Daily Devotional: Tear Down That Wall

Due to my wife’s recent passing, I’m being gentle with myself.  Due to that, I’m posting some oldies but goodies from previous posts on our site.  This is a sermon I’ve shared before.  My wife who passed lived her life tearing down walls.  This sermon focuses on just that.

Hope it helps you find your way this day.


A Week in the Word: Tear Down This Wall

first christian uccThis week I am sharing for the “Week in the Word” a message I gave Sunday July 19th at First Christian United Church of Christ in Burlington, NC.  First Christian is a beautiful congregation with some very loving souls.  Apparently while he was attending UNC Andy Griffith worked there with the youth and the music programs.  I was blessed to meet one of his former students among the many genuine people at worship.

Here is an audio recording of the message for those who prefer that:

I hope the words of my message at First Christian UCC this Sunday inspire and challenge you.

Your progressive redneck preacher


kat and mich

Ephesians 2:11-22

11So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” —a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— 12remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

berlin-1“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”.  So spoke then-American president Ronald Reagan as he stood before the Berlin wall, a barrier of concrete and wire separating not just East and West Germany but symbolically dividing the world between two ideologies locked in a Cold War

The author of those words of course was not the President – it almost never is – but instead one of his speech writers.  This writer of the conversation that inspired him to write these words.

After having had German officials asking him not to reference the wall, so that the people could become used to it, he asked friends of his in then-divided Berlin, “Is it true? Have you gotten used to the wall?”

His friends glanced at each other uneasily. Then one man raised an arm and pointed. “My sister lives twenty miles in that direction,” he said. “I haven’t seen her in more than two decades. Do you think I can get used to that?” Another man spoke. Each morning on his way to work, he explained, he walked past a guard tower. Each morning, a soldier gazed down at him through binoculars. “That soldier and I speak the same language. We share the same history. But one of us is a zookeeper and the other is an animal, and I am never certain which is which.”

berlin09-1That call “tear down this wall!” calling for the dividing wall separating East and West to come down became prophetic.  I still remember sitting spell-bound in a class-room with other kids my age watching as our teacher wheeled in a TV so we could see the many hands taking that wall down brick by brick.  I didn’t fully understand what I was seeing then but I do now– one new people united out of the two. The end of a decades-long Cold War.

Our Scripture reading suggests to us that speech writers’ message became prophetic not so much due to the genius of the speech writer but more because of how it reflected the words of the original peacemaker, Jesus.   Christ is the original one who came preaching to those who are far off and those who are near, proclaiming the walls of division must certainly fall.  In every division we build up to keep others out, to push away those who are different, Christ joins us standing in our midst saying “tear down that wall”.

We still live in a world too divided by walls of fear and misunderstanding.

Just last month, our nation was rocked by witnessing the outcome of building such walls as the news mother_emanual_10was filled with footage of a historically black church in Charleston being shot up by a young white man whose heart was full of hate.  Before that, we saw footage again and again of young people assaulted because of the color of their skin, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York, to within walking distance of the home I once lived in on the Bladen-Robeson County line of North Carolina.

Yet we don’t just build walls that separate us by skin color in this country, do we?   Just a little after the new year, the town I live in was shaken by the death of three young people who devoted themselves to serving the least of these in their community through public service.  These three were killed in cold blood because someone feared their Muslim faith, even though it was that faith which inspired their selfless service.  The gun-shots which killed them were one man’s way to erect a wall to keep people like them out.   Even when our recent Supreme Court ruling tore down walls of division by opening up more equal rights for LGBT people, how shockingly quickly did we see some in our communities began to try to raise walls again with the same worn rhetoric of hate and politics of exclusion!

Even in our own families, painful walls of division can raise their ugly head.  Working as a hospice chaplain, one of the most heart-wrenching things I see is how far too often families come into the chaplain 1hospice torn asunder.  They have not talked to each other for years over events now long forgotten and are scrambling to set things right with the one of them now passing.  Often as a chaplain I am able to help them bridge across this divide, but far more often than I’d wish it is too little, too late.  Illness strikes without giving time to set things right on this side of the veil.

It can look as if division, hatred, violence, are the final word in our world.  In the face of such heartache, Christ appears saying “tear down those walls!’

Multicultural Jesus 1Even in the midst of so much heartache, peace is possible.  In fact Ephesians tells us Christ himself is already our peace, already making now into one new humanity such torn asunder groups by knocking down the walls that divide on the cross.  From God’s side, all that is needed for peace, whether with God or with each other, is already accomplished.  Christ says “tear down these walls” inviting us to be a part of his work.

