Did Ye Get Healed



In 1987, the singer Van Morrison, best known for his song “Brown-Eyed Girl,” released an album called  Poetic Champions Compose which included a powerful song called, “Did Ye Get Healed.” You may be surprised to see that the title of this sermon does not come from the King James Bible, but from Van Morrison. According to critics, this song signaled the commitment of his music to a more spiritual direction.He sang:

I begin to realize

Magic in my life

See it manifest in oh, so many ways

Every day is gettin’ better and better

I want to be daily walking close

And what he found in his life, he wants to share with others.

I want to know did you get the feelin’

Did you get it down in your soul

I want to know did you get the feelin’

Oh did ye get healed

It is fitting that he signaled this with a song about healing. He sensed that the people who came to his concerts were in need of healing, and he wanted his music to be a place of spiritual healing for them.

The church is supposed to be many things, but above all it should be a place of spiritual healing. This should be a place where the world weary people can come, and find healing. We should be a place where we find healing for the on-going wounds of life.


Unclean Spirit

The first person Jesus encounters is someone with an unclean spirit. We don’t talk much about unclean spirits these days. Back in Jesus’ day they didn’t know much about mental health. They just knew that some people had problems. Today we would not say someone had an unclean spirit. We might say they  have a mental illness, or a personality disorder, or an addiction.  We understand a lot more about how the mind works today, and we don’t try to drive demons out of people who suffer from personality disorders or mental illnesses.

But we don’t need to throw out this passage just because we don’t treat these symptoms the same way Jesus did. As I was writing this, a group of people were hanging out on the stoop just outside my door. It was clear that most of the people there had some sort of mental health issues. Now I am not a doctor, or a therapist, so I could not do anything to take away their various issues. I cannot cure them. But does that mean I have no hand in their healing process? No.

We have to remember that healing does not always imply cure. A cure is when you no longer have the malady that is afflicting you. Yesterday I had a cold. Today I do not. I am cures of my cold. An article in the magazine Psychology Today says, “Curing means “eliminating all evidence of disease,” while healing means “becoming whole.” You can cure without healing, and you can heal without curing.”

Mark describes the man as having an “unclean spirit.” I said that we don’t use that terminology these days, but too often the same sentiment is there. We see people who are mentally ill, and we turn away. We are afraid of some of the mentally ill people. When, for example, we talk about gun violence as being a mental health issue, that just gives you more reason to be afraid of the mentally ill. Like it or not there is a stigma attached to mental illness. That is unfortunate because it means that some people who have treatable mental illnesses, like depression, or bipolar disorder, are afraid to seek help because they are ashamed of the stigma attached.

So how can the church have a healing presence with people? If we cannot cure them, as Jesus did, what can we do? We can be a place of healing, a place where we do not stigmatize, do not brand people as clean or unclean. We can treat them like we treat any other person. We don’t have to avoid them. And the fact is, the majority of mental illnesses are things that are more easily hidden, like depression, or unresolved guilt, or grief. I wonder how many people in our congregation suffer from depression. From my experience as a pastor, and as someone who once worked in a behavioral health ward, I can tell you it is probably a lot more than you think. We can be a healing place by accepting people, and providing support for them. We can do away with the shame that comes from mental illnesses, and understand that people who have mental illnesses do not have moral faults, and they don’t deserve their illness any more than a cancer patient deserves to have cancer.


Healing the Masses

The next incident involves Jesus, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then all sorts of people who were sick.

Jesus goes to Peter’s house, and there he finds Peter’s mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. So Jesus heals her. Next we see what happens when your reputation as a healer starts to get out. All sorts of people start showing up, with all sorts of complaints. And there is not telling who will show up.It can, in fact, get overwhelming. After Jesus healed all those people, word got out. And that is when he is able to travel throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message of God’s love. They knew he was serious because he was practicing what he preached.

The kingdom of God is among us, and we know it because of the people who are healed. That is true among churches today. People know when they have encountered something real. And they will show up for that!



Next Jesus encounters a leper. If there was anyone who was an outcast in his day, it would be lepers. When lepers encountered people they had to shout out, “I am a leper! Stay away!” Now the reason for this is not what you think. People were not necessarily afraid of catching the disease. Under the law, anyone with a skin disease was unclean. And if you touched them, you were unclean. That is why the man in the story says he wants to be clean, and not healed. According to the world, he was born with a disease that permanently made him an outcast. He did not choose to have leprosy. It chose him, and in so doing, it made him a pariah.

So the leper says, “If you chose, Jesus, you can make me clean.” There is a lot packed into that request. If you chose, you can make it so that I don’t have to shout at people to stay away from me when they see me. If you chose, you can make it so that people can touch me, can put their hands on my shoulder for encouragement, can give me a hug. If you chose, you can make it so that I am no longer an outcast, a pariah. You can make me human again.

I love the next sentence. “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” And then he said to the man, “I do choose,” and he made the man clean. The leprosy left him. The stigma was gone. No one else would give this man the time of day, but Jesus reached out and touched him.

While we have made great advances in understanding the disease called leprosy, unfortunately we still have people who are considered outcasts by society, or worse yet, by the church. Some churches demand you have a certain level of faith before you can join. Or that expect you to believe some pretty specific things before they accept you. More liberal churches see their conservative counterparts as outcasts, while conservative churches often see their more liberal counterparts as unacceptable. This morning we are going to have communion, and sometimes before Communion, I say, “This table is open to anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, which means that they realize it is Jesus who saves us, we don’t have to save ourselves, and since we are saved by Jesus, we might as try to do what he asks us to do.” For me those are the basic requirements, and we realize that people are in very different places on the spectrum of what that means. Some people here have been on that journey for a long time, and know pretty much what it means to believe in Jesus as a savior and to follow him. Others are beginners in that process, and are open to learning, while others thought they knew what that meant, but are going through some spiritual changes, and are challenging their old beliefs.

