Sunday, September 20, 2020

Walking in Old Town

I welcomed the first crisp, cool Saturday morning with a walk around Old Town Alexandria. I wasn't alone, invited to join a walking tour by our Presbyterian friends at the Reformed Institute. As much fun as it is to shop and dine in Old Town, we didn't hit a single restaurant or store. We ignored the art galleries and walked right past the pastry shops and the smell of fresh-brewed coffee. This was a very different kind of walk.  

"A Reflective Experience in Power and Social Justice."
Presbyterians and Baptists exploring together the racial history of Alexandria from colonial days to the present. We began our tour among the dead in segregated cemeteries where wealthy slaveholders were just as dead and forgotten as the slaves that they bought and sold. The passing of time has weathered away most of the names and dates. Only our guide could fill in the details, stories of accumulated riches and downtown mansions, wartime losses and postwar litigation. Sagas of field hands becoming freedmen and contraband becoming citizens, the history of dignity bought with blood and the price demanded over and over again. 

Having paid our respects to the dead, we hiked a few blocks along Duke Street to the Freedom House Museum, a three story building used as a holding pen for hundreds of slaves, bartered in Virginia and shipped off to Mississippi. Two business partners making a fortune from human bondage. Then, it was down to Washington Street where the Confederate Appomattox statue stood defiantly in the median until it was removed three months ago.

Our trek across Old Town was highlighted by three remarkable churches. Alfred Street Baptist Church has always been a powerhouse in the struggle for human rights and racial justice. Beulah Baptist Church, founded by Rev. Clem Robinson, established the first theological school for former slaves during Reconstruction. What a contribution! Then, we arrived at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, a colonial church founded by city fathers, with prominent slaveholders, some slave resisters, and some black congregants. I was fascinated to hear their early struggle to reconcile their culture with their theology. 

Our last stop was the Freedmen's Cemetery and Memorial. This burial ground established by the federal government in 1864, had been neglected, forgotten, and desecrated for generations and was finally reclaimed by historians and archaeologists beginning in 1987. Five hundred and forty graves were found, more than half were children under the age of sixteen. In 2013, the cemetery was rededicated and the memorial was completed soon afterwards. The looming sculpture speaks with raw emotion, a voice for the voiceless. 

I must conclude this post with a confession. I don't recall much of what our excellent docents described for us at each stop this morning. The problem wasn't the noise on the streets or competing conversations among my colleagues. What distracted me were the whispered voices from the past, the echoing cries of children, the strident speeches of abolitionists, the courageous calls for justice, pastors pleading for human dignity. As I walked among the headstones and shuffled down the streets, I could hear their voices and I wasn't sure how to answer, stammering out, "I hear you. I hear you." 

Before we departed, we prayed together in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Ever present God, you called us to be in relationship with one another and promised to dwell wherever two or three are gathered. In our community, we are many different people; we come from different places, have many different cultures. Open our hearts that we may be bold in finding the riches of inclusion and the treasures of diversity among us. We pray in faith."  

If you are still wondering what all the fuss is about and what all this history has to do with today and why people would take to the streets and what's so bad about the status quo, let me make a suggestion, my friend. Take a walk. Take a walk and listen and learn. As William Faulkner put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Trash or Treasure

In recent months I have become a fan of the History Channel's show, American Pickers. Not sure why I never noticed it before since it's been on for years. I enjoy following Mike and Frank and friends trekking across the country to visit collectors of all sorts and more than a few just plain hoarders. Huge stashes of old stuff, from rare and valuable collectibles to barns full of junk. Either way, Mike and Frank always seem to find something of worth and then the bargaining begins. I've noticed if the original collector is still around, he or she usually drives a hard bargain. But in many cases, the older generation has died fairly recently, and their kids are left with huge quantities of stuff that they just want to clear out. I've noticed a thing or two about this next generation of sellers.

First, they have no idea what they have. Most have never paid much attention to Dad's old barn full of junk or his basement collection or the stuff stored in the attic. As Mike and Frank pull items out of the pile, these sons and daughters often have no clue, never seen it before. What is it?

Second, these guys have no idea what Dad's old junk is worth. I love the stunned look on their faces when Mike offers $3500 for an old gas station sign or when Frank offers $800 for a little antique toy. That rusty old truck on blocks behind the barn is worth $12,000. Suddenly, their enthusiasm grows by leaps and bounds. Their eyes ring up dollar signs.

