On the Road with the Rector #11

Added LaneLiving in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.

The next “On the Road with the Rector” event will take place across the street from Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church at Rice University. It’s a series of presentations about anti-Semitism. See below for details and an explanation of why this is timely.

Beautiful & Terrible Things Will Happen

If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
now may Israel say:
If the Lord himself had not been on our side,
when men rose up against us;
then they had swallowed us up alive,
when their wrath was kindled against us.
Then the waters had overwhelmed us,
the stream had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone even over our soul.

Blessed be the Lord,
who hath not given us
as a prey unto their teeth.
Our soul is escaped even as a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we are delivered.

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.[1]

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 21, September 30, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

As of Friday, the historic port town of Georgetown, which is located about 25 miles south of where I used to live in what’s called the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, was still waiting . . . still waiting for the worst flooding to arrive from the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. That town sits on Winyah Bay, where the Waccamaw River, the Pee Dee River, the Sampit River, and the Black River converge. Georgetown Mayor Brendon Barber has called this slow-moving disaster a “silent assassin.”[2]

Further north in the town of Conway, which is the first town inland from Myrtle Beach, the Waccamaw River has already crested at nearly 10 feet above flood stage and was expected to taper off through today. Drone footage of one neighborhood near Conway appeared to show knee-high water in every house. As of 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, there had been 137 road closures and 11 dam breaches in the Pee Dee region.[3] Of course, there’s major damage in my home state of North Carolina too.

One meteorologist has calculated that Hurricane Florence was “forecast to dump about 18 trillion gallons of rain over a week over the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Maryland.” That’s as much water as there is in the entire Chesapeake Bay or “enough to cover the entire state of Texas with nearly 4 inches . . . of water.” Believe it or not, that’s still far less water than the 25 trillion gallons of rain that fell over Texas and Louisiana last year during Hurricane Harvey because that storm “stalled longer and stayed [close] to the Gulf of Mexico.”[4]

Most of the floods that we experience, however, are metaphorical, not literal. But that doesn’t make them any less real. This past week, with respect to the national news, has been good example of that. Last weekend on Twitter, someone wrote,

Next week has been exhausting.[5]

I laughed at that, too, not because the things that people were reading, pondering, debating, and arguing about were funny, but because it was an accurate description of the world-weariness that many of us were feeling long before the political drama of the last several days. And setting aside everything that’s been taking place in Washington, D.C., painful stories from the survivors of sexual assault, too numerous to count, have overflowed into our personal and public conversations as Americans.

Many of those stories remain unspoken among the women and men of this church and within the circles of relationships that we have in our families and friendships. Just know those stories are often silent companions in the room with us. People we love, not only survivors of sexual assault but also children in our extended families and in this congregation, are listening to the language we use.[6] We don’t have to change our political affiliation or political philosophy to be careful with our words and to pray for those we love and, yes, for all the politicians too. As I’ve said before about praying the words of our mouths will be acceptable in the sight of the Lord:

Christians have a particular obligation to use words carefully, regardless of how others might choose to use them recklessly.

Some of the people for whom we pray face other kinds of raging waters that threaten to overwhelm them. Maybe you’ve felt like that in the past because of something you kept closely guarded in your heart. You might feel like that today, overwhelmed, as though a flood has overtaken your life and everything around you. It could be about all sorts of worries — the erosion of a marriage or a friendship, a child or a relative who struggles with mental health issues, the physical decline of a parent, the harsh reality of unfulfilled dreams, or an inability to forgive or even to receive forgiveness.

So where do we turn when the winds blow and the waters rise around us?

By 1999, I had moved from South Carolina’s northern most coastal county to its southern most coastal county. So I was living on Hilton Head Island when the entire coastline of South Carolina was evacuated ahead of Hurricane Floyd’s arrival. Trying to avoid the traffic jams that had clogged the interstates, I decided to leave the island at the very last minute. No one else was around in the complex where I rented a condominium, and I could hear the eerie sound of wind howling through rigging and ringing bells on boats in the intracoastal marina near my screened-in porch.

It was scary to be a lone car driving away as the sky darkened and rain poured down while two state troopers stood outside their cruisers on the mainland side of the bridge. You’d better believe I prayed for them, as rain baptized their plastic-covered Smokey Bear hats. And you’d better believe I prayed for myself because it’s terrifying to drive into the darkness on a stormy night, knowing it will only get worse.

Whenever that happens, whenever we feel alone like that, we come here to be in the company of others, to take a moment to get our bearings, and to discover where we are in the world. We come here to be reoriented toward the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, to be reminded of the fact that God has been faithful to us, and not in an abstract way but in a very real way, in the journey of God’s people throughout the history of the human race. From the spoken words of the psalms to the unspoken words written on our hearts and read only by God, the people of God have brought these prayers into communities like Palmer from one generation to another.

This is where we are fed by God and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, become bread for others — the Body of Christ — blessed and broken for the world, perhaps for the world incarnated in the person who is sitting next to you right now. This is where all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, can find shelter when the rains come and the waters around us are rising. As the words of Psalm 124 have reminded us:

If the Lord had not been on our side,
let Israel now say . . .

Then would the waters have overwhelmed us
and the torrent gone over us;

Then would the raging waters
have gone right over us.[7]

One of the things I love about this psalm is the way it describes things not as we wish them to be but as they really are. It doesn’t promise that there will be no storms or that the storms will not harm us if our faith is just strong enough. To the contrary, it reminds us that in the end strength is found neither in the flood nor even in our faithfulness. No, the final strength is the faithfulness of God, who “has not given us over to” the power of death.[8] That means when death comes, and it will come, the last word nevertheless belongs to God. As author Frederick Buechner once wrote,

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen.

Don’t be afraid. I am with you.[9]

Although I do like those words, which describe the world as it is, I really like what another author, Anne Lamott, said several years ago in response to them:

But it is hard not to be afraid, isn’t it? Some wisdom traditions say that you can’t have love and fear at the same time, but I beg to differ. You can be a passionate believer in God . . . and still be afraid. I’m Exhibit A.

The temptation is to say . . . it will all make sense someday. Great blessings will arise from the tragedy, seeds of new life sown. And I absolutely believe those things, but if it minimizes the terror, it’s . . .

Well, she continues that thought about minimizing the terror with some language that I’ll not use from the pulpit. So I’ll just quote from the Lego Movie instead: It’s “a bunch of hippy, dippy, baloney.” Lamott goes on to say this:

My understanding is that we have to admit the nightmare, and not pretend that it wasn’t heinous and agonizing . . .

