A Gaggle of Girls

Warm February afternoons bring the neighborhood children out to play. Laughter rings out and bikes are everywhere in the cul-de-sac like it’s Daytona. Sunset comes early even on warm February days. But the rituals of summer are alive even in this month that is still winter.

Robert Benson asks the question, “Where do you want to be when the sun goes down?” We have lived that answer on porches and decks, facing west with a glass of wine and pleasant conversation for over 53 years. This is the place where the neighborhood children came to visit. In the late afternoon sun, a gaggle of girls stood at the back gate. One of them, now nine years old, is tall enough to lift the latch on the gate.

We hear a small voice call out, “Can we come in and see your flowers?” We have few February flowers, but regardless the season, there is welcome for this gaggle of girls. Now they are laughing their joy and skipping down the brick path to where we are sitting. “Those red blooms on the bushes are camellias. The little yellow flowers are winter jasmine. The little purple flowers that are so fragrant are daphne.” The girls heard and nodded with glee. This little back yard soiree was glad even in the February dreariness.

Conversation turned to other things. School and teachers. Homework and who had the flu. Details of ordinary childhood days were shared like we were holding a summit of world leaders. There was talking, and there was a good dose of listening to the stories of the children. What are their hopes? What are their dreams?

They want to sing again with the little guitar strumming songs that are familiar to them. They want to learn about music and hear stories of the olden days. They want to know our age and why we come out in the afternoons to watch the sun set. “Look up at the sky,” we said. “Soon you will begin to see the stars come out. You can make a wish on the first star you see. Look at that little sliver of moon. If you look every night, you can see it grow and grow, then disappear for a few days. Look at the vapor trails of the airplanes. See how big the sky is, even in the city. Wonder where those people are going?”

They marveled as if they had never seen the sky like that before. One of the older ones said, “You know the airplanes are really flying on this side of the moon, don’t you?” (a little taste of rational thought amidst the delight of wondering.) They marveled that even in a little winter garden, there were still a few flowers showing off.

Too soon gaggles of girls, and all of us outgrow many of the delights of wonder and marvel. We want answers instead of questions. We want to know, as if we ever really can. Part of the spiritual journey we all are called to is to become children again – gaggles of girls and boys – to enter mystery and marvel in that realm of all that is Unknown to us. “Behold, I tell you a mystery…” Jesus says. When we set our minds on temporary things, we deny the grace we are offered in Christ.

In a couple of weeks, the United Methodist Church will gather to make huge decisions that will effect all of us who call ourselves United Methodist. I wish all the decision makers could sit on my back deck with the gaggle of girls from my neighborhood and remember again the call to hold question and mystery in the great grace that is Jesus. Open the gate to joy and delight for all God’s children and live with wonder the gift that is ours in the church. Err on the side of hospitality. Err on the side of grace.

When the story of us is written, will history record that entrenchment and ideology separated us – like it did when the church split over slavery? Or will we write a new song, one born in Baptism and watered in love. Who do we want to be when the sun goes down? Let us open the gate to a bigger way of being the church. Amen.

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Lighting A Way

“Thy word in a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

These words from Psalm 119 are one verse of 176 verses that extol the decrees of the Lord on which the faithful psalmist meditates day and night. With hot indignation, the psalmist chastises the arrogant and the insolent. The psalmist extols the virtue of those “whose way is blameless, who keep God’s decree’s and seek God with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in God’s way.”

Jesus also talks about the way, the way, the truth and the life we are called to live in him. So what is Jesus’ way? What is the way of the one who proclaims, “ I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”?  Jesus knew the law of his religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees who walked around as Torah thumpers pointing to law as a don’t do this; don’t do that practice. Jesus’ way was the way of grace that said, “you say…. But I say…” Let them come. Come unto me. Let us love one another, for love is of God. Could it be that we have forgotten the call to love one another as we have been loved. Is love the way? Is grace the way?

