Archive for January, 2007

Two Kinds of Confidence

Sunday, January 28th, 2007
Opening

We listen, in faith, this morning, to the ancient voice of the Psalmist, who acclaims a dialectical gospel, and says…

There are two kinds of confidence, one of the morning and one of the evening.

There are two kinds of confidence, one of youth and one of age.

There are two kinds of confidence, one fit for going and one for return.

There are two kinds of confidence, and you are blessed with both. You are blessed with both. The Lord is my light and my salvation…One is a smooth stone in the right hand, marked ‘light’, and one is a smooth stone in the left hand, marked ‘salvation’.

Light

There you were, not so long ago, with the light falling on your

back. There was a skip in the bicycle, a chain guard out of place. You

chose to walk. The sun dappled that brown and yellow shirt and your hair returned light to light. There you were—I think it was you, was it not?—walking out a spring road, looking and dreaming and looking at the light as it fell on a small smooth stone. You threw the stone. You tossed the stone. You kicked the stone. Then along a heavy flowing spring stream you knelt down and washed it clean. It was stored in your right pocket. Into the light of youth you traipsed, and then I could you see you no more. In the mind’s eye you were gone. I suppose it could have been someone else. Her, or me, or someone—the light was brilliant and from the back it was hard to tell for sure.

It takes a certain confidence to walk off one stage and onto another. You have that confidence. You can do it. You can. I know you can. Look you can see that young one just going down over the hill, holding a stone in the light. ‘Youth is a terrible thing to waste on young people’.

This sacred poem promises, again, that you shall have confidence. In fact, the psalm identifies this spiritual gift, this habit of being, this faithful obedience, as, simply, THE LORD. The Lord is…light, my light…The Lord is…salvation, my salvation. Who is the Lord?

The haunting, poetic, hymnic, refrains of a latter day Psalmist, Howard Thurman, come to mind: a man’s only witness is the witness of his own experience…do not cut against the grain of your own wood… the most important thing in the life of any man at any time is the development of his own best self, the incentive to actualize his potential…a man cannot be at home everywhere unless he is at home somewhere…When people come to church they ask, ‘Who am I’. The church answers; ‘You are a child of God’…

There come moments when the confidence to try, to change, to learn, to grow (there is no growth without change) is our deepest longing. Are you facing any choices? Are you set before any decisions this season?

From an early age we learn the importance of choices. At odds with mom and dad, the eight year old decides to run away. He speaks his last word. He packs his suit case, and dons his cap. Out the door he goes at dusk. The family cat watches and purrs. Parents watch through the blinds. He sits under the lamppost, and night falls. And after a respectable time, he comes back inside, closes the door. His parents know better than to say anything. They wait, reading the paper and smoking the pipe. The cat purrs, and rubs a long brown tail against the boy’s legs. The boy has grown. Having said a real good bye in life, he is ready now to say a real hello to life! With the maturity of someone who has now said farewell, and survived it, he says, to show his adulthood, “Well, it’s good to be back….I see you still have the same old cat.”

Viktor Frankl reminded us that we become who we are by making decisions.

Faith is an act, a personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. Faith is a daily affirmation that life affords meaning as well as happiness. Faith is the confidence that life is meaningful. Faith is the affirmation that if life has meaning, it is known in this confidence to choose.

Choosing in love and passion makes us human, our own best selves.

When I asked one study group to name their favorite verse in Scripture, every one was an expression of confidence: Psalm 137, Philippians 4—every one. Confidence in vocation, like that of the boy Jeremiah. Confidence in mission, like that of the young man Jesus. Confidence in the labors of love, like that of the missionary Paul, to bear, believe, hope and endure all things.

Colin Williams, Dean at Yale, used to say that what Christians need on Sunday is a restored sense of confidence with which to return to the world of choices and make a difference.

John Edwards is running again. He left his earlier campaign with two thoughts: first life is full of hurt and heartache; second, people can choose to live in ways that make a difference.

If we walk in the light as he is in the light we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin.

