Them and Us – Bill Leonard – Baptistsnewsglobal.com

EDNESDAY, JANUARY 27, 2016COLUMNS

Them and us?

This election year we seem obsessed with us against them; we just can’t agree on who “they” are or which “us” is us.

By Bill Leonard

Sometimes I think I’d love a good mystical vision, when God told me exactly what is right and wrong; how to believe and behave. Surely then I could sort out all the theological and ethical dilemmas of human existence. Yet I’m not sure I could handle such divine encounters like those experienced by Moses, Ezekiel and Daniel, or Sts. Paul, John, or Teresa of Avila. Having a vision is one thing; discerning its meaning quite another. Today, one person’s vision is another’s hallucination. Visions are scary; they can bring new insights or make us crazy.

These days I keep returning to the story of Simon Peter’s grand vision described in Acts chapter 11; when the fledgling church was trying to discern what it was and what it wasn’t. Maybe you need a good vision when you’re starting something new; or when you don’t know who you are; or when you can’t decide who is out and who is in.

Such a vision couldn’t hurt American Christianity, what with so much public “othering” of Muslims and Mexicans, gays and strays, socialists and tea-partiers, evangelical-fundamentalists and secular-humanists. This election year we seem obsessed with us against them; we just can’t agree on who “they” are or which “us” is us.

The earliest Christians were similarly afflicted. Acts 11:1 says: “Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.” Apparently the genuine “believers” hadn’t counted on the possibility that the “Good News” would work on “those people.” Race, belief and biology were inseparable and controversial from the beginning.

So Simon Peter arrived in Jerusalem, and “the circumcised believers criticized him, saying ‘Why did you go to the uncircumcised men and eat with them?’” The church of Jesus Christ is about 15 minutes old and the “believers” are fighting about race and ethnicity; orthodoxy and theology; sexuality and food. (Just try to tell me they weren’t Baptists!) Some unexpected people “accepted the word of God” and the “apostles and the [real] believers” aren’t sure they should let them into their new tribe, you know, the “body of Christ.” The earliest Christians had a vision of a new community but already they wanted to limit its boundaries.

So, Acts tells us, Simon Peter has to “explain it to them, step by step.” Some people see visions; the rest of us need step by step explanations. “I had this vision,” Peter says, “in a trance.” Already we academic-rationalist-types are dubious. We’re not big on trances.

A large sheet descends, with an irregular menagerie of “four-footed animals (remember the “cloven-hoof” animals?), beasts of prey (lions and tigers and bears?), reptiles (my serpent-handling friends love this vision!), and birds of the air (probably pigeons, they show up everywhere).

Suddenly the “Prince of Apostles” is told: “Get up Peter, kill and eat; satisfy your hunger with God’ gifts.” But Peter demurs: “By no means, Lord.” Dietary practices die hard, especially when linked to spirituality. (I’ve known vegans who would have said the same thing.) Then comes the lesson: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It took “three times” before “everything was pulled up again to heaven.” Peter finally caught on.

Immediately three men from Caesarea show up asking for help and Peter’s response seems more Pentecostal than Papal. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.” At the intersection of grace and gospel, THERE IS NO THEM. “They” and “we” have become US!

This revelation, this vision, does not mean that there aren’t differences between human beings of multiple “tribes,” contexts, gender or race; it means there are no distinctions when it comes to grace.

Perhaps Peter’s realization that there is no “distinction between them and us” marks the real beginning of the Church. It doesn’t mean that we do not disagree; or that all our consciences meld into one. Nor does it require us to parrot the same liturgies, eating practices, dogmas, or social imperatives. It does not abolish differences of culture and context, gender and race. Rather, it means that we can’t let those things keep “us” or “them” from grace.

We’ve tried it before, remember? “If we evangelize the slaves, they may think they are as free as we are.” “If we abolish Jim Crow laws, they’ll want to marry OUR people.” “If women get ordained, we’ll all lose our place in the Divine scheme of things.” “If we eat with them, we might have to be friends,” thus Simon Peter opened the door to Gentile inclusion in the church. Paul, in turn, kicked it down, with that radical, yet unrealized assertion: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; slave or free, male or female.” In Christ all those “thems” became “us.”

Peter summed it up, “If God gave THEM the same gift God gave us — Jesus Christ — who was I to hinder God?” But Jesus said it better: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” That’s a lot to ask of you and me; of them and us. But it’s who we ALL are, really, by grace.

