Wednesday, September 28, 2011

jesus, steve earle, and the gay pride parade

A couple of Sundays have passed since Ginger preached on the parable about the workers who get hired at various times during the day and then all get paid the same at quitting time (Matthew 20:1-16). It’s a bothersome parable on its own terms, made even more difficult when heard in American congregations filled with those who have been trained to raise up our so-called “self-made” heroes. The bullet points in the World Geography textbook from which I am asked to teach spell it out (without irony):

• The political system of the United States has been vital to the economic success of the country.
• The government established in 1789 reflected a shared belief in individual equality, opportunity, and freedom.
• These ideals supported an economic system based on capitalism, or free enterprise.
• One of the notions behind free enterprise is the belief that any hardworking individual can find opportunity and success in the United States.
The issue in the story, however, is not a question of effort or work ethic, but of opportunity. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” the master asked. “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. Had he been willing to take them all on the first trip, they all would have been willing to go.

But that’s not my point.

Some time during the week prior to her sermon, Ginger asked me what I thought about the parable. My initial response was to say our attitude about the story depends on where we find ourselves in it. If we think we are the ones who were hired first and worked longest, then the story feels unfair. If we see ourselves as those fortunate to get hired at all, grace abounds. The Saturday after her sermon, I sat in the hall of our Durham Performing Arts Center to hear one of my songwriting heroes, Steve Earle. In recent years, he has become an articulate spokesperson for progressive causes, an ant- death penalty advocate, and a disseminator of grace. His road to the present state has taken him through several failed marriages, a heroin addiction, and a stint in federal prison. As I listened to him speak and sing, I thought, “This is a guy who knows what it feels like to get found late in the day.”

A week after his concert, my Saturday was filled with our church’s involvement in the North Carolina Pride Festival and Parade. For almost thirty years, Durham has hosted our state’s gay and lesbian pride festival on Duke’s East Campus. For the last four years, my involvement has been on two fronts: leading the music for the inter-denominational Communion service and carrying the banner for our church in the parade. A couple of years ago, we decided we would have a short hymn sing before Communion, which takes place in an outdoor gazebo in the middle of food booths and other vendors. That first year, I chose songs I knew and loved. As we started singing “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” people began to gather and sing along. Some of them began to weep. I had, unwittingly, tapped into something deep. These were the songs of their childhood, of their faith before they came out and were told they no longer belonged. As we sang, they were able to reclaim what had been taken away from them in some sense. What once was lost became found.

Not all of them are old songs. One I particularly is listed as “For the Fruit of All Creation” in our hymnal. The final verse, which is my favorite of most any hymn says:
for the harvests of the Spirit
thanks be to God
for the good we all inherit
thanks be to God
for the wonders that astound us
for the truth that still confounds us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God
The parade route was heavily lined with well-wishers this year (and a few protestors), thanks to the North Carolina legislature’s decision to put a constitutional amendment to ban equal marriage or any kind of same-gender civil union on the primary ballot next May. As we walked and waved, people waved back and, when they saw we were a church group, said, “Thank you.” That scene played over and over. Somewhere along the route I, the straight white guy, heard the parable with new ears.

Yes, I was on to something when I said how we heard the story depended on where we saw ourselves in it. But I had missed one perspective. From the time I was first introduced to parables, the default setting, when it came to reading, was to assume the king or master or father in the story was God. What if that were not necessarily so? What if, instead of seeing ourselves as workers, we were the one hiring? What if we bring about the realm of God by going back to make sure everyone goes to work in the vineyard?

If God’s realm is one where parents forgive before their long-lost sons even ask forgiveness, where shepherds leave the whole flock to search out the lone lost sheep, where someone will spend the whole grocery budget to celebrate finding one coin in the couch cushions – and it is, then as the Body of Christ we are those called to keep going back, to keep hiring anyone who will work, to make sure everyone has enough, and to remind everyone that there is more enough love and grace to go around – especially those who were taught they did not belong. Isaiah proclaimed:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
In this story called life, we are cast as those called to incarnate the love of Christ to the whole wide world.