The starting place in answering “tear down these walls” is realizing that God has already torn down every wall separating you and me from God.   You may have heard over the years that those like you are too different, have no place in God’s family.  Like the Ephesians once did you may feel like a stranger and outsider, exiled from God’s love.

troy perryA man named Troy felt like this.  He felt like an exile, cut off from Christ.  Disowned by his family for who he was, kicked out by the church, Troy decided God must have rejected him too.  Full of despair, he took razors and tried to slit his own wrists. All went black.  When we woke he was on a hospital bed and shocked to be alive beyond all hope.  He opened his eyes with these words echoing in his heart:  “I made you. I love you.  I’ve never rejected you.  Show others the same”.  This experience both saved his life and launched his ministry.  Knowing God loved him despite all who said otherwise, the Rev. Troy Perry became one of the first openly gay ministers in the United States in a day and age when you could be thrown in jail for being gay.  His ministry helped birth the gay-affirming Christian movement which we see at work in our Open & Affirming churches in UCC.  Not only has it helped many LGBT people find faith, but helped inspire the movement for LGBT civil rights behind the recent Supreme Court decision.

What a difference Troy knowing Christ said “tear down this wall made!  What Troy learned in that experience is true for us.  God says to each of us – “I made you.  I love you.  I’ve never rejected you.  Show others the same”.

Answering Christ’s call begins with believing this to be true for you.  Yet this last phrase – “Showing others the same” is part and parcel of the second way we live out this text.

We must learn to live out this grace we are given by being ones who says “yes” to Christ’s call “tear down this wall”.  After the Charleston shooting, a friend from one of our historically black UCC churches put it well.  “You know, folks are scared,” she said.  “After Charleston, when we see some young white man walk into the church, people are going to be on alert.  Instead of opening their arms in welcome people’s first thought will be ‘What is he doing here?  Is he up to no good?  Are we safe?’  And what’s sad is that isn’t what we need right now.  That’s what people like that shooter wanted.  What we need is to all stand together”.  She hit the nail on the head of what tearing down that wall is about, didn’t she?  It is so easy to huddle in fear only with those like us – white folks with white folks, people of color with people of color; straight folks with straight folks, gay folks with gay folks, … you name it … rather than to reach out across the aisle in love.

martin luther kingThe late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King put it well “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Learning to practice this is not easy, but it is the only way to God’s future for us.

“Tearing down that wall” might mean many things.

In our communities it might mean looking again at how we do education, policing, and other community practices.  How is racial bias coloring what we are doing?  How can we change that?

As churches, “tearing down that wall” can mean beginning to own up to our part in creating division.  Dr. King used to say Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Not much has changed in America these long decades.  We must ask: Are there things as a church we’ve done which helped create divisions over race, over sexuality, over class?  Are there ways we can be more inclusive in our welcome, can partner more across the divides that exist?

“Tearing down that wall” might mean personally looking to ways you might be treating others in ways that push out those you feel are “different”.  This might mean reaching out to build relationships and hear the stories of those who you are avoiding.

“Tearing down that wall” might mean, too, simply being willing to not give up on that person in your life you are tempted to throw in the towel regarding. It might involve being willing to reach out one more time to seek to make amends or to seek to extend grace.  It might mean being willing to say you’re sorry, or to not give up when that one you need to hear “I’m sorry from” aren’t yet willing to.

desmond-tutuAt the heart of the outlook we need to live out is what Desmond Tutu described when he wrote in No Future without Forgiveness that the reconciling lifestyle says “my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.  We belong in a bundle of life… A person I a person through other persons.  It is not ‘I think therefore I am’ [but] rather I am … because I belong.  I participate.  I share.”

May we learn to extend this mercy, this grace, this belonging to all people.  May we learn to live out the lives of reconciliation Christ calls us to today, and always.  Amen.


Daily Devotional: (repost) Squirrels, Birds, and Eternity

Due to the death of my wife, I’m re-posting some old devotionals for a while.  This is one very relevant today, on All Saints Day, which also speaks to me on the loss of my wife.

Hope it helps you celebrate All Saints Day.  Remember, love is right with you, all around you, over you, through you.

Resting in the everlasting arms,


Squirrels, Birds, and Eternity

ImageThis morning, cup of coffee in hand, sitting on my porch in Carrboro, I’m drawn into the presence of eternity.

My mother-in-law bought me a bird feeder for an early birthday gift. Today is one of the first warm mornings in a good while here in the Carolinas. And as I sit and sip my coffee, I am surrounded. I’m surrounded by the light which slides through the tree branches like a summer rain, falling as quiet around me as oak leaves in autumn, and wrapping around me like the blanket I put around my shoulders to keep out the early morning chill. I am surrounded by the rising music of bird-song, and the chitter of squirrels.