I have already spoken about the mentally ill, but some churches exclude people who are just different, eccentric.

I wonder who is excluded here? We do have a pretty big table here. I was talking with another pastor, and she said that churches often exclude people based on their economic status, but then quickly looked at me and said, “Not your church, of course.” I have to admit that made me proud. But I wonder who would not find a welcome here?


Healing Presence

That is an important question, because the church is supposed to be a healing presence in the world, just as Jesus was. This should be a place where people can come to find healing. There are various models for the church, and too often the model is the Church as a Business. I tend to think of the Church has a hospital. Of course I have heard one person say that the church is the only hospital that shoots its wounded. I pray to God that we never do that.

Probably most of you don’t think of yourselves as someone who is wounded, or who needs healing. But the fact is, we all suffer at least a little of what Hamlet called the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We all get bruised along the way. We all need a healing touch, a touch of grace, a touch of love.

Many, if not most of us need some kind of healing. Our nation needs healing, for we have some deep wounds within our national soul. Perhaps you heard this last week of the increase in anti-semitic incidents throughout the country. What brings people to that kind of hate? I read of a woman who ran over a 14 year old girl, because she was Mexican. What kind of disease brings that kind of hate? And how can it be healed?


Now here is the good news. It is Jesus who heals. We are not required to heal every hurt person who walks through our doors. But we are to provide a place for them to find healing. And while we are not the ones who heal, often we are agents of healing. When someone feels rejected, an outcast, and we accept them, that can be the beginning of what Jesus is doing in their lives to heal them.

When a church practices hate, they have no healing presence. When a church practices active discrimination, they are not a healing presence. When a church is more concerned about who it excludes, instead of who it includes, it is not a a healing presence.

But when a church stands against hate, against discrimination, against exclusion, and when it stands for love, for acceptance, and for inclusion, it becomes a healing place for others. It becomes a place where people can experience the healing presence of Jesus. Like the people at a Van Morrison concert, who sang, did ye get healed, we could ask that question of the people who come through our doors. Did ye get healed?

Posted in Church, Church Growth, Communion, Compassion, Growth, Healing, Jesus, ministry, Mission, Musings, Pastoral Ministry, Preaching, Relationships, Sermons, Social Justice, Social Ministry, spirituality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hope for the Holidays


George Latour, The Newborn Christ, c. 1645–1648


I wonder what Mary and Joseph saw when they look into the eyes of their newborn child. What did they see in the eyes of Jesus? On the one hand, they knew this was a special child, a child like no other, who had a destiny formed by God. Did they see the future shining in their baby’s eyes?

On the other hand, Jesus was just a baby. He wiggled and squirmed, and cried and cooed like a baby.

I remember looking into the eyes of my children when they were born. My daughter was first, and I saw many things in her eyes, but the major thing I saw in her eyes was hope. I thought, even just after her birth, what her future would be. Would she do well in school? Would she have boyfriends, some of whom might break her heart. Would she go on college, and would she marry and have children of her own. Would she be the first female major league baseball player? Ok, that one was a longshot, but hey, a father can hope!

I saw all that and more in her eyes.

I saw hope.

Tonight, we look into the eyes of the Newborn Jesus ourselves, for this child was not just born to Joseph and Mary; he was born to all people. We can all gather around the manger and look into the eyes of baby Jesus. We can see the hope in those eyes of his.

This is a time for hope. I could list all things that are wrong with the world, with our country, with our community, but I won’t. I want to talk about hope tonight. Because I think that exactly what the world needs tonight.


South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that hope is being able to see that there is light, despite the overwhelming darkness. Hope is what gets us through the hard times. Hope is the light we carry inside of us. It is a passion for what is possible. It is an expectation that things can change, and that the world can get better. A parent hopes that their children can have a better life than they had. Someone in pain hopes for a day when the pain will pass. The prisoner hopes to be free, the lame hope to walk, the poor hope for wealth. The oppressed hope for a world where justice reigns. Hope is the opposite of despair. When we despair, we feel powerless, but when we hope, we feel the power of faith within us.


Jürgen Moltmann wrote, in his book Theology of Hope, “without hope, faith falls to pieces. It is through faith that a person finds the path of true life, but it only hope that keep them on that path.”


The Bible tells us that Faith is the evidence of things hoped for, so I ask you, “What are your hopes for the coming year?”


May they be high hopes. But if we are to hope, we must hope actively. When we hope in something, we invest in it. I had hopes that my child would have a good education. I didn’t just sit around and just hope passively. I bought her books, and read to her every night. I encouraged her to ask questions, and tried to answer them when she did. I was an active parent in her school. I actively followed through on my hopes with action. I was actively hoping.



Are you hoping the world can be a more beautiful place? Then actively hope for that, by singing, or painting, or writing or whatever you can do to create beauty. And if you are not the type who can create beauty, do what you can to support the people who are able to bring beauty into the world.


Are you hoping for the world to be a more joyful place? Then spread joy. Smile at the person at the DMV that just told you it will be a two hour wait, because I bet yours will be the first smile, and perhaps the only smile they see that day. Do the things that bring you joy, and invite others to do them with you.


Are you hoping for a more peaceful world? Then actively hope for that by doing your part to bring peace to this troubled world. Find someone who holds a totally different opinion on religion, or politics, or social issues, or music, or on whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and get to know them—not to convert them, but to understand them. Leave the comfort of your familiar surroundings and reach out to create a bridge of peace with someone.


Are you hoping for a more loving world? Then actively hope for that by loving your neighbor, and by loving God. Volunteer at a school, and get to know some kids. Find someone who has no family, and invite them into your family. Volunteer at a Food Bank, an emergency shelter, a soup kitchen. Be a foster parent, or a big Brother or Big Sister. Give to hospital that treats children, or to a non-profit that feeds children overseas.