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard is James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University. He lectured at the Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina

 

A Christmas to Cherish

Carol, Mitch, Suzanne, Michael Christmas 2015

Carol, Mitch, Suzanne, Michael Christmas 2015

For the first time in many years our family was all together at our home in Charleston for part of the Christmas holidays. We had a glorious time. Our friend, Pete Martin, disrupted his own celebration to come and take pictures. Unfortunately my sister and brother-in-law had to leave before the picture taking session. Christopher, my grandson, and his wife, Raven, delayed their trip back to Ashville, so they could join us.  Michael, Nancy and their children Christina and Colin live near by.

My sister likes to shop in Charleston on the day after Christmas. Suzanne and I were crazy enough to go along. I always go with her. It has become a tradition. Joel, Suzanne’s significant other, made a great cheesecake for the occasion. Everyone had a great time unwrapping presents. My great niece, Megan, and I started a contest many years ago to see who could make a package as difficult as possible to unwrap. This year Megan won, but of course she cheated. Not a good example for a youth minister to set.

This year I put up a tabletop Christmas tree instead of the beautiful monster I have had in years past. Suzanne, Michael and I had a great time shopping at Habitat for Humanity and Goodwill for the perfect inexpensive table to put it on. We fortified ourselves for the ordeal by having lunch at the Tomato Shed. Suzanne found a beautiful piece of red velvet to cover our $4.94 table. The whole thing looked great.

Before Suzanne and Joel hit the road for Murfreesboro, Carol and I joined them at Bessinger’s Bar-b-que for lunch. I think providence had a hand in that decision because we encountered Kitty Robinson, a former Board president at the Charleston Speech and Hearing Center and now the Executive Director of the Historic Charleston Foundation. It was a joy to see her.

Thanks to all for making this Christmas one to cherish. I have a picture of the entire group, but I can’t upload it without it cutting someone out.

Baptist of the Year: Molly Marshall – Robert Parham – EthicsDaily

Baptist of the Year: Molly Marshall | Robert Parham, Molly Marshall, Baptists, Baptist of the Year

Molly Marshall is a Baptist trailblazer in interfaith and intercultural engagement at a time when the cultural and religious tectonic plates are shifting. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)

Molly Marshall is EthicsDaily.com’s pick as Baptist of the Year for 2015.

A Southern Baptist by heritage and academic training, Marshall is now affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA, through her membership at Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas. She is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

She is a Baptist trailblazer in interfaith and intercultural engagement at a time when the cultural and religious tectonic plates are shifting. She leads with word, institutional investment and a global presence.

Challenging the “nativist rhetoric” against immigrant refugees, she wrote in October, “It would be a wonderful Christian witness if each church would sponsor a family. It is an achievable and transformative action. Welcoming the stranger is at the very heart of the Gospel.”

Marshall wrote in September about Central’s partnership with Myanmar Institute of Theology, which was renewed under her watch.

In a predominantly Buddhist country where churches are burned and minorities are persecuted, her task that month was theological training in peacemaking.

The month before, she did something too few Baptists do. She spoke up for earth care and praised Pope Francis’ letter on the environment.

She was at the Baptist World Alliance Congress in Durban, South Africa, in July, delivering a presentation titled “A New Reformation: Challenging Gender Discrimination.”

Equally important, she was visibly networking with the global Baptist community.

Where was she in March? Back in Myanmar – where she asked questions of seminarians returning to the U.S. “How do you think you have cultivated respect for the lived religion of others?” and “Have you gained any intercultural competency?”

And that’s just in 2015. Read her blog, Trinitarian Soundings, for earlier moral reflections as well as her 24 columns that have appeared on EthicsDaily.com.

For example, she wrote in 2013 about improving Jewish-Christian relations.

She provided leadership also in 2013 at an event to facilitate conversation between Baptists and Muslims.

“Too often we demonize a whole tradition because of the actions of a few. A growing suspicion of the Muslim neighbor has become a part of the national discourse, and it will take great intentionality for this to abate. Joint humanitarian work and respectful speech can foster much greater understanding,” she wrote.

Noting Central’s wholehearted support of the event, Marshall added, “God has granted us the gift of common ground that we may plow together – for the love of God and the love of neighbor.”

