|Musings of a Virginia Gentleman|
|The Soundtrack to a Life . . .|
|'How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction each day?'(Rent)|
Tuesday, December 30, 2003
So there's this girl . . .
"...when all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:--she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen." ---Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
A walking tour of downtown, picnic in the park, Chinese Checkers back at the house, perusing the local paper, even an ambitious dinner with the parents, and dreams of setting out to find America and ourselves.....this was the perfect day!
Heaven Shall Not Wait
Merry Christmas, friends!!
Okay, so perhaps there are two things that may seem wrong with that introductory paragraph. First, you might point out that, in fact, Christmas was last week and I missed my opportunity to extend that blessing to you at the appropriate time. Well, you're probably not thinking that at all, but if you are, I could not disagree more. Believe it or not, in the midst of all the gift-returning and New Year's celebrations of this week, we are now only beginning the (unfortunately short) liturgical season of Christmas. I am always troubled by the overwhelming abundance of Christmas carols (and the corresponding lack of Advent hymns) we hear during the weeks leading up to Christmas, but I think I am even more troubled by the way those carols simply vanish immediately after December 25. Just as 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel', 'People Look East', 'Mary's Place' and other Advent music is appropriate and necessary for us as we await God's entering our world through Christ, now is the time when we, who have just been faithfully met by God Incarnate at Christmas, ought to be proclaiming our joy to the world, for the Lord has come! Until we celebrate Epiphany on January 4, we are still in the Christmas season, and so 'Merry Christmas' seems to me to be the only proper greeting for us to extend to one another!
As for the other problem in that opening line, although cheerful and fitting, 'friends' does not exactly go with the proper, urbane atmosphere around here (please suppress your startled giggles!). Stephen King addresses his audience as Constant Reader; Charles Dickens, Meredith McNabb, and other brilliant writers thoughtfully engage their Gentle Reader; and the best I can do is a humble 'Howdy, neighbor!' I'm open to suggestions for remedying this, but until then, perhaps the informality of 'Merry Christmas, friends!' isn't so bad after all.
In any event, I haven't written in a long, long time, so prepare yourself for a gigantic, rambling, incoherent post (or just click comment and tell me how much you enjoyed the silence before, whichever is appropriate!). In my absence, Andrew and Brian have both reflected lucidly on their experiences of Advent, Christmas, life, relationships, music, and pretty much everything in between. Although I have nothing nearly as insightful as their posts, my recent journeys to Middleburg for the Camp Highroad Christmas Party, Colonial Heights for holiday celebrations with my parents and brother, Erwin, Tennessee to spend Christmas with family there, and Charlotte for the Continental Tire Bowl (Wahoowa!) have been filled with memorable and revealing moments. I'm at a loss to actually re-create them through words in any meaningful way, but, as always, my scriptural tradition has gone before me and given voice to my deepest longings and experience:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." ---words of Jesus, from Matthew 25:31-46
These verses should undoubtedly call all of us to a life of self-sacrificing service to the people all around us who are hurting and in need (I suppose this is one of those places where the old idiom that good religion functions to 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable' really turns out to be true), but they struck me on a particularly allegorical occasion a couple weeks ago. On the Friday before Christmas, we had a lock-in with the youth at church to celebrate their being out of school for a couple weeks, to write and send Christmas cards to many of the people who have supported us so faithfully during the past year, and to just have an opportunity to hang out with one another and have a lot of fun before everyone scattered for the holidays.
My brother Brian came up to help me chaperone the lock-in, and then he and I hit the town in Charlottesville for all of our last-minute Christmas shopping. Did you know, incidentally, that the Saturday before Christmas is now the busiest shopping day of the entire year, with even more business than the famously crazy days immediately after Thanksgiving and Christmas? If I hadn't believed it before, I definitely learned my lesson while we were out on the town. We spent some time on the Corner, making the obligatory UVA memorabilia purchases for aunts, uncles, and cousins and Mincer's and the Student Bookstore and then grabbing dinner at Little John's before hitting the Downtown Mall and other places. I was really excited because I was planning to do most of my shopping at the Innisfree store (Innisfree is this amazing group of developmentally disabled adults who live and work together in a fully self-sufficient community in Crozet, and this store sells the scarves which they weave there and other of their goods, as well as fair trade items from around the world....it was so uplifting to purchase for my friends and family nativity sets from Peru, clay cooking pots from Chile, Christmas cards from Bangladesh, and peace signs from Guatemala while knowing that the artisans who crafted them were actually receiving fair compensation for their work!), and thus was in an especially cheerful (perhaps even "Christmas-y, gasp!) mood, and might even have been feeling slightly morally superior to the unfair materialism which so often permeates our Christmas shopping.
