Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Faith and Theology: It's a Boy! A Christmas eve homily

Faith and Theology: It's a Boy! A Christmas eve homily

Read this sermon by Kim Fabricius. I keep reading things by Kim over at Faith and Theology. He is a pastor over in Wales with a prophet's vision and a poet's sword. Just the thing to make your Christmas.

Here's the teaser. . .

Does this little one care about who you are, about your sex, sexuality, politics, or even whether you believe in God, or what God you believe in? No, he reaches out, unquestioningly, to you in your elemental humanity. He wants only your tenderness, moist like cattle breath, warm like straw.

Read the rest.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'm Going to Walk: An Advent Meditation on Strong, Dark-Skinned Mothers-To-Be

When Irie gave birth to our daughter we showed up at the hospital, parked in the garage as practiced, and then rode up the elevator to the main floor. Irie's contractions were monster, so the walk was very slow, and very painful.

When we reached the main floor lobby a dozen plus wheelchairs sat in dereliction at the front door. I told Irie I was going to grab one, but she refused. "No, I'm going to walk," she said. We continued across the floor, each small step revealing just how far we had to go. We were caught in Zeno's paradox. How could we ever get to the maternity floor if an infinite number of lesser points stood in our way?

And - and this is what really peeved me - why was the maternity ward on the third floor anyway?

We had now come to tortoise speed. And not just any tortoise, but clawed-foot tortoise - chryogenically frozen - and stuck in L.A. traffic - speed. I felt people's eyes. They could not bear to look at Irie. So they were looking at me. I knew what they were thinking. I was thinking it too. "Why don't you get that woman a wheelchair you idiot first-time dad?"

But still, Irie protested. "No. I'm going to walk."

I tell all this because I've been thinking of why it was that Mary was in Bethlehem.

We know the story. "And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. . ." And so Joseph went from Galilee to Judea to the city of David. And Mary, who was great with child, went with him.

I've always read the fact that Mary went with Joseph as a sign of the callousness of Caesar's census. And no doubt Caesar and his policies were indeed cruelly callous.

But my experience with Irie has me wondering if perhaps Mary went with her husband, not because she had to, but because she chose too.

I am wondering if maybe Mary decided to stand up and walk because she belonged to that long line of strong dark-skinned women who - the midwives stingingly told Pharaoh - "are not like the Egyptian women, but are vigorous in child birth."

And I wonder if she got up and walked to Bethlehem because she was about to have a boy born beneath the jackboot of empire. So she wanted to teach him a lesson about what it means to stay human in the face of oppression.

I'm wondering all these things. And if they are true then I have to draw one more conclusion.

That Jesus learned his lesson from his momma. And that's where he got his teaching. "If the Roman Empire asks you to go one mile, go also a second."

Go as far as it takes to show Caesar that he may take your name, your date, your tribe, your land, and even your time, but he cannot take your dignity.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent Proclamation

The water has broken
The midwife is awash in the virgin's womb
She can see the crown now
A human head adorning God's heart
This is the moment of terror
A race with time

Panic seizes the midwife
She shouts, she screams
But her cries make no difference
It is a gospel of straw
The child will be lost
Caught up with the multitudes
Only St. Matthew remembers
Rachel weeping for her children
She refused to be consoled
The midwife weeping for wisdom
They are no more


Three days in hell
Without hope and God in the world

And then the miracle
The Word breaks forth
It pieces the silence
In kicks and fits with groans too deep
The child is born


Sunday, December 14, 2008


I'm in the thick of reading and re-reading the Annunciation and Nativity accounts. At this time of year a preacher pretty much feels like she or he is living in a perpetual Nativity drama. "In the days of the emporer Augustus. . ." keeps spinning around in my head.

Compounding things is the fact that I checked out James Earl Jones Reads the King James Version of the Bible from my local library. Yes, Darth Vader reads the KJV. As I drive around I can't help but think I may actually hear him say, "And now a reading from the 1st chapter of the Book of Luke, I am your father."

Anyway, as I've been reading and listening to the Annuciation account, I noticed that after Mary asks how it might be that she could give birth without knowing a man the angel Gabriel replies by saying that nothing is impossible with God.

What is interesting is that this is the same thing Jesus says much later on when talking about a rich man getting into heaven. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. . . For man it is impossible, but with God nothing is impossible."

The annunciation brings startling good news: If God canpush a child through the eye of a virgin's womb, then God can likewise push even the most unlikely of us through the gates of heaven.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Another Fold

I let someone go from the church the other day. Not an employee. A parishioner. And a friend.

We met in a coffee shop and she began asking about ways that she can get more involved in church.

But that wasn't what she really needed. What she really needed was permission to leave.

She lives downtown. She has intentionally chosen to live in the poorest neighborhood in Burlington so she can love on and serve the residents there. She lives there so she can be the presence of Christ there. In order to fully live out her calling she needs not only to live there, but she needs to - must - worship there as well. It is obvious that our bedroom community church wasn't right for her.

What amazes me though is how long it took for us to see the obvious. Or, more accurately, how long it took for us to say it. For me to say it.

I want our church to be able to meet the needs of everyone. In the end, however, trying to be all things to all people is a prescription both for schizophrenia in the short-term and heartbreak in the long.

A church must learn to be what it is. A pastor must learn to be what he or she is. We all must learn to be ourselves. If we try to be anything else ultimately it will destroy us. The wineskin will burst.

When I finally did say it - "Don't you think you should go to church downtown" - there was a sudden release for us both. The relationship suddenly seemed much more authentic. The pressure was off. The truth had set us both free.

After she left I sat in the coffee shop for a long while. I knew that what had just happened was for the best. I had given the best pastoral advice I could give and she had taken it. It was the right thing. Yet I was heavy of heart. Sorrowful even.

And then these words from Jesus came over me as a soothing balm, "I have other sheep that don't belong to this fold."

May the shepherd lead you to your rightful fold, my friend.

Friday, December 05, 2008

What We Can Learn From the Wal-Mart Death

Ethicsdaily is running an op-ed I wrote about last week's death of Wal-Mart employe Jdimytai Damour. I'm posting the piece here with their permission.

By now we have all heard about the Wal-Mart employee in Long Island who was trampled to death in last week's Black Friday shopping stampede.

That employee was Jdimytai Damour. He was a temporary worker and had been employed by Wal-Mart for only a week. He was 34.

Mr. Damour's death reveals an underside to not only Black Friday and the whole Christmas shopping season, but to the way we buy, barter, trade and live more generally. Mr. Damour's death is a single, shocking glance at the incalcuable cost of always low prices.

Incalcuable because we don't really know how many more Jdimytai Damours have been trampled by the force of a disconnected trade system. My farming friends here in Vermont have a saying: "Know your farmer, love your farmer."

But the truth is most of us don't know who milked the cows today that we will drink from tomorrow. Nor do we know who cuts the cane for our sugar or picks the bananas for our lunchboxes or sews the shoes for our feet. We have no idea whether they are making a fair wage or—like Mr. Damour—being left exposed to the cruel forces of consumption.

So, in reality, we're a lot like the folks at the back of that Wal-Mart line. We have no idea who's up there ahead of us. We can't see who's being crushed by the weight of our wants. All we know is that there's a sale and the doors are now open.

In Jesus' day a grand tower in Jerusalem fell, crushing 18 people to death. There was a lot of talk about what happened and what it meant. Jesus interpreted it as a warning. He said: "Do you think those 18 were worse sinners than all the others of Jerusalem? No. But I tell you, unless you repent you will all perish just the same."

What happened in Long Island should come as a warning to us all. None of us is guiltier than anyone else. We're all implicated in this myth of no-consequence consumption.

It is time we repent, lest we all be crushed in the stampede.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Ecumenical Service

I just returned from our annual Colchester Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service.

Tonight we gathered as Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists and did the one thing all Christians should be able to do together. We said thank you to God.

Every year I tell my congregation that the ecumenical service is no small thing. As I said when I preached the service two years ago, our forebears would not have liked what we are doing. The vileness that was embedded in the Reformation and responses to it persisted well into the first half of the last century.

But we live in a new world today. Our forebears might not have liked it, but I do believe God does.

I think we as Christians need more of these kinds of ecumenical encounters. We need them because it helps us to see that Christ is working in and through the ministries of other churches and other traditions. Our real enemies are not those with divergent ecclesiologies or atonement theories.

The church's true enemy in the 21st century is a dehumanizing secularism that sees self-gratification as the summum bonum and will thererfore exploit, consume, annihilate, or subject any person or nation that stands in the way.

An old - but still fresh - word helps keep everything in perspective: "Those who are not against us are for us."

Besides, I just like the whole ecumenical service affair. It's half super formal with collars, and genuflects, and responsive prayers and half low-brow Baptist with me in my dapper tweed asking God all impromptu like to bless the canned foods that have been brought forward in a recycling bin.

And I hear Jesus' prayer to the Father, "That they might be one as we are one."

Amen to that.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Burlington Hunger Banquet
Poverty and hunger are for the most part out of sight and therefore out of mind for most of us.

