Sunday, November 23, 2014

Body Language

My mother learned English informally by immersion. She entered America through Ellis Island from war-ravaged Austria speaking only her native German.
By the time I came along, her accent had grown faint. She navigated our English-speaking world effortlessly, but her vocabulary remained limited and you would never have sought her out for helpful grammar tips.
Her functional but limited command of English made writing a chore. That’s why she favored sending greeting cards over writing letters. When I was away at college or studying abroad, a card from her arrived in the mail at least once a week.

Vasily Verschchagin's "Letter to Home"

In her florid, Old World handwriting, she would sign each card, “Love, Mom.” Sometimes she would add, “I miss you and love you.” She never wrote a note longer than that. And yet, she always chose cards with lengthy poems or quotations.
For years I looked at those cards in the same way that you might look at cards. They’re thoughtful. A handwritten note is the gold standard of thoughtfulness, and cards don’t quite match that depth of personal touch. But cards do show that a person took some trouble to connect. They just didn’t reveal as much about themselves personally to you as a note writer might.
My perspective changed when my mom told me about her approach to card buying. She said, “I love you so much. And I’m so proud of you. I don’t have words like you do. I can’t say how I feel. So I spend hours looking for a card that can tell you what you mean to me.”
My mother never rushed by the grocery or the drug store to grab a card. She studied them so that she could send me just the right message.

Johannes Vermeer's "Woman Reading a Letter"

Greeting card messages may seem too generic to be genuinely personal. They’re written for a general audience. And yet, my mother had invested each card that she sent to me with her own sentiments. In her hands, the message was meant uniquely for me. She was sharing herself with me.
Once I understood the depth of my mom’s personal investment in those cards, I realized that my response to them had been woefully inadequate.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Learning to Let Go of the Cookies

Like most of us, I have a few disjointed memories of my early childhood. Fragments. Isolated episodes with little or no context. I can’t quite piece together a complete narrative from my personal memory bank prior to about age five. But some of those early memories endure and even still bear emotional freight.
For instance, I remember a preschool at a private home in a room above a detached garage. We lived either in Mississippi or South Carolina at the time. Each of us brought our own lunch in indistinguishable brown paper bags. 
One morning my mom told me that she had packed freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for my dessert. As I remember it, I couldn’t find my bag when the lunch period came. Then I heard a girl say to the teacher, “Look, I’m feeding Becky her lunch. She’s eating it. She loves the chocolate chip cookies.”

John Stuart Ingle's "Still Life with Cookies"

I didn’t say a thing. Already then I struggled with speaking in public. Other children had discovered that my speech impediment made for an easy target. So as best as I can recall, I sat in silence and simply didn’t eat lunch. But I remember feeling stung that someone had taken something that belonged to me.
With some embarrassment I admit that for years I would feel the same sense of violation and resentment every time something triggered that memory. 
That’s pretty petty, I know. To make matters worse and my own smallness even more obvious, I eventually recalled that Becky was handicapped, and the girl who fed her (and whose name and face I cannot recall) was doing an especially kind thing.
So you see, there’s a part of me that sympathizes with the third slave in the Parable of the Talents.  That’s the misguided part of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review the parable and then I’ll explain why I can so easily fill the shoes of the third slave and why I hope to outgrow them.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hope is a Dangerous Thing

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. I’ve seen it countless times since it premiered two decades ago. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman star as convicts in Shawshank Prison who become friends. Both Andy (played by Robbins) and Red (Freeman) are serving life sentences.
Andy is a former banker falsely convicted of murdering his wife. He arrives at Shawshank dazed and disoriented by the demeaning realities of life in captivity. Red is wise in prison ways. Convicted as a young man, Red had already spent twenty years in the notoriously harsh prison before Andy arrived.
Red teaches Andy how to survive in lockup. How to get contraband. How to avoid beatings by the guards. And how to head off violence by fellow prisoners. All of this Andy learns gratefully. 
But Andy never accepts Red’s fundamental survival principle.
For Red, there was nothing beyond the walls of Shawshank Prison. The only sensible path for an inmate was to learn how to work the system that Shawshank created. When the guards were looking, you followed the rules.

Kay Sage's "Danger, Construction Ahead"

If you resigned yourself to the world according to Shawshank, you could make a better place for yourself in that world. Red had become the contraband dealer, arranging to have items like cigarettes and posters and rock hammers smuggled in to other inmates for a bartered price. Some jobs were less strenuous and less demeaning than others, and clever inmates knew how to angle for them.
Red colluded with Shawshank. He became the man that Shawshank allowed him to be.
By contrast, Andy refused to be defined by the stone walls, the iron bars, and the dehumanizing practices of prison. No less than Red, Andy endured daily headcount, bland food, drab clothing, and enforced confinement. And yet, Andy believed that his own worth, and the dignity of everyone around him, derived from a world beyond those prison walls. And that’s exactly how he acted.
One day Andy sat at the lunch table with Red and his other convict friends. He had just been released from solitary confinement. His offense had been to play a recording of an aria from The Marriage of Figaro over the public address system and piping it into the prison yard for the inmates to hear.
Andy talked to those at the table about the power of music. It reminded him—as it had reminded every convict in that prison yard on that day—of a transcendence, of something more and greater than the life they all endured within the walls of Shawshank. Music was the reminder that—all appearances to the contrary—there is an enduring dignity within human life, a dignity that no circumstances can erase.

