A few years ago, Theodore J. Wardlaw, President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, was charged with writing an article about “Preaching on Generosity.” I found it helpful as we find ourselves working through our financial distress that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus. The article had nothing to do with a “tried and true” stewardship campaign but a call to remembrance that “we were born to be a blessing and to bless others and to receive the blessings of others.” Such an attitude is all set in the framework that “life is measured not in terms of what we own, but in terms of Who owns us.”
Wardlaw goes on to share that one of his favorite columnists was Roger Rosenblatt who years ago collected some of his most cherished essays into a book titled The Man in the Water. The book’s title was originally the title of a particularly moving piece Rosenblatt wrote back in 1982 when a commercial jet taking off from Reagan National Airport in Washington was unable to get airborne because of ice on its wings and hit a bridge and plunged into the frozen waters of the Potomac River. Rescuers came from everywhere, and television cameras captured dramatic footage of a man clinging with five others to the tail section of the aircraft that was bobbing up and down in the frigid waters. Every time a helicopter lowered a life-line and a flotation ring to the man, he would wave it off and pass it to another of the passengers. Time after time until that man – overcome by the cold himself – finally went under himself, joining the other seventy-three on the plane who did not survive.
This act of selflessness grabbed Rosenblatt to put into words what a lot of folk were thinking as they were watching the televised drama playing out before their eyes. “At some moment in the water he must have realized that he would not live if he continued to hand over the rope and ring to others. He had to know it, no matter how gradual the effect of the cold. In his judgment he had no choice. When the helicopter took off with what was to be the last survivor, he watched everything in the world move away from him, and he deliberately let it happen…The odd thing is that we do not even believe that the man in the water lost his fight….He could not make ice storms, or freeze the water until it froze the blood. But he could hand life over to a stranger….The man in the water pitted himself against an implacable, impersonal enemy; he fought it with charity; and he held it to a standoff. He was the best we can be.”
Some may look at this man as a hero. Truth is, every day I am reminded that the world is filled with living embodiments of generosity. They may not have always started out that way, but after encounters with the One who owns us, their discovered their faithful destinies. “He was the best we can be,” could aptly portray how we describe Jesus to others. But we also are able to see Jesus in others and perhaps one day within ourselves. For we are not our own; we belong instead to the One who owns us!
See you Sunday,
It was a tough period in my life. Alone and by myself for Thanksgiving, I opted to go down to the church where I was serving early that morning and move some mulch into the church’s playground. Because I had participated in a Thanksgiving Eve Community Service the night before, I didn’t have the luxury of driving the eight hours to join my family for Thanksgiving so I opted to stay at home. I counted on working a couple of hours and then head downtown to volunteer with a group feeding the hungry a Thanksgiving meal.
What I didn’t realize is that in order for the people to eat, they would have to first sit through a service of preaching and singing before any food would be served. The people were hungry, and yes, I know about spiritual hunger, but there was no advance notice of such a service. Just open with a prayer, and feed them. After volunteering, I opted not to eat with the other volunteers and headed home, stopping at a restaurant to have a Thanksgiving meal by myself. I guess I am just naive about such things.
I thought about that day when I came across a story a couple of weeks ago. It was a story about a dining room in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in San Francisco where they feed a thousand needy people every day. A sign over the doorway reads: CARITATE DEI
A young man visited the Golden Gate city and found himself on the wrong part of town with the wrong people. He got drunk, was rolled, and ended up in jail without a penny. It was there in jail that he learned that once he got out, he could get a free meal every day at St. Anthony’s Church. When he got out of jail, he went to the church to get some food but he was very suspicious. When he saw a woman cleaning a nearby table, he asked, “When do we get down on our knees, lady?” The woman replied that he didn’t have to do that in order to get a meal at St. Anthony’s. Puzzled even more, he then asked, “Then when’s the sermon?” She answered, “Aren’t any.” Totally confused, he then asked, “What’s the gimmick?” The woman stopped for a moment, and then pointed to the sign over the doorway: CARITATE DEI
The man asked, “What’s it mean, lady?” “Out of the love for God!” she replied and then, with a smile, she began cleaning the next table. The young man could not believe people would do something like this simply “Out of the Love for God.” It made quite an impression on Him, leading him to give his life to Christ and becoming active in the ministry of the Church. But he was not alone as others also found themselves caught up in this web of love and acceptance.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus talks a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven being lived here on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is one person giving a dollar – out of the love for God – so another person can eat. The Kingdom of Heaven is a disciple – someone with a thousand other things to do – who takes time to listen to someone else who need to share their problems. The Kingdom of Heaven is a group of folks who come together to worship God – then go into the world to share what they have discovered. The Kingdom of Heaven is to be found all around us – in the little things that we do for others – out of our love for God. CARITATE DEI.
