Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror

Thanksgiving in the rear view mirror

The leftover turkey is transformed to hash stage and the last of the dessert is gone. But before we leave Thanksgiving completely, I share with you a Thanksgiving sermon… about not leaving Thanksgiving completely.

The Responsibility of Gratitude
Deuteronomy 15:7-15
I Corinthians 11:17-34

Have you ever been a part of the start of something new?
A new company.
A new organization.
A new club.
Even a new division.

If you have, you know that there a thousand decisions to be made.
Earlier in my ministry
I served on the boards of several groups
that were just getting started
or were still very young.

Oh my, there are so many decisions to be made.
Bylaws.
Officers.
Voting procedures.
And let’s not forget…..
budgets.

Like building a house
you have to figure out everything from scratch.

Why are we doing it this way and not that?
Do we need to improve upon the old models
or create something new?

Moses was the leader of a group
in such a situation.

With the immediate danger of Egypt and the Pharaoh behind them,
they had to figure out how they were going to live
as free people.

That’s a lot of what the book of Deuteronomy is about,
about how a rag tag bunch of escaped slaves become a people.

Part of these bylaws was a provision for the sabbath year..
Every seven years the land was to lie fallow, a sabbath for the earth.
Debts were to be cancelled. Slaves were to be set free.

Now we could spend our time in this text
thinking about best practices for our earth
or the conversation between economics and theology.
Instead I want to keep moving forward
to the last verses of this text.
The reason why they were to do these things.
“For you were once slaves in Egypt.”

You free your slaves and treat them
with justice and kindness
because you were once on the other side.
You knew what it was like
to have harsh taskmasters
demanding more bricks
with less straw.
You knew what it was like to cry out to God,
to cry from your bones
for something, anything.
For freedom.

We were once slaves
and with a strong hand and mighty arm
God brought us out from Egypt.

This is why you do what you do.
Not because it’s a good idea for interpersonal relations.
Not because it will make you a swell person.
But because you’ve been there.

You know that ring of authenticity, don’t you –
That realness that comes
when someone’s been there.

When I did my clinical pastoral education residency,
they told a story to us
about another student in another time.

It was back in the days when
they still delivered babies at Baptist hospital.

This chaplain was called to check in on a woman who’d had a particularly difficult delivery,
hours upon hours
of agonizing labor.
The chaplain came in the room,
introduced himself,
sat down by the bed,
took the patient’s hand
and in his most gentle, pastoral voice said,
“Mrs. Smith, I know just how you feel.”

This being a chapel of worship
I will not repeat verbatim
what she said,
but it was to the effect that he really didn’t know
and would never know.

“You do this for your slaves,” the book of Deuteronomy says,
“because you were once slaves in Egypt.”

Granted,
this is not the most popular text
for a Thanksgiving service.
In fact,
I may be the first preacher in the history of Thanksgiving
to use it as such.

But as I thought about this sermon I kept coming back to that phrase…
“for you were once slaves in Egypt.”

We like our Thanksgiving celebrations
a bit contained.
Many of us will celebrate tomorrow.
Some will go for the reduced scheduling conflict
of getting together this weekend.
But come Monday
we’ll have the sense of having Thanksgiving
behind us.

On the other hand,
the biblical witness is clear
that Thanksgiving isn’t a day we celebrate
but a determining factor in how we live.

We were once slaves,
and the Lord brought us out with a strong and mighty arm,
and because of that,
we live differently.

We cannot offer one hand in thanksgiving to God
and close the other hand to God’s other children.

I’m not talking here just of a Thanksgiving food drive,
as important a they are.
In my own church last Sunday
we filled the altar with bags of groceries that will help
sustain the needy in our community.

No, I’m talking about what we do
the next week and the next and the next.
How we treat those who are despised and rejected.
How we take the time to see
those who are invisible.
How we seek kind hearts
in an age where the prevailing wind is a mean wind.

You see, we were once slaves in Egypt.

Now perhaps you have had a golden life.
You’ve never despised yet felt beholden to an addiction
or felt lost in your grief
or wondered how you were going
to pay the power bill this month
or waited out an endless dark night of the soul.

Still,you join in the song…
We were once slaves in Egypt.

For there is not a one of us present
and not a one of us on the planet
who has done enough
and done it well enough
to earn the boundless love of God.
It’s why we call it grace.

Because we were slaves…
because we were flawed,
stumbling,
soaring,
struggling,
seeking,
sinning,
sometimes compassionate
and sometimes clueless
children of God,
and God reached out
and welcomed us home,
that is why we are thankful.

And that is why we must be different.

Paul said as much to the church in Corinth.