We need more Baptist institutional leaders who trek globally, speak constructively, work collaboratively for interfaith and intercultural engagement and prepare intentionally seminarians for ministry in a much different world. Marshall has demonstrated such leadership.

For more than a decade, we have made a surprise announcement at the end of the year about our Baptist of the Year.

Don Sewell was EthicsDaily.com’s pick for 2014. He is the director of Faith in Action Initiatives at Baylor Scott and White Health in Dallas, Texas, which has been shipping containers of medical supplies and equipment to trouble zones around the world, including Syrian refugees and Ebola patients and families in Liberia.

Linda Leathers was our 2013 pick for the work she and The Next Door are doing to address the needs of incarcerated women and lower the recidivism rate of those released from the Tennessee Prison for Women. She was an interviewee in our documentary on prison ministry, “Through the Door.”

Glen Stassen was our 2012 Baptist of the Year for his lifetime of work on peacemaking and his focus on the “thick” ethic of Jesus.

Known as the “conscience of Alabama,” Wayne Flynt was named in 2011 for speaking without flinching when Alabama adopted the nation’s meanest anti-immigration law, and for working tirelessly on tax reform.

Babs Baugh was named Baptist of the Year for 2010. She was recognized for her philanthropic leadership. Social justice, moral reformation and advancing the common good happen because moral individuals with generous means make them happen.

We named Emmanuel McCall in 2009 for his leadership on race relations, recognizing his lifetime of commitment. In fact, the title for our documentary on Baptists and race – “Beneath the Skin” – was drawn from a quote by McCall.

Other recipients include David Coffey in 2008 for his leadership on interfaith dialogue between Baptists and Muslims, Al Gore in 2007 for his leadership on the environment, and Paul Montacute in 2005 for his being a global Good Samaritan.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

Editor’s Note: Marshall spoke with EthicsDaily.com media producer Cliff Vaughn about CBTS’ longtime engagement with the Myanmar Institute in a 2012 video interview, highlighting the vibrant Baptist witness that exists in the country. Pictures of Marshall from various global events are available here. Email pictures of Marshall to EthicsDaily.com managing editor Zach Dawes who will consider them for posting.

Baptist Center for Ethics will observe its 25th

Spread Joy in this Season of Joy

This year during this season of joy, we are confronted as never before with the savage reality of terrorism. This reality has caused many to desert their basic beliefs in the goodness of people and freedom of religion. Some would cover the Statue of Liberty with a dark veil. Others would burn The Constitution in order to enjoy a false sense of security. Our security rests in our faith and in the great principles that have made us the envy of the world. Terrorism is by no means the only concerns that darkens the season for many people.

During this hectic holiday season many people are concerned and embarrassed that they cannot match their generosity of the past again this year. There are many people out of work and those that are working are often helping those who aren’t. There is a lot of anxiety in the land.

This year calls for an extra measure of consideration, patience and prayer. We should be careful about depicting those who are out of work as lazy or as just wanting a handout. There is a small number that fit that category, but no more than usual.  There are always those who cheat, but does that excuse my bad behavior? Many among us have lost family members and friends and are still grieving.

Our attitude needs to be one of graciousness and thankfulness. For many of us it is much harder to be a generous receiver rather than a generous giver. We need to develop an attitude of gratitude. Those of us who live in this great land are blessed beyond measure. Our leaders are men and women of great ability, great courage, and a love of country.

It is easy for nerves to become frayed and attitudes to become judgmental. Resist the temptation. Let’s make it a joyous time for everyone. Make an extra effort to be upbeat and uplifting. Let the spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas fill the air. Say Something Nice to every person you meet. Try to lift the spirits of those around you. Hadn’t you rather be remembered for what you scattered than for what you gathered? Remember love is a verb.

What Matters To Me: An Address to Women Explore – Dr. Tom McKibbens

November 12, 2015

The last time I was here to present was in 2004, when I gave a paper entitled “How Religious Language Has Been Used to Usurp the Common Good.”  We were still meeting at Harvard Divinity School at the time, and it was an academic exercise with good discussion afterward.  That exercise was entirely different than this one.  An academic paper allows the writer to stand off at a distance to examine a subject.  There is a third person quality to such a paper.

Today, however, you have asked for something far different.  This is testimony time!  To speak of what matters to me requires a first-person approach.  You have resorted to the tactics of an old-time revival meeting!  Those of us who are presenting are asked to reach way down into our gut and find out what is really behind any academic snobbery we might have, or behind any religious mumbo-jumbo clergy like me might use (or hide behind).