What interest me most about American Pickers is this changing sense of worth from one generation to the next. I guess kids will always tend to devalue their parent's old stuff, much preferring the latest thing, the new technology. It's hard to pass on to our children what they don't want or appreciate. And that goes for a lot more than our antiques and collectibles. 

How do we as moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, pass down to our children the things that matter most? How do we convince our kids that faith is not a relic of bygone days, but something vital and precious in the here and now? How do we communicate the practical necessity of life in Christ, the Bible, and the fellowship of the church? No easy task, is it?

Someday we'll be gone, and our children will be left to sort through what's left of our lives. I pray they will find more treasure than trash, something vital and real that they have watched us put to good use day in and day out, year after year. I hope they decide to keep it for themselves.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Swapping Skins

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." - Albert Einstein

Sitting here in my white, middle-class living room watching cities across the country convulse and burn, I wonder what will come of such ugly confrontations. The brutal death of George Floyd has reignited racial tensions and fanned the flames of protest from coast to coast. Sometimes white folks like me get more upset about the violence and looting in our cities than the lethal behavior of racist cops.

Social scientists tell us that it is nearly impossible for people who are part of the dominant culture to understand what life is like from the underside. But white folks like me think we do. We would argue that as educated and informed adults we can identify the needs and feelings of people unlike ourselves. After all, we watch the news, our own brand of it, and we have our own backlog of experiences and influences. So don't tell us that we don't understand. We're certain that we know the score, but the plain reality hasn't changed. When you are on top, it's difficult to see the bottom side of life.

So, our conversations turn into debates and morph into arguments. Temperatures rise to a boiling point. "Don't tell me I just don't know. Always playing the race card, always whining for special treatment, always playing the victim. Get over it."  

Debating the issue never gets us anywhere. Maybe what we need to make sense of all this is imagination. Let's try this little experiment. I'll lay out the case studies and you imagine the scene and how you would feel to witness such things. Here we go.

Imagine the boy's body lying next to a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea was white, shot by a black vigilante. 

Imagine a white man birdwatching in the park asking a black woman to keep her dog on a leash. Imagine her calling the police, "There's a white man here threatening my life. Send the police right away."

Imagine the twelve-year-old boy bleeding out in the snow with a replica toy Airsoft gun in his pocket was white, shot by a black police officer.

Imagine the man who was sitting on his couch eating ice cream was white, and the off duty police officer who entered the wrong apartment and shot him in the heart was black.  

Imagine two black men with guns chasing down a white jogger, confronting and killing him in the street.

Imagine forty heavily-armed black men in military fatigues entering a state capitol building to protest, carrying "Black Power" banners instead of Confederate flags.

Imagine a black police officer with his knee crushing the neck of a white man begging for his breath as his neighbors look on in horror.

A little imagination can be a frightening thing, can't it? How did you feel as you imagined the tables turned and the roles reversed? Suddenly you are identifying with the victims rather than the offenders. A sense of anger, even outrage, simmers up as we think of people like us being victimized.

Though we try to imagine these scenarios, we have to admit how unlikely they are. And even if these reversed confrontations ever did take place, our society would never stand for it. Such actions would never be tolerated. Justice would be swift and certain. There would be no looking the other way, no stalling, no rationalizing. The guilty would be charged, and justice would be done.

And that's just the point, isn't it? The moment we swap skins with our black brothers, the world looks different. We see things more clearly, life from the underside. We feel their angst, we hear their cries, we find the source of their rage. We may just find ourselves demanding justice rather than defending the unconscionable. 

Imagine a place and time not so far from here and now, where we can celebrate our common humanity as children of God, where peace and justice are not empty dreams but a present reality. Not sure where it is or when we will get there, but I am going. I want to be there with all my brothers and sisters. How about you?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Being a Pastor in a Pandemic

I was asked to share a few thoughts about what it is like to be a pastor during these days of pandemic. Whatever insights I may possess, they have all come to me in the course of the last six weeks. We are all learning as we go and learning it the hard way. So here goes. (Though I am using male pronouns, my thoughts certainly include the many women who serve so well as pastors.)

First off, you need to know that your pastor was never trained or prepared for a pandemic. There is no class or curriculum, no workshop or seminar that prepares a pastor for such circumstances. So, if your pastor seems a little dazed and confused at times, it's because he is dazed and confused. These are unprecedented times in modern history. None of us have been there and done that, so you may need to cut your pastor some slack. Give him a little time to adapt to this new reality.

