Monday, August 26, 2013

Which Carolina will we be?

    My daughter and I were in England last month.  A young woman, as she took our tickets as we entered a museum, identified us (by accent? dress? gawking faces?) as Americans, and asked “Where are you from?”  We said “North Carolina.”  She thought a moment, and asked, “Isn’t that the progressive one of the two Carolinas?”  I was impressed she’d know such a thing, but I only half-jokingly replied, “Well, we used to be.”

     I’m not sure what she or any of us mean by “progressive.”  Not all progress is a happy thing, and even good progress has its casualties, just as clinging to old ways can be a lovely cherishing of tradition or a paralyzing refusal to embrace fresh life, and changed circumstances.  I’m weary of the worn out labels, “liberal,” and “conservative,” which don’t fit most people I know who are weary of the nasty combat.  We want to find some common ground, and get something done.

     I’ve been pretty disturbed about Moral Mondays.  When I was a little boy, I saw protesters on TV and begged my mother to let me make a sign and take to the streets with them and even go to jail.  She quite rightly insisted as an 8 year old I just was too young.  Once I was of age, the streets had emptied.  As an adult I’ve tried to stir up some protests, but to no avail.  Then back in the Spring, I left the country for a three month sabbatical – and as soon as I left, thousands stormed Raleigh in protest.  I feel like Rip van Winkle, sleeping through the revolution.

     I support moral, peaceful, respectful protest.  Outside of the Democracy we say we treasure, if you protest you wind up in the slammer or worse.  Too often our citizenship is reduced to looking at some narrowminded “news,” and them fuming in our living room.  How good that people care enough, not just about their own personal, backyard issues, but about people other than themselves, that they take hours, travel, stand, declare, and hope.  Which “side” the protesters are on is far less important than the lovely reality that we have citizens who have a dream they insist must be heard – but without violence, or meanness.

     We’ve never settled on the best way to navigate the unavoidable intersection of faith and politics.  But people of faith do have the right to be heard – and not just heard, but noticed.  Way too often in North Carolina, the religious people pour great energy into little shows of religion, instead of actually doing something that matters and effecting real change.  If protesters merely hoist signs and declare they are advocating for the women and the poor, but don’t actually engage at a high level and change things for the women and the poor, the protest is a travesty.

     The same holds true regarding public prayer.  I never quite understand why people get upset if explicitly Christian prayers cannot be offered at government meetings.  The law can prohibit many things, but it can never stop me, or a board member, or a student from praying – although why anyone would be so inconsiderate as to pray in Jesus’ name when Jews or Muslims or atheists were in the room, I do not know.  Prayer is an insubstantial thing if it isn’t buttressed by deep and abiding labor.  If the Christians want Jesus to look good, they merely need to get busy doing good, investing their time, energy and resources in the people God cares about. 

     My dream for North Carolina is not that we become roundly Republican or resoundingly Democratic.  I yearn for us to strive to be good.  Inevitably we won’t agree on the precise definition of this good, but we can be sure that divisive rancor is not good.  We are all North Carolinians; we need each other.  We need our elected officials to recall that they represent not just the narrow faction that made donations or corralled votes to get them elected; they represent all of us, even those with whom they disagree.  Moral passion may veer far to the left or right, but the middle is a healthy place from which to govern.

     So let’s talk to each other.  And far more importantly, let’s listen to each other, and even dare to work together – and this applies to the good public servants we sent to Raleigh, not to bicker or represent only some few of us, but all of us.  Which Carolina are we going to be?


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

an experimental sermon...

  so Sunday I said more about my visit to Good Shepherd, and some other "unseen" things - and played the piano, having failed to practice ahead of time.  Oh my...  Give it a watch/listen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

My Visit to Good Shepherd

    What fun for me to get to visit a church, and nobody knows I’m there.  This morning I popped in to the 10:00 service at Good Shepherd – United Methodist just like Myers Park where I usually find myself up front on Sundays, but pretty different.  Here’s a photo I took from the back (where I sat) next to one from the back of Myers Park.

     Facing a free Sunday morning, I’d chosen Good Shepherd largely because the pastor, Talbot Davis, is a good friend – and he visited my place back on Nov. 11, and wrote a great blog reflecting on his experience.  Here’s mine – on visiting Good Shepherd.

     Driving past Carowinds’s Intimidator whirling up high, I was tempted to stop and ride – but drove on to the church’s parking lot, which featured marvelous signage, beginning at the street and on into the lot, welcoming me.  One sign was intended for me:  “First-time visitor parking.”  Great idea, but I found a shady spot instead. 

