Friday, February 15, 2019

The Castle and the Wall

I confess, most of the sermons I have heard in my lifetime I have long since forgotten. Even the ones I wrote and preached myself are mostly lost to me until I look them up in my files or on my hard drive. Not much really sticks with us, does it?

But one sermon from long ago has lingered in my memory. It was 1988 at the Southern Baptist Convention and the preacher was Joel Gregory. Those were the days of denominational wars, doctrinal debates, baseless accusations and hard-line resolutions. Gregory ended his sermon with a story about a castle and a wall that was timely and prophetic though largely ignored by those original hearers. Lately, his story has come to mind, wondering if it might have a more contemporary application. You can decide.

Gregory recounted:

It was the ancient home of the Castlereagh family, one of the most princely residences of the Emerald Isle. But the ancient home fell into decay and was no longer inhabited.

The usual happened. When peasants wanted to repair a road, build a chimney or pig-sty, they would scavenge stone from the fine old castle. The stones were already craftily cut, finished and fit. Best of all, they were available without digging and carrying for miles.

One day Lord Londonderry visited his castle. He was the surviving descendant and heir. When he saw the state of his ancestral home, he determined to end immediately the robbery of the building for its stones.

The ruin itself reflected the earlier glories of his family and was one of the treasures of Ireland. He sent for his agent and gave orders for the castle to be enclosed with a wall six feet tall and well-coped. This would keep out the trespassers. He went on his way.

Three or four years later he returned. To his astonishment, the castle was gone, completely disappeared, vanished into the air. In its place there was a huge wall enclosing nothing.

He sent for his agent and demanded to know why his orders had not been carried out. The agent insisted they had been. ‘But where is the castle?’ asked the Lord. ‘The castle, is it? I built the wall with it, my Lord! Is it for me to be going miles for materials with the finest stones in Ireland beside me?’

Lord Londonderry had his wall—but the castle, without which the wall meant nothing, had disappeared. It's a strange irony, to lose what we treasure by our efforts to protect it. Especially when what we lose is our identity, our family legacy, our ancestral home.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Bye Bye Blackface

Once again, we have controversy in the news over matters of race. This time, our Governor and Attorney General have been confronted by their "blackface" past. Many are calling for resignations and others consider the whole matter no big deal, ancient history, boys will be boys.

I was not familiar with the whole "blackface" practice, so I did a little research. I found the following background information from the Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History and Culture:

The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830's New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the "Father of Minstrelsy," developed the first popularly known blackface character, "Jim Crow" in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.

Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited. White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote. The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated. New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters. Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performances across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.

So, maybe it's not so difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Doesn't sound like harmless fun to me, but it does point to a bigger question for us. Who decides what is racist and what's not? Who determines what is offensive and what's not? We know the answer - it's the victim, the target, the scapegoat who has the right to say so. Not the accuser, the one who makes fun and ridicules and puts down, even if he "didn't mean anything by it."

When I hear people of faith gloss over racist behavior as no big deal, I get a little queasy. When white people set themselves up as the experts on what should or should not offend African Americans or people of any ethnic minority, I feel sick to my stomach. When followers of Christ subtly devalue and dismiss their fellow human beings as somehow less than or lower than, I think gentle Jewish Jesus blows a gasket. I wouldn't want to answer for such behavior. If it doesn't look good in the newspaper, how will it look on the big screen come Judgment Day? 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

My Life as a Poem

As I mark another birthday this weekend, I share a beautiful few lines from Parker J. Palmer. Inspired by a brief couplet from Thoreau, Palmer considers life as poetry and our words as the stuff of life.  

The Poem I Would Have Writ

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

-Henry David Thoreau

The first words are the hardest.
Sound surrounds you in the womb,
grows louder when you're born.
You listen, for the day will come
when you must speak words, too -
that's how we make our way
thru this trackless landscape
called the world. But how?
And what to say? And what
does saying do?

Later, words come easily. You learn
to speak the language of what you
want and need, to help you find a
pathway into and through your life,
to make clear what you believe,
reach out to friends, find work to do,
heal your wounds, ease your fears,
get chance on chance to give love
and receive. Sometimes words leap
out of you in ways you soon regret -
or in ways so magical you silently
rehearse them, hoping never to forget
how they came out of the blue,
demanding to have life
breathed into them by you.

Then you learn that first words aren't
the hardest. The hardest are the last.

There's so much you want to say,
but time keeps taking time and all your
words away. How to say - amid the
flood of grief and gratitude you feel -
"Thank you!," or "How beautiful, how
grand!," or "I don't know how I survived,"
or "I was changed forever the day
we two joined lives and hands."