This holiday season, however, I have been invited to attend an event that promises to call our attention to the injustice of the world and challenge us to do something about it.

My friends at the Oxfam Action-Corps is bringing a number of Vermont's leading anti-poverty and ant-hunger advocates together for an Oxfam Hunger Banquet.

The banquet will include stories, singing, and a meal designed to simulate the real life conditions of disparity separarating the world's richest and poorest populations.

WARNING: You may not get your fair share!

The skinny:

Date: Saturday, December 6th Time:
Time: 6:00 – 7:30 pm
Location: McClure Multigenerational Center 241 North Winooski Ave.
Burlington, VT


Hal Colston of NeighborKeepers
Joanne Heidkamp of the VT Campaign to End Childhood Hunger
Alex Pial of the Visiting Nurse Association

This event is FREE and promises to be an empowering experience facilitated by community leaders advocating on behalf of the poor and vulnerable communities here in Vermont as well as in the developing world.

You are invited too.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Playing the Wrong Game

Like a lot of you I grew up playing Monopoly with my family on the living room floor. I remember I always wanted to be the Race Car. And I treated the game just like it was a race car game. I sped off and did my best to make it around that little square track as fast as I could, not slowing down to miss a beat. Ninety-to nothing I was in my car and I was out to collect my $200 for passing Go! My mother was the banker. “Reading Railroad, do you want to buy it?” “No.” Pass Go! Collect $200. “St. Charles Place, do you want to buy it.” “No.” Pass Go! collect $200. Yes! Boardwalk, Fifth Avenue? No. Just give me my $200. While I was speeding my race car around the board my dad was busy being the Top Hat. The ultimate symbol of a Monopoly baron. St. Charles. Yes, I’ll buy that. New York Avenue. Why yes, I’ll buy that also. Boardwalk, Park Place. Yes, I’ll buy those too. Thirty minutes into the game I’m rolling in the dough and my dad is almost broke.

And then I land on my first house. And then the second house. And then the hotel. “Let’s see,” my mom says, “Boardwalk with two hotels and nine houses and a couple of horses and a Jacuzzi out back. Yes, Ryon will also be needing a $700 billion bailout.” I look up at my dad. He’s standing over me in a top hat in the middle of the living room jumping up and down on my little race car shattering it into pieces.

When I was in divinity school I did a summer internship in an inner-city ministry and made friends with a 13-year-old kid named Alvin. Alvin’s father was in jail for killing his mother and Alvin himself was on the margins. His life was at a critical point. He could go one way or he could go the other. I was glad to be there at that critical time to befriend him and to help steer him in the right direction.

Then my internship was over. I went back to the Gothic Wonderland of Duke. I was just a couple of blocks away from Alvin’s house, but I was a world away from his life. Yet Alvin kept showing up. I was a Resident Assistant on campus and I kept finding Alvin roaming the halls of my dormitory. I would come home from school and there Alvin would be, hanging out beside my door. I mean he was desperate for a friendship.

But I was too busy. I was too busy studying theology. I was too busy plunging the depths of God’s mind. I was too busy trying to make the grade. I didn’t have the time for an interruption like Alvin.

I was driven by fear that Alvin was going to ruin my nice, orchestrated life. Do you see? I was being the Race Car again. I was playing the wrong game again. I had gone to seminary to learn about God and instead I was settling for a theological education.

And I risked a 13-year-old boy’s life while I was at it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Mighty Waters

As of this writing it has been exactly one week since it was announced that Senator Barack Obama had been elected the next president of the United States. What followed that announcement was an act of ritual cleansing - for our nation and for me also.

When President-Elect Obama and his family walked out onto the stage there at Grant Park black America wept. My father-in-law, who grew up the son of a preacher on Sweet Auburn beneath the shadow of Martin Luther King's Ebenezer Baptist Church, wept. My wife, who grew up in the outcrops of a racially-divided Old South bastion, wept. Jesse Jackson wept. Colin Powell wept. All black America wept.

We saw their tears blazoned across America's television screens. Tears of joy, yes. But more than joy; tears of jubilee.

Those enough close enough could hear the tears as they fell. It was the sound of mighty waters. The sound of a 40 million member chorus, singing through the lump in their throats: I, Too, Sing America.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. compared last Tuesday night to the night Joe Lewis beat Max Schmeling for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. A "magical" and "transformative" moment in African-American history which marks a point when we all know nothing will ever be the same again.

But it was more than that too. When Max Schmeling fell to Joe Louis only the black people of America cheered. As Jimmy Carter tells in his memoir, the black sharecroppers on his daddy's farm listened to the fight on the radio from outside the Carter home. When Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round there was not a peep from anybody. The black families walked back across the lot to their own homes in silence and shut the door. It wasn't until that door was opened that Carter heard what he described as the sound of all hell breaking loose.

Last Tuesday was different from that. It wasn't just a transformative moment for African-American history. It was a transformative moment for American history. Not only blacks shed tears. Whites did too. And not behind closed doors. The doors were open. The tears were public. Colorless.

Even those who voted for Senator Obama's opponent shared in the momentousness of the night. They echoed the graciousness of Senator John McCain in celebrating the fact that "America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry" of its past.

As I reflected on Senator McCain's words I realized that I too am a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of my own past. When I was a boy I shuttered at the thought of a black family living in my neighborhood. Now a black family will soon be living in the White House. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The stone I rejected has become my president.

I thank God for all of this. Not for Barack Obama having been elected so much, but for America having been "ready" to elect a black person president.

After the long procession of civil rights marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in 1965 and made their way to State Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama King preached a sermon from the capitol steps popularly known as the "How Long? Not Long" speech. "How long?" Dr. King asked in a series of litanies. "Not long," the response each time.

On January 20 that procession will make its last leg to Washington, DC where a new litany will be heard echoed from the steps of our nation's capitol.

"How long?"


Monday, November 10, 2008

Risky Business

I don't usually blog about stuff I'm going to preach on soon. Blogging and preaching are two separate exercises for me - though they do seem shape and refine each other like two measures shaken together and then running over.

Nevertheless I'm sharing something here that I'll share again Sunday. We'll be talking about risky faith and this is a story from our congregation I wanted to share.

We have a deacon at our church and whose phone number is on our church answering machine. If no one is at church and someone is having an emergency they can call her house for help.

You would not believe the kind of calls she gets. The other day some lady called and asked, “Is the owner of the church in, or is he napping?” I told our deacon she should have put her husband on the phone. “Yeah - ahh - this is Jesus; I was napping on the pillow down deck in the houseboat. How can I help you.” (If you don't get that read Mark 4.)

Anyway, back in August our deacon gets a call from a lady looking for someone to do a memorial service for someone in the family who had just passed away. “I’m sure we can get somebody to help you,” our deacon said. “When is the memorial service going to take place?” “Oh, in about an hour.”

You read that right. An hour. Sixty minutes.

Our decaon gave that woman some scriptures to read and told the woman that she would try to call the minister. And then something really cool happened; our deacon decided that if she couldn’t get hold of me, she was just going to go over there herself and read scripture.

You gotta love that. No theological education. No seminary degree. Just a woman who loves God and is compassionate toward people and couldn't stand the thought of a family not hearing words of comfort on a dark day.

Risky faith.

I love it.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Hand for Richard Land

I want to thank Richard Land for graciously congratulating Barack Obama on his election and for his spot-on comments about how more proactive pro-life policymaking can help create create common ground among the Left and Right.

Here is the link.

Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, calls for President-Elect Obama to support the Democrats for Life initiative known as the Pregnant Women Support Act which, if passed, would offer pregnant and parenting women increased assistance for things like child care and health insurance to low-income and student parents, and tax credits for adoptive parents.

I don't know if Senator Obama already supports this legislation. It seems like this is the kind of legislation that would be in keeping with his post-divisive political promise.

Personally, I think we need to make every effort to make choosing life a real option. That's why I am proud that my church works with Christian ministries like Carenet Pregnancy Center here in Burlington.

Women - and men - facing unexpected pregnancies need all the help they can get. That help comes not only at the point of making a decision about whether or not to terminate the pregnancy; but also long-term help.

In essence, they need community.

Legislation out of Washington can't provide that (churches and synagogues and families can). Nevertheless, this bill is a start. It has us thinking in practical terms about a matter of ultimate importance - how to help make life more livable.

I do hope Senator Obama will support it when he becomes president.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Prayers for President-Elect Obama

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.

A black American has been elected president.

Tonight I sat with my daughter asleep in my arms and listened to John Lewis, that great American civil rights leader and Georgian congressman. Congressman Lewis said that what we have witnessed tonight is another page in the nonviolent revolution that began in Montgomery in 1955.

Whatever your political leanings, let us all tonight rejoice that America is a better place than it was a half century ago. And for that we give thanks to all those who learned to turn the other cheek from Congressman Lewis who learned it from Rev. James Lawson, who learned it from Martin Luther King, Jr., who learned it from Ghandi, who learned it from Jesus.

Tavis Smiley was on NBC tonight. His prayer for Barack Obama is my prayer also. May President-elect Obama deal effectively with the pressures of now being a global icon and may he never lose his soul.

