Monday, March 31, 2008

I Got Mine!

Get yours, too at Tiger Bookstore!
Yes, I have a conflict of interest in that statement.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Preachers: Prophets or Pets?

Ok, let me see - - - since November of 2007, other than the appointed clergy and staff, who else has stood in the Saint John's pulpit?

Jeremiah Wright and James Cone.

Hmmm, do I have the best gig in the Conference, or what?!?

There's much to be said about the politicization of sound bites - including the "guilty by association" tactics of who one's preacher is - but there is something else at play here.

It has long been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. That is true. The indignation of most of us white folks is that we don't know or see the form of worship that takes place in African American congregations across the country.

And that is part of our discomfort. The country is not merely reacting out of what they thought they heard Rev'd Wright say. They also fear what my friend Frank Thomas alludes to as the "public performance of black rage" that white folks just don't know what to do with.

"Why be mad at me? I didn't do anything to you. I just love everybody," we white Christian folks say.

Now you might delude yourself into thinking that myopic view excuses "you" (which it doesn't). But this self-centered perspective misses the larger truth - - it ignores the reality that elements of our "land of the free and home of the brave," have different access points to America's dream as do others.

And a preacher bringing a message of God's justice can't ignore that.

Preaching in the African American tradition is an artform unto itself. And Jeremiah Wright is a master at it. It is deeply rooted in the Bible. It employs scripture and appropriates it into the current setting in life without fear or hesitation. The best of black preaching has a working litany of history that can be recalled on demand. The best of black preaching stands in the manner of Old Testament prophets who, if the moment requires, acts as Nathan looking King David in the eye and proclaims "you are the man."

Enter onto the stage of my life the writings of James Cone and the point is well made. My first year at Vandy was quite an awakening. Now, I'm not King David, but because of my gender, sexual identity and color I have access points that others do not. You do not have to believe it - but rest assured, it's true. And black preaching doesn't let us forget that.

Preaching in this form is extraordinarily sophisticated and far more erudite than most folks unfamiliar to the form would ever suspect, which perpetuates the notion that the unfamiliar is somehow "less than." And I'm here to tell you, it just ain't so.

The other side of the equation is that the events of recent days is a hit job on a guy who is a noted preacher and theologian, who, by the by, served his country in the Marine Corps and US Navy, by people who mastered in perpetual deferrals the last time we had a conflict in which we were fighting an idea not an enemy. This whole YouTube revelation of Rev'd Wright is done not for the sake of calling into question anything he said, but to make value judgments of those who would sit there and listen to it, or be a member of that church.

Trinity UCC is a powerhouse church in Chicago. And they don't deserve the crap they've been getting.

The very notion that any of us should choose our pastor because they say what we want to hear and not what we need to hear is laughable. No, it's an abomination. If you want something to do what you want, when you want, and make you feel good about you - get a pet.

Or, better yet, go to Joel Osteen's Church.

The role of the preacher is prophetic at times, to be sure - as well as priestly. The key, though is that the preacher is primarily the pastor. She or he has walked life's journey with folks, marrying, baptizing and burying them. The pastor has the opportunity to speak truth to power in the face of a congregation who will receive it, because they know who he or she is, and they know that the preacher's care is real whether the word is uplifting or among the hard sayings.

And that's the point. None of these crackpot commentators know who Jeremiah Wright is. Neither have they cracked open one of James Cone's books. And neither do they care. All they crave is fuel for the political fire. All they know is the implication of who a certain parishioner is based upon something his preacher said.

Or, did he?

The soundbytes we've all seen that contain Rev'd Wright's likeness and voice is not the whole story. Thankfully, context is now given. I'm embedding a couple of clips of the sermons preached the Sunday after 9/11/01.

What he says may still disturb - and frankly, it should. It was meant to. There are times when the Word of God offers comfort, solace and guidance. And then, there are times it is meant to make us squirm. But at least you have to live with it beyond the 10 seconds we've been force-fed.

Watch these protracted clips of these sermons. See it for what it is, not for what it has been made into.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Just in Case Any Tigers Check Out My Blog Before the Next Game.

