With Pentecost Sunday come and gone, the Sunday worship calendar of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ turns towards what some call the common year. The color of worship turns to green, a sign of the growth of Christians and churches made possible when we give ourselves over to the empowering ways of the Spirit of God. Whenever the Spirit comes into your life, you quickly discover there is nothing commonabout the year, month, week, day or second, for that matter, for the Spirit has places for us to go and servant-hearted work for us to do that we might not have chosen on our own. To say we have given ourselves over to the Spirit is to say we want to grow to be more like Jesus, whose Spirit this is, after all. It is to say we are ready, at least, to want to get ready to be Jesus’ disciples. It is to say it has dawned on us that we cannot be like the salt of the earth or the light of the world unless the salt and light of Jesus is resident and growing in our souls.
It is to find ourselves living in an uncommon season of wanting to grow in holiness as God’s own as God continues God’s Emmanuel project — God coming to love and redeem the world in person — even through disciples like you and me. What a gift it is, this greening of our souls.
LR / Grief, Fierce and True Robert W Guffey jr May 9, 2019
Grief is sometimes a fierce companion; love mixed with tenacity, patience (and sometimes surrender) is what gets you through.
There are days grief will make you think you are losing your mind.
It's more likely what you are gaining, instead, is the deep awareness of the jagged rupture loss has brought to your soul and the absolutely non-negotiable, honest work you have to do in naming the loss and letting grief do its painful, yet ultimately healing, work.
We live in a time in the world which is full of grief. We live in a time with the possibility of wonder, too. God is present in both edging us on toward the truth that even grief can yield to wonder and (some) pain can make us the kind of people better able to love without reservation.
LR / The Holiness of God in Others Leaves No Room for Violence Robert W Guffey jr October 30, 2018
In no universe is anti-Semitism or racism or all the other -isms that categorize human beings for the purposes of exclusion and persecution acceptable. When God created the world, the Bible does not say, “On the fifth day, God created this race” and “On the sixth day, God created” another. The Bible says God created humankind – period. God created human beings in the image of God – that is, with the capacity to be known and loved by God and to know and love God and others. Though the Bible has been used selectively, and perniciously, to support and promote anti-Semitism, racism and the oppression of women, the LGBT community and others, the whole witness of scripture is one of liberation and inclusion. The way Jesus treated women broke barriers and convention. The makeup of the church the Spirit put together throughout the timeline of the Book of Acts included persons of all kinds. An informed reading of the names of the persons Paul cites in his letters as partners in the faith is astounding. It is clear that God decided to create a beautiful world of complexity among humanity and that human beings have taken far too long to read and follow the mind of God when it comes to loving one another – and to living by the truth that “God so loved the (whole) world” and that Christ died for all of us, not just some.
Likewise, there is no place and no reading of scripture to justify or endorse violence against other persons because of who God created them to be. To endorse violence against others, whether it be in the context of families or communities or the institutions we depend on in order to build a safe and just world is not only unacceptable but, as persons of faith, it is a betrayal of the crucified God we claim to follow and Who dwells in us as the body of Christ called to make God’s love visible.
As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us commit ourselves each day to pray that God will use us as salt and light in a world that has far too many dark places, places that reside in every human heart, to some measure. Let us be those who are willing to speak the words of mercy and justice, and to act in ways that give witness to the world of our allegiance to the love of God which is our surest defense and greatest consolation.
LR / It Is Who You Are and What You Do Robert W Guffey jr October 23, 2018
“A single person is missing for you and the whole world is empty.”
The line is by Joan Didion and is found in her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of loss written after the sudden death of her husband and the terminal illness of her adult daughter. I have held on to that line since first reading it ten years ago and have it underlined for remembrance. I thought of it again this past week as we ministered to friends and family in Christ who are grieving, and as we, too, grieve for the loss of cherished friends and family. Those whom we have loved are missing and our world is emptier. We miss them. We miss their voices. We miss the tangible signs of loving that come through deep, rich relationships.
At the same time, in the paradox of being human, in the midst of absence, the church of the Lord Jesus is called to gather as presence. We are called to be God’s love made visible to the world. We have been called to be the body of Christ, to show the love of Christ. We have the privilege of bearing the heart of Christ, broken for love of another. We are to be the arms of Christ, embracing those who hurt and the feet of Christ walking alongside sharing the pathways of grief. You know what I mean.
For those who grieve -- and that will be all of us sooner or later -- the love shared by family and friends who become like family will be met with gratitude. Your capacity to love helps create room for sadness to be voiced and for grief to move forward in doing what God intended. Grief is God’s way of healing human hearts. It is real, sometimes remaining quietly in our souls and sometimes coming upon us in God-when-will-it-stop tears. Surrounded by the love of God and the love of the children of God, however slowly at first, God is at work turning our darkness into light, redeeming our current circumstance through the power of God’s love.
Keep going, bg
(c) 2018 Robert W Guffey jr email@example.com
LR /In Our Current Situation in the World, This Is Still True Robert W Guffey jr October 14, 2018
If you want the world to be a good place, you need to live to your best to be a good person.
If you want the world to be a loving place, you need to live to your best to be a loving person.
If you want the world to be a trusting place, you need to live to your best to be trustworthy and trusting.
If you want the world to be an honest place, you need to live to your best to be an honest person.
If you want the world to be a healing place, you need to live to your best to be honest about your own brokenness, need, and need for others.
If you want the world to be a friendly place, you need to live to your best to be a friend worth having.
If you want the world to be whole, gracious, and united, you need to live to your best to be open, graceful, and willing to accept others as children of God.
If you want the world to be a safe place, you need to live to your best to be a person who stands up for justice for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and for those who can but know it makes a difference in heart and soul when we stand together.
If you want the world to value forgiveness and reconciliation, you need to live to your best to be a forgiving person, which means, in part, being willing to face up to and admit when you have been wrong and asking to be forgiven yourself.
If you want to be the kind of leader God honors, you need to live to your best to be a person who serves, who can lead not with power but with authority based on integrity and love for God and others – narcissism is the antithesis of true leadership.
Your world will become how you see it, how you think it, how you live it, defined by your courage, humility, and the power of God’s cross-shaped love resident and alive in you.
(c) 2018 Robert W Guffey Jr firstname.lastname@example.org
LR /"The Flood Never Gets the Last Word" (-bguffey.09.22.2018)
The things we witness in a lifetime the experiences we never imagine could become ours for we are too smart too smug too gifted why it’s outside our experience so it must not be possible ... it will never happen to us
But it will in this world where there are none good but God and God is often silent and we sit and wait for our salvation
Oh yes it will
For we have misunderstood the way this life can be and have listened to preachers of easy religion and prophets of consumerism and others who ignore the truth that “the sun rises on the evil and the good and the rain falls on the just and the unjust” no matter your tribe
This life visited by the power of mystery and randomness and random sin and the cumulative power of our decisions and those of others some of whom we will never meet and some who have taken this life and its purposes far too casually and the great unstoppable currents of nature too
And so ...
We submit to the flood or we band together in humility and trust and stand against the dark and shine the light of love and go and do our best to be the lens of God’s fierce healing and God’s mind and heart and hands and feet and pocketbook at work in unifying love, God doing God’s redemption thing for us and with us and in us and through us and even if we fail it will only be for a season for our end game is secure for nothing can overcome the love of God and God’s best and final intentions for God’s children, and that is all of us.
The floods of this life never get the last word.
The last word belongs to the Word and the Word is Light and the darkness can never overcome this Light, this Love of God, creative pronouncement that holds us close in the heart of God and drenches us with grace and hope and, finally, peace, not like the world gives but the transcendent peace of God.
Keep going. Fear not.
(-2 Corinthians 4:1, 12)
(c) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. 2018 email@example.com
LR / Questions and the Love of God Robert W Guffey jr August 1, 2018
Preparing for this summer’s sermons on the “Questions God Asks” has affirmed for me again the truth of how deeply God cares for human beings. Though we sometimes may struggle to accept God’s love or have cause to question the reality of God’s love, the scripture is clear. God is love and God loves human beings, without exception or modifier. In his book,Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, Brian Mahon, my major professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, emphasized this truth by sharing part of an address Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave to ministerial students at Candler:
“You know what your problem is? I will tell you what it is. You just don’t have any idea how low God’s standards are. They are very low…very, very low, indeed. Remember, you cannot do anything to make God love you more, and you cannot do anything to make God love you less.”
By that I think Archbishop Tutu was emphasizing the grace of God. In seminary, they taught us the phrase “the grace of God” meant “God’s unmerited favor.” There is nothing you have to do to earn God’s love. There is nothing you can do to earn God’s love. God’s love, and the salvation it brings, is a gift. What do you do when someone gives you a gift? You accept it. When you have been loved imperfectly, or been abused, by those who raised you or who you have let come near, it’s sometimes hard to hear God’s message of love and acceptance. But it’s true and can change your life and how you experience the world to the ultimate. Anyone who tries to tell you differently is preaching another gospel.
Grace and peace, BG
(c) Robert W Guffey Jr 2018 / firstname.lastname@example.org
LR / What the Church Can Do Robert W Guffey jr
October 4, 2017
What terrible news to wake up to on Monday. And, what can we do in response to the evil that took so many lives, brought suffering to thousands, and still shocks the soul? In the immediacy of now, I find my soul needs to be honest and grieve deeply over what has happened and what is happening in Las Vegas and around the world through the actions of violent people. For now, I am praying for those wounded and grieving, and for the first responders and medical professionals who work valiantly to save life. I know they, too, will need help healing from the traumatic realities they have witnessed. I am praying for people of faith to be fearless in caring for others and not to be afraid to be “salt and light” for Christ serving this broken world with abandon.
In facing times like this, I often return to a small book written by Ann Weems, Presbyterian poet laureate and liturgist. The book, Psalms of Lament, is a powerful collection of poems Weems wrote as she grieved the tragic death of her son on his 21st birthday. She had entered a darkness where, for a while she could not find God. Later, she shared the collection with her friend, Walter Brueggemann, who encouraged her to share it with others. And so, this honest, helpful book was born. At the beginning, she writes these words:
In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever
to those who mourn.
He stands now throughout all time,
this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
"Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted."
He stands with the mourners,
for his name is God-with-us.
"Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted." Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel's eyes.
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls
of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.
In seasons of grief and in times when chaos and darkness have seemed to have the upper hand, this image of God-with-us has power for me, too. Times will come to all when the best we can do is try to stay near one another and, as we are ready, allow ourselves to be loved by those who can see, humbly, the stars of God a bit clearer, and who can love us with compassion rooted deeply in the heart of God.
In the immediacy of right now, for the church, there may be no more important part we can play in tragedies small and large than to love the world in and through its pain and be present as Christ was present to the world. In doing so, we may find God coming near and learn what our ancient brother Paul was trying to say when he wrote to the church in Corinth that “The greatest of these is love.”
(c) 2017 Robert W Guffey Jr email@example.com
LR / The Speech That Transcends the Storm Robert W Guffey jr September 16, 2017
At some level, most everyone I know these days has some storm or grief affecting them or someone they love dearly. The practices we have been given of worship, service in Jesus’ name, prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation, and spiritual friendship make a life-giving difference to those in need, and to those in whom God is digging deep wells of compassion to love, serve, and care. Practicing the biblical admonition to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) is helpful for me to remember. I hear in Paul’s words the call to be present to what is real in each other’s lives, to honor one another, and to go forward together in all seasons of life.
Today, I’m remembering, too, what Walter Brueggemann calls the “odd speech” of the children of God, from the book of Lamentations:
"I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. YET this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for the Lord’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for the LORD.'" (Lamentations 3:19–24)
Amen to that, brothers and sisters. In Christ is hope and hope that is assured, no matter the circumstance of our lives. Thank you for sharing together in this hope and for opening your life as God’s vessel of hope for others.
(c) 2017 Robert W Guffey Jr firstname.lastname@example.org
LR / Jesus and the Way Things Are Robert W Guffey Jr August 26, 2017
Tomorrow morning (August 27) in worship, we will conclude our summer journey of sermons from the Gospel of Luke. The text for the day comes from Luke 24:44-53 -- Jesus' parting words for and blessing upon his disciples. Luke concludes by writing, " While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God." I've always thought it something of a paradox, these words from our dear brother Luke. Jesus is leaving them, yet they are filled with joy. You would think they would be weeping, complaining, or mourning anew. After all, they had just gotten him back. That the power of Rome and the finality of the grave could not keep him down was stunning enough to try to comprehend. Now, instead of marching into the centers of earthly power as the One whom death cannot conquer, leading inspired multitudes to overthrow those who carried out the injustice of his death sentence, Jesus blesses the disciples, calls them to holy vocation -- "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations ... You are witnesses of these things" -- then disappears from their sight. "My ways are not your ways," says the Lord, and the disciples are back in school again, at the feet of the Master.
If the disciples were like me, I think they would have preferred that Jesus do the heavy lifting of the practical, difficult, day-to-day dealing with humanity's inhumanity all by Himself. Instead, Jesus, whom these disciples love and trust with every iota of their being, calls them (and us, too, I think) to witness in word and deed who Jesus is and what it is Jesus is about in the redemption of the world. Luke says they heard Jesus, watched him go, then worshipped God with great joy. Maybe it was because when you have grown as close to Jesus as they had, you can't help but overflow with joy. Maybe it was because when you have wept and hidden in fear in some upper room hiding place, then the One who you are grieving shows up and stuns you with acceptance and peace beyond any peace you have ever known, your life can never be the same. Maybe it was because, though they had been hardheaded and slow to understand what he had been trying to tell them throughout their years together about God, himself, and the way things really are, the presence of the Risen Lord had fundamentally changed them from the inside out into people who were totally sold out to this God who keeps God's promises. In itself, the way they responded was an amazing and powerful witness of who Jesus is and what Jesus can do in a life, even in your life and mine.
To know what happened to them next, all you have to do is read our dear brother Luke's next volume, "The Acts of the Apostles" (acts they accomplished thanks to the power -- "from on high" -- of the Holy Spirit, I would add). Or you could take a long view of world history and see the effects of the presence of Christ in millions of people, people who, when we are at our best, loving and trusting Jesus with every iota of our being, really are wholly changed and being changed to be more like Jesus. We become living reflections of the Risen Lord, and worship and joy abound.
So... join us for worship tomorrow (or, if you're not in Norfolk, look around -- Jesus has branches most everywhere). We'll be the ones gathered on the corner of Freemason and Bank Streets in downtown Norfolk, VA, praying God's best plans and intentions come true on earth as it is heaven, and, humbly, asking that God would somehow use us, of all people, and you, too, in the process. Joy awaits.
Grace and peace, b guffey
(c) 2017 Robert W Guffey Jr email@example.com
LR / Love Robert W Guffey Jr August 16, 2017
Hate may fill the hole in a wounded soul, but just for a while. It may fire a sense of purpose and drive. It may be the admission ticket to a sense of belonging, but hate of other human beings can never coexist for long in the same space with the love, grace, mercy and justice that are the character of God. Eventually, one will overtake the other.
If hate wins, it will consume you until nothing left of you as God intended will be recognizable. That's what hate does. It destroys the soul even as it fools you into thinking you are right and superior to others. Pray it's the love, grace, mercy and justice of God to which you surrender. It will save your soul. It will give you a life worth living in the grand communion of the children of God "from whom every family on earth takes its name." It will convert you to the politics of Jesus, which are neither left nor right.
The politics of Jesus are shaped by the cross of Christ and look like the Powerful-become-powerless that sacrificial love would reign. It looks like "Bless those who persecute you." It looks like "Love one another" and "Love your enemy" too. It's colorblind in its application while being fully reflective of the magnificent panoply of the colors of humanity.
It opens pathways to forgiveness, including the forgiveness of self we all need to love and respect one's self as the beloved child of God, too. It motivates integrity in relationships and advocacy for the young, the old, the hurting, the hungry, the poor and the poor in spirit.
It is full of the light of Christ which illumines the Way to eternal life and stands against the gates of hell unleashed through anger, a misappropriated sense of outrage, or just the resident evil latent or active in human hearts.
"Let the peace of God rule in your hearts." Open your heart. Reach out your hand. Let God who we have come to know in the crucified Jesus have God's way in you.
Still a pilgrim, bg
(c) 2017 Robert W Guffey Jr firstname.lastname@example.org
LR / Leadership That Looks More Like Jesus Robert W Guffey Jr July 1, 2017
Recently, I wrote the list of leadership characteristics to be found below, then decided not to post. So many of us are seeing the world these days through the lens of politics and division -- too much "us/them" -- that I was concerned not to light up more excuses for ad hominem monologs, or to be seen as throwing stones.
After further reflection, though, as one of those who is charged to follow and to encourage others to follow the Way, I changed my mind. The model of leadership I see in Jesus presents a paradox worth offering again and again for reflection. I see Jesus' way of leading affirming, challenging, and offending the ways of the world. It did 2000 years ago. It does today. It does so particularly when we decide winning justifies any method or cost and means are justified by end goals. I don't know about you, but I need to see and hear Jesus everyday. I need the help of the Spirit to follow the Way. I want to not grow so comfortable with or arrogant to the way of Jesus that even Jesus fails affirm, challenge, and offend.
I believe Jesus presents a third way out of division. When I look at the social and political demographics of the disciples, take a good look at the broad backgrounds of the peoples with whom Jesus interacted in the gospels, read the Book of Acts, and look at the lists of the Apostle Paul's companions named in his letters, I see the Spirit bringing together a hugely diverse world of human beings united in the shared human need for relationship with God and for conversion in how human beings see and treat others and the created world. To follow the way of Jesus is to find ways to love one another within the body of Christ that allow us to remain together, even when we disagree. I know that is idealistic and I know that, in this world, the body of Christ will likely remain splintered and fractured, but I refuse not to pray for the redemption of the world and for humility to change hearts, including my own. "As it is in heaven, so on earth" is in the prayer our Lord has taught us and that many of us recite every Sunday, and some every day.
So, in the spirit of how I see the third way of Jesus, here are ten qualities of leadership I pray for in leaders, at all levels, private and public, sacred and secular in this mixed-up world. Please feel free to add qualities you see in the Lord Jesus.
Your humble servant, bguffey
A uniting vision, empathy, clear-headed thinking, integration of head and heart, spiritual depth, decisiveness under pressure, non-anxious presence, a gift for developing and empowering the gifts and talents of others, able to transcend the traps of small minds and mindedness and process withering attack from the adverse mind, knowing when to speak and when to listen
What would you add?
LR / The Way of Jesus Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 21, 2017
I’m looking forward to our next six Wednesday nights at Freemason Street as we launch into a “summer of stories.” Tonight (Wednesday, June 21), we’ll view “The Way,” a movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen. Released in theaters in 2010, “The Way” tells the story of a father, Tom, coming to know his son, Daniel, who has died in an accident, while discovering a deeper sense of the meaning of his own life, too. The title refers both to the Christian pilgrimage through Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, and to the personal journey of Tom, and a diverse group of pilgrims he meets along the way. The movie is warm, real, funny, and adventurous.
One of the challenges Tom has to confront while walking the Camino is whether or not he will accept the friendship of others. As a rich, successful North American, Tom is used to standing alone, on his own two feet. On the Camino, he will learn the importance of community and a life that includes others.
The lesson Tom learns is an important one for the church, too, don’t you think?
John Wesley is to have said that Christianity is social. By that, he meant, while it is important to come to terms with your relationship with God, you cannot experience fully what it means to be a Christian all by yourself.
To answer the call to follow Jesus is to say “Yes” to life within a matrix of relationships as the body of Christ. Being a Christian means coming to care about other people, and the way they live, love, hunger, need friendship, hurt, and need God. It is to seek intentionally to grow in love and respect for others.
It is to be about the messiness of negotiating community as servants to one another.
It is to know that we are never alone whether we are rejoicing or weeping, we will do these together.
It is to seek to understand the other and, sometimes, to respectfully disagree with one another when it seems all we have in common is that we have been called by God.
God cares deeply about how we treat one another. We are called to this vocation – this Way – of life with Jesus, shaped through worship, prayer, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and service, which we practice together. I’m glad that’s the way God planned it to be and grateful to be walking this way with you.
LR / The Cross
rwg / june 15, 2017
At the very least, the cross and resurrection mean nothing that happens in this world is totally beyond redemption. That is the truth that has kept us going even through hell and back for more years than I care to count.
Companions who become like family walk alongside.
Like Apostle Paul, we bear in our bodies and souls the marks of real life. The good news is we persevere and, even, grow, for we do not walk alone and have a Savior who knows firsthand what it is like to be human.
grace and peace,
(c) 2017 Robert W Guffey Jr email@example.com
LR / 10 Ways to Make a Difference (Small Things Matter) bguffey May 27, 2017
The Bible says, “Perfect love casts out fear,” but there seems to be plenty of which to be afraid these days.
Taking appropriate steps to be safe is common sense. Letting fear rule our behavior to the point of seeing all strangers as potential sources of peril, or barricading ourselves, physically, emotionally, and spiritually from the world makes no sense for people of faith. So much more is expected of us. Time to trust the perfect, suffering, reconciling love of God. It is a love which says "No" to the forces that diminish life and says "Yes" to love, even at great cost. It is a love that will change us until we find we cannot help but be burdened by the pain of others and find ourselves asking God to use us to make a difference with all that we are, say, and do.
“Perfect love casts out fear.”
Few of us will be called on to make ultimate sacrifices, but some members of our family -- the human family -- are called to make those sacrifices in love every day. For most of us living in the first world, we will be called on to make the difference for love in smaller, quieter ways. Still, small things matter. It's the tiny drip, drip, drip of water that wears away stone, and the slow, insistent growth of tender blades of grass that, over time, turns concrete into rubble.
You and I can make a difference every day, even in ways as small and humble as these:
1. We can awaken to thank God for the day and ask God to cultivate in us a spirit of gratitude and grace through which to meet the day.
2. We can ask the Spirit to move through us during the day to help us see other human beings through the eyes of Jesus.
3. We can take the initiative to greet and to speak thoughtfully to strangers, especially service workers who help us throughout the day.
4. We can offer the gospel in thoughtful words and deeds, and pray God will let us see the opportunities to do this given to us throughout our day. We can include in words and deeds how we spend our money and how we give our time.
5. We can be the ones to follow The Letter of James’ teachings on the power of the tongue and be sure what we say reflects the heart of Jesus growing in us. We can refuse to be held captive to those who use the power of the tongue to make us afraid, too.
6. We can take to lunch a friend, colleague, or family who you know has been neglected, bruised, or wounded by a church. God can use you to restore a relationship between the person or family to faith that reflects God's heart and makes a meaningful difference.
7. We can ask God to identify for us those people who we seem to have the hardest time accepting as God’s children and ask the Lord to show us what we have in common.
8. We can forgive those who we find ourselves in conflict with while, also, asking God to help us set appropriate boundaries. (Some people bother us. Some people would abuse us or others, if we let them. To those people, it is within God’s will for us to say, “No.”)
9. We can commit ourselves to be 24/7 disciples of the ways of Jesus, that we become faithful, joyful, hope-full “doers of the word and not listeners only.”
10. We can close the day thanking God for being God, for bringing us through and giving us faith and courage to be made a little more like Jesus, who died to set human beings free, every day.
LR / How Will You Be Quiet Today? bguffey May 22, 2017
One of the benefits of being in Enterprise, MS, during our beloved Sue's last days and weeks, was BEING IN ENTERPRISE, where it was easier to be quiet, to think, pray, listen, and write than amid the demands of life in the city. I'm taking as one of Sue's final gifts a reminder to ask myself as days begin: "How will you be quiet today?" The scripture indicates it's in the quiet places (in heart and world) that the still, small, voice of God will most likely be heard.
LR / "The Friendliest Man in Town" bguffey May 18, 2017
(Hi, All. I shared this story with our church family today by email newsletter and want to share it with you, too. As we celebrate Sue's life and healing, we are remembering, also, the life partnership of Frank and Sue, too. I’m grateful for you. –bg)
The funeral for Angie and Patti’s mother, Sue, on Monday, in Mississippi, was a strong, loving tribute to their mother, and a time of gratitude to God for the gift from God she was. Sue let God’s love flow through her and made a difference in the lives of others. Her excellence and authenticity in caring, teaching, hospitality, creativity and grace will linger in all who knew her. Those who know those who knew her will be affected, too, for that’s the way life is. The good God does in us has the potential to touch others. That’s worth remembering and honoring in each of us, gifts to one another from God.
After the service, we spent the day with extended family remembering and re-telling favorite stories of Sue, and about Frank, Angie’s father, too. One story in particular reminded me and reinforced the truth that both of her parents, Sue and Frank, were formidable friends of Jesus on mission for God.
From 1947-1949, soon after finishing high school, Frank enlisted and served in the US Army, where he was a corporal and company clerk in Korea. Frank once told us he had never been so cold in his life as he was on the day his plane landed in Korea and the plane’s door was opened. It was bitter. Frank, being Frank, though, more than made the best of the situation. Though he had grown up very poor in a small town in the Mississippi delta during the Great Depression, there was always something different about Frank. Once you met him, you never forgot him. He truly never met a stranger. He had a way of seeing something special in everyone. His energetic personality matched his bright red hair and young-Mickey-Rooney-as-Andy-Hardy looks. Frank was one-of-a-kind at developing rich friendships with everyone, and, especially, later, for over thirty years, with students, as a Baptist campus minister.
One day, not long after Frank was back home, the postman stopped by and knocked on the door. He had a letter addressed to: “The Friendliest Man in Town, Drew, Mississippi.” Everyone at the post office knew exactly for whom that letter was meant. It was meant for Frank Horton. Frank opened the letter and found it was from one of his army buddies who was writing to thank Frank for reaching out to him in friendship during their time of service. He wrote, also, that he had lost Frank’s home street address, but knew if he sent it to “The Friendliest Man in Town,” it would get to him. He was right.
Frank was friendly with the zeal and energy of someone who deeply loved God, knew God’s love, and wanted to let God’s love live through him. Frank was friendly, and had a spine of steel, too, as students, faculty, and churches in Baton Rouge saw when he was targeted during the civil rights era for including students of all races in his ministry at LSU. Frank was thoroughly convinced the friendship of Christ was for every single person, no matter who they might be or what other people thought of him or them. Frank was friendly and fierce as a channel of the blessing and grace we can know through God in Christ. Frank and Sue met in college and together they made two lifetimes of difference in lives that is continuing to be felt through generations of family, friends, and former students, literally, around the world.