The preacher stood to tell the congregation about A Way Forward and the General Conference that will take place at the end of this month. She was grace filled in talking about our differences and she called for breathing deeply and listening. At the end of the hour, a church member stood and asked where is the word of God in this discussion. Show me the passages. As an observer, I must say this question hit me as almost a rebuke of grace. (Note: I could be wrong.) Show me how the Bible is represented. Show me the law that says homosexuality is OK. That may not have been the speaker’s intent, but that is the tenor of what I heard.

In the early 1940s a German theologian, Nels Ferre, wrote a little book titled The Sun and the Umbrella. The thesis of his book is that too often we block the sun and its light with various umbrellas we raise. Ferre’s list of umbrellas is quite surprising. He lists the Bible as one of the umbrellas we raise in our religious piety that blocks the Light of God from our view. We stumble over the ore holding every verse with the same value as gold, while we miss the gold of true life, abundant life in the unity of the Spirit.

In my own family and my own experience there are such differences in the way we see the world and all the issues of contemporary life, without living grace, forgiveness, humility and love, we would barely be able to get through a Thanksgiving meal together, much less rise up to be the living witness of Christ for the world. Spirit of God, come down upon us. Guide us in your righteousness to that place of oneness in you. Heal our broken places and light our path with the Light that is You. Amen.

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Old Enough to Die

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her new book Natural Causes, opens her chapters with this basic thesis: Each of us born into this world is on a trajectory toward death. Ehrenreich’s thinking leads to a new acceptance of the human condition, from the point of science and logic. Her advice is: Eat the chocolate; drink the wine. Love the journey and don’t fool yourself into thinking extra time at the gym or on the jogging trail will extend what is yours to live, because, mortality is the direction of life on this planet. Now she is clear to say that we do not have an expiration date stamped on us; that would be too grim. But passing away, going to glory, breaking the bonds of mortal life will come to all of us; some of us sooner, and some of us later. End of story, and yet….

Before Christmas we attended the funeral of a friend whom we had known through business connections and various social circles for over 30 years. Tom was remembered for his goodness, his philanthropy, his love of the arts and his love of life. He died on a pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago trail from France into Spain. One of those who spoke said, “He began his walk in France and ended his walk in heaven.” The church was filled with his friends and business associates who chatted among themselves thanksgivings and remembrances of a good man.

Most people were gray-haired. Most were long time Raleigh folks, many of whom we recognized. I told my husband we look at each other seeing each other with memory-encoded eyes that see the youth and vitality of who we once were. Who in that church was old enough to die? Ehrenreich would say the answer is –  every one of us who was there, even those who had colored or bleached their hair and put on their pearls and denial heels so high they could hardly walk down the cobble brick walkway of the church.

Tom was a musician and lover of the arts. The music in the service was Mozart and Beethoven and pieces from The Planets. My heart swelled in the music of genius that was fairly short lived in the flesh. Mozart died in his 30s; Beethoven in his 50s, after living his last 15 years in deafness. Time to gray was not theirs; but fullness of life was. They were old enough to die, and their gift to the world goes on beyond their mortality. There is a lesson in this.

Words from John 14:1 – 6 were read.  Jesus’s promise and Good News to his disciples is found in the rest of John 14, beyond verse 6. Read it for yourself. Jesus is speaking farewell to his disciples. He tells them not to be afraid, because he is with them and will go before them to show them what is beyond this human life, a glorious eternity with God.  Jesus’ promise is glory beyond the losses and suffering of mortal life that can be harsh and unfair, too short and fraught with hurt and pain. And Jesus speaks into a truth that at some point we all will have to learn to live without each other.

Jesus also speaks a promise: “God will send an Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach you everything and remind you of what I have said to you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.”

Fear of death is more thief than death itself. We lose the life we have – a life to pilgrimage through a far away place – a life of loving our family and friends – a life of rejoicing in the light of the morning – a life of hope and prayer – when we are crippled with fear. Trusting the Alpha and Omega God and living every day a Resurrection life of joy crushes fear.