While I grab a bite to eat, a bird hops beside the table, a small tattered brown leaf in its mouth, and looks me right in the eye.

In moments like this I sense the nearness of my grandmother, who I shared about last year when I Imagewrote The Power of a Southern Grandma: How My Southern Belle Granny Helped Me Become a Progressive Christian . Grandma Myrtie is the only grandmother I remember, since the rest of my grandparents died when I was very little. After her husband, Charles, died she had a stroke and came to live with us. Our back window looked out into a wooded area and often the scene I saw this morning would play out through that large window – squirrels chasing and playing, birds singing and flittering, and the sunlight falling through the tree branches like a shower of light. I remember Grandma Myrtie sitting in rapt attention watching those scenes. She had a particular fondness for the squirrels. She would sit, her hand on my little fingers, and point out all the little in’s and out’s of the squirrels’ running, jumping, and dalliances through the window.

I think my life-long love of nature, particularly of sitting in the spring weather watching the birds build their nests and the squirrels at chase with each other, is something I in part learned sitting beside her on that grey tweed couch, watching the squirrels go by the window.

ImageGrandma Myrtie passed in my early teens, in a nursing home near my parent’s house in Fayetteville. Momma had taken care of her as long as she could, but Grandma’s dementia got worse, to the point she needed constant care. I always remember that the night before she died, momma pointed out to me – “Every night I could hear her praying to us, ‘God give me strength to be here one more day, to be here for my family’. Tonight I heard her say ‘Lord, I’m ready. Take me home’”. That next day Grandma Myrtie had congestive heart failure and passed.

Yet every time I see the squirrels play, I feel she sits beside me, her wrinkled hand on my little palm, whispering words of comfort and of strength. I remember it when I would go to a creek in adolescent distress, just to be alone, and saw the squirrels in the tree. I remember when I learned to pray by the lake side on my own as a teenager finding my own faith, seeing the birds dip into the water. I remember feeling that sense of not being alone one afternoon sitting outside the bookstore at Campbell University having just gone through a painful breakup and said bye to many friends who graduated. I looked up and two squirrels were circling my table, staring at BLT. Each moment when I sit with the squirrels, I am reminded of a truth of the faith Grandma Myrtie’s life was a testament to – I believe in the communion of the saints.

Anyone who grows up in a church that recites the creeds of the church knows those words. I did not grow up reciting them, but I have come to see the truth behind them and hold them close to my heart.Image

“The communion of the saints” is the Christian phrase used to describe the experience those open to things of the Spirit have found of sensing that all of us are connected and that even though we might be separated by miles or continents, if we both remain open to the Spirit, that same Spirit who breathes life into the budding flower and fluttering bird will connect us despite the miles. And that this connection continues even after we leave this earthly body, for death is not the end but the beginning of a new kind of life.

This has been an important reminder this past year, when I’ve sadly had to face many close to me pass. It can be quite heart-wrenching to say “good-bye” or, at times, to hear the news another has passed without the chance to say good-bye. But even then there are moments where I sense the fact they are ok, that their life continues in a way that I could not have expected, and that their love and care for me goes on.

ImageA few years ago, a dear friend from college passed, one who had been a true friend during tough times. Though she had been sick for a long time, her death was sudden and without warning.

Yet in the days before I got the news she passed, I remember having moments I felt a presence standing near me, one familiar and full of love. I remember once swearing I could hear her laughing. Then I got the call that next day that she had passed after falling suddenly. In my heart I know in some way, God had let me sense that she was alright; that this was not the end for her but the beginning of something beautiful I could only begin to glimpse. And in moments here or there that led to my friend’s funeral I could sense again that feeling of presence, peace, and love which told me she was entering into new and deeper life, a life where I was not forgotten nor any she cared of.

I wrote the following about one of those experiences:

On Golden Streets


The last time 

I saw you

a-twirl with 

a kaleidoscope of color

was it you I saw

or some phantasmic vision

of my desperate mind?

My heart knows.

Has always known.

Finally I saw you that day

as you’ve always said

you were

in your dreams.

As you have always been

though too few saw it.

Your crumpled form

I had been told fell lifeless,

and without warning

like some rag doll dropped

by an untidy and careless child

was such no longer,

but now you stood alive

before me,

more alive than ever.

You stood almost three inches taller that day.

But, how can I call it standing?

Your feet were ever moving

your body swaying like a ballerina.

You were dancing,

moving as always

to music you alone could hear,

dancing upon that marble altar

as if it was transfigured into some disco-balled club,

and no longer the altar before which cold preachers droned on

like the foghorns of Fort Fisher

mournful in the mist

announcing the coming of the night.

Your laughter chimed out its own song,

a thousand hand-bell choirs

in joyful unison

cheerfully echoing on the tin roof of my soul

like summer rain on my old home,

drowning out those other more ghostly voices.