This Sunday, as we thank God for all that has been, and as we “seek to transform lives by worshiping God, building relationships, developing disciples and serving our neighbors” today, I’ll be thanking God for Frank and Sue for showing me the life-changing friendship of Christ and praying to continually be growing to become that kind of person for Christ, too. I hope you will do the same – thank God for the person or persons in your life who showed you the best of Christ. Pray that you will become that kind of person for others. That’s the way life is for people of faith, you know. Faith is shared through those who are witnesses of God and God’s love, and whose faith is a living witness passed on in love to others.
LR / Changing Plans bguffey May 9, 2017
With our sweet, tough Sue defying the laws of biology and medical expectations, we are trusting God and changing plans.
Please continue to remember Angie and Patti, as they provide nursing care to their mother as their husbands return to work for a while.
As for Angie and me, we are living in three cities right now, Enterprise, MS, Conway, SC, and Norfolk, VA, all inhabited by beloved children of God (and one house that will sell eventually). I arrived in Conway after midnight last night/this morning and have spent today mowing three weeks worth of grass, and remembering that nature carries on and houses still need tending and repair, whether people live in them or not.
To the good, I woke to the aroma of rich coffee -- thank God for coffee makers with timers -- the sights of a giant blue jay washing its spiky crested head in the fleur de lis concrete bird bath outside the kitchen window, Apache blackberries loading the canes of my plants, my cuttings of French Lace weigela wild with sprouts and blooms -- and two needy cats who look as if they are not so sure I belong here and wondering what I did with their Angie.
As I prepare to leave soon for Norfolk, and another late night of driving, I am thinking that, had my beloved mother-in-law, who is playing by her own rules to the last, been President, there would be world peace by now. No world leader I know of could have kept up with this Steel Magnolia.
LR / Of Upper Rooms and Church Signs bguffey May 3, 2017
Riding the back roads of Mississippi this week, I saw a sign in front of a baptist church with this question and proclamation: "Are you ready? Jesus is coming!"
Actually, that is only partially true.
Just as the disciples in the upper room discovered post-resurrection, Jesus is already here! In fear, they hid thinking they were all alone in the world, then Jesus appeared to them. In their fear and grief, they could not see He had been there all the time.
It is the same with us. Jesus has come and Jesus will come. We can live now in Christ and look forward to being in Christ, which is to say: Stop waiting and preparing. Start living the kingdom now. Jesus has come. Jesus will come again.
LR / The Good Leader bguffey May 3, 2017
The meta-message of the Revelation to John is the same message God has been trying to get into human heads and hearts since the beginning: "Do not be afraid. I am with you." Healthy worship and discipleship practices open access to the peace that passes all understanding and transcends the chaos and anxiety of the moment. These connect the now to that which is true in God's kingdom, yet not yet fully realized in our present experience.
Good leaders never manipulate others through fear and anxiety. They name the joy or challenge of the current reality, then lead in ways that reduce anxiety and fear, even at the cost of their personal benefit, pleasure or, in the extreme case, their lives. That is the way of Jesus - the Christ-like leader. In the world and season in which we are living, these are the leaders we need now, more than ever.
(c) 2017 Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
“A PRAYER FOR THOSE WHO GRIEVE AND THOSE WHO GRIEVE WITH THOSE WHO GRIEVE” -bguffey
And so, O Lord, we come again to words that define our humanity
“So death is at work in us, But life is at work in You.”
In You is the Breath of Life.
In You is the Light of the World.
In You is the Bread of Heaven.
In You is the Way to Peace.
In You is the Hope of the World.
In You is the Joy of the Everlasting.
In You, the brief breath of this life finds eternal expression.
In You, the Sabbath rest we desperately need is finally realized.
In You, all that was and is and will be elevates the joys of this life and transcends its pain and sorrows, carrying us to our final resting home, in You.
And, in You, we gratefully pray and await to see how You will redeem this moment in our lives.
(Inspired by and written for AEH, disciple and friend of Jesus, still greatly missed. -bg)
(c) 2017 Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
Sue's home, "September Song"
LR / About Grief and Being Human Robert W. Guffey, Jr. 4/28/2017
This week our families have gathered in Mississippi due to a significant change in the health of Angie and Patti's mother, Sue, who is nearing the close of a long and faithful life as a child of God, sister, wife, mother, teacher, grandmother and gracious friend. We are in place to be present to her and help in partnership with an excellent, compassionate hospice team. Your thoughts and prayers for Sue will be appreciated.
In my life and ministry, I have learned a lot about grief. What I have learned that is most important about grief can be summed up in a few sentences:
Grief has no rules… and that is okay.
Grief will be a most unexpected companion.
Grief is real and a sign of love.
Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time.
Grief can become a cause for gratitude.
Grief can become a way we honor those we have lost.
Grief tells us we are human, but being human is who God created us to be – and only a little lower than the angels.
When others are grieving, what we do is usually more important than what we say – and the most important thing to do is simply show up with love and care. (While well-meant in the saying, God did not need another angel, she or he may be in a better place but those who grieve the loss are not. An “I love you” or “I’m sorry” and, where appropriate, a hug says it all.)
It is okay to grieve a loss even as we celebrate the life of the person we have lost. We can say “THANKS BE TO GOD” for those we have loved and for the perfect healing they now experience in the presence of God as children of God. We can say, also, “O Lord, be with us, too, as we memorialize their lives in our own, and as we go forward with our lives, learning to trust and love You as your very own children.”
Thanks be to God.
Grace and peace, bg
(photo of “September Song,” Sue’s Mississippi home)
(c) 2017 Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
LR / Letting Go Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 23, 2017
Richard Rohr, in "Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction," challenges our cultural and individual obsessions with ego and self, which have left us pretty much in a mess everywhere. Here's what stands out for me in this third week in Lent:
"The notion of a spirituality of subtraction comes from Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican mystic. He said the spiritual life has much more to do with subtraction than it does addition. Yet I think Christians today are involved in great part in a spirituality of addition.
"...You almost wonder if true spirituality is even possible in this culture. Everything gets turned around so that we’re in the driver’s seat: God, the Bible, [worship], the Church, people and prayer. Everything is there to foster my own ego and its need to feel good about itself.
"...Gospel people don’t need to hang on to anything. For them, the ego is out of the way. They’ll make a difference in the world precisely because they don’t need to. They don’t need to be first, they don’t need to be important, they don’t need to be number one. They don’t need to be rich, secure, popular, so they can do what God has told them to do. They can be obedient, God can move through them with power. That’s why spirituality is always about letting go."
Every week I hear from people obsessed with addition and control. Sometimes I think it is as if they think the more “stuff” they amass around themselves, then the safer, happier and more pain-free their lives will be. To my disappointment, I sometimes find that I am not immune from that affliction. Jesus comes to save us from the “sin which so easily entangles” including the intrusions of our own ego-centered fears, anxieties, destructive thoughts and harmful behaviors—to save us from ourselves. “On the spiritual path, we cannot ‘fix’ ourselves. Our hope is truly in God. Looking toward the Holy One, falling in love with the Ultimate will allow the letting go of ego.”
In letting go, we find that for which we truly are searching. In dying in Christ and to Christ, we learn to live.
Still learning, bg
LR / Life Together Robert W Guffey, Jr October 2, 2016
These words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his work, “Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship,” informed my thoughts for today’s worship. Bonhoeffer set a high mark for what the church should be, and not just for the good of Christians but for all human beings.
I am amazed at Bonhoeffer’s ability to keep first things in front of him – that is, to be able to hold to the vision of the Church as the community of love, “reverence, humility, and joy” – while around him life in Europe of the 1930s and ’40s was descending into the crucible of intolerance and hate.
“Beloved, let us love one another” is a lesson that I believe we must constantly set before one another, “for love – best, only and true – comes from God” (1 John 4:7). Such love holds the power to transform and redeem for it is not only meant for those who consider themselves the friends of God. It is also for those we think of as “other” and “enemy,” too. -rwg __________________________________________
“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in [far off] lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went ‘with the multitude…to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept the holyday’ (Ps. 42:4) …. The heavenly fellowship, shared by exile[s]… the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
“The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord, in reverence, humility, and joy…how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God’s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!”
LR / PRAYERS TODAY FOR NYC Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 19, 2016
Our family loves New York. It is woven into our lives like another home. All at the same time, it is familiar and exotic, affirming and extreme, filled with friends and utter strangeness, highly sacred and utterly secular, the ultimate in art that makes the soul soar and poverty that makes the heart weep, full of people who will give their lives to save a stranger and people who are motivated by ruthlessness and greed. It is full of people who are brusque and expert complainers -- like every place we have lived -- but, like most places we have lived, if you will stick with most of them for a while, you will learn their stories and they will begin to allow your story to become a part of the tapestry of their lives.
New York is a place that will make you think, feel, laugh, cry, yearn to do your best, exhilarate, exhaust, and let you way down on the way down in discovering that what you have thought was excellence was merely average in New York.
Contrary to what you see on tv and in movies, New York is the safest large city in the US, and has less crime than most every city in the southern USA.
It is one of the world's most multicultural cities, with citizens from all the states, and every continent. It is intensely parochial and tribal, in some places and times, and, one of the most accepting of other human beings, whoever they may be, as long as they play by the rules and don't clog the turnstiles to mass transit during the rush. It is the place that will let YOU be YOU, if you are brave enough to claim who you are.
It is a place that will make you want to DO SOMETHING about the human condition and the condition of the world. Even if you are only there a short time, you can learn something you can take back with you to your other home -- your full-time home, your first love -- that will inform and add to your life wherever you are.
If you are a person who hates others or can't stand diversity, just don't go there.
If you think you already know everything there is to know about anything and don't want to learn otherwise, don't go there.
And if you think you are going to get away with physically hurting people and making them fear to be who they are or to take care of others, all I can say is -- don't mess with New York.
This nation is full of places we love -- but, for today, I'm in a New York state of mind. -rwg
LR / Grieving for Home Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 10, 2016
[From my journal, about four months after 9/11/01, while we were living in Connecticut... Reading this now, I see: (1) it is not an easy read, and (2) the reflection holds true still in my life. There is plenty to grieve these days. What we need is to learn what grief is trying to teach us, IMO. You may want to see what you think and if, somewhere, it might apply for you, too. grateful always, bg ]
Reflecting on our national trauma of September 11, 2001, Richard Rohr, Roman Catholic priest, internationally known retreat leader, and spiritual guide, wrote these words in an article called, “Grieving as Sacred Space,” published in Sojourners magazine:
"Tragedy is the cauldron of transformation, the belly of Jonah’s whale. We are being chewed up and spit out on new shores…It seems that pain is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the… ego and… cultural certitudes. When it comes, most of us will flee to quick formulas to avoid that destabilization. Suffering is, I am sorry to say, the most efficient means of transformation, and God makes full use of it whenever God can…. We must teach people not to get rid of the pain until we have learned what it has to teach us…Much of our understandable anger is actually disguised and denied sadness. Life should not be this way, but it always has been for most of humanity. Now this absurdity, this paschal mystery, has reached the shores of North America. This is a teachable moment, par excellence."
In these post-9/11 days, many of us have found ourselves in the classroom of life at levels we would have avoided, if only we could have. We could have done without the sadness. We could have done without the grief. We could have done without the new patterns of behavior we now participate in at airports and public places. We cannot return to “normal,” but find ourselves, as a new friend has affirmed, in the presence of “the new normal.”
In that way, we are much like the children of Israel in Egypt and the children of Judah in Babylon. We have been displaced, and we are not certain we will find our way back to the familiar country again. Though we are at home, some of us are not as much “at home” at home as we used to be. We are not as sure and arrogant. We have lost what was. Though for many “what was” was not all that great, still it was what they knew, and familiarity has a comfort about it if only a strange comfort.
I heard this sense of displacement and sadness in my own voice not long ago. Coming out of the Christmas holidays, which had been a splendid time with family, I found myself feeling like I could not catch up at home or at work. I heard myself remarking to col- leagues and friends that I felt “behind,” if only by a step. I found myself fatigued, though I had just spent ten days away. I heard others saying much the same. At first, I thought it must be allergies, or the darker days of what little winter we have had this year.
I thought that until the pastoral care-trained part of my mind reawakened, and I remembered the power of our experiences of 9/11 and the immediate months just after. I remembered the outpourings of energy, care, compassion and goodwill that so many in our community of faith and in our community shared. I remembered the deep hurt and rupture of life, and of the grief that follows such deep loss. I remembered other events of life closer to home, events of joys and sorrows, which brought challenges of their own.
While I cannot speak for others, I know now that what I was feeling was the delayed shockwave of grief from all these powerful events finally overtaking me. I told myself I was “fine,” but I could not outrun my grief. I could not outrun it, but I found, paradoxically, instead that I could embrace it.
In embracing it, I am finding myself in Rohr’s “cauldron of transformation.” I am finding a new sweetness to life, a new sense of pleasure with family, and a renewed energy for ministry.
I am finding God present in prayer, scripture, worship, and in my famly of faith, in focused, deliberate ways that encourage and heal.
I am being reminded that the true home in which human beings are to be “at home” is not a place but in the compassion of God.
As a Christian person, I am seeing Christ’s cross, the instrument of his suffering and death, as something I must carry, too, through the experience of my suffering, and through accepting the invitation to bear with others their own — even though doing so may change the fundamental fabric of who I thought I was to be.
How are you doing these days? How are you?
If you are in the “cauldron,” the “belly of the whale,” know that others have been there, and are there with you.
If you find you are near past grieving over our lost collective past – if that is possible – or closer to recovery from grief over other losses and wounds in your life, you can be as love’s presence incarnate for sisters and brothers who are feeling a bit “behind” these days.
You can walk with us as members of the family of God, all, until we all find ourselves, once again, whether here or beyond time and space, back Home.
LR / Impressions on the Way to Macon...and the funeral of a beloved friend (from my journal, shared with permission). ___________________________________
"impressions on the way to macon" June 10, 2011
From 25-40 seems a lifetime 40-55 not so 55-70, oh my - - -
The day will come when all our loves and lovers will matter not as past pain or present joy but only as all is made all in all in Christ
The mending of the world begins with the mending of hearts the mending of hearts begins in the healing of souls the healing of souls is our salvation, salvation resolute in the heart of God our end in God’s beginning
Our lives returned to the source of life our voices soaring in anthems of love with distinction yet in unity praise to the Savior, the all in all
Exploding suns moons stars beyond microscopic matter come together again not collapsing on itself but coalescing in eternal alleluias these will carry us beyond the terror or nightmare of annihilation of person and personality beyond death and darkness and empty stillness the promise of faith the faith of God the darkness of a tomb
Another resurrection this time it is our own finally the end of the journey to God be the glory our end in God’s beginning never left behind or alone God’s love and lover of our souls soft near silent Alleluias.
-Robert W Guffey Jr
Light Reading / "Open Our Eyes, Lord" Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 27, 2016
Every now and then, I feel a kinship to Cleopas, the disciple who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus on the first Easter morning. I know too well how he must have felt by the end of that day. Discouraged and in grief, he and an unnamed disciple walked the road together, preoccupied with the terrible events they had seen unfold, too discouraged and self-absorbed to see the Living Lord walking next to them.
That is me way too often. The Living Lord walks next to me, sits next to me, prays with me, carries my burdens for me and I am too self-absorbed or self-analytical to see the Lord Jesus is there.
With Cleopas and his companion, the Lord Jesus is the wise teacher and rabbi we knew him to be before his glorification at the cross. He doesn’t force himself on them, but asks questions, and answers their questions with questions, until the disciples have revealed their frustration and sadness. Now they are ready to hear what the Lord has to say.
To my occasional frustration, I find the Lord Jesus treats me in the same way. Though I would prefer he rush in and set things right, that he would intrude with healing care and righteousness, Jesus waits on me to invite him in, patiently waits on me to open my life to his will and, when I am ready, he comes.
Luke tells us the three of them came to Emmaus where, in a Eucharistic moment, they “saw” Jesus “in the breaking of the bread.” Vision brings mission and the two immediately returned to Jerusalem to tell the Eleven that the rumor of his resurrection was no rumor at all but true. In seeing Jesus, how they imagined their world and their place in it radically changed. Mourners no more, they have reason to marvel and celebrate.
Seeing Jesus changes us, too. Seeing Jesus, we must respond to him in some way. We accept and marvel that he accepts us; we walk away pretending the look in His eyes is not for us.
Seeing Jesus changes us, too, for in seeing Jesus, I believe, we are called, not only to see him near to us, but to see the world as he sees the world. When we do, vision brings mission and we are off to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and “the ends of the earth,” carried along by Jesus and carrying him within us to others who walk roads of sadness, isolation and grief, downcast in spirit, body, mind and will.
Seeing Jesus changes everything.
O LORD, “open our eyes …we want to see Jesus, To reach out and touch Him.”
Open the eyes of the world, O LORD, the eyes of hate, anger and war the eyes of betrayal, abuse and pain the eyes of suffering the eyes blind with pleasure, ego and ambition the eyes full of self, and judging and projected critique.
Open the eyes of Your people in the world to see You in the world, crucified and waiting for eyes of faith to live beholding your glory beheld in Your gaze.
LR / The Power of Teachers Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 20, 2016
My kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Pauline Bryant. She ran her own kindergarten out of her home in Kentwood, LA. I was four-years-old, nearing five, and living in the parsonage of the Osyka Baptist Church, Osyka, MS, where my dad was the pastor and my mom taught school, sang in the choir, and kept busy with four little children at home. Mrs. Pauline taught us to love, play with abandon and be friends. I still have somewhere the photos my mom saved of the day Mrs. Pauline let us wear our Halloween costume masks to class. (I was Yogi Bear.) What fun it was to learn and learn to be.
My first grade teacher was Mrs. Ruth Hooker at Greenbrier Elementary. We had moved to Baton Rouge just before school started and into the parsonage next door to my dad's new church. Mrs. Hooker taught me that learning was an adventure, that it was okay to trust adults other than parents, aunts, uncles and grands, that we should be honest always, and that doing your best was the best you could do and should do. She had three "Roberts" in the class. The four of us had a little confab on the first day of school to decide who she would call "Robert" and who "Bob" and who "Bobby." We three little gentlemen returned to our seats happy. I got to keep my nickname and "Bobby" was on the paperboard cutout taped to the front right corner of my desk for the next forever. Hearing Mrs. Hooker say our names, though, no matter what the name, was a gift for what we heard her saying in the tone of her voice was, "love, respect, care and do your best," in calming reassurance. (She was, also, the first teacher I had who could see what the class was doing with those teacher eyes "in the back of her head" when she faced the chalkboard to write on it. :)
My second grade teacher was Mrs. Turner (she helped us through intense and confusing feelings in child-appropriate ways after the assassination of our president -- something I pray no teacher ever has to do again in any lifetime), my third grade teacher was Mrs. Evans (who taught us that because we were 8-years-old, it was time to grow up some more and act like it), my fourth grade teacher was Mrs. Thornhill (who helped us be sensitive to the feelings of classmates whose fathers were in Vietnam and in danger) -- and I could go on. Every teacher I had as a child was special. I remember them and thank God for them to this day.
Today, I'm thanking God for teachers and for the power they have to shape our lives. Say a prayer today for the gifts and courage of teachers, for the wisdom of teachers to use their powers wisely, and for the wisdom of the village to support and nurture the spirit of teaching through supportive partnerships that value teachers for who they are and what they do. -rwg
(Not so) Light Reading /"An Eye for an Eye Leaves the Whole World Blind" Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 17, 2016
I don't have to know a shooter's motives to know shooting another person is wrong. In the case of wounding or killing an innocent person, no matter if they are black, white, or blue, there's no other word for it than evil.
I don't have to know why someone would hurt, wound, or maim another person, whether as a perpetrator or as someone seeking revenge on a perpetrator, to know that practicing "an-eye-for-an-eye leaves the whole world blind."
I don't have to know much about the radical, unreasonable Jesus to know he resisted evil with every fiber of His being, but he never returned "evil for evil" (Rom. 12:17).
I don't have to know that God will make all this right one day to know God will sooner do it when people of good will become active emissaries of mercy and justice in the world. What's going on in public now is a call to the church to be the church: to embrace the wounded, the bind the broken, to resist evil in all its forms in systems and persons, to listen more deeply to one another, and to care less about our comfort and convenience, and more about being with Jesus who, I promise you, is already in the world saying, "Follow me."
LR / Learning from Our Pain Robert W Guffey Jr July 13, 2016
This passage by Fr. Richard Rohr on pain isn't the easiest to read, but it speaks to my life and, I think, has application to our current situation. "If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it" -- every family knows this is true, or should.
Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down, and the second half of our lives will, quite frankly, be small and silly.
-Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 25
LR / GO SET A WATCHMAN-Revisited Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 18, 2016
“She flattened the paper cup into the table, shattering their images. The sun stood at two o’clock, as it had stood yesterday and would stand tomorrow.
“Hell is eternal apartness. What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present? I am their blood and bones, I have dug in this ground, this is my home. But I am not their blood, the ground doesn’t care who digs it, I am a stranger at a cocktail party.”
-Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (p. 225)
I returned recently to my unfinished copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman to see if I could finish it without prejudice, to complete the reading, page-by-page, to cut another notch in my metaphorical library card.
I returned again, long after the reviews had faded in my mind, and the anger or delight of fans had ceased to hang in the air.
I returned and saw not the best book I had ever read, but one immersed in what it means to be starting out and going our own young way in the world, thinking our own thoughts, and wondering how those whom we have loved so dearly could seem so... wrong about the ways of the world.
And who are we to say this proto-novel is not fine in its own way, that it does not speak of ideas still forming and spirit growing, coalescing around deep truths that when spoken will hush the neighbors' speculations and cut the gossips scathing tongues? And who are we to say these words, these ideas are not what it means to grow up in small places -- not the small places of small towns, but the small places of other people’s minds and other people’s ideas of who we are and should be.
“Go Set a Watchman,” indeed, for Babylon has fallen and we live in Yeatsian (as in W.B.) times:
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.”
Go set a watchman, and -woman, to tell the truth the watchman, and -woman, sees, to sound the alarm and awaken the conscience, to name reality in ways we each might hear, accept, then be moved to action, breaking down the hardened borders of our fear-bound or greed-kept hearts.
Watchman-Watchwoman, speak the truth that the only place we have to grow up and thrive in this world is this very world we share, and if we do not find the way of life together, we shall surely find our lives apart more than we can bear.
For that is the course our Creator set within us, and it is the course of love, a love that extends even to those who raised us, some of whom we thought were so very... wrong,
but many of whom we have discovered were not so much wrong as resolute, determined to give past their very own lives so to see what God might wrought with love in this old world.
Light Reading / 14 Tips for Visitors to the South and Things to Know About Southerners, Written After a Long Day on I-20 East From MS To SC Robert W Guffey jr June 4, 2016
1. When it comes to cars and houses, air-conditioning is never an option. It is an assumption.
2. In small towns, especially, the best fried chicken and fried okra, other than that our mothers (or grandmothers) made, will be found at a nearby, independent convenience store/gas station – or “filling” station, to be more precise.
3. The best fried catfish restaurants will have outstanding taxidermy exhibits, too.
4. Many of us firmly believe the only reason a sane, normal person might not like fried chicken, okra, or catfish is because they have never had it done “right.”
5. If you show up at a local café fifteen minutes before closing as posted on the sign on the front door, and ask if there is still time to pick up something quick “to go,” do not be surprised when the owner/chef says, “Come on in and sit down, Dear! We’ll be open another hour, at least!” (just for you)
6. The love of dark, cold drinks, of all varieties, developed from the desperation to escape sweltering summer days of 95 degrees with 100% humidity.
7. The tradition of great storytelling, lengthy conversation, deep laughter, and afternoon naps developed, also, because, for six months out of the year, it is just too dang hot to step off the porch, or to go outside at all.
8. The sight of a tea rose or the sweet fragrance of a gardenia blossom will remind many of us of our grandmothers (and great-grandmothers).
9. While there are people here who fit the stereotype of the polite Southerner who say nice things to your face while slipping the knife in your back – “Bless your heart” – the great, grand majority of Southerners are sincere, kind, and mean exactly what they say.
10. And while we are on stereotyping: while commentators and filmmakers may often see Southerners as religious bigots, ignoramuses, science-deniers, and geographically-challenged beauty queens, we are, in reality, people of every age and color, citizens, teachers, doctors, farmers, lawyers, plumbers, artists, musicians, shop owners, carpenters, engineers, software designers, aircraft builders, athletes – and more. Most of the Southerners I know are people of compassion and smarts, some of whom made long pilgrimages to get here from every continent on the face of the earth. (You don’t have to look far to see that the South has no corner on ignorant, foolish citizens and rude jerks.)
11. No matter how far from home we travel on vacation, or climb up the ladders of success that take us far from home, our ears still perk up when we catch the lilt of a Southern accent in a crowd on a New York City street, or bump into someone wearing an SEC t-shirt at the entrance to Hanauma Bay. We just can’t help but smile.
12. No, we are not all related, except as members of God’s family, but visitors best remember what your Mother told you about saying something “nice or nothing at all” about the people you meet while you are here, because we just might be (related) and we will stand up, politely but firmly, for our own.
13. After a while, we might decide you are one of our own, too.
LR /Growing Season Robert W. Guffey, Jr. May 30, 2016
This photo (a real deal, not photoshopped or otherwise enhanced) is of blooms from a mature “French Lace” weigela shrub, one of two I ordered online and planted a few years ago. At the encouragement of some of the ladies of the garden club, whose motto is “never pay for what God has provided free,” I began taking cuttings from the two and now have rooted about twenty plants that have grown in size from less than a foot, for the youngest, to about 3’ tall. Eventually they should all grow to a height of 5-6’ and form a beautiful, butterfly-attracting hedge in our back yard. Years of shade in the back yard had meant the best I could grow was weeds, but the environment changed last year, when a builder cut down the pines in the empty lots behind us, with two immediate, unintended results. For two days after the trees came down, our backyard feeders became the gathering place for 50 or so shiny, yellowish-green pine warblers, convening to deliberate about what to do and where to go since their piney homes had been taken from them. We had never seen them, or noticed them until the change forced them from their treetop hideaways. To our benefit, the added sunlight allowed in by the loss of the trees is allowing for a transformation of what was a mostly dreary little plot that now is home to weigelas, hydrangeas with flowers of white, blue and pink, and lantana just beginning to bloom for summer. Hummingbirds buzz and chirp as they visit the weigela and lantana. Other birds visit the feeders and dance around the new bird bath — this one stamped with large fleur de lis as a reminder of our Louisiana heritage. They seem to be enjoying the upgrade, and know that what weeds remain are soon to receive their eviction notices.