For the time being, I am not going to pretend to be spiritually more evolved than I am. I’m keeping things very simple: right foot, left foot, right foot, breathe; telling my stories, and reading yours. I keep thinking about Barry Lopez’s wonderful line, “Everyone is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together; stories and compassion.”[10]

Now I think this is one of the most important places where those stories are shared, either within these walls or walking together to and from this church. That means it needs to be here when we need to share our stories. It also means that we need to be here when others need to tell their stories. God, of course, is always listening. That’s true. But people long to see in a real community, in the faces of children and women and men, the divine love that surrounds the telling and hearing of their stories.

Psalm 124 is one of 15 “Psalms of Ascents” in the Bible. These songs accompanied pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Their walk upward into the city and then onto the temple mount was both a literal ascent and a metaphorical one. It represented a life that over and over reached toward the presence of God. And that’s what we do here at Palmer. What we come to realize, eventually, is that God has been reaching out to us, holding us in the grip of grace and raising us above mighty floodwaters.

Today’s psalm concludes with words that can be our own prayer in the midst of the storm, whatever that might be today, in this moment, for you or someone you love:

Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.[11]

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Our traditional worship at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, usually includes the singing of the psalm appointed for a particular Sunday either in plainchant or in Anglican chant. This past Sunday, in addition to that, the choir sang this anthem version of Psalm 124, which was not planned ahead of time to link to the sermon text. So I’ll chalk that up to the work of the Holy Spirit.

BACK TO POST Brendon Barber, quoted by Ray Sanchez in “Georgetown, South Carolina, braces for flooding seen as Florence’s ‘silent assassin’,” CNN, September 26, 2018.

BACK TO POST Michael Majchrowicz, “Ahead of Georgetown flooding, here’s how the rest of the Pee Dee is faring,” September 27, 2018.

BACK TO POST Seth Borenstein, “Florence could dump enough rain to fill the Chesapeake Bay,” AP, September 14, 2018.

BACK TO POST Jordon Nardino, who tweeted this @jnardino, September 23, 2018.

BACK TO POST Tricia Taylor is a licensed professional counselor in the State of Texas and has also been a guest workshop leader at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Because of her professional experience, she made this point much better than I’m able to make it in a public Facebook post on September 22, 2018:

Friends, this is not political. I have no interest in debating current events. But I want to give you a window into my daily work: it is normal for people who have experienced a painful or traumatic event to remember parts of it in graphic detail and to forget other parts, especially those that turn out to be unimportant. And it is normal for girls and boys to keep those experiences to themselves and not tell anyone, especially authority figures. When you say otherwise — when you say that women lie, when you say that because a survivor can’t remember details or didn’t report the event, it didn’t happen, you signal to the women and girls in your life that they can’t trust you with their trauma. So when they are suicidal or falling apart in my office and I beg them to share their story with their family or friends and they tell me, “They won’t believe me; They will blame me,” I know they’re not just making that up. You have told them that a thousand times without meaning to. I’m not asking you to change your mind; I’m just asking you to think about what you say. People you love are listening.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:1, 4-5.

BACK TO POST Psalm 124:6.

BACK TO POST Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, revised and expanded (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993). This is part of a larger quote about grace that, like the shorter version, makes a point similar to the one that Psalm 124 makes, namely, that God is with us, even when terrible things happen:

Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.

10 BACK TO POST Anne Lamott, Facebook post on her author page, April 17, 2013.

11 BACK TO POST Psalm 124:8.

Places in the Heart and a Road Trip

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 18, September 9, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

A couple of years ago, on Memorial Day, my family and I took a detour on our way back to Houston from Dallas. We wanted to see the courthouse in Waxahachie, which is the county seat of Ellis County. It appears in the opening shots of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart,  which is set in Waxahachie in the middle of the Great Depression. Places in the Heart is an amazing film about reconciliation, both its presence and its absence, with a decidedly Christian frame around that theme.

As we drove up to the courthouse, I could hear with the ears of my imagination the words of an old hymn that’s familiar to many of us being sung in a slow tempo:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

It’s the first thing on the film’s soundtrack as a series of images appear on the screen — the county courthouse; people leaving a church; folks who are poor and homeless; a long, empty dirt road in the country; rusty hopper cars at the edge of town; and a field of bluebonnets that extend all the way to the distant horizon.

Because it was a holiday, the downtown was mostly deserted. So we just walked around the outside of the courthouse, which the author James A. Michener once described in one of his novels as “a fairy tale palace” and “one of the finest buildings in Texas.”[1] Not surprisingly, we walked past a monument on the grounds of the courthouse with a statue of a Confederate soldier at the top of it.

As our two boys walked past that monument without much thought about it, my mind drifted back to the opening of Places in the Heart. With the hymn being sung in the background, another powerful image that one sees are two different families, one white and one black, both sitting down to a meal in their respective homes and giving thanks for the food that is set before them. All of them are dressed in their Sunday best, obviously having gone to worship earlier that morning, albeit within the walls of separate, segregated churches.

As the music fades, the next scene shows another white family doing the same thing. It doesn’t take long for the father to be identified as the local sheriff. He gets called away from his Sunday lunch with his wife and their two children to deal with an emergency down at the rail yard. He takes a couple of biscuits with him, putting them in one of the outer pockets of his suit jacket as he rushes out the door.

By the railroad tracks he finds a young African American boy who had somehow found a bottle of liquor and a pistol. They know one another, and have a friendly conversation. The biscuits and liquor are strange shadows on the Lord’s Day of a kind of holy but incomplete and separate communion.

When the young boy, unsteady on his feet, throws the bottle in the air to try to shoot it, he accidentally shoots the sheriff instead, killing him. Within hours, the young boy would be dead too. Armed white men will tie a rope to him and drag his body through town behind a truck before hanging him from a tree. As the African American singer Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, with lyrics by a Jewish teacher:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.

Today’s psalm is a different song, assuring us that “the Lord stand[s] round about his people” as “the hills stand about Jerusalem.” It goes on to say that “the scepter of the wicked shall not hold sway over the land allotted to the just.”[2] And yet there are moments in history, in the lives of people we love, and in our own experiences when an honest assessment of the facts on the ground makes that hard to believe. So we cling to the words that follow: “Show your goodness, O Lord . . .”[3] And we add our own words to that prayer, even if we don’t feel brave enough to speak them aloud:

Show your goodness, O Lord, because I can’t see it right now, and I need to see it . . . right . . . now.

More than 4,400 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 have been documented. Distinct from other acts of extrajudicial violence, these murders were part of a campaign to reinforce white supremacist beliefs and to terrorize black Americans.[4] You can learn more about this shadow side of American history at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

I recently traveled there with Rabbi Oren Hayon of Congregation Emanu-El, Pastor Michael Dunn of First Christian Church, and Pastor Duane Larson of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Our four congregations, of course, are the four communities of faith that border the campus of Rice University. There are details about that pilgrimage of lament in an article in today’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. But I want to share a story that’s not in the article, which I have permission to retell.

