the cabinet.

Strange how authentic fellowship works, isn't it?

Monday, November 26, 2007

It's What I Do - It's Who I Am

Yesterday was the first time I had been in the pulpit in about a month. Before yesterday, my last time to preach was the last Sunday of October. That's quite a stretch for me.

I was present for All Saints' Sunday, but one of my partners in ministry was scheduled to preach. I was in the UK on the 11th, and, upon my return, sat in the pews on the 18th as our youth led the service (to say they rocked the house would be to understate it - and watching you own sons in the pulpit and lectern doing their thing is a Twilight Zone episode waiting to happen).

I had not sat in the pews for worship in a long, long time. And, let me tell you, given the choice of being in the pulpit to preach or sit in the pews and parent a 6 year old - it's a no brainer.

I don't think I had ever had such an extended time not to preach in 20 years (not counting my days as an Associate, of course), including vacation.

I was conscious of the time apart from the preaching task. On balance, I was taken by how quickly it came and went. As I prepared this week, I found myself remarkably calm. Now, I'm no real judge on how these things go - I'm usually pretty hard on myself, but as I offered the "amen" to end the homily, I was taken by a powerful, if not palpable sense of confirmation.

Confirmation not that I had done it well, or right, or had the unique slant on a familiar scripture that no one had dared speak until it was uttered from my mouth (please, spare me). No, it was a confirmation that this "thing" is what I do - it is who I am.

And that's not always a comfortable thought to live with.

My tenure in ministry, as my own life, is middle-aged. No longer the young rebel who can say what he wants when he wants and have blanket of security that comes from "being young." And not old enough to have my words or counsel be considered sage or wise - it's easy to find one's self caught in the vice of the quest for meaning.

Middle aged ministers whose ministries are middle aged is a dangerous place to be. Most of us at this age have circled on our calendars when the magic number of years served hits so that we can actually consider doing something else with the rest of our lives.

That number? 20.

20 years of service as acknowledged by the General Board of Pensions, and any of us in such a situation can "retire" and retain half of the pension paid in for us when we reach the "real" retirement age.

Although I first went under appointment in '87, those student years don't count with the good folks up at the Pension Board, so I have another number hanging out there for me, 2009.
Like the middle aged person who buys a hot rod, gold chains, and trades in for a, uh, newer, younger partner, middle aged ministers are tempted by thoughts of what could be - especially if what has been has not lived up to their wish dreams.

Too many of us deal with the crushing reality that we have not changed the world, the church, or anybody else, for that matter, except our own selves, and those changes are rarely healthy ones. In the middle, we find our souls battered, bruised, and the state of our physical bodies gives compelling evidence of what is going on inside.

"How is it with our souls?" you ask? Be careful, you may not really want to know how the souls of many of us who are called to lead congregations really are. And some of us need to move on - to find other expressions of ministry. Some of us need to find healthier habits of head, heart and body. Some of us just need time to heal.

So yesterday was an unexpected means of grace for me. But isn't every means of grace - unexpected!

The drawing posted above is from Collins. I'm just coming to know him. He is an artist - very right brain, empathetic, intuitive person.

Some folks who sit in the pew take notes when I preach (which I find pretty funny, as if I had something to say worth taking notes over). Collins doesn't take notes, he draws pictures.

Drawing pictures in church - I think he's on to something.

Anyway, he gave me this drawing not too long ago.

It's a unique thing to be handed a drawing of you by someone else. That drawing shines light on the truth of my being - whether tempted to do or be something else. Spirits such as his see what is "true" whether I want to acknowledge it or not.

I don't know what the future holds within this Church I love. There are winds of change blowing, and I suppose that is inevitible.

But in whatever form proclamation of the Gospel takes for me in the next 20 years, it will be there. It has to be.

This is what I do. It's who I am.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some Growl Left in My Tigers

I'll tell ya.

2-4, I was pretty sure our season was done.

And I had every right to think that. When we lost - it was ugly.

The Sun Belt Conference had killed us. ASU - MTSU losses to both.

Central Florida embarrassed us.

We win at Rice, but get run off the field a week later at our Homecoming by East Carolina.

Now we're 3-5, and it's time to think of "next year."

But then, a bit of a run.

Tulane on the road, Southern Miss on the road, and last Saturday, at home, UAB, in a game that looked more like what I had become accustomed to in the DeAngelo years. Fierce running game that opens up the pass. We hadn't beat UAB at all in what, like 7 or 8 years? But now, we whipped them.

It felt good, very good.

6-5, with one game left.

Any long suffering Tiger fan will tell you, "give me 7 wins a season, and I'll call it a success."

And I'll be darned if we just don't do that very thing.

It's been a schizophrenic year - but in the end, signs of life, signs of pride, and some guts, to boot.

Make no mistake, we're not that good. We play in a league that's not that good. But it's what we have, and it looks like we're starting to rise.

I'm proud of the boys.

One more, this Saturday, SMU - let's go get 'em.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Trajectories for Re-Entry

Back in the days of the Apollo space program, we, the common people on the ground, were continually amazed, if not perplexed, by the engineering marvels that allowed us to send human beings to the moon and then back again.

NASA's finest hour, indeed.

It was one minor miracle followed by the next - each needing to happen in succession. As controlled as everything was on the spacecraft, mission control, and the procedures that governed them, the variability of space created an angst, even in the face of confidence, that this thing they were doing was no walk in the park, and was quite dangerous.

Just ask the crew of Apollo 13.

The thing I recall today is the angle of re-entry that the space craft had to take to come home. If they didn't hit the atmosphere just right, they would bounce off and out into space.

Man, is that ever a loaded thought!

The angle is so severe, one commentator noted (and this news footage is actually in the movie, Apollo 13), that as he held up a ball representing the Earth, the angle necessary to successfully get the crew home has the thickness of a single sheet of paper.

Although I've been home from my trip a couple of days, today is the real first day of re-entry to the ordinariness of my life - its schedule, pace, cadence.

And, quite frankly, its a bit of a jolt. No jet lag, mind you. But there is a whiplash of considering where I've been in recent days, and where I am now.

Make no mistake, though. I'd far rather hit the mark and get back to my life than bounce off into some unknown existence.

I feel certain that episodes of being in the UK again will bubble up and find expression here over time. And yes, my enchantment with that country, especially the Midlands, is as great as ever.

But for now, while thankful I've been there, I'm even more thankful I'm back here. Back to my life. For better and worse - here it is to be lived.

And if I ever "disappear" in some mid-life crisis moment - you'll probably find me in Gloucester in the middle of the pedestrian mall singing with the musicians who set up shop there -

Just in case you need me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On the Shoulders of Giants

About ten years ago, I spent the better part of a month in England, as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work through Wesley Theological Seminary. My area of focus was on John Wesley and the Poor – a program crafted, in no small part, by our resident bishop at the time, Ken Carder (who, by the by, will be at Saint John’s in January, 2008).

We studied in Birmingham and Oxford, and those sites served as hubs from which we visited numerous historic sites. One such site is pictured above. It is the tomb of John Wesley’s father, Samuel, just outside St. Andrew’s Parish Church, Epworth. Samuel was the rector of the Parish Church during the Wesley children’s childhood. It was at Epworth that the rectory burned, and the legendary, if not apocryphal saving of a young Jacky Wesley as a “brand plucked from the burning” took place.