I could have sworn this brilliant form

all crutches and wheelchairs layed aside


and you giggled

whispering of joys

that mournful company could not dream of.

Another secret you whispered

like the many we shared

as friends so long ago.

You were a gift to me, dear one,

a friend and big sister

when friends fled

and my own big sister forgot me.

Know you are never forgotten.

I can still remember our late night talks

stories and jokes

singing in my Chevy Sprint

en route to each visit our youthful loves,

and the whispered stories

we both shared of our romantic endeavors

on returning.

Nor can I ever forget

the wonder of

seeing in you

a person more alive

than I’d ever known,

never worried what the world would say

free to be herself.

Dance on, bright spirit.


And one bright morning I shall don my dancing shoes

and join you in moving again

to the music of the spheres.

Dance on, bright spirit, dance on!

Recently while reflecting on my life and especially the ways in which we take with us so much from our families, including some things we so deeply appreciate and also areas of brokenness we have to work with God’s help to heal, it dawned me another way we experience the communion of the saints: we carry with us all who are dear to us every moment of our lives, choosing which aspects of who they are to embrace as a gift. I carry my daddy’s love of fishing, of story, of good preaching, and I make that a part of who I am. Yet I also carry my dad’s temper, his tendency to be a bit workaholic, to drink more than he ought. I choose each moment which part of him that I have taken into myself I will be faithful to and how. So I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prayer Home Companion, I preach my heart out, and I choose to find peace in my soul that doesn’t need a bottle nor flies off the handle. It is more than memories we carry – it is all those good qualities others have that we can let shape us, all the mistakes they have made we can learn from, and all the quirky uniqueness they have we can celebrate.

What is your point of connection to the communion of the saints? Who has been that point of light shedding the way for you, whose presence in one way or another continues to inspire you, though separated from you by distance or by the veil of death & the life after? What qualities do you choose to embrace from those who’ve touched your life, and what do you choose to take as lessons to walk another path?

May you sense the nearness and love of all who have gone before you, and hear the invitation of our faith – “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage … that trips us up,and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, Common English Bible)

And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!

Your progressive redneck preacher,


2013-07-10 07.19.16

Daily Devotional: Reaching Out While Preserving the Hard Call to Be Transformed

sermon on the mount laura jamesMatthew 8:18-27

I’ve always been struck by what a bad evangelist Jesus is in this text, if evangelism means what I have always heard it presented as: as some sort of ad campaign for Jesus & Christianity, promoting it in a way that will make it popular with the masses or at least accessible and easy to choose to take part in.   Both liberals or progressives like me and conservative Christians like folks in the churches in which I grew up and was baptized all talk about evangelism, often in this way. In conservative churches it is talk of “winning souls” and “spreading the kingdom”. In progressive or liberal churches we talk about “widening the welcome”, “embracing the outcast”, and “removing barriers”.

Sometimes this can mean the sort of beautiful radical welcome Jesus offers throughout his ministry, when he sets down at the table of fellowship both with the well-to-do religious or city leader and the outcast poor, including even sex workers and con artists. It can be like Jesus not waited for people looking for things of the spirit to come to us but going to where they are and reaching out in love, as Jesus does to the Samaritan woman at the watering hole and the many people with illness or disability whom have been ostracized by the community outside the city limits.

But such a focus can also lead toward reducing the very challenging teachings of Jesus down to their least common denominator: heaven when we die, God loves everybody, be good people.   Jesus didn’t get killed for telling people about love, about heaven, or to be good. Many other Jewish preachers said the same without having Rome become fearful of them and attempting to stamp out their teaching with ruthlessness.

Jesus’ teachings radically cut to the heart of our own preconceived ideas about life and how it works. He challenges our expected notions of fairness by painting images of a radical all-inclusive grace of God in his parables which upsets our notions of the well-to-do and acceptable or the gone to far and beyond help, of the hierarchies of power and vulnerability, of the victim and the perpetrator, … well of how our world and lives work.   His example upsets the power structures of his day by living out radical inclusive love in a way that ignores how society has set up its systems of power and demonstrates how another way, which levels unfair patterns of wealth, power, and privilege can happen. He questions the beautiful and pious practice of religion which can become a money-making scheme for the few but is empty and destructive when removed from compassion for actual people.