My colleagues and I flew into Birmingham, then rented a small SUV to drive down to Montgomery. While Rabbi Hayon was getting the keys to our vehicle, Pastor Larson and I were standing behind it. So we had a good view of the license plate after the hatchback door was closed. Actually, there wasn’t a license plate. There wasn’t even an official looking cardboard temporary license “plate” that you might see on a new car. No, it was just a sad, slightly curled piece of heavy card stock that said “Tags Applied For.” Immediately, I turned to Pastor Larson and said, only half-jokingly:

You know we’re going to get pulled over for that.

Well, as we drove into Montgomery in the dark of night, we did.

The blue lights came on, flashing in the rear view mirror, and we made our way to the brightly lit nearby parking lot of Goodwill, with Rabbi Hayon in the driver’s seat. So the African American police officer found himself shining his flashlight onto us four white guys. After he heard that it was a rental car, I leaned forward in the back seat to explain that we were a rabbi and three Christian ministers who had traveled together from Houston to visit the new lynching memorial. I even told him what I had said to my Lutheran colleague, pointing to him in the passenger seat, that we were almost certain to get pulled over. Soon enough, we were on our way again.

Later, while we were still heading to the hotel, Rabbi Hayon broke the silence with words that were initially addressed to me. He said:

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with the police officer, and I couldn’t help but notice how natural it was for you to self-disclose your religious identity. I would never do that.

So that’s what we talked about as we continued down the road in the darkness. For me, explaining who we were was almost involuntary, lowering my own anxiety and sincerely trying to help everyone, including the police officer. However, the truth is that I’ve never really had to worry about what kind of prejudices another human being might secretly harbor. But I need to be a lot more aware of others who do.

The Book of Proverbs says that “the rod of anger will fail.”[5] But what if it doesn’t in this one particular instance while I’m on the receiving end of it? Proverbs also assures me that the Lord pleads the cause of the afflicted at the gate of the city. But what if I’m too far away from the gate of justice in the land of the living?

That was our collective reflection on the eve of our seeing the lynching memorial. It was an unanticipated but helpful prelude. There are so many articles that describe the visual impact of the memorial that I won’t try to do that here. I’ll only mention a few of the words that are part of a statement of purpose on a wall on the inside:

For those abandoned by the rule of law. We will remember.

For me, the words of African American theologian James Cone also came to mind. In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, he reflects on the death and resurrection of Jesus, together with the violent murders of these African Americans, and says:

The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross. . . .

It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor.[6]

 

In Places in the Heart, the sheriff’s widow soon finds herself and her two children teetering on the edge of losing everything. And those who mistakenly thought that she’d be happy about the lynching don’t come rushing to her aide. Eventually, she welcomes into her household an African American named Moses, who knows about farming, and a blind man whose extended family no longer wished to be responsible for him. These unlikely companions, each of them, including the children, at a different place on the margins of society, can only survive together. So they create a community that is nothing less than a true reflection of God’s coming kingdom.

The last scene of the movie takes place inside the white church. In the half-filled pews, the congregation can be heard singing the final refrain of “Blessed Assurance.” After the people sit down, the minister reads the famous words of St. Paul about love in the 13th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian Christians. During that, a man and a woman whose marriage has been strained discretely hold hands. The unspoken gesture of forgiveness brings with it a physical sigh of relief.

Later the minister recalls the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Last Supper on the night before his crucifixion. While he’s speaking, the camera follows each member of the congregation passing the bread and wine to the person beside them. What you don’t notice right away is that the pews are now completely filled. All sorts and conditions of people from the town are there, saints and sinners alike.

And the last thing you see is the sheriff’s widow receiving communion from her children. She passes the silver tray that holds the individual cups of wine to the person beside her, whom we’re surprised to see is her husband. He does the same, passing the tray to the young boy who had shot him. And then you see the boy looking directly into the eyes of the sheriff and saying to him, “The peace of God.”

Robert Benton is the man wrote and directed Places in the Heart, and he was born in Waxahachie. He wanted no other ending to the film and once said this about it:

There are certain things images can explain and words cannot. There is something in the image of the man who has been killed handing the communion plate to the boy who killed him that seems very moving to me in ways I cannot explain.

I had the ending before I ever finished the screenplay . . .[7]

As that final scene of his movie suggests, there are some things that get sorted out in this life and lots more that only get sorted out in the life to come. Nevertheless, sometimes we’re granted a glimpse on earth of things that we believe will only be seen in heaven. The sinfulness of the world seems to keep them beyond our reach.

An example of heaven reaching to earth comes from the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He’s also an African American whose Baptist father came to church with his Episcopalian mother when they were still dating and living in the heart of segregated America in the 1940s. His father watched his mother walk to the front of the church for communion, kneeling beside white people and drinking from the same cup that they did. His father had never seen whites and blacks drink from the same glass or even the same water fountain.[8]

I hope each of us gets a glimpse of that today. There’s room for us all at this Table. By coming to it week after week, I hope we’ll receive whatever courage we need to look at ourselves and the world around us not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. And I hope, more and more, this household will resemble the household of the sheriff’s widow. That’s what the household of God looks like, a place where the doors of the church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One.

We are all related through his blood.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST James A. Michener, Texas: A Novel (Dial Press: New York, 2014) 1088. Here is the full quote that describes the county courthouse in Waxahachie:

[James Riley] Gordon had built a fairy-tale palace ten stories high, replete with battlements and turrets and spires and soaring clock towers and miniature castles high in the air. It was a bejeweled treasure, yet it was also a sturdy, massive court of judgments, one of the finest buildings in Texas.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:2-3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 125:4.

BACK TO POST That statistic about documented lynchings of African Americans was highlighted at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. I was grateful to learn that Forsyth County, North Carolina, where I was raised, isn’t represented by a steel monument at the memorial. However, “other acts of extrajudicial violence” that fall outside the scope of the memorial did take place in the only documented lynching in Forsyth County. Henry Swaim was a white tenant on the farm of Harrison and Ernestina Reid, and he was lynched in 1884 by “a crowd of between seventy-five and one hundred men, many of whom were masked.”

The only reason that I read about this story is because I was checking to see if there really was no documented lynching of an African American in Forsyth County. The surprising discovery is that Harrison Reid is my first cousin, five generations removed. His wife Ernestina was murdered on May 5, 1884, but whispered three times the name of Henry Swaim as the identity of her attacker before she died.