And then, as we were going into the restaurant, a homeless man outside asked me if I could spare some change. If you're from Charlottesville and ever get down to the Little John's, you probably know exactly who I'm talking about....he's a very friendly African American man with an artificial leg and one mal-formed hand, who is pretty much always outside there sitting on the brick wall in front of Little John's and Plan 9. Well, when he asked me, I checked my wallet, realized that I really only had two dollars in cash on me, gave him one and saved the other to pay for parking when we left. We then went inside, where I paid for my meal with a credit card, and sat down right in front of the large front window. About half-way through dinner, I looked up and saw the man (whose name I'm sad to say I don't even know) still sitting outside the restaurant, waiting to collect the money that might buy him his own dinner that night, and realized how near-sighted and selfish I had been. While it was true that I only had two dollars in cash with me, what had prevented me from inviting him inside with us and buying him a hot dinner? During my first year, before Coffee & Theology at Starbuck's every Wednesday evening, I would have dinner with my friend Dan, who was also homeless. I'm not sure what happened, but I don't think it's good that I've gone backward in my thoughtfulness and generosity in the past two years. All could have been saved, though, as I realized this in plenty of time to just go outside and invite him in to join us. But did I do that? Of course not....instead, I avoided his gaze for the rest of the time we were there, and then guiltily strode off to the Bank of America ATM down the street afterward to get some more money and put in his cup. Even though I ended up giving him a lot more cash than a dinner with him would have cost me, I was fully aware the entire time that I was fiercely avoiding the vulnerability and discomfort which giving of myself in conversation and relationship with him would have required.
For maybe the first time ever, I was able to clearly identify with the goats from Jesus's parable, who find themselves removed from God's presence because they have failed to truly recognize and respond to the presence of the holy in the poorest of the poor around them. It occurs to me that Jesus is uniquely unsympathetic of their struggles or intentions. He leaves no room for excuses of any sort (such as their having no cash on them at the moment or their needing to get all that Christmas shopping finished up quickly without taking time out of their busy schedules for conversations with homeless men outside the Little John's...), but instead declares that they have been absolutely wrong and equates their inaction with a rejection of God Himself. Accordingly, I know that, am I to be true to my own baptismal covenant, I must make more of an effort to model my decisions and behavior after the selfless sheep of this parable. In particular, during the new year, this will mean making a sincere effort to learn this man's story (as such a frequent visitor of the Corner and especially of Little John's, I see him so often and am thus connected to him in a significant way, whether or not I like it or even always realize it) and to walk alongside him and my other sisters and brothers in need here in Charlottesville and in all those places where my faith journey leads me.
In so very many ways, the people of the Iona Community in Scotland embody the spirit of Christ's teaching in this passage, opening themselves up to people from around the world and offering a bold, uncompromising witness for justice and peace for all God's people. And for them, as for us here in the Wesley community, music plays a foundational role in teaching the vocabulary of their faith. Although I can't be certain, it seems to me that John Bell and Graham Maule (writers of so many brilliant theological hymns, including 'The Summons' and 'Inspired By Love And Anger') must have been wrestling with experiences similar to mine when they discovered the words of this song:
Heaven shall not wait for the poor to lose their patience,
The scorned to smile, the despised to find a friend
Jesus is Lord, he has championed the unwanted,
In him injustice confronts its timely end.
Heaven shall not wait for the rich to share their fortunes,
The proud to fall, the elite to tend the least.
Jesus is Lord, he has shown the Master's privilege
To kneel and wash servants' feet before they feast.
Heaven shall not wait for the dawn of great ideas,
Thoughts of compassion divorced from cries of pain.
Jesus is Lord, he has married word and action,
His cross and company make his purpose plain.
Heaven shall not wait for triumphant Hallelujahs,
When earth has passed and we reach another shore.
Jesus is Lord, in our present imperfection;
His power and love are for now, and then forevermore.
So, with apologies for my long-windedness, I hope that you will take a moment to share your thoughts and insights on all of this, and that you will help hold me accountable to these promises. Merry Christmas!!
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
"The Black Church"
Whew! Final exams have finished, this rough semester has come to an end, and four weeks of rest and relaxation await me!! Well, okay, so that's not exactly true. The semester is over, and I'm thankful to be freed from schoolwork for a couple weeks, but this mostly means that church work, research for Lauren, and various other commitments can receive more attention for a while. Right now I'm working on my Residential Community application (it looks like my brother Brian and I are both going to be living here next year!), writing another 5-10 pages on religious life in colonial Norfolk, finishing up shopping for my Angel Tree kids, wishing I were farther ahead on Christmas shopping for everyone else, and planning for the youth lock-in that we're having at church on Friday night. I have begun reading Faith Works by Jim Wallis, though, as well as Stephen King's The Stand, purely for fun and am feeling a lot less pressure to be wildly productive all the time.