Of all the things I saw during my time in England, nothing hit me so emotionally as this. I didn’t expect it. The abbreviated story goes something like this. John’s message of reform to the Anglican Church, and his methodical approach to living a life of faith, while finding favor with commoners and the masses, did not go over so well with the establishment. So much a threat was he, that the Church banned him from preaching in any of the pulpits across the land. No greater injury could there have been to him than to have his home parish do the same. But, just outside the Parish Church lay his father’s tomb – property of the family. And here, we have this historic portrait of John, without a pulpit, standing upon his father’s tomb to preach the Good News. It is upon the legacy of his father he himself now stood.

It’s a stirring account that grabbed me. I was reminded of those giants upon whose shoulders I stood – including my mom and dad – my family and friends – and it was in that moment I was reminded that no one’s vocation is theirs alone. It belongs to the network of all those life influences paving the way.

Now, here’s the cool part. In two weeks I’m going back to England. It’ll be a quick tour of the country, with all the major Methodist historic sites a part of the itinerary. And while I would prefer to have much more time at various parts of the tour than others, I was thrilled to see St. Andrew’s, Epworth on the itinerary. Because this time, when I get there, standing beside me will be my own father.

And I wonder if the moment will grab him as it did me – and if he’ll reflect upon the giants upon whose shoulders he has stood as he sought to live out God’s call for his life. To stand there with him will be, I suspect, one of those “circle of life” moments I feel sure I’ll long cherish just as I do the first time I stood there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

JC - Update - THE WALL

- .1

Are you kidding me? .1?

Is this where my age is catching up?

No worries - still plugging.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Check and Balance Time

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
No ad hominem attacks on the President for his Constitutional choice to veto the bipartisan SCHIP bill in which 10 million children would receive health care - (although it is tempting, very tempting).

Rather, it's just this simple - in recent memory, rarely has it been the case that a bill has arisen having broad support on both sides of the aisle about an issue constructed for the common good.

In a time when every measure of the Constitution has been diluted to a pale reflection at best, and mockery at the worst - here is a moment written by the framers, for the the government of, for and by the people to have their word heard at the last.

Contact your Senator and Congressperson and insist on a Congressional override of the veto, and that their decision to either stand with or against our children will not be forgotten.

2-5For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, "I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom. What's more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me. 6-7"But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don't have to make it worse—and it's doomsday to you if you do. Matthew 18.2-7 from THE MESSAGE

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why My Previous Post Is Petty and Worthy of Judgement

Classes canceled after U of M football player murdered on campus - News

Taylor Bradford Bio - News

Friday, September 28, 2007

My Annual Dose of Misery

I love the Memphis Tigers, and for no real good reason - I don't mind telling you.

A graduate? - sure.

The local school? - of course.

Perpetual underdog just trying to make a mark? I'm a sucker for such things.

This football season is a reality check that the DeAngelo and Danny years were not the beginning of a new era in the program - they were the anomaly.

How do I know that? Take a look at those of us who have bled blue and gray for most of our lives - that glazed over blank stare that bespeaks the familiarity we have with perpetually snatching defeat from the jaws of victory - it's back, and it's hard to watch - because unless something dramatically turns and this season can be saved - you'll see more bodies in the stands at local high school games than you will in the Liberty Bowl.

So, what will happen? Most likely? Our coach will be at least on the hot seat - maybe even fired - which will be made doubly tough given the fact that he's a good guy and the city likes him. But 2-10 last year, and a 1-3 start this year - this won't end well.

What's that chant I hear in week 4 of the football season? "Basketball anyone?"

We've seen it all before, and more than once - it's miserable.

I've gotta run - the Cubs are on, and they're on a 5 games losing streak, up 2 games with one weekend of baseball to go -

Any guesses where this is headed?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

JC - Update

- 1.7

back to square

now, time to get to work - I've at least 25 to go.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"There Is a Season" Part Six of a Series of Sermons Based upon Parker Palmer's "Let Your Life Speak"

3For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2a time to be born, and a time to die;a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3a time to kill, and a time to heal;a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4a time to weep, and a time to laugh;a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6a time to seek, and a time to lose;a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 7a time to tear, and a time to sew;a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8a time to love, and a time to hate;a time for war, and a time for peace.

For these many weeks we have lived with this remarkable little book. I am amazed at the capacity of those mentors of mine, who, through their writings – those voices I gravitate toward – they seem to get said what they want to say, and, what I most need to hear, in about 100 – 150 pages. An economy of words – people like Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen. And yes, while Frederick Buechner often goes beyond that mark, anything he writes is worth reading. These authors, and others like them, with concise language, makes the language of my own heart stir. Their words fill in the blanks of my own life experiences – those things I’m trying to make sense of, but have yet to find words – they help me to do that.

Today, this book concludes with the parallels to the scripture that was read. I can’t think of or hear Ecclesiastes 3 without a couple of pop culture images coming into my mind. That great song from the 60’s written by Pete Seeger and recorded by The Byrds, “To everything turn, turn, turn – there is a season turn, turn turn.”

Or, if you were in the movie house in the late 1980’s and saw a 27 year old Kevin Bacon, acting like he’s sixteen, standing before the city council of a Midwestern community reading that text to justify why the senior class of their high school should have a dance – then you know about Footloose.

Given the musical talent of our congregation, we may have needed to add both songs to our order or worship today!

Whenever you hear this text, before we lay it over Palmer’s words, let us consider this – in hearing these words of the extremes of life’s experience – we tend to think that somehow the scripture is giving us license to hate, to kill, to wage war. The Bible says its there and that there is a time for it. And it sits counterbalanced to its opposite. So, we think that we can be good for a time but then there will be a time when we won’t have to be so good and the decision to be anything other than that is biblically sanctioned because “there is a time” for it.

If you’ve ever lived with that notion, I hope that today we can dispel that. Because if the Wisdom Literature of the Hebrew Bible, and this reading in particular, allows us to know the truth of the human experience. Within the totality of our living, there will be times when any and all of these elements are present. And the truth is, even as we act them out, the best of us and the worst of us, it is understood that we are never apart from God’s presence, and neither has God relinquished any sovereignty over all that God has made and is creating.

Just a couple a sentences to hit the “reset” button so that you’ll know where we are in this series of sermons.
· The overarching question is this – is the life you are living the one your life wants to live – which is to say are you living in a way that befits how you were created? The way God made you? Have you embrace the gift, the birthright, the vocation that God has made for you and you alone as mantle to accept, to pick up and live out.
· Vocation, as we recall from Frederick Buechner’s words is that place where your deepest joys intersect with the world’s greatest needs. And that’s a sermon itself, folks, that we should always come back to. Because wherever that intersection is, which, strangely enough, takes the shape as any intersection does, that of a cross, pinpoints where you are called to be, to minister, to serve. It’s not a question of whether or not you are called to be clergy, although I do believe God does call some people to do that, otherwise what have I been doing for 20 years – Vocation and call are not the exclusive property of those of us who sit on this side of the chancel rail and adorn ourselves with flowing garments. You have a call to embrace, a vocation to claim, and to use the language of brother Charles Wesley, “A Charge to Keep.”
· Finding it though, is a hard thing – because to find that call requires that you plumb the depths of your our own heart and life, into those places you dare not go, at least not willingly or gladly, but once there you discover that God resides there, too, to make you face the truth of who you really are – and what your capacities to serve, to live, to be are.
· Sometimes that means, then, that we have to go “all the way down” to discover the One who was always there not to get us out of our moment of peril, but through it.

