Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August Thirty-First...

Another year passed... another year gone...
another year older- perhaps a bit wiser,
but perhaps not.
And the spectre named Grief lurks in the
shadows, never far from sight or mind.
but on days like today, oozing out into the
open, a slimy ribbon staining the corridors of the hours with an indelible, insoluble mark of pain and loss.

He would have been fifty-two today,
my golden boy, my firstborn child.
Instead, I sit here with a misshapen heart,
a piece eternally missing-
though I have learned a heart can mend,
can still beat on,
sharing love and hope, blessing and peace,
even when a part is gone, forever gone.
For family and friends abound; children
and grandchildren fill my life and so
my heart with joy and love and laughter,
and through it all, through passing years,
a smile persists through veils of tears,
a smile of gratitude and wonder,
of hope and gentle joy,
even as my mother's heart weeps quietly for my precious boy.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Asking...


Do I still have questions about God?
Even now? At seventy-four?
Of course I do...
about the why and who and how...
the why-nots and the no-ways...
The wondering and the wandering
never end...
even as my earthly end looms large, well
within my sight-
And then I see the verdant green of trees
   towering high above me
hear the familiar call of the scarlet cardinal,
    the small brown wren, and the chatter of
    the ever-present squirrels
watch the children riding bikes down my
    quiet street
see my neighbor lovingly tending her lovely
    garden
hear a beloved voice on the phone
learn of earthquakes and wildfires and
    raging floods and the many helping
    hands offering aid
And I know- in spite of still-unanswered
    questions- that I have seen...am seeing-
    each day- the face of God.
 No further explanations necessary.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Holy Fire...

Preached at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, High Point, on August 14.

     "Do you think I have come to give peace
on earth? No, I tell
you, but rather division..." These are the words I just read to you...
proclaiming them to be the GOSPEL of our Lord... the Good News.
And you- all of you- responded, "Praise to you, O Christ!" Seems
a little ironic, doesn't it, to be calling such deeply disturbing words,
"The GOOD NEWS of our Lord"?
     Or perhaps you weren't really listening... so hear the words
again... spoken by the same Jesus we call "the Prince of Peace"...
   I HAVE COME TO CAST FIRE UPON THE EARTH...DO YOU
   THINK THAT I HAVE COME TO GIVE PEACE ON EARTH?
   NO, I TELL YOU, BUT RATHER DIVISION...EVEN WITHIN
   HOUSEHOLDS...FAMILIES...
The hard truth, the seeming harshness of these words, takes the
breath away...sets our teeth on edge...makes us cross our arms
and lean back, prepared to reject whatever comes next, doesn't it?
     John the Baptist, who baptized with water in the River Jordan,
predicted that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with
FIRE!
    FIRE- which ignites...which burns;
    FIRE- which refines, cleanses impurities...
Jesus, the Living Word, breathes out a red-hot message to ignite
the listener, to refine and cleanse away all the impurities which
prevent us- ANY OF US WHO HEAR...from answering his call to
discipleship.
     But how does this message... this image... fit with our picture
of "the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay"? the Jesus we all love to
love and cherish? The Good Shepherd who cherishes and loves his
flock? Who is this- STRANGER- who challenges us...burns us with
with the fire of his words...his message...his CALL?
     Well, our Jesus- the Jesus we love and trust- was a REBEL,
whether we realize that or not. He antagonized the religious
authorities at Nazareth- and they sought to stone him. He
challenged the religious leaders of Jerusalem- and they put him to
death. His message of truth was one which so unsettled the world
of his day and time- as well as the world of every day and time,
including our own- that the establishment did and often continues
to do everything it could to discount and discredit his message...
his message which teaches:
TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM TREAT YOU...LOVE
YOUR ENEMIES...DO GOOD TO THOSE WHO HATE YOU...IF YOU
HAVE TWO COATS, GIVE ONE TO THE PERSON WHO HAS NONE...
FEED THE HUNGRY...VISIT THE PRISONER...CARE FOR THE SICK...
WORK FOR JUSTICE FOR THE POOR AND HELPLESS, FOR ALL
PEOPLE...WORDS FILLED WITH FIRE!
     And then he backed up his fiery words with actions...as he ate
with tax collectors and prostitutes... those whom society deemed
"sinners"...as he touched lepers- those whom society considered
unclean...as he taught women- those who had no status or clout
in society... as he spent time with children- those whom society
saw only as property...teaching, healing, loving those whom the
rest of society considered unimportant.. undesirable... unworthy.
     This long-awaited Messiah came, not to primarily overthrow
the political systems of his day...not to lead might armies as
people of his day expected and hopes, or to wear a crown of gold...
but to KINDLE THE FIRE of the Kingdom of God in the world...to
FIRE UP those he called and calls as disciples...to refine and purify
them and us so that each day, we reflect the Christ in us more and
more purely...more clearly...refining away the OLD...that which
was before...to make way for the coming of the NEW KINGDOM...
a new way of life...a new relationship with God and with one
another.
     The fire of Jesus separates the true from the false... divides
faith from unfaith...good from evil...easy from hard. The coming