In some traditions the Lord’s Supper
is known as the eucharist,
after eucharisto – he gave thanks.

He took the bread, and after giving thanks…

Some people in Corinth
were treating the Supper
like an all you can eat buffet
and they were coming hungry.

They filled their plates
and their bellies.

As a result,
there was none left for those who came later.

By the time some folks got there
others were full
and some of them were drunk.
And there wasn’t always enough
for all of God’s children to share.

It should not be so in the body of Christ,
Paul said.

This isn’t a place
to get as much as you can get for yourself,
forgetting your brothers and sisters.

“Do you show contempt for the church of God
and humiliate those who have nothing?” (11:22)

Having given thanks, he took the bread and broke it.
Having given thanks,
we share the bread with all of God’s children –
the bread of sustenance for our stomachs,
the bread of hope for our spirits,
the bread of kindness for our neighbors,
the bread of welcome for those
whom we’d rather not call neighbor,
the cup of grace for the broken places in all of us,
the cup of gratitude for all we have been given
and all the roads we have traveled through,
the cup of comfort for grieving hearts
the cup of the waters of mercy and justice
that still long to flow
like a never ending stream..

Tomorrow night
after the leftovers have been divvied up
and the dishes have been washed
and sleepy children put to bed,
thanks giving will not be done.

For you were once slaves in Egypt.
For you, his body was broken.
We were all once slaves in Egypt.
For all of us his body was broken.
Thanks be to God.
With our very lives we declare,
Thanks be to God.

 

copyright Peggy Haymes
November 23, 2016

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Trump, Clinton and Those People

Just when it becomes hard to imagine our political climate becoming more divided, along comes a presidential campaign season that seems intent mostly on fracturing our divided nation even more.

(Incidentally, right now I’m reading Joseph Ellis’ fine book The Quartet. After the Revolution the fractured collection of states threatened to go the way of divided Europe instead of becoming a united country. Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Jay and James Madison stepped forward to push for a new Constitution and to create a true nation. A thought provoking book.)

change livesWhen I sat down here to drink some coffee and do some writing  I couldn’t help but overhear the people at the next table. They were of the sort who saw anti-Christian conspiracy around every corner. They agreed that our society went down the tubes when they stopped paddling kids in school.

I dug my headphones out of my computer bag even as I felt my blood pressure rising. I was thankful for the music of Hamilton downing out their conversation.

And then a pesky truth nudged me, like my dog pushing her nose between me and my book. I was ready to write them off as those people. You know those people. The people on the other side of the spectrum. The people we caricature and make fun of, whether we are conservative or liberal or somewhere in-between.

The pesky truth kept nosing its way in. These people are my brothers and sister. God loves them just as much as God loves me.

Dang.

One of the interesting things about my work as a counselor is being able to listen to the lives of such different people. The grocery store clerk. The executive. The single mom. The grandfather. The deeply conservative. The flaming liberal. The straight. The gay. The confused. Black. White. Mixed. The woman who never had a struggle until recently when things went off the rails. The guy who has scrapped and scrambled every day of his life. Like a bloodied prize fighter he stands wobbly kneed in the ring but stands nonetheless.

I don’t have to listen long before those people become just people. People who hurt and fear and hope.

It’s a tough line to walk, embracing the humility of grace that recognizes our common kin while still holding to whatever prophetic voice the times demand. But the promise I try (sometimes unsuccessfully) to keep is never to ridicule people who are those people to me. I know if we could talk long enough they’d become just people with their own fears and hurts and hopes.

As responsible citizens, we have a duty to call candidates into question, whether it’s for the presidency or the local school board. We may challenge and debate and even argue with fellow citizens. If we are very brave, we may listen to someone with whom we disagree.

(As a time management tool I am trying to avoid comments sections for online articles and stories posted on Facebook. But more than once I’ve found myself writing, “It doesn’t work like that. None of this works like that.”)

The times call for wisdom, and wisdom resists the seduction of too easy generalizations and too neat categories. Wisdom ain’t easy, but may we be brave enough to ask for a measure of it.


 

I debated giving up anger for Lent, but the realized that it was too important.

As Christians, what are we to do with anger? Is really one of the deadly sins? Does our spirituality need it, and does anger need our spirituality?

Join me on Friday as we talk about these things in my free webinar:

Can I Be Angry? Anger, Faith and a Real Life

A replay will be available, but only for those who register for the webinar. Find out more.

If you only had faith…

It’s enough to break my heart.

worried womanMy client sits across from me and admits that they’re sure that God hates them or is angry with them or is ready to give up on them. Because they’re anxious. Because they’re depressed.

