December 12, 2010
There were so many Roman Catholics in the South Louisiana of my upbringing that even as late as the 1980s, we never ate meat on Fridays at my public school. Half my friends were altar boys, who often were excused early from middle school classes to attend training with their priest. Given this context, on occasion as a boy I found myself in a Roman Catholic sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, even my mother—a cradle Presbyterian—fell into the habit of attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Benedictine seminary that lay hidden in the woods north of our town.
More often than not, I went with her. To be honest, I’m not sure why. What was probably only 45 minutes of Roman liturgy felt to this kid like an eon of chatter, not to mention the funny smoke up and down the aisle and those kneelers that were hard on the knees. As Protestants, we could not share in the mass-meal, but my mom always said she loved the scripture readings and the traditional chanting-in-song that went with them. As for me, all I wanted to do was get back home—back to bed, so as to shorten the chronological distance between me and my latest Lego acquisition on Christmas morning. My mom would count the chants leading to the birth; I was counting the minutes leading to my exit.
Except for the ceiling.
There was (is) in the chapel there at St. Joseph’s Abbey the most marvelous ceiling. To my discredit, it was the only feature of the night that ever held my attention. Sweeping arches, running in what seemed like every direction, with every space filled with the most marvelous fresco paintings I have ever beheld. The ceiling was chock-a-block with characters. Biblical characters. Adam and Eve and Moses and Miriam. All the prophets, kings, apostles. Mother Mary (of course), but also father Joseph. They were all up there, vibrant like Kodachrome, with their quasi-human faces. And of course, front and center in fab fresco was Jesus. Massive and magisterial, taking up more real estate than most others combined, he loomed large before us—over us, really. I can remember studying his steely eyes and flowing robes for what seemed like hours.
Ironic: We were supposed to be paying attention to everything happening all around us, but I confess I spent most of the midnight hour looking up above us.
So it is sometimes with the birth of the Son of God.
The title itself is grandiose. The expectations, enormous. “The Son of God!” No wonder the fresco on his Facebook page was 10 times that of all the others. This guy is a big deal. God announces the sending of a Son, the Son (meaning: the way a King sends a Prince, as in Psalm 2), and instinctively we all look up—to see power, to see prestige, to see a picture of God’s presence which of course must be high and lofty.
This is perhaps the great comedy of Christmas: We are all looking up to heaven, for the big bang of his appearance, for the pomp and circumstance of those marvelous vaulted ceilings, for a boy whose resume’ matches the Messiah we sing. Instead, Son of God comes as a mere neighbor to sit down on the pew, just next to us. He comes as a 1st century Palestinian rabbi from the other side of the tracks, with little to his name and even less for a bed. Instead of bang, he slips in with a whisper. Hardly the stuff of larger-than-life frescos.
It is not that he doesn’t deserve the ceiling, or could not himself secure it. It is that he consistently chooses otherwise, as in Philippians 2. The Christ appears in this world, not in a grandiose display of power and might, but in the arms of a woman who never in her right mind imagined she herself would one day be enthroned on the ceilings of sanctuaries. Every year, the world looks up for a Hail Mary pass from God; Jesus turns out once again to be a lateral move down on our level.
This is God’s glory—a birthing center full of domestic animals? This is God’s awesome power—mercy for those who need it most? This is the potency of God’s wrath—a life laid down for those whose life needs lifting up? Christmas comedy: I’m looking up at the sky for a Cecil B. Demille production; meanwhile, the risen Jesus comes alongside me as a stranger asking, with a touch of irony, “Hey, what are you looking for up there? I’m down here: in the broken bread, in the call to service, in the face of your neighbor in the pew and the stranger on the curb, in the stables, in the trenches, on the crosses. I’m down here: the true reflection of God’s greatest glory.”
Thanks be to God for the drab ceiling and the long pews.
December 11, 2010
The invitation to speak a word in tribute about another’s life is an unqualified honor. To speak of your life thus far is certainly that. But given our friendship, this summons to speak of you is a sheer delight as well.
What’s a preacher to do in such a moment as this? How is one rightly to proceed? A tribute in the third person seems an option. “She was, she is, she will be …” Yet, in this mode, the words pass too easily over your ears, serving more as gift to those who gather with you on this day. This seems to me to miss the point of this hour, for this is your time to receive, as a living gift, some measure of how it is your words and your way have blessed the lives of those who love you – so many of whom are gathered here with you in this place.
“Tribute.” From the Latin, of course! TRIBUTUM: to grant, to allot, to bestow.
And so I am delighted to bestow these words to you, about you, all the while knowing that your hearing them will likely be a difficult pill for your otherwise self-effacing spirit to swallow. Indeed, your humility – that mild bit of embarrassment you evidence when in your presence someone draws attention to your many virtues – is one of graces we love about you, even if it tempts you now not to believe what you hear.
So listen you must, and listen well.
We are multivalent creatures, we who are created in God’s image. That is to say, our lives, if we are blessed, are thick with many layers. A tribute of any merit must furrow up these rich layers of a life. And with you, dear friend, this cultivation is an easy effort.
An initial glance at the vita of your life, Alma, and one finds in your personal and public résumé the touchstones of those deeper layers that define the woman you have become. This uppermost stratum is diverse and textured, and thoroughly noble. One notes your storied Virginia upbringing, an early heritage of Christian faith, stimulating collegiate study, training in the classics, public service to public education, a beloved marital bond, devoted motherhood (now on a grand scale), civic engagement with this fair town, volunteered time to those in need, and, of course, active membership and ordained office in this Presbyterian kirk. (You will note where my list culminates!)
There are other roles to note, other seasons that define, I am certain. But of these, I know. And for these, we all give thanks to God, because in some measure, every one in this room has connections to your story. In greater measure, everyone in this room has been made better having known you.
But even still, vitae are one-dimensional lists. We can all list the seasons of our lives; it does not mean that we have lived them well. But with you, Alma, deeper layers reveal deeper ways, for no one could ever accuse you of superficiality. Indeed, the underlying layer of any life is the one on which stand CORAM DEO, in the presence of God. And we Presbyterians are prone to believe that anything good that arises from our lives, any virtue evident to the world, is both a gift from God and a response to what God has done. “We love, because God first loved us.” If we sing, it is because God has song his song. If we pray, it is because God has spoken to us. If we compose, it is because God has written the poem of his works into our hearts. God acts; we respond.
And so, a pastor and friend cannot help but to note and name the myriad ways in which you, as a child of God in Christ, have responded to the graceful claim on your life.
For instance, I have always noted your devotion to your children: that durable, lasting bond that only a mother develops with her beloved offspring. So deeply have you rejoiced with them, wept with them, implanted faith in them, prayed for them. More than once have you offered them to the Lord: that most difficult of prayers, offered at the intersection of your desire to shelter them under your wings forever and your knowledge that you cannot save them, that you cannot be both Lord and mother. It is a mother’s prayer offered in a world “upside down.”
I also sense in you Alma, a deep love of place. When you speak of your life, one notes in your stories the rich details about the places in which you have responded to God. The hallowed halls of a collegiate library, where the beauty and the splendor of the Almighty and the creation began to come alive in your mind’s eye. The many classrooms of your profession, whose air was filled with chalky dust and words from languages long laid down, even while your mind and heart were filled with the names and lives and the welfare of your students. This little town, with its numerous meandering streets, each one mirroring a specific relationship you have woven with so many friends, colleagues, students, and neighbors. And certainly your lovely home, filled with the stuff of Alma: books and papers and letters … and piles … and memories: the raising of your children, the buttressing of your marriage, the welcoming of friends. And all the while, the working out of your salvation in word and in prayer. To transfer description: “A little house sitting and waiting, as if with a silent yearning.”
It seems to me that too many of us with faith in Christ have bought a Gnostic lie, believing ourselves sometimes too good for this world that God has gifted. We float on the surface of their lives, never really discovering that grace comes alive down deep in the thickness of life – in the odd, peculiar, specific places where we conduct our lives. “Let it be on earth, as it is in heaven,” we pray.
What I love about you Alma, is that you have taken God’s word into every nook and cranny of your earthy (rooted) life. Yours is not a subdivided spirit, nor are you more spiritual than God. And yet precisely because you are rooted in God’s creation, that God-shaped heart of yours – hardly ninety – awaits in eager expectation for the world yet to come. Living well, yet looking ahead. This is a witness to me.
Another layer in you that I love are all the unlikely juxtapositions, the contrasts of your person. Consider your innocent absentmindedness, set against your wise, luminous mind; your playful, even impish of sense of humor, set against a streak of sober righteousness that charts through your life like a burst of radiant sun, parting the fog and lighting our way behind you. And I love the fact that even after nine decades of life, you still wonder about things, you still chuckle when you hear a funny phrase, you still pray with childlike expectation – prayers carried on wise, old words. And you still dabble in innocent irreverence, while always making your nest in true doxology.