of God's kingdom, God's reign, drives a double-edged sword into
the world...Christ's coming brings peace on earth- AND DIVISION,
and here are those other HARD WORDS...
   DO YOU THINK I HAVE COME TO BRING PEACE ON EARTH?
   NO, I TELL YOU...BUT RATHER DIVISION...
     And we shy away from that...at least, I do...we pull back from
those FIERY words of the Gospel and cry out for the comfort...the
peace. After all, as Christians, aren't we called to be peacemakers?
To bring healing and reconciliation and love to our relationships
and to our world?
     But there is another face...A HARD FACE...to that call...for that
call...for the peace we are called to makes is not always sweet...
for ourselves or for others. Sometimes it shatters our best-laid
plans...burns up our fondest hopes... destroying the status quo.
It wipes away the illusion that following Jesus, living the Jesus Way,
will ONLY bring serenity of life and peace of mind. For, in reality,
Following Jesus will bring INDIVIDUAL & PERSONAL WARFARE!
(And I don't use that terminology lightly, as I eschew the language
language of war whenever possible.) There will be constant and
continual skirmishes of conscience over agonizing decisions about
how to spend out time and our money...internal battles over our
internal battles over our moral compromises about whether or not
to take a stand on an important issue, as well as the awareness
of the very real cost of that decision...the deep inner wrenching
as we see our neighbor's need night after night on the TV screen
from the comfort of our living room couch...
    Our Jesus, you see, is a DISTURBING LORD as well as a
comforting one. He comes to disturb the comfortable and comfort
the disturbed...and the peace he came to bring was-IS- the very
peace of God...not peace as humans define it... for human "peace"
is basically an exchange, a "trade-off"- "I'll scratch your back if
you scratch mine"...giving something in order to GET something-
and as long as the arrangement is MUTUALLY satisfying, there is
'peace"...we avoid hostilities. We see this all the time at the inter-
national level, don't we? And within the peculiarly contentious
midst of this election season.
     But the peace of GOD is basically a matter of TRUTH...
INTEGRITY...LOVE...saying, feeling, believing, "I'll do this
because it is the RIGHT and LOVING thing to do- even if I get
NOTHING out of it." And how counter-cultural is that? How out-
of-this-world? Where trade-offs seem to be the very stuff of
human relationships...where our very identities are built on the
trade-off of playing a role in exchange for approval from others?
     But the people of the Kingdom...those set afire...refined...
purified...claim that they can build their identity on ANOTHER
foundation...GOD'S LOVE...GOD'S UNCONDITIONAL, ALL-
ENCOMPASSING LOVE...and proclaiming...laying claim to
that reality shakes up the entire system of human relationship
To its very roots...to its heart and soul and core...for it tells us
that our value is NOT in what we produce...or who we know...
or how much we make...or how we dress...or what car we drive...
or where we live...or the color of our skin...or our sexuality... or
our age... or how perfectly we behave... but rather in the FACT-

the FACT of God's TOTAL UNCONDITIONAL LOVE for us- ALL OF
US- as God's own children, created in the Divine Image...the LOVE
made real to us in the person of Jesus, the fire-breathing Christ.
     Ernst Kasemann, a German theologian of the recent 20th
Century, wrote these words: 
     The church has managed to reduce Jesus' red-hot
     message, which promises to kindle fire, fire throughout
     the world, to room temperature.
Or in the words of one of my favorite writers, Annie Dillard:
     It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats
     to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.
     Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
     they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God
     may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God
     may draw us out to where we can never return.