See you Sunday,
Starting out in ministry, it was one of the first illustrations I can recall reading. Although I cannot recall that I have ever used it before, it remains with me. The story goes that there was a beautiful Monastery in a beautiful wooded setting but it had fallen on hard times. It had once been the home of a great Order but no one wanted to join a Monastery any more. Only five monks – the Abbot and four others remained – and they were all over 70 years old. Clearly their Order was dying. The monks were all discouraged and you could tell it in the way they treated each other.
Also close to the Monastery was a cabin a local Rabbi used for personal prayer retreats. One day, while out walking in the woods, the Abbot, contemplating the trouble his Order was in, noticed that the Rabbi happened to be at his cabin. He knocked on the door and introduced himself to the Rabbi. Graciously the Rabbi invited him in, and they began to engage one another in conversation. During the conversation , the Abbot told the Rabbi about the plight of his Order and asked him if he had any suggestions. The Rabbi looked at the Abbot and said, “I have only one thing to say – the Messiah is among you!” The conversation ended and the Abbot returned to the Monastery, even more frustrated and dejected because of the Rabbi’s less than direct answer.
Once arriving at the Monastery, the Abbot shared with the other monks about his visit with the Rabbi and they were as puzzled as the Abbot about the Rabbi’s answer. “The Messiah could not be one of us, could he?” They all looked at each other and wondered. In the days to follow, however, something began to happen. On the chance that one of them could be the Messiah, the monks began treating each other with more dignity and respect. And, on the outside chance that they may be the Messiah, each monk began acting in more loving and caring and devoted ways.
The Monastery was known throughout the community for its beautiful grounds which often led to the locals choosing an afternoon and having a picnic there. Yet, ever since the Abbot’s visit with the Rabbi, as they picnicked, the guests noticed something different about the monks that seemed to permeate the grounds themselves. They were friendlier, more devout, and more respectful. The guests liked what they saw and felt on the Monastery grounds and began coming more often, inviting friends and before long, it was not unusual to find large numbers of people taking advantage of the beautiful setting, either for picnics or simply a retreat for solitude. Lo and behold, some who visited were so attracted to the lifestyle they saw the monks now living that they decided to join the Order, and within a few years, the monastery was once again filled with devout, respectful monks.
Maybe there is a reason I have carried this illustration for so long, saving it for such a time as this. I have no clue how many more newsletter columns I will write, but I do believe that God is not through using us.
See you Sunday,
I find it to be a powerful article written by the Rev. Waltrina N. Middleton in the most recent issue of The Christian Century. Her cousin, the Rev. DePayne V. Middleton, was one of nine members of Mother Emanuel who was gunned down and murdered by Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina five years ago. Three survived. As you recall the story from your memory, that night on June 17, 2015, Dylann was offered “one of the most humblest and beautiful offerings one can extend to a stranger: a seat at the table,” as Middleton shared.
This hospitality and love arose out of Mother Emanuel’s rich tradition as a congregation and each individual’s faith. Treated as a guest, without any thought of racial profiling or judgment, Middleton’s cousin reportedly shared her Bible with Roof and as a result was one of the first to fall to his murderous act. Just moments prior to the shooting, thirteen people were singing, studying the Bible, and closing the study by standing together, holding hands, in a circle of prayer.
Like the other eight victims, “Dep” as Waltrina called her, did not get to go home that night. Four daughters were left without a mother. They knowingly did not get to have one last meal with their mother, while Roof was treated to a meal from Burger King before he was ever taken to jail. Twelve people who had gathered for worship were targeted for the color of their skin. Unimaginable grief fell not just upon their families but the community and the nation as well. A problem too often ignored and normalized, a rush to push a narrative of forgiveness, all the while the wound is wide open and the situation calls for nothing less than lament.
Several years ago, I visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where on September 15, 1963, four beautiful young girls, dressed in their Sunday best, were killed when a planted bomb exploded, courtesy of the KKK. Even now with the bronze plaque and the park of statues across the street, I question whether we had moved too fast in pushing the narrative of forgiveness without allowing us the needed time to lament, to do some deep soul-searching and truth-telling, reconciliation, and healing that might have prevented the tragedy at Mother Emanuel.?
Yes, forgiveness is a Christian response but so is lament. Middleton writes: “We can be committed to love and radical hospitality, to welcoming the stranger into our midst, to extending a seat to join us at the table – while also maintaining our right to be angry and to righteously resist the violence against our humanity.” Speaking for myself, as a white person, I tend to be more comfortable with the idea of forgiveness, as difficult as that might be to extend to someone who has wronged me. But then, have I really considered at what cost?