As you reach for your last words,
you realize, this is it - this ebbing tide
of language called your life, words
trailing into silence, returning to
the source - this unfinished poem
you would have writ, had it not been
for the heartache and the joy
of all the years you've been living it.

- Parker J. Palmer

Friday, January 4, 2019

Listen to Your Mother

Just getting around to thinking about the new year, so I'm running a little behind. It is a good time to pause and take stock, to do some self-examination and honest reflection, and to ask ourselves some timely questions. Not sure what to ask yourself? Well, you could do a lot worse than just listening to your mother. Don't you remember the questions she asked you, day in and day out, often ignored, dulled by familiarity? I remember, her voice still echoing in my ears all these years later.

"Where have you been?"
"Do you know what time it is?"
"What were you thinking?"
"Does this look clean to you?" 
"Do you think you're living in a hotel or something?
"Where do you think you're going?"

Like me, you may cringe at the memory of your mother's questions, since the setting for such dialogue was not always happy or pleasant. But I submit, though we dreaded the sound of her voice, these may be the best questions for us to ponder today at the turning of the year.

"Where have you been?" Usually the emphasis was on the first word, always spoken with hands on hips. Like most of us who grew up in a small town, I had freedom to roam the neighborhood and beyond, but if I strayed too far or stayed too long or went where I knew I shouldn't, I would be in trouble. Sometimes I gave a straight answer. Other times I was less than honest. Eventually, the truth came out.

Not a bad place for us to begin. To look back and consider where we have been, the road we have travelled, the paths we have chosen, the miles we have covered. Ditches and detours and dead ends. Wise moves and wrong turns. Look in the rear view mirror for a minute and answer the question. You might learn something.

"Do you know what time it is?" Always asked well after curfew and immediately before being grounded or pounded. Missing the appointed time, messing with the schedule, failing to pay attention. I have known how to tell time from a young age, but the question kept coming. Pokey. Distracted. Lazy. Irresponsible. Lots of reasons but never a good excuse. I always had a watch.

Do you know what time it is? Are we paying attention to the passing of time, the opportunities of the moment, the importance of right here, right now? Nobody's getting younger and there are no do-overs, no second time around. There is no rehearsal, just one time through, so when the moment comes, we would be wise to be ready. What are you waiting on? Seize the day.

"What were you thinking?" Of course, this question only served to highlight the times when I wasn't thinking at all. Total brain disconnect, sometimes only reconnected by a swift kick administered from behind in an upward motion. We all had our moments. Just being a dumb kid, leaving our parents baffled that their superior intelligence could skip a generation.

It's a more serious problem for us now. The bonehead play, the bad decision, the abject failure. When we do the unthinkable, losing what we can rarely recover, we may sit in the wreckage and echo our mother's words. What was I thinking? And there are never any good answers. It always sounds rhetorical. Who knows?

It does me good to remember that my most mindless moments were not fatal or final. Neither are yours. Whatever regrets you are carrying from your past, it's time to live and learn, to lay them down and leave then behind. Find some grace for yourself, grace to begin again.

"Does this look clean to you?" Picture my mother standing in the doorway of the basement bathroom used only be her four youngest sons, usually after our half-hearted efforts to complete our weekly chores. Pointing in every direction from sink to stool to shower, "Does this look clean to you?" Oddly enough, the honest answer we were afraid to utter was "Yes!" It looked plenty clean to us, good enough anyway, not too disgusting, better than it was before we started. It took Mom a few years to revise our definition of clean.

 Funny how we can get confused. Dirty is not so dirty after all. Sort of clean is clean enough. We content ourselves with dingy gray, but after a while, the stains won't come off. Trouble is, some things in life are just black and white, right or wrong, clean or dirty. We may blur the lines as best we can to ease our conscience. After all, ethics are pretty fluid these days. Whatever works to our advantage, whatever gets us ahead, whatever satifies our desires, must be okay, right?

It's a humbling and scary thing to invite the searchlight of the Spirit to shine on the dark corners of our lives. "Does this look clean to you?" It may be time to take out the trash, to clean house, to do some soul-scrubbing in the basement of your heart.

"Do you think you're living in a hotel or something?" This question was actually the more refined version of exclamations including phrases like "ungrateful kids", "lazy bums", or "spoiled brats." This was Mom's gentle way of reminding her children that though they had been born into a fine family, it was not the royal family. We would have no little princes or princesses in our household. We were all peasants expected to pull our own weight and do our part to make the family function.

The bane of great blessings, which we have all received, is that we may feel a sense of entitlement, an expectation that this world owes us the advantages we take for granted. We must deserve a place of privilege, and blessings seem to come our way naturally. It's subtle, but deadly. As Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, "Deserving's got nothing to do with it."

