Thursday, April 30, 2009

Really? I mean, REALLY?

Maybe I'm late on the news, but I just found this little tidbit on Facebook.

Eleven years after Matthew Shepard was strung up on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming and left to die, a Virginia Congresswoman is calling the idea that he was killed because he was gay "a hoax."

This is it, folks. This is the bottom line of what homophobia accomplishes. It kills. Often it just kills (did you catch that? 'just') spirits. Joy. But sometimes-- often enough-- it literally kills. Takes life. Like Matthew Shepard's. Or like that of the 15-year old boy in California who was shot in the head by a classmate because he was gay.

I'll tell you what is a hoax: the idea that LGBT people are as protected under US law as any other group. That is the hoax.
Go here to help to make a difference. And if your congressman or -woman helped to make this happen, thank them.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tribeca '09

Yeah. You heard right. I'm going. I'm going tomorrow!

Turns out you don't have to be friends with Bobby or Woody or Jodi or Spike to get tickets. It's so American... anyone can do it, if you can get yourself to NYC and are willing to pay NYC ticket prices for movies. (For this, I am.)

Image from "Outrage," director Kirby Dick's documentary about closeted LGBT politicians who embrace anti-gay policies to get votes. CAN'T WAIT.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hug Me

This short film was created by Larry-O and his fellow students at Big City U. They placed in the top 16 for the campus film festival, which pleased them greatly! Larry was one of the camera operators, but he is the man near the end trying to choose between two suits.

Get out your handkerchiefs.

"Alleluia! So What?" Adventures in Sermonizing on Acts 4:32-35

So... it was a typical Sunday morning. Got up, showered, had breakfast, coffee, looked at the sermon below and tweaked it. Emailed it to myself so that I could print it out at the office-- that's what I do every Sunday.

Petra was on a mission trip with the Youth Group, so I drove to church alone. Chatted with a few members of the congregation, and then went to print out the sermon. No go. Tried again. Still no luck. By now the liturgist had stopped in. She suggested emailing it to myself again, but going on another office computer to open it and try to print it from there. Another person stopped in, looking for information, and I helped him with that.

By now it was 10:25. The service begins at 10:30. Those of us leading worship looked at one another, and I said, "Well, I guess I'll wing it!"

And so I preached for the first time in my life without so much as an outline, not a word of notes.

You know, it went ok. It was actually pretty good. I notice, as I paste it here, that what went by the wayside were some very nice quotes, including the one by Moltmann. Too bad. But... it was ok. The Holy Spirit had my back, yo? No one noticed that I had no manuscript, per se, but someone did say, as they greeted me after church, "You were so animated this morning!"

That, my friends, was the adrenaline.

So, here's something like what I preached.

32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. ~ Acts 4:32-35

A man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard, when suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, slowing down and then stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by flooring it and accelerating through the intersection.

The tailgating woman hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection. As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very concerned police officer. The officer ordered her to exit the car with her hands up. He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell.

A couple of hours later, another policeman approached the cell and opened the door. The woman was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects. He said, “Ma’am, I'm very sorry for this mistake. Here’s what happened: I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, making obscene gestures at the guy in front of you, and cursing a blue streak at him. I noticed the “What Would Jesus Do?” bumper sticker, the “Follow Me to Sunday-School” license plate, and the chrome-plated fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.” (1)

Now, the point of this silly story is, obviously, the disconnect between identity and action. The woman’s car was covered with Christian paraphernalia. To the arresting officer, her behavior was anything but “Christian.” Why tell this story today? I think it helps us to frame an important question I’d like us to ask ourselves: What does the resurrection of Jesus have to do with us, anyway? That’s what we celebrated last week, with much hoopla: the resurrection of Jesus Christ—the fact that he had been dead, but God raised him from the dead and defeated the power of death in a lasting way. Here at church we celebrated with flowers and music, with song and scripture. At home we celebrated with more flowers, and candy, and perhaps with fancy dinners. We celebrated by singing “Alleluia’s” in church for the first time since Ash Wednesday! We celebrated by spending time with those we love. But… why did we celebrate? Alleluia! Christ is risen! To which much of the world answers a resounding, “So what?” And it would be great if we had an answer for that. So what? What’s the big deal? What does the resurrection have to do with us, anyway? Does it change us? Does it change anything, besides, maybe, the bumper stickers we put on our cars?

