Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Becoming Unknown

When I visit a museum, which I did many times during my sabbatical, I never know what will strike me as meaningful and significant. While in Florence, Italy, last month with Suzanne and our son, Sam, we spent most of a day in Ufizzi, considered one of the world's greatest collections of Renaissance art. Moving deliberately from gallery to gallery, I came across two rather small and obscure paintings. By their placement, they were not well known works, and there were no crowds blocking my view.

What struck me about the first painting was its backstory. No one knows who painted this portrait and the subject of the painting is unknown as well. Yet, critics have long agreed that it is masterfully done, the work of true genius.

I thought about the young man in the picture. What was his story? Was he a priest or a poet, a merchant or a statesman? A wealthy nobleman or a common peasant? Royal blood? Who knows? And that's just it. No one knows.

And what about this anonymous artist, with no credit or praise, no attribution? Yet, his work has been displayed in the finest of museums for over two hundred and fifty years. This artist made his contribution to the world and disappeared without notice or recognition, without fame or fortune. How strange and out of step with his contemporaries and with us as well.

Living as we do in a world where enormous egos run amuck, craving the spotlight, the headlines, the fat contract, who would ever willingly remain in the shadows, unnoticed, unappreciated? Must we always grab the mic, reciting our accomplishments, extolling our imagined greatness? Or can we just let our life's contribution speak for itself? Can we not offer up our best work to the glory of God and leave it in His hands? Maybe it's not about us. The man in the picture and the man behind the man in the picture help me find perspective.

The second picture is titled, "St. Augustine in His Study," by Botticelli, c. 1490-1495. It is quite small and was intended for private devotion. Notice the discarded scraps of paper on the floor, "intended to convey the difficulty implicit in translating divine inspiration into words." No kidding. I feel your pain, Auggie.

I find it strangely encouraging to know that even the old saints, giants who wrote towering theological works, threw a fair amount of wadded up paper on the floor. Their first drafts sucked, just like mine, but they prayed and persisted, over and over, until the blessing came. May it be so for all of us who dare to translate divine inspiration into words.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

A Sabbatical Story: Final Reflections

As I stated in the beginning, I have never done this before and am not likely to do it again, so this sabbatical has been a one time shot for me. I have not been disappointed. I managed to pack into these past two months all kinds of experiences, road trips across the country and flights overseas. I enjoyed some extended time alone and a good bit of time away with Suzanne. I managed to see most of my enormous family, good times with Mom and all my siblings and aunts and uncles, and caught up with our son in Italy. It was also my pleasure to reconnect with many special friends who have blessed and enriched my life through the years.

I did the math. Since July 1, I have driven my Honda Pilot 6200 miles, covered twelve states, and slept in twenty-two beds. I enjoyed a diet of barbeque and baseball for much of the time, before heading to Italy and perfecting my high carb pasta, pizza, and gelato diet. I was also treated to Neal's smoked pork loin, Janet's meatloaf, Norma's peach cobbler, and Aunt Sue's chocolate chip cookies, so I didn't lack for home cooking. Now it's back to work and back to the gym for me.

Along the way and for most of these nine weeks I've been exploring the relationship between religion and race. Making an extensive pilgrimage of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail was a life-changing experiencing. What I thought I knew in my head, I now see in my mind and feel in my bones. What a lesson in the way Christian people apply the Gospel or fail to apply it to our most basic connection, our common humanity, created in the image of God. The journey left me inspired and depressed, lifted up and cast down, optimistic and at the same time discouraged. To see the liberating power of the Gospel alongside the twisted distortions of the Christian faith, who would guess that the line between such love and hatred would run through our churches? But it did, and it does.

I am well begun on my writing project using two weeks for an extended retreat. I shared my plans for this book in my previous sabbatical update. I am excited about this story and will be working on it in my spare time for the next year, hoping to have a first draft completed by spring.

So here I am, back home after these nine weeks and looking forward to Sunday, to be with my people, to see if I remember how to preach, to jump back into a calling that has been mine for over forty years. Can't wait.