It also bears mentioning that, regarless of what happens during the next month, this winter break began in the most perfect way possible. On Monday afternoon, after I completed my World Literature exam and Andrew and Brian turned in their revised thesis proposals, we loaded into Andrew's Accord and headed north to meet Mr. Marshall in Springfield and then journey on to see Simon and Garfunkel live at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. I would love to talk about the evening and how amazing it was, but there are really no words to describe the experience----the music, the atmosphere, the excitment, everything was just perfect! These are artists whose music and message captured the spirt of the '60s and '70s, defining the musical experience of an entire generation, and continue to have deep meaning, both musically and lyrically, in our world today. Seeing them performing together again, feeding off of one another and the crowd, living out a calling (after all, give a listen to 'You Can Tell the World', 'The Sound of Silence', 'Go Tell It On The Mountain', 'Blessed', or so much of their other work and tell me who in the past century has taught us more about the meaning of the Christian faith than these two Jewish guys from New York?), was moving and memorable. Not only were we inspired to sing 'Homeward Bound' in the train station before leaving New York City after our UN Seminar next month, but I was also reminded of a particularly pertinent (and distressing) conversation I had last weekend at the Conference High School Retreat at Eagle Eyrie and never shared here. At the risk of overwhelming you with my usual ranting and long-windedness, here goes nothing:
About 900 youth and their leaders were registered for the weekend retreat, but the snow and ice prompted about 150 to call ahead and cancel their reservations at the retreat center in Lynchburg. This was really unfortunate for those youth, who missed a wonderful opportunity to encounter the living Christ working through young people from around the state in truly exciting ways. In another sense, though, it was kind of nice that the place was not quite as crowded as it had been for the Middle School Retreat in November. Our group stayed in the Cedar Crest Lodge again, which is a hotel-like structure just across the street from the main worship center at Eagle Eyrie. The place was supposed to be completely full, but apparently we had a disproportionate number of cancelations in our building, and we ended up sharing our hall with only one other group, the folks from Braddock Street UMC in Winchester. They had a really talented youth minister from Texas who did a great job leading several sessions of our small group and sharing her deep faith with all of us. She also had one of her youth's fathers with them as another chaperone. He was wonderful too, and I am very grateful for his willingness to support youth ministry in their church.
One conversation I had with him, however, was revealing and troubling in its predictability. Always curious about the ways our Church is at work throughout the Conference and knowing embarassingly little about the city of Winchester, I asked him whether John Mann and John Wesley United Methodist Churches were actually inside the city or somewhere outside it. In truth, I was really just trying to make some conversation to ease the painfully awkward silence which often follows the sharing of one's occupation, school, major, hometown, etc., but this was not an entirely thoughtless question, as I have worked at youth retreats and schools of mission with the Reverend Lorenzo Hill, the former pastor of both these churches. Interestingly, the fellow's immediate response was not to answer my question but was to ask me, "Aren't those the black churches?" After I responsed that yes, I believe they are both historically African American congregations, he somewhat disdainfully proclaimed that he "cant' believe they're still segregated!" Now, as you may know, this entire matter of so-called "church segregation" (based, I presume, on the observation that 11:00 on Sunday mornings is the most segregated hour of the week) has been a sort of soap box for me anyway for the past couple months, and so this rather matter-of-fact condemnation that he offered got me pretty excited. I did manage to calmly reply with my own belief that there are all sorts of cultural, social, economic, and theological reasons why this may be, and that their churches are no more segregated than his or any other "white church" in our Conference.
The subject of that discussion, of course, warrants closer examination. As far as I can tell, it is likely a statistical fact that American Christians are even less racially diverse than usual (which is actually a pretty hard thing to accomplish, I'm afraid) when they go to their various places of worship on Sunday mornings. Although I am by no means prepared to assert unequivocally that this is an entirely bad thing in and of itself, I will concede that it certainly doesn't offer the sort of peaceful and harmonious witness called for by the Christ of our faith. Let us consider, then, what it means for a middle-class white man from Winchester to complain that the "black churches" in his town are "still segregated" today. For the past 200+ years, the Black Church has been the primary, if not the only, place of organization and solidarity for African American communities which have looked inward to their spiritual foundations for the resources to combat the evils of slavery, segregation, and racial hatred. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, I think quite compellingly, that the Negro Slave songs, often used by Christian slaves in their worship services, represent America's purest and most signifcant contribution to world culture. Undboutedly, the great civil rights triumphs of the 1950s and 60s would have been impossible without the faithful advocacy and prophetic witness of the Black Church in the South. As leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used churches as meeting places and sounding boards to plan the Montgomery bus boycott and the historic March on Washington, and Nahsville seminarians like James Lawson and others built on the teachings of pacifist Mahatma Gandhi to lead the workshops which would grow into a nationwide movement of lunch counter sit-ins, the African Amercan church established itself firmly in the hearts and minds of countless people of color in our nation as the clearest place where they could have a voice and make a change in their world. Thus, if traditionally black churches seem "segregated", it is less a sign of any antipathy toward people of other races and more an indication of the historic social, political, and religious oppression which has plagued people of color in this nation for so long. The Church is the amazing gift that God has given all people as a way of teaching the stories of the faith, proclaiming the good news of Christ for a hurting world, and offering healing and hope during the darkest of days.
To ask African Americans, then, to come and "integrate" those churches which, only a few years ago, would not allow them through the doors because they were not really God's children in the way that white Americans are, is to ask them to give up that which has been the psychological and spiritual foundation of their community for years, to give up their own identity in favor of making urbane white Christians feel good about their own efforts at "racial reconciliation". This is both uninformed and unfair. It would be far easier for me, a white male who has always been given a voice in the public and private spheres of this nation, to come and meet my black (and Hispanic and Asian American and Native American) sisters and brothers where they are as we seek together to meet God in new ways. In fact, we might learn an awful lot, about ministry and about life, were we to step outside of our own comfort zones in that way and allow ourselves to be embraced by that great love which, since the days of the Exodus, has been promising liberation from captivity, freedom from oppression, and forgiveness of sins.