And so, today, we talk about the seasons. Palmer, in such beautifully descriptive fashion talks about the seasons, framed in no small part, by his own life experiences of living in the upper Midwest, where the seasons of the year reach extremes, particularly the winters.

Within our own spiritual journeys, we can resonate with that. He starts with Autumn – that place of duality, where outward expressions of life are glorious, as in the colors of the trees, yet it is that color that tells us the truth of what else is going on – there is something in us given way. There is something in us that is falling. There is something in us that is letting go – even getting ready to die.

As harsh as that may sound, Palmer tells us that we should not shirk from the autumns of life because the very seeding that will come, one spring day, breaking forth in new life, is a result of what has happened in autumn. How beautiful, yet, how profound. Some of you will travel great distances, no too long from now, to go to places where the colors are stunning and vivid. So, too, how is it for us in the expression of our living – what we show on the outside does not hide what is falling, letting go, even dying on the inside – and we are not fearful. For if we believe it to be true that with every door that closes, another opens, you have to believe that within your own heart, wherever you are and whatever you’re going through – whatever in you is dying, there is life in you yet to emerge.

Palmer then moves into winter. And winter, where he’s from, is at least harsh. He even comments about of friend of his who says he’s pretty sure that winter in the upper Midwest is Divine retribution because somebody up there must have done something really wrong. It is rough – cold, snow, wind. Hard to endure.

But we know a little something of the winters of our lives, too don’t we? And the same characteristics of a harsh winter up north hold true to the winters of our living. We know what this is. We’ve all been through them.

But then Palmer some counsel used by those who physically live in such climates. How do they make it through the rough winters?
Palmer speaks of winter’s greatest gift – “winter speaks its greatest gift with the sky is clear, the sun is brilliant, the trees are bare and the first snow has not yet come. It is the gift of utter clarity.”
The winter seasons of our lives, in parallel to that – there is no pretense in the winter, all has fallen, there is no cover – so, too, when you have been laid bare by spiritual winters do you discover, without pretense, the ground into which you have been planted.
The ground of being.
The soil of the Spirit.
Is it nurturing us, and how deeply rooted are we?
For the life that remains, in the winters of our being, is found not at the surface, but the rootedness that lies deeply within.
Palmer says that in the upper Midwest, where he’s from, the counsel given to any newcomer into that climate is that winter will drive you crazy, until you “learn to get out into it.” There’s a whole market of “winter-wear” encouraging people to get out in the midst of winter and live, otherwise, you go “stir-crazy” from saying inside.
What great counsel – whatever the winters are, in your spirit, don’t hold up, but get out there and walk through it.

From there, we move into spring. That season of new birth, new life – emerging from the muck and mire of winter’s thawed mess shoots out new beginnings of every conceivable kind.

When we lay that thought over the Ecclesiastes reading, we start to get where Palmer’s going – he says:
Spring teaches me to look more carefully for the green stems of possibility. For the intuitive hunch that may turn into larger insight. For the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship. For the stranger’s act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again.

No wonder we feel so alive in spring.
No wonder we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord in spring.
No wonder the sense of the Spirit blossoms afresh in the springs of our being.

From there the seasons bring us back around to summer. And summer, where Palmer’s from, is glorious. He calls it a time of abundance. It’s a place where the fruit of the gardener’s labor is shared. It is understood that the good work done is meant to be shared with all. It is the place where community thrives.

Now, how all that fits with you, through this series, is really up to you. I don’t know what season you are in. I don’t know where you are relative to discovering God’s call for you – your vocation, but this I do know, you have one. No one is exempt. It is your be claimed. It is your birthright.

Congregations have seasons, too. I’ve thought about that this week. And I thought about 30something years ago when Frank McRae preached, “The Queen is Dead.” Those of you who are hear who heard it for the first time; I don’t know how you took it. Was it a relief? Was it powerful? Was it offensive? Preachers have a way of doing all of that at the same time, and Frank was pretty good at that. Perhaps that was a winter moment for Saint John’s, for the truth laid bare must be spoken. But the seeds of new life were planted by learning to give ourselves away differently, but embracing the life of the Servant.

We are in the spring of that winter. There is new life all around us. Not to be boastful, but to be thankful. Because death does not mean that life does not yet come. In a congregation, in your spiritual walk, in our life together – for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.

I hope that you are finding your call. I as put this series to a close, the conversations continue, for we have much to do to be about the good work of God’s kingdom.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Silenced Voice

There's not a tenor alive who doesn't wish they could do this - me included.

This clip is from the Olympic opening ceremonies in Torino last year. Italy played host and this may well have been the last time the world was his stage.

He was not well - but he brought the house down - truly glorious.

Rest in peace, Luciano.

JC - Update

+ 1.7

No excercise and ate out too much.

No worries, I got this.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Let Your Life Speak - There Is a Season

Part six and the last of the series - and, as last week, a transcript will appear within a couple of days.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

JC - Update

for the last week of August

-4.5 (with jeans on)

Total lost - 30

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Urban Strategy

Last week was quite a few days for Methodism in the city.

You may not have known that, or recognized it. The only local press on the event didn't quite capture what was going on (o.k. they missed it big time), and the only photo was yet another picture of the remains of the First Church building downtown.

Now, I don't want to diminish the impact of losing that historic building has had on the city - and especially so for the congregants of First Church, who really are First Church - but, c'mon, CA, there are more United Methodist churches in Memphis than First Church and, of course, all the press that is seemingly necessary when a new guy shows up at the little chapel on Poplar Avenue.

Oh yes I did.

So, what was it? This thing that happened last week that was launched in our very own L.P. Brown Fellowship Hall? Well, that's a really good question - and I'm still working on an answer. But here's what I can say.

We met, talked, prayed, toured communities all over the city in which we currently have United Methodist congregations.

United Methodists in Memphis, like so many urban centers, suffer from either inability, incapacity, and, in some cases, unwillingness to minister to those they find within their communities. It's something not unique to Methodists, but since that's the world I know, I'll speak to it.

In a rare instance of true leadership - the Memphis Annual Conference has asked that a 20 year strategy for Methodism be formed. Informed and shaped, in no small part, by the proven leaders of Methodist Healthcare, a team of clergy, laity, and denominational leaders were in the city last week to begin the task of articulating this strategy.

Now a true critic (not that I know any : ) would say that such an effort is at least 20 years late - but that perspective negates the reality of the moment, and the true belief that God has the capacity to work in and through God's people that will surprise us still - and I, for one, am holding hope that the winds of the Spirit will yet blow.

And we're going to need a whole lot of the Spirit's leading to be faithful to the task before us. We had representatives from every General Board of the church (even a couple of General Secretaries) present at these days of discernment and planning. At first, I thought they had come to tell us how to do it, but it became clear really quickly, that they don't know how to do it, either. They're hoping God uses our efforts to do something of meaning that they program into other urban centers where ministry is languishing.

Now here's what I want folks from Saint John's to know. Not only are we well represented on the team that will come up with this strategy, Saint John's will play a vital role in announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Church.

