Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Marching in the Pews

Wednesday marks 50 years since Martin Luther King gave his memorable speech during the march on Washington.  I was 15 years old.  That’s a bit young to really feel like an active participant but old enough to know it was important.  I saw the television images of barking attack dogs bearing down on terrified  little black girls. In high school I had a male black friend who was reprimanded for talking to me on a downtown Dallas street.  I knew there were people my age risking their lives to bring equality to the American society. But I wasn't one of them.  Later, I became friends with a woman who had a restaurant manager hold a gun to her head and tell her to leave his restaurant; all for the simple act of sitting down at a table with a white friend.   I know the cost of the civil rights movement.  I know what it was like in 1963.  And in some ways I feel  that I know more about the risks taken in the civil rights movement  than a young black person today. But my own contribution was nil.

But I did have one wonderful experience to bask in the victories of the civil rights movement.  And it was glorious.

When I was working for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance after Hurricane Katrina I lived for a few months in Pearlington, Mississippi.  The PDA had developed a close relationship with the First Missionary Baptist Church there.  The church vowed to provide a free hot lunch for any volunteer working in their  town. Often this meant well over 100 people, on occasion it was 300.  As long as I live I will never forget their loving generosity.

Rev and Mrs. Willie Rawls

During lunch, Rev Rawls would sit in the corner of the crowded fellowship hall holding court.  Once in a while he would introduce an important visitor and I always wanted to meet those folks.  One day he introduced Rev. Frederick Fields from the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church in Pearlington.  Rev. Fields invited everyone to a special worship service that Sunday at 2 pm.  My plan was to visit every church in town during my time in Pearlington and a two o’clock service was too good to pass up. I looked forward to being able to cross that church off my list.

I didn’t realize it was to commemorate Black History month and would last three hours.

Any white person, no matter how deeply they sympathize with the cause, has a difficult time becoming part of black history.  We are, after all, well…white.

In the mid-90s, I went to a special service at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology to commemorate the first black graduate.  I have to confess I went more to hear the famous Glide Memorial Gospel Choir. At the end of the service the congregation stood, held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.” I felt a little out of place.  Not as much for my extreme whiteness as for my lack of any participation in the civil rights movement.  I never marched.  I never risked anything.  I hadn’t earned the right to call myself part of the process of overcoming anything.

But it was a little different in Pearlington.  I had worked hard to bring these homes back to life.  I had watched as the divide between races melted if only a little bit.  I had heard that prior to Katrina the town still had a Ku Klux Klan chapter. But Katrina didn’t give a damn what color you were.  She slapped down every house in her path without pausing to ask questions. 

One day, someone asked me if we favored one race over another in our recovery effort. I was a little taken back because I had never given it any thought.  What little paperwork we had didn't have a box for "race" and it just wasn't ever discussed. As the worksite manager, I kept a list in my pocket of the houses we were currently working on. I had to consult the list and take stock.  I found that out of the sixteen houses on my list, seven families were white, seven were black, one was clearly a mixed marriage and one couple I had absolutely no idea what race they were despite meeting them several times.

So when I showed up to celebrate Black History Month in Mississippi I felt more a part of the congregation. They started with an apology that their regular music staff wasn't there except for a  couple of bass guitars.  Eventually they built up to a sax and drum set along with a third and fourth guitar.  We tapped, clapped, snapped, hooted and swayed.  We “Amen”ed and “Hallelujah”ed.  We praised the Lord and gave thanks for just about everything there is on the planet.  I was limp afterwards.

The first song in the service was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.   It’s a stirring piece and moves me every time I hear it.  I love to sit at the front at the front of the church whenever I can and let the sound just wash over me.  I closed my eyes to hear better. Without a pianist we sang a cappella but that didn't really matter.  They didn't have anyone leading the congregation but that didn't matter.  These people know the song in their bones.

Life every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies;
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun’
Let us march on, till victory is won.

The worship program had pictures of major figures in black history.  Along with the ones I knew like Dr King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, there was one man I had never heard of, Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church.  He was a slave who saved $2,000 and bought his freedom in 1787, after the Revolutionary War.  As a free man he entered the local Methodist church one day to worship and was turned away.  Thus was founded the AME church.

At the end of the day’s service, Rev Fields held up the latest issue (February, 2008) of Ebony magazine that had a cover picture of Barack Obama with the banner title:  “In Our Lifetime.”  It was a chill-bump moment.

