9/11/2020

“I’m sad,” several people have said to me today.

I understand.

And after sitting with that feeling myself a lot in recent weeks, I’ll share this much that I know:

I stared at the rich Birmingham cloudscape as I drove this afternoon, praying all the while for you, my West Coast friends and your kin and neighbors, spending this day under anxious, orange, ash-choked skies – those, that is, with enough space, at best, to look up from imperiled yet intact houses and unscorched streets.

Regardless of one’s politics, 9/11 is fraught with memory and some form of grief.

True also for the wrenching toll of COVID, from death to disruption, from hard choices to hidden realities of the entire scope of human suffering.

And then: there really is no circumstance that compels sympathy from me for our current president. Yet I acknowledge the ache to offer equilibrium in the midst of terrible tragedy, to conjure up steady presence even when the news is grim, to open your arms wide to hold the pain and uncertainty of those you’re tasked to lead. I’m not saying he feels that way. I myself feel that way and so do many of you – and I found that thought buried in his words about deception.

I put my faith in grace and some days that’s like breathing fumes.

Black Lives Matter. Period. I don’t know how to say that any more clearly.

In a season of quiet, complex pastoral care, there’s a constant tangle of “you’ve got to be kidding me – how much more can this good soul have to deal with?” and “okay, that’s a good step – at least for right now, I think” – all mixed in with the sorrow of not being able to do more and the humble peace of being trusted with intimate stories of joy and struggle.

Every one of us here – at one level or another – carries some version of this weight right now. The notion that we’re all in this together – which is the reality of interdependence – has grown, as it tends to do in the neoliberal age, into a competition for the moral or material high ground or at least the code to the bunker of some fictive, exclusive safety. That’s one of the deepest shames of this whole moment.

We are sad.

And rightly so.

Yet as long as we have breath in us, we are blessed with life. That is no small blessing.

May we breathe, grieve, hope, pray, learn, share, wherever this night finds us.

This is what I know.

Amen

Questions in Advent

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year.*  We immerse ourselves in the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and the journey of his life. We are called to pause and reflect, even (and especially) amid the Christmas marketplace chaos.

Advent is also an excellent time to reflect on the questions that guide us. Productivity gurus tout the magic of goal setting. Cultural conditioning instructs us to know – and proclaim our knowledge of – all the answers.

But I learn a lot from sitting with questions. A couple have travelled with me for many years: how can such joy and such suffering exist simultaneously in our world? And how ought I to live in the face of this dissonance?

I expect to grapple with these questions as long as I have breath in me.

Others are more transitory, such as – how do I live into and love the work of this moment? what words and actions can I usefully contribute in this cultural climate? what exactly is that cultural climate even anyway?

Those who listen to me regularly know that I consider all time holy. Yet each season carries that sacredness in a different manner. The rhythm of Christian life offers us the continual discipline of lifting our spirits and opening our hearts. It also gives us time to reflect, to discern, and to grow in wisdom and understanding.

I invite you in these early days of the Christian year, in this sacred time of waiting and hoping, of rejoicing and contemplation, to spend some time with your questions – or, if need be, to work on figuring out what questions you might journey with in the days, months, and years ahead.

May you find blessing in that journey.

Amen

(*my sermons, never especially long by conventional standards, are particularly brief during Advent because Beloved has a tradition of glorious extra music during this season. Consider this a sermon outtake 🙂)

 

An Invocation for a Liquor Store

A friend had put extraordinary heart and energy into creating a lovingly curated liquor store in her home neighborhood in Birmingham – years after she had been forced out of a similar community endeavor by rising rents in Brooklyn.

Community ministry involves showing up, so when she invited me to bless the store at its public opening, I offered the following:*

Creator and Creation,

We come to this place in a spirit of blessing.

Bless it from roof to floor,
from wall to wall,
from its foundation to the sky.

May all harm be banished,
all disturbance cease.
May the spirit of joy and kindness and protection
and abundance and well-being
dwell within these walls.

May love be shared here.
May peace be shared here.
May all who work here be grounded in goodness.
May all who come here find friend, haven, and resilience.