This Psalm can even give a preacher confidence… As the preacher gathers her mind and thoughts, either on Sunday for ordered worship, or at mid-week during a service of memorial, the cadences of this Psalm may spring upon the imagination. The preacher may recall that most commentators consider Psalm 27 to be, really, two songs, 27A and 27B, divided at the 7th verse. The first is a hymn of thanksgiving and faith. The second is a song of loss and lament. The psalmist lifts a hymn of faith, a song of courage in the face of adversity.

He speaks from his experience. He teaches, like a grandfather teaching a grandson;
spinning a fishing fly; boiling the sap down in the sugar house; watching a basketball game; watching the sun set. What do grandsons learn from grandfathers? Confidence.

In the North Country (New York State just south of Montreal) I knew where I could find my men in a mood to talk. In the month of March, between milking times, you could find a circle gathered in the sugar house. The shadow of the roof made all seeing dim. The steam from the boiling tank made of the hut a sauna, a steam bath, a welcome warming in the frigid March air. There is something so purely and pleasantly sweet about the scent of the boiling sap: have a donut, dip the donut, drink the syrup. Fathers and sons talking.

Friday, as a member of a defeated and ejected pick-up fivesome, I watched our two sons running the court at Agganis. Youth is a terrible thing to waste on young people! But I could have wished not only for two but for twenty such sons. Confidence comes in part from the interplay of generations, the thanksgivings of youth and the laments of age.

It may be too that the preacher will remember, in considering these two Psalms (27A and B), some of the features that they share with the rest of the Psalter. For instance, verse 7, dividing itself from verse 6 before, recalls quickly how much writers need editors and how much editors need writers. The Bible overflows with the interplay of editing and writing as the Psalms exemplify in the Hebrew Scripture, and as the Gospel of John best displays in the New Testament. Both have confidence! Writers need the caution and care of editors; editors need the fire and life of writers. Writers need the prudence and judgment of editors; editors need the breath and novelty of writers. Writers need the criticism and perfecting interest of editors; editors need the life-blood and faithful courage of writers. The community of faith includes natural writers and congenital editors. Sometimes a set of conflicts can be ameliorated by arranging things so that particular gifts may be spiritually used to the upbuilding of the church. Let those who are creators be creative and those who are redeemers be redemptive!

Think of the utterly confident words used to declare our country’s independence: we hold these truths to be self-evident that, all (men) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now that is stellar writing. But all writers need editors, too. Grace edits history.

The author may have consigned his own slaves to 3/5 humanity, but his confident phrases outlive his less faithful deeds. The author may have ignored the fairer sex, his own mother and sister and daughter and all, but his confident phrases outlive his less faithful deeds. No, there is an ever expanding circle of freedom ringing across our time. Equal rights under the law finally have no lasting enemy, as this Psalm would remind us. Freedom will continue to ring. It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave. Wisdom to the mighty who will hear, and honor to the brave who will care.

Salvation

Two kinds of confidence, one of morning, one of evening, one of youth and one of age, one the courage to set out and the other the courage to come home, one of doing and one of being, one for faith in Jesus Christ and one as faith of Jesus Christ.

There you were again, just the other day. You were walking toward me, on the way home. You were a little bent, a little gray. I had to imagine what your hands were like. You were to far off to see. It was you that I saw, was it not? Or was it her, or me, or does it matter. You had that second stone, heavy on the left palm. I could see the first, still in the pocket, still ready, still at the right hand. But somewhere along the way you had a found a second. Light and salvation. The confidence of morning and evening, going and coming, youth and age, doing and being. All in a lifetime.

You can tell so much from the manner of one’s gait, one’s approach, one’s cadence. It seemed to me, that day, that with you came the learning of a lifetime. Not all problems find solutions. Not all relationships end well. Things often do end badly. That is why they end. Not all illness finds temporal healing. That not all tragedy happens elsewhere. That some things do not give way to the light, to the confidence of morning and youth and sunny departure. That it is a great life but few get out alive. You were coming home, I could tell. You had that homecoming look about you. And the second stone, dark and heavy, that told me too. There is confidence for going out. You have that confidence. You can do it. You can get home. You can. I know you can. And there is a confidence for coming in. The Psalms have both, both thanksgiving and lament. A few Psalms like 27 have both in one.