We ended the day with “We Shall Overcome.”  I felt more at home this time, not so much by anything I had done as much as because of the friends I had made.  I felt at home in the town. I had declared  more than once that Pearlington, Mississippi is my soul’s hometown.  I had met James Peters, the small and humble man who saved 27 lives the day Katrina blew into town.  He rowed around in 30 feet of salty water, dead fish, live snakes and raw sewage and plucked people out of the this mess and rowed them to safety.  He is the town hero not because of the color of his skin but because of the content of his character.

Thank you, Dr. King.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A New Ministry


I have decided to Understand the Gettysburg Battle.  I have no idea where this idea came from.  It just seems like an interesting challenge. From what I know so far this will be a huge undertaking--difficult but attainable.  I bought the movie Gettysburg and the book it is based on.  I got a special commemorative magazine put out in July which was 150 years since the battle.  I even signed up with Ancestry.com to find out more about Elias Stuart, my great-great grandfather who served in the Civil War.  Imagine my surprise when I discover that not only did he fight for the Union but he left the war less than a year after joining. He didn't get wounded. He didn't desert.  He just resigned.  How do you resign from the Civil War? Clearly my grandfather didn't want any of us to know about these tiny details because he never mentioned them.  I may shove that skeleton back into the closet and pretend I didn't find it. At least until I figure out if I'm related to Jeb Stuart and if he was a hero at Gettysburg or a tardy schmuck. Everybody at Gettsyburg seems to be going around muttering "Where's Gen. Stuart?"
 
What makes Gettysburg a challenge is that it was no tidy 'shoot everybody and go home" type of battle.  It lasted three days and included several different smaller battles in different spots around the town.  And all the words jumbled together:  There's a Seminary Ridge and a Cemetery Ridge that provide their own tongue twisters.  I'm bumping into a whole bunch of military words that make no sense to me like "brigade" . which is a group of people that may go by a different name willy-nilly, depending on their mood at the time-- sometimes by the name of the state, or the commander or even the former commander.  And everybody has  American names, for God's sake!!  It's just so much easier when you fight a different country because then at least half of the people have funny sounding names. No siree...anybody who thought this was a simple case of the North vs. the South just hasn't been paying attention. Oh--and that's another tidbit I discovered:  for the Gettysburg Battle the North approached from the south and the South attacked from the north of town.  Go figure.

So...I'm very busy with this project.  In lieu of an original post I am offering a couple of my favorite Back to School blogs.  The one from last year is here and it includes a link to another one that was less thoughtful and funnier. 
++++++++++++++

I have discovered a new ministry.

On two major shopping days recently—last year the day before school started and last Christmas Eve-- Emily and I realized that we were finished shopping. It was the most glorious feeling. We were just through—it had all been done. But we knew a lot of people weren’t of the same fortune. We knew what a madhouse the stores would be and that made it feel even more glorious. We knew the hell that others would be facing.

The sight of Target’s shoe aisle on the day before school has been burned into my memory like a multi-car accident where everyone was killed and there was blood all over the concrete. And the vultures had arrived to pick through the remains.

But, for us, there would be no last minute drive in the cold (Christmas Eve) or heat (Back to School.) No worries where the money would come from or whether we would make the right choices. We were done. The die had been cast and there was no use worrying about it anymore.

Last year on Christmas Eve we got to patting ourselves on the back so hard that it almost hurt. We decided to go to Walmart just to watch the other suckers stress out and indulge in the high we knew we could get from feeling superior to others. I realize going to a store merely to gloat is not the most honorable of intentions but hang in here with me. It gets better.

My daughter does not do crowds. She is easily overwhelmed by having great hordes of humanity huddled around her. On most occasions when she enters a store that she knows is going to be a madhouse she will run through a couple of Serenity Prayers and a St Francis right there in the parking lot, then take a deep breath before she even exits the car.

Last Christmas Eve, St Francis’ prayer rested upon us in a new way and we were able to hear the words clearly:


“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”



And it changed our visit completely. We decided that instead of gloating we would pray as we walked through the store. It was that simple. We made a plan. We would split up in the store. Walk around and pray for the people we saw. Then after 30 minutes, we would meet back at the door and go home.

It was one of the most spiritual things I’ve ever done.

Emily headed off for the Last Minute Panic aisle where the store puts the baskets of assorted perfumes and toiletries for the grandmothers who already have everything, including five similar baskets from the last five Christmases. She figured that would be a stress-filled aisle.

I thought my time would be better spent in the baby department and the liquor aisle.

I saw young parents with baby in tow and furrowed brows wondering how they could afford anything and what bad parents they would be if they couldn’t provide a Christmas for their children.