“Swinging into Eternity” offers a thorough account of what happened in this sordid affair and points out that the circumvention of due process was in no way “justice.” It is worth taking a moment to click on the original newspaper report here or within the account linked above about the lynching of this 25 year old man. He pleaded for someone to pray for him before he was put to death. When someone did and asked him afterwards if he was penitent, he didn’t know what that word meant. When he then sputtered out this prayer on his own, repeating it over and over, Swaim was ridiculed by the crowd, a crowd that I’m sure was mostly filled with Christian men:

Oh Lord take me from this world once more!
Oh Lord save this poor sinner’s soul once more!
I know I am guilty, and oh Lord forgive this poor sinner his sins!

Swaim was hanged improperly, so he died of strangulation and, therefore, didn’t die immediately. The rope that was holding him by the neck had to be restrung over a limb on the tree to draw his body “high up above the heads” of the spectators. It remained there afterwards, and “great crowds” came to see it later that same day.

BACK TO POST Proverbs 22:8.

BACK TO POST James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York, 2011) xviii, 161-162.

BACK TO POST Robert Benton, quoted by Aljean Harmetz in “How Endings Have Affected Two Recent Movies,” New York Times, October 8, 1984.

BACK TO POST Michael Curry tells this story about his parents in a YouTube video called “Eucharist” from June 6, 2014.

Learning How to Sing in the World

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 15, August 19, 2018

Lord, we pray for the one who preaches. For you know his sins are many. Amen.

As you came into the church this morning, there were probably a few things that caught your eye, like the brand new, bright yellow lines in the south parking lot and glorious sunflowers shining over the altar on both sides of the cross and festive t-shirts worn by many of our members who will be sent out at the end of worship in groups to serve our neighbors on Serve Sunday. Some of the shirts say “God Thinks You’re Fabulous,” which, for us, is another way of saying that we believe God looks at people, who’ve been created in his own image, with the eyes of Jesus and loves them. We are all forgiven, embraced, and accepted in the merciful arms of our Savior.

But there’s one other thing. Unless today is the very first time you’ve ever walked into this beautiful house of worship, you probably also noticed, and perhaps keep staring at, the baptismal font. That’s the impressive stone bowl on a pedestal where people, young and old, are baptized with water and adopted into the household of God. Yes, it has indeed been moved. That is the truth. The whole truth, however, is that it’s been moved back to where it used to be. So the balance between Water and Word, which is to say the font and the pulpit, has been restored at the front of the church. Now we’ll pass through both of those things that are constantly shaping our Christian life as we come to the Table in the middle to bless the bread and the wine for holy communion. I’ll say more about the baptismal font in a moment.

But, first, a story. The first ordained minister that I can remember at Union Cross Moravian Church in Forsyth County, North Carolina, wasn’t the one who baptized me as a baby but the pastor who followed him. He was the Rev. Edward T. Mickey, and we called him Mr. Mickey, in the same way that Episcopal priests used to be addressed universally in past generations in America. He was just as talented, if not more so, in the realm of music as he was well-read in the area of theology.

Mr. Mickey had once been the Pastor of Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, which is located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. And that’s where, on a Wednesday afternoon in 1942, he heard the sound of a bicycle come to a sliding, screeching stop at the back door of the church. Riding that bike was a 16 year old boy who saw Mr. Mickey sitting there on the back steps and wanted to know if he was the preacher. He said that he was. The teenager then asked Mr. Mickey if he could teach him how to play a trombone so that he could lead a swing band.

That teenager turned out to be the future actor Andy Griffith, who did learn all about music in that church — how to read it, how to play it, how to sing it. That was a real turning point in the life of Mr. Griffith, who would later major in music in college at Chapel Hill before the start a well-known career in entertainment.

I thought about that story when I read today’s assigned passage from the Letter to the Christians in Ephesus. Although a lot of people reduce these words to a lesson about the virtues of temperance, it’s not meant to forbid those who don’t struggle with addictions from enjoying a festive drink with a little pink umbrella atop the glass. That’s very different than orienting your life around the drunken orgies of the worship of Dionysius, the god of wine, in the Asiatic world of the ancient Ephesus.

In the letter that slowly made its way to that city, those Christians are simply being reminded that their community of faith ought to be oriented around something else, something that is life-giving not only for themselves but also for others:

. . . be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.[1]

And is it not here, within these walls, where we learn how to sing in the world? For us, that begins at this font, which the infant Jesus, being held in the arms of his mother, now overlooks and blesses. Can’t you hear, if only faintly, the song of his mother, the song of Mary? Out of the baptismal waters, her words become our own:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. . . .

He hath showed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek. . . .[2]

And when we go out these doors to serve others, it’s just an extension of singing this and other songs we’ve learned in one another’s presence. But it all begins, for us, at this font, and I love how the author and pastor Eugene Peterson describes that:

Baptism marks a radically new way to understand ourselves and one another: not by race, not by language, not by parents and family, not by politics, not by intelligence, not by gender, not by behavior. All of these various ways of accounting for ourselves are significant, but none is definitive. Holy baptism defines us as holy, as saints. Baptism is definitive . .

We continue to maintain this identity by keeping company with people who have firsthand knowledge of who we are . . . These same [men and women] embarrass us with their haphazardness, exhilarate us with their joy, offend us by their inconsistent lives, comfort us with their compassion, [badger] and criticize us, encourage and bring the best out of us, bore us with their blandness, stimulate us with their enthusiasm. But we don’t choose them. God chooses them. We keep company with the men and women God chooses. These saints.[3]

The font in a church ought to invite exploration, not be half-fenced off as ours often seemed like it was when it was in front of the pulpit. Now you can freely walk around the entire font. And so not only children are encouraged to come and do that but also adults. If you have little ones, lift them up so they can see with their own eyes the inside of the bowl. Then take a look at the symbols outside that basin and notice, in particular, the eight sides of the base. It’s important for that not to be obscured.

That octagonal shape was a symbol in early Christianity of the resurrection, with the Lord’s Day, Sunday, being not the first day of the week, as we usually think of it, but the eighth day of creation. It reminds us of a new creation, a new song, that began at the empty tomb on Easter morning and that begins, for us, at this font as people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, are baptized, bathed in forgiveness, washed lavishly in God’s grace, named publicly as God’s beloved children.

On Friday afternoon, as I was driving both of my boys to their music lessons, the radio in the car was tuned in to NPR and the first thing that I heard was the classical violinist Yo Yo Ma was being interviewed. Actually, what I heard first was him playing the gently rolling prelude to the first of Bach’s six Cello Suites. Mr. Ma started violin lessons at four years of age, and the first several notes of that prelude are what he learned on his first day. The next set of notes are what he learned on his second day, and so on and so forth. He learned all of it slowly, incrementally.