It is, after all, still Easter—the Easter season, anyway. And throughout the Easter season the lectionary offers us readings from the Acts of the Apostles, little snapshots of the life of the early church. The first few chapters of this book are filled with sermons, and the passage we’ve read today speaks of a community that, in response, begins to assemble itself: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). Great grace... The friends and followers of Jesus, saturated with grace, preached about the resurrection, and a community said a resounding “Yes” to that, and gathered together. And what was the chief characteristic of this community, gathered around the resurrection? “There was not a needy person among them.” The defining characteristic of the resurrection community was that no one’s basic needs—for food, for clothing, for shelter, for community—went unmet. “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32).

This is a challenging passage for us. One might as well go all the way and call this passage downright un-American, with its focus not on self-sufficiency, or achieving the American dream through hard work, or carrying one’s own weight, but rather, on the assumption that we are all responsible for one another, that a community will come together to assure that everyone’s needs are met. This idea makes us nervous, and I’m reminded of that loaded word that got thrown around a lot during the presidential campaign: Socialism. And in my reading different scripture scholars this week, I noticed that some of them attempt to soft-pedal (if not back-pedal) this passage. For instance, this:

“The language of this passage suggests that Luke is nostalgically reflecting on the golden age of the early church in which ‘there was not a needy person among them.’” (2) Well, as soon as we call this particular snapshot of the early church “nostalgia,” we pretty much relegate it to the unattainable, the dreamy, the impossible to recover or validate. We can say, “Yeah, but…” and then we’re off the hook.

I’d like to see if we could hang on the hook just a little while longer.

The response of the early community to the gospel of resurrection was to ask themselves, “What does a resurrection community look like?” And they looked around and concluded that, if they really took that gospel seriously, they would care for one another’s needs. They concluded that no one should be in poverty. They concluded that no one should go hungry. They concluded that no one should face the harshness of life alone.

We are in a significant moment as citizens, not just of the US, but of the world today, in 2009. Many, many people, including those in our own community, are facing economic hardship for the first time in their lives. People with jobs that seemed rock-solid a year ago are being laid off in numbers not seen for a long time. And many of these people who are suffering are folks who have done everything “right.” They have educations, they have been paying their mortgages, they contribute positively to the fabric of life in their communities—they volunteer with the Girl Scouts and Little League and in their churches. And these folks are falling through the cracks.

Once they have fallen through the cracks they find themselves in the company of many whom we have assumed have not “done everything right.” People that we can look at from a distance, and say, “Well, if they hadn’t dropped out of high school, if they hadn’t gotten into drugs, if they hadn’t…” done this or that, then, what? They’d be fine? Well, not necessarily. Look around. The harsh economic realities of today do not discriminate between the so-called “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Neither, by the way, did Jesus. I have combed the New Testament, and I cannot find a single place in which Jesus places conditions on healing or feeding or helping anyone, or in which he instructs us to do that. Jesus does not make distinctions between “deserving” or “undeserving” humanity. In fact, all our understanding of the significance of the resurrection rises on the notion that we are, by nature, undeserving: great grace is upon us all.

We might wonder why the resurrection community thought of poverty and hunger as the place where they would focus their energy. We might wonder, until we open the pages of the gospels and see the unrelenting witness of Jesus, who, as one of our creeds says,

… proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. (A Brief Statement of Faith, 9-18)

The resurrection community did what they thought Jesus would do… I guess we’re back to that bumper sticker after all… and when they reflected on Jesus’ ministry of reaching out, teaching, healing, binding up, eating and forgiving, they must have decided: that’s what we’ll do. This is what we can do. They felt that, in face of the resurrection, it was time for them to demonstrate a new quality of life, as our Book of Order says church members will do. And that quality of life would be that they help one another through difficult times. A German theologian has said, “The opposite of poverty is not property. The opposite of poor is not rich. The opposite of both poverty and wealth is community, joining together in word and deed.” The opposite of both poverty and wealth is community. (3)