Change can be good. Growth in lovely, peaceful space is the goal, within the backyard, and in the heart, too. This project will take the summer and next year’s growing season, too, but growing in goodness and beauty is always worth the being and doing. I do love it when new worlds are born and begin to come together so nicely. –rwg
(Note to fans of the MP Flying Circus: Had the Knights of Ni been given such a lovely shrubbery as the French Lace weigela, their moodiness and mockery would have melted away to be replaced by peace and joy. :)
LR /Once Upon a Time Robert W Guffey, Jr. May 21, 2016
During our Shreveport days, I was privileged to get to know Michael Matuson, who was then Rabbi at B’nai Zion Congregation. On my first visit to Michael’s office, he gave me a book of rabbinic stories with the affirmation, “Here! These are stories no Baptist has likely ever heard.” Michael’s affirmation was an invitation into a world that has led to the shelf full of books of rabbinic teachings I have collected, read, and cherished since.
The book Michael gave me that day was Rabbinic Stories for Christian Ministers and Teachers, by Rabbi William Silverman, first published in 1958, by Abingdon Press, and later updated, in the 1990s, as The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values. I’ve marked and bookmarked its wonderful pages many times. It holds insights into the faith of our sisters and brothers in Judaism. It holds stories that invite the reader to focus calmly and hear truths about God, the world, and ourselves.
One of my favorite stories to both read and tell lays plain the truth about us human beings. (The story is found in Jerome Mintz’ Legends of the Hasidim, as retold by Belden Lane, writing for the Christian Century.) It goes like this:
“Once upon a time…” three pious Jews decided to travel to a distant city to spend the high holy days with a famous rabbi. They set out on their journey, without food or money, intending to walk the entire way.
Several days into the journey, weak from hunger and still a long way from their destination, they knew they had made a mistake and they must do something. They came up with a plan. They decided that one of them would disguise himself as a rabbi. That way, when they came to the next village, the people would offer them food, honored to have a rabbi visit their town. None of the three, being pious, wished to be the deceitful one, so they drew straws, and the unlucky one who drew the short straw had to don the clothing of a rabbi. Another dressed as his assistant.
When they drew near to the next village, they were greeted with excited cries of joy, “A rebbe is coming! A rebbe is coming!” Escorted with great ceremony to the local inn, the hungry threesome was treated to a sumptuous meal.
When the meal was done, however, the innkeeper approached the “rabbi” and spoke with great sorrow. “Rebbe, you must pray for my son,” he said. “He is dying and the doctors have given up hope. But the Holy One, blessed be his name, may respond to your prayers.”
The counterfeit rabbi looked desperately to his friends for help. They motioned for him to go with the innkeeper to his son’s bedside. They had begun this hypocritical ruse, and now there was no choice but to keep on playing the game. The mock rabbi accompanied the distraught father to his son’s sick bed.
That night, the three travelers slept fitfully. They were eager to leave town before their deception was discovered. In the morning, the innkeeper, still hoping for a miracle and grateful for the prayer of this visiting “rabbi,” sent the party off with the loan of a carriage and a team of horses.
They left the village and traveled to the great city where they spent magnificent holy days under the spell of the famous rabbi. His teaching of the Torah carried their spirits to the very vault of heaven. But too soon, the holy days were at an end, and the three companions had to go back home through the same village to return the borrowed carriage and horses.
Terrified, the mock rabbi resumed his disguise; his heart was in his throat as they approached the village, especially when he saw the innkeeper running toward them, waving his arms furiously. But to the pretender’s delight and surprise, the innkeeper embraced him with joy, exclaiming, “Thank you, rebbe. Only one hour after you left our village, my son arose from his bed well and strong. The doctors are amazed, but my son lives, and I am grateful for your faithful prayer.”
The two companions looked with astonishment at their phony “rabbi” companion. What had happened? Had his prayer healed the boy? Was he truly a rabbi all along, without telling them? When they were alone, they turned on him with their questions. “What had he done at that boy’s death bed?” they demanded to know.
He replied that he had stood at the boy’s side in silence and, then, began to lift his thoughts to heaven: “Master of the universe, please; this father and son should not be punished just because they think I’m a rabbi. What am I? I am nothing! A pretender! If this child dies, his father will think a rabbi can do nothing. So, Master of the universe, not because of me, but because of this father and his faith, can it hurt that his son would be healed?”
Lane concludes his re-telling with this interpretation:
“The Hasidim tell this story because of its profound insight into all of us. We are all pretenders, hypocrites. None of us is so worthy as to merit God’s favor; our religion is a mask we hide behind. But God is gracious and redemptive in spite of our pretense.”
Which for me affirms the truth that, without God, we are nothing. Once we accept that truth, and let go of the false realities that take the place of God in our lives, then God in the power of the Spirit and the compassion of Christ can be made real, resident and joyful, even, deep down in the core of our beings. Grace makes this possible, and only grace
Grace, grace, grace – when it comes to God and human beings, it’s all about God’s grace.
LR /Prince of Peace Robert W. Guffey, Jr. May 5, 2016
Jesus’ call to “come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” is a call to a life of boundaries set by the love and grace of God. In the swift stream of our times, the need for rest and peace are acute and in desperate need of the love and grace of God. Embracing the love and grace of God sets a still point within the soul. It creates and re-creates within us a new way of seeing what is going on in the world around us. It gives us the strength to see ourselves and to see others through the lens of what God is like.
The love and grace of God points to the cross and says, “This is what God is like; this is how much God loves and how God loves, and until you figure that out your life is going to be touched by fury and wilderness and turbulence and even a certain kind of certainty, perhaps, but not God’s kind of peace which is wholeness of body-mind-soul-personhood-in-community with God and others.”
The love and grace of God does not call on people to hate but to love.
The love and grace of God calls on people to do the sometimes very, very, very hard work of trying to understand one another, to listen to one another, to know that sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong, but more important is “the greatest of these is love.”
The love and grace of God does not shout epithets or call for violence against others. The love and grace of God does not believe “For God so loved ‘some’ of the world – mostly the same people I love and who look like me” but “For God so loved the world.”
The love and grace of God offers a way forward beyond the dysfunctions of our personalities and the selfishness, greed and narcissism of our culture – a culture whose ways lead to oppression, depression, addiction and isolation. The love and grace of God calls for humility, gentleness, kindness – the fruit of the Spirit -- and the transformation of instruments of war into the instruments of peace – and accepting the truth that some of the fiercest instruments of war are the words we say to one another and the thoughts we think about one another that diminish and damn the gift we are each one of us from God to one another, including the terrible words and thoughts we think about ourselves alone in the darkness.
The love and grace of God does not mean we are doormats to abuse, but it does mean we are, “as far as it depends on us,” to live in peace with others (and our selves). The love and grace of God are radical and inclusive and call on all people of good will to live ethically toward one another, to want the best for one another and not just be out to get all we can for ourselves.
The love and grace of God look like weakness to many in this world, but it is the only way to rest and peace and security that lasts. The love and grace of God, applied in this world, can cause you a lot of trouble for this world cries, “Peace, peace,” and promises that which is not peace. It pushes back, sometimes with deadly force, on the advance of God’s kingdom of grace and mercy and love, but once you have experienced a taste of that kingdom, nothing else will come close to satisfying your soul, and it is in your soul, deep down, that you know what you want is rest and lightness of being and peace that lasts forever and gives you life and makes you at home with yourself and others and God. It saves you from your worst intentions as well as from the powers of this world. It makes your heart sing. It satisfies your soul. It opens the doorway to heaven on earth and fills your life with the gladness of God.
LR / Grief Has No Rules: Some Sentences about Grief Robert W Guffey Jr April 20, 2016
I wrote these sentences to share in closing at a funeral recently and was asked to pass them along. You've likely heard something like this but, if you are like me, reminders are helpful. Grace and peace, bg
As you go from this place, please remember that grief has no rules, and that is okay. Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. You will read about cycles of grief and phases of grief, but, in practical reality, there are no rules. That is the truth. There are many different feelings that will pass through you, some more intense than others, but just because you have felt one way for a while, then feel a change that prompts you to think, “Oh good, I am done with that,” do not be surprised when, on her birthday, or yours, five years from now, you feel odd and unsettled. Just as you wonder what is going on with you, your soul will remind you – “Oh, yes. Hello, Grief.” Grief will be, as one of my pastor-friends wrote in the season after both our mothers had died, your “most unexpected companion.”
Grief is real and a sign of love. Most of us do not grieve those we have not loved. Because that is true, perhaps we can see grief as a gift as it reminds us, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, of love.
Grief, because it is a sign of love, can become a cause for gratitude for it prompts us to remember what was best about the person’s life and to thank God that her life continues in manifold ways in God and in those who loved her.
Grief can become a way we honor those we have lost. Doing the hard work of grieving and not running from it is a way of saying the person mattered, the loss matters, and our desire to heal matters, too.
Grief tells us we are human, but being human is who God created us to be – and only a little lower than the angels.
It is okay to grieve as we celebrate. We say THANKS BE TO GOD for the one we have loved. We say THANKS BE TO GOD for the healing that has come to her. We say THANKS BE TO GOD for the gift from God she was, and is.
We thank God for those we love and have lost. We thank God for today. We thank God for the life to come.
In all things today, let us say: Thanks be to God.
LR / What Jesus Said (going to church) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 23, 2016
Growing up, I heard a lot about the Great Commission Jesus gave his disciples to “go therefore into the world” to disciple, baptize, and teach others about God in Christ (Mt 28, Acts 1). I learned Jesus, also, gave his disciples the Great Commandment, to love God with all your being and “your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22, Mk 12, Lk 10). Both are crucial to understanding the mission and ethic of Jesus and must be practiced, one with the other. The most visible way we do this, it seems to me, is in being the church.
It’s been my experience that most people who don’t go to church don’t go for one or more of several reasons. Some never did. Their parents didn’t. They don’t.
Some went, but had terrible experiences. They ran into judgment without grace, discipline without mercy, or angry, bitter people who seemed not at all familiar with anything resembling Good News.
Some who grew up in church quit going because the church they grew up in was more a social club or society for people who had the same likes and dislikes, preferences and prejudices. That kind of churchy upbringing does little to prepare a person for the challenges of life when life doesn’t go your way, or you are confronted by hurt, sorrow, grief, death, disappointment, and depression – the kinds of trials that every person honest about life is going to face. Tough times came and they had no rootedness in the depths of God. Church made no difference, so why bother.
Some people quit going because they just didn’t want to follow Someone who says things like, “Take up your cross and follow me” and “Love your enemies.” Jesus called his disciples to put down what they were doing – preoccupations with vocation, career advancement, marrying the “right” person, making the “right” kinds of friends, worrying about money – and to follow him. Following him meant (and means, still) following all the way to the cross. While I believe following Jesus is the only way to a life that is deep, joyful, real and true, it takes grace, mercy, love, patience, perseverance, and daily dedication to the ways of Jesus, which most of us find a very tall order, even for the most committed disciple.
Sometimes I think we may forget that God did not create human beings to go to church. God created human beings to “be” the church. God created human beings to love God, and to live in loving community with others. If we who say we follow Christ are to reach people for Christ, especially those for whom God and church are not important, we are going to have to do it through love. Specifically, we are going to have to love people as God loves them, truly, deeply, and sacrificially (see Jn 3:16). Our love of God and our love of God-for-others will change us. It will make a difference. It will make us want to be with God and to be with those whom God loves that we might grow more in love with God and others. It will make us want to gather as the church, then go out as the church, given to the world in ministry.
It’s living into the Great Commandment of love in action that opens the way to relationships among equals, that shows the love of God, and that is evidence that we, ourselves, are truly Jesus’ disciples. It is in those moments of love that the Great Commission does its work, too. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of God changes people. It is an amazing thing to see happen, but it does, and it is real and you can be part of it.
LR / Can You Hear the Words of Grace? Robert W. Guffey, Jr. January 27, 2016
Marion Aldridge, my friend and colleague, is a South Carolinian spending the winter on a preaching and pastoring assignment in New Hampshire. You could say Marion is an adventurer – New Hampshire in the winter time? Why not!
Marion’s adventures are of the theological and bringing-meaning-to-life variety, too, which he blogs about regularly at “Where the Pavement Ends” (www.marionaldridge.wordpress.com). Marion posted this quote by Richard Rohr recently:
“Poor theology has led most people to view God as a sometimes benevolent Santa Claus or as an unforgiving tyrant who is going to burn us in hell for all eternity if we don’t love him. (Who would love, or even trust, a god like that?) Psychologically, humans tend to operate out of a worldview of fear and scarcity rather than trust and abundance. This stingy, calculating worldview makes both grace and mercy unimaginable and difficult to experience.”
[Me, again.] Theology is formed in us by word and experience. Most of our earliest beliefs about God were shaped by the ways those who raised us spoke about and acted about God – or didn’t.
From his practice as a pastoral therapist, my dad would point out that the power words and actions that shape us when we are small and powerless often come in the form of “be-not be” messages.
Parents and grownups send the messages:
Childhood ears and hearts hear:
Don’t be messy.
Don’t be close.
Don’t be… ‘you’.
And so a life-script is created and we spend too much of our lives trying to turn off the “be-don’t be” messages so we can hear the words of authenticity and grace, words from the heart of God:
To be saved by grace is to know the true love of God. It means to allow God’s grace to heal the broken places in your life, and to receive forgiveness for the ways you have wounded yourself and others.
It means to be opened by God to learn of and grow into God’s worldview, one of generosity, trust, and love.
For some, it will mean a lifetime of unlearning, but what an adventure.
You will life your life diving deep into the mystery of God’s grace, finding that, no matter how deep you go, God’s grace goes deeper still. -rwg
LR /Siblings' Secret Lives Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 7, 2015
In my memories, it is another night in the ’60s – the 1960s – and I am standing with younger brother Paul in the hallway of 5635 Oakwood Drive, a small and spare rental house with 9x9 bedrooms and linoleum floors. Here we stand, having crept out of our cells to stand in the hallway at an angle where we cannot be seen by the parents, who love us, we are assured, too much to let us stay up so late – they are our wardens, too, you know. But here we stand snatching illegal glimpses of Saturday Night at the Movies, and disobedient views of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. We are supposed to be in bed, asleep – that is the law – but the iridescent luminosity of the Zenith console, in “living” color, is too much a temptation to bear.
It is true, we love our parents and wish to obey, but it is of the way of siblings to have secret lives of their own of which only siblings know, made of late night conspiracies, detours through neighborhoods and woods while walking the longest, roundabout ways home, and conflicts, jealousies, and consolations only a sibling can inflict or absolve. While I am sure it is fine and a different gift from God for only children to be “onlys,” and I know there are siblings who disappoint and even betray, if you have been blessed by God and mothers and nature to have a sister or brother who is near a spiritual twin, why the adventures you share in the beginnings of your journeys will load your souls for adventures of a lifetime, with its stellar successes and crushing disappointments, too. You will never be alone at the root of who you are, near your own soul, for that matter. And should the pathways and meandering detours of living carry you far apart, or should some slight or bruise wound you or, oh no, slice you deep through nerve to bone, “As far as it depends on you,” speak the truth between you in love, seek the healing you need, remember the grace that has bound you together since before you can remember. Do what you can to stay as near as is safe and, perhaps, relishing the ancient adventures, a step or two or three or a billion closer than safe. For this is your oldest companion, the keeper of your secrets, the one who helped you or whom you helped back in the beginning.
Neither Cain and Abel nor Jacob and Esau (for a long, long time) got this relationship right, but we did, for as long we could, standing at an angle so not to be seen by parents and keepers as we began our journeys, secret and otherwise, into the world; as we were apprenticed in what it means to live with others, to come to care about the details of the life of another (but no meddling), as the Spirit prepared us to join a great family, the family of sisters and brothers bound by grace and living sacrifice for the good of one another forever.
Light Reading / Creation Waits the Revealing of the Children of God Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 4, 2015
Tomorrow's sermon will reflect upon discipleship in care of God's world -- this magnificent, mysterious big blue globe God created that we call home. The ideas and biblical text (“Creation Waits with Eager Longing” / Romans 8:18–30) have kept me company today in the midst of a day in the yard, setting out cuttings of variegated weigela I started last spring, taking new cuttings of the same from established plants to grow for another round, pulling up and adding to the compost pile plants that didn't survive the heat (or my inattention), and general tending to small things in the butterfly garden.
Our yard is small, but you don't have to look very long or closely to realize it's a universe all its own. Life is hard in this world, but why life and beauty at all if not something of Creator-Spirit-Love in, under, beneath and around and always growing-moving-making things new? When I look at the world and think of the stunningly beautiful places I have been privileged to see, I thank God -- then remember how much I cannot stand the politicization of caring for God's world. Seems to me the Bible is clear in declaring “the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,” which means we need to tend it. If not us, then who?
Writer, poet, teacher and farmer Wendell Berry has been a help to me in thinking about being a disciple of Jesus and God's partner in the care of creation, and this quote, in particular. See what you think, then get your gardening gloves and tools out for we have work to do. :)
“The ecological teaching of the Bible is simply inescapable: God made the world because God wanted it made. God thinks the world is good, and God loves it. It is God's world; God has never relinquished title to it. And God has never revoked the conditions, bearing on His gift to us of the use of it, that oblige us to take excellent care of it.” —Wendell Berry, What Are People For?
It is summer and I am 10, waking up in the middle of the night in the Alamo Plaza motel in Biloxi, MS, or is it Pascagoula, I don't remember. The excitement of being near the beach is nearly too much to allow for sleeping. Our family rarely goes on real vacations, vacations to Six Flags or Disneyland or See Rock City. Yet, here we are at the Alamo Plaza in all its glory and for two whole days and nights of sand and sun and glory. Sure it is just the shallow flat Gulf of Mexico (Golfo de México) and there will be no surf or surfers or surfing, but it is still a huge body of water to young eyes, reaching far out into the southern horizon with no end in sight. From the beach we can build sandcastles for little sisters and fortified positions for full-size GI Joe. We can wade and float and look for bits of shell and, at opportune moments, see the silver glint of fish jumping and trawlers going to sea far away and angling toward that southern horizon. We can dine on bologna and cheese white bread sandwiches made with the slightest dab of Miracle Whip and drink Kool Aid in Dixie cups and beg, beg, beg our parents – no, it was always the dad – to stop at the next souvenir shop and let us spend our money. Once he did, we would and that would be it for this magnificent vacation. Who needs Six Flags or Disneyland or See Rock City when you have the Alamo Plaza, an actual motel evoking the sacred heroic images of Davy Crockett and James Bowie and the brave Texian army. We were living adventures of our own, full of anticipation and wild if somewhat conventional Baby Boomer expectation. We were a family on the go and keeping to our own space, children separated by imaginary national borders on and in the back seat of the Impala, but knowing soon we would be there and then back home again with memory enough to last a lifetime and we would have done it together. -rwguffey (8.11.15)
Today is an important and special birthday for Angie Guffey. It's a "big one" and she deserves a great celebration. As has often happened, though, through the years of summer birthdays intersecting a life in ministry, Angie will celebrate with another day of service at Vacation Bible School. She "celebrates" through serving others, her children in the summers and her adult students at HGTC during the school year. She is a blessing to others and a treasured gift from God.
Angie and I first met on a weeknight in Baton Rouge when we were seniors in high school. Our families happened to be having dinner at the Ground Pat'i, a favorite, and slightly upscale, burger restaurant, that later would become one of our favorite places to sit, talk and get to know one another. My father insisted on introducing me to Angie's dad, who was the much beloved Baptist campus minister at LSU. "You are going to be at LSU next year. You need to know Mr. Horton." It seemed an inconvenience at the time, but is a nice memory we share now.
I remember meeting the enthusiastic Frank, his lovely wife Sue, and two teenage girls with long beautiful hair flowing down over their shoulders. Angie's remembrance is of meeting my dad and a tall, thin teenage boy with long hair flowing down over his shoulders. :) We met again the beginning of our sophomore years at LSU and began a friendship that grew into dating the fall of our junior years.
Funny how God works things and how innocent introductions can turn, day-by-day, into a life together. Through thick-and-thin, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, we have known one another for over forty years and been married for over thirty-seven. It is true to say that all of us in love and in the love of Christ are giving our lives for and to each other. It's been my experience that it takes some age and seasoning to finally appreciate that. I am grateful for this Birthday Girl, and overwhelmed by the goodness of the gifts God has given through her and the gift she is to me, our children, grandchildren, families, friends and her students. Blessed, happy birthday, dear Angela. -bguffey
“Loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters.
It is always the same.” - Rev. Clementa Pinckney,
Emmanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
(Not so) Light Reading: “Charleston / ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’”
Robert W Guffey, Jr
Conway, SC / Thursday, June 18, 2015
Today has been another one of those singular days
in the world we would have just as well done without.
We could have done without racial hatred boiling over
in the heart and mind of one person intent on doing evil.
We could have done without the heartbreak, shock,
We could have done without the violence perpetrated
on sisters and brothers who were just as much a part
of the body of Christ as you and I are graced to be.
We could have done without another forceful call
to bear witness to the love, mercy, justice, and
righteousness of God.
We could have done without these things, but that
is not the way life is when you live in a world of broken
people, wounded souls, and minds and hearts bent by sin.
We could have done without these things, but,
in the midst of singular days like today, because of the love,
mercy, justice and righteousness of God, we remember again
that God is God and that God redeems and brings hope
to the broken and broken-hearted that only God can bring.
It is God who was present to our brothers and sisters in
Christ who lost their lives to racial hatred and violence.
God did not abandon them. God did what Jesus showed us
God always does. Our God is the crucified God whom we
have met in the Lord Jesus.
Our God is present always, whether we are soaring high
on the wings of joy, or facing crisis, sorrow, depression,
or violence. Our God is the God who came to walk among
us, Emmanuel, who knows our suffering and our sorrows.
Our God comes to walk beside us and within us in the
comforting-mystery of God’s Spirit. God never departs from
us, but is wherever we are to carry us through every circumstance
of life, until we reach the sparkling, unexpected moment when
the glimpses of God we have had as God’s children in this world
yield, at last, to life beyond life beyond life everlasting in the
fullness of God’s unveiled presence. And we suddenly and finally
are warmly startled to discover we have arrived Home, whole and
one with God and God’s children, forevermore.
On days like this, and in times like these, our calling is to trust God,
to share God’s love, to be present to others, to hold children near
and take seriously their questions, and to pray that God will use
you and me to alleviate suffering, to carry the balm of healing, and
to witness to the ultimate reality of God in Jesus — the crucified
God — who brings nothing less than HOPE.
Today I represented our congregation at a noonday prayer service called by Rev. Cheryl Moore Adamson, pastor of Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church (Conway, SC), at their place. It was a privilege to be among those seeking to "bind up the broken-hearted,” and to pray with brothers and sisters in Christ. I was moved deeply by an AME clergy colleague's prayer for forgiveness and salvation for the perpetrator of this evil act. Here was a denominational colleague of Pastor Clementa Pinckney, praying like Jesus has told us to pray.
We who belong to Christ are to be different. We do not pretend evil does not exist. We do not ignore it. We have been taught by scripture to face squarely the evil of our days and to deal with it. We have been taught by Jesus that one of the ways God wants us to deal with it is to pray for our enemies and to love them, too. Today, had I been in my colleague’s place, I hope I would have been able to follow Jesus like he did.
One more word about the prayer service and I will sign off.
I have long been an admirer of the scripture-inspired poetry in the work of James Weldon Johnson, author of the wonderful collection entitled, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). Reading the life story of James Weldon Johnson is to open a window to the intellectual, artistic, and educational accomplishments of African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900, Johnson wrote a poem entitled, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” His brother set it to music. Today you can find it in some hymnals, both of black and some white congregations. It is known as the “Negro National Anthem” or “Negro National Hymn.” We sang it today to open the prayer service.
Before anyone object to any group of people within a nation having their “own” anthem, read the poem/hymn. People who are oppressed over long periods of time often develop their own culture that the oppression might not destroy them. In the case of Johnson’s “Life Every Voice and Sing,” you will find a hymn that invites your voice to join in the singing as we are reminded that “our true native land” is God.
Praying for peace in a worn out world,
Lift 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 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 a new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod, felt in the day that hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our fathers sighed? we have come over a way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way; thou who has by thy might, led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee, shadowed beneath the hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, True to our native land.
LR / "When I Think of D-Day, I Think of Mike Fitch" Robert W Guffey jr
June 6, 2015
Though I did not know his name would be Mike Fitch, Mike Fitch was the man I had waited all my life to meet. We did so ten years ago, during my first visit to Conway, SC.
After retiring from work for the phone company for 53 years, Mike joined the staff of his church, FBC, Conway, SC, as building superintendent, and continued working until his final retirement at the age of 90 (- we grow folks strong for long, good lives here in Conway). All at the same time, and depending on the day, Mike was the sweetest fierce, or fiercest sweet, man you could ever hope to know.
Mike was always doing something for somebody, especially for his beloved family, Wilma, his wife, and Carla, their daughter. Our first morning in Conway, in August 2006, Angie, Susanna and I woke up to the sound of a lawn mower in the front yard of our new home. It was Mike Fitch, 87 years old. He wanted to be sure his new preacher didn't have to worry about yard work just before his first busy weekend with his new congregation, so Mike did it. He didn't ask. He just did it - and don't try to stop him. That was Mike.
On this day, June 6, in 1944, Mike was Sgt. Mike Fitch of the 29th Infantry Division landing in the murderous killing zone of Charlie sector, Omaha Beach. He was assigned as aide to an intelligence officer, but before the war was over Mike had served as a reconnaissance expert, sharpshooter, driver to Gen. George S. Patton, P-51 pilot, and more. I sometimes thought of Mike as the smart Forrest Gump. If something significant was happening in Europe during the war, Mike was likely to have been there, in support of his officers and men, behind the scenes and by their sides.
During the war, Mike was a friend to civilians, too, and honored by villagers in France when he finally returned to Europe, not long before he died in October 2011, at the age of 92. He saved lives, was wounded, shot down and kept going, living into his best understanding of the words: duty, sacrifice, commitment and faith. He lived the whole of his life that way. He left big shoes to fill.