What Jesus is seeking is not converts but rather transformation — to transform our world starting with the community we live into places in which swords are beaten into plowshares, into a place living out the peaceful vision of healing and reconciliation, equality and inclusion, which the prophets of old dreamed and spoke concerning. For this to happen he does not simply need people joining a movement like one joins a club, signing their name on the dotted line and doing little else. He does not need either people who voice admiration for him with their lips as either a good teacher or as God in the flesh, thinking such voicing of faith in Him gives them a get into heaven free ticket, yet who do nothing at all else with this claim of having faith in Him. No Jesus needs people willing to be transformed, from the inside out, into people who live out these values of a new and different world built on justice, compassion, care for all at every stage of life, and of transforming communities and the earth into places that are life-giving for all people and all living things. And transforming are hearts is no easy task.

So Jesus meets the eager folks saying they want to follow him not with a “good job” or a “welcome home”, not with a big hug like one gets when they come up to the altar with “Just As I am” or an “all are welcome here” like we say in my beloved progressive churches. No, he begins by saying troubling, vexing things which speak right to what this path of following Jesus and transformation will mean they have to give up.   He says things that sound at first like actually setting up obstacles to being welcomed. Of course, I think it is more that he describes what following him *actually* entails.

I am reminded here of the great quote by C. S. Lewis on conversion in his classic book Mere Christianity:

“Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor– that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender–this movement full speed astern–is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person–and he would not need it.

“Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen…”

Lack of gender inclusivity aside (for this predicament he describes is not reserved to only male-identified folks but people of all genders), Lewis hits the nail on the head.   Jesus begins by describing the barriers that exist to following Him not because He is saying we should not as liberals do practice radical welcome or as conservatives do point people toward the path of salvation for their souls but because he is showing what we are radically welcomed into and what salvation for our souls entails. We are welcomed into a path of transformation that is painful, hard, and (though life-giving) entails a sort of death, a dying to our selfishness, our complacency, our indifference, our prejudices, and all the things that keep us from living as those making this earth as it is in heaven and from loving God, ourselves, others, & God’s good earth as Jesus modeled.

To me Jesus’ approach reminds me so much of other spiritual teachers in history who focused on transformation.   Particularly Jesus’ approach reminds me of the example of Christian mystics we know of as the desert mothers & fathers, as well the Buddhist mystics we know as Zen masters.

Both groups would have eager folks show up seeking deep meaningful spirituality but end up first being given hard, paradoxical challenges which could seem to be presenting barriers to the spiritual life but, later, they would find to be the very things that caused them to discover what barriers in their heart they needed with God’s help to remove before they could undergo the transformation which makes spiritual growth possible.

Jesus’ example shows us we need to make sure to remember that spiritual life involves dying to old patterns of thinking and acting in order to be transformed into new patterns. This dying and being raised to new life is the constant pattern of the spiritual life not just in Christianity but in all true spiritual paths.

To be true to this pattern Jesus is giving we need to be open to those voices in our life that question our assumptions, challenge our patterns of life, and push us uncomfortably to look at things we are overlooking. We also need to, yes, continue to practice radical welcome and radically reaching out but not do so in a way that we remove the scandal of the Gospel, for its scandalous nature is like the scandalous statements Zen and monastic teachers used to wake us up to where our hearts have become lax, complacent, or where we simply are not conscious of our barriers to growth.   Jesus again and again demonstrates in the Gospels that we can lovingly reach out without compromising this call to transformation.

For me a part of how I do this is to be honest about my own short-comings and areas in which I see barriers in myself. Admitting I have not arrived but, like everyone else, am on a journey while openly talking about the areas I falter allows dialogue with others about their struggles in ways that disarm their defensiveness (and my own) while opening up awareness to their areas where change or growth is needed.

Another approach I use is to take time to listen to my own questions and challenges in my heart. So often we fear our questions, push them down, and act as if they threaten our own faith. Yet in the Gospels it is often questions Jesus uses to push people out of complacency into real growth. Your vexing questions about your faith and life can be the voice of the still-speaking God calling you to deeper awareness. For an example of someone doing this, check out my wife Katharine’s blog http://www.questionsyoucouldntaskinsundayschool.wordpress.com/   In that blog she is openly exploring her doubts and questions about faith & life as a spiritual practice.

What are ways you are learning to open up to voices of others or within yourself that can challenge your preconceived notions? How are you learning to balance radical welcome, pro-active outreach, and also remaining faithful to the Gospel’s scandalous call for transformation?

I look forward to hearing what helps you on your journey.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Singing of the Flame That Never Dies

coffee-prayer-scripturePsalm 146.

Here the psalmist contrasts the faltering, fleeting power of human rulers who do not last beyond their lives at best and often are fickle about the poor, marginalized, and oppressed with the work and presence of God. What stands out to me is what God does and where God can be found: “The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

The LORD loves the righteous; the LORD cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.”