Clarence Jordan sought to bring word and deed together, and changed the face of community forever by his work. Raised in the deep South during a time before the Civil Rights Era, he was deeply troubled by the racial and social inequalities he witnessed. He took a degree in agriculture, hoping, initially, to improve the lot of sharecroppers by making scientific farming techniques available to them. Eventually he found himself in seminary, becoming a New Testament Greek scholar. In 1948 his hopes to improve the lot of the poor and to bridge the racial divide came together with his faith, and he founded Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia. (Koinonia is Greek for “community”). It was an interracial Christian farming community, whose influence has been widespread. In 1965 a married couple, the Fullers, visited Koinonia, just for a few hours, they thought. Those hours changed their lives, as they, first, decided to settle at Koinonia, and later, to apply the principles they learned there—a community of one heart and soul, caring for all as they had need—by founding Habitat for Humanity.

Jesus is risen. So what? Koinonia Farm and Habitat for Humanity are examples of contemporary attempts to faithfully answer that question. Jesus is risen! So what? “The whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” That was the early church’s answer to that question. Jesus is risen! So what? What about us, St. Sociable Church? What is our answer to that question? One person has suggested planting a vegetable garden on our strip of lawn next to the garage, to be tended by members and friends, perhaps on behalf of the “Plant a Row for CHOW” program. Another member has wondered whether we might serve a meal for the community on Sundays. There are meals in Endicott every other day in the week, but none on Sunday. These are just a couple of the ideas I’ve heard from our members. They sound to me like wonderful answers to that question, So what? How are we living out the reality of the resurrection community? So, how about it St. Sociable? Jesus is risen! What are we going to do about it? Thanks be to God. Amen.



(1) Christian Jokes for Adults, Christians Online Australia,
(2) Paul W. Walaskay, Acts: Westminster Bible Companion Series (Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1998), 61.
(3) Jurgen Moltmann

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terror and Amazement: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. ~Mark 16:1-8

It is Easter morning, and we are bathed in fragrance and majesty, from the cross which stands festooned with flowers before us, to the lilies, gorgeous, defiant signs of spring and life; from the bone-rattling sounds of the pipe organ and the brightness of the brass and the sweet singing of the choir to the voices of the children, laughing and excited. This is our high holy day, the single most important day of the year for us, the day on which our faith rests—why call ourselves Christians, if we do not affirm that Christ is risen? And so here in this beautiful sanctuary, made more beautiful still by the flowers and the music and your presence, we are proclaiming the good news in fitting style: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And yet…for all of us in this community who have lived through the past ten days, the world still has more than a hint of Good Friday about it, the world is still a place where violent death can take our breath away, and sometimes, even, our hope. The larger community is still reeling from the shooting deaths ten days ago of 14 people who were brought together, in life, by their desire to help others and to help themselves by participation in a community of learning. And they were brought together in death by the disordered thought, the desperate brokenness and the towering anger of one of that very same community. The funerals are reported on the news each day, two one day, three the next. What can we say? Christ is risen, and yet we stand this morning very much in the midst of a Good Friday world, a world filled with terror and amazement.

And so this gives us a tiny clue as to how those three women were feeling, as they set out early that Sunday morning to go to the tomb of one they loved who had been brutally murdered. The story begins as many stories began this week. Those who loved the dead roused themselves to do what needed to be done. They attended to the necessary details. They bought spices. They spoke with the authorities. They went to the church or the mosque or the synagogue, into the sorrowing embrace of their faith communities. They made travel plans. They gathered with loved ones. They stood vigil. After a violent death people who have no experience dealing with such matters learn quickly what must be done, and they do it. And they do much of it with a lingering sense of terror and amazement that such a thing could happen, to anyone, to them, to the one they loved.

Three women approach the tomb, laden down with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for a proper burial; he had been hastily entombed before the Sabbath. And they wonder how they will possibly roll away the stone that has sealed the tomb shut. Their anxiety on this point is reasonable: those stones ordinarily weighed between one and two tons. When they reach the tomb, they find it open, and they go inside. A young man greets them. His appearance speaks of otherworldliness: he is all in white, by which we are to understand, he is not an ordinary man. And he gives them an utterly unexpected and otherworldly message: Don’t be alarmed. The one you love, the one who was so brutally killed, is not here: he has been raised! And he has gone ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.