So let’s get started. I have a few stories to tell, which I hope will shine a light on what matters to me and why.   We can start with me as a little four-year-old in a class at church called the Sunbeams.  I grew up in a deep south town in Mississippi in the 1950’s.  The town was Laurel, and it was located in Jones County in the southeastern part of the state.  During the Civil War, Jones County was called “The Free State of Jones” because it seceded from the Confederacy.  Deserters from the southern army knew that if they could make it to Jones County, they were safe.

Laurel was a sawmill town founded by some investors from Ohio who saw dollar marks in those beautiful long-leaf pines that grew fast and created beautiful lumber.  Mr. Mason, who lived on the street behind and above us in a big house, had the bright idea of what to do with all the sawdust accumulating at his sawmill.  He managed to find just the right mixture of glue to mix with the sawdust, and he created a new kind of board, which he called Masonite.

A few blocks from our house was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm, a wealthy white family.  They had a laundress, whose niece  had a beautiful singing voice.  The niece’s name was Leontyne Price.  The Chisholms, along with Paul Robeson, helped pay Leontyne’s expenses at Julliard, and the rest is history.

There was a warm, loving, and beautiful side to Laurel, and I benefited from that.  But there was also a violent, racist side to Laurel, and no one represents that better than another Laurel resident whose name was Sam Bowers.  He co-founded the White Knights of the KKK in Mississippi, and he was one of those responsible for the triple murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, MS, for which he served six years in federal prison.  He also was responsible for the murder of Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, for which he was sentenced to life in prison 32 years after the crime.  He died in prison in 2006.

I mention these things about Laurel because they illustrate the schizophrenic dichotomy of the culture in which I was raised.  On the one hand, there is the picture of a group of children in church singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him.”  And on the other  hand there is the menacing picture of murders and bombings and lynchings of anyone who supported civil rights.

Now back to that four-year-old.  They taught us little choruses that I suppose many of you also learned as children.  One of those songs that took root in me was Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.  It took root, but it took a long time for it to blossom.  I was busy being a kid and growing into adolescence.

Those years were punctuated by some spiritual experiences that I have for the most part kept to myself.  Its not that I am ashamed of them, but that I can’t explain them in words.  All I can say for sure is that I had a number of experiences in which I felt a deep spiritual presence of something or Someone both outside of me and equally inside of me.  They were not scary experiences; rather, they were comforting, reassuring, strengthening.  I have no doubt that those experiences can be explained psychologically as part of my transition through adolescence; or, they could be explained sociologically as part of the southern religious culture in which I was immersed.  But the truth is, I DON’T CARE!  They were life-changing for me, for in those experiences I felt what I believed to be the presence of God.  And that presence was unmistakably nudging me toward some kind of life work that would recognize that Presence and that somehow would help people.  It was as vague as that.

By the time I was in high school, my attention was not primarily on the choice of a vocation.  I excelled in both academics and in sports, and by my senior year I was one of the most sought-after high school football players in America.  I had full scholarship offers from nearly every major football program in America.  And given the trouble Ben Carson got into last week by saying he was offered a scholarship to West Point, I can say that West Point did not offer me a scholarship, because all students at West Point have their tuition paid.  Instead, I was offered an appointment not only to West Point, but also to Annapolis and to Colorado Springs if only I would play football for them.

In the end, I chose to stay close to home, where I had friends and family.  I signed a football scholarship with Ole Miss.  My freshman year was the fall of 1965, only three years since the infamous Ole Miss riots over enrolling James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss.  It was like the smoke had hardly cleared.  By the year I arrived there was only a handful of black students on campus, and they were largely ostracized.  The history department still taught that slavery was benevolent and good for the black race.  You could major in English at Ole Miss (as I did) and never be asked to read one single page of William Faulkner, who was still looked at with suspicion in Oxford, MS.

I largely suppressed those spiritual experiences I mentioned, focused on doing what college athletes do.  I worked hard, and the teams we had were good—very good.  It was not unusual for us to be listed among the top ten teams in America.  Our leader and quarterback was Archie Manning, whose sons Peyton and Eli now play for pro teams and are each a nemesis of the Patriots.