How can we afford to do otherwise?


Friday, September 23, 2011

thank you for being a friend

Yesterday was my best friend’s birthday.

Burt Burleson and I met at Baylor some thirty-five years ago this month. He was a freshman and I was a junior. I don’t remember the exact circumstance nor can I recall our days of getting acquainted; all I remember is we have been friends ever since. From Baylor, we moved up I-35 to Southwestern Seminary, which neither of us would have survived had it not been for the other. We were housemates there and then again in Dallas where he was Youth Minister at Lake Highlands Baptist Church and I did CPE at Baylor Medical Center. We’ve done more camps and retreats and youth banquets than I can count. Yet, whatever that number, it is eclipsed by the number of nights and days we have talked and dreamed and laughed and cried and played guitar together.

In the fall of 1986, I can remember calling Burt to mark that we had been friends for a decade. The significance for me, as one who had spent his life moving, was he was the first friend I had known for ten years and known where they were for all those ten years. Today I sent him a note to say the streak is still going. Thanks to Facebook, I have found lost friends from childhood, or they have found me, but Burt has been the Friend Who Stayed and for that I am deeply grateful.

Martin Marty once wrote in a little book called Friendship, “We have friends and we are friends in order that we do not get killed.”

As I stack up years, those words ring more and more true. Though Burt is not solely responsible, I am alive because we are friends. And I am grateful.

That just feels worth saying out loud.

As Andrew Gold sang in 1978 (before “The Golden Girls”)

and when we both get older
with walking canes and hair of gray
have no fear, even though it's hard to hear
I will stand real close and say,
thank you for being a friend


Thursday, September 22, 2011

traffic jam

the freeway of love –
that’s what we’ve called it
since the first week
we moved here
and began navigating
life in our new city

and we smiled
when traffic reports
of snarls and slow
downs brought back
memories of route 3
and real traffic

four years on
I wonder if
anyone has ever
calculated which car
moves things from
a crawl to a halt

which circumstance --
the pinhole in
the upstairs pipe
the sick schnauzer
my allergies your
disappearing dad

leaves us caught
once more in the rush
hour of the heart
stuck in grief
minds still racing
no exit in sight

but we can sing . . .
life is a highway
god bless the broken road
we’re going riding
on the freeway of love
and we can’t look back


Thursday, September 15, 2011

away or toward

Tuesday morning I went to work late so I could cook breakfast for a meeting with Clergy Beyond Borders who were meeting at our church as a part of their national tour. I made Blackberry French Toast and Figs Stuffed with Goat Cheese. And then I sat down to eat around a table of people of faith in God and in one another. There were three imams, two rabbis, a Fransiscan priest, some Protestant ministers, a couple of Unitarian-Universalist ministers, and some non-minister types as well. We ate and we talked.

As we talked, I realized I had been unwittingly prepared for the encounter by my friend Terry Allebaugh, whom I’ve mentioned before as the best harmonica player I have ever heard and who also is the founder and director of Housing for New Hope, an organization committed to ending homelessness in Durham. After our inter-faith service on September 11, he commented that he was moved to think that people were going two directions on that day: some were running away from the burning buildings and others were running into them to see whom they could save. Then he went on to say he wondered sometimes which way he would have run had he been in New York that day. “Then again,” he said, “it’s a live question everyday: which direction am I going? Depending on the day, it could go either way.”

Between Sunday and Tuesday, Terry’s words haunted me – and sent my mind and heart on meaningful sojourns. First, I thought of Jesus’ admonitions about the wide and narrow ways, and how few found the narrow way. Perhaps, I thought, the narrow may might be the road running toward. As we went around the table at the breakfast and those who were a part of CBB shared their experiences, they talked about taking time to listen to one another’s stories and to eat together – yet another narrow road. Taking time to listen doesn’t make most schedules these days.