Do you hope for a world with healthier, more joyful relationships? In the world where too many people spend too much time with their eyes on their phone, where 1000 of our closest friends are found on facebook, where we have lost a sense of community, actively hope for a less isolated society by joining a group of people doing something you like to do. Gather together with friends more often, and increase the circle of your friendships by inviting more people into your life.


Instead of just worrying about things, we need to actively hope. Are you worried about our environment? Then actively hope for a better world, but cutting back on the plastics you use, reduce your carbon footprint. Drive less and walk more.


Are you worried about our political system? Then get involved. Get to know your local elected officials, attend city council or county commission meetings. Write letters. This is an election season. Volunteer your time for a candidate, or maybe run yourself. But do these things with love and with joy, and embrace your opponents.


I have to warn you though. The more you hope, the less you will be satisfied with the world as it is. When you have a passion for the possible, you lose the ease of accepting things as they are.  But when you lose that, you gain an active hope in the future well being of the world. As the angels sang, Peace on Earth, Good will to all. You can only believe in their song, if you maintain an active hope.


As long as hope is alive, humanity will do well. And hope, real hope, is found in the eyes of a baby boy, born in a manger in Bethlehem, to two parents who had no roof over their heads for the night. In the deep dark night of despair, hope came into the world. It is found in the words of the boy who became a man, and who spoke the Word of God for all. It is found in the love he had for all people, in the joy he experienced by serving, in the pain of his death, but in the glory of his resurrection.


Come Kneel before the radiant boy,

Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.


It’s not too much to hope.


Posted in Christmas, Christmas Eve, Hope, Jesus, ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

sh mp

The idea of an author leaving their publisher because, “he had sold too many copies of her books,” is about as believable as an alcoholic leaving his bartender because she didn’t water his drinks down enough. But that is exactly what Susan Howatch did. That alone makes her worthy of a second look, but for me the reasons why I have read and reread her books cuts much deeper. She is the first novelist I have read who portrays clergy in a way I could appreciate, and in most cases, relate to. Too often clergy are portrayed as odious hypocrites (Elmer Gantry, Obidiah Slope) or as saccharine sweet, like Father Tim Allen in the Mitford series, which I tried to read, but finally had to put down, thinking, “No one is that good.” (Maybe that says more about me than about the books.)

But Howatch gave me a parade of clergy that I could relate to, men (and unfortunately all of her clergy characters are male) who love God and believe they are called to serve their Creator, but who wrestle with what it means to be an authentic servant of God. Her ministers are deeply flawed in many ways, but at the same time they are devoted to God, and working with God to overcome their failings. They are heroic in some ways, but all of them have feet of clay. And they are unlike in their devotion to God. Some are church bureaucrats. Some are mystics. Some are charismatic personalities. Some are Anglo-Catholic, others are Liberal modernists, and some are conservative. Monks are scattered in with bishops, archdeacons, deans and healers.

She wrote two series of books concerning the English clergy. The first, the Starbridge  series, centers around the goings on around the Starbridge Cathedral, based loosely on the cathedral at Salisbury. Each novel centers on a specific time and issue, theological and/or social, facing the Church of England. The first, Glittering Images, is set in 1937, and deals with the issue of divorce. Glamorous Powers is set during World War II, and centers around the mysticism of an ex-monk.  Ultimate Prizes follows a Liberal archdeacon, who is at odds with Anglo-Catholicism and Neo-Orthodoxy, as represented by Karl Barth.  Scandalous  Risks is the only one of the Starbridge series narrated by a woman, who is not of the clergy, and portrays the church in 1963  just after Bishop Robinson’s Honest to God came out. Mystical Paths follows the son of one of the main characters in 1968 as he tries to solve a mystery, and shows some of the worse sides of Christian mysticism, and of the idealism of the early 60s.  The final book in this series, Absolute Truths, as the Bishop of Starbridge tries to cope with the death of his wife. It portrays a church caught between the need to adapt to its time, but also which needs to hold on the the absolute truths of her tradition. Each of the books is loosely anchored around actual theologians and clergy in the Church of England.

Her attention to detail is fascinating, from the way she portrays accurately the misunderstanding of Karl Barth’s crisis theology in 1940s England, to her knowledge of monk’s underwear. She takes the writings of the various theologians who influence each particular book, and places it in hurly-burly of real life in the Church. No one theology is adequate to address the actual needs of the characters who espouse them, and one of the underlying messages is that the Church needs a variety of approaches to faith. But more important to the stories are the development of her characters, who all have to deal, in some way, with their flaws.  In the end most find ways to integrate the various parts of their personalities and their calling, into a healthy whole. I found their struggles encouraging for me, because most ministers have some sort of split between their public persona as clergy, and their private lives, some elements of which are not for public consumption. By fusing Jungian psychology and traditional Christianity, she shows how an ancient faith can adopt new language to help deal with modern issues of personality.

The second series, the St. Benet’s trilogy, still maintains many of the themes in the Starbridge series, but takes place in London, and many of the central characters are not clergy. Many of the Starbridge characters make appearances, but many new characters are added, including a frumpy cook, a high flying lawyer, and a male prostitute. The trilogy takes place in 1980s and 1990s and is less theological, and more psychological.

All of these novels are about redemption. Almost all the characters find salvation, but not the simplistic way of “accepting Jesus as their personal savior.” They find wholeness and healing.  Yes, many of the characters in her novels engage in bad behavior, but Howatch in more concerned with the whys rather than the whats of their sins. The people in her books are just forgiven. They are redeemed.  They find new life, and the freedom of not being bound by the things that caused their sins.