Congratulations Senator Obama.

Monday, November 03, 2008

An Election Day Story

On this election day it is reasonable to expect a pastor would say something about the presidential election. Probably a short homily about how it is important to do our civic duty and not get too out of shape if our candidate doesn't win because in the end Christ is Lord!

Words of wisdom for sure.

If you are looking for something like that I suggest you visit Jim Somerville's blog entry How Would Jesus Vote? Jim is pastor of First Baptist Richmond, VA and his pastoral sensibilities and thought-provoking words far outdo anything I could offer. So, rather than cribbing from Jim I say just go read his blog.

Instead, I offer you a brief picture of the kingdom of God:

Today, while millions of Americans were lining up to vote in this historic election, I went to see a dear friend in a nursing home.

When I arrived I discovered she wasn't in her room. She was in the community room, watching TV. I walked in and could see her from behind. Beyond her were the faces of Fred and LaMonte Sanford who were duking it out about something on the rerun channel.

I pulled up a chair next to my friend, set down and said hi. My movement stirred a number of the other residents from slumber. One smiled. Another frowned. One asked for help. Then they all fell back to sleep.

It didn't take me long to realize that my friend did not have her hearing aides in. Perhaps it was best as Fred was saying some pretty terrible things about LeMonte and his friend from Puerto Rico. So instead of talking, we just sat there. Me caressing my friends arm which was dressed in an old red sweater and perched on the arm of her wheelchair.

A few minutes went by and then I reached down and lifted a couple of items out of bag that I had sitting between my feet.

"The body of Jesus," my friend said.

"Yes," I said with unexpected tears rushing up to my eyes, "the body of Jesus."

So right there, in the midst of all her sleeping neighbors and with the pugilism of Sanford and son going at one another's throats, my friend and I shared the Lord's Supper.

St. Luke begins his account of the kingdom of God movement with a litany of titles and reigns: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar - when Pontius Pilate was govrenor of Judea, Herod tetrach of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrach of Iturea and Troconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene - during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. . ." In the midst of all these governments, and figures, and actors on the center stage of history, then Luke says. . .

"The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert."

And so it is, in the midst of this historic election and all its stars and mega-stars, the word of God still comes in the desert - in nursing homes, and orphanages, and little hole in the wall community centers. The word still comes and gives life.

And no matter who wins this election today, the word of God will do the same thing tomorrow.

I pray.


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Time and Tide

I spent last weekend with my family at the Nausett lightkeeper's house at Nauset Beach in Cape Cod. A friend of ours who owns the house was very generous in letting us stay at that special home.

I could hardly believe the wind and waves. Nature is having its way with Nauset Beach. The original five acre plot the light was on is now down to only three and a half acres. The sea is washing away three feet of land a year on average. Evidently Cape Cod as a whole is literally falling into the sea.

In the mid-nineties, after ten feet of beach was lost in three successive years, both the lighthouse and the lighkeepers house were moved to higher ground for what must have been an altogether mind-boggling price.

All of this makes the home we stayed at an especially powerful place to stay. Generations of people have fought to keep the light and the lightkeeper's house alive. And it still stands, a beacon in the night.

On the morning we left for the coast I went and visited the oldest member of our congregation. He is nearly 96. "You can live to be a 100," he said as we sat together at his breakfast table, "but even if you do life is still too short." The whole time I was on the Cape I couldn't help but think that those words and the whole story of the Nausett Beach Light were somehow interlinked. We are alive today and perhaps tomorrow but as the psalms say, "Man's life is but a puff." In the end time and tide will have there way.

Yet somehow the effort is worth it. To be alive today is worth it. To be a light in the midst of the darkness right here and right now is enough.

There is a lightkeeper's inn log, less romantically known as a guest book, in the house. Entries date back for decades. In my entry I included my favorite poem, of unknown authorship but first passed on to me by that great African American mystic and churchman Howard Thurman. I thought the words were apt.

The Struggle
You say the little efforts I make
Will do no good
They never will prevail
To tip the hovering scale
Justice keeps in balance
I didn't say I ever thought they would
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose
Which side shall feel
The stubborn ounces of my weight

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe Six Pack the Plumber

As part of my vocational practice discipline I am reading Eugene Peterson's reflection on the pastoral call Under the Unpredictable Plant. Eugene Peterson is the guy who translated The Message version of the Bible. I have long been amazed by the keenness of his insights into scripture. Under the Unpredictable Plant has proved that he has the read on my soul also.

Peterson says that as pastors we shouldn't buy into the veneer our parishioners often present. An example comes to mind. I'll call him - because its fun - Joe Six Pack the Plumber. On the surface Joe's life doesn't exactly ooze spirituality. He's pretty irregular on Sundays. His wife was his live-in girlfriend for a couple of years before they got married. He knows everything about Nascar, but next to nothing about the Bible.

We see in parishioners like Joe a soulless world where, as Peterson says, all "spirit [seems] to have leaked out . . . and been replaced by a garage-sale clutter of cliches and stereotypes, securities and fashions." In short, we pastors see that we are surrounded by shallow lives.

The problem, Peterson says, is that this is all most pastors see. We allow ourselves to get tricked by the visible and end up missing the remarkably disturbing truth that God is infinitely interested in each and every one of these folks.

I suppose that is the radically upsetting meaning of this idea of a Jesus who was born in a barn and raised in a little town no bigger than Muleshoe, Texas. Joe Six Pack the Plumber has a soul afterall. The task of the pastor is to pay close and long enough attention to notice it and help it grow.

John Claypool liked to tell a story about a child who watched as a crane delivered a giant granite block to the downtown square of his hometown. For months the boy passed by that granite block and wondered at what the craftsman was doing behind the curtain. Finally the work was complete and the curtain was pulled back. Incredulou the child asked the artist, "How did you know that Mr. Lincoln was trapped inside that block?"

The task of the pastor in this "art of arts" is to see what God sees buried inside of the people we encounter and then call it out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Art of Arts

I have committed to start practicing being a pastor more faithfully. And as any good piano player will tell you, with practice comes - not perfection - but sacrifice. Numerous "outside" engagements and opportunities - all good - are always knocking on a pastor's door. So and so needs this. This organization would like help with that. The list is never ending; and toxic

A couple of thing things in recent months have suggested that it is vital to my spiritual life and the spiritual life of my church that I take Jesus' words as my own - "Get away from me Satan."

So in practicing the pastoral role I'm working on some spiritual exercises. I'm going to visit more. I know, its quaint, but its the purest form of ministry I of. Besides, I can't turn water into wine.

Secondly, I'm going to blog more. And I am going to blog about pastoring more. Writing helps me preach and pastor better. And it brings me joy.

Third, I'm going to read less and more. I'm going to read less junk. Less fly by night blogs and more spiritual classics. You have permission to do the same, which I recognize means you might never read another thing I write. I'm okay with that if you are.

The first spiritual classic I am reading is Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care - appropriate enough for a person trying to practice being a better pastor.

In the first chapter Gregory brings gravity to the office of pastoring by calling it the "art of arts." In fact, the whole quote exhorts even more powerfully:

With what rashness, then, would the pastoral office be undertaken by the unfit, seeing that the government of souls is the art of arts!

I've been thinking about what that means. Pastoring - the art of arts. Here's what I've come up with. The ancient philosophers called wisdom the "virtue of virtues." Wisdom was what enabled one to recognize all the other virtues. It was what enabled one to discern courage, not only from cowardice, but - more expertly - from bravado.

I am thinking then that pastoring is the art of arts because it is the art of being able to discern the artist in others. Good pastoring is the artful ability of cultivating and calling forth the artist from within the soul of others. In essence, it is the ability to see what and who God has created these persons around us to be and then to help them see it too.

You can't do that with only one hand on the wheel.

A final story that is scaring the devil out of me - literally. I read it in Leviticus with Irie the other day. (Yeah, we're reading Old Testament to each other at night. Some read love poems, we read Leviticus.)

The LORD went to great lengths to make clear all the mandates that a priest should follow in making atonement for the people. Cut the lamb this way. Fling the blood on the altar that way. Strike the fire like this. You get the point. Well, it seems that Aaron's two sons didn't pay strict enough attention. They offered up a fire to the LORD in the wrong way. They were killed for it. Harsh. Way harsh, but the penalty for offering an "unholy fire" to the LORD.

LORD, give me the diligence to serve you well. Give me the strength to discern. The courage to say no. Give me the eyes to see and cultivate what you have created in these people you have charged me with. And, most of all, may the fire I offer up to you always be holy as I practice this art of arts. Amen.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

VIA Gubernatorial Forum

I want to give a big shout out (ha!) to my friend Debbie Ingram with the Vermont Interfaith Action. VIA has managed to get all three major contenders for this year's gubernatorial race to participate in a forum on VIA's core issues of affordable housing, access to health care, and opportunities for youth.

That's right, Debbie Ingram . . . the Rick Warren of Vermont.