Don’t be alarmed; don’t be afraid. Well. Easy for otherworldly-white-robed men to say. Throughout scripture, messengers from God appear to folks going about their daily tasks, and every single time their opening words are the same: don’t be afraid. But these women have been bathed in fear for at least four days, probably much longer. If they’ve been attending to the things Jesus has been saying for weeks before his death, they are well acquainted with fear. Jesus knew—he knew for a long time the kind of end he faced. He knew, just as Mahatma Gandhi knew, just as Martin Luther King knew, just as Harvey Milk knew. People who become known by standing up for the oppressed and downtrodden, people who attract the attention of those who are filled with hate or who have reasons to want the oppressed to remain oppressed… they know their odds for reaching a ripe old age are poor. Jesus knew he would be killed, and soon. He knew. And when he shared his knowledge with his friends and followers, they didn’t want to hear it. It frightened them. It terrified them. These women have been living in fear for a while. “Don’t be afraid” is a hard thing to ask of them.

And the rest of the young man’s message… how can they possibly understand that? Jesus has been raised. And not only has he been raised, he has gone ahead of you, back to Galilee. Now the white-robed man is asking something altogether different of the women. He is asking them to abandon rational thought. He is asking them to suspend disbelief, to accept that the one who was dead, can now be alive. That the one who was broken has now been mended. That what they witnessed with their own eyes—the brutality, the death, the burial—has all been undone. And yet… there is reason for these women to open their hearts to the possibility that this just might be true. They know Jesus. They have been with him throughout his travels, and they have been paying attention. And he had told them this, just as he had told them he would be killed. He had told them that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). He had told them this: that he would be raised. And everything else he had told them had come true. A spark, a tiny spark of hope. Could this be true?

When tragedy strikes, when disaster seems to fall out of the sky into our lives, life is abruptly divided into “before” and “after.” I know many of us have this feeling about September 11, 2001. I was looking at pictures of my children recently, and they were dated “August 2001,” and I thought: that’s before. Before we knew how our whole world was going to change. Before all those people were killed. Before the war began and all those people were killed. Before. And now, we live in “after.”

It sounds almost as if the women have been told that Jesus has gone back “before.” His being raised undoes his death, and his going to Galilee signals that Jesus has gone back to the beginning, to where it all started. He has gone home again, back where he came from. When we go through a terrible trauma, we long for things to be the way they were before, for a return to “life as usual,” a day or even a moment of normalcy. We long for “before.” The friends and followers of Jesus were no exception to that human rule. They undoubtedly scattered to their homes after Jesus was crucified… one story has them back in their fishing boats. That makes sense. What an understandable human impulse.

The thing is, we cannot go back to “before,” just as Jesus’ being raised from the dead cannot undo the death he died. We cannot go back to before, before the shootings, or before the illness, or before the break-up, or before the accident. We can only go forward. And Jesus’ going into Galilee is not a nostalgic trip backward, but, in fact, a path that has been blazed for us, a way to go forward.

How do the women go forward? How do we go forward? We go forward by knowing that Jesus is there. We go into our everyday lives, our Galilee days and nights, by knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. We go into the days of grieving and the nights of loneliness knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. He’s waiting there for us. We go into the next round of chemo or the next job interview or the next difficult conversation with a loved one knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. He’s waiting there for us. We will see him there.

I know that Jesus is risen because I saw him this week. In these last ten days of Good Friday, the Easter Jesus was already out and about in our community. I saw him, as people were gathered around a table, asking “How can we help?” I heard him in the encouraging words of someone who flew a thousand miles to be here, as a witness, not just to the generosity of Presbyterians, but to our crucified and risen Lord. I saw Jesus in the weeping faces of Muslim women and Buddhist children and Jews and Unitarians and Orthodox and Protestants, as thousands of us gathered to say no to violence, no to the hatred that guns down and crucifies. I know that Jesus is risen, because thousands of people across this community have opened their hearts and their homes and their buildings and their wallets to say “How can we help? What can we do? How shall we heal this dreadful wound together?”