It's not a bad idea to put yourself somewhere from time to time, where you can see the underside of life in this world and put names and stories with the faces of people who were not born already on third base. We need to be reminded this world is not our hotel. Our blessings and benefits come with inescapable obligations. It's not enough to pray, "Gee, thanks." It's our job to be the answer to someone else's prayers. Like old Abraham, we are blessed that we might be a blessing to others. To whom much is given, much shall be required.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mom would stop me on the way out the door, trying to get my attention, to make me think, to listen to her. It was a question usually asked of me when I was headed in the wrong direction or at the wrong time, and it retrospect, it probably saved me from a great deal of trouble. Hard to imagine I know, but sometimes as a child I would get too big for my britches and determine to go where I wanted without any thought or guidance or permission. I would come home muddied or bloodied, crying or complaining about the consequences of my own dumb choices.

That question took on new meaning later on, heading off to college, ministry, marriage, all along the way. "Where do you think you're going?" A great reminder that we dare not live on autopilot. We must make our choices and chart our own course. Don't fly blind, by the seat of your pants.

As the calendar's change, do you know where you are going? Are you headed in the right direction? Have you chosen a worthy destination?

So there you have it. If you would be wise, if you want to have a great 2019, just listen to your mother, will you? Listen and learn and live. Better days ahead.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Death of Team

It began innocently enough. Some well-meaning person made the suggestion. Why not put the player's names on the back of their jerseys? Team's name on the front, player's name on the back. Fans wouldn't have to keep checking the numbers in the program. Every player would be easily identifiable. It made perfect sense.

So began the long, slow demise of team sports, the end of an era when players put team success before individual achievements. Sound a little overly dramatic to you? I think I can make my case. The evidence abounds.

College stars are drafted by pro teams offering millions of dollars, but sometimes they refuse to play for that team, demanding to be traded to a team more to their liking.

Consider the emphasis  in sports media on individual awards over team success. Players are touted for the Heisman or the MVP or whatever statistical record they can reach.

College players are benched, beat out by a better player, and often tranfer to another program, rather than accept their new role on the team.

College stars decide to sit out their bowl game, rather than risk injury before the NFL draft. The team's achievement and the opportunity to play one last game for their team and with their teammates is secondary, easily set aside.

Fantasy sports (which I do play and enjoy) have changed the focus from the success of the team to the statistical success of individual players.

Free agent athletes offer their services to the highest bidders, with no sense of loyalty to their team or their fans.

Pro players decide to sit out entire seasons, choosing self-preservation and money over the needs of their team. Future contract considerations is an adequate reason for hanging out your teammates.

I admit I'm generalizing and there are exceptions, but put these examples together and you begin to get the picture. The days when it was all about the team are long gone. Rudy is a relic from history. Hoosiers doesn't happen anymore. We don't believe in miracles like we once did. Who do you play for? Yourself!

Now it's all about who scores the points, who sets the record, who wins the prize, the award, the trophy, who's the GOAT, the greatest of all time. 

I know I sound like a grumpy old man homesick for the good old days, but I can't help but think we've lost something significant, maybe the most important thing we can ever learn from sports - the concept of team. 

Vince Lombardi was once asked to explain the difference between a good team and great team. Lombardi said it comes down to how players feel about their teammates. If you really care about the player on your right and on your left, if you would do anything to keep from letting them down, if your best efforts are devoted to doing your part for the success of the team, then great things can happen.

The last holdout for genuine team sports may be in women's athletics, where the enormous and fragile male ego is not present to poison the pot. These words from Mia Hamm give me some measure of hope:

“I am a member of the team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.”

You go, girl. Show us the way.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Prayer for Christmas

Thou Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, be born again into our world. Wherever there is war in this world, wherever there is pain, wherever there is loneliness, wherever there is no hope, come, thou long-expected one, with healing in thy wings.

Holy Child, whom the shepherds and the kings and the dumb beasts adored, be born again. Wherever there is boredom, wherever there is fear of failure, wherever there is temptation too strong to resist, wherever there is bitterness of heart, come, thou blessed one, with healing in thy wings.

Savior, be born in each of us who raises his face to thy face, not knowing fully who he is or who thou art, knowing only that thy love is beyond his knowing and that no other has the power to make him whole. Come, Lord Jesus, to each who longs for thee even though he has forgotten thy name. Come quickly. Amen.   (Frederick Buechner)

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Tie that Binds

I would like to introduce you to eight gentlemen that I'm certain you have never met. Truthfully, I have never met them myself, but we have been getting acquainted from a distance. So, I would like for you to meet . . .