And while we'll be a part of the connectional effort to stabilize and revitalize the Methodist witness to the city - I say we don't need to wait for some larger strategy.

We already have one. What is it?

By doing what we do, and not apologizing for it - not boasting, but inviting - and always being willing to accept the challenge that comes with the true, radical hospitality of the Gospel - -

May God bless our efforts and may we be found faithful in them.

Transcript - LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK - Part 5 "Leading from Within"

As promised -

Parker Palmer tells a story of his own life’s experience that I will attempt to convey to you now. Coming out of a season of some depression in his mid-40’s in one of those “all the way down” moments that we have talked about previously – he thought that to shake himself out of it that he would go into a program called Outward Bound, which took place on Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine.

Upon further reflection, he thought that he would have been better served having gone to something called “Happy Time” rather than Outward Bound.

He talks about being out there at the summit of a cliff, some 110 feet above the surface. The leader tied a rope around his waist – a rope he was pretty sure has ill-kempt and likely fraying – and, according to him, begins to push him off this cliff, or push him backwards – and he finds that he’s hanging off the edge of the cliff with his body banging up against the wall of the cliff.

He has no control over his movement, and asks, “What do I do now?”

The instructor said, “The only way down now is for you to lean all the way back so that your body is at a right angle to the cliff and your weight will then be at your feet.”

Palmer was pretty sure that was the exact opposite of what he was supposed to do, because it is so counter intuitive.

So, he argues that the best way down is really for him to hug the wall of the cliff and work his way down – but the result of that effort was continually losing control and banging again against the wall of the cliff.

Finally, he decides to take the counsel of those above him and leans all the way back only to discover they were right, and he had manageable control with his feet, where otherwise he would have none.

Working his way down and reaching about half way, he hears the voices from below warning him that he needed to look below him at where he was headed. You see, his pattern of descent was leading him toward an opening in the cliff wall.

He was trying to figure out if he could maneuver around it to the right or left, and now he’s panic stricken – what does he do?

About that time, he hears the voice from below that asks him, “would you like to hear our motto for Outward Bound?”

He says, “I’m hanging here on a cliff and you want to give me your motto?”

And the motto, simply, is this – “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”

Which went from some pithy saying to a maxim to live by as he descended this cliff. Palmer uses that as a metaphor for what would spring forth for this chapter of his book

We’ve been using Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak, as a guide through which to understand the holy things of God and how our lives, yours and mine, have a vocation to embrace.

Thus far, we’ve been encouraged to listen to our lives – for in the deepest parts of our being there is a call of God - a life, a vocation – a gift, a birthright, from the Divine that is for you to claim.

That vocation is the place where your deepest joys intersect the world’s deepest needs.

But that call, while present, is rarely discovered on the surface of our lives – it lives in the deepest recesses of our beings – the place where pain and shadows dwell, those places we never go to gladly, and avoid at all costs –

Today, we hear about leading from within. And the word “leadership” now begins to emerge in our conversations, for, as he has discovered, and, clearly, as the Scriptures indicate, as in the call of Jeremiah, we turn to leadership by turning inward.

And if you go inward, downward and through enough you realize that your life and your world is not about “you,” but it is about how you serve those in the world with you.

Palmer says,

“Great leadership comes from people who have made that downward journey through violence and terror, who have touched the deep place where we are in community with each other, and who can help take the rest of us to that place. That is what great leadership is all about.”

The Christian world has been abuzz this week. It appears that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had some spiritual angst. How could that be?

But truthfully, I found no more validation for faith than that story. Have we not always held her up as a paragon for all other comparisons? I mean, you might think you’ve done some good stuff in your life – but you ain’t no Mother Teresa! Right?

And her she was, this woman, this servant of God, who dealt for years with the dark nights of her soul wondering about life, about God – but notice through all the struggle, what never stopped – being the hands and feet of Christ for the broken in the world.

Her struggle, whatever it was, never stifled outward expression – day in and day out.

Can you believe it’s made the news this week? Mother Teresa had faith crisis issues, and I say “thank God,” she’s human. She lived her life. I have faith crisis issues, too, does that mean that I might yet be o.k.?

Isn’t it interesting? Some will make judgments of whether or not she qualifies for sainthood based upon these questions. I say, make it so, now – there’s no question of what her faith and life have been.

Not for her, now, but for you. Have you wondered how you are called to lead? The quote from the book earlier read tells you, you lead, whether you think you do, or not. By what you do or don’t do, say, or don’t say – leads others to understand what you think is important.

As you live your life, as you participate in your workplace, your family, your church, you city, the world – leadership is present whether you think it is, or not.

Parker calls upon the work of Annie Dillard to focus on this issue of leadership. And if you are called upon to begin our leadership from within, we must recognize the monster with which we must wrestle while we are in that inward journey.

The first is Insecurity – who am I really? Does what I have to offer, to contribute, really matter? Listen again to the call of Jeremiah – listen again to any call of God in the Scriptures and you hear elements of insecurity. It usually comes out as “me? God? Me? Really? Can’t you find somebody else?” Who am I to do that thing you call me to?

The second monster we must battle is what he calls the “hostile universe.” The reason, he suggests, that we shirk from leadership is that we are sure that everybody’s out to get us – it’s rough out there, not for the timid – so, do I engage the world or not?

The next is functional atheism – the only way to get something done is to do it ourselves. And then, he notes, ironically, you know who the worst people are at this - People of faith. Church people. Isn’t it amazing that people who think and use God language in their life and liturgy, when it comes down to believing that there is something more in the world to occur than we, ourselves can construct, that we can believe that God is the one who can make it happen?

Can we ever really surrender and believe that God is able to do something far greater than we could do on our own. And I know what you’re thinking, because I live there, too – is not the standard motto we live with, whether we speak it aloud, or not, that if “you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Right?

There may be some wisdom in that, but truthfully, such a posture eliminates others’ opportunities to lead.

The other two are this - fear and denial of death.

Fear is fairly obvious, for if you are called to lead, especially in the face of something new, it is a scary proposition. Fear cripples so much of what a spirit could be.

Denial of death is believing that if I work hard enough, and if I do it the right way, whatever the thing is I am a part of will live on forever. But just as we die, so do systems and structures. They have a death – and how often do we leave them on life support, when we really ought to let them go, but believing, as people of faith, by the way, that, just as we do for we humans, so, too, that if we give ourselves up, we will be resurrected by the power of God through Jesus Christ into a new creation.

Do you think of yourself as a leader. Palmer said of himself that he never saw himself as president of anything. Man, I get that, I really do, but you know, I do lead. Everyday, I’m announcing something of what I believe in by how I live. Not only by what words come from my mouth, but by what choices I make. I’m leading – always. And so are you.

In the 20th century, one of the great leaders thrust into the forefront of change who didn’t expect, or look for it, but embraced the moment was Vaclav Havel. Palmer quotes him briefly, and so shall I:

The power for authentic leadership…is found not in external arrangements, but in
the human heart. Authentic leaders in every setting – from families to nation states – aim at liberating the human heart, their own and others, so that it’s power can liberate the world.
What is it that you and I seek to be as leaders within the Realm of God? Is not the word of Jesus from Luke 4, when he calls upon the words of Isaiah not that for which we are called to lead?

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Right here! Right now!