But it was in the context of one of those football games that I was suddenly brought back to reality.  I can remember the moment as clearly as if it were yesterday.  We were playing the University of Houston, a home game for us in Oxford.  The game was historic because in the fall of 1968 a black football player had never played on the field of Hemingway Stadium, and the University of Houston had a star running back who was black.  His name was Warren McVae.  He was known as “Wondrous Warren” by his fans. Playing for Houston, he earned All-American recognition twice.  His specialty was running back kick-offs.

Houston won the coin toss at the beginning of the game, and they chose to receive.  That meant that Warren McVae would stand back in the end zone to receive the opening kick-off.  I remember being on the sideline for the kickoff because I was not on the kick-off specialty team.  When Houston lined up to receive our kick, I suddenly heard behind me a chant that grew louder and louder:  “Kill that nigger; kill that nigger!”  I turned and looked at the stands, and it was a sea of small confederate flags, as I suppose 30,000 fans were chanting as loud as they could.

I can hardly put into words my feelings at that moment.  I was stunned, embarrassed, angry, confused, and bewildered all at the same time.  I remember standing there humming to myself, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.  At that moment I knew that I could not stay.  I had one more year of eligibility on a great team, but I had to get away from that and think.  I had to figure out what was really important to me, and playing on a great college football team was not a high priority.

In January of 1969 I married my wife of now 46 years.  We left Ole Miss and went straight to seminary in Louisville, KY, a place I considered way up north at the time.  I did the normal three-year Master of Divinity program, and then I began another four years as a Ph.D. student.  During those graduate student years, George Buttrick moved to Louisville and began to teach adjunctively at my seminary.  Buttrick had been Preacher to the University here at Harvard’s Memorial Church.  Before that he had served the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York for 25 years.  After I took one of his courses in preaching, Buttrick asked me to be his teaching assistant.

It was Buttrick who convinced me that serving as pastor of a church could enable me to respond positively to those early spiritual experiences.  It was Buttrick who taught me that a courageous church can make a difference in matters of justice and compassion.  He also introduced me to the writing of Frederick Buechner, who is both a novelist and theologian.  Buechner was a member of Buttrick’s church in New York, and it was Buttrick who influenced Buechner to go to Union Seminary.  In one of his books, Buechner said that if you can answer yes to three questions, it’s a good chance that you will be happy in your vocation.  First question:  Are you good at it?  Second question:  Do you like it?  Third question:  Are you helping people?  When I thought about the pastorate, I thought I could answer all three of those questions with a resounding yes.

By the time I finished my Ph.D., my sights were set on serving as a pastor and also teaching.  I have done both throughout my career.  I have had one foot in the church and one foot in academia, and that has been good for me and I hope has served the church and academia well.

So it is clear that church is important to me.  I say that even though I am aware of the failures of the church.  I have stayed with it through the years because I have found that leading a diverse group of individuals to be a congregation, a gathering of people who consciously and consistently practice important rituals at crucial transitions of life, who worship and study together, who consistently give their time and money to help in matters of compassion and justice, who in short create a community that reaches out beyond itself, is no small feat in a culture of individualism.

I care about caring. It matters that when someone is in the hospital, their pastor comes to see them.  I have often thought of the contrast of the medical professionals and the pastor.  The doctors and nurses enter a hospital room equipped with all the instruments of technology.  They have tools for which we are all grateful to measure our blood pressure, our temperature, our fat content, and a whole host of crucial things.  The pastor, on the other hand, enters the hospital room with nothing but a presence and a prayer.  There is a touch of the hand and a word of greeting, and before I leave the hospital room there is usually a question:  would you like for me to pray?  And if the answer is yes, the prayer is short and caring.  There is nothing technological about it, and there is nothing magical about it, but I know from long experience that it matters.

What does not matter to me very much is any list of doctrines.  I suppose that is the reason I have remained a Baptist, even though the name Baptist makes many people think of fundamentalism.  But Baptists, like the UCC and the Unitarians, come together on the basis of a covenant, not a list of doctrines.  That covenant, although it varies from church to church, is basically to care for one another and the world and to make difference in our communities and our larger world.

In one particular November while I was serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worcester, I was hosting an ecumenical and inter-faith Thanksgiving service.  Thanksgiving, more than most of our major holidays, has kept a certain level of integrity.  Halloween is a bit crazy, and Christmas, as much as I love it, has been ridiculously commercialized, but Thanksgiving for many people still maintains a level of integrity.  Even those who do not choose to believe in any God can still pause and be grateful.