The Church today may indeed be "segregated" but perhaps that is precisely because we still think of places like John Mann & John Wesley UMCs, places where God's word has been taught and lived for so long by people of unwavering faith, as "the black churches" rather than understanding that God is bigger than our divisions of black and white and is all the time working to reconcile all things to God's self. Although I realize that Paul Simon was not thinking about this exact situation when he wrote these famous (and prophetic) words which close 'The Sound of Silence', and although I make no claims to fully understand everything they can mean for us, this seems like the only appropriate way to close this post and to invite your insight and participation:
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they'd made
And the sign flashed its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls, and whispered
In the sounds of silence
Shalom, my friends!
Saturday, December 13, 2003
On My Honor . . .
On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/exam.
This, of course, is the honor statement here at the University of Virginia, which appears on most of the exams, papers, and other assignments submitted by students. Although we spend a lot of time talking up our honor system, and its attendant single sanction policy for dismissal from the University, as a pioneering model of student self-governance and academic excellence, there really is nothing especially stringent about this statement. Its language isn't even as strong as that of many private high schools, which demand that their students inform administrators if they know that one of their peers has received unauthorized aid. Reporting instances of other students' cheating is entirely optional, as far as our honor system is concerned, and a student with a guilty conscience always has the option of remaining at the University by making a conscientious retraction, confessing their crime before being confronted by the Honor Committee.
So basically, the honor pledge we're required to write on our exams merely asserts that we ourselves have not cheated on that particular assignment. I almost never include this statement on the papers and tests I submit to professors. This is not because I don't understand the requirements of the honor system, and it's certainly not because I'm cheating on my work. It's simply because I never remember to pledge my work. Now, of course, the proud, UVA honor code-abiding part of me always wants to claim that the reason for my forgetfulness is that this is UVA-----we have a strict honor code in place, and of course I have not cheated. The assumption of my professors and all other University officials, says this side of me, should be that no one here is cheating, as that is simply not what we do at Mr. Jefferson's University. In fact, I do more or less believe this, and am thus not fully convinced that writing out the honor statement time after time (which, I presume, is done as a way of reminding potential cheaters that we consider that a very serious violation of the rights of the entire academic community) offers the best witness to honor and honesty, but I must confess that probably the most compelling reason why I so often forget to pledge my work is that, as an English and Religious Studies major, my due dates are usually spread throughout the entire semester, and as a result I never really get into the sort of test-taking rhythm that would remind me to pledge everything.
This has never really been an issue with any of my instructors (perhaps they do, after all, operate under the assumption that all work is in fact already pledged!), and so I typically don't think much about it. Yesterday, though, just as I was handing in my completed Religion in the American South exam bluebook, it occurred to me that I had not written my pledge and I actually asked the teacher if she wanted me to do it then. She told me it didn't really matter, and I left the room without signing any "no-cheating" promise, but this got me thinking about what the culture of cheating (which people seem to talk about more and more around here) might mean for UVA and for my education. So, while I should have been studying for my Justice & Health Care exam that was later in the afternoon, I instead spent my time musing on this issue, and what follows is a fairly incoherent, and likely unwanted, report of those thoughts:
-We have an honor code here, and I do not cheat. If we did not have an honor code, I still would not cheat. In that sense, the honor code does not really seem to be impacting anything. If I were going to consider plagiarizing a paper or looking on my neighbor's astronomy answer sheet, though, I think that perhaps the threat of permanent dismissal from the University would be a fairly strong deterrent. I hear a lot of people say that the honor system here does not work because a lot of cheating still occurs. Perhaps this is an illogical way of looking at the situation. In my view, the honor system very clearly works to prevent those potential cheaters whose fear of being caught and kicked out of school outweighs their desire for one or two good grades. If that is true, and the honor system is working to reduce the amount of cheating even slightly, maybe that is all we can or should expect of it. It certainly seems preferable to the extreme, patronizing alternative of proctored exams or surveillance camera supervision.
-Regardless of the internal merits of Virginia's honor system and its merits when compared with other models, though, an unfortunately large number of people do manage to get away with violations all the time. The question to ask ourselves, in these cases, is who benefits or is harmed by their cheating. At the risk of sounding like a cheesy after-school special or our old high school basketball coach Bob Rose (famous for other corny sayings like "There's no shortcut to a championship" and "Standing is not an option"), I really am convinced that the only person you hurt when you cheat on an assignment is yourself. When someone who has successfully cheated his or her way through school and I leave this place, I will have learned more than that person and be better qualified and equipped to succeed in the "real world" that awaits us after college. The value of my education, the things I have learned both inside the classroom and beyond the walls of the classroom, is in no way diminished because some of my peers cheated on their final exams.
-It occurs to me that one objection to that assertion involves the grades of the honest student, which might be lowered by others who inflate their grades through cheating. In most of my classes, where our grades come through the papers we write or essay tests, this isn't much of an issue, but in math or science courses which are graded on a curve, this could definitely be important. The question then involves the reasons I am here in the first place. If my goal in being at the University is to pull out a 4.0 or be first in my class, then the cheating of others blocks my path. If, however, the reason I'm here is because I want to receive a first-class education at a major institute of higher learning, then the secret behavior of my peers is of no concern to me. I may still find it incredibly unfair, and certainly want to continue enforcing the honor code when violations are brought to light, but my educational experience should not be impeded or discredited by cheating that occurs around me.