I also love that your Christianity cannot easily be pinned down, to one particular tradition or its perfunctory ways. Talk about juxtapositions: you are too passionate about the gospel of Jesus to be contained by stuffy, proper Presbyterians, yet you are too thoughtful, too full of faith, to roost with simplistic fundamentalists. You are too prayerful, too Spirit-filled for these tired old mainline traditions of ours, yet you are too grounded in the Word and its wisdom to be swept away by charismata alone. Alma, you are a consummate Christian, a virtuous daughter of faith, and you have been a model of devotion to this church, its members, and its several pastors, lo these many years.
And I have theory about you: that the frequently forgotten purse, the keys locked in the car, the water for tea too often left boiling on the stove … These are signs, not of decline, but that your thoughts regularly take up the great and glorious subjects, that your heart is absorbed with the grandeur of God, and that your life now has a nearly constant an upward gaze. So I say: Let the tea and the keys and purse be gone. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Which brings me to my last love about you, the final and best layer in which I have seen your regular response to God and his gracious Son. So many titles could name your life, so many roles: daughter, wife, mother; student, teacher, neighbor; disciple, elder, sister in Christ. But the one that has settled in me, that title that best describes you when I ponder your life, is poet. “Poet.”
POETA. Maker of verses. A creative artist with words. Says Webster, “a writer having great imaginative, expressive gifts, possessing a special sensitivity to language.” This is how I best imagine your life.
Now I know that you are not fond of this title, at least in reference to yourself. You think it too lofty, too immense, unfitting of one who “scribbled and imposed” her poetic verse. But you must learn to embrace it, Alma, before it is too late, for it is one of the manifold gifts that God has given you, specifically you, in order that you might bless the world for him. Poet. And let us be clear that a poet is not merely a rhymer of words. There is difference, after all, between Dr. Seuss and Gerard Manly Hopkins, and in that spectrum you take your providential place. Maybe in rhyme, but maybe not, a poet is one whose heart and mind are so awed to heaven that they cannot help but speak about its glories in the language of earth. Poets do not see their lives or the world in regimented sections or dangerous taxonomies. They do not settle for manufactured truth or easy, customary answers. They resist the opiate of busyness and constant pleasure, choosing instead to see with a vision through which few perceive: a view that God and his Word is indeed all in all – all over the world as Almighty, all over your life, Alma, as Lord.
As providence would have it, I recently stumbled upon a little verse of Walt Whitman, buried in a book written mostly for preachers. Whitman’s vision of the world is certainly different than mine and yours, yet his words came alive as I pondered this tribute for you. Says Walt:
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists,
the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
I note that, whatever his intentions, his “son of God” could easily be our dear Christ, our Lord. But I also note that his “singer,” his “poet,” could also be you, and me, and anyone who seeks to put the stuff off heaven into the words of earth.
For after all is said is done, after the facts and figures are all exhausted, after the cheap grace and prayer-less thought have run out … finally the poet comes, to speak about God and his grace, about faith, hope, and love.
And finally you come to us, as well, with your words and your ways:
You speak of your life, ruminating on the unstoppable providence of God, and “the tiny nudgings that come from time to time from beyond the stars.”
You speak of a grace, and of finding it in the most unlikely of places, like in “ice and water,” and in the kindness of one who delivers.
You speak to your children – words to them yet unborn, “tiny babes, in a world grown old.” You speak to their coming up and their playful years, and you speak to them in their going away.
You poke fun at us, too easily consumed with ourselves. You notice our all too funny ways. And in not thinking so highly of yourself, you have learned to take note of the frolicking, playful side of God’s gifted life: leaves crunching under foot, dogs burying their biscuits, chiggers in the blackberry patch. These too, make up the splendid creation.
And in your poetic way, you speak to God – particularly and often, I notice, about the world yet to come. Your writing make this clear: So ready are you, dear friend, for the great resurrection and the new day. How you long for that day in your words and in your heart. Perhaps your childlike hope is now disciplined and tuned by the loss of those you have so deeply embraced.
Only poets learn to speak out loud about that tensive space between the now and the not yet. But to turn your phrase, “Do not worry; far off places no longer matter. You are traveling now toward God.”
My dear friend,
with these words you come to us,
worthy of the poet name,
a true daughter of God,
singing his songs,
and speaking his words.
Beloved Alma, on behalf of all the Presbyterians of this flock, then and now, we give thanks to God for the wonder, joy, and beauty of your life lived so well before him. And we offer our fervent prayers (though not quite as well offered as by you) that there are still ample more days for you to listen to your storied life and to offer your words back to God. “Finally shall come the poet worthy that name.”
To God be all the glory; to you, all our love.
Godspeed and happy 90th birthday.
September 13, 2010
For as long as there has been a sanctuary to house the worship of the Altavista Presbyterian Church, her preachers have been afforded a weekly sight not normally noticed by the congregation: the distinctive three-cornered window high on the south wall of the building. Surely whoever drew up the plans for this little Tudor-style shelter for sinners knew something of Mr. Calvin’s good theology: a tri-cornered window to mark a Trinitarian faith. And when I consider my season in your congregation, I likewise recall a trinity of markers that reflect for me this kirk’s little light in the world.
I think first of furniture: sanctuary furniture—serious sanctuary furniture. Unlike many Christian worship spaces these days, wherein one could just as well play donkey basketball as much as dispense blessings, there is no mistaking what the Altavista sanctuary is all about: bath, book, and meal. For each of these three most-Christian of activities, the hand-me-down furniture is formidable. I remember the first time I gazed upon the elevated pulpit, wondering if for certain preachers oxygen masks would be made available—given the thinner atmosphere up there. The communion table: a giant surface fit for a generous feast, spruced up once or twice by the boys down at Lane. The font is no less impressive, a hefty perch for washing old sinners and marking new saints. Every now and then an anxious bride would ask me, “Um, could we, like, move these things out of here? They are kinda in the way.” Indeed they are, friend. I always blamed my solemn “no” on the sheer weight of each object, but I did not mean the kind known by Newton. More like Calvin’s. Nay, more like God’s.
But what good are hearty appointments without a people to worship around them? This brings to mind, secondly, the great weekly stampede known properly as the Passing of the Peace. What holy madness! I remember a rather shy visitor to worship, hoping in the back pew to lay low like a wallflower at Jr. High prom, later reporting to me her panic as half the congregation descended upon her with hands of shalom outstretched. “Get used to it,” I warned, with wry gratitude. “And next week, bring a crash helmet. It won’t let up.” Nor should it. Christianity is surely a personal faith, but it can never be a wholly private faith. If in fact the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” then it follows that his people would press the flesh too, as a regular act of practicing the sort of strange new community into which he calls us. Workplaces in hostility, families in tension, nations at war; there is at least one place on the planet where, in the name of Jesus, people practice a vigorous peace every seven days. Reticent visitors have been warned!
The third pane in my memory’s window: an anxious waiting room somewhere in the steel of Lynchburg General. Walter C. has fallen four stories. He is broken, battered, and beset with more hoses than one can imagine possible. His family is frightened, exhausted, camping out on hard chairs for a week. Yet over the course of days there is a veritable parade of Presbyterians moving through said waiting area. Struck by the number of these strangers, a bewildered sibling asks me, “Preacher, who are all these people?” Good question, sister. What I wanted to say was, “They are God’s people. They belong to Jesus, just like Walter. They are his sisters and brothers, and by coming here in his dying they mean to bear witness to the good resurrection soon to come, wherein all will be made well—including your brother, in every respect. For now, until then, their presence here is a sign that, in God’s good kingdom, even the town fool has a place at the table, even an eccentric nobody is a blessed somebody.” This is what I wanted say, but it was surely more theology than a grieving sister should have to work out on tired feet. Instead, I offered, “These are Walter’s friends. From his church.” She surveyed the room again, astonished. And although I can’t be certain, there seemed for just a moment, in the corner of her drained eye, a brand new vision of Jesus breaking forth—the same Jesus old Walter mumbled on about so much of the time.
Who are all these people? They are God’s people. And they show up, right on time.
Altavista Presbyterian Church … now a century old. Her sturdy furniture. Her crowded aisles. Her people, hanging around in hospital hallways, and in other hard places. Through these three panes shines for me the light of a mysterious and majestic three-fold God: Father of Strength, Son in the flesh, Spirit all around. One God, through and through.
Happy centennial, Presbyterians.
May God bless you in this new season now before you, bright with promise.
(When in doubt, do what B. Harvey would have you do.)
September 4, 2010
Romans 12:9-18 contains wise instructions for all Christians,
and therefore it is no less pertinent for Christians who come together in marriage.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
No doubt you are familiar with the expression, "He/she can’t see the forest for the trees."
As I understand it, the saying is a reminder about the danger of getting lost in all the many details of life, thereby missing the bigger picture, the true meaning of, say, work, or relationships — perhaps especially, marriage. "He/she can’t see the forest for the trees."
Well, who I am to debunk a time-honored idiom? But I would nevertheless like to offer you and all spouses gathered here today something of a minority view. Forests are lovely to behold, when a sweeping view affords itself, but I would say that in marriage, on most days, there are only trees.