You and I are called to lead from within, and we are called to go places within ourselves to find that vocation that might scare us a bit. But you’re never going to fully know what God has for you as vocation until you take that inward journey.

I close with a brief word by William Stafford – a poem titled “The Way It Is.”
There’s a thread you follow.
It goes among things that change.
But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt or die;
and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK - Part 5 "Leading from Within"

No manuscript to peruse before Sunday.

After a week’s hiatus, to allow one of my colleagues time in the pulpit to fulfill ordination requirements, I return to finish this six week exploration of Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak.

If you know anything about me, you are stunned to disbelief that the previous four sermons in the series have prompted me to write four distinct manuscripts.

I wanted and needed to do that. I stood in the high and lifted up pulpit of the Saint John’s sanctuary and offered these sermons. Not my usual m.o. – but something I felt brought validation to liberating word of the Gospel as understood through these very focused words of Parker Palmer.

For the last two – it’s time to do what I more normally do – acknowledge the pulpit’s presence, or course, but stand among the people to encourage and proclaim the God given vocation that resides in each of us to be lived into – fulfilled.

To do that – I use an outline, hardly anything I’d want to put on a blog post – but if you are among those who have followed the series, I will covenant to post a transcript of what is preached.

In addition – mp3 files of the series thus far are available our the church’s website

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

JC - Update, Or, What Happens When You Don't Let Yourself Be Held Accountable Weekly

Haven't weighed-in for two weeks.

+ 2.7

Hard to be suprised. I got what I earned.

"Here comes that self-loathing feelin' again."

Friday, August 17, 2007

Would Somebody Please Tell Tom Cruise to Stop Messing With My Myths?

It all started when I heard Tom Cruise was going to make a movie version of Mission:Impossible way back in the 90's.

I grew up watching that show. Loved it. Still do.

"Oh," I thought. "Tom's going to play Jim Phelps, pick up the mantle of Peter Graves, and make a rockin' series of movies."

Then came word that Tom wasn't going to play Mr. Phelps, but be a member of of Mr. Phelps team. Not only that - Mr. Phelps was going to be the bad guy to be killed by Tom's character.

Haven't gotten over that one - yet.

Well M:I 2 came out - not a great movie - tried to do too much - too much focus on Tom's character and not enough on the team - which is the whole point of Mission:Impossible - team.

Last year came M:I 3. Stay with me, I have a point - maybe a point that only I get - but since this is my little corner - you get what you get.

The latest movie was really quite good. It was hampered, of course, by the growing weirdo factor of Scientology boy (and knowing that those folks scan the "internets" for mentions of their, uh, movement - let me welcome you to the party).

JJ Abrams directed the film. He and a couple of his buddies wrote the screenplay. JJ's work as creator of "Alias" and "Lost," were intriguing - but his commitment to M:I canon came through big time on the screen. It is the best of the three M:I movies, in no small part, due to the respect given what had come before.

Now - here's where I start to tremble.

JJ Abrams and crew start filming "Star Trek," in November. The film is a prequel going back to the beginning of the relationship between Kirk and Spock.

Recent internet rumors have JJ asking Tom to play a role in the film - namely, Christopher Pike. If you don't know who that is - don't worry about it.

I have a growing respect for JJ's talent and anticipate the film being a much needed reboot of the mythology - something that is cyclical in any mythology in which very finite beings can no longer live into the timeless characters they portray.

But Tom Cruise in a Trek film? - Say it ain't so.

Now, I'm no convention going Trekker - but like, M:I, Star Trek (interestingly enough, both series were produced on the same lot back in the 60's) is a part of my childhood - a part that is good.

Violence was done to one side of that equation by what happened to M:I.

Do that to Trek at your own peril.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK - Part 4 "All the Way Down"

Part four of a sermon series based upon Parker Palmer's "Let your Life Speak."

The text employed for this homily is the Suffering Servant text of Isaiah 53

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground;he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering* and acquainted with infirmity;and as one from whom others hide their faces* he was despised, and we held him of no account. 4Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases;yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

I read recently the great fear that has most of Hollywood quaking in their collective boots – High Definition Television. The picture is so clear, so vivid, that the mirage of Hollywood perfection is exposed for the sham that it is and people whose projected image looks one way through traditional television – with filters and fuzzy resolution – have every pore - every “flaw” on display for all to see – the more the resolution, the sharper the image, the greater clarity to see people for who they really are. Whether it’s one actresses bad nose job, or another actor’s hairpiece – or just the amount of “make-up” some have to wear to keep up with their image – it is a frightening thing - In a world where physical beauty and image is everything – HD could well be the Hollywood stars’ kryptonite.

I don’t blame these folks – their livelihood is dependant upon a projected image – and we, the culture, obviously expect that. We pay for it, we emulate it, we have made an industry out of knowing who is doing what with whom and when. Truth is, we’re not sure we want to see these folks for who they really are. In the magic of movies and television – our actors pretend to be someone they are not. And we willingly suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride.

When the flaws turn from the external to the internal – things start getting a little dicey. When that happens to people in the spotlight, our star gazing become voyeurism as someone spins out of control in front of the public eye. With that may come sadness for what we observe – but also a little relief that there is no great audience looking in at us when we’re the one who is spinning.

We’re now beginning the home stretch of this series of sermons on Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. Last week we learned something about what happens in life when the way we’re on closes. So conditioned are we to keep on knocking on the doors of life that have closed that we forget to turn round to see the rest of the world that God has opened for us to pursue, to live, and to discover our Divine vocation – that life we are to live in which our God-inspired deep joys intersect with the deep needs of the world around us. Palmer reminds us that when way closes – rest assured, way will open – maybe not in the way we expect (and you can probably count on that) – but way will open. God will make a way. But will you take it?

But then there’s this – just because way has closed and way will open once, it doesn’t mean that’s it. We’re good. We’ve had our quota of what we hoped for being dashed only to find a new reality to embrace. Way closes in life again and again and again.

Sometimes the toll such a thing exacts on the spirit is something we can manage – and other times it knocks us to our knees leaving us unsure we’ll ever get up again. – a bruised spirit is a painful and debilitating thing.

You know of what I speak –

  • unexpected death;
  • loss of professional and vocational identity;
  • victimization at the hands of the powerful;
  • death of your lifelong dream;
  • irreparably fractured relationships.

Like a shot to the spiritual solar plexus; these things leave us heaving for breath and believing we’re unable to draw in the breathe of God.

In Palmer’s story – he acknowledges with great vulnerability the crippling depression that resulted when way closed down for him. The stuff of his story is revealing and I commend it to you for your reading – but we need not read of someone else’s journey through the dark nights of their souls –

We know this dark place. Some of us have been in it, including yours truly, and some of us may be languishing there now.

As people of God, the Church, we have a tendency to place so much value on the Mountain top experiences of the spiritual life. It is as if we make such experiences the requisite encounters with God bringing validation that we’ve made it. If we know Jesus,

  • we won't be down
  • we won’t be blue,
  • we won’t wonder what this journey is all about,
  • we won’t question,
  • we’ll be sure we have nothing in common with the Psalmist whom Jesus himself quoted from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
  • we’ll just “smile, be happy, “ and, in the words of Monty Python – “Always look on the bright side of life,”

Well, if that’s the Christian illusion you want to live with – if that’s the projected image you want to claim like a Hollywood superstar – that’s fine – but it’ll cost you. Because life has a way of clarifying Truth despite our efforts to hide Truth. Like HD for the soul, we can run, but we can’t hide.