I have only two criticisms of her books. Sometimes the dialog comes off as very contrived, but that might be because I am not English, and many of her characters are stereotypical English. The other is the absence of female clergy. In the St. Benet’s trilogy we do see a wider variety of female characters. In the earlier novels many of the women are fairly helpless in the face of male dominance, but in the later novels they place a more central role.

I once spent a summer reading through Trollope’s Barchester novels. It was time well spent, but it was shame I had to go back to the 19th century to find literary clergy who I could identify with. Howatch gives me an updated version, people who are closer to my time, and to my issues as I wrestle with what it means to be a minister and a man of God.


Bibliography (taken from Wikipedia)

Starbridge series

  • Glittering Images is narrated by the Reverend Dr. Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge academic who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recover, and to realize the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.
  • Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow himself as he leaves the Fordite Order at age sixty following a powerful vision. He then must deal with the problems of his adult children, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings”.
  • Ultimate Prizes takes place during World War II. It is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a lower-middle-class background in the north of England. After being widowed and marrying again, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.
  • Scandalous Risks follows Aysgarth to a Canonry of Westminster Abbey and back to Starbridge, where he becomes Dean of the Cathedral and Ashworth becomes Bishop. It is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend. The relationships, and Aysgarth’s family, closely echo the relationship of H. H. Asquith and Venetia Stanley.
  • Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of Dean Aysgarth.
  • Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much older but still troubled Charles Ashworth, thirty one years after we originally encountered him in the first of the books.


St. Benet’s trilogy

  • A Question of Integrity (given the title The Wonder Worker in the United States), picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow twenty years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London, where he runs a centre for the ministry of healing. His own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after he meets Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result.
  • The High Flyer narrates the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who “has it all”. Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur, which reveal that things are not what they seem.
  • Finally, The Heartbreaker follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic prostitute specializing in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Graham and Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.
Posted in Church, Novels, Religious Literature, Susan Howatch, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The One About Faith and Flags

flag and church

My current church does not have an American flag in the sanctuary. It is the first church I served that does not have one.

I like that.

I have a firm and abiding conviction that the Church, every church, is an outpost of the Kingdom of God. Our first priority is to that Kingdom, and we are servants of that realm. Whatever country we happen to live in is an more often than not, an accident of birth, and while we should honor our countries, our love is for the Kingdom. So, the flags of a particular nation do not belong in the space where we worship the God who is above all nations. I did visit one church that had the flags of many nations in their worship space, and that seemed appropriate. But to display one flag, the flag of one’s own nation, confuses the issue, especially since the spirit of patriotism can run deep in many people.

It is already too easy to believe that God just confirms our own likes and dislikes, and just because I like my country, which I do, does not automatically mean that God holds us in a special place.

Over the years I have many colleagues and parishioners who agree and disagree with me on this. I know of at one person who left a congregation because the minister refused to have an American flag in the sanctuary. (Ironically he ended up in a congregation where there is no flag, and from what I have heard, he seems to be OK with their lack of patriotic reverence.)

The sad fact is, when most people say “God and Country,” they have often reversed the order of the two.

On the other hand, I don’t think it is a big deal. One of my colleagues alienated a family because he refused to allow a flag over the coffin of the father, who was retired military. “That’s just a line I cannot cross,” he said, and I thought to myself, “You have at least one too many lines.” What kind of pastoral statement was he making in his refusal, other than being obstinate? While I believe the appearance of our sanctuaries do affect how we worship in them, I also believe that is not where we should place our focus.

So, I did vote once to put a flag in the sanctuary of a church I served. We were building a new sanctuary. The old one had no flag, and an elder in the church wanted to donate a flag for the new worship space (along with a Christian flag). Although I have a vote when I meet with my elders, I normally don’t exercise that privilege. But this time I had to. The vote on the donated flag was a tie. Everyone looked at me to cast the deciding vote. I voted to accept the gift.

Why, if I were opposed to flag in our house of worship? It just was not a hill big enough to die on.

Every day I walk into my office I am faced with a wide variety of issues, most concerning either the state of our 80-year old sanctuary, or our complicated finances. Some are important in terms of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Most are not. They may be important in the administration of the organization we call our church, but they are not matters of faith and practice.

As to those, what gets decided is not as important as how they get decided.

If having a flag, or not having a flag becomes a central issue for worship, then we are focusing on the wrong things. I can preach just as well in front of a flag as I can without one. I can pray just as devoutly standing in front of a flag as I can with no flag in sight. If the flag affects how I do those things, then I am focusing on all the wrong things.

Question: How can we best make sure we are focusing on the right things when it comes to our worship space?

Posted in Global Christianity, Pastoral Ministry, Patriotism, religion and politics, Worship | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Praying the Psalms in Detention

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 3.27.09 PM

Every morning, when I do my morning devotions, I read from the Psalms.  About every two months I work my way through all the Psalms at least once.

Psalms are prayers, so when I say I read through, I am actually trying to pray my way through them.  I say I am trying because many of the Psalms have little or nothing to do with my own situation. I have a hard time relating to many of them, especially the Psalms that pertain to God destroying our enemies. Like most people, I don’t have a lot of enemies, and the few I do have, don’t need to be struck down. Or the Psalms where the psalmist cries out it deep despair. I have better and worse days, but nothing like what I see in some of the Psalms.

But one morning I did something different. Instead of praying the Psalms for myself, I wondered, “Who could pray this Psalm? If these words are not relevant for me, who could relate to them?” The answer came quicker than the question–migrants in detention centers.

I imaged I was a typical person in a one of the centers.

I have fled my native country because I had no other option. I am a widow, my husband killed by paramilitary police. Gangs are running my city, and if I stay, I will be raped, and/or murdered. The gangs have threatened my children. My oldest is 12, and the gangs want to make him an involuntary recruit for their brutal activities. There are few jobs in my village, and I have no hope of keeping my family fed. It is a hard decision to make, but I decided to make the long trek to the United States, to apply for asylum.