In our era, many persons thump their chests and tout loudly the lofty ideals of “traditional marriage” or “family values” or other such forests of grand importance. Sure, I am as interested in great ideals as the next pastor, but the more grounded truth is this: Great marriages — living, loving, lasting marriages — are started, not with a vision of grand forests full of tall ideals, but with the little saplings sown in everyday action.
The regular planting of honesty, encouragement, mutual support, truth-telling, fidelity, and the like ... These are what matter most in a marriage, because, over time, these saplings are what grow into the kind of thick, hearty forest canopy that not only provides safe shelter for your marriage, for each other, that canopy also becomes a home that blesses many others: children, family, friends—even enemies, if Jesus’ teaching is to be headed.
We all want to “fall in love,” and this is great, but for spouses—especially Christian spouses, already called to a ministry of actively loving each and every neighbor—the urgent question after today becomes How do we stay in love? How do we practice love in real-life encounters? How will love be transacted on a plain ole Tuesday morning in marriage, when the running conversation of domestic life calls for moments of honesty, respect, assertiveness, listening?
You chose for this day a reading from Romans 12, which for our purposes turns out to be a veritable greenhouse of such saplings:
let love be genuine
hate what is evil
hold fast to what is good
practice mutual affection
honor each other
These little shrubs, planted every day, are what grow into great forests for life.
And so don’t worry so much about a year from now, 5 or 10 years from now, about growing old together and living up to everyone’s tall but sometimes rootless ideals. Instead, as you travel through these woods together, I invite you simply to deal with the tree right in front of you: this conversation, that decision, each and every opportunity for "outdoing one another in showing honor."
So maybe here today, at your wedding, maybe we coin a new expression:
In marriage, at least, don’t miss each tree for the forest.
Let the living God manage the great forests
of the life you now inhabit together, the macro.
Instead, each morning, its is yours simply to ask in the micro,
What good seed of God’s shall I plant for my spouse today?
August 12, 2010
In an email correspondance, shortly before departing for Kabul and a funeral service, Chris wrote to his friends:
"I wanted to thank you for your prayers and your support for our family in this time, as many of you have written and called with overwhelming encouragement. God is protecting us in a very vulnerable time, and is providing safe passage. I want to ask that you pray not only for us, but for the men who gave in to violence. Dan was a man of peace, and the first thing he would encourage us to do is to pray for these men and their families. Dan and the team knew the risks of going into this remote area, but the night before he left we talked to him in Skype, and he told us that he had to go, with that typical boyish grin and determination that was so much like him. As you’ll read in the papers, the people in the Northeastern area of Nuristan are in deep need, and nobody is there to help them. It is fitting that Christians, with the hope and joy of Christ, should put their lives at risk in order to help those in need when no one else will, and Dan was a supreme witness to the faith in this respect. But he was also a consistent witness in his life as a family man, by living this way with Anneli and I as a father-figure as a husband to his wife Seija, who is currently working with Cure International in Kabul."
Although our time to know Dan here in New Wilmington was brief, let us give thanks for those who model a living Jesus-faith and conduct themselves with diligence, bravery, and compassion.
His father-in-law's death comes on the cusp of Chris' departure from us, his year-long pastoral internship completed. Chris has accepted a call to be only the second installed pastor of the Emmanuel Presbyterian Church just south of Nashville, Tn. The congregation is a new church development project of the Middle Tennessee presbytery, and includes around 100 active members. He will begin his service to them as a Teaching Elder sometime in September.
Based on what we have experienced in knowing Chris, and how we have watched him develop over these last dozen months, we are confident that God will bless the people of the Emmanuel congregation with a bright, warm, theologian-pastor. Chris has blessed this year with a great hunger for learning, a deep theological curiosity, a tender openness about his own life and faith, and his keen interest in seeing the church exit its own walls and be the people of God wherever they may be. What we have seen and heard in seeds and new buds, may the Presbyterians south of Nashville, current and future, come to know in full bloom.
We have thanks for Chris' learning and service among us, and pray Godspeed upon his dear family and his ordained ministry.
August 8, 2010
Even so, not all tales are created equal. Some set the tone for others.
Recently, a person in my congregation was relating to me the narrative of how a house on the shoreline of Lake Chautauqua in New York state came into his family’s possession years ago. It is currently enjoyed by a fourth generation, with an eye toward a fifth. Buried there at the beginning of all that handing-down is quite a tale to tell—a story about a dream, a purchase, and a plan for construction. One could say that the decision of great-grandparents to develop a little spot by the lake has introduced countless new tales into the lives of his entire progeny. And you can bet that at least once a summer, someone pushes back from the dinner table and recounts for all the narrative of how this place came to be. One primal story has set the tone for countless others.
In a similar fashion, not all tales in scripture are created equal.
Books of quotations from the Bible—collections of singular verses lifted from their context and arranged by topic—have the unfortunate effect of flattening out the Biblical narrative, suggesting that every story is cut from the same cloth. True, one could (should) say that everything in scripture is important to us as the gathered faith community, but it is just as necessary to say that not everything in scripture is of the same importance. A few primal stories set the tone for all others.
In the Old Testament, for instance, there is one tale that rules them all: the Exodus. The second book of the Bible turns out to be first in importance, because it is the book of Exodus that narrates God’s first and fundamental act of redemption: liberating the Hebrew slaves from the hard hand of Egypt’s pharaoh. The living God overhears the cries of the Hebrew minions and sets in motion a plan for judgment upon Pharaoh and release for his bondage-people. This tale, this primary Old Testament narrative, sets the tone for all the others that follow and precede.
What about the creation stories of Genesis? Is not God’s act of creation more important than any rescue, if only because there could be no release without existence in the first place? That may be good logic, but it is not the theological-logic of the Bible itself. Genesis 1-3—important as they are—are best understood as a holy afterthought, an inspired prologue leading up to the crown jewel of the first Testament: the Exodus encounter. The first and foremost news of the Bible is that God liberates and restores. The creation narratives are later appended to the front of this tale in order to announce that the God who formed a people out of worthless slaves turns out to be the same God who formed the cosmos from meaningless chaos.
More than even the creation stories, it is the Exodus that sets the tone for what follows in the Bible. God’s compassionate ear, God’s calling of unlikely Moses, God’s judgment upon the hard heart of Pharaoh, God’s making a water-way where there was no way, God’s leading his band of folk through the long wilderness, God’s promise for a promised land. These are the contours for every good Biblical tale that follows; these are the building blocks for every other bit of news the scriptures intend to announce. And chiefly, from the perspective of our baptized journey, these are the primal ingredients for the other great normative tale of our two-tiered Bible: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.
Two stories to rule them all.
August 1, 2010
I have nevertheless embraced the privilege
of offering this particular passage of scripture:
Romans 8, the groaning of creation, the coming redemption of all things
... the privilege of offering these gospel words
to D. and M. over the course of a
half a dozen home communions
Neither I nor the Deacons who have accompanied me
will forget those encounters anytime soon
You see, it is one thing to say to one another
We believe God is here with us now
but is quite another to share in the generous fellowship of food
and to say
Take, D. Eat. This is his body broken for you.
Swallow this bread
and take his life into yours
And with each recent gathering,
the words of Romans 8
filled his sun-drenched bedroom
on the southwest corner of the B. home
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.
I have spent a great deal of time with these words
both in my study and at bedsides crowded by machines
and as a result
I do not imagine for a second that the Apostle means to say
Our sufferings are worthless, without weight of meaning
I think—indeed, I know—Paul means to say:
For now, there is real suffering
In the world, in this life, in these bodies
We would only disrespect the courage, patience, faith of our brother now departed if we suggested otherwise
But the stunning newness that God will soon transact
in the resurrection of his people and the recreation of creation
(a newness tasted in the appetizer of Easter morning)
When you catch a glimpse of that new world moving toward us
even if but for a moment
you will find that the sufferings of this present time are subdued into that glorious new perspective
It will be sort of like the way you go to visit a dying friend
starved of meaning in your spirit
tempted by the darkness of his circumstance
all ready to feel sorry for him
Only suddenly your find yourself leaving
warmed by the suffusing light of those rooms
with generous food in hand for your family -- Presbyterian Pesto
feeling sorry that you ever intended to feel sorry for him
It’s sort of like that, I think
A conversion of perspective
not because we settle for the bones of denial
but because we are richly fed, in the meal of grace
We come to consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed among us
To sojourn with D. and M. in these recent years
has been to know a well-attested hospitality
Many of you know of this meal far more than I
the warm welcome
the gracious space
even if shaky, the outstretched hand of fellowship
the twinkle in the eye, illuminating until the end
and as a postlude
a package of peppers or pesto to go home to your family
it is in the nature of things there
on the cusp of my departure
from a time of prayer and scripture with D. and family
I stood in the B. kitchen
and listened to gladsome talk
and food and meals and traditions
On the matter of M. making good use of every ingredient
she dispensed an off-handed comment about her mother
I guess I have a bit of her in me
She was of the Depression
When it came to food,
nothing was wasted,
everything was put to use
Those last words shot through me like watts of electricity
And at the great risk of melodrama
right there in the foyer of their home
it was though Romans 8 came together for me
and I could see it again, anew
what God is up to in these broken, beleaguered bodies of ours
what this God is doing amid the groaning of this world
We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, those who have been called according to his purpose.