So, today, on this D-Day anniversary, I'm thinking again and thanking God again for my friend, Mike Fitch. I'm thanking God for his family. I'm mourning the loss of his kind of spirit and nerve in the national conversation, too. Mike Fitch was for duty, sacrifice, commitment, faith, and love. Mike defined for me the best of what it means to say someone is a patriot, and he wasn't in it for his own good or to fill his own pocketbook. He was in it for the love of God and the betterment of us all.
James 2:14–17 (read at Mike's funeral)
(c) 2015 Robert W Guffey Jr
LR / 10 Ways to Help Children Grow Spiritually During Summer Vacation Robert W Guffey Jr May 30, 2015
For students, parents, faculty and staff of elementary, middle and high schools, we are almost there. The LAST DAY OF SCHOOL FOR THIS SCHOOL YEAR (LDOSFTSY) will pass soon-and-very-soon, yea-and-verily-even-this-next-week in my part of God’s world. When I was a child, we celebrated LDOSFTSY as somewhere less important than Easter and Christmas, but not TOO much less important. I was a child who loved school, but by mid-April, I was feeling the need for summer. Looking back, I now know that my mother, the teacher, was ready for summer, too. After nine months of early morning arrivals at school, just after sunrise, and hours and hours of classes, presentations, and homework, we were ready for a break, THE big break of long, glorious summer. The arrival of the LDOSFTSY was like a magical day at Hogwarts where everything seemed possible and dancing in the hallways inevitable.
So, congratulations, students, parents, faculty and staff! Congratulations on another year well done of teaching, learning, building friendships and preparing young lives for long and fruitful living. My fervent hope is that you will find rest and renewal that will build and crest just in time for the happy energy of BACK-TO-SCHOOL (BTS) as the cycle begins again with purpose and anticipation.
For those of you with children at home and in your care, as you enter summer, I hope you will take advantage of your days and weeks to let the changes in rhythm and routine yield to rest, renewal, and growth. Play ball, swim, do NOTHING on some days. Visit family. Travel and make memories of family togetherness. As you go and do, let me to suggest 10 ways that will help your children (or grandchildren) grow spiritually, too, during summer vacation. These will be good for the “inner child” in you, too.
Okay. Here goes:
Be reasonable in your summer spending. Memories are created by the time and good feelings that come from the closeness you share, not the amount of money you spend. Resist the temptation to “keep up with the Joneses.” Don’t let your good time together now be spoiled by worry and stress that will come later when the bills for your good time come due.
Stay calm as much as it is within your power. Closeness can increase intimacy but it also can increase the opportunities for conflict. “Don’t make me stop this car” was an infrequent line I heard while on family vacation trips, and it was usually a well-deserved warning. Set expectations with children early for both home and travel. Plan ahead your several best strategies for enforcing discipline. Keep your personal frustrations about life separate from your frustrations with your children’s attitudes and behaviors. Be the grownup at all times.
Read a book together, either aloud or during family reading times at home or in the car on trips. Books like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Dawn Treader from the Chronicles of Narnia, the Little House on the Prairie books, The Secret Garden, Does God Know How to Tie Shoes?, Stellaluna, The Selfish Giant, Old Turtle and others have lessons about faith to impart while keeping you close together.
Plant and cultivate a garden. One of the favorite hymns of my childhood sang about “God’s beautiful world, God’s beautiful world, I love God’s beautiful world.” Guided contact with nature helps our children understand and appreciate the gift of God’s creation. While it may be late for some planting outdoors, indoor gardening is a year-end possibility, and you still have time to start late summer or fall vegetables, and flowers outdoors. Visit a nursery or garden center together for ideas.
Spend time with someone elderly, especially if they are shut-in. Getting to know those who are older and shut-in will brighten the day of the person you visit as well as your own. Bake bread or cookies together or take flowers from your garden or the store to share. You will help your child learn not to fear those who are older and affected by aging or illness as together you develop caring hearts for God’s children of all ages. (Your church can help you find someone to visit or “adopt” as a grandparent or great-grandparent.)
Choose music with a message to listen to on car or plane trips. Our twin grandchildren love listening to the CDs of the music from our Vacation Bible Schools over and over again as they travel and as they rest. You can help your children be wise in their listening to music that combines fun with a lively message. The same goes for the DVDs, video games, and other media you provide them.
Remember: The family that serves together is likely to stay together. Visit a mission site or go on a short-term mission trip. Your “mission” may be a visit to a Habitat for Humanity work site for an hour to help children connect caring to working for peace, wholeness, and justice. You might connect with a summer pen pal from across the world through the missions ministries of your congregation. You could collect food needed for a food pantry ministry, then deliver it together and take time to meet those who work there every day. The possibilities are endless with just a little imagination and openness to trying something new.
Pray before you begin a summer trip and each day at meals. Faith is more “caught” than “taught.” Your children will know what you think is important more by what you do. Help them learn to talk to God and know God wants to hear from them every day.
Go to church. (You knew that was coming.) There are no part-time Christians—and isn’t that a good thing! Even on vacation, practice what you preach about having a relationship with God. God is the giver of salvation, yes, and all the good gifts of our lives. Practice saying “Thank you” to God in all things, starting with worship.
And, of course, do not forget to be involved in theVacation Bible School, summer camps, and the other opportunities to help your children grow through your church. Summer is the perfect time, too, to invite friends who are enjoying SUMMER, also, to learn about your child’s best and forever friend, the Lord Jesus.
While at LSU as an undergraduate in the 1970s, I served as a student member of the LSU International Advisory Council and became friends with many students from every part of the world, including Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America. My first semester in the dorm as a sophomore, my roommate was a grad student in petroleum engineering from Venezuela, and our two suite-mates were from Central America. One student, in particular, who was from Malaysia, I met because our lab stations just happened to be next to one another, when I took either a biology or zoology course, in the mistaken belief I was to study pre-med.
As were most of the International students I got to know, he was a smart and thoughtful person, very open to friendship with Americans. We became good friends, so much so that Angie, my wife, and I, while we were dating, were invited to his wedding a year or so later, and to an elegant dinner event honoring the Malaysian Ambassador to the US, when he visited the large group of Malaysian students attending LSU, some living in Baton Rouge with their families, making up a group of about 1300 Malaysians with LSU connections then, if I remember correctly.
These experiences affirmed for me the biblical notion that we are all created and loved by God, and that, if we can get over ourselves for a while, and will trust God to reduce our fear, we can take small steps toward discovering friends where we once saw strangers and aliens.
I am not naive about the terrible wars and conflicts going on, and especially the global implications of the Malaysian air disaster on Thursday, which caused me to think of my college friend, or of the need for wise decisions regarding the human side of political issues like immigration in our own country. I can witness, though, with confidence, that, wherever we come from, whatever beliefs we may have inherited, including those that need to be challenged and changed, every near-mentally and emotionally healthy person hurts the same hurts, cries the same tears, wants their children to be loved, and yearns for meaning, purpose and authentic friendships in their lives.
Until the world learns those lessons, until love overcomes fear, hate, suspicion, prejudice, radical fundamentalism, and dehumanizing greed, planes will still fall from the sky, families will grieve the pain of loved ones lost too soon, and wars will be fought, some globally and some in the privacy of our homes.
I am thinking tonight of an old college friend from a far off country and praying for the peace of Christ to transform the world. I am grateful for my global family and praying for the compassionate promises of God to rend the intentions of the hardest and most evil of hearts, so that soon will come the time when every day, every person who travels paths of human design or human heart will never fear again that they might not finally arrive back home.
Grace and peace,
[first posted on Facebook, 7/17/2014, now revised]
Light Reading /"How Grief Works Really" Robert W Guffey Jr March 11, 2014
When I got the call about my father's death on February 17, I knew I was going to be in for a rough time and that that rough time would have a name: grief. Grief and loss are twin companions of what it means to be human.
There is nothing like it.
Some losses are small as the loss is of a relationship or experience that has been a small part of our lives.
Some losses are like daggers to the soul because the loss is momentous, like the loss of close family and friends -- and the loss of lifelong dreams, hopes and aspirations, too.
There is nothing like it.
It's like sadness, but more so. It's not really depression, but depression can affect some people who grieve. It's a deep down, soul overpowering, sometimes ragged, sometimes numbing, mostly-sign-of-love experience that comes after any significant loss. It's a tough experience that can make it hard to function for a season. Depending on the season and the individual, that season can last a few weeks, a few months or a few years.
It's the way our inner selves acknowledge how important the person or experience was to us, and still is. It's a way of processing the pain of the loss. It's a way of becoming honest with our humanity, and a way to learn to trust God more, too, as we move through grief toward healing.
When I was in school, I learned about the "cycle of grief." Being a typical North American/Western European-born and bred person, I thought that meant grieving had steps that were linear; that is, that once you conquered denial you could move on to anger, then on to the other stages. Typical. We think we are so smart-powerful-rich-whatever that we can tell our inner lives how to be. Sorry but it doesn't work that way. It's just not how God made us.
I found this little illustration online (posted anonymously and without citation) that was helpful:
Yea. That's it.
Larry Yeagley, author of the book,Grief Recovery,wrote:“Grief is a personal experience, unique to each mourner and unique to each loss. Grief comes in waves, as times of peace and calm are suddenly shattered by overpowering emotion."
Yea. That's it, too.
Grief is like "welcome to the human race."
Many of you are going through other tough times right now. It's like "welcome to the human race."
What we are experiencing is difficult but we are not alone. Welcome to the human race -- AND welcome to the side of One who "was bruised for our transgressions" and "through His wounds we are healed."
Welcome to the community of those who are finding that Christ really HAS been where we have been and really DOES care so much He will not let us be.
Thanks be to God for the grace and truth of that. Thanks be to God that God chose to be among us and with us.
Thanks be to God that grief, hurt, tough times, and difficulty are not the last word about us or our lives. God ALWAYS has the last word.
It's a word that encourages us to be faithful and persevere, to listen to what our body/mind/soul is [sic] trying to teach us about loss and grace, and that maybe this experience can open us to the truth that, once on the other side of the difficulty, we can be those who carry Christ for others wherever they may be in the human journey, too.
In every case though, THANKS BE TO GOD for his indescribable gift of Jesus, and the presence of God's Spirit, especially in people like you!
LR/”Sweet Judy, Blue Eyes” Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 8, 2014
For some this may be way more than you want to know about the subject, but I hope you’ll hang in there for a bit of personal indulgence and memoir this time around. Grace and peace! bg
My best guitar playing buddy, Joel, lives too far away in south Louisiana, so we have turned to keeping up our friendship and musical connections by email, Facebook, and, occasionally, trading YouTube videos featuring the musical heroes of our youth. A couple of weeks ago, before the epic Southern ice storm, we hit the mother lode. First, I stumbled, digitally speaking, onto an early recording of Gregg and Duane Allman singing and playing in an earlier, circa-1968, pre-Allman-Brothers-Band-lineup of musicians. Duane’s guitar playing was an inspiration for my teenage rock-wannabe self, and his talent is on display in these songs. Gregg’s voice is young and clear, before the effects of life on the road, addictions and celebrity marriage roughened it to the character it has today.
In these early recordings, the Allmans are very good instrumentally, and the songs are strong, too. “Melissa” is there, which fans will know as an ABB standard. This is the earliest recording of the song that I know of and it sounds sweet to the ear. Another track, “God Rest His Soul,” is a song I had never heard before. It was written by Gregg Allman as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., soon after Dr. King’s assassination. The song is soulful, sad and heartfelt. When I searched YouTube for other postings of “God Rest His Soul,” I found a number of video slide shows of Dr. King’s life had been uploaded by YouTube users. “God Rest His Soul” plays in the background of every one.
Finding the tributes to Dr. King reminded me of how much I love the way music touches people. It gives strangers something in common and can transform, focus or refocus a thought, a mood or a feeling. In listening, I felt sad again for Duane Allman, who experienced an early death, too, and appreciative again for the lyrical preaching of a man named Martin, who was used by God to tear down walls, and to show, once again, that one person can make a difference when it’s a difference God wants made.
Finding those songs would have been enough of a find, but then, a couple of nights later, I arrived home from midweek ministry activities at church and sat down to watch television for a few minutes to unwind. A song playing in the background soundtrack of the show I was watching reminded me of “4+20,” a song from our garage band days – and a rather depressing one, at that – by Stephen Stills. I hadn’t thought of that song, or my teenage attempts to cover it, in thirty years, so I looked it up on YouTube (again) to see if I was remembering it correctly. (Note to Self: YouTube seems to have become my personal version of anti-cognitive impairment therapy.)
I found someone had posted “4+20” in a video clip from a forty-something-years-old episode of “The Dick Cavett Show.” For those too young to have been there, “The Dick Cavett Show” was one of ABC-TV’s better attempts to compete with Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” back in the day when Johnny was the go-to guy to end most Americans’ work days. Cavett was different in that, instead of the usual steady stream of entertainer-guests plugging their most recent movie or where they would headline or star in a new show, Cavett often attempted deeper conversations involving the issues of the day through conversations with politicians, thinkers and artists. Looking back, some of what was presented was pretentious, and, now, very dated, but many of those old shows represent an accurate time capsule of those times in the nation and culture, and of what we were wearing too (Peace out).
The clip I had found was of a Cavett episode broadcast one night in August 1969, just after Woodstock. Cavett is hosting Stephen Stills who is playing his song, “4+20,” for an audience of hip, young adults who are watching and listening intently. For some reason, whoever had uploaded the clip to YouTube had edited onto the end of Stills playing on the Cavett Show in 1969, his band, Crosby, Stills and Nash, in concert from what looks like the late-1990s. It was a strange choice of editing but worth the trip (for us) for the song Crosby, Stills and Nash are playing was one of our very favorite songs, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a song Stills had written in the midst of his breakup with Judy Collins, the singer-songwriter. Out of the failure of human relationships, and the heartbreak that accompanies it, Stills wrote this song, which features both his gifted guitar-playing and the remarkable, blending harmonies of Graham Nash, David Crosby and Stills. Hearing this again released one of the gifts music offers so freely and effectively. Listening, I was carried back to another time in another world.
When CS&N released “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” in 1969 as a single from their first album, it hit #21 on the Billboard Hot 100, and brought them acclaim. In 1969, I was learning to play my first guitar, a $50 Yamaha classical, a Christmas present from my parents to my eighth-grade self, and was a long way from playing anything recognizable as rock n roll, jazz, R&B, soul or Christian rock, which was just emerging. By the summer of 1973, that had changed. I was listening and trying to learn songs that were musically appealing to me and all of those had strong, blending harmonies. If the songs had good lyrics that was a plus, but it was the overall “sound” for which I was looking, and that sound was in the vocal harmonies. I realize now that the guitar work and harmonies of these three super artists had always been in the back of my mind when Joel, Frank, another great friend from LSU days – who is a superb guitarist – and I performed together for a few years in college as a trio.
In the summer of 1973, I was a 16-year-old, too-young-to-be-in-college college freshman attending summer school classes at LSU. In between and after classes, having not discovered the joys of hanging out at the LSU Baptist Student Union yet, I would go to the massive LSU Student Union and visit the audio listening rooms, as the TV lobbies were always full that summer of students watching the Senate Watergate hearings on network television.
In the listening rooms, as a student, you could request an LP of any genre to be played for you, and the usually no more than 6 or so other students who would share a particular listening room, and listen through headphones as your songs streamed through in glorious analog, high-fidelity sound. I had the student on duty at the desk play the album with “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” over and over for as many times as a freshman could get away with. I could not get enough of the guitar and the interplay of the harmonies. Granted, at 16, I was probably feeling sympathy for the guitar player who was singing and playing his heart out over a broken heart, too, but, whatever, I loved that group and, in particular, that song, with its contrast of bright sounds and sadness.
Thinking back, I am glad to have those memories. I am glad, too, that I remember how much I really didn’t know about much of anything then, which reminds me to extend empathy and understanding to today’s 16-year-olds. I’m glad I remember how the vibrations and colors of the music motivated me to explore on my own playing the guitar and singing strong, tight, blending harmonies with my friends. Our music was not the kind that would not take us to fame – mostly it took us to singing for friends, playing concerts around the LSU campus and traveling around two states entertaining at an untold number of youth and adult church fellowships – but it bonded our friendship. It helped us articulate the complex emotional states of late-adolescence/early-adulthood. It said and sang what we could not yet articulate on our own, or at least articulate as well. It added measures of thoughtfulness and happiness to our days, and, once in a while, to the lives of others, or so we truly hoped. The music was a substantial gift of the Spirit then, and it, and much music since, of many kinds and classifications, continues to be so for me today.
And that’s about it, except that about now I should probably tell you that I don’t spend as much time on YouTube looking for old music as I’ve made it sound, or even playing my guitar as much as I should or want. Doing so is really rare, and I am almost sorry to write that for the joy that awakens in me when I hear music that is deeply woven into my life is something I know I need.
I am almost sorry to write that, too, because the best work music can do for us, and in us, is always a gift from God: God who sings galaxies into existence, equipped the greatest king in the Hebrew Scriptures with a lyre and the gift of writing and singing psalms, and inspired the greatest theologian in the New Testament to occasionally burst out in song in the middle of his letters to long-gone congregations, congregations who were tired or conflicted or who simply needed to connect again with purposes and glory of God.
It is a beautiful gift from God, who sustains us through the creative power of the Spirit and, should we choose to sing along, will draw from our final willing breaths and startling new-lives-in-God’s-presence amazing stanza-after-stanza of “Hallelujahs.”
Of all we learn from our families, it seems to me that what we learn most and best depends on how and how much we are or were loved. In Christ, we learned that Love that is true, sacrificial, and selfless is the most powerful force in the universe. It is the most powerful force beyond our earthly experience, too. It is because of love, God comes into the world in the Incarnation. Ultimately, it is because of love, Jesus willingly experience crucifixion. It is because of love there is a Resurrection, and there is a life beyond death.
God loves with a perfect love that shapes and forms the deepest truths about our selves and our worlds, but we need to remember that only God is perfect and can love like God loves. I have yet to meet a person who was loved perfectly by her or his family. Some of us have been blessed with families that are healthy reflections of God’s love, but I have yet to meet any of us whose family loved us perfectly.
Some of us were loved well as children and as adults. Sadly, some of us have been loved terribly, or not all. As parents, the great majority of us hope to love our children with a love that deepens their sense of God in their lives, their ability to know who they are and the possibility that they will be able to love others. As members of families, we hope to love and be loved. This is a grand aspiration, but one difficult to attain and onto which to hold. As a result, because none of us has been loved or can love perfectly, we must learn to hold both the will to love and the willingness to forgive as companion realities in our lives.
How do we know we are or have been loved, though?
I can think of a number of ways but, for now, let me offer these few.
We can know we have known God’s love through experience with God and in the way we love others. The mistake some people make in their spiritual lives is thinking being a Christian means becoming experts in the activities of learning scripture, reading the bible, studying doctrine and being ready to intellectually defend their faith. While these pursuits are worthy, the most important part of being a Christian is not so much what you know as how you relationally experience the love of God. I don’t mean to say the feelings of faith are more important than the life of the mind, the thinking part of being a Christian. I mean to say, as John says in 1 John 4:19, we love God (and by extension others) because God first loved us.
When we find ourselves loving others more than judging others, we can know we have known God’s love. When we find ourselves filled with empathy and caring over the plights of others, even those who annoy us or who even are our enemies, we can know we have known God’s love. When we find we care more about strengthening relationships with other human beings, though doing so may cause us to have to let go of self-righteousness or prejudice, we can know we have known God’s love. When we find we are hoping to be more loving and open in these ways and saddened by our failures to love, we can know we have known God’s love.
Also, we can know we have been loved well, and are loving others well, when we find ourselves ever more desiring to grow up and toward the will of God ourselves and wanting the same for those whom we love too.Only those who truly love you will want to allow you to be who God wants you to be. There are those in your life who may think they love you, but if they push, pull and manipulate your life, even unconsciously, or with what they may mistakenly think is good intention, they are loving you for who they are and want to be, not for the gift you are to become in the will and purposes of God. It is no cliché to say that true love is love that sets the beloved one free within the boundaries and purposes of God’s love for his or her life. It is how the Bible shows us God loves human beings. It is a risky way to love. It is the only way to love. But, true love can never be forced, only given and received.
When someone loves you, they will want you to be who God wants you to be and where God wants you to be, even if it is a who and where they would rather you not be. True love comes when we let God love others through us with God’s kind of love.
Chilling a hot chai at the coffee shop deluxe Cool jazz sax blowing tunes to an alternate dimension of blue
The B-3 slides in blending a groove speeding along to a snappier pace
Nice little break on Lincoln in Gamecock heaven on a November Tuesday
-rwg (November 19, 2013)
Light Reading / Impressions on the Soul Robert W. Guffey, Jr. October 19, 2013
Been thinking again about the gift of family and deciding it is decidedly nice to have artists, poets, sculptors and potters in our mix. Especially glad today for our collection of Cousin Brad’s kiln-fired angels, made from earthy-red clay rendered elegant by the imprint of Great-Aunt Lela’s hand-crocheted doilies and handkerchiefs. The angels are tall, with lovely open-faces and strong, powerful wings. Their robes bear the marks of Great-Aunt Lela’s long-ago handwork. The loveliness of the art comes from the markings of two hearts and two sets of hands separated by geography and time: Brad’s and Lela’s. In a work of the Spirit, their giftedness marks my soul with lightness and joy.
Impressions on our souls and selves mark us and shape us, too, toward who we are and one day shall be. Few of us slump through life as just another lump of clay yielding to the pressures of every other person and thing. At times we push back and resist the shaping, especially when it comes from persons and circumstances that do not have our best interests and purposes in mind or heart. But we all are marked and shaped none-the-less. We all are marked by grace and tragedy, by good and ill, by fury and forgiveness. We are marked by those we love and those who love us whose presences linger in our lives even after we, too, have become separated by textures as temporary as geography and time, and as permanent as death. We should pray that we are aware of how we are leaving impressions in the souls of others, too, of course. It is that way within families and the family of humanity, but you knew that already.
Thinking about Brad’s angels and the shaping and marking of our lives, I remember, too, the power that came to those in ancient times who had been shaped and marked by God’s love and calling. The sense of God’s presence was so impressive and real that it impelled them forward on wondrous and terrifying adventures, with the “angel of his presence” near to guide them.
I keep thinking of our spiritual family,
like Abraham walking from Haran like Moses in Sinai like Mary in the night of annunciation like Jesus on the via dolorosa like Luke’s disciples on the road to Emmaus like Paul and his friends traveling the roads to Rome
like you and me on the pilgrimage toward becoming human, coming to peace with all the wonder and terror that resides in our souls
that we might face the worst of what has marked us in our past, present and future, not with fear, but trembling confidence because we have been marked, too, by the transcendent mercy, love, and grace of God.
It's been a season of dying, these last couple of weeks, in work and life, of dearly loved saints promoted to the church triumphant, as a Presbyterian friend liked to say, until he was. You can guess, then, from where this reflection comes. Hoping your days are truly grand, bg
Light Reading / "if this was the last day"
rwguffey sep 6, 2013
if this was the last day of your life what would you do?
if this was the last day to taste a peach or a strawberry?
the last day to smell the fresh of clean linen or the fragrances of roses and magnolias?
the last day to see the sky and feel the rain, to walk down your favorite lane or up your favorite hillside?
the last day to listen to Bach's "Sleepers Wake" or Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" or Carole King (ode to youth) or Sam Cooke (ode to justice) or fill-in-your-best-transcendent-musician-here?
the last day to hold the person you love most in the world and say and hear I love you?
what would you do?
I know what you would not do.
you would not spend the day complaining about the traffic or the cost of anything.
you would not spend it in line waiting your turn any place or anywhere in the world.
you would not spend it allowing yourself to be lectured by or arguing with narrow-minded, small-hearted people who do not understand grace and mercy and forgiveness.
you would not spend it in a thousand little ways that in this life make for death by a thousand tiny, nagging, life-diminishing, complainy, whiny cuts.
you would not waste your time living with the garbage of dysfunctional people who would rather suck the life out of their friends and families than give their lives for others.
as for me, if I were blessed to know my last day, I would stay nearest the people who are my home.
I would gather around me the living and breathe one last time of love.
I would say thank you Lord for the journey so far.
I would say gratefulness is a lot better highway down which to live this life than bitterness.
I would share big hugs, have one last drink of loveliness then fade away smiling.
live today as if it is the last day of your life in this world.
Light Reading /Soar Unafraid Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 27, 2013
Over the past several months, I have been privileged to see God at work in the midst of those old foes, illness and death. One luminous encounter came while I was talking by phone with an older, wiser friend, who was sitting with her dying mother in a hospital room, in another city and state. She talked about the paradox of the experience, in how in the letting go of her mother she was experiencing deeper connections between herself and her mother than she knew existed. We imagined together of what it is like to be born into this world. We are born, thrust into a web of connections, loving connections, if we are particularly blessed. We spend the first part of our lives making tight those connections, then the last part letting them go, one-by-one, until those we loved and the world we have known and been part of is gone, set free, redeemed. There is this dance of connecting and disconnecting, of arriving and departing, of making a home then finding it is not the home we truly need.
Throughout the Bible, we see these same actions play out. We read that God is all about making connections only to call on God’s people to leave the familiar and go on journeys that will take them from Eden to Exodus and Exile, then to the Promised Land, again, which was a land that did not hold so much promise after all, at least in this age. We are set free when we find ourselves loosed from this age’s connections, even cherished connections that have shaped and formed us, to be sure, but connections that must be loosed so we may be carried, by God’s grace, into the final connection of the all in all in All.
On another day, a summer afternoon, I was visiting with another older, wiser friend, who is on a journey from deep illness to renewed health. As we sat in the sun room, we watched the birds playing in the fountain just outside in the yard. Every now and then, we would be startled by the thump! of a bird flying into the glass that made up nearly the entire back wall of the sun room. We were sitting and watching through the glass on our side. The birds were, we assumed, confused by the reflections of what they were seeing in the glass. Were they seeing reflections of themselves? Were they seeing confusing reflections of the two of us? Were they seeing the blue skies and clouds above reflected mirror-like in the panes? Whatever, one after another would thump! against the glass, fall stunned to the ground, and then pick him or herself up to fly dazed away.
As they did so, the thought came to me that we human beings are like those birds, bumping up against the numinous. We do so in the reflections of the mystery and love of God we glimpse along life’s way, in our unanswered questions of why this life is as it is, and in the not-so-easy to accept, but always truest of true realization that this life really is a life of faith and not one of fully knowing or controlling.