I realize that this is anything but a thoughtful, well-defended thesis, and it doesn't even really represent my most articulate diatribe on the subject this evening, but the pressure of final papers and exams has pretty well drained me, so I will leave my end of the discussion there. Andrew has already raised a pretty good objection to my thoughts earlier today in a conversation we had....hopefully he will post that here as a comment. And hopefully you too, %n, will join the discussion by posting your insights.
Awww, shucks, I suppose the clever old %n function won't work with your internet browser. It's a frighteningly neat tool on AIM, though, so I think it deserves some props here. In other news, I think I'm going to finally give in to everyone's complaints and change the interface around here. Let me know what you think of the new look as I continue to tweak it. Shalom!!
Monday, December 08, 2003
(If you ever read the widely circulated Hinton Herald, our church newsletter, you might remember that this is usually the title of my monthly column, updating the faith community on the goings on in the life of our youth group. It may be that my entire life could be titled such, but this entry is all about our youth group....the coolest, most fun group of folks I know in the entire world!)
Wow! I spent my weekend at the Virginia Conference Senior High Youth Retreat, again at Camp Eagle Eyrie in Lynchburg, and had simply the most amazing, life-affirming, Christ-centered experience with the 750 or so youth and leaders who braved the somewhat frightening weather to make it there. Our group was small (Jessica, Rose, Isaac, Lin, and me), but the weekend gave us the opportunity to grow closer together and allowed several of our youth, who have been wrestling with some really important issues at home and at school and all, to make the decision to hand those areas of need and pain over to God, hopefully for good. Of course, we had the camera with us, and we got some really awesome pictures (Isaac even made our old, beat-up church van look pretty good in a couple of them!), but the one regret was that we didn't get any great group pictures, like this one of Kyra, Jeb, Jeremy, Emma, Lee, and me from the Middle School Retreat last month. Well, actually this picture of our youth outside in the snow turned out great, but the only one with all of us in it is poorly lit and not so good. Hmmm.....I wonder what it means that all of the pictures without me in them are better.......I suppose it's better to just not think about that!
In any event, the entire weekend was a wonderful experience of mission and ministry for me and for the youth who were able to go from our church. Of course, the time we had together as a youth group, the family group time when our youth were split up and got to meet and converse with people from all around the state, and the worship times were invaluable in the ways they allowed us to encounter God openly and honestly. Oftentimes, I'm somewhat skeptical about the folks they choose as keynotes for these large conference retreats....I'm afraid that they tend (not always, of course, but more often than I would like) to be middle-class white men with what seems to me to be, intentionally or not, a fairly judgmental, thoroughgoingly charismatic and evangelical message. That sort of message is wholly different from the sort of Christianity that we try to put forward in youth ministry at Hinton Avenue, so the language is often inaccessible and uninteresting to our youth (and, for that matter, to me!). The keynote speaker this weekend, however, was Saleem Ghubril, who directs the Pittsburgh Project, and he was just amazing!! He was entirely honest with the group, telling them that the Bible was neither a science book full nor a rule book, but was rather a collection of stories which teach us how to live in the way that leads, mysteriously, to abundant life. He talked about the Spirit of the Lord descending on us in a way that I'm certain was new and refreshing to many of the youth at the conference, as well as their youth ministers.
Saleem shared one story of his own that I think captures, in some very important way, the entire essence of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All through the summer, and at various times during the school year, his Pittsburgh Project hosts work teams of youth and young adults from churches all around the country, who stay with them in the city, work on the homes of elderly and low-income families during the days, and spend their evenings learning about the social, political, racial, and moral dimensions of poverty, along the way exploring the many ways people of faith can respond to these crises. On each Wednesday night, the Project hosts a dinner, with the families whose homes they're working on as honored guests. They eat together, share stories about their work and about their faith, sing a lot of songs, and everyone goes home feeling loved and accepted. For one of these Wednesday evenings, the group was joined by a man named Mr. Jenkins. A deacon in a local Baptist church who is very proud of that title, Mr. Jenkins always goes by Deacon Jenkins. Since he knew that there would be lots of music later in the program, Deacon Jenkins told Saleem that he could sing beforehand and asked if he would accompany him on the guitar as he shared his version of "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands". Saleem told us that he, of course, was happy to play for Deacon Jenkins and put him up first during the music portion of the evening's festivities. Well, the first thing they learned that evening was that Deacon Jenkins, could, in fact not sing. Actually he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. So when he finally made his way through the first two verses, the group was, to say the least, relieved. This was by no means the end of Deacon Jenkins's performance, however, as he had his own version of the song to sing....which included three more, slightly surprising verses.