Nothing is wasted
Everything is put to use
This does not mean that all things are good
This does not imply that
we are not Cold Stubborn Fatalists
We are Easter Christians
warmed—embraced!—by the news that
nothing will finally escape God’s
dogged insistence to deliever a new creation
from the groans of our painful labor
The recent journey of our brother is submerged in mystery, to be sure
But let the mystery rest in why it is God’s otherwise good creation
so regularly resists his call to abundant life
and appears so prone to stubborn decay
And in parallel
let there be no mystery about this news:
That what God is working for is freedom—the freedom of his children
That the Spirit is not the cause of the but the help in our weakness
That this God is, in fact,
more acquainted with our sufferings than we are
and therefore able to pray for us
to intercede for us
with groans of longing we ourselves cannot even name
That in all things God works for the good of those who love him
That in the end
in the sweeping newness of that great Easter morning to come
nothing will have been wasted
not even the loathsome persistence of Parkinson’s
The markers of this promise even now?
an infectious smile
a glimmer in the eye
a deep Friday-like concern for others
a hint of Sunday-mischief to enliven the day
It appears that many people picture
God up on high
dispenser of pain and pleasure
kind, maybe, but mostly indifferent
distributer of circumstances
with which we can only learn to cope
What if it turned out
that God was more like
a Depression Era mother
insistent that nothing be wasted
determined that no single ingredient will spoil the meal
finding divine gladness when everyone is fed
That his baptism marks his belonging to this news
That he is for now held safe in the care of this God
That in the resurrection he will be raised up, healed and whole
this is the pesto of our praise
July 9, 2010
I believe it only took me about half-a-dozen sermons at the start of my work as a preacher before I realized how grateful I was for the unprecedented religious freedom this country affords us Christians. Not just for Christians, of course, is this independence. Religious freedom for all: however wise or wacky, similar or strange they seem to us. (We should note, however, that plenty of folk deem us rather wacky as well. Did you hear that Apostles' Creed? We profess some strange and wonderful news ourselves.) I desire religious liberty for all my neighbors in other faiths because I am likewise grateful that it is secured for all Christians.
My own conviction is this: As a follower of Jesus, I have at stake in maintaining and defending that freedom for everyone. I hold to this, not because I want or need this country to be “Christian” in some vague, rubber-stamp sort of way, but because I am grateful for the uninhibited space to follow Jesus in the specific and deliberate way of discipleship.
- - - -
Think about what a gift we have been given as disciples of Jesus, in this country and in this era of history:
It is Sunday morning again. For us: not just another weekend for leisure or the ramp-up to another week of work. It is the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day! We have gathered at our normal spot for word and sacrament. We are doing our thing.
And guess what?
No one has barred the door.
No one is checking our papers.
No one is censoring our speech.
No one is threatening us with bodily harm.
The lights are still on.
The doors are still open.
The Book is still on the Pulpit.
The Table stands ready for our next Meal.
What a gift.
Yet it is not so for many of our brothers and sisters around the world.
Do remember our guest preacher last summer, on the Sunday of the New Wilmington Mission Conference? Rev. N______, a spirited pastor from Zimbabwe. He told us the tale of how their church building was burned down ... 3 times ... by members the government!
The hardest decision many of us faced today was: REGULAR or DECAF? For me: Which bow-tie to don?
These 75 minutes together, in this space
Right here, right now
That we are gathered here, uninhibited
This is an extraordinary gift.
- - - -
It occurs to me that this nation’s birthday is a day for Christian communions to ask a fundamental stewardship question:
We are free. Thanks be to God. Now what? To borrow the old query of Francis Shaeffer: "Christian, how then shall we live?"
The early church teaches us through Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians 7: In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, remain there with God.
you find yourselves
Whether the winds of culture blow for you or against you, “remain there with God.” Follow Jesus Christ, and be secured by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In effect, Paul’s counsel is something on the order of: "Christian, bloom where you are planted."
And the terra firma of our ministry is America.
The test of our appropriation of such remarkable religious liberty is not in our unqualified or unfettered devotion to the state, but rather it is proven in our greater, deeper, wider devotion as the Baptized to Jesus and his way. Let us neither push this way of life on others in monstrous hegemony, nor surrender this way of life to others in embarrassed inclusivity. Neither stance honors the Lord of all lands.
As stewards of this particular space and time we must ask: For what other purpose exists religious liberty than for greater commitment to the one whose way we have found ourselves called to follow? This one whose grace secures us, whose power sustains us, and whose example directs us.
- - - -
The challenge that comes with independence is to maintain responsibility once the control of others is cast off. We might consider ordinary examples.
Will the teenager be responsible for the car once mom and dad are no longer visible in the rear-view mirror? Will the college student learn to manage self once the family of origin is not downstairs waiting every morning, with a nucleus of direction?
More widely, will a nation practice self-control once it is free from the political jurisdiction of a king and queen? Will a society seek the common good and practice restraint as technology offers more and more “freedom"? Just because now we can, should we?
And so by way of these analogies ...
Will Christians in this land continue to grow in discipleship and be stewards of so great a religious liberty when the prevailing culture provides little substantial pushback? For at least two hundred years now, it has remained socially acceptable in this country to be a Christian, at least in a privatized, devotional form.
How are we doing with that independence? What is the measure of our devotion? And better:
How am I doing with this independence? What is the measure of my devotion amid such freedom?
After all, we would not want such unprecedented religious liberty to foster in us over time a tepid resignation. Consider the Presbyterian congregation in New Orleans that nurtured my father to Christian faith. In 1950, it had within its walls some 1200 persons. Last year it was 15 ... all of whom had been there in 1950. (There's nothing wrong with being an older Presbyterian, unless of course you are all alone in the sanctuary.) This year the number is zero, as the presbytery has dissolved the church. True: This is not every congregation’s story. But it is more common than we like to admit. Too often, we have withered in an easy climate.
This is where the counsel of Jesus in Luke 12 proves so timely for us. Keep your shirts on; keep the lights on! Be alert! Be ready! Be poised for action! Pretend you are servants in a great household of riches. Would it not be wise to stay poised for the master’s return? to be ready to respond to his presence among you?
Let the delay of his return breed in you attentive perseverance, like disciples; not sleepy passivity, like consumers. After all, we would not want the gift of religious liberty to be, in a sad irony, our final undoing.
- - - -
Neither, however, would we want such bountiful freedom to seduce us into worshipping the sovereign state we inhabit over the risen Son whose Spirit inhibits us.
I like what Senator Byrd of West Virginia was often quoted saying o fellow members of the chamber in the heat of bipartisan debate: "Listen, I value you a great deal as a colleague, but I value the Senate even more." It seems to me that the Christian communion can mimic a similar posture with regard to this great country and proper devotion: We love this country a great deal, but we love the God who has met us in Jesus Christ even more. Not that the two always have to be in conflict with one another. But as objects of our devotion and worship, neither are they the same.
Is that posture not the earliest and best seed of religious liberty in this country? That a land and a document that would afford me such tremendous religious independence would not itself expect to be worshipped for that freedom. From the vantage point of these waters, America is, at its best, a blessed means to a more blessed end. And for the baptized, surely that greater end is to love the Lord our God with all that we have, all that we are; to love our neighbor as we would our selves.
I am Christian first and an American second, in large part because I know that one need not be an American in order to be a Christian. Rev. N_____ and his congregation, but several of a million examples. They have much to teach us about what Augustine called "ordered loves."
- - - -
It is the purpose of the Christian gospel to announce the news that, at the end of each day and at the end of my life,
that which secures my ultimate liberty
that which sets me free from all powers and principalities
that which affords the ultimate blanket of protection
is in fact no continent or nation or document
—-even the best of these, prone to decay and death.
In fact, my true life is not found in a THING or a PLACE,
or among a certain PEOPLE,
but in a PERSON
the one who taught
the one who died
the one who rose
the one who is alive
Therein I find my life, liberty, and blessedness. It is the God behind, before, and in this Jesus who deserves my ultimate devotion, the way a servant is devoted to a master. I celebrate a strange and wonderful bit of news: Once I was free, but now I am slave!
It turns out, then, to be a Christian in this land and in this time is a situation of blessed irony:
I am free as an American, to be a slave to Jesus.
Thanks be to God.
July 1, 2010
We do pray that your kingdom will come, especially in places around the globe where the kingdoms at hand are unjust, unbalanced, unsympathetic to the call to justice and mercy. In Greece and Malaysia and the Sudan and Hong Kong and every other troubled place this week—and in our places as well—may your peaceable kingdom come, and quickly. As it is in heaven, in the space of your infinite light and love, so it may it be on earth.
We do pray that you would be generous with your daily bread around the world, both the bread the builds up the body and the bread that nourishes the soul. We pray for every hungry place—hungry for food, hungry for justice, hungry for good news, and we pray for the peculiar hunger in our own lives as well.