The forum will take place at the October 27 at 7pm at the College Street Congregational Church in Burlington. Gov. Jim Douglas, Anthony Pollina, and Rep. Gaye Symington will all participate.

I'm impressed with what VIA is doing. They have managed to bring together a theologically diverse group of faith communities - including a Jewish synagogue, a Unitarian congregation, and a couple of Catholic churches - to work on solving some shared problems.

The faith community has a vocational mandate to speak to the major issues of our time. In this increasingly secular age our voice is being drowned out. But VIA is showing us that if people of faith speak with one voice then they will be heard over the din.

A good example - Affordable Housing. As part of an agreement with the City of Burlington, a local development was mandated to provide a minimum number of affordable homes. But apparently the practice of some developers is to simply skip out on that mandate and pay the corresponding fine.

VIA blew the whistle on that practice, saying, "That may be technically legal but, hay, don't be a ninny." Or something like that anyway.

Congratulations VIA. Keep up the good work.

This post amended from the original post. Thanks Morgan.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Georgia Baptists

Most of the time when you mention Georgia Baptists people think of Jimmy Carter or Charles Stanley.

I'm posting a link to a conversation with another Georgia Baptist however - Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, from the Evangelical Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia.

I've mentioned the Republic of Georgia in my last two articles. I want people to know about the courageous witness of Baptists there. When I heard this interview last month I thought to myself: Deitrich Bonhoeffer.

Take the time to listen to this interview. The church continues to witness for hope in the midst of Babylon's terror.

Malkhaz Songulashvili inteview

Nagasaki Vigil

This summer I attended the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America's annual summer conference. I was challenged there by my brothers and sisters in Christ to take a more active role in speaking out against the terror of nuclear weapons. In response I attended a vigil commemorating the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9. I wrote about my experience at the vigil for the September issue of the Vermont Peace & Justice Center's September newsletter. I've posted a link to the newsletter, but the whole text of my article is below.

Article Link

On Saturday, August 9th I stood with some fifty others to commemorate the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki sixty-three years ago. Each year, the brothers and sisters of Pax Christi Burlington gather beneath the bell tower of the former Immaculate Conception Cathedral and remember the thousands of lives lost in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 and Hiroshima three days earlier. Each year they gather to honor those lives and pray for a world without atomic weapons.

The bell tower proved a fitting place. The sole standing artifact after an arsonist's torch destroyed the rest of the church, the bell tower remains a perfect picture of the destruction a world with much science but no soul can wreak.

Pax Christi is a Catholic organization. Pax Christi being latin for "Peace of Christ". Yet not only Catholics were present. I am Baptist. Jews and Muslims and a whole cadre of Buddhist drummers showed up also as well. There were also blacks and whites and browns. And there were children.

And I suppose that is why we all came. We came for the sake of the children. We came to bear witness to the truth, that when the powers of this world perpetrate acts of aggression and vengence, it is the children who suffer most.

Even as we vigiled the powers of this world were at work again. In what has the potential to escalate into the first act of a new Cold War, Russia was bombing Georgia. Nuclear-armed Russia was flexing its muscles and just daring the rest of the international community to say anything.

Near the end of the vigil an old nun said something. Not so much in words, but in presence. Her body tired and beaten down by many years of life and service, she needed assistance getting from the car into her wheelchair. She was late. She was late, but she had come. She had come to give her body, enfeebled as it is, to the future of this world and the future of its children.

O that we all might do the same.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Apocalypse Now

I was interviewed this week by a college student doing a film on somebody's interpretion of the book of Revelation. I'm not going to do this somebody the honor of posting a link or even giving the name; but guess what, this somebody has done all the right calculating and it seems that 666 is a code for China.

It's as clear as mud.

I said in the interview that trying to squeeze John's apocalyptic vision into our exact world circumstances is a lot like me thinking that Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son is about my friend in Plattsburgh who has two sons. One's a good boy. The other's a mess. The mess went off to Vegas and gambled his money away and then came back groveling. And upon his return my friend gave his son his Cadillac. Well, obviously Jesus was talking about my buddy in Plattsburgh.

Him and billions of others like him.

The book of Revelation is less about predicting than it is about describing. It describes the nature of the church's struggle against the powers and principalities of the world for every generation - whether for the first or century church as it suffered beneath the terror of Rome, or for the Confessing Church in 1930s Germany as it spoke out against Hitler, or for the Baptist Church of the Republic of Georgia as it struggles against the cruelty of Russian oppression at this very hour.

And what the book of Revelation has to say to each of these contexts is always the same: Do not grow weary; for in the end the peaceful and just cause of our Lord Jesus Christ wins out. Good triumphs over evil.

The Word of God is dynamically alive; therefore it has something meaningful to say to every generation. Let us stop pretending it speaks only to us right now, and recognize it speaks to all of us all the time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sermon 8-24-2008

Drawn Out
Rev. Ryon Price
United Church of Colchester
August 24, 2008

We are beginning today the first of a nine part series on the book of Exodus. That seems a little daunting for me to preach nine straight Sundays from one book. And I can only imagine it may seem a little daunting for you to sit and listen to nine straight sermons also. But it has just this week been called to my attention that in one year Johan Calvin preached 159 sermons on the book of Job. That’s three plus sermons a Sunday. So maybe we can tolerate just nine.

Over these nine weeks we will follow the Hebrew people as they exodus out from under the yoke of Pharaoh and into the land of Canaan. And, in that story of deliverance we will seek to find our own stories as well.

But first, before we journey out of Egypt we need to remember how it is that the Hebrew people got here in the first place.

The Hebrews were the descendants of a man named Abraham who was called by God, and told that he would be the father of many nations. Abraham had a son Isaac and Isaac had a son Jacob and Jacob had twelve sons. And among the twelve brothers was one named Joseph who was a “dreamer”. And you all know how dreamers are. They drive the IBM engineers in the church mad, because they always have their heads in the clouds but can’t ever seem to come up with anything practical. So the other brothers, constantly annoyed by this dreamer, decide to sell Joseph off into slavery — a scheme which makes me think some of the characters in my own family aren’t quite so bad.

Joseph is sold into slavery and brought to the land of Egypt. Now here in Egypt Joseph’s gift for dreaming actually comes in handy. Having gained the ear of Pharaoh, Joseph prophesies that a famine is coming. He warns Pharaoh to start stockpiling surplus grains. When the famine hits scores of peoples from far and wide come to Egypt in search of help. Egypt gains great wealth and Joseph great honor.

And, as God would have it, among those who come to Egypt in search of food come Joseph’s own brothers, the very ones who had sold him of into slavery. Now my sister Brooke is here today. I wonder, Brooke, what do you think your brother’s reaction to this groveling would have been? But Joseph acts magnanimously. He forgives his brothers. And in a statement which well summarizes the entire first book of the Bible and perhaps all the scriptures, Joseph says to them, “You meant this for evil, but God has meant it for good.”

And with that the whole clan of Jacob’s children comes to live in Egypt under the favor of Pharaoh.

But as the second book of the Bible, Exodus, opens several generations have passed. There is a new Pharaoh now. And this new Pharaoh knows nothing of Joseph. All this new Pharaoh knows is that the Hebrew people are having babies left and right. Out of xenophobic fear this new Pharaoh decides to put an end to the Hebrew line. He tells the two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, to go on caring for any Hebrew girls born. But, he says, “If it be a boy then you must kill the child.”

What do you do when a new Pharoah is in Egypt?

Reynolds Price has been one of the most acclaimed professors at Duke University for decades. A writer by trade, and a man of great Christian faith. In 1984 he was diagnosed with a large malignant tumor at the base of his spinal cord. Surgery and radiation ensued. Reynolds Price’s cancer was beaten back, but Reynolds Price the man was left confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waste down. The whole world as he knew it had been changed.

Reflecting on his life in a later book Reynolds wrote, “The kindest thing anyone could have done for me once I finished five weeks of radiation would have been to look me square in the eye and say clearly, “Reynolds Price is dead. Who will you be now?”

A relationship has ended. A job has been lost. Cancer has changed everything. The good times are over; things are from here on out going to be much more difficult. There is a new Pharaoh in Egypt. Your old life is dead. Who will you be now?

Shiprah and Puah, these two Hebrew midwives, they have decided who they are going to be. They have decided that they are going to fear God more than they fear Pharaoh. They report back to Pharaoh and tell him the task he has given them is just too impossible. I would have loved to have been there to see Pharaoh’s blood boil when they told him, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are so strong. They have their babies before we can even get there.”

These two courageous souls and not going to cower to the dictates of Pharaoh. They too are strong — strong like the black maid of Montgomery, Alabama Maya Angelou tells about in her autobiography. For forty years she worked in the same white lady’s home, first doing laundry, then keeping house, and finally looking after the children and then later on the grandchildren. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts began, and black people said they would rather walk than ride the buses if they couldn’t ride up front. And the woman’s boss lady wanted to know if her maid would be participating in the boycotts. “Oh no,” she said, “I’m not going to get involved with any bus boycotts. That’s just asking for trouble; and I’m not looking for trouble. No way, I’m going to stay far away from those bus boycotts. In fact, I’m just going to walk wherever I need to go.”