OK, let me just say this - I don't think I'm exaggerating, and I'm certainly not bragging -
I can make 46% of 100 free throws right now - and that's not having practiced.

So, with hope I can help the boys out before our next game with another MSU - here's a word from "the man."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday, 2008 - "A Matter of Integrity, Revisited"

There are moments in life when the actions we take, the engagement of our lives with the world around us become reveal something about us, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We can talk all day about who we are and what we believe – but there’s nothing more revealing or indicting than action or inaction.

Act with haste, that is, without prayerful discernment seeking guidance from trusted voices, and action becomes an end in itself. Those who seek to be seen as the hero who sweeps in and saves the day act hastily. Ask anyone who has been caught up in another’s hasty pursuit of hero worship and they’ll tell you such action may look good on the surface, but there is collateral damage aplenty. Is there compassion or consideration in the face of collateral damage, or, willingness to put aside being the hero for the greater good? No. Inevitably, collateral damage, in whatever form it comes, is considered an acceptable loss, and the price of doing business.

Others live with perpetual inaction. Able to articulate and argue relevant points of whatever their issue is with passion – they generate points of consideration without engaging the issue head on. They feed on energy of the problem itself so their motivation to articulate and act upon change is muted by the fear that if the problem is solved, the “stuff” that feeds their lives is gone. They know the issue. They know the problem. But they are crippled to do anything about it. A vicious cycle, that.

The transcendent truth of either approach to life is indeed self-defining.

Maundy Thursday is one of those days when the abstract and absolute, the flesh and the spirit, the universal and the particular collide. It is one of those occasions where “the rubber hits the road.” It reveals through action the character of the One who draws us into this worship space tonight.

It is action that drives us, defines us – makes our liturgical words have meaning. For without action to match the gospel that at once comforts and confronts, affirms and afflicts, inspires and indicts, then we are doing little more than playing mind games and even Karl Marx isn’t right because if religion, in his understanding, is little more than an “opiate for the masses” then I feel gypped because half the time the buzz ain’t that good anyway!

So, action, these actions give meaning to what Jesus has taught. They give meaning to what we believe. They make all this Jesus business real – incarnate.

On this night we focus on an action of Jesus found only in the 4th gospel. Synoptics don’t have it. John, historically considered the last of the canonical gospels written, has a particular agenda – the writer has a bias, (which should surprise no one, don't we all have a bias in whatever point we're seeking to make?) one too often criticized and discounted when placed alongside the synoptic gospels. After all, Matthew, Mark and Luke have particular parallels. John at times, seems out there on his own, and he is.

Only he tells us of the wedding at Cana, the woman at the well, we know of Nicodemus’ visit by night, from which we hear “For God so loved the world…” Only he tells us of the “I am” sayings of Jesus – good shepherd, vine, door, light of the world, bread, way, truth and life. Only in John is Lazarus raised.

And only John has this text – Jesus, at Passover, after sharing table fellowship, takes upon himself an action that will be self-defining from hereon, as it will be for all of us who carry his name.

He, the one called, Rabbi, Teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ – comes now to assume the role of the menial laborer – the literal dirty work is not beneath him – he embraces it.

To do so was not a choice absent other options or other considerations – it was a matter of integrity. He did this thing, both in the upper room with his disciples, as well as walk the Via Dolorosa because that’s who he is.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross. Philippians 2

To have done anything other than to be a servant, than to identify with the suffering of humankind by embracing the cross, would have been to have missed his moment – the moment when his action told the truth of who he was.In his book “Let Your Life Speak” Parker Palmer talks about integrity – he says:

.. We would be wise to listen intentionally to the voice of our own lives and to discern what our very soul is saying to us in the depths of our being, there where truth abides. As we listen to ourselves, we can become ourselves.

Jesus did what he did because it was in keeping with who he was. It was whole, it had integrity – in this moment of self-giving, Jesus was not conflicted, neither was he divided. He was who he was – and his actions bespoke that reality.