I will be sharing much more about what I have gleaned from this sabbatical in the weeks ahead, both at church and with occasional posts. But for now, this is the end of my journey. Thanks for coming along.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Sabbatical Story: Part 3

I arrived back home last night after six weeks out of a suitcase. It felt good to sleep in my own bed. But it has been a wonderful experience, exploring the relationship between religion and race. How do we live out our faith as it relates to issues of race personally and in our society and culture at large? This picture seemed to capture the heart of the matter for me.

Looking back at the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most troubling things for me and the reason I chose this subject, is the role of the churches, black and white. Congregations, mostly Baptist, that would have affirmed the same confession of faith stood on opposite sides on matters of equality and racial justice.

I visited black churches that were right in the middle of the movement, sometimes providing the only resource or protection their people had from the violence.

"Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in the cool springs of hope, where we retain our wholeness and humanity despite the blows."
- Richard Wright, 1941

Not all but most of the white Baptist churches across the South remained silent, choosing to "stick to the Gospel" rather than actually applying the Gospel and God's love for all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

"I asked for your churches and you turned me down,
But I'll do my work if I have to do it on the ground.
You will not speak for fear of being heard,
So you crawl in your shell and say, 'Do not disturb.'"
- Poem by Joyce Brown, 1964

Some of the more brazen pastors openly opposed equality and desegregation, twisting and distorting scripture to support their bigotry. It points out how our culture and our upbringing often supersede and overwhelm our theology. And, of course, it still happens today.

So now I have begun to write, spending these past two weeks in retreat. I'm taking an unusual approach to this sabbatical project. Rather than writing sermons or a treatise on the theology of race, I'm writing a novel. That's right, a piece of fiction. It seems to me that nobody reads much nonfiction anymore unless they already agree with the premise and content. It's hard to change hearts and minds with material nobody else reads.

But fiction on the other hand sneaks up on us, surprising us with experiences and thoughts we may have never considered. That's why many of the great movements in our history have been instigated and influenced by novels. I'm not likely to change the world, but that's my approach.

My story has two layers. First, it is loosely based on the life of my grandfather, Oscar Hill. Grandpa was a railroad man, a union boss, and a Baptist deacon, who lived out his simple faith in Christ at work, at church, and in the neighborhood in remarkable ways. A second layer, is about what's going on in our country at large during Grandpa's life. What is he reading in the Kansas City Star? What is Walter Cronkite talking about on the news each evening?

What I'm finding is a startling correlation between significant events of the Civil Rights Movement and what was happening in Grandpa's life. And undergirding it all is the profound faith, bold leadership, and stubborn convictions of this uncommon common man. Long before it was trendy to consider "What would Jesus do?" Grandpa tried to do just that, even at great personal risk and sacrifice. It should make for an interesting, inspiring story, if I can do it justice. We'll see.

Thanks for sharing my sabbatical journey. Two weeks to go, running away with Suz to see our son in Italy. What could be better than that?

Friday, August 2, 2019

A Sabbatical Story: Part 2

Picking up where I left off from Part 1, we completed our pilgrimage along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail by visiting three crime scenes where racially-motivated murders took place. In Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers was gunned down in his own driveway as his wife and children looked on. In the tiny crossroads of Money, Mississippi, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy visiting from Chicago was tortured, murdered, and mutilated by two white men for whistling at a white woman. Emmett's mother had an open casket at her son's funeral so that everyone could see what they had done to her boy. His killers, though identified by eyewitnesses, were acquitted after just sixty-seven minutes of deliberation. And finally, we ended our journey in Memphis on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. What a legacy of hatred and bigotry.

It will take me weeks and months to process everything I have seen and felt during this long pilgirmage, but I know I am grateful for the experience, not only better informed but also gaining a deeper understanding of the human heart. I have seen the depths of human depravity and the heights of human aspiration, the worst and the best in people like us. And, I have learned that the seeds of both are present in every human heart, and the seeds that sprout and bear fruit are the ones we nurture and water in ourselves and in the hearts of our children. As Jesus warned, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." (Matt. 7:19-20 NIV)

Arriving back in Missouri, I began a week of visiting the people and places that were significant and formative in my early life and ministry. What a wonderful week it was, spending time with family and friends that God used to bless my life, to keep me between the ditches, to challenge me to reach higher and work harder than I ever would on my own.