Then I thought of the words of one of my favorite theologians, George Carlin, who had a great routine (that I was unable to find on Youtube) built around the idea that we as humans only do two basic things: we go out and then we come back.

We run away and we run into.

At the breakfast, they passed around a sheet with the “30 Commandments of Inter-Religious Dialogue” listed, which was written by Imam Yahya Hendi, “reflecting on fifteen years of experience in inter-religious dialogue.” The list was brilliant.

5. Thou shall never apologized for what is authentic in your own tradition.
8. Thou shall be quick to apologize and slow to take offense. And never too arrogant to say, “I am sorry.”
10. Thou shall accept the passion which others bring to the dialogue.
17. Thou shall not belittle nor misinterpret a smile.
20. Thou shall be inclusive in your language and actions.
21. Thou shall be patient.
24. Thou shall be courageous.
25. Thou shall be compassionate.
And then there was Number 26: Thou shall have hope.

When it was my turn to speak, I pointed to Number 26 to say it was a beautiful and difficult commandment. I said there, as I did in my last post, that fear had become the primary American value, which made listening of little value. We know how to run to opposite polls and yell at each other. To have hope is both crucial and difficult.

Imam Hendi listened well and responded by telling his story.

Imam Hendi and me
“My background is Palestinian,” he said. “If you look closely, you can see this scar on my face.” Under his mustache was a thin line that ran from his lip into his cheek. “When I was seven, I was beaten by several Israeli soldiers. I am now forty-five and I still don’t know why. But I made a choice after that beating to learn about those who had hurt me. So I learned Hebrew and I learned about Judaism and I learned how to talk to them. I have hope.”

“I do, too,” I answered. “I am just struck as we sit here at how utterly futile it seems in the face of everything that is happening. And how much it matters that we commit our lives to fail boldly in God’s name, to have faith in God and in one another.”

The most profound way we can set our lives to run into – to run toward – is to run toward each other. As I write that sentence, I realize it feels easier to run toward the inter-religious dialogue than an intra-Christian discussion sometimes. I see many of those with whom I share a Baptist heritage whose pain and hurt has led them to see faith and the church as something to grow out of, or grow beyond, or run away from. I pray that is not the final direction they choose.

Deuteronomy 28:6 says, “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” – a benediction for both directions of our lives, for, as Terry says, on any given day we don’t know which way we will be moving. And, as George Carlin says, it’s always one or the other. Whichever the direction, may it be with intention, courage, and hope.

I close with the benediction from our service at Pilgrim last Sunday:
Leader: May the Lord bless you and keep you.
People: May God’s face shine upon you and may God be gracious to you.
Leader: May God give you grace this day never to sell yourself short.
People: Grace to risk something big for something good.
Leader: Grace to remember that the world is now to dangerous for anything but truth.
People: And too small for anything but love.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

once below a time

I know.

Every blogger in America is working on something to say as we near the anniversary of September 11, 2001. I remember that crystal blue Tuesday morning as Ginger and I drove up the Southeast Expressway from Marshfield heading into Boston for a day of appointments. I remember the gradual awareness that the sky was more empty than clear, that cars were beginning to pull over and stop along the freeway, that WBUR was bearing awful, even unbelievable news of what was happening in New York, and then D. C., and then in a field in Pennsylvania. I remember parking the car so she could go and visit a parishioner who was dying in the hospital and I could go for my doctor’s appointment, which meant we had to leave each other and then find each other again without much help from our cell phones. I remember sitting in the Chili’s in Hingham unable to eat as CNN played the loop of the planes hitting the Towers endlessly. And I remember going with Ginger that night to open up the sanctuary at North Community Church – our church in Marshfield – so people could come and sit or pray or simply be together.