Rarely in your observance of Christian liturgy will you find something so profoundly intimate as the washing of feet. Maybe that’s why it’s not a sacrament (which it should be), there’s really no way to observe this liturgy with integrity without literally touching someone. It’s too close, too intimate. It’s not “churchy.” Getting on our knees and taking off shoes, using water, towels and basins, it’s beneath the dignity of our erudite gathering. To which I say, “right.” It is. But it is supremely of Christ. And if we are going to be “of Christ,” with integrity, then tonight, our action or inaction is, guess what? Dare I say it again? Self-Defining.

And maybe that’s what all this dramatic fuss is about this Holy Thursday night and there following into the Great Three Days. If nothing else, we observe integrity at work. That’s an awe inspiring thing. For to live with integrity is joyful, because in it we are complete. We are fully what we’ve been created to become.

Don’t forget, though, that just because we live with integrity, even joyfully, does not mean our work is pleasant, or that we’re giddy about it.

Ministry is hard. Giving yourself away is hard. Placing yourself in the role of servant and not hero is difficult. Doing ultimate good without lusting for credit for your good works is extraordinarily difficult. If it were easy, wouldn’t more folks be doing it? Instead, too many of us play at Church, play at following Jesus, use our religious pursuits as a contrivance of convenience rather than a covenantal commitment.

Too many of us live that numbed (“I just love my Jesus”) religious life giving credence to Marx’s critique, and that’s a sad thing - it perpetuates the body divided, if not fractured. And it's a choice - I've really come to believe that to live with integrity or not is far more in our control that we'd care to admit.

It’s in your grasp, sisters and brothers – right here, right now. Jesus gathers with us in this room, as he has done with his companions for millennia and says, “here’s who I am, here’s what I’m prepared to do, here are the depths I’m prepared to plunge – for you.” How far are you willing to go? Could it be that tonight it is at least to bended knee with a basin and towel?

Child of God, companion of Jesus – this is the life that we are called to follow – “Listen to your life,” and go where that takes you - you will not know integrity, yourself, God - to the full, until you do.

Friday, March 14, 2008


  • Step 8 - Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Step 9 - Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

I've often wondered how differently the Church would look if it followed the 12 Steps to Sobriety. Could the Church admit its powerlessness over its lust for self-preservation, its co-opting the ways of the world in the administration of its affairs, the employment of "God-speak" to justify actions that are from anything but God? And then do so all in the name of the One who, this Holy Week especially, reminds us of his essential nature by giving himself away?

How differently would the Church look if it was quick to confess and make amends? Keep in mind, the Church has only officially apologized to Galileo in our lifetimes. The United Methodist Church's apology for slavery is only within the past few years, and it was a poor one.

I wonder what the Church would look like if it sought to follow the basic tenets of these steps with the same passion that elements of it claim belief in the historic creeds, virgin births, literal bodily resurrections and return determines if you're a Christian or not.

Oh, sure, it would be easy to say that "the Church" needs to get its act together. And it does. But as you know, those who "protesteth too much" about what somebody else needs to do is usually hiding the spirit work they need to be doing on the very same issue.

Project our shi-uhh, I mean "stuff", on others much?

I've come to believe that sisters and brothers who have arrived at a place of brutal honesty about themselves and are working their way through these steps, while dis-eased with their addictions, but in recovery, are among the most spiritually healthy people there are.

There's no further need for pretense. They've been laid bare. They've hit the bottom. All there's room for now is truth. That truth, be it good, bad or indifferent (and truth is never indifferent) is the foundation on which a new life is built.

Now I'm going to make a wild guess here for all you readers, especially those of you who have never worked the 12 steps at all. I'm going to bet that if you were brutally honest with yourselves that you could construct a list of persons you have harmed. It's not about what you intended, or how you were misunderstood, or blah, blah, blah.

What does your brutally honest list look like? How far back does it go? And are you ever able, ready to make amends, provided that doing so doesn't perpetuate the injury and make it worse?

Most of us live with "out of sight, out of mind" on the things we've done in our past. We use time and distance to insulate. But rest assured, as my friend Dan is always quick to remind me, "unresolved conflict always resurfaces."