If we are paying attention, we will find that we bump up against the numinous again and again until, in that ultimate act of hope and trust we call dying, we finally break through and soar in the skies of the full healing presence of God.
Grace and peace, bg A prayer for today, August 23, 2013 Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
O lovely Christ who breathed life anew into a child’s still form
O lonely Christ who endured agony and suffering not just from the cross but through empathy with Your beloved world still
O lively Christ who calls and commands, who invites and admonishes our leaving familiar, habitual prejudice to follow playfully, lovingly, sometimes doubtfully, traumatically, through need and brokenness, finally to wholeness and home in You.
LR / Mom’s Picture Robert W. Guffey, Jr. Mother’s Day 2013
In the photo she is 21 and I am 2 Sitting in the living room of the house in which she grew up She is lovely and young I am talking and gesturing (even from the start) It is a sweet reminder of a day I was much too young to remember It reminds me how much I have missed my mother for the past twenty years
In the photo she is 21 and I am 2 we are a part of one another, yet we sit apart we are the same and we are different we love one another as parent and child yet we must be different the boundary between us must balance the tie so that we can be who we each are to be liberated in love for God's glory Parent of us all.
LR / Is God Busy? Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 20, 2013
One of the pleasures of having Aiden and Hannah, our two-year-old grandchildren, growing up in Conway is being able to see them having so much fun at church. Church is a happy place for the twins.
On Sundays, Aiden and Hannah have developed a habit of hurrying to meet me in the back of the sanctuary as I am shaking hands with worshippers leaving through the vestibule doors facing Elm Street. They make their little two-years-old way fearlessly through the crowd, give me a hug, then turn quickly to meet the rest of their family wherever they might happen to be.
After depositing big hugs on Papa a few Sundays ago, Aiden and Hannah left my side to walk back down the long aisle and stand next to Nana Angie. Aiden seemed particularly taken by the large room that is the sanctuary, now nearly emptied of worshippers out the many doors.
Thoughtfully, Aiden looked up at Nana Angie and asked, “This is God’s house?”
“Yes,” Angie answered.
“He busy?” Aiden asked, which is a question Aiden asks regularly when he visits our house and I am upstairs studying or working on laying the new flooring in our bedroom.
He will ask Angie where I am. Angie will point upstairs and say, “Papa’s busy, but he will be down soon.”
Aiden looked into God’s house and God was no where to be seen, so he asked Angie a very loaded question,
Aiden’s question was innocent enough, but he is not the first to wonder where God might be when disasters strike, serious illness threatens, wars seem like more than rumors and human evil rears its serpentine head.
While no pastor should be foolish enough or bold enough to pretend she or he understands why disasters and injustices occur, we can affirm the gospel truth that where terrible events occur, God is, indeed, busy.
God is busy and present in the robust, compassionate spirit of God’s people.
God is present in mystery and power to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice.
God is present in the soul-searing-but-ultimately-healing grief.
God is busy redeeming our sorrow and pain, over time, into deep, soul-sustaining joy.
God is sometimes very hard to see, even for preachers, but God is always busy.
-Thinking on these things, rwg
My friend, Bill, flies commercial jets for a living and says he loves flying in bad weather. Passengers may prefer blue skies but, for a pilot, there’s really not much challenging to do.
Best part of a job-well-done on stormy days? It’s when people say “Thank you” as they deplane: they really mean it.
The prayer I offer below was written and shared at the funeral of a member of our church recently. Many, if not most, of us have been blessed to have known great friends of Jesus, like our friend, Arnold, so I thought to offer the prayer in his memory, but also for all who stand in solidarity with friends in gratitude and in loss.
A Prayer for God's Friend, Arnold Robert W Guffey Jr May 9, 2013
And so, O Lord, we come again to words that define our humanity
“So death is at work in us, But life is at work in You.”
In You is the Breath of Life.
In You is the Light of the World.
In You is the Bread of Heaven.
In You is the Way to Peace.
In You is the Hope of the World.
In You is the Joy of the Everlasting.
In You, the brief breath of this life finds eternal expression.
In You, the Sabbath rest we desperately need is finally realized.
In You, all that was and is and will be elevates the joys of this life and transcends its pain and sorrows, carrying us to our final resting home in You.
And, in You, we gratefully pray and await to see how You will redeem this moment in our lives.
LR/The Church Who Helps Hurting People Robert W Guffey Jr May 9, 2013
For a personal project I am working on, I have been reading and reflecting on much of what I wrote concerning my convictions about the purpose of Christian ministry earlier in my ministry life. The reading and reflection have been strong reminders of the visions for ministry that were, and still are, foundational to my call from God to become a minister. Doing this has reminded me, also, that the day-to-day mix of joy and complaint in ministry in the real world, whether dealing with the intensity of personal tragedies or the inane commentary of sometimes well-meaning, sometimes manipulative, persons in churches can diminish the clarity of vision and convictions. I am grateful for the reasons that have pushed me to reread and reconsider.
I have always believed strongly in the sacredness of all life. God gives life. Life is a gift from God. A part of our calling as Christian persons is to honor the gift of life God has given to us, to others and to God’s created world. I believe one of the primary reasons most people do not go to church today in the Western world (Europe and North America) is not selfishness or the rise of secularism. Those are factors, but I do not believe they are primary. I believe the primary reason many people do not go to church and avoid the gospel is the behavior of too many Christians who fail to respect and honor the sacredness of the other as a gift of life, created by God, with the potential to be a brother or sister in Christ. The greatest hindrance to our witness is the pervasive and corrosive behavior of the institutional church and of individual Christians who have betrayed the conviction to treat others and to treat God’s world with the honor, respect and, yes, love which what God has created deserves, especially when the other is different from us.
No, we do not worship creation. That is idolatry. That was ancient Israel’s perpetual problem. That is our problem, too, when we put our opinions and politics over valuing another person, or elevate our needs, our wants, our schedules, our family, our desires, our teams, our fears or making sure no one sits in “our” pew or chair ahead of daily desiring to humbly worship God and lovingly be used for God to love others. I believe that if the church of the Lord Jesus was filled with the vision of the sacredness of all life, and humbly sought to become the church for hurting persons, we would see a revolution of love in this world.
This conviction is based on nothing less than the vision of what Jesus’ life was about. Read John 15, 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, or Philippians 2:6-11, for starters, then pray every day that you can live humbly focused on the sacredness of life. Start with the gift of your own.
Or put another way...
LR/God and the Animals — and YOU Robert W Guffey Jr May 4, 2013
Our Exodus study group has been meeting on Thursday evenings since January and we are almost done, stopping near the Promised Land. We have marveled at the richness of the biblical narrative and the way in which Exodus outlines and reflects the whole of what God is up to with human beings in the Bible. That old cliché about the God of the OT being the God of wrath and the God of the NT being the God of grace is exceedingly hard to hang on to after you read Exodus. God is about seeking human beings through redemptive grace from the very beginning.
One of the parallel passages we read about God’s grace last Thursday night as we studied Exodus chapters 33-34 was Jonah 4. You remember the story? God tells Jonah to go to Ninevah to preach to the people of the depth of their wickedness. Jonah says, “No, thank you!” and tries to run from God by sailing away on a ship that gets into a storm. To save the ship, Jonah is thrown into the sea where he is tied up for three days in the belly of the sea creature. Jonah decides to obey God. Jonah preaches in Ninevah and, to Jonah’s great disappointment the people of Ninevah repent and are saved. Here is how the story ends (Jonah 4, from The Message):
Jonah was furious. He lost his temper. He yelled at God, “God! I knew it—when I was back home, I knew this was going to happen! That’s why I ran off to Tarshish! I knew you were sheer grace and mercy, not easily angered, rich in love, and ready at the drop of a hat to turn your plans of punishment into a program of forgiveness!
3 “So, God, if you won’t kill them, kill me! I’m better off dead!”
4God said, “What do you have to be angry about?”
5 But Jonah just left. He went out of the city to the east and sat down in a sulk. He put together a makeshift shelter of leafy branches and sat there in the shade to see what would happen to the city.
6God arranged for a broad-leafed tree to spring up. It grew over Jonah to cool him off and get him out of his angry sulk. Jonah was pleased and enjoyed the shade. Life was looking up.
7–8 But then God sent a worm. By dawn of the next day, the worm had bored into the shade tree and it withered away. The sun came up and God sent a hot, blistering wind from the east. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he started to faint. He prayed to die: “I’m better off dead!”
9 Then God said to Jonah, “What right do you have to get angry about this shade tree?”
Jonah said, “Plenty of right. It’s made me angry enough to die!”
10–11God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”
Isn’t this just great? GOD turns out to be more merciful than Jonah, his servant. God leaves open the possibility of human changes of hearts until the very last second AND God cares about how human changes of hearts (or hardness of hearts) will affect God’s creation — “all the innocent animals.”
Isn’t this just great? God creates creation and the creation knows and honors God — except for human beings, it seems. God and the animals: think Eden, think the ark, think the prophecies of the days of the Messiah’s coming, think the Nativity, think Jesus’ temptation in the desert, think the Good Shepherd — need I go on?
When God thinks of you, God thinks of grace. When God thinks of God’s creation, God thinks of grace — and what it will mean to our lives and to God’s creation when we finally stop fleeing God’s call, turn around and live God’s way.
*This time around you’ll find a column on a poignant family anniversary, verses about the prodigal and two rabbinical stories on character and temptation. Hope your Lenten pilgrimage carries you nearer the heart of God. Grateful, bg
LR/The Day We Lost Our Mother Robert W. Guffey, Jr. March 6, 2013
We lost our mother, Helene, to ovarian cancer twenty years ago today. I hate illness and death, but cancer has an especially human face for me. I believe God will redeem our suffering and that St. Paul was right when he wrote,
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves
but I find, in our very present human circumstance, the loss of those we love is still the greatest pain of all. I am now older than my mother was when she died. That is no comfort nor the way life should be.
We lost our mother, but we are grateful for our mother, too, for so much of her spirit and character live in us. As for me, I learned to read and to love learning from my mother. I learned to love my family from my mother. I learned what it was like to work hard all day and into the night from my mother. I learned a care that is beyond mere tolerance for those who are different from my mother. I learned a strong distaste for injustice from my mother. As a young child of four or five years old, I remember the day a homeless person came to our home in Mississippi, a small brick parsonage of a small Baptist church in a small country town. I remember the respectful way the man stood at our front door and the respectful way my parents treated him. I remember the sandwiches, which she placed neatly in a brown paper bag, and the cold milk, which she sealed in a large glass Ball jar, my mother prepared and gave to this man. He wanted to keep going to some destination beyond my understanding. My mother helped him and prayed him on his way.
I remember too how my mother reacted to the assassination of our President in 1963. I was in the second grade, in Mrs. Turner’s class. My mother taught the second grade class next door. I remember Mr. Weeks, our principal, announcing what had happened over the school intercom. I remember not understanding the words he said, but knowing within my second grade self something terrible had happened. There was no cheering at our school as we heard later had happened in some awful parts of our nation. There was only a sober silence and tears in the eyes of the women who rose every day early to teach us, then, like my mother, went home to tend to families, and some to second jobs. I remember my mother talking with me on the way home that day about the need for love in this world and how much hate there is (still). I remember because of my mother. I remember because of the box she collected and saved for me of papers, letters and writings of that time that tell the stories about what happened and how every person of good will must rise above his or her fears and prejudices to be as God’s peace in this world.
In all of this and so much more, I am, and we are, grateful for Helene, our mother. In all of this and so much more, we learned about God from our mother.
From our father we learned of the justice of God; from our mother we learned of God’s love, mercy and grace.
Today, I am thanking God for the gift of our mother.
The Samaritan. A few Sundays ago, it was the Good Samaritan who Jesus used to teach us about the nature of God and God’s kingdom. As I reflected on the experience from the point of view of the wounded man, I wrote these lines in my journal.
samaritan asleep in a ditch not the sleep of the angels crushing blows of violent intent falling, falling on body and soul passed by by those I thought would help me here I lie, here I lie, here I lie
awakened by love one stopped to help me could not believe the face that I saw giving, giving to save body and soul dipped into my pain like some holy intinction to help me, heal me, glory be
asleep in a bed the sleep of the angels merciful grace falls gently around falling, falling love lifts me higher surprising, surprising where hope will be found I am saved, I am saved, I am saved
asleep in a bed the sleep of the angels merciful grace falls gently around falling, falling love lifts me higher surprising, surprising where hope will be found I am saved, I am saved, I am saved
surprising, surprising where hope will be found surprising, surprising where hope will be found I am saved, I am saved, I am saved
*I wrote this reflection just as we were planning to move to South Carolina. Found it again a couple of weeks ago and heard trusting child-like laughter near. I needed to hear that and the hope-full Spirit in our midst. - rwg (January 11, 2013)
Light Reading/Heaven Is Like Robert W. Guffey, Jr. May 12, 2006 I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately. Maybe it’s the war in Iraq. Maybe it’s the sense that the leaders who should be the moral compass of my country have forgotten that greed, fun though it may be in the short-term, is wrong, especially when funded on the backs of the poor and middle-class.
Maybe it’s the sense that the dominant attitude of too many Christians — theethos of the cultural moment — is much too familiar with Caesar and not enough with faith in the Suffering Servant.
Maybe it’s my disappointment with all of us who know God has called us to be salt and light, but are more interested in money and comfort. Did we not know that the ability to make money is a gift from God and that God has plans for that money that may have nothing to do with what we want?
Maybe trips to hospitals and funeral homes have made me ready for God to do God’s Book-of-Revelation-thing and make God’s home among mortals, ridding us once and for all of death, mourning, crying and pain, Eden realized, at last.
Maybe it’s just middle-age — that’s likely.
I’ve been thinking about heaven a lot lately.
I think it started when I saw the film version ofThe Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe last Christmas. Seeing the movie got me thinking of how C. S. Lewis described the end of the world — which he called “the Shadow-Lands” — and the coming of the “real” world, the “real” Narnia, the “real” Lucy, Peter and Edmund.
Near the conclusion ofThe Last Battle, the final book in the series, Lucy looked hard at what she thought was a garden “and saw that it was not really a garden at all, but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.”
“I see,” she said. “This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just asit was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia….”
Lucy had come to realize that she had seen the inner nature of what she had been seeing outwardly “wasting away,” as Saint Paul wrote to the church at Corinth.
“The dream is ended: this is the morning,” said Aslan.
Now, that is not to say this life is unimportant, not at all. It is to say this lifeis important because this life is connected to thenextlife — if you believe in that sort of thing, which I do. This life, with all its death, mourning, crying and pain — and birth, celebration, delight and joy — matter becausethis life was created by God and ordained by God as a good place to learn tobe who and what we were created and intended to be. It is a fitting place to practice being God’s children, a winning place to apprentice our love of God in how we treat one another, and a rich place to learn that God values the deeper (“real”) values of the Spirit. Saint Paul described those values as“affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity… a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people…involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life” (Galatians 5:22-23,The Message). These are values that describe, if pale by earthly comparison, what the fullness of life in the presence of God will be like for God’s children.
Lewis closesThe Last Battle andThe Chronicles series with the affirmation that all Lucy and the other children had experienced in their lives in England and in Narnia up to this point, “had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” In those words, I sense not escape from a world dying and godforsaken, but hope of a world that has beenredeemed.
Sometimes that hope resists easy seeing, but God drops into my life enough to keep me looking, especially through experiences of music and memories and through children.
No matter what mood I bring to worship, music almost always reconnects me to the hope of the meaning of this life and to the greater meaning of this life connected to the fullness of God in the life after this life. Sometimes the choir's singing does it; sometimes it is the dazzling gifts of our pianist at play.
Sometimes I find it in our singing together as God's family in worship. Sometimes it is in our singing the old hymns and gospel songs of promise, many of which were the songs of everyday people of other times and places who sang them in hope of heaven and heaven's healing after hard and difficult days in the fields or at war. Sometimes it is hearing the high sounds of an accomplished vocalist or instrumentalist running after some massive work by Bach, Brahms, Fauré, Handel or Rutter. God reaches throughthe music.
For me, the power of memory is in its ability to catch me by surprise with little parables of heaven. For example, when I was ages 3, 4 and 5, my family lived in a very, small town in Mississippi called Osyka. In my preschool world, within my pre-divorce family, I knew no danger, as long as I looked both ways before crossing the street, and reminded my dog to do the same. The days were easy.
This spring I awoke to memories of Osyka and found, in my remembering, a memory of heaven. I remembered those days and realized that at least some days in heaven will be like...
the memory of waking up
in Osyka first hearing birds singing then seeing the window above and
next to my bed the curtains gently
moving the spring breeze sunshine filtered peaceful morning.
God connects me again to deeper visions, purer dreams of life as it is and it will be, through music, and in memory, yes, and through sparkling moments with children.
This happened again in worship on a recent Sunday, during the taking of the offering. It was another Palm Sunday, and a glorious, early spring Connecticut morning, too. The children led us into worship, carrying palm branches, raised high to form arches of praise down the center aisle of the sanctuary for the choir to process underneath.
The sight always moves me. I think of the Lord Jesus coming into our sanctuary, arriving, not a moment too soon or too late, with compassion and salvation, for a distressed and wandering people. The children, not quite aware of the significance of their actions, led us in their childlike tribute to the Lord.
Worship unfolded with songs and prayers and preparation to pass the metal plates of a Baptist offering-taking.
The offertory hymn was sung.
The prayer of thanksgiving was prayed.
The ushers went forth to gather the offering, then stood in their places at the rear of the sanctuary, waiting the singing of the “Doxology” — do you do that, too? — as cue to return to the altar with the collection.
The pianist played the introduction to this very old hymn, originally written as the twelfth verse of an eighteenth century hymn intended to encourage boys in an English cathedral school to awaken each day alert to the glory and presence of God.
The congregation stood and began to sing.
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
The ushers walked down the aisle.
“Praise Him all creatures here below.”
I met them at the foot of the podium and received the plates. Usually I would then turn to walk to the altar to place the plates upon it, but this time I was stopped by a boy’s whispered voice.
“Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.”
“Here! Here!” It was Jonathan, age 5.
He had not been sitting in his usual place, near his parents, but with friends. As the offering was being collected, he suddenly realized his dependence on his parents if he was to have an offering to give — it will not be the first time this realization will come to a child, teen or many a young adult.
As the piano and organ played, and we sang, Jonathan had bolted down the center aisle, secured funding for his quest to give from his parents, but too late to be ready when the ushers passed his pew. In total focus on giving the gift, with no thought that a congregation might be watching, he rushed to meet me as I turned to place the offering plates on the altar, shoving his gift quickly into my hand and, just as quickly, returning to his seat.
“Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
I could not help but smile over his innocent enthusiasm in wanting to honor God with his gift. As I turned again to face the congregation, still standing, lingering in the last, dying note of the “Doxology,” I saw broad smiles all around. It was wonderful. A child’s desire to give had ushered us into worship with greater focus and understanding.
We were united in affirmation of the giver and enjoying the sounds of praise to the Giver of life, as well. Safe and secure among his family of faith, Jonathan, child of God among children of God, moved us closer to a recovery of our own innocence.
LR/God’s Slightly Younger Theologians Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 30, 2012
Our twin grandchildren, Aiden and Hannah, are staying over this weekend while Mom Carissa and Lily, their big sister, are away on retreat with the middle school church youth group. I had almost forgotten how verbal two-year-olds can be, though you do have to do a little interpreting when the pacifier is still in place as they speak. They noticeeverything and comment or question with proper subject-verb agreement. They are great fun – exhausting – but great fun.
Listening to the Twins reminded me of examples of observations and comments from our own children and children of church friends when they were young. One Sunday as an older 4- or young 5-year-old, we learned from Kyle’s Sunday School teacher that he had worn his Superman costume to church under his blue Oxford cloth shirt, khaki pants and navy blazer. He had asked to dress himself for church and, as it was a very busy morning, we went along. His Sunday School teacher noticed that he seemed to be having trouble walking, noticed his jacket and shirt were fitting tightly and restricting movement, so asked Kyle what was up. In a still small voice, he told her he was not “Kyle” but “Clark Kent” and that he had come dressed “just in case there was trouble at church.” Funny enough but I could not help but think that “trouble at church” might be an act of faith at some churches. You know how buttoned down God’s people try to be with all things holy: we want even God to be safe.
One Shreveport spring, Susanna, just turned six, was helping Angie water the plants in our front flower beds. As the fine spray settled upon flowers and leaves, Susanna seemed caught up in the interplay of spring sunshine and tiny droplets. Angie overheard her say, “Thank you, God, for rainbows in the hose.” Somebody was especially present to God’s presence that day. One Sunday when she was three, one of Susanna’s Sunday School teachers noticed her intently studying the fish swimming in the classroom aquarium. When Marcella asked what she was doing, Susanna responded, “I wonder if the fish ever get frustrated? They have such a small place to swim. I wonder if they miss the ocean.” Another sermon in miniature, don’t you know?
Last month, before worship on a Sunday when I was to baptize brothers, I was in the ready room changing into my official Orvis baptismal waders when I heard angelic singing. It was the second grade brother of those who would be baptized, singing with purity of heart: “He arose a victor from the dark domain, and He lives forever with His saints to reign. He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!” Don’t tell me children don’t enjoy singing what speaks to their souls, even if it has been around for a long while. Brock made a difference in my approach to worship that morning. Hallelujah.
Over the years, I’ve invited the children of the church to draw their own images of Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Advent, and then turned their art into covers for the printed worship guides. One year in Connecticut, young Stephanie submitted a line drawing of twelve mostly-round faces, like you would see on stick figures. Eleven of the faces came complete with eyes, noses and smiles. One of the faces had two eyes, a nose and a smile, like the others, but had dots like unto freckles on the face, too. Asked by her dad for an interpretation of her drawing, she replied that she had drawn the twelve disciples, smiling and happy after Jesus’ resurrection. Not wanting to disappoint her but wanting to be sure she understood the story, Dad reminded her that after the resurrection, without Judas, there were only eleven disciples. To this bit of critique, the young theologian smiled and said, “Oh, I know that, Daddy. I’m the twelfth disciple. That’s me smiling with the dots on my face, happy when Jesus cured me of the measles.” Her point was well made and well taken.
Time for one more?
Just a few years ago, early in our time in South Carolina, and in response to a similar invitation to draw for Holy Week, another young friend submitted her drawing of Jesus nailed to the cross. Behind Jesus on the cross, she had drawn a large hand coming down as if from the sky. When asked about her drawing and, especially, the meaning of the hand, she said, “Oh that is the hand of God holding Jesus while he suffered for our sins. How else do you think he could stand it?”
Oh, my. Why had I not seen that sooner?
Right on, young and faith-full friends of the Lord Jesus.
Light Reading / “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing” Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 20, 2012
I am grateful to a number of people of an older generation who have helped me grow through the gift of books. One of those was a wise woman I knew in Austin, Texas, when Angie and I were just starting out. She was old enough to be my grandmother and gracious enough to think more of me than I deserved at the time (thank God). It was after a Wednesday night talk or some class we had been a part of that she dropped by the office at First Baptist Church with a book for me. It was Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing by Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian, philosopher and poet. I was not ready to understand all that was in Kierkegaard’s writings but I knew I wanted to grow into its title and theme. To this day, I thank God for the gifts of older, wiser Christians who have dropped books my way like flower petals of grace, light and understanding.
Though Kierkegaard lived long ago, his insights into faith are timeless. In last Sunday's sermon, I shared with the congregation Kierkegaard's observation as to the trouble with worship in his day. It is a trouble that continues to our own day, especially in our self-centered lives in the USA. Kierkegaard observed that people in his day were confused about worship, its meaning and how the worship service functions. Using the action of the theater as a metaphor, he noted that most people in the pews thought of themselves as the audience receiving the performance of the preacher and worship leaders as the actors on stage and God as the prompter, giving the "actors" of preacher and worship leaders their lines.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he said. For worship that is truly Christian worship, the metaphor must be turned on its head for, you see, it is God who is the audience, the congregation the performers, giving their best to God, and the preacher and worship leaders who are those prompting and encouraging the "actors" of the congregation in their worship.
God is the object of our adoration and praise, as well as the subject around whom our worship is built. For worshippers, the question we should be asking ourselves every Sunday is not did we get anything out of worship today, but did God.
Here is one of Kierkegaard's prayers. I encourage you to read it and make it your own.
PURITY OF HEART IS TO WILL ONE THING (From Prayers from the Heart, Richard Foster, p. 53)
“Father in Heaven! What are we without You! What is all that we know, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if we do not know You! What is all our striving, could it ever encompass a world, but a half-finished work if we do not know You: You the One, who is one thing and who is all!
“So may you give to the intellect wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that will only one thing; In prosperity, may you grant perseverance to will one thing; amid distractions, collectedness to will one thing; in suffering, patience to will one thing.
“You that give both the beginning and the completion, may You early, at the dawn of day, give to the young the resolution to will one thing. As the day wanes, may You give to the old a renewed remembrance of their first resolution, that the first may be like the last, the last like the first, in possession of a life that has willed only one thing.”
Grace and peace, rwg
Snippets -Robert Guffey
Unpracticed Discipleship is like the sounds that reside in the grooves of an old LP
Only if you put it to work on the turntable will you hear its music
Only if you practice discipleship faithfully will the sound of faith be made firm and grow real in your life.
This is not works-salvation
This is the difference between owning the album and actually hearing the music contained therein.
When we unjustly criticize one another in the body of Christ, we are criticizing those whom Jesus loves. More, we just may be criticizing Jesus who dwells within the heart of every believer.
The body of Christ I have never laughed as much as with the body of Christ
I have never hurt so much as with the body of Christ
I have never been hurt so much as with the body of Christ
He who did not withhold his own withholds us neither
The ABCs of Prayer Robert W. Guffey, Jr. October 22, 2011
Like the letters of the alphabet so our lives our experiences our hopes our dreams our desires our loves our failures our wonderings and our wanderings, O Lord.
Through our lives, write the storyline of our lives as paeans of praise we wish we could compose and sing to You.
Help us say with Jesus not our will but Thine writ large in our lives sending us into the world experiencing life and love meaning and purpose success and even setbacks written in the hand of God.
It is a radical, dangerous and sometimes painful thing but it is the only life we know with the possibility of ultimate meaning and story with proper ending.
It is antidote against the darkness and bleakness of life.