We pray for human relationships around the world, relations both great and small. Wherever there are broken bonds, old wounds, deep channels of vengeance, raise up voices to announce the news of your forgiveness and the possibility it brings for forgiving others, and teach us, O Lord, how to be a forgiven/forgiving people.
We pray for the church around the world—wherever folks gather under the name of Jesus, and seek to walk in his way. May none of your servants be lead into temptation, and may your Spirit deliver from evil all who are encumbered by sin or sorrow.
These intercessions we bring with us this day, and we offer them in the name of the one to whom belongs the kingdom, the power, and the glory, today and forevermore.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
June 27, 2010
However difficult it may be for the neophytes to feel it, fumbling with a verbose bulletin and two—count them, two—books for worship, there is moving across the surface of this hour a determined cadence.
Celebrant—people, celebrant—people, celebrant—people.
At times we feel like some sort of high-church sculling crew: our boat made of blocks, our captains in albs. Each prayer, every response has the feel of one more pull across the shimmering waters. A race from pulpit to font to table. (Granted, the course reveals its technical traps: “What in the world was Rite II?” asks my fellow teammate, after the trip. He, too, is a rookie.) Even so, there was movement in our churchy minutia, from here to there and back again.
In this era when the rest of us Protestants are falling all over ourselves to “connect” with the burned-over crowds and on Sundays “meet people where they are,” some part of me appreciates how this boat-for-worship can—will!—move along quite without me in it. People matter, of course, but at least this liturgy calls forth more of a “we” than “me.” I am in this boat, but it is not mine.
For one thing, there are a great many actions for a great many people. The chancel is at times a rush-hour of activity. Choirs, ushers, acolytes, priests, pilgrims, all scurrying about—an Episcopalian pileup. We stand, we sit, we kneel. I sing, I speak, I look … I taste. Someone once dubbed this frenzy “the work of the people.” And because most of the movement of worship is not confined to the frontal cortex, but is embodied, in full view, perhaps for this reason it is difficult to escape the notion that none of this is about me. I am here, but this time is not mine.
So although the four-year-old two pews forward of me spent the entire Eucharist making fart-like noises with her cheeks and having a merry time of it, and even if the couple just in front of me spent the Sanctus chuckling at her mini-theater, prayer-book in hand … God was still praised. All around our gassy gal arose the larger doxological chorus. We sang and ate and sang some more, quite without her permission. Her cheeky little show, subsumed in a sea of hymnody. She made her presence known, but the boat would not be thrown off course.
“Holy, holy, holy,” high and lifted up, O Jesus.
Above cheeks and chuckles and even private connections, as in “If you don’t connect with me, preacher, I’m outta here.”
Alas, can’t you see the passing waters?
Pick up an oar and get out of your head.
Don’t you hear the captain?
Row, O self-anchored ones. Row with me across these baptismal waters. And sing as you sail. Sing to the Lord of this lake. Keep moving with me! One more prayer-pull. Feel the grace of possibly being left behind.
God is here. And we are Thine.
June 20, 2010
From a week of living in your world, O Father, we gather now to worship you—you who are eternal, timeless, without beginning or end. This world we know is yours, and yours alone. You have made it, and so to you we lift our prayers for it. Dor people and places around the globe who cry out for your good gifts: mercy, justice, healing, truth … And we confess those sins of ours that mar the landscape of this week now finished …
From a week of discipleship in your world, O Jesus, we gather now to worship you—you who invaded our history and walked among us, wearing our flesh and announcing God’s news. This is your gospel, and yours alone. You have spoken it, and so we lift our prayers to you for those who most need to hear it. For people and places right in our own lives who cry out for faith, hope, and love, for a saving-healing-restoring word from you … And we confess those places in our own lives today that resist your call and conversion …
From a week of ministry in your world, Holy Spirit, we gather now to worship you—you who are present among us in this moment, connecting us to Christ and drawing us together in fresh unity. This is your time, and yours alone. You make it worship, and us God’s people, so we lift our prayers to you for people and places we have yet to know, for those to whom you will soon call us to go, and love, and serve … And we confess our fear of the future and our resistance to being led forward by you …
This is our worship, O God. We praise you and pray to you because that is what you made us for, and that is what Jesus taught us to do, and this is what your Spirit prompts in us now.
June 2, 2010
I wouldn’t know. I tend to hunch too much over my laptop, so much so that at least twice a year one of those long muscles running up my back decides to go rogue and stage a clinched-rebellion. I pay the price for poor posture and enjoy for at least a week a rather stiff neck, and limited field of vision.
It is a metaphor for life in Jesus. How we stand (or sit, or kneel) before the Lord will in large measure determine how open we are to the movement of God’s Spirit among us. Good posture makes for a lifetime of flexibility.
Take Pentecost, for instance. Sit in the pew for even a few years and annually you’ll hear recounted the wild and woolly excitement of Acts chapter 2. Jesus has departed the scene now, but his core group is gathered in an upstairs room at the Holiday Inn Express – Jerusalem. It is just another day, except that all around town another Jewish festival has brought people from all over the region to market.
So there they are, the apostles: Huddled in prayer. Waiting. Wondering. Worrying?
And then it happens, in God’s good time. Tongues of fire. Blustering winds. Movement. Confirmation! Before long, down in the parking lot, a crowd has gathered to take in this sanctified spectacle. These strangers to God’s fold hear the old salvation story with brand new ears. “Those guys up there are all locals. How is we can hear God speaking to us in our own language? I can hear!” It must be God. And as it turns out, the fire and wind of Pentecost is not about increased confusion so much as blessed understanding. God moves and speaks, and even strangers can now feel the new movement and hear the good news.
But back to posture: I’m moved by those first apostles’ willingness to stay put for spell. Family therapist Murray Bowen once quipped, regarding relationships: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” That might be wise counsel for a church on the move. This first round of disciples decides to “sit together in one place” and wait for God to move among them (Acts 2:1). Chapter 1 notes that during this time they were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” All this, with the teaching of Jesus still fresh in their ears.
These are the stances that make for good posture before the Lord: coming together, rehearsing the teaching of the Lord, devotion to prayer, expectation … patience. This is how a people sit and wait for the Lord to move, in the good timing of providence. And this posture contributes to a certain kind of flexibility: an openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit, a willingness to flex and move when God tongues speak and Jesus winds blow. An expanded field of vision. A greater range of motion. Good posture as the people of God. Flexibility for faith.
May it be so for us.
May 8, 2010
We come to this prayer for others with a week’s worth of living now fresh in our memory. We have talked with neighbors in the dairy aisle and we have read Facebook updates and we have watched the nightly news and we have read the local headlines.
With all of this, we find we know what the Apostle means when he speaks of your world in labor pains: pregnant with possibility, yes, but also plenty of groaning, plenty of pain.
We intercede today for those most affected by the troubles in the creation: oil slicks in the Gulf and flood waters in Tennessee and explosions in Russian mines, and wherever else there is groaning …
We intercede today for those who are grieving, mourning the palpable loss of someone from their lives: for the Kurtz family and our Amish neighbors around this community, for the deRosa home and classmates, for those sons and daughters mourning a mother on this bittersweet day, for all who have loved and lost and groan for a reuniting …
We intercede today for the politics of the globe: for the uncertain Prime Minister of Britain and Greek debt woes and sluggish Middle East peace plans and loud protests in Thailand and especially for the untold thousands below our radar who groan for justice and peace …
We intercede today for mothers everywhere, especially those who nourish their babies and raise their children in difficult places and against incredible odds. For all mothers who groan with struggle …
As for us, where our mothers and grandmothers have nourished us with faith, hope, and love, we give you thanks. Where there is pain in failed relationships or grief in recent departures, we pray for the peace of your forgiveness and the comfort of resurrection hope.
These are our intercessions, O Lord. We tell your wonders and sing your worth, and we look for the day when all groaning will cease and all hard labor subside—all of it, transcended by the birth of your final kingdom. Until then, we pray Jesus’ durable prayer ...
March 18, 2010
The Dominican is like many other places in this world, including our own, in this respect: If you want to see the whole picture of life here, get off the main roads and get out of your car. Highways have a way of making people and places move by too quickly for real connection, and sealed-up vans provide too much insulation and false-comfort for learning the land. (If nothing else, roll the windows down as you roll along. Smell the smells. Connect.)
But nothing beats walking. When you walk (in groups, of course), you have to make contact with the world around you.
A pastor here says, "Every year I pray a small prayer to God that I could get a big SUV like those American missionaries have over across the mountain. But God keeps saying to me, "No, you are the walking man." And we should be a walking people. It is important, and Chritian, to look a person in the eyes. To see them, and to be seen. Each "hola" and "adios" and, even better, "Como esta?" is an enfleshed moment, a human encounter. And so one must walk around here, and move off the main drags ... even off of Cancu's otherwise terrifically hospitalable street. His is a great street, but it is only one corner of life here.