And well, if they were just a better Christian they wouldn’t feel this way.

Which, of course, is poppycock. Usually (but not always) I say it in nicer ways. It’s just not true. God doesn’t base grace on how chipper we are, which is one of the reasons that it’s called grace. As Frederick Buechner once said, we don’t have to do a blessed thing and that’s the blessedness of it.

Still, if you’re a Christian and you battle anxiety, it’s hard not to feel a little guilty for it After all, there’s that whole “the Bible says ‘Fear not’ 365 times so you have one for each day” picture on Pinterest. You know you shouldn’t feel anxious.

But you do.

We don’t help our anxiety by beating ourselves up for being anxious. If anything, that fuels the fire. We do help ourselves when we can take a step back to understand it, to pay attention to what’s going on in our spirits and in our brain. Once we understand it, we can use tools for changing it.

 

God loves us anyway: Thinking about Will Campbell

Will Campbell
Will Campbell
(Picture courtesy of The Tennessean)

I’ve been thinking about Will Campbell recently.

If you aren’t familiar with Will, he was the campus chaplain when Ole Miss was integrated and was a courageous voice for civil rights. He was a writer, Brother To a Dragonfly being his best known book. He was also tour chaplain for Waylon Jennings and inspiration for cartoonist Doug Marlette’s Will B. Dunn  character in the Kudzu comic strip.

I had the good fortune to hear Will when I was a student at Furman. I don’t remember what he said in the Wednesday morning lecture series but I’ll never forget the Tuesday evening gathering with Religion majors and other ministerially minded folks. (We used to get Tuesday night exclusives with the Wednesday speakers, followed by a cheese and cracker reception.)

During this reception one of our more conservative students engaged Will in an argument. As the argument escalated the rest of us started circling them, high noon style. The student, Chuck, called Will the worst thing he could think of – a communist. Will called Chuck a damned liar.

We collectively held our breath for the next volley. Some of us were kind of looking forward to it because Chuck was a thorn in our progressive sides. We wanted to see him taken down.

It never came. Instead, Will put his arm around Chuck’s shoulder.

“We disagree,” he said. “We’ll probably always disagree.” He then went on to say something to the effect that in Christ they were still brothers and that he loved him.

Will wasn’t just there when the Southern Leadership Conference was formed. He was also the unofficial civil rights chaplain of the Ku Klux Klan, listening to them and trying to understand them. He knew they were in need of conversion.

But then again, aren’t we all.

When Campbell died in 2013, a writer in Alabama shared the following story:

In a 1989 speech at Samford, Campbell criticized the Southern Baptist Convention’s plans to meet and evangelize in Las Vegas. “I said something a few weeks ago in Greenville, S.C., that got me in some trouble, so I’ll repeat it,” he said. “If we want to have an authentic Christian witness, we need to go, one by one, to the brothels and ask the women we call whores, ‘Please, Ma’am, please teach us something about grace, because in our certitude, we’re not even aware that we need grace.”

We need grace, all of us.

No matter where we stand on issues or what Bible verses we like to fling at each other, may we be certain about this one thing.


Rolling Stone article on Will Campbell

Death of a Pit Bull

Death of a Pit Bull

I learned this morning that Hector the Pit Bull had died. I never met the dog nor his owners. I only knew of him from his Facebook page.

pit bull
Hector and his family

This was no ordinary pup with publicity. Hector was one of the pit bulls seized from Michael Vick’s dog fighting operation. Some of the dogs were too far gone psychologically and had to live in a rescue the rest of their days.

Then there were the dogs like Hector. His early years were spent in brutality, pain, violence, and terror but his rescuers saw past the beginnings and saw past the dreaded pit bull label. They gave Hector a chance.

Not only was he adopted by a family, but he became a certified Canine Good Citizen* and certified therapy dog. As the end approached his family took him to his favorite places, gave him a soft bed in which to rest, covered by a warm blanket. A canine companion stayed by his side. He ended his days on this earth surrounded by his adopted family, who were just some of the people who loved him.

He began his life in a life no dog should have.

He ended his life in a way every dog deserves. Oh, what the heck – in the way most of us people would want as well… given loving attention, lots of treats, a faithful dog by our side and nothing but love at the end.

I have a friend who wants to know if a book or movie “ends well.” She doesn’t want to invest her time if her heart is only going to be broken at the end. Hector’s story ended well.

I don’t know about you, but I can go a long time on the light and the love of such a story. I know such stories sustain many animal rescuers as they wade through the horrors they must encounter in the course of their rescues.