The music of Bach’s six Cello Suites have been his companion for the last 58 years. That music, like the Book of Psalms in the Bible, is, as NPR put it, “two-and-a-half hours of sounds that map humanity in all its triumphs, joys and sorrows.”[4] Mr. Ma has played that music at the weddings of his friends and also at their funerals. He played it after 9/11 and on very different kinds of celebratory and joyous occasions.

I think that’s a beautiful image of how we learn to sing the right notes throughout the different chapters of our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of our neighbors. And how could I speak of singing on this Lord’s Day without mentioning, with R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Aretha Franklin, who died on Thursday in the City of Detroit?

I loved this title of an article in the New York Times last week: ‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church.[5] Her father was a Baptist minister, and, not surprisingly, she used to sing gospel music in his church. Although the Times piece was about a particular album called Amazing Grace, there’s something about the way Ms. Franklin sang that carried much of that out into the world, even if the words she was singing weren’t religious in any way, shape, or form. There was a sense that we were going to church. And when she sang at the Presidential Inauguration in 2009, she wore a magnificent hat, as though she had dressed for church on that day.

Now some of you are thinking to yourself, “I’m never going to be like Yo Yo Ma on the cello or the Queen of Soul with my voice,” even metaphorically.  So I want to tell you the part of the story about Mr. Mickey and Andy Griffith that usually gets left out. In his own retelling of it, Mr. Mickey said he was sitting on the back steps of the church that afternoon in 1942 at what seemed like a real low point.[6] He had just finished his weekly band practice with his volunteer players, and they hadn’t practiced and didn’t seem very interested. And so he was feeling sorry for himself as he sat there.

In The Player: A Profile of an Art, which is a 1962 collection of reflections by actors, Mr. Griffith wrote these words:

For three years, he gave me a free lesson once a week. Ed Mickey taught me to sing and to read music and to play every brass instrument there was in the [church] band, and the guitar and the banjo besides. I was best at playing the E-flat alto horn.

When I was sixteen, I joined the church, together with my mother and daddy. . . . I was very happy with the Moravians. All the other band members accepted me. They didn’t ever make fun of me.[7]

Those lessons were mentioned in Andy Griffith’s obituary in The New York Times, along with the painful memory of having been called “white trash” as a child.[8] The band members at the church, including Mr. Mickey, embraced him with the love of Jesus. They showed him what the love of Jesus looks like in the world around us, what the love of Jesus looks like in our lives, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are. That’s the real music he was learning there — the music of divine love.

And that’s what each of us can share with others, the song that each of us, being filled with the Spirit, can sing in the world beyond these walls. . . today.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Ephesians 5:18-20.

BACK TO POST “The Song of Mary,” The Book of Common Prayer (The Church Hymnal Corporation: New York, 1979), 65.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010), 83-84.

BACK TO POST Mary Louise Kelly and Tom Huizenga, “Yo Yo Ma, A Life Led with Bach,” NPR, August 17, 2018. See also the transcript of that interview.

BACK TO POST Wesley Morris, “‘Amazing Grace’: How Aretha Franklin Took Us All to Church,” New York Times, August 17, 2018, 216-217.

BACK TO POST Edward T. Mickey, Jr., “The Andy Griffith I Know,” The Wachovia Moravian, February, 1968.

BACK TO POST Lillian Ross and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), 216-217.

BACK TO POST Douglas Martin, “Andy Griffith, TV’s Lawman and Moral Compass, Dies at 86,” New York Times, July 3, 2012.

Snow White and the Ten Commandments

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Lent III, March 4, 2018

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . . (Exodus 20:1-2)

Yesterday, my wife Carrie and I enjoyed spending the afternoon with some friends at the Hobby Center downtown for the musical Memphis. The lead male character is a fictionalized version of the pioneering disc jockey Dewey Phillips, who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. As a DJ, he introduced black music to a wider — and whiter — audience on the radio. Down the road, and beyond the scope of the musical, he would become famous as the first person to play on air a recording of Elvis Presley. That young Elvis would be taken around town by this white man to complete his musical education by meeting African American club owners and music stars.

In the musical, set in the segregated South of the 1950s, one of the main things that’s painful to watch is the racism that provides tension throughout the story. However, as if that’s not enough, there’s a jarring dissonance in Memphis between Christianity as it’s meant to be, like the image in the last book of the Bible of “a great multitude which no [one] could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne” of God, and old rules about how good Christian white people were supposed to act in the South.[1] It was an inversion of the biblical image in which a perversion of Christianity reinforced the walls between the races.

I’ve been wrestling with that same dissonance within my family tree over the last six months or so. As some of you heard me share during a recent Faith Forum on the theme of reconciliation, my wife strongly suggested to me last summer that I should find something else to do in my spare time other than checking the latest political news constantly. Fair enough, I thought. So one night when I was having trouble falling asleep, I decided that it might be a fun distraction to explore the past through Ancestry.com. And it was fun to discover in my wife’s family tree a truly delightful scoundrel who spent some time as a prisoner at the Jamestown Colony and four Unionist hell-raising cousins in my family tree who broke out of jail multiple times in Confederate North Carolina, barely escaping the hangman’s noose the last time.

But I didn’t expect to meet Daniel Hackney, Jr., my great-great-great-grandfather. He became a Baptist deacon in 1833 in Chatham County, North Carolina. After the Civil War, he was licensed preach in 1866 and then ordained as a minister of the gospel in 1871. He, too, was a Unionist throughout his political career as an elected representative in North Carolina’s General Assembly during the 1840s and 1850s.

But Hackney was a pro-slavery Unionist, believing, like many of the conservative politicians of his day, that secession would ultimately be the surest and quickest path to the destruction of the institution of slavery. That, of course, is exactly what happened. So I guess we can all agree he was right about that one thing at least.

The 1860 United States Federal Census included slave schedules that reveal the fact that Hackney, just like his father before him, owned slaves. It doesn’t include their names because they are simply counted as property under Hackney’s name. 14 in total, most of them children, including a one-month-old baby. 13 were black, one was biracial. There were eight males and six females. None were fugitives or had been manumitted. Together they lived in three slave houses. The dissonance between that harsh reality and Hackney’s complete devotion to the work of Baptist churches after the war without seeming to regret the past is astonishing, although it’s important to acknowledge that he would have been raised not to hear that.[2]

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That sentence introduces what we Christians traditionally refer to as “The Ten Commandments,” which we’ve been reciting together at the beginning of our liturgies each Sunday throughout this season of Lent. But the Bible itself refers to this collection not with that familiar title but as “The Ten Words” or “Decalogue.” Interestingly, in the Jewish tradition, that sentence is neither an introduction nor a prologue to everything that follows but stands alone as the First Word.