Now I am sitting in a holding cell, along with more than 80 other women, a cell that was designed for only 41 people. There is a shortage of drinking water. I have to sleep with a thin rescue blanket on a cold, hard floor. The food is spares, bologna sandwiches three times a day. They are making me sick. The guards taunt me and the others in my cell. Worst of all, they have taken my children from me. I have not had a shower in weeks.

I have no idea how long I will be held here–perhaps another three days, another three weeks, another three months, or maybe another three years. I am surrounded by the sounds of other women crying for their children, by the stink of unwashed bodies, and by the despair of our situation.

I prayed with this woman, as I read through, as I prayed through Psalm 10. Maybe she did not have the words to pray, and as I thought about her, I know that I did not, but the Psalm did.

As I prayed the words of Psalm 10, they suddenly made sense. It was a prayer I could resonate with now.

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I prayed them as if I were that woman locked up, as if I were the one feeling the absence of God. As if I were locked in, and God was locked out.

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor–

I knew who the Psalmist was referring to when he talked about the wicked—those who have put me in this dreadful circumstance. Maybe they are not my enemies, as I pray this from the safety of my bedroom, but they were for the person I was praying with. And now this is her prayer, not mine.

And as much as I wanted to love her enemies, because, you now…Jesus, the next words flowed easily from my lips.

    …let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

Why would we cage people like this? If we are going to detain would-be asylum seekers, why would we not do so in a humane way? The simple answer is that we have other priorities for our resources. We cannot afford to treat humanely because the desires of our hearts go in a different direction. We are not concerned for her well-being. The desires of our hearts have nothing to do with human dignity, for the “least of these.”

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,

    those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

But there is a deeper issue. How could one human treat another human being like this? How could they laugh and mock at detainees? How could people get on TV and act as if they were proud of what we are doing? How could they see the degradation of people on their TVs, feel a small tinge of pity, and then go eat a full dinner? How can we as a nation do this, and not feel the slightest sense of guilt?

4 The wicked are so proud that they care not for God; *

    their only thought is, “God does not matter.”

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken; *

    no harm shall happen to me ever.”

11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,

    he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

As I am praying this, I see myself in the cage with this unidentified woman, I see the world from her perspective, and the words of the psalm continue to form the prayer I am praying with her. I see the world from her point of view, and the psalm leads me to some really uncomfortable places–uncomfortable for me at least, but if were really the woman in the cage, these words might flow easily from my lips. She may be praying about the gangs in her homeland, or the people who have locked her up, and taken her children away.

7 Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression; *

    under their tongue are mischief and wrong.

 8 They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent; *

    they spy out the helpless.

 9 They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert;

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly;

    they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

10 The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

    the helpless fall before their power.

Who could blame her for such a prayer? Who could blame her for looking at the people who put her there, and taking these words of the psalm to heart? She is helpless, and she came pleading for help, pleading for an escape from the hell she has endured, and instead of finding help from the hands of the most powerful nation on earth, they have thrust her into a new hell.

But the prayer does not end with her in despair. She, and I, continues to look to God as our savior.

12 Rise up, O LORD;

lift up your hand, O God; *

    do not forget the afflicted.

 13 Why should the wicked revile God? *

    why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?

14 Surely, you behold trouble and misery; *

    you see it and take it into your own hand.

I have never had to pray these words for myself. Any afflictions I have suffered were small, and manageable. I have never been in the kind of trouble that I could not get my own self out of. In other words, I have never felt the blunt oppression she feels. But when I pray this with and for her, the words have new meaning for me.

There is a sense that in prayer, we are supposed to get out of our own heads, and somehow enter the heart of God. I have religiously prayed the Psalms, but this is the first time I have ever prayed them for another person like this. There have been Psalms that touched me personally, at times when I did have troubles, or at times when I felt remarkable close to God, but this was different. I have probably prayed this Psalm more than 50 times, but never as I prayed it that morning. I realize now that I am not praying these just for myself, but others as well. As I continue to pray through the Psalms, a new cast of characters will join me. I am no longer praying just for myself. I am now praying for the world. Psalms that I used to utter mindlessly will take on a new meaning for me, and I hope and pray, through God’s Spirit, that these prayers will bring me closer to God, and to all of God’s children.

And it makes real convictions that are in my heart, but only in theory. So now I pray the final words of the Psalm with new hope, because I know more about who I am praying with now.

17 The LORD is King for ever and ever; *

    the ungodly shall perish from his land.

 18 The LORD will hear the desire of the humble; *

    you will strengthen their heart and your ears shall hear;

 19      To give justice to the orphan and oppressed, *

    so that mere mortals may strike terror no more.


Posted in Compassion, Current Events, Devotional, Evil, Immigration, Lament, Mission, Old Testament, Prayer, Psalms, religion and politics, Social Justice, Social Ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Persistence of Memory



Memory and the Magic of Music

A few years ago I was relaxing on the Saturday night before Easter. The sermon had been written and rehearsed, the service was all set to go, and I could just sit back for the evening and take it easy. I had the public radio station on, and as I was sitting there, I heard the familiar strains of the overture to Jesus Christ Superstar. I had not heard that in years, decades. But suddenly I was transported back the early 1970s, when Superstar was all the rage, and to my high school youth groups, and especially to a church camp I attended, where we used the soundtrack as background for a skit we did for the final night. I found myself singing along, remembering every word of the whole rock opera.

Have you ever had that experience? Where you hear a song, and it brings you back top another time?  Its funny how music can do that. Since I listen to a lot of music, that happens a lot to me. A song will evoke strong memories of high school or college, of people, of places, of things I was thinking and feeling at the time. I hear Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, and I am back in 11th grade, trying to figure things out. I hear Steely Dan’s Countdown to Ecstasy, and I am in an old Ford Fairlane with Jimmy Fredrickson and Charlie Elberson, running around town. I hear Grooving by the Young Rascals, and I am back in the summer of fourth grade, lying by Bolton pool on a hot summer afternoon. I hear Amy Grant’s version of O Little Town of Bethlehem, and I am back in Germany, cooking the kitchen of our dorm, talking about Christmas traditions in America and Germany with friends.