Too much of religion is based on such foolishness – negating the reality of life where we live it. The places where we fall all the way down – those rock bottom, wilderness wandering – valleys of the shadow of death – these are the places from which healing emerges.

And if I read Palmer right, while he might agree that we might find God on the Mountaintop experiences, we only really know God through the sufferings of our living. For it is there that God dwells, seeks to heal, and sets us forth to serve.

Palmer reflects upon his friend, Henri Nouwen and his seminal work The Wounded Healer,

"After all my attempts to articulate the predicament of contemporary
humanity, the necessity to articulate the predicament of the ministers
themselves became most important. For ministers are called to
recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that
recognition the starting point of their service."
Now hear me, we're not being asked to suffer someone else's pain. We're not being asked to take on the wounds of Christ as as our own.

We don’t need to take on the wounds of Christ for the world. We need to own our own wounds through which the reality of the God who heals is made known. In fact, you can’t really and truly know the One who sets you free until you own exactly what it is that enslaves you. From that - we know where ministry to and with the broken of the world emerges - for we, ourselves are broken.

Finding God through our pain – our wounds. May not sound joyful, but it is real, it is deep – it is that Tillichian “ground of our being” – and for any and all of us free-falling into the chasm of spiritual uncertainty, hear me – stop looking upward hoping against hope that God might swoop down from the heavens and spare you this hell you’re going through – when God is already standing in the deepest part of your deepest valley waiting to catch you and guide you back home.

A few days ago I got a call from my mother. It came about 10 o’clock in the evening, pretty late for her to call and usually in that black out period in which I’m not interested in hearing the phone ring at all. And, if it does, it means something has happened. We were talking a bit about Jack’s upcoming birthday party, and then she tells me of Brian. Brian, a friend of mine from the age of 4-6. He and his brother Craig lived just across the field from our house in Charlotte, Tennessee. Loretta and Roy, Brian’s parents, great people, who helped raise me in those days while dad was going to Vandy to seminary, serving as pastor to 5 churches. Just my sister and me in those days, although Jimmy arrived while we were there. I saw Loretta and Roy a little over a year ago when they attended my parents’ 50th anniversary party. Hadn’t seen them in over 35 years. In my life, they are confined to a particular time and place – and no real transcendent relationship unrestrained by the itinerancy – that thing we preacher’s families struggle with.

Mom wanted me to know that their son, Brian, someone I have not seen since the very early 1970’s, had died. He was 42. And then she said, “your father and I are going to the funeral.” I said, “o.k.,” and then she said it again in a way that said to me, “we know this pain – this pain of losing a child - and we’ve got to go.”

A resonant pain in someone else that moves you into action – sounds like the beginning of life – the beginning of ministry.

No image to project – no pain to protect – just the trust that comes from one’s own pain that is healing pushing us into the company of those who hurt.

Palmer closed this chapter with a poem he wrote called Harrowing as do I this homily -

The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged,
furrowed, scarred
Enough, The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come
I plowed to unearth last
year’s reasons—
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

In Other Words

I don't know if Jon Stewart wrote it, or his staff did, but this is -
Complete - devastasting - brilliant satire.
I'd say it's PG-13

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Here's Jacky . . . .

On the same day this week, we registered our oldest son in high school, and our youngest in Kindergarten - and of course, our middle son for the 6th grade.

I'll ponder more about my older boys later - but today I want to think about my baby - Jack.

You know how it is when you have a moment when you realize that the way you understood someone had changed?

That's the way it is with Jacky.

This little fireball of energy, smarts and stubbornness is about to be unleashed on an elementary school.

Kristy and I have asked for the strictest Kindergarten teacher there is - with hope that she'll not be swayed by his baby blue eyes, his "on command" pout, or his cutesy double-crown hairdo that could give Alfalfa a run for his money.

As if from an episode of "Mission:Impossible," we trust this is one such mission she'll choose to accept.

And I feel the transition again in me - of our children growing into young men - my hope, laced with fear, that I'm doing my part to make them into people of character, and the parent's joy in knowing that my life is full (and usually overflowing) by these three, very different people (from the same genetic pool, no less).

Monday, August 06, 2007

I'll Hate Who I Want to Hate - In Jesus' Name

Only in Memphis.

It seems there's a consortium in the city vigorously opposed to the pending hate crimes bill before Congress.

Hate crimes - think about that statement - and think, even further, about the overt expression of hate crime you have known, or seen.

Slavery, the Holocaust (which, with all due apologies to Mel Gibson and his old man, did really happen)- remember the African American man beaten and dragged behind a pickup truck? Or Matthew Shepard - a gay young man tortured and left in the elements to die?

Hate crimes - you know what I mean, right?

So guess who is opposed to this (although let's be clear here, the opposition rings hollow as cover for different political agendas in the next election cycle)?

That's right - a group of clergy - And what's their beef? They don't want what they say in the pulpit about gay and lesbian people to be interpreted as a hate crime.

Well, sister - brother - if what you say in the pulpit can, in anyway, be interpreted as anything other than the radical character of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - that sets us free from such baggage -

then sit your ass down and shut up - in Jesus' name. Amen.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK - Part 3 "When Way Closes"

I was fired from my first church job.

I was 19, a junior at Memphis State, two years into my candidacy for ordination – that’s right, I started this when I was 17 – and my first church job – “let go.”

It only lasted six months – a youth director at a church just south of the state line. I wanted to be relevant, and they wanted a glorified baby sitter, or at least some template for youth work back then that I didn’t fit.

Something about that in my make up - I guess. Don’t fit the mold? For better and worse, I am what I am.

Anyway, feeling the abject failure that I’m sure I was, I holed up in my bedroom for a couple of weeks wondering – what the heck am I doing and am I going to do with my life. I’ve declared my intent to be an Elder in the Church, and my first chance to express that call – I get canned. Hmmm. Time to give a serious thought of sending my vocal résumé to Chicago because word was that Peter Cetera was about to venture out on his solo career – and they were going to need somebody who could handle those high vocals for ‘em. I was their man. No doubt.

Oh, who was I kidding. So, in the midst of my ontologically angst-ridden, flights of fancy pity party, my dad came to see me – which is to say he opened my bedroom door because I lived with my parents in the parsonage of Grace Church in Whitehaven.

And I’ve never forgotten what he told me – when I deserved a kick in the backside – he shared something so stunningly grace-full it took me aback. – “Son, you have no idea how many times I have failed in ministry. . .” And I didn’t. And what I had observed was a deeply gifted and committed pastor all my life – to hear of failure was stunning. It is truly a means of grace to share your failures with someone - it is honest, and it makes our common humanity all the more real.

I obviously got through that season, thanks to a call I received only a few weeks later from Harrell Townsend, and I went to Whitehaven Church and experienced one of those moments in which call (joy and deep need were joined) was validated.

So here we are with part three of this sermon series on at Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Life Speak,” let me offer this reset on where we’ve been –

Each of us is made in the image of God – and we each have value because we are loved by God. What’s more – we are each have a calling to fulfill. This calling is our birthright to be discovered and embraced. It is not a matter of our will to make ourselves become something – it is a matter of receiving that gift and be good stewards of it.