God form the words God speak our lives God make the way for meaning.
the shortest verse (john 11:35) jesus wept jesus wept jesus wept
just like me
benediction Christ is present. Live as to Christ. Think as to Christ. Act as to Christ. Do as to Christ. Be as to Christ today. Christ in every place. Christ in every person. Christ is enough. Christ. -rwg
Not-so-Light Reading/ Aurora Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 21, 2012
The last time I went to a midnight showing of a movie I was in college. The movie was “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” not exactly classy stuff, but a communal experience and part of the innocuous seeking to fit in of late adolescence. My friends and I went simply to be together and to see if watching this particular movie in a semi-sleepy state would improve its viewing. As a nation, we had just passed out of Viet Nam and Watergate and entered a time of national “dis-ease,” not all that unlike our current circumstance, in some respects. We were at odds over massive letdowns of trust from within institutions and by those in leadership who, in theory, were entrusted with the national soul. If the 1940s had been times of unity, service and perseverance for the greater good, the 1960s and ’70s had turned all that tumbling upside-down. The calming leadership, for many poor and suffering, of FDR, the postings for peace and a post-military world by Dwight Eisenhower, the push for equality and justice by Martin Luther King and the can-do spirit of a nation whose land had been spared the scarring of the world at war gave way to the killings of a president, his brother and Dr. King, and the realization on the part of many of the in-bred violence of selfishness, inequality and fear, not only from the fringes of our society but from deep within the darkness of our own redeemed souls. Men robed in white, wearing masks and burning crosses, can never be the reflections of Christ, as they claimed to be. Neither can the business person who behaves ruthlessly for her or his own gain alone claiming it's “just business,” or the politician, preacher, priest, coach or any other person who lives to fill the empty black hole of ego.
The violence of our various eras and times has shocked us and shocks us still — that the nation can still be shocked may be a strangely hopeful sign. What each generation does in response to violence, whether it is of institutional powers and principalities, governments at war with their peoples, the quiet terrors of highly dysfunctional families or perpetrated by criminals and maniacs, reveals its true core convictions and character. In Colorado on Friday, the core and character of a mostly-young audience seeking entertainment and a communal experience was on display motivated by the horrendous act of what is sure to be a highly disturbed person.
In the grossly unexpected moment, parents covered children and friends covered friends with the shield of their own bodies. Police officers rushed rapidly into the killing zone with no thought of their own safety, faithfully doing their duty and maintaining fidelity to their oaths to preserve and protect. Medical professionals proved their callings to be healers, and a community was rallied by an outpouring of caring from those who understand what it means to weep-with-those-who-weep.
After the triage and treatment of this latest local horror, it will be a sign of the core of the character of our society to see whether we are finally ready to face the violence latent in most every human heart, praying and working for peace and the rebuilding of a communal neighborhood and world where we know more intimately one another and live everyday thinking of others while living into the things that make for peace. No, we cannot stop all deranged and disturbed persons from inflicting pain, or stop all who are evil from waging war, but becoming a society that glorifies peace, kindness, humility, love, mercy, health and justice can reduce their frequency and effect. Such a society will be a lot closer to the biblically-promised kingdom of God than our current version of reality and infinitely nearer the core conviction and character resident in the heart of God.
The stories behind the songs and hymns of faith have always been helpful to me. Read the text of a hymn by Charles Wesley and you will find the character of Wesleyan theology and its confidence in the deep, abiding grace of a loving God. Born the eighteenth of nineteen children, of whom nine did not survive, celebrations of and mediations on God's love poured out of Charles' pen onto the pages of over 6000 published hymn texts.
Here is the first stanza of one of my favorites:
Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down Fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown Jesus, thou are all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art Visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart
In our times, the Spirit has continued to sing through the work of hymn writers and song writers. One of the writers of some of the most popular new songs for worship is Brenton Brown, who was born and raised in South Africa. Of his songs, one of my favorites has informed my preparations during our Eastertide reflections on the power of the Living Lord to touch our lives where we are hurting. In it, words from Jesus join words from Psalm 42:
All that are thirsty, all who are weak Come to the fountain Dip your heart in the stream of life
Let the pain and the sorrow, be washed away In the waves of His mercy As deep cries out to deep
Come Lord Jesus come Holy Spirit come As deep cries out to deep
Charles Wesley was born prematurely and was first thought still-born. Brenton Brown has chronic fatigue syndrome. The writings of both reflect a knowledge of God that reflects trust and faith burnished by life's challenges. As the church of the Lord Jesus, we are better for both (a) their lives lived in faith and (b) the words to their songs that sing of it: songs that become our own when we sing sincerely and full of heart, voicing the truth of our lives, too, to the glory of God.-rwg
BITS AND PIECES from Recent Sermons Robert W Guffey Jr March 17, 2012
On the need for a sense of inner stillness, inner dialog and deeper meaning in one’s self: “When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is, that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office.” (-Henry David Thoreau)
On the need to repent for many in our day: One day a rich but miserly man came seeking counsel from a rabbi. Indicating a window which faced the street, the rabbi asked, “What do you see from the window?” “People,” answered the rich man. The rabbi then led him to a mirror in the room. “And what do you see now?” he asked. “Now I see myself,” answered the rich man. Then the rabbi said: “Behold, in the window there is a glass, and in the mirror there is a glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with a little silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.” (-William B. Silverman, The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values)
On the need to be honest with where you are and how that feels: “I’d give anything to see \ a little Christmas tree \ and to hear the laughter \ of children playing in the snow \ to kiss my baby \ under the mistletoe \ but I can’t promise my eyes the sight \ unless they stop the fight \ ’cause I’m a prisoner of war… (“I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” Marvin Gaye and Forrest Hairston, 1972, Motown)
A Prayer for Gospel Communion Robert W. Guffey, Jr. Sunday, December 4, 2011
In the power of the Holy Spirit, make us fit carriers of The Gospel, the Good News about Jesus.
Let us confess our sin and earnestly beg to know the grace of God that brings inner peace and reignites our dreams of how your church, our families, our towns and your world should be.
Empower us to be dreamers and doers of light not darkness of life not death of health not sickness of love not hate of service not power of wholeness not loss of peace not war of hope not despair of friendship not cynicism of grace not guilt of belonging not alienation of reconciliation not estrangement of moral purity not dissolution of Christ-likeness not self-centeredness of the image of God and the hopes of God and the good will of God come true.
Please make us ready to carry the gospel, even though we know it is shaped like the cross, the ultimate answer to evil and the means of our redemption.
I am looking for it to happen any day now. By the time you read this column, it may be over. One day soon, I am going to be driving northward on Gilbert Drive, on my way to the church, and, as if by magic, something that did not exist the day before will be abundant around me. One day soon, all those deciduous trees lining Gilbert will have changed. Where the day before I saw only bare branches, on that day I will see explosions of green erupt from branch to stem in blades of vibrant color. The sun’s light will glow translucent through leaves rich with chloroplasts. In that light will be the life of the tree whose God-given ability it is to turn light into glucose, sweet food of life. Winter is no more. Spring, warm Spring, has begun. The disciples asked Jesus for signs of the end of the age in which they lived. They longed to leave an age of sickness and evil. They thirsted for the age of the Spirit, of God’s good reign of eternal compassion, to begin. When will it come? Jesus replied. Look around you. When the leaves bud on the trees, you know summer is coming. Look around you. What you long for is coming and soon. Look around you for hints of love expressed in inclusive ways where once hatred and bigotry sought sanctuary. Look around you for reflections of reconciling grace where before divisions and strife were. Look around you for small glimpses of God’s will being done on God’s earth as it is in God’s heaven. Look around you. God’s summer is coming. It will appear so suddenly it will surprise you. Keep watching and waiting and working. It’s coming. One day soon.
Inspiration comes from unlikely places. An acquaintance commented on seeing spider lilies growing in the yard of his new home. The house is an older South Highlands dwelling and had been owned by an elderly woman who had lived there many years. Looking around the neighborhood, my friend noticed spider lilies growing in yards of houses no longer homes, houses vacant of family and caregivers. What became of whomever it was who chose well–drained soil and proper mixture of light in preparation of their planting? Spider lilies, root and stem yielded from scaly bulbs to raise strap–shaped leaves and showy umbels of roseate flowers, return again and again to reward absent caretakers. How long have they returned, year after year, season after season, cycle after unceasing cycle, with none to enjoy their beauty or to tend to their needs of water and nutrient? No one cares for them—or sees them—but an occasional, passing neighbor and God. How odd a sight, he remarked, to see flowers growing in spots of overgrown greenery near deteriorating structures of wood and stone waiting for the gardener’s return. Those houses and yards may serve as metaphor. We live untended lives. We plant church, relationships, marriages, family and world with enthusiasm and assume these will flourish with little tending. The disciplines of caring Christian living serve well the child of God who seeks a life strong against heat and drought and weed–ridden way. Church, relationships, marriages, family and world await your tending, O child of God. Take your place at work with God in God’s world. “The creation waits with eager longing” your revealing.
Grace and peace, rwg
Light Reading/God’s Alphabet
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
October 22, 2011
It was over twenty years ago and after first hearing the popular Baptist-Episcopal preacher John Claypool tell stories of the Jewish rabbis that I began exploring these in earnest myself. Just after hearing Claypool, I visited a clergy colleague who is a rabbi in the Reformed tradition and asked for a reading list. He (literally) tossed some books my way with the encouragement that each was filled with stories “no Baptist has ever heard” and, thus, would add freshness to preaching and teaching. I still enjoy adding to my collection of stories and find significance in the inner journey of faith these texts prompt.
The story that follows is one of my favorites and, though I’ve told it more than once in preaching and teaching, you do not have to be a preacher or teacher to appreciate it. The source is the book, The Sages Speak: Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values, William B. Silverman (Aronson, 1995).
“There once was an ignorant, impoverished peasant who entered the synagogue for worship. He listened to the scholars and sages intone their beautiful prayers to God. Since he, too, wished to express his love of God, he ascended the pulpit and stood before the Holy Ark. The scholars and sages were astonished to hear this rustic repeating the letters of the Hebrew alphabet over and over again.
“They nudged each other, commenting on this poor man’s ignorance. They laughed and ridiculed him because he didn’t even know the simplest prayers of the Jewish service. Then as the peasant began to speak, their laughter died in their throats, and their mockery turned to shame as they heard him say: ‘Lord of the universe, I am a simple man — an ignorant man. Oh how I wish that I had the words to fashion beautiful prayers to praise Thee! But, alas, I cannot find these words. So listen to me, O God, as I recite the letters of the alphabet. You know what I think and how I feel. Take these letters of the alphabet and You form the words that express the yearning, the love for Thee, that is in my heart.” And thus saying, he continued to repeat the letters of the alphabet over and over again.”
Every time I hear this story, I am moved by the humility of the peasant and I am shamed by the arrogance of the scholars and sages.
I have seen the later posture often among Christians who judge themselves to be more faithful and obedient than other brothers and sisters in Christ. Sometimes the attitude is expressed by those who have fallen into the trap of intellectualized faith or “sophisticated” or “informed” faith. After a while, we Christians with our claims of special knowledge and insight can sound a lot like the Gnostics who plagued the early church. Spiritual arrogance is a temptation too easily surrendered unto.
The former posture, the posture of humble faith, however, is what I deem more needful in myself, in the church and in the world.
It is based on the humility of the God-who-comes in the person of a finite human being. It was the posture of Jesus, the carpenter, an oldest child in a large, single-parent family, who, though he had known heaven, humbled himself before a cross. It is the servant-stance of the early Christians who witnessed of God’s love through the sacrifice of their lives given that the violence of their times might be absorbed and transformed.
People of faith like these show what it means to say that humility requires the abiding sense of the peace of God dwelling within a soul.
*Read on for reflections present and past, along with wisdom from a Connecticut colleague and friend.
Grace and peace, rwg
Light Reading /God Is Not Mad at You Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
September 3, 2011
This paragraph ran in the July 27 issue of The Christian Century. (For reference, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the leader of the Church of England and was in the news recently for officiating the most recent royal wedding.)
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recalled forthe Guardian (July 8)
how he once was an angst-ridden young man who worried about whether he
was suffering enough or was compassionate enough. But then Mary Clare
Millea, a Catholic nun, said to him, “You don’t have to suffer for the sins of
the world, darling. It’s been done.” If we’re not preoccupied with justifying
ourselves, said Williams, then we can focus on other things and can even
afford to be wrong. “Jesus is the human event that reverses the flow of
Glad to know people in such high places have dealt with the concerns of us mere mortal Christians. Too many of us live out of guilty feelings that we are not good enough, doing enough, attractive enough, or worthy enough to be loved by God, or anyone else. The biblical truth of the matter – and the good news of the gospel – is that we weren’t but, thanks be to God, we were made so because of God’s love revealed with astonishing transparence in Jesus.
That good news became real for some of us when we realized and began to live into the startling fact, to paraphrase Dr. Paul Tournier, that God had accepted us, just as we are, “without one plea.” It’s the beginning of our journey of living into the best God intended for us as God’s creation and as an embodiment of God’s love. (Some folks call that our “sanctification,” I believe.)
Or as an old preacher friend in Connecticut, who spent nearly a lifetime working with men addicted to drugs and alcohol, was fond of saying, “God loves you just the way you are and too much to let you stay that way.” That’s not something to worry about. It’s a fact made real in the grace of God and the life of Jesus because God loves you. Accept it as a given reality then ask God to help you can live out of gratitude and graciousness – instead guilt, frustration, judgment and fear – so that God’s love might soak the tiniest nuances of who you are and who you are becoming until it overflows into the world as Jesus alive in you. Imagine that!
Grace and peace, rwg
Remember 9/11/01 and Rabbi Cohen
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
September 7, 2011
Several times in the months after the tragic events of 9/11/01, Rabbi Leah Cohen and I shared the pulpit with priests and ministers of other faiths as we lived into the privilege and responsibilities of praying for our Connecticut communities in grief. In the Twin Towers on that brilliant, blue day, nine men died who were citizens of our town, as did a young family of three who were passengers on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
In one of the services, Rabbi Cohen honored the deeper values of our faith when she shared a story from the Talmud that spoke a counterpoint to the blanket condemnations some were making on a whole people for what had happened through the work of a group of evil men.
In the Talmud, as Moses and the children of Israel were singing in celebration of their successful crossing of the Red Sea, which we can read in Exodus 15. It is said the angels wanted to sing with them for joy as well but God chided them, saying, “How can you sing praises when my children the Egyptians are drowning?”
Light Reading / Presence Real, Always
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I twice visited the World Trade Center site with young adult friends and family who were new to the City and wanted to visit the site to pay their respects to those who died there. The first visit, coming one month after the attacks, was especially powerful for me. Thousands of us walked, almost silently, down Broadway through SoHo into the Financial District, as if we were a huge perambulatory funeral procession. As we neared and passed St. Paul’s Chapel, on the corner of Broadway and Fulton, the crowd slowed briefly to scan notes posted and banners draped on the church’s tall iron fence, to view and reflect on objects of devotion — flowers, candles, flags, photographs and stuffed animals — left as public display of confusion, shock and desire to console. As the ground underfoot grew uneven, I realized we were walking on a layer of dust, which covered the sidewalk and road. The dust was part of the remains of the Towers; “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I do not think I will forget that first walk down Broadway and the power of being present, of being a witness to the aftermath of deep evil and to the sense of grave loss.
As the first anniversary of 9/11 approached, I found myself reflecting on the images of the devastation, both those I had seen firsthand and those broadcast on television. I began to feel as though a small window had opened, and that I could see and feel a bit of what it might have been like, to live in London in 1944, or Germany or Japan in 1945, or Sarajevo in the 1990s, to live in a war zone. In imagining the scenes of physical devastation again, I also remembered what in those days had became an even stronger image for me: the scenes of families and friends of the dead and missing, gathered in the weeks and months after 9/11, in their grief on the streets and at public gatherings for the victims and their families. Often, many of these wounded sisters and brothers in our human family could be seen holding photographs of the dead and missing, lifted for the world to see. I now see those photographs as pleas for presence, as deep calls for remedy to painful, startling absence cutting through hearts, bodies and souls. Perhaps, too, those photographs lifted before the world were calls to those of us whose pain was not so immediate to acknowledge and honor the lives of those lost, some of whom had literally vanished from the face of the earth.
As the anniversary approached and I thought about these images, other brothers and sisters came to mind, other wounded members of our human family holding “photographs,” in a metaphorical sense. I saw these others holding images of loved ones whose presences they miss, too, whose absences carry pain and longing. I saw parents whose children were grown and gone not just physically but emotionally. They were holding photographs of sons and daughters at the ages of two or three, and saying, “I’d like to go back to this presence.” I saw ex-spouses holding photos of a first wife or husband saying, “I didn’t do it right the first time. I wish I could go back and try again to be present to the presence she/he offered then.” I saw some holding photos that were portraits of themselves, portraits from a time of innocence, naiveté and idealism, held by people who wondered what had happened to the person they thought they would become. In these images, the pain of absence and desire for presence conveyed anew the power of loss and longing.
In writing about the book of Lamentations, Walter Brueggemann reminds his readers that a poetic text was used by Jews for an annual holy day of grieving over the destruction of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem was seen as paradigm for their lives and was mourned in the scripture by “asking haunting questions about being ‘forgotten’ and ‘abandoned’ by God.”
I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.
YET this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for the Lord’s compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for the LORD.”
“What odd speech the people of God are about. What odd speech. To speak of remembrance when the soul feels abandoned; to speak of healing, nurturing presence when we sense God’s absence; and to speak of compassion, hope and grace when staring into the abyss of death.”
We are an odd people, a people who through the voicing of sadness and grief are able to begin the move toward healing. We sing Zion’s songs a long way from Zion. We sing as those who grieve with hope. We sing affirming the reality of our grieving, the reality of painful absence and our deep desire for presence. We sing yearning for God in fullness as those who have been given a taste of God, of truth, of good, of holiness, of the presence of love. We hurt because we loved and are loved.
On the evening of Wednesday, September 11, 2002, over 650 people of all faiths represented in the town of Wilton, Connecticut, gathered in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church to pray, to sing, to remember, to console and to hope. As we prayed, I felt solidarity with the Spirit of God. I felt healing was not just possible but was happening and that our future in God is assured. I felt hope being realized in our midst.
During the day and evening that anniversary Wednesday, a high wind visited our town, winds so strong trees and power lines came down. As we gathered at the church, the wind was blowing still, swirling around us. After the service, a child in attendance wondered aloud if the wind had been the memories of those who had died returning to say that it’s okay to be sad and, holding them in our hearts, it’s okay to move on into a new day. Not a bad thought at all, from a child paying attention. I think, though, the “Wind” we are feeling these days is One that “blows where it chooses” and chooses to be Presence to God’s children in the depths of our despair to lift us up in God’s time toward wholeness, more present to one another and God than we thought we ever could be.
LightReading/Bits and Pieces Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 25,2011
Optional Ending from a Recent Sermon on God’s Love and the Human Family Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 5, 2011 Sometimes I get to the end of the sermon as it should be and leave out good words that must live for another day. This example is of words too good not to share:
God does not just deal with this world, but deals with it passionately, loving it and suffering for it. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only son to it” (John 3:16). But this is not logic. This is passion. How else would God be willing to part with God’s own son for the sake of us? The Incarnation means therefore above all things that nothing — literally nothing — that happens in human life and in the world here and now can be regarded as having no relationship with God. The world is God’s and God is in the world. All men and women are God’s people and God is in us all — God near us, God in us, Immanuel. -Choan-Seng Song (Professor of Theology and Asian Cultures, Graduate Theological Union, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, in Imaging the Word)
Ephesians 5 Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 24, 2011 Last Sunday, after the sermon, having addressed with biblical faithfulness (I hope) Paul’s radical notion of the equality of men and women to imitate Christ through mutual love and submission one to the other, a friend in the congregation asked playfully, “So this means I’m supposed to do half the dishes, right?” “No,” I replied. “It means you are supposed to be ready and willing to do all the dishes and without being asked.”
A Parable for the Season of Silliness and Fear That Is Politics In their study, We Are an Easter People, John and Adrienne Carr share an old story called “The Rabbi’s Gift.” It seems the disciples of a particular rabbi were going through a time of treating each other badly. The rabbi had found no way to deal effectively with their behavior until, during a time of teaching, the disciples asked the rabbi when the Messiah would come and how they would recognize him. The rabbi replied, “Oh, the Messiah has already come. The Messiah is here… and is one of you.” How the disciples treated each other changed radically from that moment on.
Isaac Watts, verse 4 Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 25, 2011
Sleep creeps upon us and we fight its domination What we have known those we have cherished some remain while others fade away
Sleep creeps upon us and we fight its domination
We tire and close our eyes and fall fall fall fall into the arms of God. Good morning. “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all of us away; We fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” So remember us, O Lord at the hour of our departing, just as you did at Calvary. What are human beings that you are mindful of them? Why, we are yours, of course. Even should we no longer remember who we are, you do.
Our final rest, so is our hope, is our long expected re-membering within the life of God.
My Summer (Life) Prayer Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 26, 2011 (Adapted from several sources) Christ is present. Live as to Christ. Think as to Christ. Act as to Christ. Do as to Christ. Be as to Christ today. Christ in every place. Christ in every person. Christ is enough. Christ. -rwg
A new reading follows plus some poems and snippets from my notebook that seem to want to stay small. Hope all is well with you in these summer days. Grace and peace, rwg
Light Reading/Flying Robert W Guffey Jr June 20, 2011
Once upon a time I enjoyed flying but do so no longer. My first flight ever would have been by helicopter. I was in the third or fourth grade -- third, I think -- and our church children's Sunday School teachers offered a free ride in a helicopter to the first child who could memorize and recite the books of the Bible. I won but my parents vetoed the ride. So much for imaginative and inappropriate motivations for children to be about spiritual things. So much for parents!!
I took my first actual flight a few weeks after the conclusion of my freshman year in college. After volunteering -- or, as we Baptists are prone to say, "feeling the call of God on my life" -- to serve as a college student summer missionary, I boarded a Delta Airlines jet in Baton Rouge to begin the trip to my assignment: a beach ministry in North Carolina. It was a typically hot and humid south Louisiana day, but the coolness of flying more than matched my anticipation and excitement over the flight. It was simply wonderful: flying over my home town, listening to the pilot's narration as we flew over particular cities and places of interest, and eating REAL FOOD... in an airplane... high up in the air. I loved it. It was an experience I would have again as I traveled on summer missions assignments and student religious gatherings -- to Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New Mexico -- for the next three years.
I would fly again from time to time for religious work and during my time in business, but my love affair with flying ended gradually as the amenities and convenience provided by the airlines faded and after I had flown enough times and miles to have flown through some very challenging situations.
I have great confidence in the skill and training of professional pilots. I understand the science of lift. I know that planes do not fall out of the sky because of turbulence. But I almost hate to fly. On one extremely bad ride from New York-LaGuardia to Houston-Intercontinental about five years ago, a flight so rough not even the flight attendants were allowed to "move about the cabin," all I could think of was along the lines of there being only one reason to VOLUNTARILY put your body into a slim aluminum tube to be shot miles high into the air to be thrown and bucked and surprised with sudden rises and drops in altitude as rain, thunder, and lightning crashed around. There is only ONE reason -- only one SANE reason -- to do it, at least for me.
I was on that flight because my son and grandson needed me. I was on that flight because of love. It is the only reason I fly now. If I am on a plane now, it is because of love. Whether by call of God -- a subjective, personal appraisal, I know -- or call of family or friend, I will get on that hot, stuffy, crowded, noisy, beast of a vehicle and I will go because of... love.
I am telling you this not so that you might feeling sorry for me or recommend a therapist (!) or tell me to get over it. I am writing you to say that my feelings about flying and love got me to thinking about God. I am beginning to get a very small glimmer of understanding of why God would come to walk on this often hot, stuffy, crowded, noisy planet that surely does not compare to the splendor and wholeness of heaven.
I am beginning to understand why the Lord would come and teach, heal, feed, and give his life away to people who were so afraid, angry, and violent that they one day up and nailed him and his friends to crosses, hung them from trees, and took off their heads along the Appian Way.
There is only one reason God would make this trip: only because of love.
Got my boarding pass, rwg
June 13, 2011
Flying the twins not quite one year old LSU shirt catching drool Miscalculation One drop bullseye in my laughing mouth! Ouch.
May 13, 2011
Sounds of joy the whole world sings the Master comes and with Him brings majestic wonder amazing grace Hope for all the human race
For in His face so bright and terrible shines eternity
April 14, 2011
I see in your face youth and beauty only the years of faith and love can bring.
March 21, 2011
As a person ages he or she tires of the changes, the constant goodbyes, the disappearance of the familiar worlds of youth and young adulthood. Ambition devolves into acceptance, depression, panic -- or hope. You once were somebody within a context of familiar faces, places and ideas. Now all that seems barely a dream.
October 13, 2010
You can protect your children from many things but, in the end, you will find it nearly impossible to protect them from themselves.
June 20, 2011
History shows this is true: Persecution from outside the church makes it strong; criticism from within the church can destroy it.
Just back from Macon, Georgia, and the funeral of a friend. In my line of work and being, funerals are not unusual, though saying goodbye to friends my own age, especially one with children still at home, is a bracing announcement of how precious each day is. Once you have lost the days, such sayings are no longer cliché.
Grace and peace, bg
impressions on the way to macon
Robert W. Guffey, Jr./June 10, 2011
From 25-40 seems a lifetime 40-55 not so 55-70, oh my - - -
The day will come when all our loves and lovers will matter not as past pain or present joy but only as all is made all in all in Christ
The mending of the world begins with the mending of hearts the mending of hearts begins in the healing of souls the healing of souls is our salvation, salvation resolute in the heart of God our end in God’s beginning
Our lives returned to the source of life our voices soaring in anthems of love with distinction yet in unity praise to the Savior, the all in all
Exploding suns moons stars beyond microscopic matter come together again not collapsing on itself but coalescing in eternal alleluias these will carry us beyond the terror or nightmare of annihilation of person and personality beyond death and darkness and empty stillness the promise of faith the faith of God the darkness of a tomb
Another resurrection this time it is our own finally the end of the journey to God be the glory our end in God’s beginning never left behind or alone God’s love and lover of our souls soft near silent Alleluias.
May 7, 2011 / Three Readings with Mother's Day in mind...