Love life. Celebrate family and friends.  Love the work we are called to do. Are we old enough to die? Vincent died at 6 months. Renee died at 6. Andrew died in third grade. Linda died in 6th grade. Cameron died at 10. Paisley at 19. Harold died in Viet Nam at 22. Marlee and Jim died in their 50s. Tom died at 71 living his passion on the Camino de Santiago. I could fill the page with names and ages of those whose time on this side of heaven is ended. I am thankful not to know the hour and time of death ahead of that moment, and I laugh at the notion of death when I see Tom’s mother making potato salad at 96.

I am surely old enough to die. My prayer today, like everyday is:

For this one day, if I never have another, I give thanks. Amen.

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One Small Child

There is a little boy whose name is Casey. He is barely three years old. One cold clear day he was out playing in his grandmother’s back yard near the woods with older cousins who, either got cold or tired, and decided to go inside. We don’t know the details, but we do know that the little boy did not go inside with the others. Grandmother was worried when, after calling and calling him, she could not find him. She called the police to help search.

And search they did. For about three days, S.B.I, F.B.I. and all kinds of local people looked and looked and could not find Casey. Temperatures dropped and rain came still they searched.  Just before hope began to wane, a woman walking her dog heard a tiny voice calling, “Mama.”

Casey was found tangled in vines and thorny brambles that grow in the woods of Craven County.  After a long three days, he was found alive.  Thanksgiving, relief, joy abounded in the finding of one small child.  He was reunited with his grateful family and taken to receive medical care for his scratches.

It was at the hospital that a remarkable story was told by little Casey. He told everyone that while he was lost in the woods, a bear came to take care of him. A bear. Black bears abound in the woods of Craven County, and many other counties in North Carolina. New Bern’s iconic mascot is the black bear  – as clearly seen from Highway 70 when you pass through town. It is not improbable that bears were around Casey in the woods.

What the little boy related, however, is more a story of miracle and mystery that henceforth will become fable and the truth of myth. Casey’s story will be told and told and heard and heard with acceptance and gratitude along with skepticism and question. What is true? What is real?

Miracles are documented across history. No, they don’t happen in every missing child incidence. That does not mean that miracle giving is the work of a capricious God. Nor does it mean that little Casey was loved any more than any other child of the world. Rather this miracle is a reminder that God is still with us, and will send angels to care for us when we are lost in the woods. God shows up in all shapes and sizes and people and creatures to remind us that all is well. Even in the darkest hour, in the scariest times, when all around seems very lost, God is here. Casey’s story is a reminder of that.

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Lead me Lord. Lead me in thy righteousness

Make thy way plain before my face. Your way, Lord. Jesus is your way. I have told you, O mortal, what is good…. And you didn’t get it. So I came down myself. In person. A small baby we might have missed except for those angels and that star and the shepherds and those wise men who came to see for themselves. Drat. It’s all public now. What are we to do with that?

Caesar, let’s build a wall to keep all those people away. Mitch, let’s get all the judges lifetime appointments…. Oh, yeah, only those who agree with Caesar. Oh, and let us close the government. That’ll show them what’s don’t agree with us. And let’s split up the church into permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Events of my day Sunday lead me to this post… Wonderful worship with a message of Epiphany and looking forward to a future with hope and joy, after coming out of a reprimand about how some of us might not be open enough to all people, even snow people who just want to be the snow they are.

Two thoughts cross my mind tonight. One from Richard Rohr this morning, “Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary tests in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty.” You have heard it said, but I say to you, Jesus said…

Jesus learned Scripture well. The Sunday psalm, Psalm 72 in verses 11 – through 14 speak to the way, the truth and the life we are called to in Christ. “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” How much of the blood of the innocents will smear our history?

I have a friend who says if we knew nothing more of God than Micah 6:8, we would do good in the world. Justice. Kindness. Humility. I think Jesus might say, follow me in that way. Leave the petty piety and haughty self-righteousness behind. Follow the star and never look back.

My computer is not on fire. My spell check is giving me a break. The grammar police are not out. My heart is at peace. For it is Thou, Lord, thou Lord, only, that makest me dwell in safety. Amen.







