Friday, April 16, 2021

Before


Before he was a black man, he was just a man, some mother's son.
Before she was a suspect, she was getting groceries on her way home from work.
Before he was a "thug," he was just a kid in a hoodie.
Before she was a victim, she was eating ice cream in her apartment. 

Before he was a hater, he was Daddy's little fishing buddy.
Before she was a bigot, she was in Mrs. Chaney's Sunday School class.
Before he was a Proud Boy, he was a volunteer firefighter.
Before she was a white supremacist, she was a soccer mom.

Before she profiled the driver, she was keeping an eye on her own kids.
Before he roughed up the suspect, he was fixing his neighbor's toilet.
Before she fired the shot, she was training new officers to use restraint.
Before he coerced a confession, he was playing hoops with the guys in the park.

Before we judge or condemn, before we imprison or execute,
Before we forget that there is guilt enough to go around and no one's hands are clean,
Before we give up this world to hatred and let the blood flow in the streets,
Before we watch hope die and wash what's left of love down the sewer drain...

Can we ever get back to before? What's done is done, we know. Nothing can undo it.
Too much tragedy, too little justice. The wounds are deep.

But can we not remember before, what was true before, who we were before?
Can you and I reclaim some piece of who we used to be, some fragment of innocence lost?
The after is so awful. Such wreckage and ruin, anger and despair. Before fades into darkness.
And yet, grace stands in the shadows, grace for the turning, if we would, to begin again, to return to the way we were ... before.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

A Not So Good Friday

Many years ago on Good Friday I led my congregation in the Service of Shadows, a Baptist version of Tenebrae, a new experience for most of our folks. As people arrived, the lights were low, only the altar area illuminated. Between the scripture and prayers we sang the old hymns, "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." Our worship focused on the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross symbolized with seven white candles on the communion table draped in black. With each reading, a candle was extinguished until finally the remaining lights came down and just one small candle held back the darkness in our cavernous sanctuary. 

"Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.' When he had said this, he breathed his last." - Luke 23:46 NIV  

In the silence the last flicker of light was extinguished. I had prepared our people to leave in the silence finding their way by the exit signs, departing quietly, praying and pondering, in preparation for Easter dawn. I walked out to the foyer and thought it best to step outside so that people wouldn't feel like they needed to shake my hand or speak to me.

I was standing outside in the darkness when I overheard the voices of an older couple heading to the parking lot. He said, "I don't like that sort of thing, so somber and sad. It's like somebody died or something."

What a confused lot we are when it comes to death, shunning the reality, avoiding the subject, even as we are awash in violence and bloodshed, disease and disaster, death on every corner, death dropping by almost daily. Yet, we put on a happy face as best we can and pretend it's not our problem, at least not today. 

I guess our mortality is not a cheery subject, I get that. Most of us would agree with Woody Allen - "It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Well, there's a reason why we call it "Good" Friday. The cross we remember and embrace takes our mortality seriously. The cross of Christ is strong medicine, God's method of extracting our sin and shame, our failure and futility, and infusing these mortal lives with an indestructible spirit, an unquenchable light that can stand against the darkness within us and around us. That's good news, isn't it? Maybe the best news of all.

Yep. Somebody died or something. Praise God. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Getting Unstuck

Have you ever been stuck? I mean really stuck. Stuck in the back of the line, stuck in traffic, stuck in TSA, stuck at the bottom of the list? How about running out of gas in a car wash or breaking down in your favorite drive thru lane? How embarrassing.

Or, how about being stuck in the Suez Canal, wedged in there sideways, blown around by the wind even though you weigh 220,000 tons and you're nearly a quarter mile long? That' pretty bad when you can't manage to navigate a straight line in a canal that is nearly a thousand feet wide at it's narrowest point. Imagine being stuck and causing such a backup on the Beltway, with 20,000 containers of groceries in your car and 367 truck drivers calling down curses and questioning your family heritage. Can you imagine being stuck for the whole weekend? Unthinkable.

As you've probably heard, the Ever Given has been set free from her near catastrophe, checked for damage, and will likely continue her voyage soon. And the costly bottleneck on the Suez will clear in a few days perhaps, and the investigations will be conducted. Someone, perhaps the captain or pilot, will have to face the music for this whole episode, unless the authorities chalk the whole thing up to "an act of God," a curious phrase in this largely unbelieving world. 

We don't envy the captain of the Ever Given. We wouldn't want to be in his shoes right now, but the truth is, we've all been there and done that. We've been stuck a time or two in our lives, sometimes because of our own bonehead moves, sometimes through no real fault of ours, but when the horns are blaring and our fiasco is there for all to see and other people are paying a price for our mistake, it's a bad feeling, one of the worst.

Setting the enormous Ever Given free took some serious digging. Heavy equipment was brought in to dig out the bow and stern on opposite sides of the canal. A mere 706,000 cubic feet of sand had to be removed. Ten tugboats were standing by but still helpless to move the behemoth. Then nature intervened. What finally did the trick was the rising tide, a spring tide, sometimes called a King tide, that swept in and hoisted the massive ship on to the waves once more. Amazing really. Nature, unimpressed by the Ever Given's colossal dimensions, swept it away like a sandcastle.

When you and I get stuck in life, publicly or privately, we can do our best to dig ourselves out. We can call in favors and friends to help, but what sets us free is almost always the tide, the rising tide, the irresistible tide of grace that seeps down to the depths and lifts us from the muck and the mire. We rise with the tide, thank God. For it is by grace we have been saved, unstuck, and set free.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Keeping the Lion Away

Yesterday, I noticed that Dolly Parton tweeted her sadness over the death of her friend, Charley Pride, who died of Covid 19 at the age of 86. A snarky stranger quickly responded saying, "If he really was a close friend, you'd know how to spell his name. And, he died 'with Covid,' not 'of Covid.'"

First off, it is "Charley" just as Dolly spelled it. But what really troubled me was the implication that people like Charley Pride die of all sorts of things and Covid 19 just happens to be standing around like an innocent bystander.  

Imagine a huge dazzle of zebras running wild and free on the plains of the Serengeti. All kinds of zebras - the young and strong that can run all day, the nearly newborn, still wobbly and vulnerable. The old zebras who wheeze and stumble as they strain to keep up. The partially lame, the blind in one eye, the sick and infirm. Don't forget the foolish, strong-headed zebras that wander off and stumble into precarious circumstances. 

All kinds of zebras roaming free. Free, but not always safe. You don't have to watch too many National Geographic videos to know that like most animals, zebras are prey, somebody's supper. Ask the zebras for a cause of death and what will they say? "It was the effing lions!" But you may say, "Well, they actually died 'with lions,' not 'of lions.' Those zebras had other health issues. They would have died eventually anyway."

I'm guessing the zebras would find small comfort in our ridiculous distinction. The one gnawing on your bones is the responsible party. 

Covid 19 is a predator, a killer that cuts down the most vulnerable and occasionally brings down a prime specimen or two. So maybe instead of trying to come up with rationales for taking this virus less seriously, we should keep the most vulnerable as safe as possible, surrounding them with our love and care, all of us doing our part to keep the lion away.    

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.