I watched, as you did, the eyes and face of Jimmy Carter this week. He is walking home. Our finest ex-president, one who has found confidence amid the lament of defeat, one who has found voice in the aftermath of loss. You need that biblical confidence to get on home, at the end of the day, at the end of a day when no good deed goes unpunished. In those eyes I was hurt but also strength. In that voice I heard disappointment but also resolve. Going home, at twilight, you draw and the second part of the psalm for today, the lament. There is an evening prayer in every evening, meant to give confidence in age, and at every age.

Here is a strange reality. There is often much youth in age and age in youth. I think of the 80 year olds in one church who continued to lead a student fellowship, and of the superannuated preacher who ran a youth group. Then I think of Jessica Miller, and Jacob McKecknie, and Beatrice Ponce, and Majar Madek, and Michael Robertson, students who from August to January, and from Fine Arts to Theology, found the end of life in only a second or third decade. As soon as you are born, you are eligible, old enough, to die. Chronology is shot through with ontology, beyond our poor power to add or detract.

So, in our churches a portion of this Psalm is frequently offered, during one particular hour of worship, in a soaring musical arrangement, sung by a strong baritone soloist. The particular hour of worship in which this Psalm appears, at least in some churches, is the funeral service. In the face of sin, death, loss and a form of the threat of meaninglessness that surpasses most others—with the body of the deceased before us and the tear wrung family to tend—here a great hymn of faith is regularly affirmed
: The Lord is my light and my salvation…

Those gathered before burial are ready to hear the wisdom of faith that comes in the experience of the community of faith.

To such similarly familiar rhetorical forms—the experience of faith learned in the community of faith– a congregation and grieving family may regularly and healthily return during the time of saying goodbye.

Both may well fit into a set of forms for worship, and they may in fact fit well together (as some earlier editor has clearly decided). Yet they make two distinct movements and statements. Within the movements of all the Psalms (recall H. Gunkel’s five types of psalms: hymn, lament, royal, personal, thanks), they capture the two most significant themes: thanksgiving and lament. A congregation that knows how to face disappointment with honesty, and death with dignity, is a congregation being prepared for the singing of this Psalm. Recently Elaine Pagels, known mostly for her scholarship with regard to Gnosticism and the New Testament, spoke about stopping for a moment in the vestibule of a church at worship, and realizing that “here is a family that knows how to face death” (Pagels, Beyond Belief, 3). Honest lament and faithful thanksgiving are both parts of facing the uncertain present in light of God’s future.

In addition, the lines of Psalm 27 (A and B), carry examples of other typical features within the Psalms: rhythm, and parallelism (synonymous, antithetic, synthetic) which these give the psalms their beat (vss 1&2); poetic echoes which later reverberate in the New Testament (vs. 5); hymnic cadence that makes the Psalms so healthy for regular prayer (the Benedictines reputedly recite the Psalter every week, and St Patrick legendarily recited them once a day!).

There is one exegetical curiosity embedded in 27A that may provide a final interest for the one charged with speaking a divine word, in life and before death. A possible translation of 27: 4b reads: “to behold the beauty of the Lord “in the morning” in His temple (so, among others, E Leslie, The Psalms, 354). After a time of trouble, has the singer gone alone to the Temple? Has he there prayed and stayed all night long? Has he lifted his heart to God in the darkness of the dark night of the soul? Has he then watched through the anxious terrors of the night to see the sunrise, and so been cleansed and healed? Death, he seems to say, is not a candle snuffed, but an oil lamp turned down—because the Dawn has come! In the morning.