Growing up I got the sense from church that where God was to be found was in withdrawing from the world.  Both in the Adventist group called the Church of God where I spent my childhood and later among the charismatics in high school with whom my faith first came alive I often got the message got had a list of taboo things we had to avoid, lest we get caught up in the world.   If I withdraw from this world and its temptations, avoid those hurdles, I can be holy and apart.  Then God will reach me.

mother with baby in lead sunsetYet the Psalmist does not picture God as far off from our world, but right in its midst.  God is knee-deep in the muck, arms rolled up, like a farmer going down into the mud to rescue his wayward hog or goat that ran off getting caught in mud and briars.   God is more like the mother who hears her child’s cries when they are fallen with broken leg and rushes into the midst of things right to where that child is to lift them up.

Where is God?  God is in our lives, always present and working.

If we want to see God, we need but open our eyes.  Where are there people discovering freedom? Where are eyes being opened more fully to life? Where are people with disabilities discovering greater accessibility in a world so often full of barriers to them?  Where are the bowed down, the oppressed  or discouraged, finding hope and new direction?  Where are the marginalized being included and embraced?  Wherever such happens, where life breaks forth in the midst of death and freedom in the midst of oppression, whatever name is given for that happening ultimately it is the power and presence of the living God motivating it.

To me this is a reminder that to fully experience God I ought not pull away from the muck and mud of this world but plunge in, arms rolled up and ready to help.   We experience God in being God’s partners in this world, going to the places where God’s power and presence daily break out.  As I sit beside the sick and dying, holding their hand and comforting them & their families, I encounter the living God.  As I listen to the stories of the oppressed and marginalized, I see the face of God, and as I join my voice to theirs I participate in God’s work.   As I am present to the life-giving greening power of nature I see God, and as I join my hands to help repair the damage to nature in my small way caused by our selfishness, pollution, & greed I join God in God’s work.

Life then, in every spot and location, is a temple of the living God. Wherever I look I can find the presence of God.  And in any place I can worship, for the work of joining God in the work of healing, giving life, extending compassion, bringing justice or freedom, is worship and is prayer even if no words are spoken or songs sung.

This image of a worship, a song, that is our actions, to me is beautifully pictured by the words of the final song in Les Miserables

Do you hear the people sing

Lost in the valley of the night?

It is the music of a people

Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth

There is a flame that never dies.

Even the darkest night will end

And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom

In the garden of the Lord.

They will walk behind the plough-share,

They will put away the sword.

The chain will be broken

And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?

Who will be strong and stand with me?

Somewhere beyond the barricade

Is there a world you long to see?

Do you hear the people sing?

Say, do you hear the distant drums?

It is the future that they bring

When tomorrow comes…

Tomorrow comes!

Let’s raise our voices and join this throng raising voices in praise, joining God in God’s work of giving life, healing, and freedom to our world.

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: It’s Never Too Late

U-Turns are often the best way to move life forward.2 Chronicles 29:1-3; 30:1, 10-27

It is never too late to make an effort to make right.  In this text, Israel has been through monarchies and generations ignoring the call to celebrate the Liberator God who freed them from slavery so long ago in the Passover.  They have for generations overlooked the message of God in Holy Scripture.  And now, when they decide as a nation to make time and space for God and God’s Word in their life, they don’t do so on the actual date of the Passover.  They do it a month late, with not everyone ready, and scrambling for supplies.

I think as I read this story of “If only’s” in my life I have had that I thought “it is too late”.   It seemed too late in my career as a pastor to go back to seminary.  It seemed to late to try my hand at something new with my career.  For a friend close to me, it seemed to late in life to admit to themselves and others their sexuality and come out.  For another, it seemed to late to try to have children.  In each of these occasions, the person involved found when they put their hand to the task ahead of them, it was not.  God had planted that desire in their heart and was standing at the ready to help them birth this new possibility into fruition.  For my “if only’s” I found God showing me how it not only was not too late, but this seemingly late timing actually readied my heart through tough experience for deeper aspects of this journey I would not have been ready for otherwise.

It is never too late to commit to whatever God has laid on your heart to do, to seek to make some peace and amends for whomever you are estranged from.  Hear God’s call, take God’s hand, and join in the work God has given you.

And I ain’t whistling Dixie here,

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Embracing the Life that Bursts Forth in the Midst of Death

Sarai-Choose-Life-800x544(pp_w770_h523)Psalm 116 identifies God’s presence for the Psalmist as found in life breaking forth when he was surrounded by death, certain it would drag them down to utter destruction.

I can relate with this. In what feels to short a time ago, my wife had a health episode in which we both feared the outcome might be death.   The rush of doctors, the recovery, the fear all was like a storm of uncertainty. Like the psalmist, I felt like she was wrapped in the cords of death and that our shared life together would be dragged down into nothingness. My heart broke and I shed many a shaky tear, afraid I might lose her.

veriditas 2I remember the joy of sitting in the doctor’s office when he told both of us not only did it look like the condition would not be fatal, but in fact even the risky surgery it usually required was not necessary. My heart leaped. The breath was knocked out of me with joy.   It was like receiving back the one I love, my dear wife, from death, and knowing we still have many years to share together.