Music evokes many memories, almost all of them very good memories.

Sometimes, when I feel down, I’ll put on some music from a particularly happy period in my life, and more often than not, I feel better.

The Psalms and Memories

In the Psalm we heard today, the Psalmist is doing the same thing. He feels down.

1I cry aloud to God,

aloud to God, that he may hear me.

2In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord;

in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying;

my soul refuses to be comforted.

Like the author of last week’s psalm, this guy has the blues. He is downcast, and tired. He has troubles.

But we are not going to focus on his troubles this week. We are not going to focus on how badly his life is messed up. We are not going to focus on what has him down and why. We are going to look at what he does to deal with his difficulties. What does he do?

Memory. He remembers.

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD;

I will remember your wonders of old.

12I will meditate on all your work,

and muse on your mighty deeds.

He knows that he is down and out, but that God is a great God. He may feel that he is cornered by adversity, but he knows that God always roams free. He may feel that he is powerless, but he knows that God is powerful.

The more he looks at the world around him, the more depressed he gets. The more he looks at God, the more hope he has. When he looks around, or when he looks the future, he feels afraid, but when he looks to the past, to what God has done, he feels confident.

14You are the God who works wonders;

you have displayed your might among the peoples.

15With your strong arm you redeemed your people,

The Psalmist remembers how God called Abraham, how God led the children of Israel out of bondage, out of the slavery in Egypt. He remembers the times when God acted in a powerful and decisive way, and when he remembers that, he knows that God can act again.

Remember the Story

There are other Psalms like this, and many of them, after recounting their woes, immediately recount the mighty acts of God. In fact, that is why we have most of the books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy are all mostly stories–stories about God and how God interacts with the Hebrews. If the legal parts, what you have to do to maintain favor with God, were all that were important, then why have the other stuff? Why the stories of Abraham, or Moses? Why the stories of Samuel, Elijah and Elisha? Why the stories of David, Saul, Solomon, and the other kings of Judah and Israel? We don’t need those, do we?

Of course we do. Think back on how these stories have been important to people over the years. African-Americans, ripped from their homelands, enslaved, often in brutal conditions, read the stories of the Hebrew children enslaved by the Pharaohs, and they know they are not alone. They read of Moses liberating the people, and they have hope. When Martin Luther was seeing what his platform for reform was doing to the church, setting Christian against Christian, he read the story of Abraham, who answered God’s call, even in adversity and he was comforted by God’s continual faithfulness to Abraham. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was standing up almost alone against Hitler in Germany, he was able to take comfort in the story of Elijah, who thought he was standing alone as a prophet of God, but who learned that there were multitudes who stood for truth and justice, and he was not alone.

When churches go through hard times, when they feel they are out in a desert, wandering around, not making any progress, they can remember the children of God in the Sinai, who were also wandering, who were also a bit lost, who were not where they wanted to be. And they can take comfort that God was with the Hebrews in the desert, and they can know that God is with them as the wander in the desert of the modern world.

When people today feel the brunt of oppression, they too can read the story of Moses, and they can hope that God will hear their cries, and will deliver them from the brunt of poverty, from homelessness, from depression, from illnesses, from grief, from loneliness, from overwhelming doubt.

The Psalmist knew that we all go through through hard times, and wisely called the people to reflect on God’s gracious acts in the past, as they struggle with the adversity of the present. They encourage to look at what God has done, so we can hope in what God will do.

Communion and Memory

It is too bad that this text comes this Sunday in the lectionary and not next week, because next week is communion. Every month when we gather around the table, we do this, we repeat the words of Jesus, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Again, we are called to remember. Again, we are encouraged to think back as we look ahead. Again, we are called to consider what God has done, as we look ahead to what we hope God will do. But this calls us to look specifically at Jesus, and more specifically at Jesus sitting with the disciples the night he was arrested, the night before he was crucified.

Remember. Remember that Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, the Word of God, Jesus, the full revelation of God in human flesh, the King of Kings, the prince of peace, this Jesus suffered too. Jesus suffers with us. Early in his life, Jesus was a refugee, having to move to Egypt because of political repression under Herod in Bethlehem. By the time Jesus was in his thirties, he lost his father. He was an itinerant preacher, who, as he said, had no real place to lay his head. His closest followers were constantly misunderstanding his mission and message. On a couple of occasions, his preaching caused him to lose followers, and few times, his listeners tried to kill him. He lost a good friend, Lazarus, and wept at his death. (OK, he also raised him from the dead, but he still shed tears before hand.) Finally his most trusted adviser betrayed him, and all of his followers deserted him. He was brutally whipped, and then executed with the most brutal form of execution known to human beings.


And remember that God raised Jesus from the dead. Remember that God did not leave him in the tomb. Remember that the third day God glorified Jesus, he vindicated his death, not by punishing the people who had him killed, but by raising him from the dead, and then offering that new life to all his followers. Remember that he was left for died, is risen to new life. Remember that  while he was alive, Jesus taught us a new way of being, a new way of living, a way based on love and service, based on a radical connection that we all have with our fellow human beings, a new way based on God’s never ending love for us.

In My Life

And remember what God has done in your life. The works of God did not end when the last words of the Bible were written–they continue today.  God is at work in this church. I think of changed lives, I think of countless little acts of grace, I think of worship, and how God connects with us through the Holy Spirit, and how that connects us to God. I think of the baptisms that have occurred here, those I did, and those that happened before I got here, where we formally recognize that someone is a child of God. I think of communion, where we gather around a table, a common table, eat from a common loaf, drink from a common cup, in recognition that we are all bound together in love by God.