But the charade doesn’t last forever. Pharaoh decides to take a more aggressive approach. He now orders all the people of Egypt into complicity in the extermination. “All Hebrew boys,” he commands, “must be drowned in the Nile River.”

And so it comes down to this. A young Hebrew woman with her three-month old baby boy in her arms on the banks of the Nile. For nine months she nurtured this child in the womb. She jumped the first time he kicked. Giggled the first time he hiccupped. She cried the first time she heard his lungs cry out with life. And for three months she has hidden him away, holding him, muffling his cries in the middle of the night.

And she held tight. For the sake of love she held tight. Even though she knew it wouldn’t last forever, she held very tight.

Some of you will remember the heart-warming and heart-wrenching movie Brian’s Song, a story about two rookie running backs, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, on the 1965 Chicago Bears football team. The two made headlines as the first black and white roommates in professional football. We watched Brian’s Song as a school when I was in eighth grade. And to this very day I can still remember the heaviness that fell over me there in the assembly hall of Ed Irons Jr. High School when the movie began with that startling opening line: “Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. This is a true story.”

All our stories will end in death. We will have to say goodbye. And yet, like this child’s mother, we choose right now to love nonetheless.

I remember the first time I had to help a family say goodbye to a child. I was up late. Distraught over my pastoral charge. What does one say in the face of such pain and loss? As I fretted, Irie came and set down in my lap and she gave me the words. “Hold me,” she said, “hold me like you have all the time in the world.”

That’s right. We hold each other. We cling to each other. We love each other as if we had all the time in the world — because the fact is we don’t.

So wives love your husbands. Husbands love your wives. Parents love your children. Hold them tight while you can. And when it is time to say goodbye, whether for college or forever, know what this Hebrew momma knew and what Tennyson knew also:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than not to have loved at all

She bundles the child tight and places him into a small basket that she has covered with tar and pitch. She places that basket into the reeds along the banks of the Nile. She blesses him with words of shalom and turns and runs away. And tears run also. Down her cheeks, and his.

And — again — as God would have it, the daughter of Pharaoh just so happens to be down there bathing in the river. She hears the baby boy’s cries and she knows. “This must be one of the Hebrew’s children,” she says. And there too hidden behind the reeds is the little boy’s sister, who knows just the Hebrew woman who could nurse this baby boy back to health. And here is the real kicker — she gets paid to do it. Paid to be his momma again. How bout that.

This story is an ancient one. Four thousand plus years old. But it’s a modern story also. We live in a dangerous world. And this dangerous world still has its pharaohs. Its mad rulers out to perpetrate genocide — the systematic killing of a particular race or ethnicity of people. For Hitler it was the Jews and the gypsies and the gays. For Slobodan Milosovec it was the Bosnians. For Saddam Hussein it was the Kurds. Today, in Sudan, it is the people of Darfur.

But we know this. We know that in the end good is going to prevail. So no matter how small or insignificant we are — even if we’re just a couple of slave midwives — we, the people of God, will always lend our bodies to the right side of history in support of the oppressed.

You say the little things I do
Will do no good
Never will prevail
To tip the hovering scale
Justice keeps in balance
I never said I thought they would
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose
Which side shall feel
The stubborn ounces of my weight

And the child grows big. And the child grows strong. And the child is given the name Moses, meaning “drawn out” — because he was drawn out of the water. Drawn out of the water in a little boat called, in Hebrew, an “ark”.

I’m looking for an ark right now. The fair is in town and I got a strange call asking me to sit in the dunk booth for the benefit of Burlington Emergency Shelter. Apparently somebody thought some of you might like a chance to try and drown me. I do not know what I was thinking but I said yes to such madness. So next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. you can take your shot. I told Irie and she had the gall to ask how much it was going to cost. “I want to save up,” she said.

But I’m going to cling to a promise, symbolized in a rainbow. I’m going to cling to the promise of God’s words and believe that God is not going to let me drown.

And I’m going to ask you to believe it too.

“When you pass through the waters,” declares the Lord, “I will be with you. When you cross rivers they will not overwhelm you. And when you walk through the fire, the flames will not consume you.”

And when a new Pharaoh comes to Egypt, you remember that no matter how big or how bad he is, that new pharaoh in your Egypt is no match — no match — for the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

So stay tight. Pick up your Bibles and read the story. Come on this journey with us. Because God is gonna draw his people out of Egypt. You watch.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, July 25, 2008

No Telling has an online story about twins - one white and one black - born to the same parents July 11. That's right. One black kid and one white one. Add a pink one and you've got neopolitan.

I note the story because of something strange that happened to my family as we were out for a walk yesterday. Seeing me on one side and Irie on the other with Gabby in between us, a woman walked over and the first words out of her mouth were - I kid you not - "You can't even tell."

Now, it turns out that this woman has biracial children of her own, so I didn't take her words to be hostile. In fact, even if she didn't have biracial children, Irie and I want to encourage more discussion about race and so we encourage people to struggle with words. That's how we learn language. By trying and failing and trying again. This is one thing that people of color have over white people when it comes to dialogue about race. They've been talking race all their lives; they are fluent. They know how to negotiate the rough places.

But nevertheless, "You can't even tell," does seem a bit outrageous. That's what we say about mustard stains, not children.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Black. . .but

Under the rules of apartheid white Afrikaners were to be totally set apart from all other races in every aspect of daily life. Blacks, therefore, could not work or travel in white areas without government approval. When Desmond Tutu was elected Archbishop of Cape Town he was offered a special dispensation. He could legally live in the archbishop's home in the white section of Cape Town as - and this was a legal term - an "honorary white".

Tutu refused. Instead of living legally as an honorary white person, he instead chose to live illegally as a black person, daring the South African authorities to do something about it.

While honorary whiteness is not a legally sanctioned status here in America, I know first hand that it still exists in many people's minds. Back in Durham I was talking to an old white man about how we felt we were called to be reconcilers. I was treading carefully and trying to invite him into our story because I knew he had a problem with black people. "Oh, Irie," he said, "she's not really black." I thought, "My man, I hope you never tell her that."

The statement is revealing. Black people like Irie simply could not exist in this man's world. She could not even have the dignity to be a "credit to her race." She had to be another race altogether.

But I'm not going to cast stones. I remember when I first started dating I would be talking to friends back home and telling them something like, "Well, I'm seeing this girl and she's black, but she's smart." Later on I noticed my mom doing it too. "I saw Billy's mom at the grocery store and I told her that you had met someone special and that she is black but she's very pretty."

Why the "but"?

Two things.

The first is a charitable, yet I think true, reading. My mom and I both knew what people were going to think and we wanted to have them hear us out. If I were to unpack the sentence we were saying, "She's black but hear me out because she's not what I know is already in your head."

The second reading is less charible, but no less true. Something visceral in us was saying, "She's black, but she's an exception."

We're learning to name that. To confess it and call it the demon that it is.

And I'm also learning to say, "My wife, Irie, she's black.

"She's black and. . ."

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Untraining Racial Profiling in VT

Sunday's Burlington Free Press ran an opinion piece by me about a pilot project in our community aimed at combatting racial profiling.

I think there is tremendous potential for good gains with this project. It will help officers develop the third eye.

For those of you in other parts of the country, this could be something for your local and state law enforcement to consider.

Here's the link to the article:

My Turn: Helping good cops be better

Friday, June 20, 2008

Truth Telling: The Church's gift to the State

Over these past few weeks I've been reading and learning a lot about the South African Council of Churches (SACC) role in what can only be described as the miracle of South Africa. What has amazed and inspired me the most is the church's ability to look Caesar in the eye and tell him the truth. "You are not God; your reign will not last forever."

Throughout the ages the great heroes of our faith have stood witness to the truth before the thrones of this world. Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall to King Belshazzar and told him he would die because he trusted in the gods of silver and gold. John the Baptist spoke courageously when he told Herod it was not right for him to have his brother's wife. Paul prophesied to his centurion captor about "danger and much heavy loss" if the ship they were on continued to sail.

As a church we have by and large lost that prophetic voice. These days we are much more likely to chaplain the State than we are to speak truth to it.

Why? Because speaking truth is a fearful and lonely enterprise and only the most courageous of people ever do it.

When I graduated from Duke Divinity School Rev. Dr. Peter Storey delivered the commencement address. Storey had previously served as president of the SACC and was close friend and confidant of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In 1980 the two were the targets of an unsuccessful assasination attempt.

In his commencement address Storey (left) talked about the pastor who was driving down the highway when his cell phone rang. It was his wife. "Honey, be careful," she said, "there is a madman out there on the highway going the wrong way." "It's worse than that," the pastor told his wife, "there are hundreds of madmen going the wrong way."

To stand up to Caesar and tell the truth about war and peace and race and religion puts us in the line of a lot of oncoming traffic. But it is the right way to go. And the State desperately needs us to do it.

Who else would? It's been the Church's gift to the State from the very beginning. And it is still our gift.