We walk with a guide, a friend to many, and we see things that are hard to see. Move off the highway, and with each block further away from the Sabaneta church building the life-issues move from the long-range future-vision of Cancu down to yearly, then eventually weekly survival. Three of our men and three of their sons stand in a 8 by 8 ramshackle tin shed. Holes in the roof and the hot sun above form minature Hollywood spotlights shining down to the floor, a plane cracked and broken. Half dirt, half concrete. "Seven people were sleeping here when we came through with our medical mission," our guide tells us. "You can throw all the pills you want at people, but if they are sleeping in the mud and bugs in a place like this they are never going to feel better." Standing there, smelling there, that makes sense.
The side roads here are craggy and hard ... until it rains (which is often), and then they become rivers of mud and slop. A few houses are bright with paint and promimse, but most are in various stages of masonary construction, if that. In one section there is a quarter mile stretch of concrete curbing along the road, but no pavement to meet it. Curbing, on a lousy dirt road. We all ask about this. "Elections" is the response. Will the rest of it go down, the pavement? Who knows. Maybe in four years.
Turn the corner, and tucked into a row of otherwise dilapidated houses is a brightly painted, newly-built storefront. "Banco," reads the sign above the door. Inside is a counter, with plate glass, and a window. The small space is air-conditioned (nothing here is air-conditioned), and behind the glass sits a pretty young Dominican with a low-cut top. She has a computer to use. "Banco." But it is not a bank. It is the federal lottery, and these little shops are everywhere. Understand: Next door to this financial institution is a two-room dirt-floor shack that rents for about 500 pesos a month, roughly 14 American dollars, plus utilities. But, yes, certainly this neighborhood will be helped by the lottery.
Our friend Richard needs to check in on a particular side-street family. On Sunday, they brought twin babies into the world. They are Hatians, though they have been here in Sabaneta since well before the earthquake. We duck down into the low doorframe and step into the small corrugated metal house they rent. It's dark inside, even in the middle of a hot afternoon. The one beam of sunlight slipping through the roof reveals the dust moving through the hot air. Mother's sister, a teenager, greets us gently. She has trouble looking us in the eyes, and it is hard to know if we (but not Richard) should be here or not. "Ma ma?" he asks. We move into a side room, half as big, about the feel of something in which you would store your yard tools and mower. Mom is there, and on the corner of the high bed are two diminuative infants. That description would seem redundant, except that these are the smallest newborns I have ever seen.
Mom looks tired. Sister looks concerned. Babies lay there, motionless. "They are not eating," she tells Richard.
It occurs to me that sweat is now pooling on my back, and I realize for the first time in a few minutes (attention having been fixed on the babies) that it must be 100 degrees in this room. The air is thick, like a sauna on too long, and on the top of my shaved head I can feel the heat radiating off of the metal roof. This is a toaster oven. But then again, it is their home. My own shirt now wet with persperation, I notice that the twins are dressed head-to-toe in matching blue and pink infant jumpers. Their feet are in socks, and their heads are in little knit caps. Knit caps. Their heads are covered in knit caps ... in this oven. They are motionless. "They are not eating."
Now don't get ahead of me here. She's a good mother. You can feel it. The place might be rude and bare, but it is clean and has a kind of order about it. The bed is neatly tucked and the towel-shades are drawn tight, to mitigate the sun's intrusion, I'm sure. She is trying. She is tired, but she is trying. There is a silence in the room that names how hard this visit is all turning out to be. No, I mean for her. She is away from her home, her country, and although no one says it (in Creole, Spanish, or English), all of us--black, brown or white--seem to know that the future for these little lives on the bed is alltogether uncertain. They looked to me almost like royalty, in their little stylish jumpers, dressed to the nines, crown-caps on their heads. One can only hope these warm royal robes are not their undoing.
Remember, she is trying.
(We suggest some cooler clothing, or none at all. And cool rags. We leave some bread, and Jesus' name, and we take our leave. We step outside into the sun, and instantly it is 15 degrees cooler on the skin. She seemed glad we came, which is generous of her. Risen Son, help the mothers of the world.)
Speaking of mothers, met on other streets: With skin as dark as night, Hatian women enjoy faces that beam beauty. Richard has one cooking lunch for sixty Hatian children six days a week. Rice, beans, and bread. She is tall, this cook, and slim, and when she smiles at you and slightly drops her shy face during a greeting, you feel as though you could be meeting the Queen. But this is not aristocratic beauty. She is strong, and scrappy. She has to be. She has in her care a dozen children (most of them not hers), and with giggles and laughter they all dart around the property like a flock of birds. While we hear tell of plans for a Haitian free clinic down the street, the younger Evans holds court with a gaggle of little girls, teaching them to make funny puppets with their fingers. Their giggles seem inversely proportional to their prospects.
They are surviving here, and mom-cook-queen seems more than willing to take on one more if needed.
And it is needed. Children keep coming here from Haiti every week, more and more since the earthquake. Families scrape together what they have and send who they can across the Dominican border to rally with families already here in the D.R. I teach a six-year old girl how to high-five, and Richard tells me she has just come from Haiti to join her cousins here. She made it from the border all the way to Sabaneta (probably two days) on 25 pesos (about 70 cents). As it turned out, she did not have to pay for rides on motorcycles, scooters, and in vans until the very last leg of our journey. As we practice our high-fiving, I see her in my mind: perched on a the back of a third-hand American dirtbike turned taxi, moving down the northern coastal highway at 50 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, with her arms tucked around the mid-section of whatever stranger is driving. She is holding on through each dart in and out of wild Dominican traffic; she is holding on (out?) for life. Richard says, "She just kept saying to each driver, 'Sabaneta. Sabaneta.'" It worked. She is here. She is six.
Hatians making a go of it here in the Dominican have it hard. There is existing, to begin with. But what´s more, many Dominicans make sense of their world by looking down on Hatians ("Animals.") the same way most of us make sense of our world by looking down on someone. For my grandmother, it was blacks; as such, there were plenty of place she would never walk. Keep those windows up tight. I wonder, who is it for me?
But when you are a "mama"-cook-quenn, and the living is one day-at-a-time, you don't seem to worry much about complicated social dynamics and racial tensions. You just live, under your holy roof, on these hard roads, unfinished curbing and costly bancos all around. You stand up straight and you survive, with the giggles of your children in your ear and the stunning beauty of your face and the memories of home in your eyes.
These are the back roads, hard and holy.
What a gift that Mercy has passed this way.
March 17, 2010
Come here just once, and unless you choose to stay disconnected through iPods, cheap paperbacks, or hiding out in your room each evening, before you know it you are giving fist-bumps to new Domincan friends and over lunch asking more about interesting Sabaneta congregational politics. By Wednesday, you have forgetton about bills to pay back home, annoying in-laws, and the inbox that is probably growing exponentially with each day away. By Hump Day, you are saying to yourself: "I am involved here now. In some small way at least, I feel a part of this place. I think I want to know how all this--this church, this neighorhood, this world--I want to know how all this turns out in the end."
On Monday evening, Pastor Cancu and his wife Altagracia spoke with us after dinner. He talked first, about his life story, his faith in Jesus, and his vision for this community. But the real fun began when we asked him (them) how they had met some 30+ years ago on the other side of the island. He told the story in his typical straight-up, no-nonsense style. It was all very nice. Then she protested, through our interpreter, "No, no, no! Now let me tell you the realstory!" We howled in laughter like a pack of dogs. (If Cancu is in style a Walter Cronkite, then she is a Kathy Griffin ... without the bad language, of course. Those of us who are spouses laughed in the relief that marital tugs and twists are aparently a universal phenominon, transcultural. Nice to know!)
When people tell their story, it is difficult to resist being pulled into their lives. And when that story is interwoven with the threads of providence, grace, and calling, it is difficult not to feel the baptismal bonds growing stronger--even across of gulf of culture, language, and blue-green agua. Lives are shaped by stories. Stories are named with words. And words become a precious gift, especially when each one requires a careful exchange across linquistic barriers.
So if we share a Word-bond with our Dominican friends, a Jesus-connection across these many miles, this shared story is surely cared for by the lips of our interpreters. That this trip each year would not be possible without them is obvious as soon as the plane's door opens in Puerto Plata and one needs to find a bathroom. But more subtle and sacred is the fact that their words, and sentences, and paragraphs, and hours and hours of verbal translation--these are the bones and muscles and ligaments that allow the Word to become flesh among us in this place, in this bond. We can walk alongside Cancu and his kirk in a meaningful way, and they can teach us more and more about ministry in our own world, mostly because walking with us are those who can steward this living conversation, those who can speak the language.
The rest of us become all the more grateful as we realize throughout the week that translation is not a mere mechanical act, not a simple this-word-for-that, but rather a sagacious service cradled in understanding and respect. The task is not merely to match one word for another: bathroom for bano, cepillo de dientes for toothbrush, or "el pastor tiene una nariz grande" ... meaning, of course, "the pastor has a large nose." (This ian an oft-needed phrase among these rowdy and disrespectful Presbyterians.) Google Translate can match one word with another, but it takes an interpreter to steward a living bond.