Remember this, the number one job of a shepherd is to keep the flock safe, not to expose them to needless risks. Pastors must weigh their decisions not based on what is familiar or traditional, but on what is wise and prudent. The welfare of the many must outweigh the preferences of the few. Trust your pastor to care for the flock.

You may not realize that your pastor misses you deeply. Sharing life with you and your family is a source of great joy and to be separated from all of you for so long is a painful experience. You may be close to a number of friends at church, but your pastor builds relationships with everyone. The more you love, the more you miss.

And here's a sad reality. In this crisis, your pastor feels helpless to care for his people. Following all the protocols of social distancing, your pastor is unable to visit the hurting, the hospitalized, the homebound, the bereaved. Limited to calls, texts, and emails, the ministry of presence that is so vital to pastoral ministry is not available. Though it is frustrating to be unable to do what we have always done, pastors must trust the ever-present Spirit of God to minister where they cannot go.

Please know that your pastor never quits praying for you in your need, even at a distance. Your pastor believes in the power of prayer, and in these days of distancing he must once again trust the Holy Spirit to intercede and intervene in every situation.

What about online church? In these days of virtual worship, your pastor is struggling to communicate the Gospel in new ways and means that may seem strange or distant or impersonal to you. Hearing you complain that "It's just not the same," is not helpful or encouraging. Of course, it's not the same. It is less than ideal, we all know that. But right now, it's the only game in town. So, be a cheerleader, not a critic. Pray for your pastor week by week and watch him grow and improve.

Here's another truth to keep in mind. Your pastor is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness and a greater spiritual autonomy as parents assume responsibility for the spiritual well-being of their families in ways previously delegated to the church. Many parents operate on the premise, "If I get my kids to church, I've done my part in their spiritual development." Actually, that never was true, and it is even less true now. Moms and dads need to step up and fill the gap that their absence from church activities leaves. Pastors and parents must be partners in raising up our little ones in the faith, especially these days.

Finally, as an uncertain future unfolds, your pastor will need your trust and support as he leads the church to make difficult decisions and adjustments. As you may have guessed, things will not be returning to "normal" any time soon. When we are all able to resume onsite worship services, things will be different as we adjust to the continuing protocols of this pandemic until a vaccine is found. Be patient with the required changes, unwilling to put anyone at risk, and be supportive of your pastor. We are off the map, moving into uncharted territory, trusting in Jesus to lead the way. Together, we will get where we are going.

When I was a young pastor many years ago, my mother-in-law, Donna Jones, was a wonderful and thoughtful encourager to me. One day at the kitchen table she was asking about my work and I was filling her in on my week. She listened intently and said, "Your job is not for sissies, is it?"

"No, I guess not," I responded. I've thought about her words many times through the years, usually when times were hard and burdens were heavy. Her words were true then and they are certainly true in these strange, troubled times. So I say to all my pastoring brothers and sisters, "Your job is not for sissies, is it?" Be strong, be brave, and know that the people of God are following close behind.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Word We Need

I'm not much for wearing jewelry. Somewhere in a box is my class ring from Grandview High School which only fits my pinkie these days. Suzanne gave me a ring with a blue sapphire when I graduated from seminary, and I wear it when I dress up which isn't so often anymore. And, of course, my wedding band is still in place, a constant for 38 years. That's about it, except for a couple of watches and a few pair of cuff links if you count those as jewelry.

So I'm not sure what possessed me last summer to buy a chain, a necklace with one word engraved in brass. I saw it online and decided if I was ever going to wear a chain around my neck, this would be the one. Since then, it's become almost an attachment.

I didn't know what was coming, no idea what 2020 was going to bring our way, none of us did. But, now that we're in the middle of this pandemic, the word I need is right here around my neck - STEADFAST. Maybe it's the word we all need.

I think about the nurses and doctors in our cities, in overcrowded ICUs, laying aside their fear, putting themselves and their own families at risk to care for the critically ill. Many nurses have provided comfort and care as surrogate pastors and family members for the dying who were isolated from their own loved ones. Steadfast indeed.

The source of much of our anxiety these days is our uncertainty about what lies ahead. How long will this go on? How bad will it get? Will it touch my family, my aging parent? When can I go back to work? Will I still have a job? With so many unanswered questions our faith is put to the test. In the pressure of a pandemic will we wilt and despair? Will we take out our stress and frustration on our own family? Will we fall into a chasm of depression and hopelessness as weeks turn into months?

"You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you." (Isaiah 26:3) There's that word again, the word we need. Steadfast.