As an aside, yes, there’s more than one way to divide up this familiar-sounding text into ten parts. In fact, there are three different ways to count those Ten Words. I’ve already mentioned the traditional Jewish way that counts the first sentence alone as the First Word before moving on to count not having other gods and not making idols, together, as the Second Word. Roman Catholics and Lutherans also combine no other gods and no idols as their First Word and split the commandment against coveting into not coveting a neighbor’s spouse as the Ninth Word and not coveting a neighbor’s possessions as the Tenth Word. Anglican, Orthodox, and Reformed Christians keep all that coveting together as the Tenth Word and count not having other gods as the First Word and not making idols as the Second Word. Got that?

So counting to ten can be more difficult than we often imagine! Back in 2006, Lynn Westmoreland, who’s a member of the United States House of Representatives from Georgia, co-sponsored a bill that would have declared the Ten Commandments to be “fundamental principles” and “the cornerstones of a fair and just society” and also would have required them to be clearly displayed in the United States Capitol. He believed people needed “to understand and to respect” these commandments. But when Westmorland was interviewed about this, he stumbled when he was asked,

What are the Ten Commandments?[3]

“Don’t murder. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Ummmmm.” And then he admitted, “I can’t name them all.”[4] Now to be fair, as my wife told me, that’s like asking Americans to name the Seven Dwarfs from Snow White. You might come up with Sleepy, Bashful, and Sneezy, while completely unable to recall Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, and Doc.

The issue with Westmoreland wasn’t the fact that he stumbled when he was asked to list the commandments. After all, there are different lists. Rather, it was the sanctimonious way he wanted to impose this on everyone without fully embracing it himself. And make no mistake about it, these ten words are spoken directly to Jews and, by extension, to Christians who accept the Hebrew Bible. They presume a redeemed and worshiping community like the one that surrounds us right now.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .” That First Word in the Jewish reckoning isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, it’s a “statement of who God is and what God has already done for Israel.”[5] That one sentence really summarizes most of the Old Testament — using God’s revealed name, “I am Yahweh your God,” and reminding us of that God’s liberating actions, which are not merely anchored in the past but are a continuing reality in the lives of God’s people from generation to generation, including our own.

It’s easy to miss the plain reading of the text that God didn’t just bring those people from long ago out of the land of Egypt, God brought you . . . and me out of the land of Egypt. God brought us out of bondage. As Christians, we might say with the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.”[6] This God brings life out of death, good out of evil, and sets us free. Each of us needs to be set free from something.

Occasionally we get to see that deliverance in dramatic ways in the world around us. I’m grateful, for example, that people in the 1860s saw the end of the institution of slavery throughout the United States and that people in the 1960s witnessed the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin was enshrined in the words of the United States Constitution, where each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a whole person. And I hope the shadows of that, which linger in our own time, will one day be dispelled by the light of God’s love — the same love that we have seen in the face of Jesus Christ, who healed the afflicted and, from the cross, forgave his tormentors. Those in bondage to hatred aren’t really free, even if they seem to be.

But I know that even if a miraculous shift like that happens in our society while I’m still on this earth, the dissonance between my personal life and the words of the Decalogue will remain and never go away. That’s part of living, breathing, and being human. That’s part of knowing that we need to be forgiven and embraced and loved. And it’s important for me, spiritually, to listen for that dissonance, even if I’ve been taught not to hear it or the people around me don’t want me to acknowledge it.

I thought about that while reading Larry Parsley’s review of the novel Godric, which was written by Frederick Buechner. The book takes its title from the name of the story’s main character who observes that “nothing human’s not a broth of false and true.” Parsley says that “Godric’s early life breaks most of the Ten Commandments.” Eventually, however, he settles into the life of a Christian hermit whom people, for whatever reason, seek out for healing. And this is how Parsley’s review ends:

In Godric’s latter days, an obsequious monk named Reginald of Durham is dispatched to write Godric’s hagiography. As Reginald tries to pretty up the often ugly past of his subject, he justifies himself: “. . . for the sake of him who is himself the Truth, I leave some small truths out.” But Godric opposes the literary airbrushing techniques of Reginald at every turn. When Reginald tries to tell Godric his name is Saxon for “God reigns,” Godric corrects him and says his name literally means “God’s wreck.”

Over the course of reading this book, I was struck by my deep and persistent temptation to serve as my own Reginald, to tell stories of my life in such a way that the ugly parts are excised and the good parts are magnified. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I, too, am “God’s wreck.” Thankfully, though, I am God’s. And sometimes, God even moves through me . . .[7]

I don’t know about you, but I love the oddly comforting image of being God’s wreck. That’s something I share with my great-great-great-grandfather and why it’s o.k. to talk about his life not as I wish it to be but as it really was. It’s o.k. for me to be honest with God about my own life too. God hears the dissonance, even the parts that I do not, taking those notes and composing something new that’s beautiful and eternal.

And that’s the invitation each one of us has received today — to bring our true selves to this Table, to be fed here, to be loved here, to be forgiven here, knowing that God will one day right all wrongs, those done not only to us but also by us. This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9 (Revised Standard Version).

BACK TO POST I also didn’t realize until last month that the same dissonance is present in the history of my alma mater, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Founded in 1834 to educate Baptist laity and men entering the ordained ministry, and named Wake Forest College in 1838, it was originally located near Raleigh in the town of Wake Forest, North Carolina. According to Twitter’s @WFUHistory, which highlights the six-volume History of Wake Forest College:

In 1860 Wake Forest was given the estate of Mr. John Blount for sale, which they sold for $12,153.19 Confederate dollars. All the money was invested in Confederate bonds, which were worth nothing by the time the college reopened in 1865. Of this $12,15319 over $10,000 came from the sale of Mr. Blount’s [16] slaves by The Board of Trustee’s Treasurer, Mr. J. S. Purefoy. The money from his estate was to be part of the college’s endowment.

BACK TO POST Bob Allen, “Baptist Congressman Can’t Name Ten Commandments,” Ethics Daily, June 22, 2006.

BACK TO POST Allen.

BACK TO POST William Johnstone, Exodus 20-40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, 2014) 23.

BACK TO POST Robert Jenson, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in “How to write a theological sentence,” ABC Religion & Ethics, September 26, 2013.

BACK TO POST Larry Parsley, “‘A Broth of False and True’: Frederick Buechner’s Godric,” Mockingbird, February 28, 2018.

From the Rector #67

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

These words from David Lose, Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, have been on my mind. The invitation that he describes isn’t something limited to members of the clergy or professional church staff. It’s an invitation that you have the power to extend to a child of God . . . today:

Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve [that] invitation. And he expects us to do the same. He expects us, that is, to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and live from a sense of abundance and blessing.