Mom and I attended worship at First Baptist, Grandview, where Dad served and where I was called and ordained to the ministry. I hadn't been back since our wedding day in 1982, and the pastor was gracious to let me say a few words, expressing my thanks to the congregation for their contribution to my life.

My brother Jerry and I drove up to Maryville, where we were born and lived until we were seven and nine. We walked around our old house and neighborhood, our elementary school, and then visited Laura Street Baptist Church where Dad served for fifteen years.

I had lunch one day with Jerry Cain who was campus minister at William Jewell beginning my freshman year. What an encourager Jerry was as I tried my wings in ministry, always pushing me out there, giving me amazing opportunities far beyond my experience, challenging me to stretch and grow along the way. If I subtract Jerry from the equation of my beginning in ministry, I'm not sure it would have added up to much. It felt good to tell him so.

Driving north to Nettleton and Hamilton, I visited the first country church I served as pastor while I was a student at Jewell. The church is closed now as most of the members migrated into town to attend First Baptist in Hamilton. It was sad to see the old building overgrown with trees and brush, now part storage, part haybarn. While I was pastor, little Nettleton Baptist Church celebrated its centennial, 1882-1982, a hundred years of ministry in this tiny crossroads along the railroad from Hannibal to St. Joseph. But time goes by, and people move on, and after all, it's the people who make up the church.

Speaking of the people, I had dinner with Bill Ford who was a young deacon at Nettleton when I was there. In fact, it was Bill who invited me to Nettleton, the first person to ever call me "Pastor." He has been my friend ever since. His son, Brian, who I baptized as a boy, followed me to Jewell and into the ministry, serving on my staff, and later on becoming a pastor to my own grown sons. See how the blessings of God come back around? I was pleased to have this chance to have dinner with Bill and Debbie and express my gratitude face to face. I have never been more anxious to pick up the check.

I've had more visits and conversations than I can share with you in this post. I spent time in Windsor, Sedalia, Smithton, Lamar, and Lee's Summit with special people and old friends who have lightened my load and blessed my life along the way. And there are many others who are beyond my reach who I must thank long distance. For all of you, near and far, please know, "I thank my God for every remembrance of you." (Phil. 1:3 NIV)

So, at the halfway mark of my sabbatical, I am feeling inspired and very blessed. After our family reunion this weekend, I will settle down to do some writing, no more road trips for a while. Stay tuned. I appreciate you coming along.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Sabbatical Story: Part 1

I could get used to this . . . or could I? Tomorrow will be the third Sunday I have watched come and go, away from my work, my people, my pulpit, and the strangeness has given way to a deep sense of sabbath. Not the kind that comes from sleeping in, which I can't seem to do, or the kind that comes from doing nothing, because my agenda has been full almost every day. It's a lightness that springs from laying down my duties and leaving my daily burdens behind. It is an untroubled mind, free to explore new ideas and avenues, to create and recreate, to dream again without distraction or distress. It is a wonderful gift from the good people of Memorial, a blessing that not many pastors ever receive.

I began at home with a week to catch up on yard work and spend some extra time with my family over the July 4th weekend. Jake and I explored the battlefield at Gettysburg. And lots of baseball, God having brought the Royals to DC just in time to kick off my sabbatical. Win or lose, a good time was had by all.

The second week was spent in solitude, a personal retreat in the Blue Ridge mountains, a place called Eagle Eyrie. I had a quiet cabin to myself, managed my own meals, studied in the mornings, hiked in the afternoons, took some pictures, played my guitar, and sat in a rocker on the porch and listened to the rain. A wonderful way to spend time with my Boss without talking business. Nice to enjoy His companionship without an agenda. No urgent need, no crisis of the moment, no pressing deadline, just hanging out, being with the Big Guy. The days were too short.

After a brief pitstop back home, I hit the road following the U. S. Civil Rights Trail, visiting most of the sites related to the civil rights movement from 1948 - 1968. My brother and his wife are my companions on this unique pilgrimage. So far, we have experienced the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, the inspiration of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the burning bus of Freedom Riders in Anniston, the peaceful marchers attacked with dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, and today we walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma remembering the horrific violence of "Bloody Sunday."