Here is Jesus, in the season of Lent, making his way home. Like Odysseus or the prodigal or Cold Mountain’s Inman, walking home. Whence his confidence? What is the meaning of his cross? We revere the suffering of the cross most when we accept the cross as the final sign of God’s own divine giving, “who loved me and gave himself for me”, “so loved the world that He gave his only Son”. The divine gift of Calvary says, “Yet, I will be confident”. You can withstand even what you never will understand. Every step of the via dolorosa—let the reader understand—is embedded with the “yet”, “nevertheless”, “nonetheless” of this Psalm. The confidence of the Gospel is named by a mere adverb, “yet”. It is not the suffering that carries the meaning, but the meaning that carries the suffering. Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley knew this well.

Closing

Teach me your way. Lead me on a level path. Though conflict rise against me yet I will be confident. Confident. Confident.

There are two kinds of confidence here, that of doing and that of being, both.

What was that preacher talking about on Sunday when they read Psalm 27? Oh, I think he is saying that we have a right to be confident. Confident to change and confident to endure. Confident. Not certain? No, not certain, but confident. Not sure? No, not sure, but confident. Not arrogant? No, not arrogant, but confident. You cannot prove for sure, that is the thing about faith; there is always a leap in it somewhere…

There is a confidence of the morning and of the evening, of youth and of age, of going and coming. You have both, all you need of both. Confidence that is light to see. Confidence that is salvation to hear. Confidence to do what you can do—that is faith in Jesus Christ. Confidence to endure what you will endure—that is the faith of Jesus Christ. Confidence, two kinds.

The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?

The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?

Six Words of Healing Truth from Birmingham

Sunday, January 21st, 2007

(Excerpts from MLKing, Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Isaiah 49: 1-4

It is not mainly an ethical imperative that directs us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick and visit the prisoner. Should we do these things? Yes we should. Is it our Christian duty to do them? Yes it is. Is this a moral imperative for us, to follow the teachings of Amos and Jesus? It is so. Then is this the gospel, the good news for today? It is not. Not an ethical imperative, but a divine gift awaits us in the Gospel of Jesus the Christ.

When you feed the hungry, then you will be christened. When you clothe the naked, you yourself will be given a confirming gift. When you welcome the stranger, it is your own joy in eucharist that emerges. When you heal the sick, you find your own anointing and absolution. And when you visit the prisoner, it is your own soul that is fed. We are directed ethically to the periphery of life (hunger, nakedness, loneliness, illness, abandonment) so that our ethical zeal can be used for a real, a high purpose, far beyond our stunted enjoyment of moral achievement. Amos and Jesus knew well that morals and ethics only take us to the foothills. There is a great high mountain before us. We find our way toward this height when, by surprise, in the midst of our prideful, necessary, and superficial duty…we are accosted by God.

So it is for those who will hear, some forty years later, six healing words from Martin Luther King, in the finest document remaining from the civil rights era, his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Those in prison, from Paul of Tarsus to Nelson Mandela, have wisdom to share. They have time to think, and so, now and then, something to say. The finest document from the civil rights era, now forty years past, is this letter. Its burden of truth, carried in soaring prose, is largely conveyed in six words: impatience, justice, time, love, disappointment, and hope. In the quiet of this winter weekend, let us carefully meditate together on the gospel as heard through these six words from Birmingham.

1. Let us meditate on impatience:.(SYS)

For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear… with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited .for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God- given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark jab of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six- year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;…when you are harried by day and haunted by night… living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and (we) are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience

2. Let us meditate on justice: (JJO)

One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I- it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

3. Let us meditate on time: (RAH)

I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of (those) willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to 6e solid rock of human dignity.

4. Let us meditate on love: (SYS)

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that an men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we viii be. We be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremist for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jeans Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

5. Let us meditate on disappointment: (JJO)

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and.hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great- grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

6. Let us meditate on hope: (RAH)

Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom, They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jai with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour. But even if the church does not come to the aid of justice, I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are at present misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible crueltie
s of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.

Let us pray: (RAH)

In a season of stagnation, dear Lord, make us impatient.

In a season of unfairness, dear Lord, help us yearn for justice.

In a season of delay, dear Lord, cause us to prize our time.

In a season of decay, dear Lord, inspire us by love.

In a season of disappointment, dear Lord, grant us courage to be.

In a season of desire, dear Lord, may we hope for what we do not see.

Amen.