Counting. It’s so omnipresent in our lives that we almost forget it exists even as it exacts a tremendous toll on us. Whether we are counting the amount in our bank accounts or the opinions of our neighbors on what we wear or do, we are continually counting. Why? Because we live with the sure conviction that there is not enough. Not enough money, time, prestige, resources, recognition . . . you name it. And that conviction seems sure, even unquestionable, because so much in our culture – and particularly the advertisements we’re relentlessly subjected to – tell us there isn’t.

But what if there was? What if there was enough and more than enough to go around? What difference would that make in our own peace of mind and the way we treated others? . . . [Jesus is inviting us to] stop counting and start giving and blessing. . . . [What would it] be like to live into the freedom to stop calculating our social prestige and stop worrying about what others think and simply be kind to everyone around us, particularly those who are not often the recipients of kindness. What would it look like at work, at school, and at the places we volunteer or play sports or socialize, to look out for those who seem off to the margin and to invite them into the center by inviting them into our lives?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #66

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

David Lose is Pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which is the largest Lutheran congregation in the United States and just down the road from my previous community of faith. I find these words of his about comparison, which I just ignored in my previous sentence, to be true for so many people that I meet:

One of the “life rules” I’ve adopted as I grow older . . . is that “no joy comes from comparisons.” Have you ever noticed that? Rather than be content with what you have or who you are or what you’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished. I suspect this is part of being human – being animated by a deep-seated insecurity that makes it difficult for us to establish some sense of ourselves apart from an external reference. . . .

No joy comes from comparisons. Only envy and resentment and bitterness or, occasionally, a shallow and superficial pride because you’ve chosen to make yourself feel better by looking down on someone else. And not only do we not bring joy, but we unintentionally denigrate the actual present reality with which we have been blessed. . . . [D]o we take stock of what we think we deserve or of all the things we’ve been blessed by that we don’t deserve? Do we look for places in our lives characterized by lack and scarcity or do we name and give thanks for places of abundance. Do we reflect on what others have and we do not, or do we delight in the wonder of all that we have been given to which we had no guarantee or right to expect? Do we, in short, choose comparisons or do we choose joy?

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #65

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

A couple of years ago, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams wrote a review for The New Statesman magazine of several books about violence, including Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Here’s part of that review, which I found to be profoundly thought-provoking as I consider my own place in this broken world and my relationship to others in that world as a follower of Jesus:

Again and again in Genesis, younger brothers overturn the legitimate expectations of older ones, and varying degrees of conflict result. At first sight, this reads as a catalogue of simple displacement, yet it becomes more interesting when we look at the verbal detail. Younger brothers discover that their privilege is to secure the future of older ones; or they discover that the blessing transferred to them from an older sibling is balanced by an unexpected blessing for the latter which benefits both. The trickster Jacob, when he next encounters Esau, the brother he has defrauded, says that to see his face is like seeing the face of God. In other words, the stories are not about favouritism and rejection, whatever the appearances: they are about the blessing of difference — the dignity of difference, to quote the title of one of Sacks’s best-known books. There is no firm ground for asserting that divine choice makes an enemy of those not chosen, because God’s choice is always purposeful, directed at a common good.

This reading is an ingenious and often moving turning upside down of a rhetoric of “chosenness” that has often blighted Christian as well as Jewish self-understanding, and has undoubtedly fuelled the anti-Semitism that Sacks rightly sees as resurgent in so many contexts today.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #64

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

Paul Hooker is the Associate Dean for Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He recently authored three hymn verses as he thought about the hurricanes in Texas and Florida that have “drenched and torn the lives of so many [he loves].” Perhaps his words will speak to you as they have spoken to me:

In the wind that howls, the deep’ning dark, when rains begin to fall
and the hopes we cherish most in life are shrouded in their pall,
then at last we lift our vision; then at last we strain our ear
for the word of sweet deliv’rance: our rescuer draws near.
Teach us, Lord, to rescue others, and to find as we are found,
until all your people reach the shore and stand on higher ground.

O that you, O God, would tear the skies and to the earth descend
‘mid the trembling mountain’s tumult, ‘mid fear that knows no end.
Though the stars may leave their places, constellations cease to be,
though the world we know and all we love lost to memory,
still we wait, Lord, rapt in wonder, ‘til morning’s sun shall rise,
‘til the clouds are rent asunder, and the tear of heartache dries.

‘Til that day, before the table spread, the font, the spoken word
we will gather as a people and let lament be heard
for your promised reign of glory, for tomorrow’s dawn of peace,
for the helpless and the hopeless, the prisoner’s release.
Quickly come, Lord, to your people! The night grows e’er so long!
We believe; help now our unbelief, ‘til all our hearts are strong.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

From the Rector #63

Weekly thoughts from the Rector of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, where these words remind us that Jesus’ peace goes with us into the world.

Peace I Leave with You

As I announced last Sunday and also explained in an email message to the congregation, Palmer hosted a free day camp this past week for children as a gift to the community in response to the fact that HISD schools delayed the beginning of the new academic year until tomorrow, September 11.

I want to thank Roger Hutchison, Director of Christian Formation and Parish Life, and a host of helpers from the church staff and church members who made this possible. There were more than a few tears shed by parents who were very grateful that we had created a safe place for their children to be.

Looking ahead, Palmer will be part of a coordinated relief system that has been created by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. There are now eight hub churches in the network: Palmer Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Martin’s Church, St. Mark’s Church, The Church of St. John the Divine, Holy Spirit Church, St. Francis Church, and Trinity Church. Christy Orman, whom you are welcome to contact directly at corman@christchurchcathedral.org, is the Hurricane Relief Coordinator for this network.

Additionally, each hub church has a Parish Hurricane Relief Coordinator. Betty Key has graciously accepted the invitation to fill that role for our community of faith with the help of a support team. Betty and her team will be Palmer’s conduit with Christy as our church becomes a platform to help with the management of restoration projects in the City of Houston for the weeks and months to come. You can contact them via stormsupport@palmerchurch.org, which is the same email address we’ve been using to receive updates about assisting our own parishioners.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

Harvey’s Wrath & The Problem of Evil

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 17, September 3, 2017

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:9-13)

I love those beautiful words from the 12th chapter of Romans. And this community of faith has embodied them in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. You have embodied what it means to love one another, to contribute to the needs of the saints, and to extend hospitality to strangers. You have been patient in suffering. You have persevered in prayer. And as that passage goes on to say, you’ve shown what it is to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “weep with those who weep.”[1]

You’ve turned to God, although that surely hasn’t been easy for everyone. Even an elderly Christian who showed no fear as she was rescued from rising floodwaters inside a nursing home concluded her statement to The Washington Post by saying, somewhat ambiguously, “God promised he’d never do this again.”[2]

Certain things unfold in the history of the world or in our own personal experiences that cause doubts not only about God’s goodness but also about God’s very existence. And those who rush to God’s defense often make matters worse with hurtful words of false comfort. At times they dishonor God’s holy name more than ecclesiastical outlaws who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering.