In Hebrew the word for God's love is "hesed," and it means more than our language can easily translate, more than simply love. It's love with a tenacity, love with depth, an enduring love. Some translators call it "lovingkindness," but I like the NRSV the best. God's "hesed" is His "steadfast love." That's God's faithful, covenant love, His sacrificial love for us. Brennan Manning calls it God's "relentless tenderness" toward us. I like that. God loves us with the tenacity of a bulldog.

The steadfast love of the Lord will not let you go and will not let you fall. The steadfast love of the Lord never changes, never fails, and endures forever. That's the encouragement I need, that's all I need to know. In fact I've made it my nightly mantra, before I fall asleep I remind myself of that glorious reality in a world of unknowns - The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

If that doesn't do it for you, carve it in brass and wear it around your neck. Works for me.   

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Time to Wait

One of the saddest things about these days of pandemic and social distancing is the prohibition on funeral services, unless fewer than ten people attend. I read this morning about a grandmother's service that was attended by nine grandchildren and the priest while her four adult children listened on their phones and tablets from their cars in the parking lot. Most families are opting to wait until the crisis has passed to have a memorial service for their loved one.

In Italy and Spain, even the crematoriums cannot keep up with the rising death tolls. Military convoys are transporting bodies to other parts of the country to meet the demand, as in wartime. A grim reality that we pray will soon become part of the macabre history of this virus.

George Bernard Shaw once commented that death's statistics are very impressive - "One out of every one dies." Doesn't matter whether we succumb to Covid 19 or cancer or any other obvious proof of our mortality, death comes to everyone sooner or later. And when we lose those precious to us, we need to grieve, we need to remember, we need to mark their passing in significant and personal ways.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is "a time to be born, and a time to die; . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." In these days of pandemic, we might want to add regrettably, there is "a time to postpone, and a time to wait." 

That's the cruel part, it seems to me. To take the painful, heartbreaking experience of loss and make it worse, extending it, unresolved, with so much left undone, unspoken, unexpressed. Our coming together and being together is the beginning of our healing. The testimony of a person's life must be heard and celebrated. We long to bear witness to our faith and be reminded of the promises of God.  

As a pastor I have conducted more than four hundred funeral services, so I am well-acquainted with grief. I have taken enough rides in long black cars to last many lifetimes. As difficult as it is at times, I count it an honor to participate in these sacred moments, remembering those we love, testing our faith and saying our goodbyes.   

Woody Allen famously quipped, "I'm not afraid to die. I just don't want to be around when it happens." We understand how he feels. We would just as soon miss it altogether. On the other hand, you may recall the scene from Twain's classic, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," when Tom and Huck can't resist the opportunity to march into their own funeral service, creating a sensation of screams and fainting.

Somewhere in between denial and display is how we face the reality of death, our own and everyone else's too. As I think of all the grief that must follow the reports of lives lost to the virus and lives lost just because we all die, it makes me hurt for those who must wait, postponing their tears for a later day. Lord, have mercy.  

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Only Love Will Carry the Day

There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. - Michel de Montsigne

Bram thought about it. "Can a man still be brave if he's afraid?" "That is the only time a man can be brave," his father told him. - George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones

No one knew how we would respond, no idea how we might behave in a pandemic. This is a new experience for all of us and we've seen people reacting to this crisis in all kinds of ways. The deniers still choose to ignore it all together, wishful thinking to the end. The downplayers and conspiracy theorists play it calm and cool, citing a half dozen half-baked reasons why this is no big deal, but they are a minority I would guess.

Most people take this pandemic seriously by degrees. The concerned citizen types are just staying informed and anxious to follow whatever protocol is recommended. Next comes the 24 hour news junkies hanging on every update, charting the body count as it rises around the world gradually coming closer and closer to where we live. And then, there are those we might call the survivalists, who rush to the store to stockpile a huge cache of groceries, hoard the toilet paper and grab the last six bottles of hand sanitizer. Finally, we can find the "apocalypse now" bunch standing in line at the gun shop to add more weapons and ammo to their personal arsenal. Gun sales have spiked significantly in this crisis.

Wherever you fall in these over-generalized descriptions or somewhere in between, we all have one thing in common, at least if we are honest with ourselves. What we all share is fear, a fear that ranges from a low-level anxiety to a debilitating worry to a can't-sleep-at-night kind of terror. We're only human and it makes sense that we would be afraid of an unseen enemy that can be just about anywhere undetected, making us potential accomplices in threatening the lives of those around us, or victims ourselves.