I think of the mission of the church, this church, how we reach out to a wide variety of people, from the homeless to receive food, and acceptance here, to the visitors who happen to wander in here on any given Sunday morning, to Jazz lovers, who appear here on Sunday evenings, to each and every one of you have who made this your church home.

And remember what God has done in your lives, how God has changed you over the years, how God has touched you, how God has intervened in your lives. God is not a distant being who dwells in a galaxy far, far away. God, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, dwells with us here. God is here with us, in the building, at this time. God is with you as you drive home today. God is in your homes. God is in your hearts.

I was at Presbytery this weekend in Ashland. I saw a lot of people I have not seen in a while, and of course when you see someone like that, you ask, “How’s it going?” I had a hard time answering that. If I had been truthful, I would have said, “It’s actually been kind of hard. It started when our dishwasher leaked all over our kitchen floor, and now we are in an unplanned remodeling project. Then I ended up in the hospital for a couple of days, under observation. The day I got out, one of our cars had to go the shop with transmission problems. After we took care that, I sat down to write a sermon, and my computer died. Dead. Totally. I got a new computer, but the hard drive was smaller, so they could not put all music on it. I have a very significant music library on my computer, one that I have been working on for twenty years, and while I was connecting my external hard drive to the computer so I could play music, I accidentally deleted it. All of it.

At one point I was feeling sorry for myself, when my wife intervened. “Look at what you have! Yes, you were in the hospital, but it turned out to be not as serious as it could have been, and you were released with a clean bill of health. The car is under warranty. Insurance is covering part of the kitchen remodel. And you can afford a new computer. Do you think God has abandoned you?”

She was right. As it turned out, the computer people were able to recover all my music. God has blessed me in so many ways. I have the natural ability to do the work I love doing, and God led me here, a town I love, and a church I love. God led me to a wife I love, and who loves me. I look back on my life, and I realize just how blessed I am. A song rises in my heart. Several songs.

Joyful, Joyful, we adore, God of Glory, Lord of love.

Hearts unfold like flowers before thee

Opening to the sun above

Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;

Drive the dark of doubt away.

Giver of immortal gladness,

Fill us with the light of day!




Posted in Communion, Community, Hope, Joy, Lament, Psalms, Relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Shall Know the Blues–and the Blues Will Set You Free



The Delta Blues

If you leave Memphis, Tennessee and drive south, you run right into the Mississippi delta. The Delta takes in parts of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana that lie between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. This area contains the richest soil in the country, yet is home to some of the poorest people. Before the civil war, there were five slaves to every free man in the region. Starting in the early 1800s cotton was king there, and slaves were imported to pick it. Unfortunately the agricultural methods they used depleted the richness of the soil, and eventually the rolling hills and swamps of the delta gave way to flat, harsh soil. After the war, it was home to sharecroppers, and remained so through much of the 20th century. This was one of the last areas in the country to get electricity, or indoor plumbing.

It is also, as best as anyone can figure out, home to one of the unique forms of American music–the blues.

The blues are clearly rooted in African music, but no one has quite figured out quite how. Musicologists have done a lot of work trying to make the connection, but all they can find are traces.

One of the major differences between the blues and traditional African music is the nature of words, and the role of the singer. In African music, the songs connect the people to their past. Most of the music centers around the griot, the village bard, who is the keeper of the history. Often the griot is more respected in his village or tribe than the elders and leaders of the tribe. It was his job to be the keeper of the flame for the stories that nurtured the village, and they played a role that was closer to that of a Celtic bard, or of Homer and the Iliad and the Odyssey, than to blues singers of the Mississippi Delta. African music was the music of kings, and tribal leaders, of the many success in the history of the tribe. The blues is the music of slaves, prison work gangs, and share croppers, who live in some of the poorest regions of the country.

When Robert Johnson sings about walking to the station, with her suitcase in his hands, you know things are not going to turn out well. Indeed as the title of the says, it is Love in Vain. When Son House sings, “I woke up this morning, feeling ’round for my shoes,” you know he is not waking up from a peaceful sleep. He was sleeping alone, missing the comforts of love.

“Don’t a man feel bad the Good Lord’s sun go down?/He don’t have nobody to throw his arms around” 

And then he sings to his listeners,

“The blues ain’t nothing but a lowdown, shaking chill/If you ain’t had them, I hope you never will.”

Ted Gioia, author of the book, Delta Blues, says “the delta blues has closer affinities to the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century than to the minstrel song and medicine show ditties that are so often seen as anticipating its arrival on the scene.” It is a universal music, and yet it comes from places like Itta Bene, Lyon, Teoc, or Hazelhurst, Mississippi, homes of BB King, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, or Robert Johnson, respectively.

When this music, the music of sharecroppers, most often performed at fish fries, working in the fields, or on the street corner, was first heard by the world, in the 1920s when the phonograph made it possible to hear recordings of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Tommy Johnson, it took off like wildfire. W.C. Handy first heard it sung on a train, by a young man with a guitar, and while he was drawn to it, he felt it was too primitive for polite society. At the time Handy had a traveling show, and one night he opened it to local performers. Three young men came up and did a blues number, the kind of music Handy heard on the train. Handy felt the music was beyond contempt, and was waiting for the audience to boo the performers off the stage. He was surprised at the end of the number when the audience showered the performers with silver dollars, “more,” Handy realized, that what his whole nine piece band would make the night for a full show. That is when Handy decided to become the Father of the Blues, and wrote The Memphis Blues and the St. Louis Blues.