He is risen. When you go back out into your everyday lives—your joys and sorrows and work and play: there you will see him, in every impulse to love and heal. When you go out into your places of devastation and loss: there you will see him in every hand that reaches out to help you and hold you. When you go out into your places of fear: there you will feel him in the small but growing sense that you are not alone, that you are never alone. When you go out into your places of amazement—at the first hyacinths that have emerged from the ground, at the enormous pale lemon moon as it rises: there you will feel him in a universe that still knows how to be beautiful, that can still astonish you with birdsong and morning light.

It is Easter morning, and we are bathed in fragrance and majesty, from the flowering cross to the gorgeous lilies; from the sounds of the pipe organ and the brass and the sweet singing of the choir to the voices of the children. This is our high holy day, the single most important day of the year for us. Why call ourselves Christians, if we do not affirm that Christ is risen? And so here in this beautiful sanctuary, made more beautiful still by the flowers and the music and your presence, I invite you to be bearers of the good news: Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, April 06, 2009

In Memoriam

Heard at the candlelight vigil: "Dad, my candle is crying."

These are the victims.

A Palm Sunday

The Weeping Tree

Upon the wind there comes a call,
a whisper soft and low,
a lonseome cry that fills the night
and echoes through the soul.
It stirs the seekers tender heart.
It bids them come and see,
to kneel in shadows cast by grace,
to touch the weeping tree.
Against the sky the timbers rise,
a silhouette of grace,
a rugged throne for heaven’s own,
the sinner’s hiding place.
Its burdened arms reach out to all;
they draw the world to see
the price of love is paid in blood
upon the weeping tree.
O come to the place where promise lives
and rest where hope begins,
where crimson leaves adorn the ground;
a gift from graceful winds.
O come and walk the winding path
that leads to Calvary.
Come lay your burdens down
and rest before the weeping tree.

~ Joseph M. Martin

Crossing the Bridge: A Friday in April

My phone started buzzing just before 11:30 AM. I was in a meeting where we'd all agreed to turn off our phones, and I was annoyedly sure it was the phone of the man sitting behind me. However, the phone I thought I'd silenced buzzed. And buzzed and buzzed. Finally I picked it up: 3 missed calls from Petra, 3 missed calls from my dear one, S.

As I looked at the urgent pattern of the calls the phone buzzed again, and I flipped it open, to answer the 4th call from Petra.

"Mom, where have you been?"

"I'm sorry honey, I was in a meeting. Are you ok?"

"Well, the school is in lockdown."

By now the other attendees of the meeting were standing, puzzled looks on their faces, listening in.

"The school's on lockdown?" I repeated, not really getting it.

"There have been some shootings at the American Civic Association."

"The Civic Center? You mean the Arena?"

"No, the Civic Association. On Front Street."

"Oh," I said, and then I thought, the place with the annual garlic festival.

"Yeah, there's someone in there and he's holding people hostage, and people might be dead already."

Each nugget of information she imparted, I repeated, and the people in front of me gasped, and one by one began to reach for their own cell phones, calling whomever they needed to call.

As we walked out of the church, each of us in our own world with whomever we needed to communicate with, I saw the pastor and the receptionist staring at a computer screen together in the office.

Petra told me what she knew.

It was an emergency.

People had been shot.

There were SWAT teams (this, because a friend of hers who was in French class texted her. Petra was in music theory. The French class, on an upper floor of the north side of the high school building, had a bird's eye view of, first, dozens of police cars descending upon the building in question, then 10 ambulances, and, yes, the SWAT teams, including snipers on the roofs of the buildings across the street).

They were in lockdown. They were not to leave the classroom they were in when the incident started (for the high school, this decision came shortly after 11 AM. The shootings had begun around 10:30.).

They were not supposed to watch tv or go online for information.

But she was fine.

When we got off the phone, it started ringing again... it was S. Where was I? Come home now (by which she meant, her shop, which is about 2 blocks from the high school). I had a lunch appointment with a congregant about 10 miles away. I briefly considered keeping it, then laughed at the state of denial that can come so quickly in an emergency. I decided to cancel the appointment and go to the shop to await Petra's dismissal.