So, with a little encouragement for us all, I'll close by sharing something Desmond Tutu wrote to Caesar about the Church at the height of the apartheid era:

The SACC is a Council of Churches, not a private organization. The Church has been in existence for nearly 2000 years. Tyrants and others have acted against Christians during thsoe years. They have arrested them, they have killed them, they have proscribed the faith. Those tyrants belong now to the flotsam and jetsam of forgotten history-and the Church of God remains, an agent of justice, of peace, of love and reconciliation. If they take the SACC and the Churches on, let them know they are taking on the Church of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Chatrooms and Classifieds

Sounded intriguing didn't it?

Below is an article I wrote intending it to be published in our local newspaper, the Burlington Free Press. Apparently it didn't make the cut. So it ended up here, where all my stuff that doesn't make the cut ends up.

Two stories. Both involving the Free Press. Each revealing the difficulties we as a community face when it comes to talking about race, religion, and other matters of contention.

I am the pastor of the United Church of Colchester. Right now we are in the search for a new church musician and we chose to advertise in the classifieds section of both the Free Press and another local paper. The ad we came up with was (I thought) a fairly simple one:

Organist and/or pianist. United Church of Colchester. 9-12 choir members. Thursday night practice. Christian faith preferred.

Both newspapers said they would be happy to run the ad, but would have to remove "Christian faith preferred" in order to conform to their Classifieds policies. One of the ad reps I spoke with said the statement was "discriminatory" and could get the paper and our church in "a lot of trouble."

The second story comes from a recent Free Press story about the absence of any black teachers in the Burlington School District, and the district's efforts to recruit more teachers of color. Response to that article in the paper's online "Storychat" was heated enough to force the Free Press to close down the online forum. I remember that when a Free Press editorial called for increased teacher diversity last fall things got pretty animated also. One person in the chat room went so far as to label the district's employment of a full-time diversity coordinator "tax payer rape." Things must have gotten even more heated this time to warrant shutting down the conversation.

At the heart of both these stories is a question over affirmative action. More specifically, it is a question about how to best take affirmative action to ensure we do not discriminate on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, physical disability, or sexual preference in our hiring practices.

I am not very hopeful that we, in our varied religious and political convictions, are going to come up with an interpretation that will satisfy everyone. I am a little more hopeful, however, that most will agree that the United Church of Colchester ought to be able to state publicly that faith is a central and bona fide consideration for us. As I told one of the ad reps I discussed the matter with, "We are a church, after all."

But in any case, I think the two stories illustrate how difficult it is to have a public conversation about competing values today. The way between stultifying political correctness and stultifying acerbic is a narrow one. When we run aground on charged terms like "discriminatory" and "tax payer rape" how are we to go on? The only option is to shut down the chat room.

As Vermonters we are better than that. We should show it by agreeing to conduct our public discourse in a more civil way, and give those on the other side of our debates something that is sorely lacking these days — grace.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


An interesting article ran today in the Times about the complex issues one Portland neighborhood is dealing with as it faces racial gentrification.

A lot of yuppies find the uber-hipness of America's urban landscapes to be a real draw. They want affordable and walkable communities where they can know their neighbors. And they want those neighbors to be diverse.

And that's the irony, because the more highly coveted neighborhoods are, the more expensive they become. And, inevitably, the less diverse they become also.

That's what is happening in Portland.

And it's happening here in Winooski too. And the Old North End of Burlington also.

But that's not why I'm blogging about it. I'm blogging about it because of what the Times reported one of the white Portland residents recently asked in a citizens' forum. Joan Laufer, a new resident in the neighborhood, stood up and asked the black people in the meeting what they would like for her to call them - black or African-Americans?

"People," one black woman up front said. And then, from the back, an even more human word. A name. "Donna."

That's what it is going to take. We're going to have to go beyond knowing people as black or white or latino or whatever. We need to know them as Donna.

A few years back, when I was living in Durham, NC, a group of ladies from one of the white churches in town and a group of ladies from one of the black churches started getting together to pray and talk candidly about race and the "Broad Street Divide" that separated their communities. The churches sat only a few blocks apart from each other on either side of Broad Street, but sat were worlds apart in just about every other way. The women from those churches decided to bring the worlds together.

Six years later something profound has happened. The black church is no longer only a black church any more. It's a New Testament church now, as Sunday after Sunday its pews are filled with both black and white faces. And the white church has changed too. This past Lent, 26 members from their congregation journeyed on a "Lenten Pilgrimage Of Pain and Hope" into Durham's inner-city. Imagine that. Twenty-six people dared to cross divides of race, class, and comfort in the name of the Jesus who is destroying those divides.

And the name of one of the key women who six years ago was a part of that group of women from the two churche who decided to meet and pray?

That's right. Donna.

A Progressive Christian Conudrum

In the wake of the latest tragedies in China and Myanmar I've been thinking about the challenge an escalation in global disasters present to non-fundamentalist Christians.

For a long time now a lot of progressive Christians have been insisting that there has not been an increase in earthquakes, famines, floods, etc. The argument was that global disasters were always prevalent and so, the argument went, we shouldn't point to a spate of earthquakes, wars, famines, etc. as signs that the Apocalypse is imminent. The way I experienced the conversation, typically someone - usually the conservative in the room - would point to some natural or manmade disaster and say that the world was obviously getting worse. Then - usually by the progressive in the room - the rebuff would come. The progressive would make a statement about earthquakes and famines and other terrible things always having been occuring, but our awareness of them, through the advent of mass communication, being the thing that changed.

But now, it seems that a lot of environmental and humanitarian organizations are arguing that global climate change is increasing both the frequency and magnitude of global disasters. And a lot of progressive Christians are agreeing.

What's a progressive Christian to do?

I don't think any Christians should ever give up on the idea that Jesus is coming back imminently. I think progressive Christians did so as a knee-jerk, fear-induced reaction to a particularly virulent kind of Apocalypticism that thinks that Jesus is coming back soon so we shouldn't worry about global issues like climate change, or deforestation, or debt relief for developing countries. We should just get people saved.

No. We should get people saved AND we should worry about all these global issues because, you guessed it, JESUS IS COMIMG BACK.

And the arrival may be imminent.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Blogging and Pastoring

I've caught some grief for not blogging lately. One person emailed me to say my blog "kinda sucks" these days.

As I debated whether or not to get back on the computer today I realized how good it would feel for me to write and tell you all how missed I am. I realized how good it would feel to lead right off with the opening sentence I crafted "I've caught some grief for not blogging lately," as if it had said "I've caught a lot of grief for not blogging lately." But the truth is the only grief I have caught has come from the one person who emailed to say my blog "kinda sucks".

Maybe the most important book I ever read was Henri Nouwen's little book In the Name of Jesus. It is a reflection on the tempations Jesus endured in the wilderness, which Nouwen says are the temptations to be relevant. That is, the temptations to create, perform, and produce so well that we become, in our own minds, singularly indispensable. It is embarrassingly incriminating that in the last year I have written for a publication named - you guessed it - Relevant Magazine.

Blogging has this great way of distorting just how important we really are. We put these words together and they sound good, and sometimes they move us, and then we send them out there and we think, "That's gonna mean something to somebody." We are a lot like those astronomers and what not who beam out Frank Sinatra or the Declaration of Independence into the nethers of space. We'll never know, but it sure is nice to think this might matter to someone in some galaxy far far away.

But closer to home, here in Colchester, with my parishioners, I know things matter. I know I matter. But I don't matter like I wish I mattered or dream I matter on my blog (when it doesn't suck). I matter in the way that the spring birds outside my window matter. I don't know their names. I don't know what their personalities are like. If one were to come and replace another I never would no the difference. But if one were not to come and replace another I certainly would know. I would know through absence. And that absence would be a great heaviness.

I was on the phone with one of the ladies from the church yesterday. She told me, "I want you to know I pray for you every day. I pray for you because you are our leader."

I'm not relevant, in the sense of being special or irreplaceable. I'm relevant because, for these people, I am here. Present. Set apart to have a little time off to go and be near to those who are sick and hurting and disbelieving. Set apart to hold their hand for a little while why they cry.

I know that if I were to leave, I would not be missed. But my hands would.

And that's the difference between blogging and pastoring.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Typical Whiteboy Talk

How else except by becoming a Negro could a white man hope to learn the truth?
John Howard Griffin
Black Like Me

In my response to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy What's Up With Barack's Pastor? I said that blacks and whites read Jesus differently. I then went on to explain what I saw as the differences.

I confess that my comments were grossly stereotyped. In fact, it was precisely that kind of grossly-stereotyped statement that got Barack Obama in hot water when he referred to his own grandmother as "a typical white person" who has sometimes visceral reactions to people of other (darker?) races.

In a helpful post my friend and former professor Mike Broadway noted that he and I, both white, have for whatever reasons entered into this strange world as racial reconcilers. As such, we sometimes feel compelled to translate for white people what black people think. Mike graciously pointed out just how absurd that really is - white people speaking on behalf of black people. I was a little chastened and promised myself to be more careful in public from here on out.