Of course the music became popular. Who here has never had the blues? Who here has gone to bed missing someone you love? Who here has been in an airport, or train terminal, wondering if you will ever go back to a place you love? Who here has loved someone who did not love you back? Who has been in a relationship where you thought to yourself, the thrill is gone? Who here has sat in the ER, or by a hospital bed? Who here has heard bad news from doctors? Who here has looked at the world, and felt it was just overwhelming?

Who here has ever felt that God was somehow absent from your lives?

If you have ever felt any of those things, then you have had the blues. You may not like the music, but you can resonate with the feelings behind it.


Ancient Blues

I bring all this up because the Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalms certainly has the blues. There is a song in our hymnal that is loosely based on this Psalm, As the Deer.

As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you. You alone are my heart’s desire, and I long to worship you. It is a song about someone who loves God so much, that they want to be closer to God, and the melody of the song is hopeful.

But the Psalms, 42 and 43, are not upbeat, hopeful songs about people who love the Lord, and just want more of Jesus in their lives. If the author of this Psalm ever set it to music, it would be the blues. Think about what it is saying. Think of a deer, out in the desert, thirsty, with no water in sight. Sure, that deer hopes for water. It is gonna die without it. Look at verse 3.

My tears have been my food

day and night,

while people say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”

The Psalmist remembers going to the house of God with joy–he even remembers leading others in a grand procession to house of God, “with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.”

But now?

“Why are you downcast, O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?”

Later on he says

Deep calls to deep

at the thunder of your cataracts;

all your waves and your billows

have gone over me.

The abyss of his life reaches out and finds only more empty space, and the waves of adversity crash over him, not like the gentle waves of the beach, but with hurricane force. Why?

I say to God, my rock,

“Why have you forgotten me?

And this is not just a personal sense of agony. He is not alone in his misery. He has companions, but they are hardly the time of companions anyone would wish to have.

As with a deadly wound in my body,

my adversaries taunt me,

while they say to me continually,

“Where is your God?”

The Psalmist is looking for hope, but things are spiraling down. Instead of finding comfort from friends, he is surrounded by adversaries, who taunt him. In the word of Mississippi Fred McDowell, “I asked for whiskey, and she gave me gasoline.”


Psalm 42 and 43, which most scholars think are really just one Psalm, are a lament, a cry to God, a cry for help. Laments are found throughout the whole of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament. The book of Job and Lamentations are both laments, from start to finish. There are many Psalms of lament. Laments are found throughout the works of the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus laments over Jerusalem, and much of the book of Romans harks back to laments in the Old Testament. When Paul says, in Romans 7, For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? he is singing a lament, as he is in Romans 8 where he says, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

A lament is just an ancient form of the blues.

Most laments have three things in common. First, The person lamenting is in bad shape. Maybe he himself is suffering, or maybe he is recounting the sufferings of the nation. But someone is suffering. Second, the person feels an acute absence of God. In fact, it is often the absence of God that has caused the suffering. OK, enemies have overtaken our city and burned it to the ground, but that is because God did not protect us. OK, I am sick and suffering, but that is because God turned away from me. In other words, in biblical laments, the people crying out to God are often saying it is God’s fault they are in the trouble they are in. The third thing that most laments have in common, is that God will rescue them.

As the Psalmist says, Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, and again,  For you are the God in whom I take refuge.

Although the person who wrote Psalm 42/43 feels lost, and distant from God, he also writes,

O send out your light and your truth;

let them lead me;

let them bring me to your holy hill

and to your dwelling.

And the Psalmist knows that whatever his condition is, it is not permanent.

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

Or, in the words of Mississippi john Hurt, Ain’t nobody but you, God.


I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we

I don’t know why we suffer. I don’t know why we get the blues. Part of me would love to live in a world where the blues made no sense at all, because no one was hurting. But that ain’t this world. We do hurt. We do suffer. We do get the blues.

The Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann breaks the Psalms down into three separate types. The first he calls Psalms of Location. They tell us who we are. The 23rd Psalm, for example, tells us that we are sheep in God’s pasture, and that God looks after us. The second he calls Psalms of Dislocation. We wandered away from the shepherd and now we are hopelessly lost. The third he calls the Psalms of Relocation. Once we were lost, but now we are found.

We live in a healthy state. That is our location. Then we get sick. We experience dislocation. What is our relocation? It may be not always be that we get healthy right away. It may be that we learn to live with whatever is making us sick, and we come to grips with it. We become stronger and wiser. We learn new skills to adapt. We learn our limits, and we learn to live to the fullest within those limits.

We are in a relationship. That is our location. The relationship ends, maybe because one or the other moved on, or maybe because someone left, or maybe because someone dies. That is dislocation. Then we learn to deal with the loss. We learn from our mistakes, if we that was the reason for the end of the relationship. Or we learn to live with ourselves in a new way. The dislocation stops being the major thing in our lives, and we learn to live a new life.

We are a successful, large church. Then, something happens. The neighborhood changes, maybe there is a series of disasters that occur in the church, maybe we lose some important members. We find ourselves dislocated. But then we work our way through it. We learn news ways to exist, new ways to minister, new ways to be the people of God.

In the that is what it is all about. We are in a relationship with God. Things are good in our spiritual lives. That is our location. But then comes the dislocation, and we feel far from God. We feel that God has abandoned us, or maybe we feel the shame and guilt that comes when we walk away from God. But the dislocation is never the final answer. Never.

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my help and my God.

We find ourselves in a new location, we find we have a new relationship with God. Yes we sing the blues. But those who sing the blues are saying that the blues will not get them down, no matter how down and out they sound when they sing. Singing the blues is an act of defiance against them. If we cannot name our troubles, we can never control them. They will control us. The psalmists, the prophets, the evangelists of the Bible know that, and they sing and write laments. Not so that they can admit defeat, but so they can celebrate the eventual victory of God. We celebrate the new place we will be, in God.


Posted in Blues, Delta Blues, Lament, Preaching, Psalms, Sermons, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment