Wednesday, June 27, 2012


When I was a kid growing up here in Memphis, the front porch was a well used part of our home. The porch had room for a swing, a couple of canvas folding chairs and still a pretty good sized spot we kids could gather to play board games--chiefly Monopoly. As soon as the weather was warm enough, after Mom finished her housework for the day, she made her way to the porch, sat in the swing and watched the world go by. Well, perhaps not the world, but our neighborhood certainly.
In those days of small iceboxes and daily delivery of ice to keep things cool, several trips a week to our little neighborhood shopping area were required. We had a small grocery, not much larger than a modern convenience store, but we obtained all our food from it. We had a hardware store, an ice cream parlor, a family practitioner--ole Doc Kessler, a barber, a shoe repair shop, a drug store, a drygoods store, a movie house, a service station, a dry cleaners, our church, and a couple of “beer joints” all within a 5 or 6 minute walk from our house.  
We of course knew the names of all the shop keepers and they knew ours. Everybody had credit at the stores and customer service hadn’t been invented as a concept, but we had plenty of that too. I remember going to our grocery to buy a round steak for dinner. Mr. Fratini was out of round, so he sold me sirloin at round prices. The owner of the local movie theater knew exactly when I turned twelve; that was when I had to start paying adult ticket price of thirty-five cents.
Because making frequent trips to the shopping area was required of most folks, Mom could sit in her swing and visit with our neighbors as they came and went. Our next door neighbor and my Mom were best friends, but she was Miz Haffey and Mom was Miz Harber whenever they greeted each other or Miz Haffey stopped to gossip. Only now and then were they Bess and Elsie to each other. Each could rely on the other and cups of flour and sugar flowed back and forth between our homes. David and Johnny, two of their kids nearest my age and I played together every day, as we did with all the other kids up and down our street.  
We were a community of Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Baptists and who knows what else and none of that mattered. Casseroles were always ready when there was a death or a crisis in someone’s life. Being in touch, knowing each other was so important. 
When I left that neighborhood at age twenty, I never again experienced that sense of closeness and community to that degree. In the late sixties and early seventies, I got a CB radio. As I made my way up and down the Interstate between Nashville and wherever I was living, or when we were on a trip, that CB radio became something like our front porch. We talked and were talked to. Once while driving on a brand new stretch of Interstate in West Virginia, we were running low on gas. The highway was too new to have stations at each interchange, and the ones in the little towns that were spaced too far apart were closed because night was falling. I called out on the CB for anyone who might know where the nearest gas could be found. Finally, a trucker answered and gave us a mile marker location. I thought we might make it but I wasn’t sure. He said, “Don’t worry; I’m a new car transport running empty. If you run out of gas, I’ll come get you and haul you on board.” He was waiting for us at the gas station as I almost coasted in on empty. That kind of thing would have happened in my neighborhood, but it was getting rarer in my world then.
My world was very safe and circumscribed when I was a kid in the 40s and 50s. Much less so in the 60s and 70s. The number of connections in our lives dropped and when we did connect, it was often in the impersonal world of the CB radio. Not that I didn’t know people in my community; I did--those who lived on either side of us and perhaps across the street! It was rare for any store owner to know my name or for me to know theirs.  Frankly, I felt a little like I’d slipped my moorings and was drifting almost alone.
Today we have Twitter, Facebook, texts, unlimited calling, email and more. I “friend” people and they “friend” me without every needing to speak to each other. I read the text message from kids or grandkids and try to figure out the meaning of the cryptic symbols. I fumble at replying wondering why I don’t just call them. We interact more than we ever have as a people, but we may know each other less than we ever have before. I think all this need to connect electronically is somehow related to our need to belong to a group or at least have meaningful relationships. Are these electronic tools important? Sure, were it not for email, there are friends and acquaintances I’d hardly ever connect to, but, is this kind of connection that for which we really long?
Maybe not. Howard Clinebell, a noted pastoral theologian, has opined that the single most important need in our lives is to love and to find love in a dependable relationship. Maybe that need to love and be loved fuels our need to share apparently random moments or thoughts we have on some electronic device. Surely it is that need that takes us to prayer and worship because of all the relationships in the world, the most dependable one is God’s love for us.
Just some thoughts as summer approaches and we go, not to our front porches, but to our backyard decks to relax and get away from it all! Except for the smartphone or iPad with wifi.
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is It Too Late to Talk About Fathers?