Building upon our previous conversation – we know we have Divine value, we are beautifully and wonderfully made, we know that we have a calling to fulfill the determining factor of that call is discovering our deepest joy in life and matching it with the deepest need we see around us.

It all sounds so good – it’s almost too simple. “It’s easy for you to say that, preacher, you’ve already found yours.”

Which is not entirely true – See, there is a kinetic nature to this call, this gift. It is not fixed once for all – it evolves, its character moves as does the seasons of life and the needs of the world to which my deepest joy might fulfill. So, it is more accurate to say of those whom it would be far too easy to say “they’ve found theirs,” is that we are finding ours.

One of the greatest fallacies in the spiritual world is that knowing you are called and living into that call will be easy. And if you’ve ever found it troubling, frustrating, anger-making, to discover who you are and what you are to be – sister, brother, you’re in good company.

Palmer talks about this out of his own life’s experience – the disconnect between the inner stirrings of what he sensed he was to embrace as God’s call, and the “jobs” he had dabbled in as a “professional.”

Seeking the wisdom of his Quaker community, Palmer tells of Ruth, a woman who heard his quandary and offered this advice to have faith, and “way will open.”

His response was so typical – he has waited, in prayer, for “way to open,” and it’s just not happening – and she said to him, “…in 60 plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me…but a lot of way has closed behind me, and that has the same guiding effect.”

It’s one thing to know you have value, and a calling, it’s quite another to know just what the heck it is, especially when the way we’re headed closes. Isn’t God supposed to clear the path for us once we figure it all out?

When Way Closes – is more than a pithy saying, it is true, and we’ve all known it and been stung by it’s reality. It reminds us to be honest with who we are, what are true natures are. When we don't do that - we live in the false illusion that we are someone we're not - we live lives that are not ours, and in concert with the bulletin excerpt today, we will burnout from that simply because it is not our life to live.

But the way that closes, if we’re hearing the wisdom of Ruth, is a means of God’s leading, and it shows us a way.

“…we arrive at the heart of a paradox, each time a door closes, the rest of the
world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed,
turn around – which put the door behind us – and welcome the largeness of life
that no lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a
room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality.”

And that reality is of God, too – The Psalmist knows this too well –

4Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; 5hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; 7he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. 8Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.

Make no mistake about it, way will open and way will close – will we have faith until way becomes clear?

When way closes – People of the Way of Jesus of Nazareth - we know about this, don’t we – the life of Jesus is a continuing witness of what happens when way closes – there is still a way for the truth of his message to be made known.
  • No room at the inn - another way opened, and here came the Christ, the promised one of God.
  • Magi – fail to report back to Herod what they found - they went “home by another way.”
    Herod enacts the “slaughter of the innocents” with hope to silence this talk of the new King being born - Mary, Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt where those of us who heard Bishop Ken Carder were reminded that Jesus lived his first couple of years on this planet as an undocumented alien.
  • Religious leaders conspire with political leaders (can you believe that happens?!?) to end Jesus’ ministry – and yet the truth of the Kingdom of God would not be silenced – “even the very stones would cry out” this truth.
  • When way closed – Their conspiracy would lead to Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion – and his followers thought it was over – way had closed –
  • But then came Resurrection day – and way opened once and for all, and way will open for you - it may not be what you expect, or want, but it will be.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Make No Mistake Who "The Man" Is

I was in Scott's office this week. He's on the clergy staff of my church and a baseball fanatic. He grew up in Atlanta, so there's no doubt who his team is.

Our meeting was about something other than baseball, but through all the memorabilia he has I noticed a headshot of Henry Aaron (from the Milwaukee Braves, his is signed, of course) on the back of a table. He has another photo of Mr. Aaron and he together. It's clear which of the two pictures he values most. And I don't blame him. I asked him to do me a favor - please move that picture into a place of greater prominence, at least for the remainder of the season.

I've previously stated what I think about the roids era of baseball. Like so much of hyperbolic spirituality, it puffs you up - but in the end, all you're left with is shriveled up (that's as far as a I'll go with that).

So go ahead Barry, do what you do. It's a far greater measure than baseball that will always make Hammering Hank the man.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Friday, July 27, 2007

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK - Part 2 "Now I Become Myself"

Have you seen the extraordinary series on Discovery Channel - Planet Earth?

Truly remarkable.

The film makers worked 5 years in this project to capture moments across the planet that are rarely seen, and sometimes, seen for the first time. It’s an incredible series and I’ve been mesmerized by it.

But as much as the pictures, and the stories they tell, is the stories and even dangers the film makers endured to get the shot they were looking for. Staged and planned, photographers would wait untold hours at times camouflaged in the habitat for the one moment when the subject of their film would appear and do something that we’ve never seen before. And despite their plans, the unexpected and unknown would always present itself.

Their goal was quite simple. They most wanted to get the shot of the indigenous animal behaving in a way that was authentic – without the animal’s knowledge that they were being watched or that someone was in their habitat that didn’t belong.

To capture the innate moment in its authenticity – it’s the quest of this mini-series.

So, too, it is for those of us seeking to discover the true self residing within. And like the animal in it’s habitat for which we must wait, sometimes an interminable length of time to find that moment of truth, we must wait, watch, and go to the places truly indigenous to our spirits to watch something amazing happen.

The larger question for us this morning is one of willingness and patience to catch the true nature of our spirits, and the God-indwelling call that resides there to be embraced and lived.

As we move forward in our conversation of vocation through the lens of Parker Palmer’s book, I want to assert a couple of points and ask that you stipulate with me that they are given. They are what they are – ultimately and universally true.

The first is this – as the Scriptures assert, “You are beautifully and wonderfully made.” That you are God’s child made, imago dei, is no small thing. In fact, it’s everything.

If you were in this sanctuary in February, 2003, we were blessed by the words of William Sloane Coffin, who, although affected and somewhat impaired by a stroke, could still get it done – if you know what I mean. What I remember best from Bill’s sermon (one he’d preached many times across the years), is his recitation of the words of YAHWEH as captured in Isaiah in which the LORD is making the case to the prophet that he has a call to answer, a vocation to live into. – Bill’s voice, slurring on some points of his sermon – was crystal clear with this one:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. Isaiah 43.1

All of which is to say – your being matters, it has value. You may not fully know it, you may not have fully discovered it, but it is – as Bill would say - "God's love doesn't seek value; it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value.”

The other given is this – not only is there inherent value in who you are – there is meaning, purpose, call, vocation that comes from the reality of your being.

Palmer talks about this so effectively, and his words open the eyes of our spirits to consider who we are and why we’re doing with our lives what we are: consider the excerpt in the bulletin today.

The upshot is this – vocation “is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received.”

In fact, it is your birthright. Palmer says

“It’s a strange gift, the birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else! I have sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or squandering it… and then he cites a Hasdic tale to make the point. Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: “Why were you not Zusya?’”
If you entertain the givens I’ve offered, hopefully the beginnings of the conundrum we live in will emerge. If I belong to God and have both value and a calling to fulfill, why do I spend so much time trying to be someone else?

These givens tell us that we each have inherent value – we are in the image of God – we have a Thomas Mertonesque “true self,” or what Palmer reflects on from his own Quaker tradition – the inner light, “that of God” residing in you.