I prayed that they might relax and realize they don’t have to spend as much money as the TV commercials tell them. That the fantasy of well-dressed and attractive parents waltzing through the store with sleigh bells playing in the background is just that- a fantasy. I prayed for those without a Christmas bonus or for those who had no job. I prayed for young mothers without partners to help pay for things.

Then I went by the aisle where they sell beer and wine, knowing there would be living rooms where too much would be consumed that night and the next day, sometimes enough to ruin the day for the rest of the family. I knew what that kind of family lived through. I knew these people needed my prayer.

I felt very un-tethered walking around the store. I didn’t have a basket or even a purse so my hands were free to rest in my pockets. I felt relaxed. I had no agenda. I walked slowly.

There was also a feeling of being part of a great conspiracy. No one could guess my motive by looking at me. I was a Secret Prayer Angel.

Thirty minutes later Emily and I met up at the store’s exit. When we compared notes there were no startling inspirations from the exercise. We’ll never know if it made any difference. There might be people out there that would be angry if they knew what we had done—a couple of pushy Presbyterians armed with prayer. But I can’t imagine it hurt anything. We didn’t foist off our own spiritual agenda. We didn’t get any more specific than just asking God to bring peace to the people we saw. 

This week, the last Old Navy order has arrived at Emily’s house. School supplies have been bought for a while now. We plan to have a pleasant and peaceful day before school. (In the interest of complete honesty, it hasn’t always been this easy. Read my posting on Back to School Nervous Breakdowns  Click here for that link.)

We plan to do another prayer session this year. I invite you to join us. In fact, I urge you to do it.

Spread the word.

If we say we believe in the power of prayer, what would the world be like if we ALL did this? What if we had at least one Prayer Angel in every store the night before school started? Might it make a difference? If we say we believe in prayer we have to believe that it would make a huge difference.

We have nothing to lose by trying.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Control Me, Please


Living out here in the wilderness is a pretty interesting gig.  Everybody has an animal or two.  Our neighbor has a cow, 2 calves, a horse, a donkey, three goats, two dogs, three cats and a bunch of chickens.  It’s like living next to an animal sanctuary.  We get to visit them anytime we want but don’t have to feed them or worry about them.  It’s a win-win situation.

We had some chickens and ducks ourselves but the predators got them.  They mostly just disappeared one by one.  One night I heard the most awful noise and went to the window to see a raccoon with Bill, our handsome white leghorn, in his mouth.  The flashlight caught the raccoon’s eyes glowing in the dark; he stared at me briefly then climbed over the fence with Bill in his mouth and ran into the woods. That moment took all the fun out of keeping chickens. Well, that and the fact that they pooped everywhere and dug great gaping holes in the yard for their dust baths.

It’s a hard life out here if you are low on the food chain.

We’ve had our inevitable visit by feral hogs, which is kind of a tradition for country folk.  Thankfully they just visited, dug up a field like a plow and moved on down the road. 

But lately we’ve had nine feral donkeys hanging around the neighborhood and they are getting on my last nerve.

We planted St Augustine grass a couple of years ago and it’s starting to show real promise.  Just because we live out in farm country doesn’t mean we can’t have good grass. It’s kind of my last link to the civilized world.  I love the wilderness but having my little patch of St Augustine is like my personal guilty pleasure.  And it’s been a struggle.  Every year it seems like it’s something. Having goats, hogs and donkeys show up unexpectedly can be a spot of serendipity but inevitably takes a toll on the grass.



The feral donkeys were the last straw.  They have nibbled the grass down to the roots in some places.  Then their hooves stirred up the ground where there wasn’t grass….creating a sand pile.  And there are NINE of them. They have more than worn out their welcome.

A couple of years ago I got Beaven a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.  It’s the same kind as the kid in Christmas Story wanted.  So now when the donkeys visit to graze on my grass, we get out the BB gun and give one a taste of BB pellet in his butt and that usually encourages the whole herd to move on down the road. 

Don’t hate me.  The BB doesn’t even pierce the skin.  It’s probably only a stinging sensation.  Calm down.  Hey! It’s Horsehide!  What’s one of the strongest and thickest skins around?  What do they make baseballs out of, for goodness sakes?  Horsehide.  Tough hide.   Are you OK now? Can we please move on?

Here’s the cool thing:  It provides instant gratification.  Their rear ends make a pretty big target and I know when I’ve hit my mark because the donkey gives a start and runs off.  I’m turning into a pretty good shot, too.

But what this has done to my personality scares me.  I’m having way too much fun.  If Sarah’s here I’ll call out “Sarah, get me my gun” just like I’m Annie Oakley or something.  The act of bringing the gun to my shoulder (it fits me perfectly, by the way), sighting the donkey and pulling the trigger is so satisfying that it’s scary. And because I know it’s just BBs I have become numb to any idea of the damage a real gun could cause.

It’s this numbness that scares me. 

I went to see RED2 at the movies. (Wednesdays are your best bet for going to the movies around here because all the Baptists and Methodists are at prayer meetings.  I like to call Wednesdays “Presbyterian Night at the Movies.”)  The movie is a combination action and comedy movie about a bunch of old spies who come out of retirement to do a job left unfinished in their prime.  I think.  The plot is purely inconsequential.   The premise is that old people still have it—that they can (and do) use dangerous weapons accurately and dramatically. It’s fairly funny to watch when Dame Helen Mirren, known mostly for playing a gracious and dignified Queen Elizabeth, wearing a gorgeous evening gown, pulls out a machine gun and mows down a room full of bad guys.

But after the laughter died down I was left with a feeling that nibbled at my brain.

 It’s this kind of casual overkill that throws us all into the mindset that guns are toys.  We forget the loss of life and limb.  There wasn’t even any blood to speak of in the movie. 

I’m startled by how easily I fell into yelling “Get my gun” to Sarah and how great it felt to cock it and shoot it and cock it again.  I’m startled by the caviler way Helen Mirren shot people in the movie. There was one scene where she held a huge automatic pistol in each hand, shooting out of first one window then the other as the car drove down the street.  The movie never deals with all the innocents driving down the same streets minding their own business.

Guns are dangerous.  They kill people.  They paralyze people and send them to cheap nursing homes when they can’t care for themselves.  Shooting a gun is way too easy.  Life is too fragile and death is too final.

Here in Texas you can take a one-day class (with a nice barbeque lunch included in the price of the class) and get a permit to keep a gun hidden in your car or on your person.  We take pride in being a place where we can take care of ourselves because we have the power of the pistol in our pocket.  One of the stores in downtown Winnsboro sports a banner advertising they can sell you a customized conceal carry purse.   


In Texas we operate on the premise that everyone is carrying a gun with them and will use it in a heartbeat.  It cuts down on a lot of road rage.  Guys used to have gun racks in the back window of their pickups and nobody shot them the finger when they cut you off in traffic.  They always got the indisputable right of way. 

Recently there have been two separate stories of people with guns on them when a crime was committed.  And they pulled out their guns and simply shot the bad guys.  And I was among those who found myself cheering.   Killing the clearly murderous assailant was so efficient:  getting rid of a danger and avoiding expensive trials.  Very efficient.

Efficient but dangerous. 

The collateral damage is the most dangerous thing about a culture of gun waving. The day will come when somebody gets into an argument with his girlfriend’s ex-husband in the potato chip aisle at Walmart and pulls out a gun.  I just hope nobody I love is there when it happens.

This is a controversial subject and I expect not everyone reading this agrees with me. I am of the mind that God doesn’t particularly care if we all agree or if we are efficient.  I think God wants us to think about it, chew it over in our conversations and listen to each other. This is difficult to the point of agony.  I’ve made up my mind and so have you.  Do we really need to spend a lot of time talking about it?

Yes.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Multi-Media Tour of a Fantastic Week

I love technology for all the ways I can show you what we did last week at Synod Youth Workshop.  Through technology I can show you in a way that closely gives you the feeling of being there.  It was such a variety of moods, rhythms, speeds and volume that words alone can't really do it justice.

I have to give special credit to Jessica Karlinski, one of the staff, who took some of these pictures.  I took the ones of my small group and she took the really good ones of the large group gatherings.
 
Our smallish contingent of kids stopped on the way to Tulsa for breakfast: We had a lock-in at the church the night before so parents didn't have to wake up early enough to get the kids to a meeting point by 5 a.m..  Having a lock-in also gave me a good opportunity to get my "Go With the Flow" attitude firmly screwed into my mind.
 
Here's the girls from my church when we stopped for breakfast. 

I'm not sure where Jimmy was when we took this picture.  I have a feeling he also was getting his "whatever" attitude screwed into his mind. Like most of our group Jimmy had never been to this event and wisdom told him to reserve judgement until he got there. I can safely report, judging from his face at the dance on the last night that Jimmy replaced his "whatever" with a "WOW."