As you may have figured out by now, I am building my sabbatical around the theme of religion and race. How does a person of faith deal with matters of race and how have Christians historically applied the Gospel to their relationships across racial lines personally and corporately? I have done extensive reading in preparation, and for the most part it is a sad and sobering story, a notorious blind spot in the eyes of many believers and churches. And of course, it's not just dark episodes from the Sixties. It's today, here and now. It's the glaring inconsistency of many who profess faith in Christ and yet practice subtle forms of racism if not outright bigotry.

Today marks the halfway point in our long journey with stops ahead in Montgomery, Jackson, Sumner, and Memphis. I'm sure I'll have more to share as we travel on. It is in some ways a difficult pilgrimage, staring at the dark side of humanity each day, the ugliness, the hatred, the cruelty, the unthinkable. Exploring the depths of human depravity is deeply troubling. And yet, the courage and determination of those who resisted peacefully and endured such brutality offer us inspiration and hope, a noble example. I have met a new band of heroes calling us all to live out our true calling in Christ.

Three weeks of sabbatical nearly completed. Thanks for your thoughts and prayers. Good to have you along with me. I'll check in again soon.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Unplugged to Recharge?

Unplugged to recharge? Is that even possible? Every day we are plugging in to recharge our phones, tablets, and laptops. In airport terminals passengers crowd around the charging stations or sit on the floor beside a wall outlet, anything to stay charged. We hate to be unplugged.

But people are wired differently than their devices, aren't they? For you and I to truly recharge, we have to unplug, disconnect, disengage. We must find ways to turn down the juice, turn off the power, and find genuine rest and renewal. 

This Monday I will begin a two-month sabbatical, laying down my daily duties and responsibilities for a season of Sabbath and renewal. I am grateful to serve a church that understands and values pastoral ministry and provides for a seven-year cycle of sabbatical time for family enrichment, spiritual renewal and professional growth.

I have served as a pastor since January, 1980, and this will be the first time I have stepped away from my pastoral responsibilities for more than a week or two of vacation. I don't believe I have ever missed more than two Sundays in the pulpit, and even that has been rare. So this is a new experience for me. I'm not sure how it will feel to disengage and disconnect for an extended time.

Honestly, I don't feel some terrible burden or desperate need to get away. I will confess that there have been a few times in these thirty-nine years when I would have begged for a sabbatical, when I felt drained and discouraged and defeated. But not now, not here.

And yet, maybe this is God's timing after all. I'm fifty-nine years old and I've served here at Memorial for seven years. I don't pretend to know the future, but I hope to have many more years of fruitful, productive ministry ahead. I don't want to coast into retirement. I don't want to take it easy or play it safe. I want the rest of my ministry to be the best of my ministry.

You've noticed how some coaches sit their starters on the bench for a few minutes in the second half to catch their breath and be well-rested and energized for the final minutes of the game. Perhaps for me this sabbatical is my few minutes on the bench, a chance to get my second wind so that I can play my best down the stretch when it matters most. It feels that way to me.

I'll be reporting in from time to time, posting about my experiences these next two months. Rather than list my plans, I'll let them unfold week by week as I journal and share a few pictures. I hope you will stay tuned.

Henri J. M. Nouwen took a year-long sabbatical late in his life. His diary from that experience begins with these thoughts which express my feelings so well:

This is the first day of my sabbatical. I am excited and anxious, hopeful and fearful, tired, and full of desire to do a thousand things. The coming year stretches out in front of me as a long, open field full of flowers and full of weeds. How will I cross that field? What will I have learned when I finally reach the other end. . . .

I feel strange! Very happy and very scared at the same time. I have always dreamt about a whole year without appointments, meetings, lectures, travels, letters, and phone calls, a year completely open to let something radically new happen. But can I do it? Can I let go of all the things that make me feel useful and significant? I realize I am quite addicted to being busy and experience a bit of withdrawal anxiety. . . .

But underneath all these anxieties, there is an immense joy. Free at last! Free to think critically, to feel deeply, and to pray as never before. Free to write about the many experiences that I have stored up in my heart and mind during the last nine years. Free to deepen friendships and explore new ways of loving. Free most of all to fight the Angel of God and ask for a new blessing. . . .