One must fall in love with the place, and the people, and the purpose of this work. And out of that love an interpreter labors to make the right connections, to listen well and so to fashion the best words, so that both parties are on the same page and everyone is growing in fidelity. It is not just knowing the vocabulary, it is knowing why words matter at all. Because with them, sentences are formed and stories are told and lives are shared and work is accomplished ... all "a la gloria de Dios y en servicio del Hijo," to the glory of God and in service to the Son, whose Sunday-new-life is the best word spoken anywhere. Resurrección.
Our heartfelt thanks to Sonia, Marite, Joel, and Elizabeth (and others) for practicing their interpetive craft for us all this week long. Muchas gracias.
The Clen-More Presbyterians recently cooked up a pile of spaghetti in New Castle and sold it to those who came to buy it, in order to raise some money to purchase a new wheelchair for a young woman who lives just down the street and around the big corner from the Sabaneta church. Here name is Jessica, and if that nomenclature rings a bell back home, it is likely because you remember seeing her stand on her new braces in the doorway of her home, our Sandy by her side. Not that you've been to her home, likely, but you have probably seen the picture of that grand moment passed around our various churches.
Jessica is a alive with playful energy. It spills out of her smile and rolls out of her flamboyant gestures. Even so, she is unable to direct enough of that energy downward so that her legs might move her to and fro. In her 20s now, she remains either bed- or wheelchair-bound ...except for the 40 or so minutes a day when she stands in the braces made for her two years ago by friends in our partnership. Mobility remains hard. Last year this time, a used wheelchair was procured for her by our group. But the rough pavement around her family's modest morter home takes its toll on wheeled equipment, and that chair gave way. Hence, spaghetti in New Castle.
That being said, the Clen-More Presbyterians are in danger of fashioning for Jessica something of an ego. "300 people came to the dinner," their pastor reported. "We had a big picture of you for all to see." Dominican daughter and mother respond with faces agape and sighs of glad unbelief. In a word: Wow. "I am a movie star now, yes?!" Jessica asks in her broken English. We all laugh. Her legs may not work, but her impish sense of humor surely does. Then a little more innocant ego surfaces for us to see: "Tell me again ... how many people were there?" She knows the answer, the little devil. Mom shakes her head in light-hearted dissapproval, as any mother would. "O Jessica, Jessica."
But let the young lady bask in this moment. in the news of her grand ball. First of all, there is something rather gospel-kingdom-like about an otherwise unknown young lady from the poor side of town with a broken-down body and a brave family through a twist of fate and a growing friendship becoming something of a celebrity in a strange town and and in unknown church far, far away. Maybe the last will be the first, after all. "A movie star!" she says from her chair with new wheels, primping her brushed hair and tossing her hand back like Marilyn Monroe. (Hang around her just a while and you realize that she is no dummy. She gets the joke. And so we all laugh along, at her invitation.)
But what's more, let's be her paparazzi. She's earned it. So she's stuck in a wheelchair with limp legs, on the poor side of town (most sides are). Does that stop her from hosting 40 students in her home 4 days a week? Yes, she gathers up the kids and adults and even a senior citizen on the block, all those who never finished school, and she gives them lessons, and lunch, and--dare I say it--life. Stacked under their ramshackle tin carport (the car has not moved in a good while) are 8 sets of long Laura Ingalls school desks, waiting for the next session of class under her roof, in the dirt. And did I mention that she and her mother (who has the biggest, whitest, widest smile you will ever see) also cook a rice-and-beans lunch four times each week for 60 or more people along the block?
So, sure, look around their home at the pocked walls and the aging furniture and the fading American posters probably picked up for song. Watch your step outside, lest you trip over old water lines or frayed electric cords, or that cat whose ribs you can count. Smell the hard smells, shake your head, and see the girl in the chair. It could all be taken one way, sure, if you did not know it was really the other.
She is New Castle's latest Marilyn Monroe, the belle of her ball, with skin the color of rich chocolate and a smile that lights up a room and a sense of humor that will serve her well down the bumpy road still before her. O yes, and did I mention: She has a daily ministry of Christian outreach to her neighbors that would put most of our able-bodied congregations to shame.
Wheelchair delivered. Say, Marilyn ... enjoy the ride.
March 16, 2010
The pillow provided for me in my bed is someone's smallish sofa cushion, stuffed into a pillow case. This arrangment offers a comfort similar to a 5 pound bag of flour. Still, when I stop to think about it (at 2:30 in the morning), it occurs to me that the Sabaneta congregation has worked hard before our arrival to secure for us 30 beds from their own homes for use during the entire week. When was the last time I gave up my bed ... for anyone? Perspective.
Incidentally, imagine securing 30 beds, 30 sets of sheets, and 30 pillows for a week of 30 guests in your neighborhood. Imagine cooking from scratch 90 portions a day for a week's time. Imagine the hassle of closing down your child's school for a week in order to house a team of workers. It's no small feat.You could make a case that our construction workers are not necessary. The blocks they are moving, the dirt they are sifting, the buckets they are lifting, it is not neccesary (or even efficient) to fly a dozen gringos in from the States for such menial tasks. That's the objective truth of the matter. We could just write a check, drop it in the mail, and be done with it. But then again, if example and service are the goals: Sending money is one thing, sending bodies is another. A bunch of strangers forming a block brigade as long as a house surely signals something important to this neighborhood. We are here neither to take over and control this gig nor to sit back and passively watch others do it all, only to pay the bill. Pick up a shovel and sift a truckload of sand and you say, "We are here to support this congregation in what it is about in this community. We are for this. We are for them, and they are for you." So let our middle-managers and engineers haul up one more bucket of sand to the second floor. Let the boys move one more bucket of mud. When you see the big picture of what this block, this wall, this building is all about, it begines to feel more like an honor to take one's place in an otherwise menial role. This, plus: Moving block gives a man some time to think about things back home, about the value of some (occassional) sweat, and about the gift of stepping back from the house at 4:00pm to see something you helped accomplish. This is good for a man, and maybe only men can understand this. Besides, the breaks for water and shade afford some good shoulder-to-shoulder conversation among each other, and that's never a bad thing in this life. Efficient use of persons? Probably not, from an Excel perseptive. Faithful labor under the son -- er, sun? All depends on your perspective.
Incidentally, the second floor of Cancu's home is really taking shape. One can now see the outline of 5 small guest rooms, with a small kitchen space and dos banos, two restrooms. There is a main room down the middle of this second floor, suitable for dining, and by tomorrow the outlines of numerous windows will be visable. This space for guests, workers, and missionaries is all a part of the long-range vision of this continuing partnership. It is exciting to imagine how this will change the nature (and ferquency?) of our visits here.Practicing even simple medicine here can be a reall challenge for our doctors and nurses. Patients usually use the most general of terms to describe any number of conditions--terms they have heard on the street, or picked up from the crowd pressed in on the chapel entrance when our medical teams arrive. "La congestión" many say ... which can cover a multitude of issues. The ambiguity is frequent and frustrating. What's this person's story? What is this family's living condition? Is this her mother, grandmother, aunt, neighbor? Is this problem acute, or are they here hoping to store up some meds for a chronic condition for use later in the year? Is that a legitimate hoarding or not? This is by no means an exact science. Still, our people do the best they can, and they seem glad to try. For many who come, this is the only healthcare available to them and their children. Creams and vitamins and ibuprofen are simple markers toward a better future for even the smallist of children. (Today a woman brought in her 1 month old baby. Bonito!) Is all this really worthwhile? Are these visits and diagnoses and ziplocs full of pills really contributing to the long-term health of the community? Is it all making "a difference"? Depends on your perspective, I suppose. Surely the return of the same medical professionals for yet another year speaks for itself.
Incidentally, as of Tuesday evening, some 400 patients have been seen either here in Sabaneta or out in one of the travelling clinics, meeting in local chapels connected to the mother congregation. Our pharmicisit, here in the D.R. for the first time, has done a great job ... and many have pitched in on the nightly pill counting. The entire process--from suitcases to sorting to counting to bagging to travelling to setup to disbursement--is a process of love to behold.The electricity at the church/school complex stinks, and everyone knows it. It will work fine for a day, then flicker on and off (mostly staying off) for hours on end. There is an inverter system, yes, but with 30 guests running around in the evenings needing lights and charges and fans...the batteries have a hard time keeping up with our American comforts. What a pain. Or is it? A lack of lights has an interesting way of pushing people outside, and together. A crisis of comfort can breed frustration, to be sure, but it can also birth an otherwise hidden creativity. When was the last time you sat around on a porch and laughed with friends about how silly we all are? When was the last time a spontaneous card game broke out around you and you "wasted" an hour? (Note to readers: Don't tell Cancu about the hearts games. No los juegos de azar.) Who sits around anymore in our compressed and driven world and sings (and plays) for the sake of singing and laughing? Is it a bad thing or not that the wiring in the Christian school in Sabaneta looks like an explosion at a yarn factory? Depends on your perspective.
Sacrifice. Hospitality. Labor. Humble service. Compassion. Consistant care. Spontaneous fellowship. Singing for singing sake. Christian community. "Think on excellent, commendable, Christ-shaped things," urges the Apostle. Think on these things. Fashion your perspective around your Easter faith.