All afternoon we remained glued to the computer as first the local news outlet, and then, soon, national news outlets, picked up the story. There were some dead, but no one wanted to say how many. I heard 4 dead. I heard 12 dead. I assumed the truth was somewhere in the middle; I was wrong. There were 14 dead, including the tortured soul who perpetrated the crime. He had barricaded the back door to this place where immigrants and refugees go to learn English, to take citizenship classes, to integrate themselves into US society. He had then walked around the building in the rain, gone in the front door, and begun shooting.

Here is the piece of news reportage that has haunted me. The survivors-- those who were led by their teachers to hide in a downstairs boiler room and in a re-purposed dumbwaiter-- they heard shots-- Pop, pop, pop!, as one said. But they heard no screaming. Only stunned silence as the victims were gunned down, one by one.

2 Muslim women, one from Iraq, one from Pakistan.

A married couple from Haiti, who left behind two children, ages 6 and 12.

A visiting Chinese research scholar at our local, excellent university. She was my age, 47.

A native daughter of our area: mother of 10, grandmother of 17, who taught English as a second language. (S. remembers her as a young mother driving her great family around in a VW minibus.)

A 39-year-old Vietnamese woman who died in her husband's arms. He survived.

A 54-year-old Chinese immigrant who was the heart and soul of her neighborhood, known for her kind ways and her meticulous white duplex.

Another native Chinese woman who died just before her first wedding anniversary. She was 35.

A pillar of the Ukranian community who wanted to help other immigrants, and so had become a part-time caseworker at the Civic Association.

An emigrant from the Philippines who left behind a husband and 23-year-old adopted daughter.

A 22 -year-old whose biography, in its entirety, reads, from China.

A visiting Brazilian mathematician.

And the shooter.


Throughout the afternoon we watched a live blog from the local newspaper, which reported, at different times, that the police were pursuing the shooter over a nearby bridge, that the shooter had escaped down a main boulevard, and was now missing,that the shooter was heading towards the high school. (Petra tells me there were SWAT folks in her cafeteria at one point).

At 3:15 Petra called me. The lockdown was over. We figured out where to meet.

By which I mean, a nice musical boy-- let's call him Trumpet Player-- offered to walk Petra to meet me. She and Trumpet Player set out from their position, and I set out from mine. We had to go several blocks north in order to get around police barricades around about two city blocks. (The emergency responders would be at the building all night, going over the crime scene, working amidst the horror of the dead, doing their jobs.)

I crossed the river, walking over a beautiful art deco bridge, while traffic snarled and anxious drivers laid on their horns. It was windy; my coat blew around me. And... there was Petra, sauntering along with Trumpet Player. I was diagonally across an enormous intersection from them. Trumpet Player and she waved a friendly goodbye, and he stood his ground while she crossed, first north and then east, to reach me. I put out my arms: I had her.

Petra and buddies during the lockdown.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Aftermath: the short version

Thank you, friends, for your prayers and love, both here and on Facebook.

Petra made it home safe and sound, unlike the 14 souls who perished yesterday.

But she no longer inhabits a 'safe' world.

(She didn't anyway. But now I think she knows it).

I am on the phone with denominational folks who are ready and willing to come to our community to help.

I am grateful for the privilege of serving here and now.

And burdened by it too.

Longer version to follow.

Friday, April 03, 2009


There is a hostage situation here, in our city (where I live, not where I serve St. Sociable). The high school is on lockdown; I've talked to Petra and she sounds fine, but it is very scary.

Local paper coverage here.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

When In Doubt, Sing: A Lenten Meditation

Psalm 69:16-36, Colossians 3:12-17
April 1, 2009

There was a young woman… a college student… a child of the decade before the sexual revolution. Coming of age as she did in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, she found herself in just about the worst circumstance a young unmarried girl could in those days: She was pregnant. She was pregnant, and the young man with whom she was in love had no interest in marrying her or even acknowledging his role in fathering the child.