One thing that helps me immensely is that the Daybreak community has sent me on this sabbatical. . . . Although many of my Daybreak friends said, "We will miss you," they also said, "It is good for you and for us that you go." They affirm my vocation to be alone, read, write, and pray, and thus to live something new that can bear fruit not only in my own life but also in the life of our community.

Right now I have no excuses for anything but to embark on a journey and to trust that all will be well.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Sign of Hope

I watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral was gutted by the flames, a sobering loss that left impassive Parisians weeping and singing hymns under the smoke-filled sky. The loss of this 850-year-old architectural treasure and cultural icon is impossible to measure. Many of the skills that were used to build this magnificent structure no longer exist. They just don't build them like that anymore.

For the French people and 13 million visitors each year, it is an unthinkable loss. But beyond it's role as the symbol and heartbeat of Paris, Notre Dame is a church, an ancient house of worship, a cathedral originally raised to the glory of God. It's soaring beauty has gripped generations calling forth confession and praise. Roman Catholics and Christians of many traditions have found solace and comfort in the shadow of those majestic towers. Even the cynical have found hints of the divine in Notre Dame's timeless presence.

Bewildered people have asked, "How can this happen, and of all times, during Holy Week?" The faithful have no place to gather, to remember, to celebrate. Wherever they go to worship, it won't be the same. How sad for them.

Then I saw this picture. After the flames were finally extinguished, someone made their way through the smoldering ashes to see what was left of the altar. And there it was, gleaming in the smoky darkness. The cross remains. After the raging inferno, after the roof collapsed, after most of the inner structure was incinerated, the cross still stands, still shines. I thought about the words of an old hymn:

In the cross of Christ I glory, towering over the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.
When the woes of life o'ertake me, hopes deceive and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me: Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

Cathedrals rise and fall. People come and go, in dust and ashes. The cross remains, a sign of hope for all the world.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Birds in the Bathroom

It's a sure sign of Spring, but we may never notice it. In our mad rush to start each day and get where we're going, the sound escapes us, drowned out by whatever ambient noise plays background to our routine. I would miss it myself were it not for my ever-present reminder - a China painting, framed and hanging beside my bathroom mirror. It is the handiwork of Mrs. Marguerite Reeves, a tall, thin, stately, silver-haired lady from Texas. We called her Mom, all 180 of us residing in Eaton Hall at William Jewell College. I was one of Mom's resident assistants for two and half years at Jewell.

What a great lady she was, kind and gentle, never losing her temper or even raising her voice, yet she commanded respect. It was impossible to be rude to Mom without a lingering sense of embarrassment or shame. Drunken frat boys sobered up. Rowdy football players towed the line. Metal heads turned down the music. No one wanted to disappoint Mom.

Homesick boys found a friend at her door. Struggling students regained their confidence in her company. She listened far more than she spoke, but her words always carried the freight and got us back on track.

I started preaching in a little country church during my junior year and Mom was a big fan. Even though I didn't behave much like a pastor those days, she saw something hopeful in me. She once explained to a friend of mine, "Drew is a good boy, a little earthy, but a good boy."

Each semester Mom would pick a Sunday and require all of her resident assistants to get up, put on a suit, and make the one hour trip with her to Nettleton to hear me preach. Most of the guys went along because they didn't want to disappoint Mom, and they knew a wonderful Sunday dinner would be served after church. It still makes me smile to remember the guys crowded into our little pews, bleary-eyed, sometimes hungover, but Mom had all of her boys in church.

Once all of her assistants took Mom to dinner for her birthday. There were nine of us, all bigger than me, including blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. When we sang in the restaurant, "Happy birthday, dear Mom," several people stared at her in open-mouthed disbelief. Mom just smiled and nodded.  

When Suzanne and I got married after college, Mom painted this piece of china as a wedding gift. She told me about when her husband died and how she struggled to work through her grief and find her way forward. In those dark days a friend gave her a plaque with those same words, "My, ain't them birds hollern' purty this morning." She said just seeing those words each day helped her move on and find encouragement for each day. 

So, for thirty-seven years I have been reminded each morning to stop and listen and find hope for the day. My second mother continues to bless and encourage me all these years down the road. I bet it would work for you, too. Scribble those words on a sticky note in the corner of your mirror and see what happens. You might just have a better day, maybe even a better life.