Theodore Columbus Hill (pictured)
John Hardin Holcomb
George Washington Campbell
William Eagleton Appleby
William Landrum Barnes
Charles Markely Taylor
Matthew Robert Nantz
Joseph A. Kannard

Impressive names, aren't they? Historical and almost presidential sounding. What else do they have in common? Well, they were all born between 1828 and 1865, moving east to west, scattered from Pennsylvania to Missouri. Oh, and they're all dead.

And there's one other common denominator - me. These guys all have me in common (and my siblings, though I'm sure I was their favorite). As you probably guessed, these gentlemen are my eight great great grandfathers. I've been working on our genealogy lately, and I've been able to fill in the blanks and meet some ancestors for the first time.

It's not so remarkable really. Everybody gets four greats, eight great-greats, sixteen three-timers, thirty-two, etc. To infinity and beyond. Whether you know their names or not, you have a great eight yourself, or a crazy eight, whatever fits your family. It wasn't just your Mom and Dad that brought you into this world. Eight couples living in diverse places started their families generations ago and their flesh and blood is part of yours today. Amazing, isn't it?

And here's the part that gets my attention. As long as this earth keeps turning, someday I will be on someone else's list. Will my great great grandchildren fill in my name, Andrew Joseph Hill, my birth and death, and wonder what kind of person I was? What was his story? What did he do that mattered? What made his life worth remembering?

Sobering thoughts as I look back with gratitude. I am part of a larger story, a longer journey, a wider family, and so are you. Makes me want to make the most of my little part in this great play. This is our time to shine, to serve, to share, to make a difference that will last, to tell of God's faithfulness from generation to generation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Five Guys for the Soul

I was asked again the other day to recommend a good daily devotional book, and I am happy to oblige. Sometimes we all need to hear a fresh voice. Our spiritual disciplines can easily become routine. Our prayers lose their punch. Our thoughts wander from the scripture reading. Daily devotions can get stale, like crackers left out on the counter.

After all, we are busy people with demanding schedules and honestly, some days it feels like our time with God is wasted time. So, if you need to change things up or if you've lapsed and need to get started again, here are some resources that have been a great blessing to me. I offer these with a disclaimer. We are not all wired the same, nor are we all at the same stage of the journey. So what works for me may not connect well for you. Just try it and see. 

So here's my top five devotional books with a little explanation:

1. "Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner" Hulitt Gloer introduced me to Frederick Buechner back in seminary days and I have been reading Buechner ever since, eleven of his books on my shelf. This is a collection of his writings arranged for daily reflection. It is set up for one year, but I never put it down. I use it constantly, always fresh and helpful.

2. "I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology" by Abraham Heschel. One of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Heschel has much to teach us about the life of faith and personal piety. His description of "The Pious Man" has so moved and challenged me, that I read his words regularly, over and over, to reset my compass, a course correction for my soul. These brief excerpts from Heschel's writings can be used day by day, though it is organized by subject, rather than the calendar.

3. "The Way" by E. Stanley Jones. An old classic of devotional material, but still in print. Dr. Jones was a wonderful missionary and spiritual guide to thousands seeking the deeper life in Christ. More than any other writer, Jones helps me get over myself and understand the meaning of surrender, of winning by losing, gaining by giving up. His language is a little dated by now, but still clear and strong. You cannot read this book and not be changed. (I love this copy because it has my dad's notes in the margins.)

4. "A Diary of Private Prayer" by John Baillie. Another classic, this book was a gift from a fellow pastor and friend, Bill Curwood. Baillie simply shares morning and evening prayers for thirty-one days, with some blank space for you to add your words. His profound and yet personal prayers have helped me connect with Christ in my waking moments and my fading moments, beginning and ending each day in communion with God. A wonderful guide to prayer.

5. "A Year with Jesus: Daily Readings and Meditations" by Eugene Peterson. A scripture reading, a brief reflection, and a prayer for each day. What more can be said about Eugene Peterson? Profound insights that speak to our life and times.

Honorable Mention: "My Utmost for His Highest" by Oswald Chambers, "Measuring the Days: Daily Reflections with Walter Wangerin, Jr., "Celtic Devotions: A Guide to Morning and Evening Prayer" by Calvin Miller.

Why all men? No women on my list. That's not intentional on my part. I love to read Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, but I haven't yet found or connected with a devotional resource of theirs, so, I go with what I have.
Also, it occurs to me that all of my favorite devotional writers are dead or almost. Why do I just like the old stuff? To tell you the truth, I began with these guys and I have never finished with them, or rather, they have never finished with me. Not sure I will ever graduate from their school of spiritual growth. So, I'll just keep getting up and going to class day by day and hope to learn something from these old saints.

That's what works for me. Find what's right for you. It's the one connection we can't live without.