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.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK Part 1 - "Listening to Your Life"

I’ve been eager to engage this material with you. Before we get started on this six week journey, a brief word about the author of the book on which we’ll base our conversations

Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D., is a writer, teacher, and activist who works independently on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. His work spans a wide range of institutions—colleges and universities, public schools, community organizations, religious institutions, corporations, and foundations. He serves as senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education, as senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute, and is the founder and senior advisor for the Center for Courage & Renewal. His publications include ten poems, some eighty essays, and several books, including The Promise of Paradox, The Company of Strangers, To Know As We Are Known, The Active Life, The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. His current work includes begin a senior advisor for the Center for Courage and Renewal at Bainbridge Island, Washington. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends, Quaker, and lives in Wisconsin.

I first became familiar with Palmer when I purchased his book The Active Life – a Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring, back some years ago.

He is among a select faculty. Together with such distinguished names as Frederick Buechner, Henri Nouwen, Joan Chittister, Walter Brueggemann, and several others - they teach at the Johnny Jeffords spiritual academy in which, every time I open one of their books, I find that it is as if I’m in their company being gently guided, but genuinely prodded to explore my life in the face of the Sacred.

I come into this series with some assumptions framed from 20 years of pastoral experience. There is a commonality in any and every congregation I have or will serve. It’s a question asked by everyone in the room, clergy included, at some point or another.

That question is simply this - Am I doing and being with my life what God wants me to do and be?

This may be your question today – this very day. Maybe it’s not yet, but it will be. Or, maybe you’ve already wrestled with God like Jacob through the dark nights of your soul trying to resolve the question in your heart – and like Jacob, left with a limp.

The other assumption I come into this series with is this – this question is a timeless one. We revisit it as the seasons of our lives carry us from one time and place to the next, as our spirits rise and ebb as the tide. So, it matters not if you’re a child, or, a child at heart while your body has many more years on you than your frame of mind – you know the question and you’ve asked it many times.

It also doesn’t matter how successful or satisfied you are in your work at present, this question doesn’t come only for those who are out there, searching for some new path to take, those folks who never seem able to settle – and we usually think it’s only such people ask this question. No. it is ever present from the one of us who seems to have it most together, you know, the one who seems to be the “most Christian” to the rest of us who are, on are best day, “almost Christian.”

So, here we go –

When I was a boy, about 7, I think, my second grade class from Longfellow Elementary School, Mayfield Kentucky, traveled up old Highway 45 about 30 miles to the studios of WPSD-TV, Channel 6, in Paducah, to participate in the audience of the live broadcast of Capt. Dan’s Popeye the Sailor Man Cartoon Cavalcade. Now, what made Capt. Dan “Capt. Dan” and not the Dan you’d see on the evening news doing the weather, was that Captain’s hat he’d wear together with a US Navy looking top. He as Channel 6’s afternoon filler – and the kids loved him. You’ve seen those kind of things. If any of you were ever a part of Dick Williams’ Magicland here on TV5, you know what I’m talking about. Interspersed between cartoons of Popeye being beaten within an inch of his life, by Brutus, who had, by force, taken Popeye’s place in Olive Oyl’s life, until, Popeye gets his fill of canned spinach, and knocks Brutus into next week – and ends his episode with “I’m strong to the finich ‘cause I eats me spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailor Man – toot, toot! Interspersed between an afternoon of that, Capt. Dan would put the microphone in front of the kids’, on camera, ask them their name, where they lived, where they went to school, how old they were, and what they wanted to be when they grew up. Doctor, Policeman, Fireman – stuff like that was usually the pat answer. And then, he came to me – and I swear this was my answer – “I want to either be an Astronaut or a Cowboy.”

To this day, I’m not really sure where that came from – the Astronaut thing I guess because the Apollo program was hot and heavy, but a Cowboy? Really? Me?

