Sunday, December 04, 2016

Remembering Terry

When Beth asked me to say a few words this morning, I rested in the silence for a while remembering. When I went to jot some notes I headed the document “Remembering Terry.” But that seems to me to miss the mark. To remember is to put back together. It’s just wrong to think that I am remembering Terry. He was among the most put together human beings I’ve ever known. He does not need me to re-member him.
Instead, I only wish I could recall him – that is to say, just call him back. Just once more, say, “hey, Terry, did you bring your saw with you? Let’s play some,” or, “hey, Terry, you feel like putting together a grits soufflé, maybe?” or, maybe just, “hey, Terry, how about a Tom & Jerry?”
Reading the posts so many of you shared on Facebook following his death this week I was struck over and over again by a common thread: Terry could find something extraordinary in the most ordinary. He could create quirky, lovely party favors out of objects found buried beneath the house. He could make stunning photographs out of bacon grease. He could make a style all his own out of someone else’s castoffs. That he could make haunting music out of a homely hand tool should come as no surprise.
More than that, though, he could find beautiful chords in the cacophony of community life. When the vendors at the farmers market, the boss from a job you held 30 years ago, the crazy artists, the neighbor down the street, the parents of your young adult child’s friends, and those friends all write touching notes of appreciation about you, you know you’ve lived life well.
Someone wrote on Facebook this week that Terry lived a Christ-like life. I really wish I could see the look on his face in response to that. I’m sure he would have a wry smile and arched brow beneath an angled hat as he pondered the suggestion, and shrugged it off.
Terry was a gentle agnostic when it came to doctrinal questions of religion, but he got exactly right the most important parts of what I think of as faithful living. He knew how to do what he could with what he had right where he was to make others’ lives better. And he knew how to do it with love. Whatever space he occupied, he did so with warmth and generosity, and with a natural hospitality. He was at home almost anywhere he found himself, and he made others at home there, too.
I love that he and Beth lived, both in Athens and here in Atlanta, close to train lines. Terry had friends from both sides – all sides – of the tracks. He was never afraid to be himself, and when you live like that – unafraid – you are not afraid to make friends, connections, community everywhere you go.
I never saw him walk on water, but if being kind, warm, generous, and loving as you bring out the best in everyone around you is Christ-like, well … I don’t know about that. I do know that the religious language of salvation is way over-used, but at its root it simply means wholeness, well-being, and right-relationship. Terry lived that fully. My own faith tells me that the restless Spirit at the heart of creation is loving and eternal – good all the time and in the time beyond our experience and understanding of time. I trust that Terry rests in that gentle and everlasting love.
I do know a few things with utter certainty: I know that Terry loved my sister well, and could almost always make her laugh even if the laughter included an eye-roll at whatever crazy thing he was thinking up to do with whatever crazy thing he had dragged home. I know he loved Willamae beyond words, from her first sentence – “wanna beer” – to the last time you spoke there was deep love behind every syllable. And I know he made our family’s life richer, fuller, and brighter.
For more than 30 years, the Ensign clan has been so happy that Beth brought Terry into our circle. His kindness, generosity, creative spark, and great good humor have helped us hold together well through all of the kinds of ordinary joys and sorrows that families share: the births of a next generation and the deaths of an older one, the birthdays, marriages, and anniversaries, the Christmases and Fourths of Julys. All of the ordinary days that Terry could so often make extraordinary.
We will never stop recalling you, Terry, your laughter will echo in our memories the rest of our days and our broken hearts will hold you in love. The gospel of John begins with the beautiful poetic insistence that a “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.” We hold you in that light, today. Rest in the light, dear brother.

Friday, November 18, 2016


I'm blaming this on the election: I accidentally posted sermon texts on this blog. Sorry about that. We'll return to our regularly irregular blogging here real soon, and the sermons will be banished to the sermon blog.
Go back to your lives, citizens.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Harvest Time