So I was hosting a community service of Thanksgiving, and among those I invited to help lead the service was the local Imam of the Islamic Center in Worcester.  He was a nice enough follow, and he told me the week before that he would be happy to lead a prayer, but that he may have a conflict and be unable to attend himself, in which case he would send a representative.  I said OK to that, and thought all was well.

On the evening of the community service, the worship leaders were all gathered in the foyer of the church waiting for the opening hymn during which we would all march in along with the choir.  All the local clergy were there dressed in their finest liturgical colors, and I was nervous as could be.  Why?  Because the Imam had not appeared.  Finally, just before time to begin the procession, word came to me that a representative of the Imam had arrived.  Soon a young man was brought to me, and I said, “Are you from the Imam?”  He looked at me and nodded yes.  So I said, “Good—you stand right there with the other clergy and march in with them.  Sit on a front pew, and when it is time for you, I will give you a signal.  Just watch me.”

Well, what I did not know at that moment was that this poor fellow was not from the Imam.  In fact, he had never been in a church in his life, and he had just arrived from Iraq a few days earlier.  He had been an interpreter for the U.S. army in Iraq, had been threatened and shot in the stomach by another Iraqi, and had endured six surgeries before being granted asylum in the U.S.  He had come to the church that night at the invitation of a friend.  Now he found himself marching into an inter-faith service with the clergy, not knowing that he was to be called upon for prayer!

The sanctuary was full that night, and the service went as planned until time for the representative of the Imam to lead in prayer.  I was sitting on the chancel, and when it was his time to come forward, I nodded to him and motioned for him to come up.  He had a bewildered look, but I continued to motion for him to come up.  Finally he come up on the chancel, walked over to my chair, and whispered, “What am I supposed to do?”  I said, “You are supposed to lead us in prayer!”  He said, “I don’t know what to say.”  I said, “Why don’t you just say what’s on your heart.”

So, he walked to the pulpit, stood before all those people, and was silent for a while.  Then he quietly said, “I have only been in this country for a few days, but I just want to say thank you.”  And then he stepped down and went back to his seat.  You could have heard a pin drop.  It was one of the most eloquent statements of thanksgiving I have ever heard.  It had nothing to do with doctrine.

It reminded me of another moment of thanksgiving that came in an academic setting.  My wife is Dean of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, and therefore I sometimes attend their graduation ceremonies.  One year the speaker for their graduation was Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame.  Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and in his own quiet way he ministered to a vast congregation of children and adults alike.

That day he quietly reminded the graduates of all the people who sacrificed to enable them to be where they were that day.  I’m not sure exactly how he pulled this off, but he said that he wanted to stop in the midst of his address to give those graduates a chance to think of and to be grateful for those who loved them, sacrificed for them, and influenced them for good.  He said, “I’m going to stop now and let us remember them.”  So he stopped speaking, and there was absolute silence in the auditorium…for quite a while.  He just stood there with all those young people looking up at him, perhaps remembering the many times they had tuned in to see him on television while they were growing up.  Soon, however, I could hear a sniff over to one side, then another sniff in the middle, and soon there were sniffs all over the auditorium.  There was hardly a dry eye in the place!

So I suppose I can say that for me, gratitude matters.  I add it to my list of things that matter:  justice, compassion, authentic church that cares, and a sense of gratitude for life.

Six months this very day my wife of nearly 47 years was in the ER of Beth Israel Hospital having a stroke.  She would stay in Beth Israel for eleven days and then transfer to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown for five weeks.  Her right arm and leg were paralyzed. Thankfully, her mind was fine and face was not affected.  But we have spent the last six months working together in therapy and rehab.

Last week I was asked to speak at a Tuesday evening worship service at Briarwood Retirement Community, where many of our former church members and friends live.  Various friends were asking me about how Donna was doing, and a friend who was playing the piano that evening asked me, “What have you learned from this experience?”  The first thing out of my mouth was this:  “I have learned what is important.”

Those we love, family, friends who care, people who pray for you and write cards and offer words of encouragement.  Little things like this matter.  There are many times when I, as a pastor and teacher, feel quite helpless to make a difference in the world.  At those times I need to be reminded that there is a difference between MY world and THE world.  I can make a difference in my world, and perhaps, in ways I can hardly fathom, it will make a difference in THE world.

I hope so.

 

 


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