But what troubles me is seeing how many church-going, Bible-believing types seem to respond to this crisis with the same fear-driven motives that others have, their faith so quickly cast aside in a crisis, their concern for others forgotten in a rush of self-preservation.

Indifference to human suffering is not a virtue. 'As long as I'm okay, it's okay' is not a God-honoring attitude. God is not calling His people in this crisis to be the best supplied and well-armed. He will not be congratulating those who have the biggest stockpiles and most ammo. Rather I believe God calls His people to be the most generous and compassionate, to act not out of fear, but out of love, love for God and love for our neighbors. Not to barricade ourselves but to sacrifice ourselves, this is the way of Jesus.     

The next time fear rumbles up in your stomach, try this - do something for someone else. It may be small or simple, it doesn't matter. Share what you have collected. Call and check on someone who is alone. Offer encouragement. Send a gift card to someone who is laid off. Write a letter to brighten a loved one's day. Any expression of love will drive out our fear, because the one who loves from the heart is unafraid. 

There is no fear in love. But perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18 NIV)

How ever you choose to approach these days of pandemic pandamonium, try to live faith first rather than fear first. Remember the way of Jesus, the way of love, not just when it's clear skies and all is well, but even in the worst of times, even when the unthinkable happens. Only love helps and heals, and only love will carry the day.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Putting Up with a Pandemic

I can think of better names for it than Covid 19, and I'll bet you can, too. A nasty new strain of the flu that creeps around, hopscotching from person to person, spreading like a plague, it attacks the lungs and preys on the vulnerable. Covid 19 has no conscience and doesn't play favorites. Any human being is fair game. The color of our skin or the language we speak are non-factors. It's an equal opportunity killer.

I know, some of us are still convinced that it's all hype, media sensationalism, and there has been too much fear mongering. But, be that as it may, the stark reality is unchanged and unchecked. Many people are fortunate to live in areas not yet significantly affected, and so they wonder, "What's all the fuss?" Well, stay tuned, friends. It's coming your way and we can only hope that your indifference will not make things worse when Covid 19 shows up in your neighborhood.

Even more troubling to me is the "It's not my problem," attitude of many adults under 60. "Hey, it gets the old folks. I don't have to worry about it. Forget about social distancing, I'm not staying home." And so Covid 19 continues to hitch a ride from place to place, person to person, with younger adults who gleefully stick to their normal routines. Thanks a lot.

So, the isolation begins. Suddenly we find ourselves at home and just when we really need them, all the sports have shut down. No March Madness. No Caps hockey. No NBA playoffs. No baseball! ESPN can't even find a tractor pull to televise. I have two games on my DVR - the seventh game of last year's World Series (Go, Nats!) and the Super Bowl (Chiefs!). I've already watched them both three times. Thank God for Netflix, Prime, and HBO. Binge-watching does pass the time.

Or, maybe it's time to turn off the TV, shut down the laptop, and take a walk or have a talk or rediscover what we used to call family time. Have we forgotten how to be a family, how to just enjoy each other's company, now that we finally have time to be together? What a great opportunity to get reacquainted with those closest to us. So drag out the board games, do a jigsaw, throw a ball around the yard. Time is precious, even unscheduled, unrequested time.  

Church certainly feels strange these days. Pastors like me are preaching in empty sanctuaries to online congregations. It feels a little silly, trying to imagine our people all in their usual places. At least we hope our people are out there, tuned in, and worshiping with us in this less than ideal circumstance. I do kind of wish the camera went both ways. How many of my folks are still in their PJ's enjoying a bowl of Cheerios while I preach? Just curious.

And in case your wondering, churches like ours have not made these changes because we are a bunch of fraidy cats. We are not acting out of fear, but out of love, love for one another, love for the vulnerable, love for all people. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7)

Exile, isolation, quarantine are not pleasant words, nothing that we would ever choose for ourselves or anyone else. We can call our friends and family and that helps. We can work from home and worship from home and that helps, too. But after a while, as the days go by, aloneness may begin to get the best of us. The mist of isolation clouds our view. Our warm, comfortable home begins to feel like solitary confinement and even a walk around the block doesn't help much.

We're not wired for such things, are we? Even the most introverted among us need some human touch, some connection with community. So let's take care of each other, shall we? If not in person, let's find lots of creative ways to stay connected, to reach out to the most isolated, to protect the most vulnerable, and to pray that this pandemic soon runs it's course and disappears.