Light Reading/The Last Time I Saw My Grandmother Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 17, 2009 (Written on October 23, 2008) Winnfield, LA
he last time I saw my grandmother, Ola, she sat both smaller and greater than I had seen her before, ninety-six birthdays showing in her face. The ninety-six birthdays showed not so much from the lines or wrinkles in her face but in the worry and pain in her eyes. Unable to move on her own from bed to chair or to stand unassisted, she sat and wondered aloud if this would be our final visit this side of heaven. It might be. She sat unable to move around the large, old, wooden round table of her kitchen in the small, cozy, white house that sat at 307 Jack McEnery Street in Monroe, Louisiana. That kitchen, that house, exist now only in our memories. The day lilies out front, the pale blue and pink hydrangeas out back, bloom now only in our minds and in whatever echo of heaven that seeded their beauty and warmth upon the earth and in my South Carolina yard in the pale blue and pink hydrangeas I have planted in sustenance of a memory. She sat unable to drive to work as a volunteer at the hospital, where she was a founding member of the volunteer auxiliary, or to teach four-year-old Sunday School at the First Baptist Church or to travel the state and beyond as she once did attending with love and encouragement the birthdays, graduations, and weddings of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She has survived the loss of a husband, forty-two years before, and the untimely death of a child fifteen years earlier to that earthly evil called Cancer. She is not so sure she has many days remaining for memory or gladness or pain. She sat within the limits of age that made her seem both smaller and greater. Beyond this moment of perception, transcending the closing parenthesis of this life, her spirit stood tall and formidable. Her love and determination burn brightly in her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-greats. The sparkle in her eyes draws strength to we who know her love. Her stubborn refusal to give up reflects the fierceness of God’s love within. Had she been born in a later time, in another era where the choices available to women were more expansive, more like today, her bright mind might have taken her many places. In her time, she took her callings as wife, mother and friend and made a legacy through the raising of generations of faithful teachers, educators, business people and ministers who, whether we remember it often or not, are graced by a legacy of service, determination, grit, quiet strength, a bright mind—and a measure of stubbornness, which is, of course, a blessing at some times, but not at all times, as our own spouses and families might say. Beyond this moment of reflection, we shared tears, kind words, and a kiss on the cheek of goodbye. Ola Melissa Dickerson Mobley left this life on February 6, 2009.
the morning birds sing of my childhood/One day in Osyka
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
July 2, 2009
the morning birds sing of my childhood
lazy mornings awakened by sunlight
filtering through gauzy sheers of window shades
light falling upon the tiled floor of a parsonage
next door to a small town church so quiet and peaceful
the hazy morning light streaming through an open
but screened window framing and calling
it’s a new day, come out to play
the morning birds sing of my childhood awakening
to a new day full of possibility
of adventures among the pine trees
and play among friends next door
and from down the road
friends with whom to build houses amid
the bundles of pine straw gathered as
refuse by the grownups
friends with whom to be pioneers in the
wilderness and Olympic swimmers in the wading pool
friends to walk the blocks to our miniscule
downtown to purchase popsicles for a nickel
or see if Mr. Price’s grocery has imported
another tarantula among the stalks of bananas
delivered directly from exotic places to his store
friends to run away with to nearby farms
to gather baby chicks for the neighbor’s pen
or new collie pups, one for each of us
(without our parents’ permission)
should my own children have done so
I might have been terrified for their safety
and difficult to live with upon their return
the morning birds sing of my childhood
made special mostly because of mothers
who screened us from the voracious appetites
of those in the world who do not care for children’s
innocence or that God made children to be
about their “work” of play and make-believe
and befriending as part of the necessary
movement toward growing up to be real
adventurers, families, trusted friends and
thank God for mothers—and fathers—who
know in their souls this is something
they must do in thanks to God for
the gift of their children
the morning birds sing of my childhood
not so unlike the childhoods of millions
of other children so blessed to awaken in quiet and peace
not to the cacophony of family discord
or hunger or worse
another morning like other mornings in
my ordinary childhood like so many others
except it was mine.
Reflection /“Helene’s Hands”
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
May 8, 1997
other’s Day comes to many with mixed emotions. Those blessed with good mothers and women blessed with children of their own can celebrate the holiday in grand style, and so they should. For some, like women dealing with infertility, those without children, or those who are grieving the loss of their mothers due to death or estrangement, the day can be difficult and silently painful.
For my mother’s funeral four years ago, Angie wrote these words of remembrance which were read then and to which I return on occasion. The words remind me that a mother can show her love in many ways:
What I’ll remember the most about Helene will be her strong, beautiful hands.
A schoolteacher’s hands—that could create lovely letters and thoughts on paper.
A grandmother’s hands—that could lovingly, tenderly, massage a colicky grandbaby Kyle to quiet slumber.
A housewife’s hands—that could take a mountain of clean warm laundry, fresh from the dryer and fold it into neat stacks in a matter of minutes.
A cook’s hands—that could make the most delicious pork roast I have ever tasted.
A friend’s hands—that could comfort and quiet a troubled soul.
A mother-in-law’s hands—that embraced a daughter-in-law with the love and warmth of family belonging.
She held my hand during Bobby’s ordination into the ministry. She knew that the life of a minister’s wife had its rewards and its hardships. She supported me in the hard times with empathy and understanding. She rejoiced with me in success and joy.
I will miss her beautiful, lovely hands. But her hands touched me—and so many others, and made our lives richer.
She was a woman of quiet dignity—she didn’t crowd someone with hugs—but she loved and supported and embraced—with her hands.
Light Reading/The Person beside You Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 26, 2011
When my boyhood buds in Baton Rouge, Ronnie and Randy, and I were traveling through junior high school band with Mr. Campo and high school concert band with Mr. Littel, we could count on these things: (a) cute girls in the flute and clarinet sections, (b) the guys in the baritone and drum sections causing mischief and trouble, usually humorous, (c) class chaos whenever the directors were away and the baton had been given to a substitute director, and (d) both Mr. Campo and Mr. Littel giving strict, sometimes heated, instructions as we neared the time of competitive concert festivals.
While it’s true that I have long forgotten most of those instructions, I’ve never forgotten this one.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” they would say, after stopping us in the middle of playing some musical passage that demanded attention to the dynamic changes between very soft (pianissimo) and loud (forte).
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you cannot hear the playing of the person beside you, you are playing too loud. This is not about you; it is about the music. It’s not about your ego. If there is a solo in the music for you to play, I’ll let you know. It’s not about whether or not your mother is sitting on the front row and you want to stand out. It’s not about you. It’s about the music.”
On one level, I am reminded of this every time I attend a concert or program for children or students today and parents (or grandparents) go out of their way to be sure their child (or grandchild) is treated like the “star.” Every video recorder recording every move of the singular performer neglects the truth that without the group their “star” would not be much. Discipline and decorum are not what they once were in many places but, oh, the difference when I encounter a director who is in charge in service to the music and to the greater good of his or her students.
There’s wisdom there for life outside the band room and concert hall, as well. We can trust that we are growing up toward maturity in Christ when we stop living as if we wished we were the star in every performance of our lives. We know we are becoming more like the Lord Jesus when we begin paying more attention to the person beside us.
While millions of people in the US (including this writer) are gearing up for the Big Game this weekend between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, a much bigger game is on in the Middle East.
In the US, the Super Bowl, otherwise known as the NFL Championship Game, has become such a big deal that the New York Times reports it’s a life-and-death experience for some people. In a special feature published on Monday of this week, the Times’ medical and science reporter, Benedict Carey, wrote about the health effects of the game, not for the players, but for those who watch the game. It wasn’t the mountains of chips, dips and high-calorie beverages that caused the most concern either.
Carey reported of therapists in NFL home town cities who treat a condition called “Football Attention Neurosis,” or F.A.N. (seriously). He also referred to an article published in the most recent issue of Clinical Cardiology, a professional medical journal, that documented an increase in deaths among the over 65-aged crowd after past Super Bowls when the home town team lost, and a reduction in the same when the home town team won. Enjoy the game but put it in perspective seems to be the bottom line.
While the Big Game is huge here, a bigger game is on in the Middle East, most prominently seen this week in Cairo, Egypt, by way of your preferred cable news network, web site or Twitter-feed. Winning and losing in the context of the struggle for the freedom to have a say in how your life is run, instead of being told how it will be run by autocracies, can mean the difference between living and dying.
Already some have died and many more have been injured in these far off places that most of us have little familiarity with or firsthand knowledge about. At the same time, if you have begun following the stories of the people, it seems clear that, whatever the final outcome of the protests in Cairo, the desire for freedom is rooted deep in the souls of many who have shown great courage in living out their convictions so publicly and peacefully.
Of the many images of the protests I have seen this week, one, in particular, has been particularly instructive as to what it means to live one’s convictions. The photo shows a group of Muslim young people kneeling in prayer while they are being watched over and protected by a circle of young people who are Christians. Some of the commentary about the photo has emphasized it as showing the good that can exist in humankind.
Other commentators, speaking only on the religious aspect of the image, observed that, as in some parts of the world people of differing religions have co-existed and shared common goals in society for centuries, the minority of those who are both religious fundamentalists and who embrace violence should not be allowed to destroy the possibility of trust between us.
At the very least, the photo seems to me to reflect the conviction of Jesus that his followers should trust more in the power of prayer, respect, and love than in the weapons of the enemy.
It is no game when lives and futures are at stake. It is time, instead, to hear the call of the Prince of Peace to pray and to pay attention to the cries of others who yearn to be free, whether abroad or closer to home. In our neck of the woods, that freedom may be from the sin which so easily besets, or from hunger and homelessness, or from a family of addiction and dysfunction, or from an obsession with sports and hobbies that becomes more important and consuming than paying attention to the Spirit at work in the world.
n the Tuesday in January 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart in the clear, cold Florida skies, I was walking through the construction engineering department in the main administration building of the chemical manufacturing company I worked for ever-so-briefly during our three-and-one-half years of sabbatical from professional ministry, so long ago now.
I had just begun a year of air travel around the country representing the company to mid-size and giant food and pharmaceutical manufacturers headquartered in places like New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and St. Louis. I was walking through the administration building, just passing through, intent on getting done what I needed to get done, when one of the engineers caught my attention as I walked by his desk and he asked if I had heard about the space shuttle.
By this time in the history of the Shuttle program, I was thinking, wrongly, of these flights as routine, as a task mastered and everyday, and, frankly, I had forgotten a shuttle would be flying on that clear, cold Tuesday. He told me it had exploded while lifting off with no survivors, words which hit me with great sadness as I remembered and said, at the same time, “You mean the one with the teacher on it? Oh, no.”
That a teacher had been chosen to fly had meant to me that the exciting and optimistic promises of space exploration as we had absorbed them while growing up in the ’60s were finally coming true. If a teacher can fly, and can teach from space, then, soon, why, anyone can fly. Instead that day of promise turned out to be a terrible day.
It was a terrible day when technology abetted by human pride and arrogance betrayed the lives of people whose names I see often when I drive through Myrtle Beach where several streets were named in memory of the crew.
It was a terrible day to be reminded of the limits of human beings when human beings think limits and rules don’t matter.
It was a terrible day to explain to children what had happened and why.
Our son was six years old then and came home from school with art work he had done that day in class. On a large sheet of Manila paper, he had drawn the astronauts floating safely to earth in parachutes, floating to earth in the clear, cold, blue and bright Florida sky. If it was hard for grownups to absorb this tragedy into their souls, it was next to impossible for children, especially children who knew this was “the one with the teacher on it.”
The experiences of that time, and others like them, stay with me and have helped me prepare for other times when human beings, with or without technological collaborators, betray or are betrayed, hurt or worse.
They have helped me not to be so quick to take for granted the courage required to do great tasks that mean pushing limits, some of which need to be pushed outward and upward.
They have helped me pay more attention to the spiritual lives of children and how they perceive the small anxieties and great tragedies of life. A curt word on the playground, the unnecessarily accusatory tone of an adult, the loss of a loved one or merely the general sense of unease and dysfunction in a household telegraph themselves through the beings of children who need ways to say and deal with what is in their souls.
They have helped me appreciate what a privilege it is to be present to others in the ministry you and I share as Christ-to-the-world in times of sadness, trauma and tragedy — and in times of gladness and joy, too, for these surely come on the other side of sorrow.
These come as surely as the frailties of this time remind us we are not God. These come as surely as will the day when heaven comes down to earth, tears will be no more and the deep gladness of God will reign eternal and supreme.
Light (not lite) Reading/Helping Children Deal with Death
Robert W. Guffey, Jr. October 9, 2010
But Jesus called for them and said,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them;
for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God
as a little child will never enter it.”
-Luke 18:16-17 (NRSV)
This week the privilege of ministry meant walking alongside another family grieving the sudden loss of a parent of young children. As much as we may want to pretend life is not this way—that is, full of terrible tragedies and unanswerable questions as much as it is full of wonder and love—it is. When the tragedies come and young children are left behind, deciding what children should be told and how they should be told becomes a weighty responsibility. Here is what I do. There may be better ways, which I am all too ready to learn, but this is how I find myself led of the Spirit.
First, I remember that children are thinking searching questions and will ask them if adults are present to listen. Just like adults, children are concerned about questions like: Why? Why now? Will I die? Will my mom/dad? Should I be afraid?
When children raise these questions, both children and their questions should be taken seriously by adults who are willing to talk with children instead of at children. I have found children appreciate hearing an adult say we have questions, too, about the “whys” of what has happened and that we do not always know why. I, for one, do not believe in a God who goes around snatching the ones we love and will not say anything along the lines of God needing the parent in heaven or needing the parent more than the children do. I try to affirm in plain language the love the parent who died had for the child or children and that he or she did not choose to go away. While we may not understand the why of the death, we can affirm the love the parent had for them and that this love is reflected in the many people who will be present to the family after the death, whether in the home and at the funeral. These people are present because they loved the parent and they love the children. They are a sign of love.
Second, I remember that children will be honest in sharing their feelings, especially their hurts, if given permission to do so. Sometimes that permission comes in not expecting children to talk too soon about what has happened. On a Christmas Day many years ago now, I visited a family who was experiencing Christmas in the midst of the unimaginable tragedy of the death of a young mother in a traffic accident on Christmas Eve. As I walked up the driveway toward the pathway to the front door, I saw chalk drawings on the driveway. Her young children had drawn names of the family and a star for Christmas on the driveway.
The children had begun their grieving by drawing symbols of what they could not yet say. Whether by intuition or experience, their father and family had given the children space to find a way to begin to express their feelings. The poet, Marilee Zdenek, has written, “There are those who do not understand spaces—who say that children do not grieve for long. Those who say that do not know children and are deceived by children putting laughter [and play] in the spaces between their tears.” (God Is a Verb, p. 63.) These children were honored by adults who did not overwhelm them with adult grieving but did not shelter the children or pretend that the loss was not real. They were ready to talk as the children were ready to talk, to speak when they were ready to hear, to sit silently with a hug from those who loved them dearly when they wanted to sit or cry, and to let them have the space that we all need to process and embrace great loss.
Third, I remember that children will trust those who love them even when they (and we, as adults) do not have the answers to these kinds of events and the questions they raise.
Richard Rohr has said that faith is not “knowing” but “loving.” Times of great sadness can be affirmed and named as times of great love. Indeed, the love we have for someone who has died is the basis for our sorrow and grief. Our tears and grief are signs of love—and the basis for our hope for, as people of faith, we believe this love has come from God and God’s love never dies.
When children are faced with the death of someone close to them, what they most need is to be loved. That love brings with it something akin to the comfort the psalmist sought when he wrote:
I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
-Psalm 121:1-4 (NRSV)
That love affirms our confidence in God whose best intentions for us will come true whether we live or die for:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;
so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
In the end, for children to deal well with the death of someone they love, they need the calming presence and love of adults who they trust, adults who trust God’s love to carry both adults and children through the grief and hurt to the healing we all need, adults who know the truth that they, too, are children, beloved children of God.
Light Reading/Becoming Christian on the Inside and Outside
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
September 4, 2010
There is a story about a wise old minister who was visiting a great church. He asked an usher if he might meet the person responsible for the church. The usher took him to see the pastor of the church. “No,” said the old minister, “this is not the person.”
The usher took him to meet the chairman of the board. “No,” said the minister, “this is not the person.”
Scratching his head, the usher led him to the wealthiest person in the church. “No,” said the old minister, “this is not the person I am seeking. Please take me to the kitchen.”
The usher, puzzled, led the old man to the kitchen, where a modestly dressed woman in an apron stood at the sink, her arms plunged among dirty coffee cups and saucers. “Here, my friend,” said the old minister to the usher, “is the real secret of your success. I have seen it in church after church. Jesus said, ‘If any person will be great, let that person become the servant of all.”[from Lectionary Homiletics Journal, March 1993]
Is that how you think of a great church, in terms of service and servants? Most often when I hear churches called great, it is not for their humility or servanthood. Great churches have worship that inspires and programs that attract. Great churches draw crowds on Sundays and during the week. Great churches have clout in communities and influence on a broad stage. Great churches are talked about and emulated by others who want to be part of a great church.
Indeed, I am glad for churches that are great in scale of quality and quantity of ministry but how Jesus talks about being great holds definition and critique for determining whether any church is truly great. Here are the words of Jesus from the pages of scripture:
Then they [Jesus and the disciples] came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”-Mark 9:33-35 (NRSV)
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”-Matthew 20:25-28 (NRSV)
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” Just like Jesus to be so clear and yet so difficult, isn’t it? Jesus assigns greatness to values like authenticity, humility, integrity, service and sacrifice. Jesus names greatness as the inner quality of giving all to God that God might be great through us. Jesus lines out the life of someone who would be great in God’s eyes and it is nothing like human ideas about greatness.
The drumbeat of becoming and being Christians and becoming and being the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is sure and true. Thanks to Jesus and through God’s grace, we can be saved to a quality of life in God’s presence that invades our “now” and ushers us into God’s forever. Thanks to Jesus we are saved, too, to be used of God for great and mighty purposes of God’s own choosing.
We have been saved by the Lord who gave “his life a ransom for many.” We have been saved to serve “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” We have been saved to learn that being great in God’s eyes is not a function of how many people serve us but how many people we serve.
How all that ends up looking to the world should be a lot more like a cross than the world’s symbols of status and success.
Sundays pass and the church calendar turns from Advent to Christmas, from Lent to Easter, and from Pentecost to the season of the greening of the church as extension of the Incarnation into the world. Over the years, the turn to Lent has grown in importance to me with its call to you and me toward intentional, repentant preparation for Resurrection Sunday. Easter joy is God’s gift to God’s children, and is best known by those who realize what it cost the Lord to show such great love and forgiveness.
While it is true, too, of the other great seasons and days of the liturgical year, I find myself amazed that so many Christians around the world will make the slow but deliberate march to Calvarytogether. It is such a difficult time, so different from the narcissism of our culture of celebrity and consumerism. That Christians might agree to reflect upon sin, separation and suffering is so counter-cultural, but we do.
That we do anything together is a gift from God, don’t you think? The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is made up of billions of human beings who have responded to the call of God, through the power of the Spirit, to say “Yes” to Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and life. That the church global and local are made up of so many different peoples and personalities, yet still grows and (sometimes) glows with love, is proof to me that Jesus is alive. Only the power of Christ could take such a rag-tag bunch who sometimes only have in common their need for forgiveness and turn us into a family.
In devising strategies to reach others for Christ, it is a peculiarly North American notion that the church grows best through marketing to particular, focused groups of people with similar sensibilities. The church growth specialists are right when they observe that local churches tend to grow fasterwhen everyone in the church shares the same likes, dislikes, age groups and behavior patterns — thus the ever-growing specialty churches proliferate: seeker churches, fishermen churches, college churches, cowboy churches, coffee shop churches, youth-camp-experience-based churches, jazz churches, singles churches, whatever.
While I appreciate the value this kind of marketing and style-based church planting can have as an entry point for reaching people who are new to Christ and the church, I do not believe that is how the church of the Lord Jesus Christ grows best.The church of Christ grows best — not easiest, quickest or quantitatively greatest, but qualitatively best — when she seeks to emulate the nature of Christ. Just as Christ came to save all, so the church, in its grandest ideal, will know the Kingdom of God is not far away when she matures toward the vision of becoming a church for all people, generations and seasons of faith and life.
During our years at FirstBaptistChurch, Shreveport, LA, some of the most meaningful worship experiences for me came on those occasional Sunday nights when we gathered with our mission congregations to worship the Lord Jesus who is Lord of all. We gathered in the sanctuary — Hispanic, Chinese, Deaf, Japanese, women, men, children, teens, black, white, poor, rich, and in the middle economically, some with large families and some living single, business people, teachers, carpenters, painters, musicians, shopkeepers, students, doctors, lawyers, CPAs, some in the uniformed services and retirees, some having met Jesus as children and then growing old with him, and some just off drugs and alcohol and still trying to hold on to him through the slowly parting haze.
In worship on those nights, we were lifted out of our individual prejudices and preferences and became the united body of Christ that defied categorization. We heard the call to worship. We sang songs and hymns of faith. We sat at the Lord’s Supper table with Jesus. We baptized new believers. We went out rejoicing in the power of the thoughtful, humble, yet wild and energizing Spirit.
We did not speak the same earthly languages, but we knew the vocabulary of need that brought us to Christ in the first place. Through our worship, we were growing in awareness of the one Lord, one faith and one baptism that holds the church of the Lord Jesus together. We were learning a faith built in the sacrifice of One for all and represented by a baptism that immerses the sin of our selfishness and self-centeredness under the waters of redeeming grace.
In our call to Christ, you and I have been summoned to join a journey of becoming the church of all people, generations and seasons of faith and life. This is not something we can accomplish by demanding our own way. It is something God causes to bloom from the soil of faith, grace, trust, listening and loving. It is a vision that is not far away from our experience or history as the people of God. It is a vision that brings pleasure to God and is worthy of the sacrifices we will each need to make to glorify the Lord who loves us more than life itself.
Dear Friends, A prayer and a poem (both new) and a reflection on prayer for the sick (from days in Connecticut) follow. Though it be the season of God and country, our congregation is practicing the presence of Christ's love with three of our number who wait in hospice care, thus the direction of these reflections. What a privilege and blessing we share as bearers of the gospel in times like these. With hopes for grand days for you ahead, bg
Light Reading/Prayer after a Hospital Visitation
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
July 3, 2010
For the healing only You can bring For friends and family we will never
see again in this lifetime For the mystery of life and love For the paradox of suffering For depth of thought and feeling
that leads us nearer to trust in
your faithfulness For the seasons of our grieving
which are the yield of intimacy
and loving another that reminds us
of the reality of such love
That we never might have been
and yet we were That, being so blessed, our growth
into grace overcame our fear, anxiety and small-mindedness That you revealed yourself through
a cross and not a crown That you have gone before us
to confirm the taste of eternal love
this life offers as coming in fullness
and real in our future
We thank you and praise you,
Light Reading/The Pastoral Life
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
December 18, 2009
I walk into a hospital room
or answer the phone
or hear a knock on the office door and never know
what I upon entering
Life and death
birth and hopes
assumptions about a life
or a family
or one's own body
or mind that did not hold
Or maybe just another
family who think it is
"just the preacher"
come to call,
doing the job thing,
If only it were that simple.
It rarely is.
Light Reading/How to Pray for Those Who Are Sick
Robert W. GUffey, Jr.
November 9, 2004
During the long season of illness and disruption to life as usual at our house, so many friends have been wonderfully affirming in offering prayers and best wishes for recovery, strength, and God’s presence in our lives. From time-to-time someone will ask for specific ways to pray. Occasionally, a brave and honest pilgrim will express some discouragement that it seems to take God so long to answer some prayers as we want. That thought crosses the minds and hearts of preachers, too.
When someone is sick, should we pray? (Yes.) Should we pray for miracles? (Perhaps.) Should we pray for doctors and medical professionals, who may or may not be Christians? (Certainly.) Should we let God know our frustrations in waiting for God to act? (Absolutely. If you need a “warm up” on that, just read most of the Psalms.)
On June 15, 2000, Dr. James Montgomery Boice, pastor of the 10th Avenue Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia, PA, died in his sleep only eight weeks after learning he had an aggressive form of liver cancer. On Sunday morning, May 7, 2000, as he called the 10th Avenue congregation to worship, Dr. Boice shared this elegant, honest, and hopeful statement of his faith with a recommendation on how to pray for those who are sick. His words were shared with me recently by a fellow pastor, an excerpt of which you'll find below. There is counsel, strength and some healing, I think, in his words.
“A number of you have asked what you can do, and it strikes me that what you can do, you are doing. This is a good congregation, and you do the right things. You are praying certainly, and I’ve been assured of that by many people. And I know of many meetings that have been going on. A relevant question, I guess, when you pray is: pray for what?
“Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to do miracles—and He certainly can—is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place. So, although miracles do happen, they’re rare by definition. A miracle has to be an unusual thing.
“I think it’s far more profitable to pray for wisdom for the doctors. Doctors have a great deal of experience, of course, in their expertise, but they’re not omniscient—they do make mistakes. And then, also, [pray] for the effectiveness of the treatment. Sometimes it does very well and sometimes not so well, and that’s certainly a legitimate thing to pray for.
“Above all, I would say, pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say: Where in all of history has God most glorified Himself? He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have. Jesus said, ‘Don’t you think I could call down from my Father ten legions of angels for my defense?’ But He didn’t do that. And yet that is where God is most glorified ...”
This pastor’s words reflected his life-long belief in the sovereignty of God, not only in the grand, sweeping events of history, but in the personal histories of every person, all beloved by God. To believe this way is not to give in to fatalism, but to abandon ourselves to hope—not optimism, but Christian hope, which is based on the initiative of God who is most assuredly “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Perhaps that will point us to the place we should pray with priority: that God would strengthen us, through the Holy Spirit, to trust God more, to accept the struggles as well as the gladness that we might live, in the midst of all things, to the glory of God.
Just back from an annual gathering of Baptist Christian friends—inspiring with a crowd that was distinctively younger—which comes with the acknowledgement that I'm getting older, of course! I’m including two readings from reflections I wrote on the way to and from a similar gathering a while back. Read on and see what you think.
Hope all is well with the Spirit of Jesus near and active in your life.
Grace and peace,
bg/June 27, 2010
Light Reading/Rain Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
Tuesday two weeks ago, I was driving through the east Texas town of Nacogdoches on my way to meetings in Houston when a miracle happened, a very baptist miracle. It rained.
For five minutes or more, huge drops of wonderful water drenched my blue Accord. After weeks and weeks of drought in northwest Louisiana plus scorching heat, the rain seemed extraordinary.