DO YOU THINK I HAVE COME TO GIVE PEACE? Those red-hot
Words sear across our brains, our hearts, like a lightning strike...
Or SHOULD!!! NO, I TELL YOU...BUT DIVISION...HARD
CHOICES...A CALL TO COMMITMENT...A CALL TO COURAGE...
TO COURAGEOUS LIVING.
     Do you feel the HEAT of Christ's call? His word of truth is cast
upon us like fire...burning up every false foundation upon which we
try to base our individual and communal identities. And for
speaking the TRUTH, he was crucified. Never forget that, this price
of truth-telling, of true discipleship. Neither then nor now can the
powers-that-be permit the status quo to be confronted by the
TRUTH...the truth which burns with a flames so intense that we
cannot escape from it untouched...for this truth divides for the sake
of justice and righteousness...this kingdom come to put down
Other kingdoms to make way for the ultimate truth of GOD'S ALL-
INCLUSIVE LOVE...this love which is incarnated in and among us
in so many and varied ways:
    Martin Luther King, Jr., leading the march in Birmingham...
    Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus...
    North Carolina A&T students refusing to leave the Wool-
        worth's counter...
    The unnamed young man facing the tanks in Tiananmen
        Square...
    Sister Helen Prejean accompanying a murderer to the death
        chamber...
    The Dalai Lama, continuing to speak out for the Tibetan
        people, even at risk of his own life...
    Nelson Mandela, spending thirty-three years in prison in
        behalf of the rights of his people...
    Dr. William Barber, leading people in North Carolina week
        after week in Moral Monday peaceful protests for fair
        wages, better schools, equal justice for all...
    People in towns and cities all over the globe quietly pro-
         testing injustice of every sort...

This IS the Good News... and we celebrate it always at our
Eucharistic table...where the unity we affirm requires that we
relinquish every false unity, every human trade-off... drop every
mask we wear... and take up instead the cross of love, in Jesus'
name. PRAISE BE TO YOU, O CHRIST, indeed. Amen & amen.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Speaking Out...Finding My Voice...

   I have tried to refrain from making political posts throughout this
election season, not wanting to add to the already-contentious and
vitriolic miasma swirling through our nation. I had admittedly
re-posted published columns which reflect my views, but I have
mostly kept my thoughts and comments to myself.

    But the latest accusations spewing forth from the mouth of
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, have gone beyond
the pale, and I can remain silent no longer. Trump has accused
President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Clinton of 
co-founding ISIS. Shall I repeat? Donald Trump, at a rally in Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, has accused President Barack Obama and
former Senator, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton of being the
co-founders of ISIS. And though the story has been reported here
and there, I have seen or heard no one in the media taking Mr.
Trump to task for these incendiary and slanderous statements.
Apparently, it was not enough for him to encourage his NRA
supporters into action against Ms. Clinton if she is elected, words
and insinuations for which virtually any other U.S. citizen would find
him- or herself being questioned by the Secret Service- or worse.

    Why is Mr. Trump being given so many free passes by the
media? (two notable exceptions being retired newsman Dan Rather
and N.Y.Times columnist NIcholas Kristof.) Why are intelligent
people refusing to fact-check statement after bizarre statement
emerging from this candidate, candidate for the highest office in the
United States and arguably the most powerful and influential office
in the free world? I find the seeming disregard of Mr. Trump for truth
and accuracy both reprehensible and deeply disturbing.

    Please, fellow citizens, PLEASE make it your business to be
adequately and accurately informed. Make use of these six web-
sites to vet the words coming out of the mouth of candidates,
whomever they are:
  • FactCheck.org
  • OpenSecrets.org
  • PolitiFact.com
  • Snopes.com
  • TruthOrFiction.com
  • HoaxSlayer.com
If you have not yet registered to vote, DO IT NOW. And then, in
November- or even better, in early voting, please VOTE. Remember,
only 57.5% of eligible citizens voted in the presidential election in
2012. This means that the President of the United States was elected
by 28.75% of eligible voters, or just a bit over 1/4 of the possible
voting citizenry of this nation...hardly a majority...which doesn't sit
well with me at all...perhaps not with you, either.

    As citizens of these United States of America, it is not only our
privilege but our responsibility, our duty, to be part of the process,
to make our voices heard, to BE "we the people". After all, fellow
Americans, we will only get the government we deserve, the govern-
ment we are willing to work for and speak up for and vote for. Let
us be sure that the candidate for whom we vote deserves our vote,
deserves our faith and confidence, regardless of the office for which
she or he is running.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Can We Just Start from There?

Back in May of 1996, I attended a conference in Greensboro to
discuss racial relations, the ways in which people, black and white,
relate- or don't relate- to one another, and how this could be
improved. I do not recall the name of the church which hosted this
all-day meeting, but I do recall very well some of the feelings I had,
both during and afterward, as I listened to the voices of some very
angry black sisters and brothers talking about the special problems
faced by those in the black community which we white people
never face. At one point, late in the afternoon, I went to the micro-
phone to share my frustration with the assembly, saying- haltingly
and with deep emotion- "I don't know what it is like to be black, but
I hope you will believe that I am trying to understand, trying to be
part of a solution, trying to be part of building a better community
for all of us"...or something like that. The exact words elude me all
these years later, but I can still feel the sense of frustration and
sadness which welled up within me...the feeling of not being heard
because of the color of my skin, of being discounted because of that-
all of which, in retrospect, was an existential lesson in what it must
often be like to have a black face in an all-too-white world.

When I got home, I sat down with my journal and what emerged was
a poem of sorts, which I ran across quite recently as I was cleaning
out some of my closets. Reading it again, in the light of all that has
been happening over the past two decades since this conference,
over the past several years in our recent national history, makes it
feel very current to me, as if the words had been written yesterday
or today...as if they had only recently emerged from my heart and
from my pen. And so I share them with you, (with apologies if this
speaks too much from my white, heterosexual  privilege.)

A Beginning
I am a woman.
I was born that way...
   it was not a choice I made,
   an option given me...
   to be or not to be female.
       It is who I am...
             as surely as you are a man.
My skin is white.
I was born that way...
   it was not a choice I made,
   an option given me...
   to be or not to be white.
       It is who I am...
              as surely as you are black- or brown, yellow, or red.
I am heterosexual.
I was born that way...
   it was not a choice I made,
   an option given me...
   to be or not to be heterosexual.
        It is who I am...
            as surely as you are homosexual- or transgender or queer.
I know I cannot get inside your gender...
   inside your skin... inside your sexuality...
      As for walking a mile in your shoes-
      they don't fit me and I stumble and fall...
             get up and fall again.
I want to know you...
I'm willing to try to understand...to feel...to hear your pain...
   to walk with you.
Please don't shut me out because of who I am...
   don't turn me off...
   don't look away...
Please don't discount my being who God gifted me to me...
   Female...
   White...
   Heterosexual... true.
But I can't help being me any more than
you can help being you.
It's something that we share, you see...
    You created you...
    Me created me...
                     SO-
CAN WE JUST START FROM THERE?