Jesus always speaks of God as father, even to the point of using the word “abba” which is roughly equivalent to our word “daddy.” Our liturgies use this same imagery almost exclusively. It’s historical, of course, but it’s also troublesome to at least two groups of people: those who prefer inclusive language and those for whom the word “father” conjures up bad, even horrible images from childhood.
I’m absolutely in favor of inclusive language and was using it more than thirty years ago when I was a campus minister--much to the discomfort of some of my more traditional students. But this is not what I want to write about today. It is the second group, those who have bad images of the word, to whom I want to speak. (If you’re not one of them, keep reading and perhaps you’ll learn something that you can use to help your friends who have this matter with which to deal.)
As a therapist, it was not uncommon for clients to share with me stories of fathers--and mothers--that would range from sad to heart-breaking to almost criminal. To talk with them about God as a loving father would be something very difficult for them to grasp. Driven by guilt because of the verbal abuse and emotional abandonment they felt, they simply couldn’t relate to a father’s love. They were sure they were unlovable themselves, unloveable by anyone for that matter. They couldn’t even begin to love themselves. As a consequence, they were unhappy and their emotional and relational lives were often in tatters. Frequently, they had stopped going to church years before. Those who still did attend typically were driven there by the fear of what God, this celestial judge, would do to them if they didn’t go.
How does one begin to help someone accept a different way of thinking about God when faced with these kinds of life experiences? I found only one thing that helped. When I was a kid, radio and later TV offered images of fathers quite different from these clients’ images. Father Knows Best, Beaver, Andy Griffith, to name only a few provided images of fathers as kind, compassionate, understanding, wise, available, and, of course, loving. Sure they were idealized images in many ways. Even my Dad with whom I had a very close relationship didn’t quite rise to these standards! However, the idea of an idealized image of father was the key to helping.
Even those traumatized by their fathers had been exposed to better models. Often they would speak of a friend’s father as someone they wished they had as their own. Perhaps they saw some of the positive images on TV, but had dismissed them as “Hollywood fantasies.” Still, they had a starting place. Imagine, I would say, the perfect father, the father you always wished you had, the father that was way too good to be true. Imagine the father who wouldn’t tell you that big boys and girls don’t cry when they skin their knees, but rather the father who comforts you, tends to the physical wound and binds up your damaged ego for having fallen. Imagine the father who would tell you how proud he was of your efforts and achievement rather than always demanded more and better performance. Imagine the father, who when you disappointed him, would forgive you, encourage you, and let you know he’d always be there and always love you, disappointments and all.  Imagine this, I’d say, and you have a tiny glimpse of who God is. God is, not just the father like this, but also the mother like this. God is the perfect parent who gave us life and then hung around, as it were, to help us develop that life, loving us even when we felt unlovable and even when we thought we didn’t make the mark.
For a very long time now, I have stopped beginning my prayers with phrases like, “Almighty God,” or “Eternal Father,” or similar titles. Instead I almost universally begin with “Gracious God,” sometimes followed by, “Loving Parent.” It’s not that I don’t believe God is almighty and eternal, I do.  But God’s chief quality for me is graciousness and love for all.
So, though I’m a little late saying it, “Happy Father’s Day” both to the fathers and to the children who have God as their parent.
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why Did Mary Think Jesus Was Nuts?