The week is always anchored by a daily keynote from one of the best preachers in our area.  I don't have photos of the keynotes. Oops. But I can tell you what Brent Barry from Northpark Presbyterian said:
"No matter how confusing it gets, how hard it gets, how much it hurts, there is no moment in the road ahead that will not be touched by the grace of God in some way." 

I also don't take pictures of small group because this can be an intensely private time at Synod.  I told you we have more small group time than other retreats-- nine small groups that total 16 hours spent in a safe environment where kids can ask any question and make any statement that will not be repeated outside the group.  Inside this block of time there are games and discussion of the keynote as well as all sorts of issues facing teenagers today. It's not totally serious the whole time.  This is the place where I learned that gerbils will explode if you give them Dr Pepper to drink and that hair spray is flammable.

Years ago someone gave me the purpose of the small group leader:  Our job was to "build a community of faith from 12 people who had never met each other."  Every activity is geared toward that end.  Even the stuff that just sounds like fun.  Town Night is an opportunity for the group to learn how to make decisions together.  Each group decides how they will spend their time off campus from 3 to 9 that night.  Most go to dinner but there are a variety of places to choose for dinner.  Then they will do some kind of fun activity--but what kind?  And we pool our money like most families do and together decide how we spend it.

The first decision we make is the group's offering for our final worship service.  Most groups just take ten percent off the top and set it aside.  And through the abundance of God, these groups usually have money left over that they also kick in for the offering.  Don't tell me kids aren't generous.




Our group went to Brownies for dinner.  This is a small mom & pop diner that has great food at a reasonable price.  They also make their own root beer. We filled the counter.  Linner, who was born in Nigeria, had never had a root beer before. 






Then most groups came back to campus for one of the largest shaving cream fights you'll ever see. I always love the walk to breakfast the next morning because that part of the campus still smells like menthol.




                                                                                               
I have no idea who these people are.  I'll bet their own mothers wouldn't recognize them.

Each small group also does a service project.  The whole city of Tulsa plans for the week we're there.  Every agency in town saves work for our week because they now understand when we tell them to plan more than they think the kids can do in five hours then plan something for them to do when they finish that.  It is one of the kids' favorite activities. Our group served food at a soup kitchen run by the Episcopal church.  When we got there at 8:30 a.m. there was already a line down the block waiting.  Most of our kids manned the serving line while a few of us organized the food pantry and a mailing of letters to all the doctors in Tulsa.  750 of them to be exact. That's a lot of letters.


I didn't take pictures of the people coming through the line. But we fed 450 people.  There was an interesting transition around 11 o'clock when they switched from breakfast to lunch with not a pause in the serving line. The whole operation was seamless. When I asked the kids how they could tell the people had been homeless and living on the streets one answer was their fingernails.  Seldom do we take the time to really understand what living on the streets is like.  But being able to wash your hands and trim your fingernails is one of the luxuries the homeless can't afford.




That night we had a Variety Show.

The wonderful thing about the Variety Show is that it's not a TALENT Show.  This opens the door to kids who worry that they aren't good enough and it also open the door to some really unique experiences.  One of my favorites years ago was when two girls took small penlight flashlights, stuck them up their noses and flashed them on and off in time to "Dueling Banjos".  It was hilarious to watch their noses light up pink then go off.  It's the goofy stuff like that that is always the most popular acts.

This year will go down in Synod folklore as the year of Group 7 and the Tron act. You will hear a startled audience laugh at first then break out in applause and bursts of glee at what marvels sheer imagination can create.  The clue that the audience saw at the beginning was when the group walked out with glow sticks scotch-taped to themselves.  This turned them into magnificient stick figures once the lights went out.  It was almost impossible to film.  My camera didn't register the pink colors at all.  What you also can't see is that they had two other group members in the boxes above either side of the stage.  Watch a little over half-way for when they threw out dozens of glow stick into the audience.  That also didn't record very well.   My group had seats on the fourth row and caught some of them.






One of the other most popular ones was a song performed in sign language by Sycada Cheek.  It shows the power of sign language to show emotion.She had the audience in the palm of her hand.




Then after all that we took it down a few thousand notches and had vespers outside.



It all ends with a moving Communion service.



Each group has a chance to walk the labyrinth.  The staff lays out three huge labyrinths on the floor of the great hall. The kids take off their shoes and spend an hour slowing walk, thinking and praying.  Then they each took a strip of fabric and wrote a prayer and left it on the cross.

In the end, this is what it was all about.