Yet I think this is not the only way we experience God as life breaking forth in the way of death.

At times we also face dead-ends in life, where our dreams lie shattered. The career we worked toward, the ministry we were building, the relationship we’d invested in falls apart. It dies.   Our heart breaks and we feel alone. In those moments there are people and experiences that help heal those broken places in our lives. They believe in us. They help us to hope again by their trust in us. To me such moments and people are this in-breaking of life in the midst of death.   Ultimately when you have been so low and finally you saw your life open up again, it is like discovering life after feeling you were sliding into the pit of death.

As a person who works right now as a hospice chaplain, where often the prayers for healing I share with people do not end in the disease ending but in death itself, it is important for me to notice that chaplain 1this life the Psalmist talks of breaks forth, too, in situations of incurable illness and situations in which the physical particulars you face in life are not eradicated. It may be someone does lose their mobility or vision, but learns to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in a full life with their disability.   Healing is finding wholeness as they are.   It might be that someone does die but comes to accept their death as a part of life, and in so doing finds peace that allows them to live each day as fully alive as they can.   I’ve seen life come in the midst of death in families that are torn apart and divided yet through the experience of loss, illness, or tragedy heal old wounds and learn to be together for each other again.

The ways in which life appears in the midst of death are countless. It is right like the Psalmist for us to take time to acknowledge them and recognize them. To show gratitude.

The Psalmist’s gratitude leads them to praise God, thank God, to tell the story of the inbreaking of veriditas-jo-thompsonGod’s love and life in their own time of tragedy. I think that is a good model for us.   When we find life beyond all hope breaking forth in our darkening night of sorrow and loss, it ought to re-shape our life. It is a word of God as much as Scripture itself, calling us to new or renewed vision. It calls us to be people of life, who willingly cooperate with the Spirit whom Hildegard of Bingen called the bringer of veriditas, the power of life that makes the world green and vibrant.   We each in our way can pay forward these experiences of life breaking forth beyond all hope by being people who choose to use our experience of life-renewing Spirit to help others discover, embrace, and feel the life return where and when death seems to reign in their midst.

For me, this is the work of healing all true people of God have shared in from the beginning. Let’s embrace our lives, living fully alive, and help others find the life the Spirit of God is reaching out to extend in each situation, no matter how dark or broken.

And I ain’t whistling no Dixie, folks,

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Daily Devotional: Remembrance as a Path To Reconnect

great cloud 4 Psalm 105

This psalm is about the power of memory.   God remembers Israel and not just Israel, but also the relationships God had with Israel’s forebears – with Abram who heard God while in the city of Ur, with Sarai who laughed in delight and shock at the news of children beyond all hope, of Moses who trusts God enough to return to the land from which he was exiled, of Mirium who dances to the Lord before the Red Sea singing her bold prophecies.   God remembers God’s relationship, renewing God’s covenant anew with each generation, with each person.

A part of discovering the promise in such a relationship, a relationship the Bible calls “a covenant”, is by our remembering.

great cloud 6I see the power of remembering each day as a chaplain. Sitting by the bedsides of the suffering, the dying, I see how remembering is not just something that happens. It is instead a discipline or spiritual practice like prayer.   For so many patients and their families what gives them the courage and strength to face the uncertainty of what lies before them is the fact they take time to remember: to remember the experiences shared with people like their spouses, children, friends, and parents who have been sources of hope through life’s storms, and to remember the many ways they have encountered God through their lives. This type of remembrance does not just happen but is cultivated.