Yet, at the same time, I know that when it's just me and Irie I can say, "Typical black people feel this way," and "Typical white people feel that way," and it is truth. And that, in this highly charged climate of racial politics, is precisely the challenge: public and private discourses.

Of course, these divergent discourses have always been present. There has always been an intra-white language and an intra-black language. These divergent languages developed on the plantation and never fully gone away.

Let me give a case in point. Irie's mom grew up in a conservative Pentecostal home. The Gospel she has heard most of her life is not the hard-edged, politically-charged speech of black liberation. Yet when the whole Rev. Wright thing erupted her surprise was not at his rhetoric - for rhetoric like that has always been present in some aspect in the black community. Rather, the shock for her was that white people heard it. "Oh, no, no, no," she said, "Ya'll not supposed to hear that!"

Ya'll not supposed to hear that because ya'll don't know the language. Ya'll gonna misintepret.

But now we're entering into a new era. We're entering into an era where the language barriers are beginning to be crossed. Mike and I are going back and forth. But more to my point, Barack Obama is. In fact, he was born across the line. His mother was white, and his grandparents were white. Typical white people (typically speaking). And so, (typically speaking) he knows what typical white people typically think. And I bet he talks about it (typically) at home with Michelle all the time.

But there it is again, that private language. He can (typically) talk about it at home, but can't (typically) bring it into the public arena. Or he'll be in big trouble (typically).

Near the end of Black Like Me John Howard Griffin tells about coming back into white America after having temporarily darkened himself and living as a black man in the Deep South. After having been in the black community for something like six weeks he knows what they think. He knows that all the platituding "yes sir" and "no sir" and "us Negros are real happy with our station in life" business was just fear-induced, public speech. It was the exact opposite of how blacks really felt in those pre - civil rights days.

On his first day back into white society he checked himself into a white hotel and was met at the door by a black porter. For six weeks Griffin had been "just a typical Negro" and he now knew how they thought. "[The porter] gave me the smiles, the 'yes, sir - yes, sir.' . . . I felt like saying. 'You're not fooling me,' but now I was back on the other side of the wall."

I'm tired of crossing the wall and then coming back over. I'm ready for the wall to come down.

Old Timers

Yesterday our church hosted a lunch conversation about the history of our church. We invited everyone to bring pictures and other memorabilia to share. Among the really cool things shared:

1. A foot heater. Used in bygone days, the foot heat had a small door that coals could be dropped into. The heater would then be set into the bottom of the sleigh -that's right sleigh - for the ride down to the church. At church you'd get another lump of coal for the return ride.

2. Pew doors. We took the doors off our pews sometime in the 20th century. But one of the pillars of our church and I braved cobwebs, dust, and and who knows what else to retrieve them from the cellar last Wednesday. The pew doors kept the heat in - provided by the foot heater above - and the draft out while parishioners listened to somber sermons from fellas like this unidentified former pastor:

3. A write up about our former pastor Rev. Elgin Bucklin, who led a trip of over a 25 Vermont youths down to Harlem to worship at Abysinnian Baptist Church. This was an extension of Rev. Ritchie Low's (picture below) racial reconciliation project which I wrote about here.

4. Two of our oldest members sat together and shared about their trip with Rev. Low and a few other boys down to Washington to meet President Hoover. That's right, Hoover. Rev. Low took them down to deliver syrup to the president before the Vermont Maple industry got big. Their trip made news in other states - a trip to Washington in 1929 was no small thing - and helped spread the word about Vermont maple. I said I thought our church deserved some of the royalties from all the sales over these last 80 years.

After the old timers had finished reminiscing I paused, walked over and grabbed both of their arms. "Ritchie Low was their pastor," I said, "and I am their pastor." Then I heard someone from another table bring the amen. "That's right," he said.

That's right.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Casting Out Demons

Because it is Spring I have had a sudden impulsive urge to clean out the snow room and the closets, and get rid of stuff I don't want.

It started off really easy. I walked out onto our front porch took a look around and decided I didn't want any of the junk that had piled up all winter. In one fell swoop I got rid of a whole rat-nest of unwanted stuff. No qualms, easy as pie. I was a man on a mission.

Of course, the junk I was getting rid of was all Gabby's. (How do one year olds already have junk anyway?)

After doing the do on Gabby's junk I decided to take a look at my own. I pulled out an old tie I haven't worn since 7th grade or so. And then I found a couple of winter coats people had shoveled off on me. They made it sound like they were looking after me - "You're a Vermonter now, afterall, you need to stay warm" - but the truth is they were just looking for an easy goodbye. Kind of like finding a nice home for the puppy who keeps eating petunias. One of the coats bordered on the ridiculous. It was a kind of long, buckskin, muff-collared, Buffalo Bill meets Macy Gray, trench. In order to pull off wearing this in public you have to sport either a six-shooter or an afro. I sport neither, so saying goodbye was pretty easy.

But then last night I was digging through my closet and I pulled out this little urban hipster jacket I bought from Gap a few years back. I thought to myself, "Ryon you have not worn this coat in at least four years. You need to give it away." And then, suddenly my belly and my shoulders began to tingle. Another voice appeared. "But it's still a good coat. And when the weather is right you might still wear it. In fact, you could wear it tomorrow, it's going to be so nice."

I think I get it. That coat represents something to me. It represents some part of me that hasn't died yet. Some part of me that still wants to walk aimlessly around 48th and 8th, smoking cigarettes and reciting Dylan lyrics. And that little tingle in my belly was that part of me saying, "No, please, I'm not ready to go yet." If I may be so bold as to use Biblical language, it was a demon in search of a body. A demon that screamed at me like legion. "Please," he begged, "don't send me off into the abyss."

This morning I cast that demon out. I threw him over a yellow metal cliff. I heard him him from outside. He was drowning in a sea of old ladies' sweaters and old men's flannel. They'll soon be buried together in a place called Goodwill.

And I feel clean.

Monday, April 14, 2008

With Amplification

The deacons at my church gave me some feedback the other day with a performance evaluation. All was well. I especially appreciated a very personal and encouraging letter. It's good to be in this together. What Paul called "partners in the Gospel."

One thing I want to share though. In the section where my preaching was evaluated there was a comment that said, "occasionally, with amplification." Nice euphemism, ladies and gents.

In my defense:

"What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, shout from the rooftops."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Change of Heart?

My former Baptist Studies professor and friend Curtis Freeman has an interesting article in the Journal of Southern Religion about former pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas W.A. Criswell's 1968 flip flop on this issue of racial segregation. Freeman questions the sincerity of Criswell's change, and argues that politically "pragmatic concessions" were no less instrumental in the reversal than was true religious conversion.

A few thoughts:

1. Given the public examination of Barack Obama's relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright's controversial statements I thought it was interesting to read how the most famous member of First Baptist Dallas responded to his own pastor's racially-charged rhetoric. Criswell told a crowd at the 1956 South Carolina evangelism conference, “Why the NAACP has got those East Texans on the run so much that they dare not pronounce the word chigger any longer. It has to be cheegro.” Billy Graham distanced himself from his pastor's comments saying, “My Pastor and I have never seen eye to eye on the race question.” Interesting.

2. Freeman shares how conservative Baptist theologian Russell Moore believes that what fundamentally changed race relations in the South was not theological liberalism but rather the troubled conscience of conservative evangelical Christianity. Moore is quoted as saying, “It is to our own shame that we ignored our own doctrines to advance racial pride. And it is to our further shame that, in so many cases, we needed theological liberals to remind us of what we said we believed.” I think Moore is absolutely right in that there had to be at some point a critical mass of conservatives who finally saw the light. But that doesn't necessarily mean the conservative Southern establishment should be credited with ending segregation. It only means it should be acknowledged for no longer being hypocritical. It is those who had the courage to call the South out in its hypocrisy that deserve to be called prophets.

3. And most important, Criswell's change of heart. When, I have to wonder, are we ever truly converted? I think of Peter. He had a vision from God. As clear as day, nothing and no one was to be unclean. And then while in the midst of the dream there was a knock downstairs and the Gentiles appeared. This was not something he could doubt. No mere coincidence. But, Peter wavered. For a long time he went back and forth depending on who he was with and how hot the kitchen heat was. And yet, we remember him today as the one who cracked the vessel.

According to Freeman in 1972 Criswell reflected on his 1968 public endorsement of integregation and admitted it was not at the time whole hearted. “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did,” Criswell said. So, I wonder to myself right now, What is change? His soul and attitude did not change, but his public statements did. That was not nothing. In fact, I think it was very significant. It was the way we all change usually I think. Piecemeal. Bit-by-bit at their appointed times.

And we are still changing . . .

Thursday, April 03, 2008

King's Last Speech

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last sermon 40 years ago today. By the end of the next day he would be dead.

If you have never seen or heard or read it, you need to watch this clip. The clip is short, real short, but incredibly powerful. Eerily powerful.

Watch it. Listen to the words. Let them get into your bones. And let them give those bones life.

We ain't seen the Promised Land yet.

But we will.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Practicing our Faith

I want to share with you a brief audio clip from Andy Root's work with the Faithful Practices Project at Princeton Theological Seminary.