I call upon that story in my own life, because we’ve all been put in a place in life where we’ve had to determine “what we were going to do with our lives.” In college we get a couple of years to figure that our before declaring a major. And then, once graduating with a degree with that major, we ask, “what am I supposed to do with that?” Every field has a “fish or cut bait” moment, when, you have to pick a lane on the highway of life’s workforce, and stay there!

Palmer begins his book with a poem titled “Ask Me” by William Stafford. There’s one line of that poem that opens the door for all that follows. “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” To which he found himself being reminded of moments of his own life when it “was clear – that the life [he was] living [was] not the same as the life that want[ed] to live in [him].”

More than a psycho-spiritual riddle, there is something deeply of God in the question. The writer of Genesis, in the great creation story, tells us that humanity was made in God’s image – imago dei – not merely having the resemblance of God, as our children or relatives do in a family line – but the image as in the creative capacity to live in ways that reflect the truest nature – the essence of the Divine.

The temptation, because of pressures and expectations of family, of what we place on ourselves, of others, we find that we create a reality with values and expectations that are not ours discovered by our own discernment, but handed to us, and maybe force fed us by the predominant voices of our upbringing. Our religious affiliations, our particular work, our political leanings – how much of any of that is a direct reflection of what we’ve lived, seen and heard, or an opposite reaction to what we’ve lived. But are they the result of listening to God’s voice speaking to us, through us?

Let Your Life Speak, more than the title of Palmer’s book, comes from an old Quaker saying.

It’s not unfamiliar to us – is it? “You are the only Bible some people will ever read,” must be considered a variation on that theme.

But how do we do that? And for the weeks to come, where the heck are we going with this? We’re not all going to the same place in this journey – but we’re all on the journey together. But the first thing we come to today is that we cannot let our lives speak until we’ve listened to what our lives are saying.

As you consider the question of your life, its direction and the implication of choices you’ve made – what of your life’s direction is the result of the force of your own will and how much is of true “vocation?”

As reflected in the excerpt in the bulletin, vocation is not a matter of will; it is, quite literally, “the calling I hear.”

Hmmm. Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house. There was work to be done. Hospitality, after all, requires work. The expectations of the moment moved Martha into the kitchen. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, don’t you know.

But Mary heard something else, and the expectations of the moment moved her to Jesus’ feet to listen – to hear who she was and what she was to become – to hear her calling, her vocation. It’s always curious to me that Jesus tells the one who was busy “doing” that the one who was busy “being” was the one who chose the better portion.

The beginning of this journey – your journey, comes from listening well to your life to get the cues of what life you are to live – and then to discern what such cues mean. So, how do we do that? How do we listen to our lives? Palmer says:
[Our lives] speak in actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being, perhaps more profoundly than through our words. We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experiences – a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth – we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.

It seems so basic, doesn’t it? Yet why are we so poor at doing it? Because as it is with so many other things in life, we only hear what we want to hear, and are expert at dismissing, discrediting, or out right ignoring anything we don’t. It’s easy to look at the grand stage of government at all levels – and in this day and time, from D.C. to Memphis City Hall, and see that maxim in play daily – but let’s be clear – it resides in each of us and is operative.

We hear what we want to hear – we speak to keep from listening – we want to be in control – of all things at all times – even and especially what we are to do with our lives.

Listening honestly to ourselves has to mean that we open to those things we don’t want to hear. Our sisters and brothers who live with 12-step programs get this point better than most. By quite literally taking a moral inventory they cannot avoid their truth. It is not easy, nor pleasurable. But ask any one who’s done it, and they’ll tell you that there is no healing – no sobriety – without it.

Neither can there be a full embrace of living the life God has for us without honestly acknowledging what keeps us from listening to God in the first place.

You’ve known people who’ve done that. I know I have. You’ve known those who’ve listened well to what their lives have to say to them, what God has called them to – callings they have heard and followed.

It’s a powerful thing. Sometimes such examples intimidate us and move us to envy because someone has found their answer and we’ve not yet found ours. But what we don’t take time to consider is that none of those who’ve lived their lives well have done so without first listening. Maybe then, such examples prove to us that not only it can be done, but is being done.