So, this young woman—let’s call her Katie—she was sent away, an experience many young women of that day shared. Her parents sent her to a town several states away. They told the neighbors she was spending her junior year in Europe. In fact, she was in Wilkes-Barre, PA, living with a family who she didn’t know, and who didn’t know her. She was Roman Catholic, they were 7th-Day Adventist. She was used to city life, they were comfortably suburban. She dreamed of pursuing a career as a professor or a doctor, and they were suspicious of folks—especially women—who were “over-educated.” But they agreed on one thing: she was not a good girl, not by the codes of that day. She was ashamed of her predicament, and they agreed thoroughly. She should be ashamed.

Katie talks of the long expanse of her pregnancy in Wilkes-Barre as a wilderness time, a time of complete and utter dislocation and desolation and wondering if she had somehow wandered outside the fold of God’s love and care. But there was an experience in which she was able to recapture that sense of being loved by God. Each day she would take a long walk, at the end of which she would find herself at the same church, left open during the lunch hour so that people could come in and pray. Katie was always completely alone there. So she would walk in, and she would start to sing.

She would sing hymns, and songs, and spirituals. When she ran out of ideas of what to sing she would open the church’s songbook and sing the hymns she found in there. She would sing her heart out for an hour every day, until a young clergyman would slip in, and she would know the church was about to be locked again, and she would turn and walk out the door, back to the house full of strangers.

There come times in our lives when words fail us, when prayers feel rote or dry or unproductive or even impossible. Sometimes this is the result of a crisis… illness, injury, depression. The loss of a job, the loss of a relationship, separation, divorce. For many people, when this happens, they may struggle to pray. They may lose a sense of themselves in prayer, find that they are simply unable to speak to God and to listen to God in the same way. But sometimes their hearts can find their way to prayer again in song.

The narrator of the psalm is in the midst of such a moment. The words of the psalm describe someone who is under siege, under attack—perhaps literally, from an enemy army; perhaps figuratively—it may be his reputation that is being harmed rather than his body or troops. But he is calling out to God in distress, in desperation, in the very brokenness of his heart. And for a while, his urge to strike back dominates the psalm… he asks God to blot out his enemies from the book of the living.

And then, abruptly, his heart turns a corner. “I will praise the name of God with a song,” says this person, who appears to have little to sing about. “I will magnify him with thanksgiving,” he proclaims, he who seems to have nothing for which to give thanks.

Sometimes, with regard to prayer, words fail us. The only way we can pray is through music. If you think about it, this makes sense, for at least three reasons. First, music has the ability to reach us on a level that goes beyond words, to the place where our feelings reside. The sound of a beloved melody can open our confused or hurting hearts in a way reciting a prayer or even trying to speak our own words sometimes cannot.

Second, most of us learn our faith, first, through music. Our hymnals are important, not simply because they contain wonderful, singable melodies, but because they are packed full with theology. We learn about God by singing things like

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.


Immortal, invisible, God only wise
in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.

We learn about God in our sacred music, and when we are at a loss for words, when we can’t even imagine praying to God, these hymns surface for us, like lifejackets on a stormy sea. One morning when my life was pretty much in a shambles and I couldn’t even think straight I heard myself singing,

On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand,
all other ground is sinking sand …

It was a prayer. It was God’s way of giving me a prayer when I couldn’t manage, with my own intentions and language, to find a way to pray. This is the third reason. As Presbyterians we believe in a God who is Sovereign, that all that is good and holy happens at God’s initiation. In other words, when we pray, we are really not the ones who are initiating it. All prayer happens as a result of God’s initiation. God prompts us. God suggests it to us. Sometimes, God literally puts a song in our mouths, a song of prayer and praise to God.

The title of this meditation also happens to be the title of a fantastic book on prayer, written by a friend of mine. Much of, not only this meditation, but our whole Lenten series, has been influenced by her work. In her chapter on ‘Music as Prayer,’ Jane Redmont shares a poem, by a 13th century Persian poet and mystic. I leave you with this as the last word in our series on prayer:

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing pain.
Remember the lips
Where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!
Sing loud! [1]

Tell me: what hymns are prayers to you? Let’s sing some of them together now.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jelaluddin Rumi, as quoted in Jane Redmont, When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (New York: Sorin Books, 1999, 2008), 308.