It should be noted here that, in front of these 9-12th graders from all around Virginia, Saleem has his guitar and is singing, in his best 90-year-old Deacon Jenkins voice, this song for all of us, playing right off of the audience's shock to the last few verses. Even repeating the final one and inviting us all to sing along. Ever since then, I've been having a strong desire to have our youth group do this song during our next Youth Sunday service. Since I love my job so much, I may not do that, but I will share it here with you in all its beauty and insight:
He's got the whole world in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands,
He's got the whoel world in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the little bitty baby in his hands, He's got the little bitty baby in his hands,
He's got the little bitty baby in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the drunken women in his hands, He's got the drunken women in his hands,
He's got the drunken women in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the short-skirted women in his hands, He's got the short-skirted women in his hands,
He's got the short-skirted women in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands!
He's got the pimps and the whores in his hands, He's got the pimps and the whores in his hands,
He's got the pimps and the whores in his hands, He's got the whole world in his hands!
And, most brilliantly, Saleem concluded the whole thing (as most of us are simply going crazy with laughter and excitement, while others are turning their heads in disbelief) by conceding that this was shocking to many of the folks there, and probably to most Christians, but telling us that "If he don't got the drunken women and the short-skirted women and the pimps and the whores in his hands, then he don't got the little bitty baby and he don't got you or me in his hands either." As we seek to follow him who spent most of his time not with the religious elite but instead with the despised tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners of his day, and especially as we present the traditions of our faith to a bright and critical new generation, it's simply imperative for us to remember that the real leg-work of ministry, as well as the very presence of God, is as ready to be found on the streets, in the bars, at the jails, and in those other shady parts of our world as it is in our churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.
There's so much more that I want and need to share, but papers and finals call me away at the moment. With hopefully more to come soon, I leave you with blessings . . .
Friday, December 05, 2003
One night a couple weeks ago, Andrew was up working while everyone else in the house was asleep (which, given our amazingly unhealthy sleep patterns, is actually quite an accomplishment!), and he printed out a copy of the lyrics to Bruce Springsteen's "Blood Brothers" for each of us and slid them under our doors. It was so great because it served as a small, simple reminder that, even when school and work and life in general just seem too stressful, we're actually a part of something much bigger than ourselves that's happening around us. I'm so blessed to live with Will, Brian, and Andrew, three of the most sincere, thoughtful guys I know. I know that each of them would do anything in the world for me. Heck, a lot of times they've already done really crazy things to help me out of tight spots.....giving me a ride across the state to lead a worship service after my car broke down, helping me cook dinner for the youth group when they've come over to our house for meetings, joining me on midnight expeditions for no apparent reason, and just always being there to listen and share in everything I've got going on.
Since we first discovered this song back at the end of the summer, it's resonated with us in a special way and become a sort of soundtrack to our lives together (not all that different from "Loves Me Like A River" and other songs before). The song's not perfect----it doesn't describe us to a tee like another might and it may not fully resolve in the way that many do----but maybe that's the whole point. As I continue to explore who I am and where this journey of life is taking me, it gives me great hope to know that I have a group of blood brothers right there with me:
We played King of the Mountain out on the end
The world came chargin' up the hill, and we were women and men
Now there's so much that time, time and memory fade away
Got our own roads to ride, and chances we gotta take
We stood side by side, each one fightin' for the other
We said until we died, we'd always be blood brothers
Now the hardness of this world slowly grinds your dreams away
Makin' a fool's joke out of the promises we make
And what once seemed black and white turns to so many shades of gray
We lose ourselves in work to do, work to do and bills to pay
And it's a ride, ride, ride, and there ain't much cover
With no one runnin' by your side, my blood brother
On through the houses of the dead, past those fallen in their tracks
Always movin' ahead and never lookin' back
Now I don't know how I feel, I don't know how I feel tonight
If I've fallen 'neath the wheel, if I've lost or I've gained sight
I don't even know why, I don't know why I made this call
Or if any of this matters anymore after all
But the stars are burnin' bright like some mystery uncovered
I'll keep movin' through the dark with you in my heart,
My blood brother
Monday, December 01, 2003
Days of Tranquility
After Thursday's Thanksgiving festivities, my weekend was consumed by UVA athletic and academic life. I managed to work hard enough (or at least convince myself at the time that I had worked hard enough) during the day on Friday to justify a 3-hour study break in the form of the men's basketball game against Virginia Tech. Andrew, April, Lisa and I went and got amazing seats, in the very first row right behind the Tech bench. This was great both because it gave us a great view of the game (an 80-65 win) and because it allowed us to try out our taunting abilities on the Hokie players and coaches! :-)
Then, on Saturday came the big game. Arriving two and a half hours early allowed us to greet the players when they came off the bus and walked down Engineer's Way (Kristen even got to touch Connor Hughes's hand...oooohhhh!!!) and then to get great seats for the game. As for the game itself, there's really no way I can describe how huge it was for our program. If you missed it, you missed what was definitely the best game of football the Cavs have played all year.....Schaub throwing for 354 yards, Lundy scoring four touchdowns, Curry taking the ACC lead in interceptions, the team scoring twice on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line, even a fake field goal that led to a touchdown!! Andrew got some pretty good pictures of the post-game celebration and all. I really didn't, but this says it all anyway!!
Frequent visitors to this site might be interested to know that HokiePundit and I spent much of the weekend together. He's a high school friend of Brian's and plays in the marching band at Tech, so he stayed at our house while in town for the game. And we had a great time....we hung out, played video games, had terrible experiences at the Ponderosa (errr, at least I did....), talked about sports and church and all sorts of things, all without any fighting. As always, we found that we have far more in common than we could ever disagree on. Brian likes to say that grace works in funny ways....maybe this is what he means.