That kind of rage is often felt in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as the human misery that we’ve seen in the wake of the storm here in Houston or recent news out of central Nigeria, where more than 100,000 people have been displaced because of flooding.[3] However, just like hurricanes and rains that seem like they will never come to an end, humanity itself belongs to the natural order. Our actions that allow others to suffer raise the same kinds of questions as natural disasters.[4] Why is this happening? How can this be? And, ultimately, where is God?

Lt. Jack Harvey of the Houston Police Department is also a member of Palmer
Memorial Episcopal Church and can be see in this video holding a small boy.

Whether looking in the face of nature’s violence, or sins of omission that make bad situations worse, or the flood of human evil that spreads inhumanity in every generation — in all these things people want to know where God is. And, in some cases, they want to know if God is.

But the truth is that it doesn’t take rising floodwaters to float such a question to the surface. Suffering that demands a response can be found all around us, all the time. Neglected children live unseen in many communities, including ours. Maybe friends we want to rescue have made decisions that place them beyond our reach. Battles with disease might be taking place within our own bodies. And all of us will face a time when someone we love becomes lost in the shadow of death.

These experiences compel us to wrestle with God like Jacob, who struggled until daybreak at the River Jabbok.[5] They force us to cry out and watch. And what we do next might make all the difference in the world for ourselves and for those whom God has entrusted to our care.

David Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian with some helpful thoughts about this. He’s the author of a book entitled The Doors of Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Although written as a reflection on the tragic deaths of more than 225,000 people in Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, his reflections are just as important today in the midst of thinking about the disturbing headlines about Hurricane Harvey in the media, the destruction that we’ve seen with our own eyes, or whatever trials we might be facing ourselves. Surely he is right to suggest that we should all remain silent at first.

Acting in generosity as soon as possible is one thing. And without question we ought to stand close to those suffering the experience of Good Friday. Palmers have done both of those things in remarkable ways, for friends and strangers alike, over the last week. You’ve helped one another clean up flooded homes, brought food to those who’ve needed a good meal, and cried together. But it’s almost blasphemous to seek out a greater meaning for it all before weeping with those who mourn.[6]

The storm that killed those whose bodies have completely filled the city morgue, and whom we’ll remember in our prayers today, isn’t divine retribution. And it isn’t part of some divine plan, as a few streams of Christian theology might suggest, in which someone’s pain is required to show forth the glory of God. We aren’t better people because tragedy of one kind or another didn’t befall us. And we most certainly aren’t better Christians when we stand at a distance and affirm that “everything happens for a reason.”

Reflecting upon that kind of response in the face of a father who lost four of his five children in the tsunami, David Hart states the obvious:

Most of us would have the good sense to be ashamed to speak such words . . . And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them . . .[7]

At the center of our faith stands the cross. So it should come as no surprise that right in the middle of the Nicene Creed we declare that Jesus Christ “was crucified under Pontius Pilate . . . suffered death and was buried.”

This statement anchors our faith not only in the pages of history but also in every experience of God-forsakenness. It brings our faith into the suffering of the world, where God himself has led the way. Perhaps to the surprise of many, we stand beside those who raise their fists to heaven in moral outrage over innocent suffering. That’s because what they protest isn’t God but things that are the enemy of God.

In one of his less familiar stories, J.R.R. Tolkien retells the beginning of all things at Creation.[8] And he includes a helpful image, I think, about the relationship between divine providence and the chaos we encounter loose throughout the world, whether we’re driving down the street of a neighborhood that was flooded or just looking at the hidden messes in our own lives. It reminds me of the final words of our reading from Romans about “[overcoming] evil with good,” which we’ve witnessed countless times in response to the natural evil of Harvey’s wrath.[9]

In the literary imagination of Tolkien, God is represented by Eru, also known as Iluvatar. And Iluvatar first created the Ainur, the Holy Ones, who are like the host of heaven. Iluvatar taught them about music and was very pleased as they began to sing. The more they listened to each other, the more they began to understand one another and to sing in harmony. Iluvatar then spoke to them about a great theme that would bring forth Great Music. And so it did. This Great Music spilled out into the Void, making it no longer a void.

But one of the Ainur, who had spent too much time alone in the void places before the Great Music, wanted to increase the importance of his own part. And these thoughts became part of his music, disrupting the harmony that surrounded Iluvatar. As Tolkien describes it: “the melodies . . . foundered in a sea of turbulent sound . . . a raging storm as of dark waters that made war one upon another in an endless wrath that would not be assuaged.”

And this is where Tolkien provides a helpful way to think about God’s interaction with the world. Iluvatar arose, smiled, and lifted up his left hand. A new theme with its own beauty evolved in the midst of the storm, but the discord grew more violent than before. So Iluvatar arose with a stern countenance and lifted up his right hand. Yet another theme arose above the confusion. The music without harmony could not overtake the other. In fact, in the words of Tolkien, “its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”

But the strife continued and rippled out into the silences that had never been disturbed. For a third time, Iluvatar arose and “his face was terrible to behold.” Iluvatar raised up both hands. He brought forth a single chord “deeper than the Abyss” and “higher than the Firmament.” Suddenly . . . the Music came to an end.

Iluvatar explained that it was impossible to destroy the Music. Anyone who attempted to do so would become another instrument in creating things yet more wonderful. Finally, Iluvatar took the Ainur into the Void and said, “Behold your Music!” And before them appeared a new World.

For me, that’s a helpful way to think about not only the world as it is but also the new creation that awaits us. In Tolkien’s story, God isn’t the source of discord — the chaos in the world and within us. And God is not pleased with such freedom abused. Yet God is able to create anew, bringing good out of evil and the chaos to an end.

For those who prefer less indirect speech about such weighty matters, I turn again to the words of David Hart. His final thought leaves nothing more to be said:

God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable . . . he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and . . . rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”[10]

AMEN

BACK TO POST Romans 12:15.

BACK TO POST Kevin Sulliavan, Arelis R. Hernández, and David A. Fahrenthold, “At least 22 confirmed dead as Harvey pivots toward Louisiana,” The Washington Post, August 29, 2017.

BACK TO POST Associated Press, “More than 100,000 displaced by flooding in central Nigeria,” The Washington Post, September 1, 2017.

BACK TO POST David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005) 37.

BACK TO POST Genesis 32:22-32.

BACK TO POST Hart 6.

BACK TO POST Hart 100.

BACK TO POST J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, second edition, edited by Christopher Tolkien (New York: Ballantine, 1999) 3-12. The quotes and the language that I adapted for the retelling of this story are taken from here.

BACK TO POST Romans 9:21.

10 BACK TO POST Hart 104.