Such light and love sustains me in my work as well. Sometimes someone will ask me, “How do you do it? How do you listen to such painful stories?” Some of the stories my clients tell me are indeed heart-breaking. Some of them make me angry for the injustice that has been done. We don’t get much choice about our beginnings, and some of their beginnings have also been tough.

The joy of my work, however, is that the beginning of their stories isn’t the end of their stories. As we work, I get to see the light come back to their eyes… or maybe shine for the first time. I get to see them move through the pain into the healing, to stop listening to the lies about who they are and what they deserve in this life.

Hector’s past wasn’t his present.

What about you?

*Canine Good Citizen requires that a dog pass a test safely handling things such as encountering strangers and strange dogs.

Losing my Religion

Seems like I see one of these articles or interviews about every day. Someone who professes their lack of spiritual belief shares with the world why life is so much better on their side of the fence. Frankly, I’m getting irritated.

Not because of what they believe or don’t believe. That’s their choice. But because they do such a bad job of representing what I believe. Today it was a blogger who described the free and happier life without his religion. It opened up a world of learning to him. It freed him up not to have an answer for every question. It enabled him to embrace people whose lifestyles were different; for example, people who loved and wished to marry people of the same gender. Friends who are more fun. On and on.

Guess what? All of those things (and many others) are already a part of my faith. Yep, I’m a Christian. And even a Baptist one that that. And I’m not narrow minded.

I don’t fear learning. I am curious about the world and believe that science opens us up to wonder. While I believe that there is a life beyond this one and hold that belief with great hope, the reason that I try to live a moral life is that God asks me to do justice and love mercy, not to earn brownie points for heaven. My faith pushes me towards embracing diversity because it reminds me that those people who are different from me are made in the image of God as well.

I have gay friends. I love them. I do not think they are going to hell. Sometimes I envy them because some of them are such great couples. I have friends both straight and gay who are pretty fun folks. We don’t just sit around quoting the Bible to each other. We laugh. We go places (even to the theaters!) We have been known to dance. Even in church. Sometimes with them I laugh so hard that my face hurts and I am physically exhausted.

Yep, I’m a Christian. Even a Baptist one at that. And one who is getting a little tired of people who are so proud of their open-mindedness being so quick to confine people of faith into one narrow little box. The varieties of religious experience are wider than one small experience or shallow stereotype.

“Don’t just stand there despairing.”

It’s been a rough week on this corner of the planet. A boy is killed, apparently for the color of his skin, and the long simmering racial divides of a community erupt into what looks like a third world uprising: unarmed protesters against authorities in full military gear. And we wonder how it will be different.

A man who was obviously enormously talented in moving us both to laughter and to tears as well as making our hearts soar (and who was by all accounts a lovely human being) takes his own life. We try to imagine – or try not to remember – the depths of such black despair and we wonder how it will be different for others.

In other parts of our planet centuries of conflict are being played out with weapons old and new. Hatred stoked by the centuries erupts into killing and cruelty, and we wonder how it will ever be different.

Along the border of our own nation there is a struggle between too much and not enough. Children fleeing from too much danger, abuse and hopelessness find themselves rebuffed by communities feeling already over-stretched by not enough resources, not enough answers for the problems they themselves face. We wonder how it can ever be different.

There were events in my own life this week that didn’t make the news. A former client shared an email with me that she’d sent to her friends, “outing” herself as one who has struggled with the great black dog of depression and who now consciously chooses to live her life in ways that allow the light in. It was a brave and heartfelt email, and a reminder that for her, life is very different.

Last Saturday I also attended a meeting of the Steering Committee of Baptist Women in Ministry, NC. As we talked about next year’s meeting I thought back to the first meeting I attended so many years ago. Thirty, maybe forty people huddled together hoping for hope that locked doors might be opened. Our theme, taken from a song lyric, was “One by one, truth will grow.” As we met on Saturday I thought about how different things are now. We provide not insubstantial scholarship money for a woman student at each of the Baptist Divinity Schools in NC. And in recent months women have become pastors at both Watts St. Baptist in Durham and Riverside Church in New York City. One by one…

This week I’ve been reading John Philip Newell’s book, The Rebirthing of God. In it he quotes Nobel Peace Prize winner (and Mayanmar activist) Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent most of the last twenty-five years under house arrest. “Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.”

It seems as good a word as any for this week. Don’t know how to resolve the Middle East or global warming or immigration or race relations or the scourge of depression? Do what you do know. Do one thing. You may think you’re only touching one life but you do not know how many other lives that one life will touch and how many lives those lives will touch. You may only write one letter but you do not know if yours will be the letter that’s the tipping point. You may only clean one stream or befriend one person who is of another race or political party or from the other side of the tracks. But you do not know where those steps will lead.

Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.