Yesterday was Youth Sunday at church, so our youth group planned and led the entire 11am worship service. They did a wonderful job (of course!) and, unbelievably enough, I'm starting to enjoy the stress of making sure that everyone's present, in the right spot, and on the same page for these services, which we have each time a month has a fifth Sunday. Sometimes I help one or two youth prepare a sermon to deliver for these services, but this time I preached myself. Actually, what I wound up doing, both in the name of time and because it was somewhat appropriate for the beginning of Advent, was re-working a sermon that I had preached about a year ago. I didn't preach from a text yesterday, though, so printed here is simply the text of the original, which I delivered at First United Methodist Church in Charlottesville on December 22, 2002. In this form, it's not really appropriate to the season, as it is a Christmas sermon and we find ourselves now in the holy waiting that is Advent, and it's somewhat dated, as you'll see, but nonetheless it's what I've got. It's called 'Days of Tranquility'
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness---on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onwards and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. ---Isaiah 9:1-7
Grace and peace I bring you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ! It is a great privilege to be here this morning, to worship God with you, to wait alongside you for our Lord's coming, as we approach the celebration of God's presence in our lives at Christmas. I wonder, though, if we really feel all that much like we're waiting for something holy this week. In our world of ever-increasing convenience, I fear that it might be hard for us sometimes to grasp the beautiful simplicity of the season of Advent. It's difficult to focus on patient and hopeful expectation when we can usually obtain, one way or another, anything we want whenever it is that we want it. We are a people who are used to our internet connections constantly becoming faster and our food being prepared, and consumed, more rapidly all the time. We drive fast cars to any destination we desire, we can fly clear across the country in a matter of hours; there simply isn't much anymore that we have to wait long periods of time for. Many of us even become fidgety and impatient when we have to wait just a few minutes to check out at the grocery store or to have our dinner delivered directly to our doorstep! Efficiency on the job is everything for us within our occupations. If I can complete in a week a task that might take the next person two weeks, then I'm sure to impress the supervisor and advance quickly in my field of work.
The focus seems to always be on realizing our goals more quickly and then immediately moving on to new and more challenging projects. Now, obviously this hyperactive philosophy of life, which leads us to fill our schedules with as many activities as are humanly possible and to push ourselves as hard and as far as we can, isn't always the best thing for the quality of our work, and it certainly isn't very good for our psychological health. Incidentally, it's also this sort of philosophy which becomes a haunting sort of secular religion, teaching that really what Advent is all about is maximizing our Christmas present-shopping and attending lots of Christmas parties, leaving Jesus entirely out of the picture sometimes. But even though we can pretty easily identify, and perhaps even correct, these problems, if we really try, we must nonetheless confess that we frequently find ourselves ensnared by a dangerously fast-paced society, particularly at this time of year. The truth of the matter is that we don't do all that well in our efforts to handle the waiting that is the season of Advent.
That is, those of us here in Charlottesville don't do all that well. There are folks, however, who know all too well what it is to wait for good to come into their lives. The people of the African country of Sudan, for instance, know exactly what it means to wait collectively for God to act in miraculously ways in their lives. You see, they're currently in the nineteenth year of a bitter and bloody civil war which has simply devastated the entire nation. I don't know if we can even imagine what that would be like-----to have soldiers fighting, all around us, all the time, for two decades. As I'm sure you can imagine, this tragic system makes even the most basic health care nearly impossible for civilians in Sudan to obtain. So polio and measles and mumps and guinea worm disease and all sorts of other childhood illnesses that really aren't a part of our lives here in the United States or, for that matter, in the lives of people throughout most of the rest of the world, have a profound and dramatic effect on the lives of the people of Sudan.
So what international aid workers from the Carter Center in Atlanta and from other groups have done, in order to combat these problems which don't appear to be going away on their own any time soon, is they have worked with leaders from both sides of the conflict and gotten them to agree to what are known as Days of Tranquility. Basically, Days of Tranquility are scheduled 24-hour ceasefires called once a month, on which no fighting is to occur. On these days aid workers and missionaries are permitted to go in and vaccinate Sudanese children against the diseases which otherwise would surely have torn apart the lives of entire families and communities.
It's really a remarkable endeavor, and I think, a great ray of hope, both for the people of this war-torn country and for people around the world, who can learn valuable lessons from the diligent creativity and ingenuity of these aid workers, many of whom are people of unwavering faith, who have found truly inspiring ways to put that faith into action and to bring about real, modern-day miracles in the lives of the people God has called them to minister to.
Friends, I want to suggest to you this morning that we, here and now, can glean invaluable tools for ministry from the ideas of these aid workers and from the concept of Days of Tranquility. For when we, as a Church, enter into this season of expectation and anticipation, we, like the aid workers who've taken this initiative, should not merely huddle in corners, recite ancient prayers speaking of long-standing traditions, sing songs invoking God to come quickly, light candles to remind ourselves of what we're doing, and then wait passively for Christ to enter our lives. Now of course all those rituals of the faith are crucial to our experience of Advent, and I, in no way, want to trivialize them, but I am convinced that the waiting to which we are called is also an active and a transforming process. If we are to sincerely wait for, and expect, the coming of the One whom Isaiah prophesied would be the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, it is imperative that we do so, having our own hearts and minds turned in the direction of justice and peace.