Listen to your life. Honestly accept what it tells you. And know this – those spiritual tugs pushing and pulling are holy. Even if it’s not what you want to hear, maybe especially if you don’t want to hear it. They are of God.

Monday, July 16, 2007

VLOG - July 16, 2007

An Invitation to Listen to Your Life

What does God want me to do with my life?

Isn't that the question that lives in each of us as some point?

Or, how about this one - Am I doing what God wants me to do? And if I'm not, why not?

We treat that question as if it's something we can't know the answer to absent some blinding light - burning bush experience.

When I broach this question with lay people, invariably I hear that it's easy for me because I'm a member of the clergy, God made it abundantly clear what I was supposed to do. Ahhh, Right. Keep on believing that if you must, but ask any of us who have accepted the yoke of obedience and see if it was crystal clear and was a call answered without a wrestling match first.

Being the spiritually impatient people we are, we tend to think that unless the signs in life blink in neon or are posted on a billboard, it's something we can't ever fully know.

The result of that is living our days hoping that it's what God wants for us - or, what God needs from us - and we know deep down, that given our own power to choose - we'll always tend to live in ways that will require less risk of us and more security.

Starting this Sunday, and there following for six weeks, I invite you into a conversation with God and each other through a series of sermons based upon Parker Palmer's book, "Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation."

As a beginning point, I have been seeking to do the very thing I'll be asking the congregation to do - listen. Not to me, so much - but to the voices of their lives, because it's there that the voice of God is known.

There's something about being on a beach in late in the afternoon, the crowds have thinned out, the winds have shifted and are blowing in from the surf providing a refreshing breeze against the setting sun - that you can hear the voices of God through speaking in the rhythmic cadence of waves crashing, of seagulls calling for someone to feed them - it never fails to be, at least for me, a place for conversation with the Sacred.

If the day comes when I take an extended leave - be it sabbatical, renewal leave, or whatever we're calling it now, some folks may prefer the mountains (and they are beautiful), but I'm going to the beach.

The problem with listening well to the voice of God as spoken through our lives, is that we may not like what we hear. The temptation to ignore what we hear is real. So, too, is the tendency to immerse ourselves in guilt for not being what God desires of us. But guilt is an escape mechanism from doing and being what we really called to be.

So, join me these next weeks in a time to stop, to listen, and then be prepared to respond to the voice of vocation being uttered right in front of us, even within us, waiting to be embraced.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Oh My Back

A brief update on the 2007 Jeffords Holiday

Today is Big Kahuna day - that annual trip to Destin's waterpark. Lots of water - lots of people - lots of money - lots of slides - tubes -

ahh, heaven (I'm only sorta serious).

The braintrusts at Big Kahuna's Inc. have a new policy - you purchase a ticket for one day's admission to the park, you get a second, free!

ahhh, hell (again, I'm only sorta serious).

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Welcome to the Party, Pal

To all those war hawks now reaching the conclusion that something dramatic needs to happen in Iraq, like getting us out of there - I just have one thing to say-

Where the hell you been?

While you continued to play politics, scores and scores more of our sons and daughters have been maimed or killed in action. And don't forget, you were among those calling everyone else who pleaded for a different strategy those cowards who "cut and run."

It has been said that to argue against the war was to show lack of support for the troops.

I say, to knowingly perpetuate engagement in a conflict we started, and one we cannot win, one that has devolved into a civil war - for reasons that defy logic, the counsel of military commanders, who, either retired early to voice their concern, or were forced out because they wouldn't tote the party line - there's your lack of support for those who are bound by oath, duty and honor.

It is among the most egregious abuses of authority we are ever likely to see.

Now, for God's sake, let's get out of Iraq, now, and try to reclaim some of the honor we have lost.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

KO's Special Comment - July 3, 2007

I'm just linking, not posting the whole video - hey I'm on holiday, what you want from me?

If you didn't see Keith Olbermann Tuesday, here it is, eloquent, biting, strangely appropriate, fundamentally constitutionally American.

Hit the link and wait out the commerical - Special Comment