When you lay down your head this night and think over a day now spent, has it all been run-of-the-mill and bereft of any meaning? Has the time you have been given, has it been a burden or a blessing? Is this mad world, and your corner it, a summons to truth and love or a draining depression? Has there been today even one moment when just a bit of resurrection light has eeked its way into the troubled world around you?
Saint on the pillow, think on these things. Has this day been about death, or life? It all depends.
March 15, 2010
Coveyed in Spanish, those words of encouragement were offered to a Domincan woman who at 65 finds herself absent a limb and absent any reason to get up up in the morning.
A treatable injury was not treated well, resulting in infection and the complete amputation of her leg. Now problems abound: an inadequate walker, lots of phantom pain, and a ramshackle house not laid out with an amputee in mind. She is discouraged. Who wouldn´t be? She is the mother-in-law of one of the directors of the Christian school this partnership has help to build and helps to fund. So through those channels word came to us of her situation, and one of our interpreters and our occupational therapist went out for a visit. She is in a tough spot, this new neighbor to our group, and after another fall last week it is likely her tenuous wound will need to be operated on again. Good medical counsel was given. A plan was hatched to secure this week a better walker (one that does not collapse when she puts her weight on it). In hindsight, however, perhaps the reason our pair was sent to her came in the heartfelt message. Eye to eye, one woman to another: "You are still whole, to God."
Wholeness. Peace. Shalom. We forget that the Biblical expression of peace is not merely the absence of violence, but moreso the presence of true life. Wholeness. All can be well, even in this world, even in this body.
The Domincans make wholness in community and easy grace. They are comfortable in their skins, content with themselves and their vibrant culture, and so it is a seamless effort for them to make us Americans feel comfortable around them. After dinner, the assistant pastor pulls out a guitar and the Dominicans teach us songs to sing in Spanish. This goes on for an hour. One cannot help but be pulled into the singing and clapping. Ignorance of the tune or the rhythm is not a source of self-conscious embarrasment, but rather an invitation to learn--to belong. A group game develops--a most Domincan game, quick and challenging for anyone who does not know Spanish. But our friends here are patient with us until we learn the play and lose ourselves in the fun. Sure, they laugh heartily when we mess up the words and have to move to the end of the line, but they laugh just as lustily at themselves and their own playful demise. They practice a certain peace with life, and as such they put us at peace. One wonders if some in our group feel more at home here than in the States. One wonders how long this wholeness will last upon our return, under the load of American ambiquity and disabling self-conciousness.
- - -
Monday began with breakfast under Cancu´s canopy. We read a Psalm and then Paul´s teaching from 1 Thessalonians: "So deeply did we care for you that we were determined to share with you not only the good news from God but also our very selves." The plan for the day, for sharing our selves, was discussed ... and then the labor commenced.
Most of our men folded into the construction work. The project this year is to put a second floor on the pastor´s house, owned by the congregegation. These extra bedrooms and a bath will (1) provide more housing for future groups in our partnership, (2) provide a safer place to stay for any who come down to work at other times during the year, and (3) will provide safe shelter for Cancu and others in the event of flooding--a frequent threat.
A Domincan worksite is an entire world unto itself. Among the locals--many of them church members--there is always a brain to the operation, and then some quiet masons at work, and then some basic workers who haul and place. It takes an American a little time to figure out just who is who. The ingredients of the effort, however, are much more easily discerned: block, sand, cement, and rebar. And it is with these rudimentary elements that our people come into the mix. We sift the dirt free of rocks and pebbles. We hoist the resulting sand up a story to the roof of the house. We move concrete block from the street to the sky, and then we bring the block to the Domincans as course-by-course a wall develops under their watchful eye. There is a kind of beauty to their work, another kind of wholeness, if you will. They spread out morter like a mix for a meal. They stack a block. They examine said block. They adjust that block in the still-maliable morter until it lines up just as it should. And then the whole step begins again. By lunchtime, and surely by supper, something like a room with spaces for doors and windows has taken shape. They have a way of doing things, and it works. The wise guest on these roofs takes time to learn what they are doing.
Meanwhile, it is hot. Muy calor (no caliente). We Americans learn the hard way that we are now half the distance between the States and the equator. Simply, we are closer to the sun. And you can tell. So the boys on the roof drink lots of water, and by the end of the day the bodega across the street has been bought out of Dominican Gatorade. Fluid in. Sweat out. But stand back from it all (in the shade, mind you), and there is now new wall for all to see. Shelter. Home. Wholeness.
Medical teams (a doctor, a nurse, and an interpreter) are seeing 50 patients in the morning and another 50 in the afternoon, both here at the clinic in Sabaneta (across the street from Cancu´s church and school) and out in regional chapels-turned-clinics. After all these patnership years, this process is a well-oiled machine. Domincans purchase tickets for each family member needing to be seen by a doctor. No ticket, no visit. (Cancu says that people should have an investment in their own care.) Only the common and treatable ailments are handled, with more serious issues referred to what specialists and hospitals exist on this north side of the island. Nevertheless, there is never a ticket not used. The investment is not in the short-term antibiotic, but in the long-term health of a region. Better than pain meds, children´s vitamins are the better symbol of Cancu´s big vision.
There´s someting whole about a chapel turned clinic. By simple pragmatic plan, the docs and nurses see patients down in the front of the little sanctuaries--often on the small rostrum where pulpit, table, and font would be for Sunday. Walk in the door of the chapel then, and one sees rows of families waiting to be seen, facing the front, toward the small wooden cross hanging up high at the apex of the ceiling. These are buildings made for wellness, blocks and morter of wholeness. Jesus-teaching for life on Sundays, Jesus-care for the body on Mondays. That seems right.
Domincan culture at large is loose and flamboyant, easy-going to the point of excess. By contrast, the morays of the Domincan Evangelicals are much tighter and restrained--no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, etc. They have chosen to seperate themselves from the wider cultural norms in order to practice a faithful witness. Even the church and school buildings in Sabaneta have a kind of focussed, firm look out about when compared to the more free-flowing neighborhood around them. Noticing this pattern, one of our youth asked, quizically, "If they are seperate from the people around them in so many ways, then how can they connect to them? How do they reach out?" Our informal late-afternoon circle of conversation, huddled under the shade of courtyard tree, pondered that missional question for a moment. Then someone said, "The meds." And that was it. The meds. Our friends are seperate, yes. But they serve. Or at least Cancu pushes them to serve. The medicines, the clinics, and the school, and the water treatment, and the pharmacy, and scholarships ... These are efforts at wholeness that, while not apologizing for seperatness, reach across the boundaries of social morays and transact Jesus-peace for thos who need it most. This is how they feel called to bear the light, by beingn other, only then to serve others. And so we lug our 22 suitcases of pills, our wheelchair in two large boxes, and our doctor´s tools that draw the suspicion of TSA inspectors--we lug these enacted prayers to this island to help our sisters and brothers bless their neighbors. "Come to the chapel. Be made whole."
- - -
In the care of a recent American president, the term "compassionate conservative" took a terrible hit. But down here, there might just be something to the approach. Cancu expects something of people, because--you can hear it in his story--the Lord has expected something of him. He will not let the gospel be trampled upon by low expectations and a kind of easily-manipulated affection. He takes the long view, and resists the temptation to conspire in quick fixes. "Cancu, we have brought you money for school lunches." "Thank you, but no. Lunches are here and then gone. Families can learn to support themselves in that way. What I could use are microscopes for our lab, and items that last for the school." The long view. "Cancu, how many patients should our doctors plan to see this year?" "I want you only to see a certain amount, so that there are medicines to last throughout the year and so our people do not think that care only happens when the Americans come around." Restraint, born of a larger vision. After 27 years, this community knows he is man to be resepcted, both because he will demand something true and right from you and that he (and Jesus) will aboslutely have your back if you are in need. Somehow, he holds both together. Case in pont:
On Monday morning, the annual scholarship meeting was held. The Sabaneta chapel was filled with parents and children, gathered to hear about the gift and responsibility of financial support for schooling--both here at the Evangelical school and, for older youth, at the university on the island. Forms were filled out, expectations were named, and the Clen-More folks shared with the families who their American sponsors are and why Cancu believes education is so important. Later in the day, after dinner, he would stand before our group and explain that thanks to the help of our partnership, lo these many years, no less than 25 college graduates have come from this Sabaneta neighborhood. What´s more, now some of those graduates are returning to the community--to run the schools, to practice medicine, to live and work and witness. Hearing him speak, one realizes why in ministry we must always take the bigger and longer view: Cultures are not changed overnight, and brain-drains are not reversed in one flash-in-the-pan visit. Community development, and a Christian witness therein, takes decades ... maybe a lifetime. But the fruit of such labor is a kind of lasting wholeness: education and character and faith coming full circle, to bless and build up others.
"You are whole now, thanks to Jesus."
Be at peace, friends. And whether your ministry today is on this island or on your own, transact that Jesus-peace in this stubborn world until all is well for all.