Clearly agitated, Red asks Andy, “What are you talking about?” Andy says that he’s talking about hope.
Red says this in response: “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
Hope is a dangerous thing. Not because it drives us insane. On the contrary, it’s the only path to sanity in a crazy world. Men and women propelled by hope refuse to be confined and controlled by all that is toxic and destructive on this planet.
Greed and materialism, consumerism and war, domestic violence and poverty, racism and sexual exploitation, wage theft and addiction shatter and distort who God dreams that we will be. Hope taps into God’s dream. His dream—his mission—is to restore everything that has been shattered and debased. To reconcile us to him and all of us to each other.
God’s dream becomes reality only when it is a shared dream. When we hope we do more than harbor positive thoughts, we act. We dream God’s dream with our hands and our feet. Augustine put it something like this: “God without us will not, as we without God cannot.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us how to be dangerous. How to anticipate the Kingdom of Heaven even while the world is decidedly crazy.
Turn the other cheek, forgive those who injure you, and remember the human dignity of your fiercest enemies. God is dreaming of  peace, and it has to start somewhere. Blessed are the peacemakers. 
Give the shirt off your back to whoever asks. Our fear of scarcity is a slur against God. God already gives plenty. His delivery system includes our generosity.
Serve everyone, especially the ones who make you uncomfortable or tempt you to judge. Jesus said that whatever we do to the least we do to him. In other words, refuse to rank people as higher or lower. Trust in God’s dream of a world where everyone is equal, everyone is respected.
God dreams of a restored creation, and he holds us accountable for joining him in this dream. 
That is the lesson of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids. 
You know the story. Ten maids wait for a bridegroom at night. He is delayed. Five have brought enough oil to hold out until he finally arrives. The others run out of oil before he gets there. Only the five wise maids enter the wedding banquet. 
The bridegroom said something like this to the ones who are left outside. You didn’t live your lives in anticipation of my coming. You just took things as they were and made yourself at home. You spent your life making a better place for yourself in the world and never lifted a finger to make the world a better place.
Living in hope is dangerous. Hope dreams God’s dream and changes the world.

Jacek Yerka's "Street"

At the close of The Shawshank Redemption, Red has finally been paroled. Andy had escaped years earlier and left a coded message for Red to join him in Mexico. Breaking parole, Red boards a bus, and we hear his thoughts as he leans out the bus window and feels the breeze on his face.
“I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

This sermon was preached at Epiphany in Opelousas, Louisiana.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Beggars and Saints

After my parents had divorced—I guess I was around eleven years old—my mom and I lived in a car for a while. The little money we had left from her last paycheck had dwindled down to twelve cents. 
One day we hadn’t eaten by suppertime, and we couldn’t afford to buy anything. So, my mom went to the back door of a restaurant and asked for some food. She came back with half a loaf of bread and a mostly full jar of peanut butter.

John Singer Sargent's "A Parisian Beggar Girl"

I don’t remember eating. We surely did. We were both hungry. And I don’t remember how my mom felt about any of it. She wasn’t a proud woman, but she had always worked hard for a living. In fact, she got back to work as soon as she could find a job and literally worked until the very day she died. Her life’s purpose was to provide for me. It had to have been demoralizing for her to admit to me that she couldn’t buy food and humiliating for her to beg strangers for a handout.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Jesus Actually Says About the Bible

Lists can be useful. Without a grocery list, shopping takes twice as long, and I inevitably arrive home to discover that I’ve forgotten crucial items.
To-do lists are fine for small tasks: buy stamps, drop off the dry cleaning, start the dishwasher. But to-do lists don’t really work for long-range goals: increase your muscle mass, be more patient, pursue world peace.
Blogs and Facebook feeds are filled with articles and posts featuring lists.
The 40 must-see movies this fall.
Seven foods you should never eat.
20 gadgets you’ve been using the wrong way.
These lists offer harmless diversions. They can be informative or funny or lame. A quick skim of the points or the photo gallery gives you a brief break from more important matters.

Winslow Homer's "The New Novel"
There are some kinds of lists that I find at once tempting and toxic. These lists resemble instructions for being a better person or parent or spouse. If you just follow these steps, the list maker claims, you will get the spiritual, moral, relational result you desire.
Seven steps to being a happier person (or twelve, or ten, or five, or fourteen).
Ten, twenty-five, or eight steps to be a better person. (There’s also a list of 75, but who has the patience?)
And parenting? Ten steps, eights steps, nine steps, twelve steps.
These lists suggest that you can be the moral, spiritual person you yearn to be by learning a series of DO’s and DON’Ts and sticking to them. For most of us, common sense says that spiritual and moral growth involves more than this. 
Life is complex, textured, nuanced. No list of instructions could possibly cover the variety of situations we encounter. And yet, this doesn’t stop some religious leaders for advocating for precisely such a list. That’s how some people look at the Bible.