Even now, we continue to witness a racial divide because of our failure to name the sins of this brokenness and allow opportunities for grief work. Middleton shared her story, no doubt, in light of what we are experiencing since the George Floyd killing. Folk are already growing weary of the protesting and marches, not even seeking a stage of forgiveness but simply as a measure to appease those in authority. But the work of lament is what is needed now if we are ever to see ourselves seated next to one another. Forgiveness will come in due time.
See you Sunday,
Around thirty years ago, I picked up a CD that was a compilation of songs written and recorded by folk living on the streets. I lost the CD in Hurricane Irma along with a lot of other CD’s I had collected over the years but that one I have missed the most and not been able to replace it. These were heartfelt songs from “nobodies” until someone gave them the opportunity to let their voices be heard.
I really hadn’t thought so much about that CD until I saw on the evening news a few years back how a small nonprofit group called Miracle Messages reached out to the homeless in the San Francisco area and through the use of technology and video recordings and a lot of investigative work attempted to reconcile the homeless with family members. Years, even decades could have elapsed since the last contact was made between the family members and as founder and CEO of Miracle Messages, Kevin Adler shares: “There’s a mix of digital illiteracy and a lack of access to technology, along with these emotional barriers like the shame of being homeless, that leads to this perfect storm that can keep people on the street.”
People either write text messages or record short videos directed at whomever they are seeking, and Miracle Messages team members try to track that person down to pass along the greetings. They average about a 60% success rate where family members (parents, siblings, children) are re-connected and life changes. Hoping to reunite one million people by 2021, Adler’s goal is ambitious, yet also points out to the scope of the homeless problem around the world. Miracle Messages has even set up a 1-800-MISS-YOU number for the homeless to tap into to share their stories. “Our mantra is, ‘Everyone is someone’s somebody,’” Adler said.
What prompted me to share these two stories about a CD recording and the work of Miracle Messages is yet another story I came across this past week. In 2003 Dave Isay opened the first StoryCorps booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal with the intention of creating a quiet place where a person could honor someone who mattered to them by telling their story. Since then, StoryCorps has evolved into the single largest collection of human voices ever recorded.
Five years earlier, Isay made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels on the Bowery in Manhattan. Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades. They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells covered with chicken wire so you couldn’t jump from one room into the next. Later, Isay wrote a book on the men he met there. With an early version of the book in his hand, Isay returned to one of the flophouses and showed one of the residents living there a page dedicated to him. The man stood there in silence looking at the page, then he grabbed the book out of the author’s hand and started running down the long narrow hallway holding it over his head, shouting, “I exist! I exist.”
For years now, Dave Isay has worked to shine a light on people who are rarely heard from in the media. Just by interviewing the “forgotten,” particularly those who had been told their stories don’t matter, he shares how he could literally see people’s back straighten as they started to speak into the microphone.
Folk need to be heard; they need to be seen; they need to be loved. Until then, our work is not over!
See you Sunday,
So the countdown has begun! We will re-open for public worship on Pentecost Sunday, May 31. As we return to worship in the sanctuary, things will be different. It won’t take long for you to notice the changes. Doors leading into the sanctuary will be open. A hand sanitizing station will greet you and you will have the option of wearing your own mask or grabbing a mask that we will provide. You may choose not to wear a mask, although it is strongly encouraged.
Every other pew will be closed off, so you are not guaranteed the same spot that you have sat in for years. Worship bulletins will be placed on pews prior to the doors being opened, also giving you an idea as to where to sit, as we will be observing social distancing as we worship. There will be no time for getting up and shaking hands or greeting one another. We will be using the screen for words to the few hymns we sing and the Scripture verse as all Bibles, hymnals, cards, and special envelopes will be removed from the pew racks.
As we are now live streaming our services, we will be limited by the hymns that we can sing because of copyright violations. We will also be singing fewer stanzas of the hymns. The offering will be collected by the offering plates that will be placed on each table near an entrance, and you can place your gift in the plate, either before or after the service. We will still recognize the act of giving within the worship service. For communion, the trays will not be passed from person to person. A Deacon will hold the tray and you will pick up two cups, one cup holding the cracker, the other cup filled with the juice.
Once the service is over, you are asked to not linger inside. We have suspended all the OJ/Coffee Fellowship Hours for the time being, so if you choose to visit, do so in the parking lot. A crew will be then clean the sanctuary in preparation of the next church that will be coming in. We know some churches in the area will not re-open until July or August while there are some churches in town that never closed. Now is not the time to invite those folk to come join us, as difficult as that is for me to say. Space is limited.
You may want to continue to worship online at home for a few weeks once we re-open. This will give us the opportunity to see if there are things we need to do differently. These
changes aren’t permanent. We will find a “new” normal. But this time does give us the opportunity to re-image church differently in a world that has revealed its vulnerabilities, all because of a pandemic.
See you Sunday on-line,