Galatians 6:1-10
November 10, 2016
I certainly didn’t expect to be standing before you this morning struggling to find the words to express a faithful response to last week’s election. Truth be told, I expected to be in West Virginia this morning worshipping at the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church.
Ronceverte is in Greenbrier County, where about 70 percent of votes cast Tuesday went for Donald Trump and about 26 percent for Hillary Clinton, or about pretty much the opposite of vote totals in Arlington County. I suspect that the mood there is somewhat different from the mood here.
On the other hand, the pastor of that congregation, a fellow by the name of Stephen Baldwin, was running for state representative as a Democrat. I think he’s headed for a run-off, but it was a bit hard to figure that out from the West Virginia secretary of state web page.
Win or lose, Republican or Democrat, the Rev. Baldwin is and always will be a child of God. That is true, also, of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and of those who supported each of them. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
I take comfort in that fundamental conviction this week, and in the words we just read from Psalm 146, that remind us that our hope rests not on electoral triumphs or tragedies, but, rather, on the steadfast faithfulness of the God of love and justice.
That comfort has been crucial, because I would be lying if I did not say that the election result shocked me and has left me deeply troubled. Like many of you, I simply did not believe that we would elect as our president a man who openly bragged about his own misogyny, who gave voice to the nation’s worst instincts toward xenophobia, and who not only was actually endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, but did precious little to distance himself from alt right racists and white nationalists throughout his campaign.
It has been difficult to sleep this week. I close my eyes and my mind races with the words and images of fearful children. My dear friend LeAnne’s six-year-old son, a child of color, was in tears because he is afraid that President Trump will send him out of the country because he is of African descent. Social media is full of similar stories this week. On the way to school Wednesday morning, my own daughter said, “I’m glad I decided not to apply to Virginia Tech; I don’t think I’d feel safe down there.”
As Princeton Seminary professor Obery Hendricks posted, “When the election of a president wreaks fear in the hearts of children, our society is really in trouble.”
As I said, it’s been difficult to sleep this week. Despite that, my own first instinct as the results gradually became apparent early Wednesday morning was simply to wonder if it is, in fact, actually possible to take a four-year nap. Curling up in a ball beneath a blanket seemed like a pretty good idea, and, at the very least, quieter than a primal scream – which was my other impulse.
As I pondered all this last week in light of scripture, several things things occurred to me:
First, Sabbath rest is not only a good idea but is, also in fact, the law of God. Nevertheless, that same God calls forth more than passive acceptance of an unjust status quo. The four-year nap is not a faithful option.
Second, while the nap is not faithful, neither is simple springing into reactive motion. I feel the need to rest for a while, and, in particular, to rest with lament.
As a culture, white America is not good at lament. We could learn a lot from our African-American friends who gave us the songs of lament known as Negro spirituals. When asked “how’re you doing?” most of us, most of the time reflexively, say, “fine,” even when we are far from fine, even when, beneath our calm demeanor, we hurt. We’ve been taught from a young age to be fiercely independent, and confessing our pain draws us way too close to relying on others to support us through it.
In such a time as this, relying on others is not only emotionally important, it is also both theologically and politically essential. If what we desire – and what we feel is so deeply threatened in this moment – is a community in which all are welcome, all are free, all are safe, all have voice, and all have a place, then it is fundamentally necessary that, as Paul put it to the Galatians, “we enter into a generous common life.”
The cry of lamentation is a call for help, and thus an invitation to relationship both with God and with those who share our suffering and who walk with us through it. Lamentation is the cry for solidarity.
It can be an angry cry, and that can be good, and right, and appropriate. So my third observation is simply this: it is also OK to be angry. Real people will suffer real damage if President Trump follows through on promises he made as candidate Trump. Real people, including many of you whose marriages I have been privileged to perform, will lose legal protections if a newly configured Supreme Court overturns the prior Court’s opinions on marriage equality. Real people, including members of immigrant congregations in National Capital Presbytery, will live under threat of deportation. Real people, including my middle child, will lose health care insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Real people, including, well, all of us everywhere, will suffer the effects of climate change unabated and unaddressed. This litany could go on and on, and it is OK to be angry about that.
But, finally, rest, lamentation, and anger must lead us into faithful action, faithful agitation, faithful resistance whenever gospel values of compassion, hospitality, generosity, justice, peace, and love are under threat. Should we seek reconciliation across the political lines that divide us? Certainly. But true reconciliation must be based on truth telling, and the truth is, in this moment, my heart is drawn far more urgently into solidarity with those at risk than to reconciliation with those in power.
My friend, poet Rose Berger, put it this way last week for Sojourners:
Bottom of Form
First they came for the Muslims, and I said “I’m with them” even though I wasn’t a Muslim.
Then they came for the Immigrants, and I said “I’m with them,” even though I wasn’t an immigrant.
They came for the Black Lives Matter activists and the LGBTQ folks, and even though I was white and straight, I said “I’m with them.”
When they came for the hungry and for those who hunger for change and hunger for righteousness, I said “I’m with them.”
I’m with the thirsty and the thirsty earth gasping for rain. I’m with the stranger, the refugee, all those who scale walls for freedom.
I’m with the naked, those stripped of human dignity, those without decent work, without the cloth of human compassion.
I’m with the sick, the disabled, the addicted, and all those dependent on the kindness of strangers.
I’m with the prisoners, the journalists, the detained, the deported, and the deplorables.
When they came for those, I said, “I’m with them.”
I AM with them. I’m with us.
To “be with them” means, first and foremost, to find, create, and insist upon safe space – sanctuary, if you will – in which to gather, to share, to break bread together, to build and rebuild the common bonds of our common condition.
I know that it feels to many of us like a dark and difficult time, like a storm is gathering. That may well be, and storms can be dangerous. People can get hurt. That may well happen. But the storm also brings the rain. Maybe it will bring some good rain to wash us clean where we need to be cleansed, and to give nourishment for the seeds we sow.
It is time to bring in a harvest from the long work of planting and tending that we have done in this place for so many years. From our forebears’ work for equal housing to our own dedication to equal marriage, we have sown seeds of love for a harvest of justice. Let us take that harvest, as wheat from the earth, and create bread for a hungry world.