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Dear Aaron Sorkin

Dear Aaron Sorkin,

My little letter to you will likely end up in a pile of letters from people all over the country who are begging you to write another series like The Newsroom, or The West Wing, and now even Atticus Finch on Broadway, stories of a flawed protagonist who is out to right the world and fix whatever inner demons that plague them. We all love a protagonist.

Recently we have watched both of the shows again, this time with greater appreciation for the prescience of your writing, that was not just a retelling of truth, but almost a prophecy set against what is currently going on in our political discourse, our current events, and our cultural divide, even in the church. How did you know we would need your voice told in the fictional characters what were so believable we wanted them to be real?

Morality has been co-opted in cheap talk and high-hatted-ness that separates good from good with the intent of making the other look bad. It’s the playground stuff of choosing sides and tugging ‘till someone falls down. Mr. Sorkin, you have such skill in helping us see ourselves, our foibles and our follies. In broad daylight, our cracks show. There is so much that is not pretty, not fit for prime time.

It would be one thing if we were honest with ourselves. Who are we? What do we value? Are justice and righteousness even important to us anymore? Are we willing to risk the kingdom for a passing spotlight? What is the sway of power over our own consciences? Where has entertainment become propaganda and hearts become stone?

Mr. Sorkin, it is now 2019. Time for pens to be up and writing – time to write hope and promise and goodness even as the thorns have grown around the castle. Sleeping Beauty awakes, a star rises in the east and wise people follow. New years come and new days begin. This is a new season and hope is never far from us. Help us write a glad story of a strong protagonist who seeks, risks, adapts and finds peace and a place of common good. For the sake of the Kingdom, let it be so.

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All About Eves

Eves are part of us. They have import in our faith and in our life. Eve….apple serving Eve. Who wouldn’t want an apple? Sorry we have paid such price for  that apple. All Hallows Eve… goblins and spirits roaming at … Continue reading

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A Quiet Night and Peace at the Last

The howling wind has ceased. The breaking waves in the river have subsided. Stars are out. Tideland EMC has the power turned on. Lucky – my skittish dog who has sat in my lap all day as Michael blew through – has finally been outside to do his business. All is right with the world.

Following Florence, Tom fixed screens on our front porch. Folly. They wave in the breeze tonight. The pile of debris all stacked neatly near the garage after Florence clean up is now scattered again down the road. Folly.

The lights went our here just before dark. I still had time to get out the lanterns and flashlights. Of course this pastor had candles and matches – just in case worship broke out. Actually it did.

I chose not to get out for Happy Time or dinner with my daughter. The wind was just too scary. Rather, I chose to sit with my candles and play my piano, a piano that sat in my office for years, a piano that has not been tuned since I bought it from Nancy Stagner. I could hear the flat in my ears, but I heard the melody in my heart. It is well. It is well with my soul. Amazing Grace. Then to the Christmas tunes. Silent Night. And of course, Frosty the Snowman.

Peanut Butter was my supper by candlelight tonight. Crunchy. JIF. I didn’t want to open the fridge in case electricity was out for a long time. Then I went out on the front porch. Wind was blowing water out of the river. The sand was smooth and the water rippled, worn out after a fierce day. I prayed at the now screen-less opening in the porch. I prayed for all who suffered in this storm and in the storm just past, Florence. I prayed for all the people who suffered in Florence and Michael and the G, H, I, J, K, and L storms that somebody endured.

I stood thinking about the awesome power of creation, and the benevolence of the Creator who brings out the stars after the storm to remind us that God is with us. Recovery will be hard; adaptation will be needed. Faith in a future with hope is the most necessary thing we need. Science needs no more evidence than what we have seen with our own eyes in the past few years that change is upon us.

Jesus’s parable about the wise man and the foolish man speaks to us today. Tom and I have built a house on the sand. It stands tonight, battered and bruised as a consequence and casualty of nature. Cambelot, our precious home on the Neuse River, is folly that is ours to ponder.