     Entering the place was intriguing.  Wearing khaki slacks and a short sleeve dress shirt, I felt a little bit overdressed.  A teenager at the door handed me a nametag.  I asked her if I should put my name on it, and she laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s kind of the idea.”  I stood at an information desk, where the people behind it were chatting with one another.  I interrupted and asked what they had.  The woman claimed “Oh, all kinds of things, including cds and dvds.”  I told her I would check out the quality of the preaching and then decide whether to get a dvd.  She said “I promise you, unequivocally, that the preacher is the best you’ve ever heard in your life.”  Hmm…

     I found a seat, and even though at least one-fourth of those attending wandered in late, I was impressed that the place was packed – on August 4.  Excellence, attention to detail - lots of kinds of people. 

    I sat down and pondered the bulletin,
which was very cool and captivating - but it made me grow uneasy, as it didn’t tell me what was going to happen or when.  Two cards were stuffed inside inviting me to something or another; well-done, they made me want to come. 

     One guy (named David) came up, shook my hand in with immense warmth, and welcomed me.  I was again impressed – but then when the music started I noticed he was a guitarist on stage.  An official greeter.  No unofficial person spoke – but I know this is normal in big church life.

     There was an information sheet in the bulletin, which I filled out, but couldn't figure out what to do with it - so now it is on the seat of my car.  It asked amazing things - like my birthday, and the birthdays of my children.  Will I get a card?  We pass an attendance pad at my place - which I see is probably outmoded and not as helpful as this card.  I should have listed a prayer request.

     The music then started.  Very professional, warm – but I didn’t know any of the songs, and there was no music to help me know to go up or down.  The music was catchy, but the words were all about “me,” “I,” no “we” or “the church.”  God was a “he”; it would be hard to get away with that where I work.  And we stood for quite a long time – which was difficult for somebody like me with a bad back.  And it was dark…  The lights did come up (thankfully) when the sermon began.

     During this extended singing, I counted about 50 people around me I could see well.  About one-third were singing, about one-third were maybe singing a little bit now and then, and another third didn’t sing one note.  But the music from the front was loud, so it didn’t feel like there was a lack of singing.  Almost every person, even those not singing, was bobbing up and down, and seemed to be digging the experience.  I think I bobbed a little.  At Myers Park, nobody bobs – but we really do need just about all of them to sing for the sound to be full.  My folks actually sing really well.
     My friend Talbot handled the major welcome – and announced a major staff change right on the spot!  Very engaging, enthusiastic, speaking of God’s role in the decision, with lots of “your board,” “we,” group language… and then he prayed over it.  Lovely.  No robe, no tie; not 1 person in the place wore a tie!  Felt like he was up close, even in the huge auditorium.

     At sermon time, Talbot walked on stage to sound effects, like a storm at sea (which was his topic).  I’d studied ahead and knew he’d be preaching on that kooky text in Genesis where Noah gets drunk and naked, only to be covered up by his sons.  He prayed, saying “God, I can’t do this without you” – and then talked.  Very warm, clear, loads of charisma, a genuine feel, and wicked funny.  Hilarious intro stuff, and then, 7 minutes in, he made his first memorable point:  we are vulnerable after a success.  Well-played. 

     Talbot debunked crass misreadings of Genesis 9 (pointing out quite humorously that Noah’s curse was in fact made when he was drunk and naked…), and focused on the idea of the messes we make, and who cleans them up.  He spoke of edgy things that might make my folks shiver:  incest, drunkenness, nakedness, taking advantage of someone drunk.

     The sermon lasted precisely 31 minutes.  That’s 2 sermons for me at Myers Park!  Talbot is a terrific preacher, very real-life, personal without getting maudlin.  I wanted him to work on Jesus and grace a little more…  We pastors always rewrite other’s sermons while we’re semi-listening to them, and I thought about the sons covering Noah’s mess, and thought if I were preaching this I’d pick up on the image of the "covering" of mercy and grace, and healing power of that covering mercy.  But then the sermon would have stretched to 41 minutes…

     And then it all ended, sort of "Okay, we're done now" – and they hadn’t taken up an offering.  I was planning to drop a check for $15,000 in the plate… so they missed that opportunity.  I wonder how they raise money.  As I exited, I noticed the folks were friendly with one another, although nobody spoke to me, which was fine.  Talbot seemed – happy? – to see me; we clergy never expect to see one another on Sunday morning!  And another young person handed me a little piece of paper I could use to find an online ebook.  Back to the parking lot where I was even happier not to be in visitor parking, as I was still in the shade! 

     And then I drove home, grateful for the chance to be in a place with d├ęcor and music and dress and the whole experience so different from my home church, and yet both certainly United Methodist, both very devoted to the living God, who makes all of us unidentical children into holy sons and daughters in God’s family.