We pray for wisdom and clarity for
all who are in business – and especially for LeNell –
that their talents may be used for prosperity
not only for themselves,
but for the world.

May blessings abound in this place.

In the name of all that is sacred,

Amen

*this blessing takes an initial cue from a house blessing in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and riffs from there.

A Prayer for the Morning of the National Prayer Breakfast

I hear the National Prayer Breakfast is taking place this morning in Washington. 
 
Here in Alabama, as I sit with my coffee, I am praying this prayer –

Gracious and Loving God,
 
I lift up to you this morning the weary and determined spirits of those everywhere who love justice and mercy, who seek to live with compassion and joy and commitment, and who daily do that work as best they can.
 
I count myself among this number and ask for wisdom and guidance and skill in my own work, that I might be an instrument of your love and light in this world.
 
I lift up the disenfranchised and dispossessed, those from whom land and life and the means of life have been taken, those who have been denied the basic dignity and respect due to all people.
 
I lift up the anxieties and fears that weigh upon the hearts of so many. I pray for comfort and courage to face whatever lies ahead.
 
I lift up hard hearts and closed minds and bitter spirits and selfish interests that they might be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 
I lift up the powers of this world – greed and power-seeking and ego-gratification and cruelty – that we might recognize them for what they are, wherever they are and from whomever they come. I pray for strength and insight for us all in confronting such sin wherever it comes from.
 
I lift up the Earth which gives rise to all that is good, which we must protect and nurture and cherish and love with our whole broken hearts. I pray for ecosystems and plants and rocks and animals and hills and mountains and rivers and seas and all the planet.
 
For all in need, I pray for healing, solace, wisdom, courage, justice, compassion, insight, and hope.
 
I pray for us all.
 
It is the example of Jesus that has taught me the love that I bring to this prayer and it is in that spirit that I pray.
 
Amen.

Crucify Whom?

Today is Good Friday.

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

Black bodies?

Transgender bodies?

Undocumented immigrant bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Poor bodies?

Disabled bodies?

Lesbian bodies?

Addicted bodies?

Refugee bodies?

The body of the earth and its non-human living things?

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

 

Morning Prayer in a Difficult World

Oh my God,

When we come upon the
morning in a world
covered in fear and blood and
harsh words and pain
real pain –

When we hesitate to open our
eyes or our ears or
our minds or our hearts
because we don’t know what will happen –

When we face sorrow and meanness and
uncertainty all around us
When we witness so much hurting
When we are so hurt
When we cause so much hurt –

Oh my God,
we turn to you for
love
wisdom
a quiet moment

we turn to you to remember
who we were created to be

we turn to you to remember
the holy is all around us.

Oh my God,
for this day,

may we be so full of
your love that it overflows into
a world that so desperately needs it

so full of your love
that we
speak words of both
mercy and
justice

may we be solace to those
who need it.

may we witness the
indwelling of your Spirit
in all those around us and in
the whole of creation

may we know your peace
in our hearts
for this day before us.

Amen.

For the Grief of the World – the Grief of the Whole World

I awoke this morning thinking not only about the horrible attacks in Paris, but about the fact that around 4 dozen people were killed in a terrorist attack in Beirut on Thursday.

Last night I grieved publicly for the deaths in Paris.

On Thursday I said nothing.

There are thousands of people killed on a daily basis around the globe in spasms of senseless violence, in ideological moves for power and control.

Most of the time I say nothing. Most of the time if I stop to grieve at all its in the abstract.

One shred of clarity I have in midst of all of this horror is the conviction that no one life ought to be valued more than any other. According to my faith (and many other faiths and the beliefs of people of no faith at all in their own ethical language), we are all precious children of God.

It may be easier for me as an urban person of European descent to identify with urban European people out for an evening’s meal or music who die a needless death. And the incidents in Paris are a deep, deep tragedy.

But neither must I allow myself the luxury of grieving only them. I must not overlook and must not forget the violence we humans do to one another (and to the earth) on daily basis. Its sheer magnitude is heartbreaking and daunting. But that fact must not keep us from finding ways to care for one another, That fact must not keep us from working to bring about peace and justice for all people.