In this place, at this table, we break that bread. As we do, we welcome all – liberal and conservative, ignorant and educated, poor and rich, white and black and brown and every shade under the sun – to this common table in this safe space. For everyone born, there’s a place at this table, for no matter who holds the office of president, the God of justice and love still reigns. Amen.

In the Life to Come

Luke 20:20-29
November 6, 2016
On this particular Sunday morning at Clarendon so many threads come together. We have a bit of a liturgical tapestry available: we’ve commissioned a mission team, it is the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the Reformation and to All Saints day, we are celebrating communion, and it’s the Sunday prior to an important election. I hope for liturgical tapestry, but I fear liturgical trainwreck, to be honest!
Of course, there are lots of other things going on in our lives, as well. For example, it’s that time of year when those of us privileged enough to have benefits plans are updating enrollments. The on-line form I was following last week for the board of pensions prompted me to revisit the “secondary death beneficiaries” category that I had, apparently, not looked at since my initial enrollment back in the late 90s – or, as is significant to this story – prior to the birth of our youngest child.
Naturally last week, I added Hannah. But then I was faced with the math challenge of equally dividing 100 percent by three in a form that only accepts whole numbers. You can see the problem.
If Jesus were here I might go all Pharisee on him and ask, “in the resurrection which one of my kids gets the extra percent?”
In other news, the Chicago Cubs won a big baseball game last week. Perhaps you heard. In the midst of all the celebrating, fans and commentators were remembering great former Cubs who didn’t live long enough to see the team’s 108-year championship drought end. Never minding that some of those players had gone on to toil for other teams in their baseball careers. So, Jesus, in the heavenly hall of fame, what team cap are those guys wearing?
A couple of months ago, when Gene Wilder died, there was a meme floating around social media imagining the happiness in the hereafter when Gene was reunited with his late wife, Gilda Radnar. Never minding that Gene left behind a second wife with whom he shared a different long and happy marriage. When she dies … well, you can see the problem.
The Pharisees certainly could. They pose their question to Jesus in Luke based on adherence to the Mosaic law that required a younger brother to take his older brother’s widow as his wife upon the older brother’s death straight on down the line of brothers – seven in their hypothetical. Thus they ask, “Jesus, in the resurrection life, whose wife will she be?”
“So, Jesus, in the resurrection life, what attachments from this life pertain?”
Money? Marriage? Family? Accomplishment? Appearance? Affluence? Race? Ethnicity? Gender? Political party?
As he so often did, Jesus – and I imagine an eye-roll – basically says, “you really don’t get it, do you? You really don’t understand what I’ve been trying to tell you all along? You really don’t grasp that this is all about God, not all about you. This is about how God sees you – now and forever.”
Money, marriage, family, accomplishment, appearance, affluence, race, ethnicity, gender, politics – these things are not of eternal importance. These things do not define us in God’s eyes nor do they count for much in God’s time.
What, then, does matter for God’s time, for all time? Love. Love. Love.
It’s not that none of those other categories has any significance in our lives. Of course they do. But they only matter in the long run in relationship to love. That is to say, is your family – of origin or of choice – a site of love? Does your marriage hallow life? Do the various aspects of your life – race, gender, sexuality, age, economic status, vocation, and so on – those things that distinguish you from some and align you with others – do they draw you closer to the love of God or do they push you away from participating in such love?
So often – too often – our culture determines the worth of an individual based on these categories. Systemic racism is real. The glass ceiling – and the stained-glass ceiling – remain unjust realities. We look down on street people and look up to executives. God knows that our politics divide us from one another, and from love.
We look through these categories to determine who is worthy of respect, of honor, of love, of blessing. Jesus looked through a different lens, and he proclaimed that, in God’s eyes, we are all the same – equally worthy of respect, honor, love, and blessing.
In proclaiming the nearness of the kindom of God, Jesus invited his followers to look at one another through the lens of the divine, through the lens of a love too powerful to be limited even by death itself. He invites us, here and now, to do the same.
To the extent that we, with our limited vision, are able to look at the world through resurrection eyes, we can begin to discern some patterns, begin to see how the many and disparate threads of our lives are being woven into a tapestry.
As we gather at this table, where all are welcome, we proclaim that, in the divine mystery, we are even now drawn together with that great cloud of witnesses – loved ones we remembered this morning, and all the saints whose voices echo down through the ages and call us, again, to be about the work of reformation.
At this table, where all are welcome, we hear again the words of Jesus calling us to love one another as we are loved by God. As we eat this bread and drink this cup we feel ourselves renewed and strengthened to go to places such as West Virginia to help friends in need.
At this table, where all are welcome, we hear the ancient but ever-new invitation to people from east and west, north and south, rich and poor, young and old, female and male and still sorting it out, and in that invitation we hear also a charge to go into the world to ensure such welcome at every table – including the tables in the conference rooms from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. And, yes, I hope you discern in that charge implications for the choices we make in the voting booth this week.
For this life matters to God. In this life we are invited into resurrection life. In this community, we are invited to create the beloved community. At this table, we are invited to share in a foretaste of the great celebration of life at the table of the kindom of God. Taste and see.
Let us pray.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Prayers and Lamentations