In his work Root reflects upon relational youth ministry and makes a distinction between "instrumental" relationships between ministers and young people which are always in the end about something else other than the relationship (a come to Jesus talk) and the kind of relational ministry which embodies the Gospel in its substantive practices (like showing up after a kid's parent has just been sent to the pokie).

The difference is not one uses words and the other doesn't (for as Paul says, how can they know if they haven't heard). Rather, the distinction is between doing something that gets us into a place to do what we really want to do versus doing something all along the way. What I mean by this is practice - something constitutively embedded within our encounters with each other that both points toward and is the Kingdom of God.

In other words (and this is for the grown ups) it ain't about getting people to the 10:30 service. Instead, its about the substance of our encounters with each other as we live out our lives together - including the substance of the worshiping we do together at 10:30.

When I say substance I mean the "What is" of the relationship between and among us. Another way of saying that is "character".

And we certainly have a few of those running around . . .

The Boys of LHS Part VI

I grew up relatively well off. We weren't rich but we definitely weren't poor either. Bottom line, we had a pool.

The pool was, of course, not enough. And neither was the Chevy stepside with the 350 under the hood. And neither was making the Varsity football team my sophomore year. It was all good. Cool. Exactly what I wanted, but not enough.

[Young Life enters stage right with Gospel in mouth]: "In every of us, there is a God-shaped vacuum. And it can be filled by nothing and no one else but God."

It was a classic example of Maslow's Hierachy. I had all my physical needs met, but I still needed spiritual actualization. Jesus brought that. It was the Gospel truth.

When I started doing ministry with the boys of LHS I simply assumed the Maslovian framework. It was good for me and so it must be good for them. But there was one nuance. Whereas my physical needs had been met, that wasn't necessarily the case with the boys of LHS. So I started doing things. With the aid of Lubbock Young Life I was able to help them out with money for a burger. And maybe some money for shoes. We picked up most of their cost for camp. I was earning the right to be heard.

But here is the thing that I am wrestling with. Doesn't it seem a little silly to and self-defeating to take a kid and give something to him or her only to then turn around and say, "And by the way, that thing I just gave you - it ain't what you're really looking for. What you're looking for can't be met with a burger or new shoes or a trip to camp. You've got a God-shaped hole in your heart and . . ."

Suddenly I'm wondering. Maybe the Gospel wasn't just the message at the end of all that "earning the right to be heard" medium. Maybe the Gospel was wrapped up in the medium itself. Maybe the Gospel was the time we shared together over a burger - even when I got USED by them just like the patronizing white boy would. "Price, take us out to Burger King, Price," one kid used to say over and over.

What I'm getting at is the idea that maybe the Gospel isn't really the cherry on top of Maslow's Hierarchy, but is instead, some kind of fabulous relationship with God and each other that breaks forth across all of life, cutting across the false and dualistic distinctions between physical and spiritual needs.

Maybe I'm saying that the Gospel is really the inbreaking of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God into everything - from the shoes on up.


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ontologically Speaking

Yesterday I was sitting with a group of pastors I gather with weekly to study and reflect upon our upcoming Sunday sermons. At the end of our discussion about Jesus and Thomas and the meaning of bodily resurrection things turned to politics. Everyone began bantering about the 2008 presidential election. Being that my tummy was beginning to growl I saw the drift into presidential politics as my curtain call. I stood up and said something like, "Well, all I know is none of these three candidates is our savior."

It was a pious statement that no respectable Christian could disagree with. But I have to confess there was more than just pretty talk about Jesus in my words. What I was really saying is that all three of these candidates, Clinton, McCain, and Obama, share something that our savior never had - a will to presidential power.

Then this morning I moused over to and read Miguel De La Torre's scathing critique of these three. In his article "What Do Obama, Clinton and McCain All Have In Common?" De La Torre says that there is no substantive difference between any of the three respective candidates because they each are each operating under a philosophical framework which is in the end classist.

But the really interesting, and I think fundamentally incorrect, thing De La Torre says about the candidates is that they are each "ontologically white males."

Excuse me?

Two things.

First, if in 2008 we can now speak of ontologies of gender and race in such a way as they are completely severed from both sex, race, color, and ethnicity, then I want to suggest that we should not speak about them at all because they have essentially lost all natural meaning.

Secondly, if we can now play so fast and lose with gender and race, then why is the white male exceptional? Why is the white male reserved as the cipher for "pro-empire" "global neoliberalism"?

Apparently the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

earth as it is in heaven

My friend and former teacher Mike Broadway has just responded to my post about Rev. Jeremiah Wright on his own blog earth as it is in heaven.

The truest thing I can say about Mike is that he is a real Christian. He has been a living witness to what Christ has done to destroy the barrier between the races for several decades now. He and Chris Rice have taught me how to speak about race as white men.

So here's the quote I want to share with you. It says everything I feel and describes what I am coming to realize is one of my most important callings in this Gospel life:

[Ryon] and I find ourselves in an unusual situation for white baptist ministers. We get called on to be mediators of black life for whites who wonder, marvel, and puzzle about race. We know we are not up to the task.

Mike goes on to desribe the impossibility of the task.

Here also is Mike's full reflection.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Funny Stuff

As the pastor of a small church I felt in on the joke.

As a pastor who loves coffee I felt like the butt of the joke.

As a pastor in the 21st century I felt like whatever is being said here ought to be discussed.

Thanks to reallivepreacher and Caffeinated Thoughts for the spot.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What's Up with Barack's Pastor?: An Easter Meditation

I was up talking on the phone with my dad until 12:15 am on Wednesday morning. We talked about father son things — cars, the weather, and our predictions for the NCAAs. Then, about half way through, the conversation turned serious. Dad asked, “So what’s up with Barack’s pastor?”

Dad was asking me because I am a minister and married to a black woman. He thought maybe I might have some special insight into why Sen. Obama would consider a polarizing preacher like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright a sound spiritual mentor. I could hear the earnestness in Dad’s voice. He is in a new place. Since he now has a black daughter-in-law and a biracial grandchild he knows that he now has something at stake when race moves from the periphery into the center of public dialogue, as it now has in the 2008 presidential campaign. For Dad the questions being raised are more important and more personal than ever.

He isn’t alone. For the first time in our nation’s history we may very well see a black person elected to the Oval Office. That has white people all across America asking the same thing my dad is asking. What’s up with Barack’s pastor?
The religious left (including Rev. Wright himself) has defended Rev. Wright’s preaching by locating it within the prophetic black rhetorical tradition. They argue that whites standing outside the culture and ethos of the black community — and especially the black church — simply cannot understand the sociology at work in the black pulpit and should, therefore, refrain from criticizing it. Certainly Rev. Wright’s jeremiadic voice does belong inside a long and venerable tradition of black preachers speaking from and for people on the margins. But the idea that words coming out of this prophetic place are somehow beyond critique is flat wrong and ought to be exposed for what it really is — nothing more than a sociologically dressed up version of, “It’s a black thing . . . you wouldn’t understand.”

On the other side is the response not being offered in any of America’s newspapers but certainly present at many of its dinner tables. This response is only one word, but that one word says a lot about where we are with race in 2008. “Figures.” A lot of whites hear the charged rhetoric coming from Rev. Wright’s pulpit and they receive it as confirmation of all their suspicions about black people, Barack Obama included. In other words, “I totally understand . . . it’s a black thing.”

Well, it is most certainly a black thing. And it is a white thing also. Out of their very divergent historical experiences blacks and whites tend to read and interpret history differently. A case in point: Thomas Jefferson. Whites see Jefferson as a great hero and champion of democracy. Blacks, on the other hand, often see Jefferson as a man who never could quite shake the mindset of a master in order to live up to his ideals. Jefferson is an excellent case study, but I want to suggest that at the heart of this whole thing are divergent and in some ways mutually exclusive interpretations of another historical figure: Jesus. That’s right, I’m suggesting this whole thing is a Christological problem. In other words, it’s a black thing and it’s a white thing, but it is also most definitely a Jesus thing.

Blacks and whites read Jesus differently. Rev. Wright is black and his congregation is largely (and unashamedly) black. So when he reads about Jesus he reads about a man of color born into and killed by the cruel forces of a racist empire. That’s true and ought to be preached.

When most white Americans, like my dad, think of Jesus they think of the man who died an atoning death for their individual sins. Jesus was a great Jewish leader whose teachings show us how to live morally exemplary lives. That’s true and ought to be preached also.

It is difficult, however, to see why a religious teacher concerned primarily with making nice guys out of meanies would have raised the eyebrows of the powers that be. I just can’t buy that. On the other hand, it is equally difficult to believe that a radical revolutionary bent liberating his people from oppression by any means necessary would have gone to the cross without putting up a fight.

Perhaps it is more than just ironic that this whole debate would surface just before Easter. Two-thousand years after his death we are still asking what the early witnesses of Jesus’ ministry asked. “Who is this man?”

Who this man is to us still matters.

And, in 2008, who this man is to others matters more than ever also.