Sunday’s Gospel had a troubling subtext for me. It hit me as it was being read and then I came home and reflected on it more. I thought I’d share it with you so you can be troubled too. After all, aren’t theologians to ask questions as much as have answers?
The reading describes Jesus busy teaching a large crowd. While he’s teaching, his family, that is his mother, his brothers and his sisters arrive. They can’t get to Jesus because of the crowd, but word comes to him that they are outside and are calling to him. Jesus utters his famous saying about who is actually his family and it’s not about biology.  Jesus describes “family” as those who do the will of God; they are his “brother and sister and mother.” This is an obvious subtext and important truth and I’m all over the idea.  Both Matthew and Luke report the same large crowd and his family showing up, and his new definition of family. Clearly these three writers believe it to be a core teaching of Jesus so this subtext preserves an important truth for the Kingdom. 
But only Mark includes some other information and this is the troubling part to me. Why does Jesus’ family come? They come “to restrain him,” because people have been saying that he has “gone out of his mind,” and that he’s possessed of the devil.  Matthew and Luke don’t include this. It seems a little too disrespectful of Jesus I suppose, but I’m OK with their not including it for whatever their reason was. However, Mark did include it and I think it’s problematic.
Mark doesn’t have the beautiful and iconic birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke. There is no mention of Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus. None in John either, by the way. Had he ever heard that story? If he did, Jesus’ birth wasn’t the important thing for Mark; it was Jesus’ obedience and death that mattered most. Many NT scholars describe the first half of Mark as the prelude to the Passion Narrative that makes up the second half. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t mention the birth story; I don’t know. What I do know is that in Matthew and Luke, Mary plays quite a role in the birth story, including being told that the one she will carry will “be called holy, the Son of God.” So, for Matthew and Luke, she knows from the beginning who Jesus is and what his mission is.
Here’s comes the troubling part for me.  If she knew from the beginning, why now is she thinking the crowds might be right, that her son has lost his marbles or become possessed? I have some trouble reconciling these two things. I can do it, but it requires some mental gymnastics I’m not that happy to have to perform. I think we can say from Mark’s perspective, she didn’t know. Why? She didn’t get advanced notification that her unborn son was to be the son of God. 
In teaching early Christianity classes, I have mentioned that many early Christian communities in the first and early second century had no idea Jesus was born of a virgin and was predestined to be the Messiah. Why? From about 55 AD to 70 AD, they only had Paul’s letters and he makes no mention of it. From 70 AD to about 85 AD, they only had Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel. Sure, maybe they had some oral tradition about it, but as far as written documents which were read in their worship--no mention. This statement has freaked out more than one of the more conservative students. The implication is simple: believing in the virgin birth wasn’t a condition of being a faithful Christian.
So what? Just this: the larger truth for me is this: a set of propositions about what to believe doesn’t seem to need to be at the heart of our faith. After all, Jesus says his family is made up of those who do the will of God--no mention of believing the right set of ideas. Before I get called a heretic, let me make it clear that I’m not suggesting the ideas of the Creeds are unimportant. I’m quite willing to say they are important--just not the litmus test of faith. Again, I appeal to Jesus himself as portrayed in the Gospels. He is clearly much more about how we behave in response to God’s love than what set of things we believe.
As it turns out, as I’ve written this, I find I’m not troubled at all by Mark’s story. I am fascinated though.  What about you?
Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Having Visions

[This is a sermon I preached the Tuesday after Trinity Sunday. It’s a little bit longer than the usual post.]

Ever have a vision? Last March I had something like a vision. I’m a little bit stunned to be saying that, because I think of myself as a very rational person. Visions, it seems to me, are reserved for those that are perhaps more intune to their emotional side--those who live completely by their feelings and their hearts. I don’t see that in myself. Yet, here I was, feeling something irrational, a kind of vision. Here’s the story.

My parents are both dead and buried at Forest Hill Cemetery not very far from where Elvis was briefly entombed. Mom’s birthday is June 22 and Pop’s is July 3, so each year on one of those days, I visit their graves. I can’t remember going any other time except around their birthdays. But last March, I began to have an urge to visit the cemetery. It was every day, and some days it was several times a day. It wasn’t just a thought that I might go, it was a sense that I needed to go, had to go, would keep feeling bugged about it until I went. Finally after about a week of this, I gave in and on this particularly warm March day, I got in my car and headed out.

As I drove toward the graves, I began to feel relaxed, less driven, as if I’d been told to do something and now that I was doing it, everything was OK. I wound my way through the cemetery roads to the very southern edge and parked at the foot of the stone walk that led up to their graves. It was like any other day I’d visited, sunny, bright, mostly quiet, but with some road sounds from the nearby interstate.