It's morning in America. Literally. Not in any rosy metaphorical way, but just in the "lord, I hate mornings and there's just not enough coffee for this" kind of way. It’s raining where I am, and the dull grey seems appropriate to this morning after.
Donald Trump is going to be the next president of the United States of America.
Sometimes I have to write things down and read them before I believe them. This is one of those times. Even reading it doesn’t much help. Perhaps it’s the sleep deprivation from staying up past midnight as returns came in and hopes dwindled.
I much prefer losing sleep for baseball games. This, alas, is not a game and I fear the many people dear to me will suffer greatly under this man. As friends lose health insurance, lose marriage rights, lose reproductive freedoms, religious freedoms, are reminded that their lives don’t, in fact, matter to the majority of Americans and their bodies are not safe, I will lament.
I will recommit to the work of justice, but on this drizzly morning it feels too soon to make even that small statement. The work goes on, but this election has made it so much more difficult.
There is a time for every purpose under heaven, and this feels like a time to rest in lament. That is not the same as wallowing in despair, but, rather, a holy moment stepping outside of the rush of history to give voice to the tears that well up in prayers for the nation. In my lamentation, I pray.
I pray today that my daughter, who this morning said, “I’m glad I decided not to apply to Virginia Tech because I don’t think I would feel safe in that area,” some day lives in a country where feeling safe is not a privilege reserved for men.
I pray today that a friend, who this morning posted, “well, I guess now I won’t have health care insurance,” some day lives in a country where health care is a right and not a privilege reserved for the affluent.
I pray today that an African-American friend, who last night wondered, “will I be safe,” some day lives in a country where black lives matter as much as white ones.
I pray today that gay friends, who are wondering if their marriages will survive a new Supreme Court, some day live in a country that believes that love is love is love is love is love.
I pray today that friends who are federal employees (not to mention my wife who is one), and who today are fearful not only about their economic futures but also about their personal safety following a campaign in which they were casually vilified, some day live in a country that authentically values public service.
I pray for the planet whose climate we have so deeply damaged, for the lands far distant where war wages and peace, today, seems even further out of reach, and for refugees who, today, know that they are not welcome in the country from whose shore shines a lamp that once proclaimed, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Finally, I pray today that our long experiment in self-government does not come apart at the seams, even though the fabric of the nation is fraying in frightening ways.
In time, I trust, we will find hope for our hearts, strength for our hands, and ways to give feet to our prayers, but today it feels appropriate to sit in lamentation. Weep, beloved nation, and trust that though tears will linger for a while, there will again be a time of joy, of dancing, of building up, of love, and of peace.