A Midweek Morning’s Prayer

Gracious and loving God,

This morning I pray across the
great gaps of our differences,
across the pain we cause one another.
I grieve my own complicity –
intentional or unintentional –
in the suffering of of the world.
I lift up our yearnings for justice,
our deep desires for wisdom,
the kindness we hope to
give and to receive.
You have created us
in love, for love.
May we embody that
love with our lives.

Amen.

Everyday Blessings: Or an Orthodontist, a Request, and a Cue from Grandmama

During our recent travels, my daughter ran out of the rubber bands that attach to her braces to correct her bite. It was a simple miscalculation. Problem is, we get those from her orthodontist, 1000-odd miles away from where we were staying. You can’t just walk into Rite Aid or Walgreens and pick up a few packs.

“Maybe we can get some from another orthodontist,” I said. “We can offer to pay for them. Surely they’ll go for that.” I picked the closest orthodontist office and off we went, just before we were due to leave town for our next stop up the road.

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We entered the office to find two women in scrubs seated behind a long reception desk. A man in a tie and jacket stood between them, discussing paperwork. Each of them adopted a serious face as I explained our quest and our willingness to purchase these rubber bands.

The two women glanced to the man, whom I correctly surmised to be the senior orthodontist. He was not seeing patients that day, but he stared at us for a moment and then said, “We don’t sell those.”

I prepared to plead.

He paused, looked at us, and continued, “You know what? I can give them to you. Ours are a little different, but if you hand me those (empty) packs, I’ll see what we’ve got that’s close.”  The orthodontist disappeared into the back of the office and reemerged after several minutes with 2 packs of rubber bands similar to those my daughter uses. He handed them to her and told her, rather gravely, “These ought to help until you get home.”

I wanted to thank him. He’d already refused money. The office was a rather understated set-up, into which effusive offerings of words would likely strike a dissonant note.  We all stood there for a quiet half-second.

And then it hit me.

When my grandmama requested and received a favor from someone, she would invariably tell them, “Ask me to do something for you next time.” Though she died five years ago, I can still hear those words in her voice. She meant them – and because she offered them with sincerity and grace, they evoked a resonant power.

Our situation, however, did not lend itself to such mutuality of engagement. Within minutes we would be leaving the state.

I repeated our thanks – and then it came to me. Echoing from the memory of my grandmother, I heard these words from my lips:

“May someone do something kind for you.”

The man’s face softened as he acknowledged our thanks and our blessing.

I walked away thinking about how this and similar small blessings might be repeated, either audibly or silently, throughout our days. Having simple rituals could enable us to reach out to those around us, to engage with them in a new spirit. How might the world and our own lives be better if we came to know and rely on a reflexive blessing or two?

I can think of any number of situations where our (ahem, my) reflex is the opposite – when I crack my elbow against a doorframe or encounter a car whose driver stubbornly refuses to let me merge on the expressway; when I hear the voice of an antagonistic politician or a the words of a neighbor proclaiming some old racist or homophobic fallacy. I can jump to a reflexive curse pretty quickly. And as southerner, I know that “bless your heart” often signifies a problem rather than a sincere wish.

But what if I had on hand simple words and rituals that speak of and to that which is good? Could I make kindness and connection come more easily to me? Could I make it my automatic response to recognize and honor that part of God that dwells within each person?

I’m sure plenty of people already do so, including those in faith traditions other than my own. But mainline Christianity as I’ve known it has not given me much experience in this area. I don’t have the words waiting for me. I may be prepared to fuss or cuss, but I’m not ready to bless.

I want to change that.

“May someone do something kind for you” is thus becoming one of my regular refrains, a small blessing I aim to offer throughout the day when I encounter manifest kindness.

(and if people use or create other everyday blessings, I’d love to hear the words that work for them).

I acknowledge that these are small and simple words in a big, complicated, and often bleak world. I’m not suggesting that such everyday blessings are a revolutionary means of righting wrongs and upending injustices. Instead, they serve as one way of deliberately connecting ourselves to other human beings. We cultivate an awareness of our interdependence and of our mutual need for deep kindness. It’s a step away from the dehumanization that infects our culture. It points toward transformation – in the image of God – of ourselves and our relationships to one another.

May someone do something kind for you.