The story of that day began eight days before: September 3 – Labor Day, which was the day I went into the free fall that I learned to name as Depression. The storm clouds had been gathering for some time, but I had not given them much heed. For the previous decade, Labor Day had marked my last day of summer before I returned to teaching high school English. That September I had planned to step out of the classroom, since we had moved too far away for me to continue to drive back to Winchester High School, and I was going to write as if it were my job. Instead of walking into a new chapter of my life, I crashed and found myself more broken than I knew. In the days that followed September 11, I remember seeing an image of a man falling from one of the Towers. I knew how he felt. I had never felt the kind of despair and shame and worthlessness that swallowed me that day, though I am sure I was not the first one in the world to feel it.

In his memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, Frederick Buechner began by speaking of his childhood before his father’s suicide as “once below a time,” using a phrase he borrowed from Dylan Thomas.

“Once below a time,: he says in his poem “Fern Hill,” meaning, I assume, that, for a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless. (9)
I find meaning in the phrase by taking it quite out of the context of both men because it has little to do with my childhood or coming of age, but more to do with coming to terms with the covered up wounds and wrongs that had festered and darkened until they pulled me down below a time where I struggled to breathe and remember who I was. It was almost eight years before I began to feel as though I was upon a time once more. I did not find my way back as much as I was found by God’s love and grace incarnated mostly through Ginger who clung to me with sacred tenacity even though my depression cost her perhaps more deeply than it did me.

As we were getting ready for church on September 9, Ginger said, “If you can, I think you should ask for prayer this morning.” When the time came to share our joys and concerns, as we like to say, I raised my hand and did my best to say I needed prayer because I was depressed in ways I had never been. After the service, one person came up and said, “I know how you feel. I feel that way, too. I just didn’t know we could talk about it out loud.” What I learned that day I have relearned many days since: my pain, however deep and profound to me, is not unique. There is a reservoir of grief, despair, and loneliness that connects us all. When I think it is about me, all I can see is the endless darkness that falls below time. When I understand I am a part of a spectrum of pain and joy, both unspeakable, I have the chance to stumble into grace.

In the days that followed September 11, we all hung our flags on our fences and porches and found solidarity for a few weeks that has eluded since, for the most part. Much of the world offered resonating words. One French newspaper carried the headline, “Nous Sommes Américains” – we are all Americans. Yet, our solidarity soon focused our fears in a way that made us quick to tell the rest of the world they were not us, nor were we interested in being them. Our grief and pain were not things they could understand. To those in Rwanda and Uganda and Congo, to those who had survived Hitler’s death camps, to those whose cities had been bombed in Germany and Vietnam, to those who had lived through despicable regimes in Chile and Cambodia, we have not sought resonance but too often have made it seem as though we feel our pain has somehow superseded them all.

Ten years on, we have let our fear get the best of us and it has torn us to pieces.

In 1994, when the Towers still stood, David Wilcox wrote a song called “Show the Way” that I wish were our national anthem (and, yes, I know I have quoted them before):
you say you see no hope
you say you see no reason we should dream
that the world would ever change
you're saying love is foolish to believe
'cause there'll always be some crazy
with an army or a knife
to wake you from your day dream
put the fear back in your life
look, if someone wrote a play
just to glorify what's stronger than hate
would they not arrange the stage
to look as if the hero came too late
he's almost in defeat –
it's looking like the evil side will win
so on the edge of every seat
from the moment that the whole thing begins
it's love who mixed the mortar
and it's love who stacked these stones
and it's love who made the stage here
although it looks like we're alone
in this scene set in shadows
like the night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it's love that wrote the play
for in this darkness love can show the way
so now the stage is set
don’t you feel you own heart beating in your chest
this life's not over yet
so we get up on our feet and do our best
we play against the fear
we play against the reasons not to try
we're playing for the tears
burning in the happy angel's eyes
it is love who makes the mortar
and it's love who stacked these stones
and it's love who made the stage here
although it looks like we're alone
in this scene set in shadows
as if night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it's love that wrote the play
for in this lifetime love can show the way
He’s right. It’s not over yet. After all, it’s only been ten years.