It remains there - in the shadows.

Yes, I'm talking about me.

Last week, I was reminded by someone else of a singular moment in my life that occurred, you ready for this?- 28 years ago. For perspective, my oldest child is about a year and a half younger now than I was then.

It was not my finest hour.

It is something that I've never talked about out loud with any other person. The moment itself did involve others - people who have meant much to me. What of it I remember is tempered by the passage of time. It is also tempered, if a shaky memory serves, by what was a liberal supply of PGA (and if you think that means Professional Golfers' Association, then you might best move on).

I've lived with the recent recollection of this moment at first out of surprise - "Oh God, somebody I once knew remembers it and is letting me know they do," and then a sense of not knowing what to do with its re-introduction to my thinking. My re-acquaintance with the episode also reintroduced profound shame and sadness that my actions let people I have cared about - people who are integral to a particular chapter of my life - down. It was the shame that is the lingering memory of what happened so long ago.

Granted, I'm no saint. Never was. But it has always been my practice to attempt to make right things I've done wrong. This is one thing left undone - and the reality is that it will probably always have to be.

The moment itself, for all about it that was problematic (and there's more than a little bit problematic about it) was a pivot point for me. Whatever I was going to be with the rest of my life it was not going to be that. In fact, so clear was that moment for me that only a few months later would I declare my intent to enter ministry at the ripe old age of 17 (something that before then was not even remotely in my thoughts).

Sure, I came to a moment of clarity about what the moment would mean for me, but I've never dealt with the real impact of the moment on everyone else involved - so much time has passed, so many perceptions now real in memory even if not in facts - of what good would efforts be to try?

I mean, really, don't we get a pass for our "youthful indiscretions?"

And then it hit me. Maybe the person who I'll need to tell them my story to is the one who's surely going to want a pass from me when I have to deal with his.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Thank Goodness the Writers are Back

Have I ever missed some good satire. You know the thing about satire, right? We laugh not because it's untrue, but because it's too true not to laugh at lest we cry.

Pastoral Letter on Violence in the City

For those unfamiliar with the affairs of Memphis, a horrific, unimaginable massacre took place this week. The impact of that crime has shocked the city.

I wrote and distributed the following to my congregation this morning.

To the People of Faith Who Worship at Saint John’s,

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I write you today as the appointed pastoral leader, to call you into action, and to seek your prayers for our city endlessly gripped by the perils of violence.

How do we respond to violence? The events on Lester Street this week have, for at least a moment, captured our attention. But before this past weekend, were you aware that there have been over 30 homicides in Memphis since January 1?

How do we stand with violence’s victims? Where is Good News in the face of humanity’s grotesque inhumanity?

In the years I have served as your pastor, I have been privileged to befriend and walk beside other spiritual leaders in the city. In recent months, an extraordinary fraternity of clergy has committed to stand together in mutual support and friendship. What we say to each other is that no one knows what it’s like to be a pastor except another pastor. We 12, together with our spouses, have gathered for fellowship and friendship. We have sought no publicity for our time together. Our emerging relationships are what matter most.

We 12 lead urban and suburban congregations. We serve congregations of diverse sizes and worship styles. We are ecumenical, inter-faith, multi-racial and we hold at our core that which we seek to frame our community of faith at Saint John’s, that the true hospitality of God makes room at Table for all. What congregations do we serve? Temple Israel, New Directions, Saint John’s, Mississippi Boulevard, Idlewild, Second Baptist, Calvary Episcopal, St. Andrew’s AME, Germantown United Methodist, Hope Presbyterian, The Catholic Diocese of Memphis, First Baptist – Broad Avenue and Christ Missionary Baptist. And, we have always known that there will be times when some of us, any of us, by nature of our work, will need the spiritual and collegial solidarity of the rest of us. Now is one such moment.

2 of the 12 are deeply involved in the Lester Street story. Frank Thomas, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and Keith Norman, pastor at First Baptist Church, Broad, are faces you may have seen in recent news reports. They are carrying the enormous pastoral load for a story of unimaginable horror.