Now I become myself,
It’s taken time, many years and places,
I’ve been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other peoples’ faces…

My God, the poet is so right. We spend so much of life wearing other people’s faces when the one God ever wanted us to put on was the one God gave to us at the beginning.

We don’t need to go out and “find” our vocation out there, the journey to be taken is within.

It can be a hard, arduous journey – sometimes there is wilderness wandering, sometimes we find we are in the valley of dark shadows, sometimes the journey moves us into places that surprise us, others frighten us. Truth is, external realities are tame by comparison – the true final frontier is inward.

But how? How do we know what this gift to be received is? What it looks like?

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is being asked a “how” question. How do we pray? How do we find that sense of God’s presence so long after sought but so rarely fully known?

Jesus’ answer, of course, included what we know as The Lord’s Prayer. But also other teachings including this – ask. Ask the One who is so eager to reveal the answer for you to discover.

We would do well to make such an ask a part of every prayer we pray – O God, please help me to become myself – that for which you made me from the beginning. Help me be who I am. Help me know what Palmer calls, “my true nature,” because until I know that, I can’t really embrace my call authentically.

Everything in the universe has a nature [he says], which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of this world. Making potter, for example, involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hands, telling her what it can and cannot do – and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood of the stone, his failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.

The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and those around you. “Faking it” in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

Here’s the key to the vocational answer we seek. Calling upon another masterful voice of this age in Christianity to point us to the answer - Frederick Buechner – Palmer reminds us that Buechner defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.”

Vocation is not your career – your profession – or anything about “YOU” on it’s own. Vocation – that is, the call of God that is your birthright to be embraced, matches your selfhood with service in God’s creation.

And notice, this vocation is not bound up in the “oughts” of this world. God knows we are far too captive to them. No, vocation bursts forth from the place of your deepest joy – for whatever it is – there is a deep need in the world whose chasm is matched only by the deepest joy of your heart.

In our lives we’ve known those people who have found that answer. They have taken the long journey and discovered the place where their deepest joy matched the deepest needs around them. And when that happens, movements begin, and things begin to change.

When that happens
• we start talking about economic justice and the living wage
• we start talking about healthcare differently and things like Church Health Center is born
• we start talking about the true freedom that comes from understanding that not only does my life have value and meaning in the eyes of God, so does everyone else. Everyone.

Palmer talks about Rosa Parks’ decision to sit in the front on the bus in Montgomery back in December of ’55. She’s quoted as saying that she sat down in that seat because she was tired. And in her autobiography she expounds on how “tired” she was. Physically tired? Sure.

But it was time to embrace her true vocation. “I will no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be.”

Thanks be to God for those whose deepest joys touch the world’s deepest needs. People like Harmon Wray, who taught and mentored me 20 years ago, whose embrace of his deepest joy with the greatest need, like finding community among the incarcerated and sharing with them, some for the first time in their lives that they are loved – such an authentic embrace of who he was both inspires and indicts me - And knowing him as I did, I’d know he’d remind me of that Hasdic tale - God doesn’t want me to be Harmon. God wants me to be Johnny. And simply wants you to be you - because for you there is a deep need only your particular vocation can touch.

And thank God, too, for the vocations in this room – those live out now, and those to be discovered – for when your greatest gladness touches the deepest needs – you are ushering in the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Memo to My Colleagues

To Whom It May Concern,

Now that our truly connected Conference "leaders" ("connected," here not so much as in The United Methodist connection, but more in the manner of, say, The Sopranos - fugitabowdit) have taken care of each other in the latest round of "discerned decisions," if it's o.k. with you, may we please now do some real ministry?

I'm just asking.

Because this game we play to maneuver and conspire to get what we want and when we want it - has truly become an art form - which as you know with all art, what one person may think is a thing of beauty, someone else knows is a bunch of crap.

Oh yes I did just say that.

And if you want to see some real leadership, I know a clergy woman who recently itinerated to a congregation in Marshall County, Kentucky, whose commitment to the connection and passion for her call is a continuing object lesson in integrity that judges all this foolishness. More than a few of us need to sit at her feet and take notes.

God bless us - please.
an Elder in the Memphis Conference of The United Methodist Church

No End In Sight

Now, lest you think this is another Michael Moore film (oh, see "Sicko," it'll make you sick) - it's not. As we get closer and closer to the threshold that makes this war truly on a par with Vietnam, which is to say that we go from 4,000 Americans dead to 40,000 - to say nothing of Iraqis whose numbers of causalities are incalculable, before we decide we just need to stop and get out - you know like 10 years from now, there are voices of dissent speaking up to say, "for the love of God, please stop."

Amazingly enough, these are voices of those who've been a part of the beginnings of the story. I find it extraordinarily American, and while it enrages me, strangely, it gives me hope.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

For My Friend, Harmon

Today I'm thinking of Harmon.

He's a friend, who was first a teacher and guide - back almost 20 years ago.

Like those of you who know him and love him, and have been challenged by his prophetic, unyielding claim for God's justice in a broken world, you have been sucker-punched by the news of his massive stroke - and the dire outcome expected.

I had the hard task of being with his mother, whom it is my honor to serve as pastor, when the news of his stroke was told her.

In the past day, I've thought about my time with him, and I've recognized that mine is a story, with variations here and there, that is being repeated and remembered all over the country by people, like me, who were evangelized to the Gospel of prophetic justice by Harmon Wray. His network is extensive, and I'm surely among the smallest of points on it - and yet, still I feel the trauma of what has happened so deeply.

My 3rd year at Vandy I had to take on a non-parish field education component, and I chose death penalty resistance, or more honestly, it chose me.

Enter Harmon Wray on the stage of my life - this long haired, bearded guy, who could've won a Jerry Garcia look-alike contest hands down.

For that year, he took me under his wing - pushed me to question the way things were - pushed me to consider restorative justice as a model to counter the punitive joke that is our current prison system. We worked in the corner of a basement of a United Methodist Church in West Nashville.

He took me to Unit 2 of the Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Nashville, to visit his friend, then on death row.

He introduced me to William Stringfellow's written work, and to Will Campbell's, particularly "The Glad River." You who know my story understand the impact that book had on my life. The copy of that novel that sits on my shelf is the one he gave me.

On my wall is a photocopy of a poster that used to hang in his office - I carefully peeled it off the wall one day while he had left me in the office to do some work. It's picture of a hand holding a rock with the words, "Jesus was once asked for his support of the death penalty - His reply, Let one who is without sin cast the first stone."

He introduced me to lemon icebox pie and coffee at Rotier's - truly a holy thing.

Last year he published his book on restorative justice. That book is the cumulative expression of the work of his professional life. I was so moved when it was released to have a package sent to me with a copy inside. He inscribed something to me that was more than kind - and I hardly feel that I merit it.

But when it comes from someone whose life you've held high, it cannot help but raise you up.

So tonight I pray for Harmon and Judy, Celeste - and the scores of sisters and brothers of the faith community, including and especially the incarcerated, whose understanding of the Gospel has been shaped by the life and ministry of Harmon Wray, and know only too well that he would have no interest in an admiration society, but would instead, prefer we get off our butts, get out in the world and get to work to make this Kingdom of God we talk about come to pass.