When I reached the end of the stone walk and arrived at their graves, I was stunned to see my mother’s grave stone was missing. Where it had been was just pine needles.  Thinking maybe the stone had settled, but not sure how it could have happened since it had been there since 1978, I used my foot to scrape away the needles. I fully expected to find the stone, but it wasn’t there. Suddenly, I understood why I’d felt the urge to go to the graves out of season. It was as if an angel had been pushing me to make something right that had gone terribly wrong.

Isaiah had a vision too, but his was more graphic than mine. And in the face of the angels who visited him, he uttered the words that have become famous: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Put more simply, he realized in the face of the angelic visitation that something was very wrong. He was a man who had not honored the Lord God and he was a part of a nation that had not honored him as well. You know, such a realization has got to bring you to your knees if you’re at all open to God’s love. 

When we realize we have come up short in our relationship with God, the sensitive ones among us will likely feel devastated. When I saw my mother’s headstone gone, there was a sudden hole in my gut. Someone who deserved honor had been dishonored. I knew I hadn’t done it, but the people who are a part of my world had. I was aware that my relationship with my mother had not always been what either one of us had wanted. The thought grieved me. I had long ago reconciled myself to the belief that she did the best she could as a mother, but I wasn’t sure I’d done the best I could as a son. It was as if I had unclean lips; but I’d make this particular wrong right.

Don’t all of us have those times when we know we have been less faithful than we could have been. We’ve seen Jesus hungry and we haven’t fed him; we’ve seen him sick and we haven’t visited him. We’ve seen Jesus naked or in tatters and we haven’t clothed him; we’ve seen Jesus in prison and we didn’t visit. We’ve seen him beaten on the side of the road and we’ve walked by, looking away. No wonder we feel as if we’re unclean or unworthy.

When Isaiah realized his sinfulness, he was astonished at something else. After pronouncing himself unclean and unworthy, he said something we really need to hear: “Yet,” he said, “my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” God had seen past Isaiah’s failings and had shown him a vision of himself which Isaiah had thought could never happen. When we’re offended by someone, we might avoid them like the plague. They don’t deserve our love or our friendship. I’ve heard it said, “Shoot, I would spit on him if he was on fire,” so unforgiving they were.

But God isn’t bound by how we might act. He showed himself to the undeserving Isaiah because it is God’s nature to seek out those who are most distant from him and draw them close. To clinch the deal, one of the angels took a coal from the altar and touched it to Isaiah’s lips and pronounced that his guilt was removed and his sin blotted out. That what God does. This sacrament we will receive in a few minutes is given to us without regard to our deserving. It is given to us because God understands our need. One of the ancient prayers we sometimes say sums it up this way, “We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under your table, but you are the same God whose nature is to always have mercy.”

I’ve known people to stay away when communion is served just because they don’t think they deserve it. Well, let me suggest the ones who come because they are sure they’re good enough to receive it are the mistaken ones. God gives each of us grace because without it we can’t survive, not because we are deserving or because we’ve been good.
Which parent sitting here today if estranged from their child wouldn’t still love them and welcome them to the dinner table at any time. We feed them because they are hungry and we love them. It’s just that simple and God is infinitely better at parenting than we are.

When Isaiah was reminded of his value to God and reminded that his sin was no impediment to a relationship, God asked, “Whom will I send to tell others this good news of unbroken covenant and unbound love? Who will go and spread the joy of unconditional grace?” Isaiah doesn’t hesitate, “Here am I, send me!” What will we say? 
We’re being asked the same question in our time. Returning to the inadequate metaphor of my mother’s missing headstone that I’ve been using, who else would go? I am the last child, who but I would be asked to go? I went and eventually, the wrong was made right. If we go, wherever we go because God has sent us, the wrongs of separation will be made right because it is God’s nature to love, to be merciful and to be gracious. Bask in that as your lips touch the coal of bread and wine, but leave the moment with a renewed sense of vocation. “I will go; send me.”
Peace, Jerry