You see, there are people all around us, in our communities, at our places of work, inside our schools, I imagine even here in your church, who are in desperate need of some Days of Tranquility in their lives even now, during this season of great joy.
I certainly don't have to tell you that Christmas is indeed such a time of great joy for followers of the Christian faith and, for that matter, for everyone who gets swept up in the season of charitable giving and rejoicing. You know this because special events occur in the life of your faith community during this time which allow you to worship and fellowship and serve with your sisters and brothers here in this place and far beyond these walls. The joy of the season's evident in the excited looks on the faces of children as they gleefully recite for Santa Clauses at malls everywhere their long wish lists of desired gifts. We see it in the enthusiasm with which carols are sung and cantatas put together. This joy is apparent even in the feel-good Christmas movies which seem to permeate our television screens and our living rooms during this time of year. This week is a time of exceeding joy. As well it ought to be-----this is, after all, the occasion on which we celebrate the birth of him who came to take away the sins of the entire world, to promise healing and wholeness for broken people. Joy is undoubtedly the appropriate response to the great gifts of God which are made manifest in the Christmas story.
But despite the joy which many people will experience this week, or perhaps because of it, this week will also be a time of deep sorrow and regret for many people. People for whom the promises we read about this morning in our text from Isaiah don't seem to have come true quite yet---promises to have the burdens removed from their lives. Promises to be given a glimpse of the light which casts out all doubt and all darkness. For people, maybe, who have lost loved ones in the last year and are facing their first Christmas alone, for people whose families can't be together during this holiday season, for people whose families will never be together during any holiday season----for the people in our world who are fervently longing for reconciliation and hope, the joy of Christmas may in fact be hard to find.
Thanks be to God, though, that those places of deepest pain, those most vulnerable spots in our lives, are precisely the places where the Christ-child enters in and dwells in our hearts. The message of Isaiah's prophetic declaration to us this morning, the message of the Christmas story, the message of the entire gospel of Jesus Christ, is that he comes into our world and into our lives in deeply mysterious ways, in order to grant us Days of Tranquility when we ourselves cannot handle the struggles of the world. He comes first as the Wonderful Counselor and the Mighty God to be both our guide and our guardian. He comes also as the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace, that we might know that peace which surpasses all understanding and which can come only through the revealed Word of God at work in our lives.
Today, as the media and our elected officials begin to sound the drumbeats of war once again here in our own nation, perhaps we're all in need of some days of tranquility right about now. Perhaps we, as people of faith, need to take some time to step back and reflect on what it means to witness to the love of Christ during these strange and disturbing times. And I think that maybe Isaiah's famous prophecy about the righteous reign of the coming king can help us in many important ways as we seek to do just that.
There are a number of really beautiful aspects of this passage of scripture which I treasure as gifts from God, but one particular moment in the narrative strikes me as peculiarly pertinent to our contemporary world. It comes at the very beginning of this chapter, when Isaiah, or God, or whoever you understand to be speaking through these words, sort of sets the scene of the whole scenario by referring to the way the coming king, who we generally understand to be the Messiah, will make glorious "the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations."
If you're really well-versed in the geography and history of the Middle East, you might be aware that Galilee, especially in Isaiah's day, was a place that was about as far removed, both geographically and spiritually, from God's presence in Jerusalem as one could ever imagine. Situated about 65 or 70 miles north of the holy city, Galilee was actually a place where deported criminals and outcasts were sent, and so it became known as a sort of breeding ground for sin and unseemliness. So I hope you can see that referring to this place as "Galilee of the nations" is a pretty radical step. It can be understood either as implicating the rest of the world in the sin of this one town, or, I think more aptly, as bringing together all the nations through the newness and the goodness of this one place, which had been forsaken by all but God. And it is in this renewed place that the heir of all creation first appears, beginning his ministry, calling his first disciples, changing the entire world in the best and most fundamental ways possible. The place of deepest darkness is the first to experience the Anointed One's light, which ultimately dispels all darkness. The irony of this upside-down situation probably isn't lost on any of us, and it certainly wasn't lost on Nathaniel, who exclaimed, upon hearing that the Messiah had been found, "Can anything good come from Nazareth", referring to the small town in Galilee from which Jesus did indeed come.
In this time of historic international division and strife, we stand in need of a Galilee of the nations for ourselves. Might Christmas not be the perfect time then for us, who put all our hopes and dreams in the Savior whose birth we remember and celebrate this wee, to begin actively searching for ways in which we can make right the sins of the past, cleanse and purify ourselves, and come together for the good of all the nations? If it is, then we might find, like Isaiah and like the early followers of Jesus, that in Galilee of the nations dwells the Lord of all creation, who enters our world in a humble manger, who invites us all to alter our self-seeking lives and unashamedly follow him, and who offers the promise of Days of Tranquility, lasting moments of respite and peace, for all God's people. Hallelujah and Amen.
Pilgrims on the Way
Snapshots of a Life
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