Last night a regularly scheduled gathering of our group took place at the home of Micah and Sheril Greenstein. The buoyancy of our fellowship was tempered by the reality of what two of our number carry. From our time together, we, the pastoral leaders of these diverse congregations, pledged our support in two tangible ways – and it is this that I call to your attention.

Under Frank and Keith’s leadership, the Lester Street Victim’s Fund has been established to help the families of those who have died deal with the crushing financial reality of so many funerals. The financial impact of one funeral, as many of you know, is difficult enough. Multi-funerals are beyond the capacity for any to afford, much less imagine, and compound violence’s impact. This fund will pay normal funeral and burial plot expenses not to exceed $7,200 for each adult and $5,200 for the children.

The State of Tennessee does have an assistance fund for the families of homicide victims. However, there is a lag between the time the money is needed and when it is released. It is also only released when certain criteria within the case are met, and this case is no where near that.

All money collected not spent for funerals, or, ultimately offset by State assistance, will be put in trust for the surviving children.

The 12 pastors of the 12 congregations are committing our congregations to cover as much of this expense as possible for these families.

Here’s Saint John’s plan. As the last act of our worship service this Sunday, we will receive an offering from any of you who feel you can contribute.

The second thing to do is this. We are calling all of our congregations to gather next Wednesday, March 12, at 7 p.m. at Mississippi Boulevard for a service in which we grieve the impact of violence, all violence, on our city. Calling upon Ecclesiastes 3, in this service, we acknowledge that for now, it is “a time to weep.” But we will also stand firm in our resolve to reclaim the city for the causes of justice and peace.

Trajectories for making this so will emerge and a call to action will come forth over time, but for now, we gather, as God’s people, to pray, to grieve, and to, as one of my brothers commented last night, “just love up on some people because that’s what they need right now.”

We will gather at Saint John’s at our regular time, 6:00 p.m., to share dinner together. I am suspending our previously scheduled activities, except, perhaps the children’s program. Then, at 6:30 p.m., we will make our way to Mississippi Boulevard Church. I am asking that our nursery remain open as it would if our programming onsite were on track.

This change is not taken lightly, but it matters, and I call you all to participate as you can.

With Prayers for the City,

Monday, March 03, 2008

Traffic Implications

One of the little tools we bloggers have is the capacity to monitor traffic on our site. No big deal. How many hits, what pages hit, how long somebody stays on - general stuff like that. Last week there was one post in particular that caused my meter to spike (spike is a relative term, I grant you, but it was a spike for me). That post has been previously dealt with.

But the post that is causing me most curiosity for the traffic it is receiving was written almost a year ago. In the last month, the amount of hits for the post containing my 2007 Maundy Thursday homily is stunning. I'm getting two or three hits on that post a day. People from IP's all over the world are hitting that page.

Not knowing what the big deal was, I went back this morning to look at it myself. It's short, pretty much right to the point - hardly stellar, but solid.

And then it occurred to me - who among us, at this time of year, would be searching out homilies for Holy Week?....your average lay person? Uhhh, Nope.

Based on the sites I hit and "find inspiration" for the preaching moment, I wonder how much of my homily is going to be shared from pulpits in the UK, New Zealand, the US?

If it is, is that a good thing? Some days I wonder.

And then, what the heck am I going to do for Maundy Thursday this year? Is what I wrote a year ago "my" Maundy Thursday homily?

Everyone I've preached up until then is, I think, a variation on that theme. The difference last year is that I took the time to write it down in a manuscript form rather than crib notes.

So I spent some time today looking around "for inspiration" to begin to frame what I'd say on Holy Thursday night, beings as it's only a couple of weeks away.

I went back to mine, and realized upon looking at it, that I'm not done with it yet. Some of my choices made then are not what I'd say now, or at least not quite in the same way - - and some others need more meat on the bones.

Is that homiletical laziness? I don't know, maybe.

But I'm going to revisit this work for Holy Week and see where it takes me ...something I would have never considered if it were not for a blog counter.