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Tonight hurricane Florence is making her way through North Carolina. Her guile is becoming obvious. Not only has she destroyed a lot of the Carolina coast, but now her rain dump into tributaries and rivers is beginning to wreak havoc on the goodliest land, precious places that many of us in eastern North Carolina love.

My husband and I have owned property along the Neuse River since 1969. We built a little house when our daughter was 6 months old. Every year we would add a little something to the house….. flooring, ceiling, heat, a front porch. We loved our life there. The Britts at Easter. The Youngs with continuing conversation about how many days of garbage one trash compactor bag will hold, Bo’s 40th birthday party on the front porch… all the people who filled our lives and shared our joy under the big sky, swimming in the sandy bottomed river.

When Tom’s aunt died, we bought her house that stood about 30 feet from the river. It was 1996. Mother Teresa and Lady Diana died and we remodeled. Not in time for my Mother to enjoy. She never knew we put a handicapped shower in for her. For almost 50 years we have loved and worked to steward property that from the beginning we knew was precious and fragile.

We have weathered storms along our shores. We tried to stay through Dennis. We stood at the edge of our deck trying to push portions of our neighbor’s piers away. It was harrowing. We decided at 2:00 AM to leave. We drove to Greenville where Tom’s parents lived at the time and bunked there till the storm was over.

Storm lessons are hard to learn. I remember Hazel in 1954, and others in the alphabet of destruction along the eastern seaboard. Isobel and Irene were storms the people in our beloved Pamlico County still have never really recovered from. And even beyond Matthew, now there is Florence, a nice genteel southern name, Florence. She has wreaked havoc on our coast, and especially along our beloved river Neuse.

I will tell you that all along the Florence journey, a word from Proverbs 31 has been in my heart. Proverbs 31: 25 – “Strength and dignity are Wisdom’s clothing; and she laughs at the time to come.” As I sit tonight beneath clouds and falling rain, having seen pictures of destruction to our own property and to property of those we love, I know that just beyond the clouds there is a waxing moon and there is a summer sky of constellations waiting to sing and shout to a down-hearted people, “Glory!” Hear the voice of God in the turbulence, ”I am the Lord, your God. You are my beloved. I am holding you in my care.”

As long as the peace of God endures (which is like forever), we on this side of the storm can find joy and delight in what still is. And we will carry on. Life is too good not to. Peace in the night dear ones. All is well.

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She Who Bakes Bread

Her first call was to ask me to pray for a young man who had been her student many years ago. He was 31 now and just diagnosed with acute leukemia. I added him to my prayer list; she who bakes bread fed her bread starter in meditation and prayer, waiting for more news.

The next day, she who bakes bread called to tell me Chris had died. One day after diagnosis, he was gone. Lost to the world too soon, his potential, hopes, and dreams shut down as quickly as his organs failed. The bread was rising all the time. As she who bakes bread and I talked, we talked about all the young people who die too soon and all the old people who seem to keep living in smaller and smaller worlds. She said goodbye quickly to turn and knead the dough and grease the pans and turn the oven on.

Kneading bread – pressing air out, punching it down and patting down the action, covering and waiting for the rising to happen. She who bakes bread was living the way of life, and baking her way to comfort and offer hope in the face of death. She said she would take lots of bread over for Chris’s family, just as she had taken bread to Avis’s family and many other families who in facing death, need a taste of the bread of life.

I am not a bread baker. I do not understand bread starters or the action of the yeast, or how to knead till the dough is just right. But I see in the work of she who bakes bread the metaphor of Christ’s work in the world. This world knocks us down, squeezes the life out of us sometimes, even unto death. And we wait for the rising to happen.

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Those who come to me shall never hunger; those who believe in me shall never thirst.” A big slice of warm homemade bread with butter melting on it is the blessing of the holy in our midst. She who bakes bread gives witness to the Christ who comforts the brokenhearted. Many thank her; I give thanks for her, she who bakes bread, for she is my sister.

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