In Scripture we see this cultivated through hymns like this Psalm which invite us to take time to remember God’s hand both in our personal lives in the history of God’s people across all ages and spiritual practice tree 2lands. We are challenged read and to rehearse to our children this story, which is a part of what Bible study is about.   Yet in the Hebrew Scriptures this is also one of the roles of worship.   The feasts of Israel are days in part set aside to remember holy times in the history of the people of God found in Israel.   The times at temple invite people to reorient their lives not around the business of chronos, the unending avalance of years & activities, but Kairos, time as experienced as the unfolding of living relationship with the Source of all life and with those people whose lives God knits together with our own. As these occur in tune with the cycles of the seasons in Palestine in Scripture, they frame Kairos as including time as include the unfolding of our personal and collective relationships with the land, the air, and the water that makes what Pope Francis calls our ”common home” in his recent encyclical Latudo Si and with the many other living creatures it includes.   Even prayer is framed in Scripture in terms of remembrance for prayer is not just the speaking of the heart what first comes into one’s mind, although this extemporaneous prayer is a spiritual practice prayerlife-giving practice found in Scripture.   Yet Jesus prays the words of Psalm 22 as he hangs on the cross.   The apostles are quoted in Acts as praying the words of other psalms, and Christians through the ages have recited the words “Our Father” as an experience that grounds them in life.   The tradition of liturgical prayer, prayer that uses ancient words of the people of God as a framework to guide our own prayers and breath prayer, using these words of Scripture and words of God’s people down through the ages to inspire contemplative meditation, not only helps us find words when our words fail and to center our minds and hearts but also invite us to remember. To remember the many ways God is at work in us we would forget. To remember too our connection to all God’s people in all lands, times, and faiths. To remember our connection to those who went before us. To remember our connection to those who come after us. To remember our connection to nature and all creatures. To remember our connection to the One in whom we live, in whom we move, and in whom we have our being.

I see as a chaplain and as a pastor people returning to such memories of their own lives, the stories their parents told, the experiences of faith, and see such remembrance give them strength to not just survive another day of illness or suffering but in fact at times even to thrive, radiating a hope, joy, serene acceptance, resiliency, or stubborn “I will not give up” which inspires me.

It would seem that individuals facing dementia would lose their capacity to remember, but I great cloud 2wonder about this fact.   So often when I discover the words of a prayer that drew together their family or church community, the words of a Scripture they often quoted, or especially of a song that gave them hope, when I use that with the patient with dementia I find a light twinkling in their eyes and them mouthing the words to the prayer, Scripture, or song even when a moment before they acted disconnected from me and their environment. On some level, these practices of faith help them remember, if but for a moment, whom they are and whose they are.   I hope in those moments in their own way they hear the whisper of the Almighty “You, dear one, are my child. You, dear one, are the one whom I love. In you, dear one, I am ever well pleased as a mother is ever to her child or a father to his own”.

In my own life, in addition to the practices of meditation, liturgical and breath prayer, Scripture spiritual practice becomingreading, and joining in Christian worship that celebrates our common history, I find the following practices help me remember:

Journaling.   There is a power to writing out to God, to myself, and to others what I have experienced of God, of doubt, of faith.   By writing things out and, time to time, returning to what I have written, I am able to see the ways in which God continues to walk alongside me causing my life to unfold.   In fact, this blog in many ways is an act of journaling. Most of what I write begins as a spiritual journal which I edit, screen for things I don’t need to go public, touch up, and share with you.

Gratitude Practice. I try every day to take time to list of to God and another person several things spiritual practice journalthat happened which are concrete which I am grateful for, including both answered prayers and unexpected joys as small as seeing a red cardinal on a tree to as big as getting a job I worked toward.   I also try to take time to thank people for the blessings they’ve bestowed on me in my life, although I am perhaps not as good at that as I wish I was.   In fact in our family, Kat and I have begun the practice before saying grace for a meal to ask those at the table with us to each list one or two things for which they are thankful, incorporating those into the prayer of thanks.

Reading spiritual biographies and histories.   When I can, I like to read spiritual biographies or books about the history of spiritual leaders & movements. I say “spiritual” because it includes Christian leaders and role-models, but also recognizes people of spirit of other faiths than my own. I am more and more convince that where justice, mercy, compassion, service, and life breaks out, it is a result of the Holy Spirit whom Hildegard of Bingen describe as the bringer of veriditas, the greening life-giving energy in which all things thrive.   And so I see figures like Hildegard, like Dorothy Day, like Deitrich Bonhoeffer, like Sojourner Truth, like Rumi, like the Dalai Lama, like Gandhi, and many others as people whose stories can help me remember how God has worked through the ages and connect up with whom God is & how God is working in my life and world today.

Pilgrimage I don’t do this often, but I do try to practice a bit of pilgrimage – no, I don’t mean heading to holy sites like Jerusalem or Mecca. I really don’t make the money for such long trips. But when I can, I do try to make pilgrimage to holy sites in my own life – to the ocean where I was baptized, to the hills I would visit in my childhood, to a retreat center where I renewed faith.   By visiting for spiritual enrichment such places I revitalize my own sense of where God was at work in my life and my eyes are opened to where God might be at work now.

How do you take time to remember what God has done in your life? In your family? In your community?

How do you take time to experience your connection with those of faith and of spirit whom have gone before? With those of spirit and faith in other lands, cultures, and faiths? With our common home and its many creatures?

Let us take time to remember, knowing in doing so we renew our relationship with One who will never forget us.

And I ain’t whistling any Dixie today,

Your progressive redneck preacher,