Monday, August 1, 2016

God Be with You Till We Meet Again


Preached at Nazareth Lutheran Church July 31

    As I thought and prayed this week about what I would say to you
this Sunday morning, my last Sunday morning with you, my mind was
filled with so many things, so many images, so many remembrances
that I will carry with me as I take my leave from you. I think I will
remember most the funerals: four in these last three years- Cody
Nelson, Paul Newsome, Sara Anderson, and Sabrina Suarez. Each one
as totally unique as were the four saints for whom they were held. Each
one touching my heart in a deep and special way. Each one leaving a
lasting impact on my heart and life and spirit. Why funerals? you might
ask. Because they draw me near to the One who comforts, the One in
whom I must place my trust if I am to find the words to say to comfort
and bring some sense of peace to family and friends. Because they
remind me of my own finiteness and mortality and lack of control in the
affairs of this life. These four gifts of ministry dwell in the innermost
places of my heart and there they will remain.
     But of course, there have been happy times, times of rejoicing and
celebration and wonder and hope. I have wonderful memories of the
year spent with my four confirmation students, as we learned and grew
together…as we came to know each other better…as I came to deeply
appreciate just how remarkable these four young people are- Alana,
Caley, Ruthie and Toby- and I commend them to your continued
support and care as they go through these next often-difficult and
always-challenging years of their lives, their parents’ lives, and yours
as a congregation.
    And how could I possibly forget the many covered-dish lunches
we’ve shared? Good food was never in short supply here at Nazareth
and it seemed that each dish was prepared not only with skill but with
love...which made them taste even better. I will cherish the recipes
shared and will remember always the laughter and conversation as we
gathered around the table together, a very holy communion, indeed.
    Special for me, too, when I could be here, were the Pickin’ and
Grinnin’ evenings, with good music and good company, as well as an
overflowing of joy and incredible music from talented musicians, some
of them our own. And I will never forget the three concerts which were
part of Advent 2015, these very different and very gifted teams of
musicians bringing and sharing the joy of God’s delightfully abundant
gift of music with congregation and community. The walls of this
sanctuary rang with their voices and instruments, filling us all with an
ever-deepening sense of the Holy, of the very presence of Immanuel-
God with us.
    And sharing together our “God’s Work- Our Hands” projects was
another highlight of my time with you. Of course, I received the
added pleasure of being the one to deliver those personal care kits to
the Salvation Army Emergency Shelter…to receive the expressions of
thanks which rightfully belonged to all of you. And I will never forget
my visit to Scott G**** at the West Virginia Correctional Facility,
spending nearly two hours in conversation and prayer with him- after
the hair-raising drive up the mountain!- and learning yet again more
about what it means to minister in every place and circumstance of
life- and isn’t that what Jesus tells us to do?
    I know I’m missing something- perhaps many things, but these are
ones which remain foremost in my thoughts and in my heart. So
perhaps I should go to the thank-yous. Because you see, I have much
to thank you for, people of Nazareth. For three years, you have not
only tolerated, but loved and cared for this aging pastor whose liberal
theology and philosophy of life and ministry and politics is far, far to
the left of so many of you. I’m sure there were times when my words
ruffled feathers…perhaps even stirred considerable ire in some of you,
but you took the high road with Jesus the Christ and loved me in spite
of our differences. And in doing that, you helped me to better learn
how to deeply love and care for people whose point of view is very
different from my own. That, dear friends, is a gift I will cherish always.
Always.
    Thank you, too, for praying for me. Oh, you didn’t have to tell me
you were praying for me; I could feel it. On days when I was tired
and discouraged and at the end of my rope from things which were
happening in this world and in my life, it was your prayers of love and
care which lifted me up, enabling me to write yet another sermon,
prepare yet another worship service, face yet another day with hope
and equanimity. And throughout the illness and death of my sister,
Kathy, no congregation could have been more thoughtful and
supportive and loving, and for that I give you my heartfelt thanks. I
will never forget that, rest assured.
    I hope that I have also gifted you, individually and as a
congregation. I hope that I have provided an adequate example of
servanthood, of living the Jesus Way, and so, have been encouraging
you to do the same. I hope- deeply hope- that my words have
challenged you, at times discomfited you enough to make you think and
reconsider your own ideas and opinions, to enlarge your point of view.
I hope that I have been able to make you aware of the pain and
suffering and needs of the greater world, the world beyond Nazareth
and Rural Hall and North Carolina and the United States. I hope that I
have given you a greater vision of what it means to be the church in
this place and time, of what it means to be a disciple of the Living
Christ. I hope that I have encouraged you to do justice, to love
kindness, and to walk humbly with God in a world which so needs that
kind of discipleship. I hope I have encouraged you to live, as individuals
and as a congregation, with arms and hearts wide open in welcome to
whomever crosses your path, to whomever enters these doors, seeing
each and all as children of the same loving, caring, welcoming God.
    Some of you have asked me what I am going to do, now that I am
sort of retiring- for the second time! Well, I am planning for a workshop
on aging that I am leading this October in Summerfield at Healing
Ground Retreat Center. And I have writing projects all over my study
which are crying out for my attention. I am actively and deliberately
caring for my physical body, with yoga and walking and water aerobics,
in the hope that I will get to the place where travel will once again be
comfortably possible for me, since New York City and Prince Edward
Island and Iona, Scotland, and California and Rwanda, Africa loom
large. Still on my Bucket List is a train trip across the United States,
while on a much smaller scale is travel to visit friends and family in
Pennsylvania and Virginia. So you see, I will not be without  things to
do. But you will still often find me doing much quieter things: reading
the countless books which line my staircase and stand in piles on book-
cases all over the house. Cooking for family and friends, as I
experience the joy of trying new recipes and sharing the bounty of my
table- and my heart. Perhaps even trying my hand at painting, which I
have always wanted to do. A new chapter begins…who knows how it
will be written?
    And so I enter into tomorrow with a sense of enthusiasm and
expectation. The Japanese have a word for it- Ikigai. It is what gets you
up in the morning; the sense that the day matters, that there are new
experiences awaiting you and that you have a contribution to make. It
is how you spend your time, what you give your energies to, what you
say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to, what new challenges or risks you take…and it is
always a work in progress. And it takes, will take, patience and insight
and courage and honesty to follow where my curiosity and passion are
leading me, calling forth once again just what I have to give the world
in which I live.
    Know that you are and will ever be in my prayers, as I hold up this
congregation, its leaders, its members, its mission and ministry. I will
be praying for that person whom God is leading to shepherd you into
the next chapter of your story together. And of course, dear and
precious members and friends of Nazareth Lutheran, it is not goodbye
that I am saying but simply, “God be with you, till we meet again.”
Amen and amen