I found myself wanting to pull off to the side of the road and just watch the rain. Puffs of dust arose from the dry roadside dirt as spheres of refreshment dove earthward and plowed into it. As the sky unloaded around me, the grass seemed to grow greener and the trees looked richer. I know it was the momentary illusion of wetness but the illusion seemed to promise greenness and richness just the same.
My ability to breathe easier after the rain was no illusion. The air really was, at least for a brief while, cleaner, purer and easier to take.
Our baptist affinity for water is a fitting metaphor for what it means to be Christian. Our immersion is not only into baptismal waters but into Jesus. Our drenching is not just rite of passage into church membership but symbolizes our deepest desire to be saturated and overwhelmed with Christ rather than inordinate demands of ego, family (yes, some families stand opposed to Christ) or culture.
The end reality of the Christian life is that we become submersed deeply within the reality of Jesus, that we become Jesus in manner and character and action to those we love and to the world. Remember your baptism, sisters and brothers. It is significant reminder that we are on a road paved by grace. This road leads through heavenly waters towards a forever–home where no one thirsts and life grows green with all the richness of God.
Light Reading/Communion Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
I sit in an arena in Houston, Texas. The final moments of a grand assembly of thousands of Christian friends pass swiftly now. Worship moves towards its lofty conclusion.
I sit watching the people pass. Some walk swiftly, some not so.Some come in wheelchairs. Each one takes bread and cup from gentle servants of Christ while a soloist sings lyric interpretation of the meal: the gift of Jesus.
In remembrance of Great Love, they take bread and cup. They are old. They are young. They are middle-aged with the reality of their one–day–dying edging like the dawn upon the interior of their collective consciousness.
They are black. They are white. They are brown. They are Asian. They are Hispanic. They are from the world that God so loved. They are the colors of God’s grace.
“Beautiful… beautiful are the scars,” sings the soloist, to the multitude of sisters and brothers in this place. She sings of God, for God, to God.
I watch and I seek, too. Together we come seeking communion. We seek communion which in paradox binds us firmly in the freedom of God’s love. We seek communion with God who transcends our greatest hopes, dreams and ideals.
I watch and seek, too, and, in seeking, I believe. I am seeing the Future and I believe. The healing of Christ’s body continues at Table in Communion. No longer are we many. Not in this twinkling fading moment. No. We are one in the One. The Peace. The Ultimate Reality. The Mystery. In Holy Communion. In Shalom.
We are being wrapped in warm healing Embrace. Wrapped in rapture of Spirit, Christ’s scars touching our broken hearts, we are born anew to live grace into the arena of the world and towards eternal Communion.
Light Reading/Invitation Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 8, 2010
Often when I think about the purpose of the church of the Lord Jesus, especially when I begin to wonder if the church I regularly am a part of is fulfilling its purpose, an image I saw long ago now comes to mind. It was a typical Sunday morning, during our days in Shreveport, and worship was coming to a close. With the sermon done, I had moved from the pulpit to stand on the main floor of the sanctuary, facing the worshippers, ready to receive anyone who might come forward as the congregation sang the customary—for Baptist worship, anyway—hymn of invitation and commitment. I do not remember which hymn we were singing but what I saw and heard during and after the singing have stayed strong in my mind.
In preparation for our departure after this hymn had been sung, new members had been welcomed, and as the benediction was being sung by the choir, the ushers for the day would open the many doors along the side and the back of the sanctuary, a great Baptist cathedral built on a hill. For some reason, on this particular day, the ushers who were stationed at the back of the sanctuary, in the foyer, had gone to their work early. The rear doors of the sanctuary were opened first and then—and this was the part that got me—and then, the large wooden First-Baptist-white exterior doors facing the world outside were swung wide. From my position before the pulpit, with the doors open, even with the congregation standing and singing, I had an unobstructed view through the sanctuary and beyond those open doors to the outside. Outside those doors was a vision, a very real and engaging sight.
I saw the brilliant green of tall, well-grown trees standing beneath and before an open sky of intense blue. I saw the brightness of sunlight at noonday. I saw the movement of a strong breeze blowing through the trees. I saw a world of vibrant color before me, framed by those doors. It was a world that drew me toward it.
After speaking a final word to the congregation, and as the choir began to sing the benediction, I walked down the aisle to take the pastor’s customary station in the foyer, near those doors, so that I might say a word to the worshippers as they departed. As I stood there waiting for the choir to conclude, as I gazed out those massive doors enjoying the sheer beauty of God’s creation on that particular Sunday morning, I thought I heard a Voice calling gently:
Come out. Come out, O church of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom awaits you in these streets, in these houses, in the marketplaces of your everyday coming and going, in the highways and byways. The invitation sung is for you. Step over the threshold into adventure. Follow Jesus into the world.
Whenever I feel tempted to cloister within the cozy world of my church family, to keep too close in hand and heart what God has given me, and to forget that one of worship’s purposes is to prepare us and embolden us for mission and ministry, I remember that Sunday morning and hear again God’s invitation. It reminds me how much I want to follow Jesus into the world, though this world often is not bright and shining. I want to be involved with God in God’s redeeming work in people’s lives. I want to be a bearer of grace and joy into the world.
Light Reading/“Is Love Enough” Robert W. Guffey, Jr. May 1, 2010 With spring’s arrival and summer’s approach, I’m looking for spiders again, and not because they make me nervous—though I know I have friends who are so in their presence—nervous, that is. I’m glad to have them nearby, especially when the miniscule flying black dots of lesser insects grow thick and bothersome on summer evenings. First drawn by the night lights of the house, and then caught on webs that appear as gossamer yet prove to be more like steel, these many legged, uninvited guests find they have stumbled into a party they now cannot leave. I’m looking for spiders again, but not just any old spider. It’s the golden silk orb-weavers that take residence in the shade of my house, among branch and shrub that I’m waiting for. Their silky webs seem delicate as gauze, so much so that, as the orb-weavers grow, inch upon inch to three-four-five inches in length, you wonder how such flimsy stuff can hold them. Their webs can, of course, because that is the way God made them. They spin golden fibers that alone are not much but woven together become strong. One web’s strand is just a nuisance to run into for you or me, but, an entire web? That’s another matter altogether. I’m glad to have the spiders nearby as a reminder of the wild things of God that grow, crawl, creep, walk, gallop and soar in infinite variety upon, within, around and above God’s earth. This God we worship and serve has some kind of imagination, don’t you think? This God we worship and serve takes the light, unusual and gossamer-seeming—like love, grace, forgiveness and faith—and surprises the world by the strength with which God imbues such. Take love, for instance.
In the ways of God, love becomes strong enough to calm a heart disturbed by tears and fears. Love becomes enduring enough to break the darkness of poverty and war. Love becomes food for a child who hungers and a warm embrace for an adult who grieves. Love becomes a roof over the head of a homeless stranger and a seat at the table for a former enemy—who may be a member of your own family. Love becomes the power energizing the faithfulness of a spouse and the perseverance of a parent who loves an angry, confused and wandering prodigal. Love becomes the sacrifice given to assure a life is lived according to “not my will, but Thine, O Lord.” Contrary to preconceived notions of its nature as tentative and tenuous, love holds the world together. Through it God weaves you and me together as sister and brother into a family not tossed to winds and storms that can shear the soul but, like the spider’s web, remains taut and sure because we are held by God and holding on to one another. This is so because the love that is God’s love is the end result as well as the motivation for the Lord Jesus to go to the cross. It is a love so pure and holy it will, in God’s own timing, rend every objection to its power and result in the redemption of the world.
It had been one of those nights when it felt as if, with enough of a shove, the entire world might split at the seams, coming apart, with no one nearby who was big enough to pick up the pieces. The day before had been Good Friday, the day the events of an unholy-holy week, full of fury, anger, pathos, competing agendas and yet—love?—had culminated in the murder of God in God’s Son. It was the day the ambiguity about Jesus had melted away to reveal with cruel and startling clarity who this God is, this God who we say we worship, obey, serve, honor and love. It was the day we came to understand what was meant when the scripture proclaimed, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This is the God who will die to save God’s creation. This is the God who declares victory not only over death but through it. This is the God who clearly rejects human conceptions and preoccupations with power maintained by threat, violence, and manipulation, and who declares compassion and forgiveness through the force of—grace.
This is the God who, though transcendent and beyond human understanding, chose to take on a human face and walk among us that we might see the meaning of God’s glory, that we might comprehend the depth of God’s love and intentions for our lives. This is the God who does not hold against us our complicity in defacing and destroying God’s purposes and the persons whom God loves but “sustains all things by his powerful word,” words like “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Hunkered down on Silent Saturday, stunned and disbelieving, we endured his absence and grappled with fear over a present and future without him. God was silent and beyond our reach until—yesterday came and the Resurrection. It is the day we will spend the rest of our lives pondering and living into. It is the day we find being born within ourselves. It is the day of Love born again into God’s world. It is the day that led to this day, this day after the Resurrection.
It is on this meaningful Monday, as it will be on every other day of our lives as his disciples, when the truth about this God who comes, loves, heals, saves, redeems, dies and lives again sends us into the world, down paths and streets, byways and highways, sustained by his word, proclaiming God’s love and grace to all who will hear, living the Resurrection with all that we are that God might become real and resident in our being and in our time—to God’s everlasting glory. Amen.
-rwg, Easter 2010
Light Reading/Tax Time
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
February 27, 2010
he world turns and seasons change bringing us to another juncture of ritual and intention. No, I’m not thinking of Lent but of tax time. Here we go again, assembling forms, gathering receipts and data, in hopes of coming out ahead on the withholding-refund paradigm. I don’t mind paying my fair share to keep education, fire, water, health, safety, roads and such going, but I much more enjoy getting a refund which, I know, I know, is just getting my own money back that someone else has been drawing interest on.
We’re coming out on the refund end this year, so we look to take care of a project or two around the house. The projects around the house are never-ending but, so we’ve thought, are investments in the future. If I didn’t have the habit—sometimes good, sometimes not—of seeing houses, people, churches and communities as they could be instead of just as they are, I’m sure we could use the money elsewhere. But, alas, my mind doesn’t wrap around the world the other way.
Such a way of seeing the possible before the real has gotten many a person in trouble. In my years of listening to couples in need of counseling and direction, I’ve met numerous men, but more often women, who have gotten into difficult lives by taking on spouses as reclamation and rebuilding projects. While I am the beneficiary, no doubt, of Angela taking pity on me and am, therefore, better off, I hear the Lord saying to all tempted to take on such projects to “count the costs.” I hear him reminding those with ears to hear and eyes not blinded by rapidly beating hearts that the rock of reality is usually the better foundation upon which to build a life.
Of course, this way of seeing what can or should be is the case, to one degree or another, for most thinking-feeling-hopeful people of faith because this way of being connects us, however imperfectly, to the character of God. The Lord Jesus looks down from the cross and sees us according to God’s intention at creation. Thus, the suffering, excruciating humiliation of the cross is transformed into the object of our transformation, also. Only God can do that—transform us, save us, change us to bring us nearer the Eden of God’s intention: to live with God, in love with God and growing in love with one another, our sin tax canceled, our lives refunded, open to seeing life through the paradigm of the Spirit. Now that sounds like change we should believe in.
Okay. This note is going to start with football and be a bit long, but hang with me. It’s going somewhere beyond the NFL, I promise.
According to that journal of contemporary theology, Sports Illustrated, the New Orleans Saints National Football League franchise was born out of a political agreement with a couple of Louisiana legislators who, in 1966, helped pave the way for the NFL merger with the American Football League. At the center of the story are NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, U.S. Congressman Hale Boggs (LA)—father of Cokie Roberts, news reporter and commentator—and U.S. Senator Russell Long (LA).
Rozelle needed help from Boggs and Long to pass legislation regarding anti-trust laws; Boggs and Long wanted a sports franchise for their state. So, in the long-practiced tradition of politicians everywhere, they cut a deal, both got what they wanted, and the New Orleans Saints franchise was approved less than one month after President Johnson signed the legislation into law.
As fifth-graders living in Baton Rouge, my friends and I could hardly believe it—not the political back-and-forth for we were too young to know or care much for that, but the news that we would have “our own” NFL team to cheer for. Living in what is called now a “small market” for a professional sports team, we had chosen our sports heroes from great LSU teams of the late ’50s and early ’60s, or from the pro teams from other parts of the country. Now we would have heroes of our own living not so far away as the seventy miles that separated us from New Orleans.
While some of my friends in the old neighborhood were squarely in the camp of the Dallas Cowboys, our family was solidly behind the Green Bay Packers, primarily because of their star running back, Jim Taylor, who happened to have been a home town boy and star at Baton Rouge High, and an All-American fullback at LSU. Many a Sunday afternoon came and went with my dad, brother and me sitting in front of the old 25" Zenith color console, in the living room, enjoying another Packers’ victory and, as faithful Southern Baptists, hoping the game would end before we had to return to church for Training Union and evening worship.
Those were afternoons of great fun, especially the day of the “Ice Bowl,” one of the greatest games in NFL history, played between the Packers and the dreaded Dallas Cowboys on a frozen Lambeau Field, with wind chill of minus 36 degrees F when the game began. We could hardly believe we might one day have great games played just down the road in New Orleans. Imagine what it meant to a pack of boys pretending to be imaginary sports stars when Green Bay’s Jim Taylor decided to return to Louisiana to join the Saints for their inaugural season. It was fifth-grade boy heaven.
Though I cherish the memories, those days are long-gone now, and not just because we are not boys any longer. Over the years, the excesses of celebrity and money, and the knowledge of the profound physical damage many professional athletes endure have altered my perceptions of the game and my enthusiasm to give it much of my life or allegiance. Other commitments, like those to family and faith, lessened the grip of spending hours in front of the television when that time could be invested actively participating in the lives of my spouse and children. That I “work on Sundays” makes me sensitive to the priorities of my commitments to faith and service. Rare is the day when I watch a game in its entirety, especially at the professional level.
And yet, this year has been different and, I think, it is because I am from Louisiana and I know what the state and region have suffered since the hurricanes of Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike ravaged the homes of some of my family and friends. Like the news that will gradually turn, and too soon, the world’s attention from Haiti, the attention of the country turned to concerns other than the devastation of the GulfCoast. That is not necessarily wrong as the needs of our times are many and the pain countless persons have and are experiencing due to the economic and political storms of these past two years is significant.
Still, if ever there was a city and a region that needed an infusion of spirit and energy toward creating positive change, it would be a challenge to find broader need than in south Louisiana. It has been inspiring that something as competitive and other-than-holy as a football game might be used to shine a light again on the needs for, and successes in, the rebuilding of New Orleans. If New Orleans can be rebuilt for the better—if a place that has as dangerous as well as delectable as well as religious as well as pagan a history as New Orleans can persevere, can bring out the best in many people, can become a focus on what can be good in human beings, all of whom God loves—then perhaps a part of the redemption of the tragedy brought by the storms can be in seeing that change can come and life can go on and grow again.
With the many ties to New Orleans that will be on both sides of the ball on Sunday night, you might almost think some power beyond is shining a light again on New Orleans, and that the reality of the successes that have come might be encouragement to all of us to persevere as bearers of continuing care and aid to those living in the aftermath of storms and floods, the earthquake in Haiti, AIDS in Africa, war in the Middle East, a failed market and economy in our own country, and the pain brought on by the personal failures of addictions, broken families and broken minds and hearts in our selves and those close to us.
I know I’m being fanciful here, but that is a part of the history of New Orleans and the French city that stands behind its naming. Should you visit Orleans, France, you will discover the region is known for being a center of resistance against perpetrators of trauma and tragedy from the outside. In the first century, it was Julius Caesar who learned that lesson; in the fifth century, it was Attila the Hun. In the early fifteenth century, with Paris having been captured and Orleans under siege by the invading English army, it was a 17-year-old maiden and home town girl of Orleans named Joan (as in “of Ark,” as in “Saint Joan” to Catholic Christians) who presented herself to both the French rulers and the invaders to say God had sent her to drive out the enemy—which she proceeded to do. You never know about these old French cities and their inspired leaders and what God might be up to through the most unlikely of heroes.
As for the winner of the Super Bowl, to me it almost doesn’t matter. Just having seen the soul of the city rise, and having found glimpses of God at work here and there in the connections between the real people of the place that once was under water, means more to me than any outcome of this highly commercialized and secular event.
(Though, as a hometown boy, let me say: “Geaux Saints!")
We continue to pray for the people of Haiti. There are many organizations to trust with your money but if you have not found a way to give, let me suggest www.centerofhope-haiti.org, an orphanage and school project in Hinche, Haiti. I have the privilege of serving on the Advisory Board for COHH. Grace and peace, bg --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Light Reading/Disciples of the Household of God Robert W. Guffey, Jr. January 30, 2010
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” –Mark 1:14–15
Following Jesus is tough, especially for those of us who have grown up in a part of the world where we have been schooled to believe we are the center of the universe and it is our manifest destiny to have our way. We talk a good game of how we are God-fearing, Jesus-following, Spirit-empowered people only wanting to do God’s will, but our actions say something quite different about us, if not as individual believers then at least as a people. The scripture warns us about trusting first in military, economic and political might (Psalms, the prophets, Revelation—and Jesus, of course) and tells us to lean, instead, into the Spirit’s softer values of hope, peace, humility, gentleness, kindness, justice, mercy, compassion, sacrifice and love. Threaten us for a moment with violence, though, or a reduction in our “standard of living” and we are ready to agree that, yes, while Jesus’ way is how we should behave, we live in the real world, after all, where that kind of discipleship could get you killed. The Bride of Christ seems often like a nervous bunch needing constant reminders that getting killed was exactly how God chose to work to redeem the world in Christ. The BOC (Bride of Christ) contemporary has forgotten—or never knew (shame on us, preachers and teachers) or chooses to ignore—that our faith is one established through the death of Jesus and built on three centuries of martyrdom. When the early Christians were faced with life in a violent, God-less world, they found the power of the Spirit calling them to absorb the violence into themselves thereby testifying to the power of God.
Now, before you think I have fallen off my proverbial rocker or have been reading too much liberation theology again, let me state that I am writing this piece as much for myself than anyone else. Following Jesus is no easier for the pastor than it is for the flock. Even in the challenging economic times in which we live, our lives are easy compared to most of the world. The ease seduces the soul into thinking life is easy for all God’s children or, at least, whispers to pastor and flock reminders that the broad path is certainly much easier on the soles of your shoes, if not our very souls. Why rock the boat? We pastor-types love our congregations, too, you know, and are sometimes guilty of living up to Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation (or at least I’m remembering it was Niebuhr—so much for footnotes!) that sometimes the flock gets bad preaching because the pastors love them too much to tell the truth and mess with their worlds.
Jesus had another life in mind when he called us to become his disciples and it resides in these two short verses from Mark 1. By the time we get to verses 14 and 15, Jesus had been baptized and affirmed by the Spirit of God come upon him. He had spent forty days in the wilderness praying, fasting, and being tempted by Satan—who used the same old tricks of power, money and fame in attempts to seduce him to the dark side. In the wilderness, the gospel (the good news) was at risk; Jesus’ very life was at risk as he held on to his true and perilous identity as the Beloved of God who was headed for a cross. He refused to let the world define him. He had been birthed, baptized and anointed by God, to hear God’s voice and to do God’s bidding. “The kingdom of God is near,” he said. What startling words these must have been for those with ears to hear. Jesus is preaching that, in a startling new way, Israel’s ancient hope for a king would be fulfilled and resident in him, not in another king like David. “The time is fulfilled.” The Kingdom of God—the reign of God—is near and here and now in the person of Jesus. Repent—of your preconceived ideas about power, of your sinful allegiances to the kings of this world, of your fear of the powerful and the violent, of your lack of faith that God will keep God’s promises of presence and salvation. Believe—Jesus is the only sovereign Israel (and we) will ever need.
Repent and believe that the kingdom of God might become resident in you, too. Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is a state of being in the world with Jesus. It is a condition of finding Jesus nearer to us than our breath. It inhabits our desire to be known by Jesus and to know Jesus. It resides in our compassionate compulsion to want to share Jesus’ gospel alongside your world. Repent and believe as the kingdom is being transformed into a grand household of faith embracing believers in every time and space.
Believe that you might find yourself living the radical way of the gospel of Jesus:
loving your enemies, seeking treasure in heaven, ministering to the poor and broken, taking initiative in forgiving others and seeking their forgiveness, seeking moral purity and moral justice, seeing yourself as the servant of others, putting Jesus first in your life, and, honoring his lordship over your wishes and desires.
When the going is tough and evidence is to the contrary, believe.
When you feel like you are the only one to do so, believe.
When it challenges your non-God-centered priorities and causes you to question your lifestyle, the call of God upon your life and the way you are a help or a hindrance to the work of God, believe. Burn hot, Holy Fire. Ignite our comfortable lives with the Spirit that will not let us rest until we rest in Thee. Extend through our illumined selves your incarnation to the world you love so much you came and died and rose that we might live in love with you for eternity. AMEN.
Light Reading/The Divine Brother in Distress Robert W. Guffey, Jr. January 16, 2010
On the terrible August day in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, the daughter of a friend of mine was living in Waveland, Mississippi, and decided she would ride out the storm at home. After all, she lived a few miles from the water and no storm, at least since Hurricane Camille in 1969, had forced her or her family to flee. When the wall of storm surge rose so deep that it covered the peak of the roof of her house, the only place she could go was high in the pine trees behind her house. In the urgency of the moment, she escaped into a tree with only the clothes she was wearing and a crucifix. She clung to both for hours.
If you asked her what got her through the horrible, dangerous hours of storm and fury until being rescued, she would tell you she would not have survived the trauma or pain but for believing the Christ who suffered for the world’s sins was now suffering with her. In that spiritual knowledge she found the physical strength to persevere.
In 1944, Jürgen Moltmann, to me one of the most important theologians of the last fifty years, was imprisoned in Allied prisoners-of-war camps in Belgium, Scotland and England. Having been drafted into the German army as a boy of 18 years old, he had seen his country collapse under the weight of its sin. His home town of Hamburg lay in ruins. He felt abandoned by God and human beings, “and the hopes of my youth died. I couldn’t see any future ahead of me.”
Into this situation an Allied chaplain put a Bible into his hands. Having come from a secular family, this was the first Bible he had ever had. He began reading without much interest “until I stumbled on the Psalms of lament. Psalm 39 held me spellbound:
I was dumb with silence; I held my peace and my sorrow was stirred. I have to eat up my suffering within myself. My lifetime is as nothing in Thy sight. I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
“They were words of my own heart and they called my soul to God.”
Later, while reading the Gospel of Mark, he was overwhelmed by the suffering of Jesus on the cross as he was dying in loneliness and distress. For Moltmann, Jesus’ cry of desolation—“My God, why have you forsaken me?”—was his cry, too, and to him it meant he had found in Jesus one who understood him and who would be beside him when everything and everyone else was gone: “I grasped that this Jesus is the divine Brother in our distress. He brings hope to the prisoners and the abandoned. He is the one who delivers us from the guilt that weighs us down and robs us of every kind of future. And I became possessed by a hope when in human terms there was little enough to hope for.”
Both the experiences of my friend’s daughter and Jürgen Moltmann are important to me. I have not gone through the hurricane or the desperation and danger of war but, as a pastor and friend, I have walked with those who have. Every week, I am with beloved families and friends who are dealing with suffering brought on by illness, grief, disappointment and betrayal. As for myself, I have known times of aloneness, abandonment and dark nights of the soul in times of overwhelming grief or when my children were very ill.
In the depths of inner darkness, I, too, have found hope and found that Hope has a name: Jesus. When I have plumbed the depths, I have found the hope that is the Lord Jesus who suffers with me and who has gone before me, who has suffered to save me and who is waiting always with warm embrace at the end of my darkness.
As I watch the images of crushing suffering brought on by the earthquake in Haiti, I am remembering these who, in the mystery and paradox of the way God works, found hope in the suffering of God in Jesus. I am remembering, too, as I believe the Lord Jesus’ teachings, that he is with those who suffer and is suffering with them. Indeed, I believe he told us that when we go to the sides of those who suffer and are in distress, we are by his side and we are ministering to Jesus.
This is why I do not doubt that we who take the name Christian must help in Haiti and every other place where human beings suffer. I have no doubt that, whatever the cost, Jesus calls us to his side to help. Holding on to Jesus will get people in the worst of circumstances through. Heeding the call of Jesus will bring his people as bearers of hope and healing to the side of those in whom his great love resides.
Whether through prayers, presence, witness or money, the Spirit of God calls on God’s people to help.
Images of Haiti: The Fires Robert W. Guffey, Jr. July 2001 (My first trip to Haiti--and it was a wonder.)
Fires burning by the roadside Fires burning in our hearts Long waits, sitting in airports, on airplanes on buses Long rides sitting in airplanes, bouncing violently on buses Fires burning by the roadside
Homes of mud, cinder and wood Homes of dirt, dirt all around Homes without electricity without water without sanitation Homes with fires burning all around
Smell of smoke rising toward the sky Smell of smoke rising from the ground reaching our senses in the small airplane above
Smoke from fires burning, fires for light fires for food fires for seeing in the night
Fires of loneliness Fires of poverty Fires of desolation Fires of hope-full-ness Fires of Holy Spirit come down to this place and people
Fires, fires, Lord, send the fires Purify, cleanse, renew, redeem Holy Lord, please send the fires.
Light Reading/ Difficult Times and the Meaning of Our Lives Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 28, 2009
It’s been anything but a quiet week in our hometown, Conway, South Carolina. Within our family of faith, the season of thanksgiving has been seasoned with the experience of grieving. This week, we have buried three brothers in Christ in three separate funerals and have been praying for a sister in Christ who has entered hospice care. Of the three who died, two had lived to full and good ages while, alas, another had not. Grief is upon many—and questions hold attention, too, about life, death and the meaning of it all.
As people of faith, we embrace the witness of scripture which describes past believers as “crushed” and “perplexed” but not “destroyed.” We hold hands and fix our gazes on Christ, the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We hold onto those who grieve as we pray with them and seek to be the embodiment of Christ’s encouragement for them, though we know we must not hold too tightly for none of us can grieve for another, nor should we: grieving is God’s way of bringing healing to broken hearts.
We do know there is much love being shared; love which comes to us from within our own hearts and love beyond us that is nourished by the wellspring of God’s love. There is meaning in these expressions of need and of faith that point to life’s fragility, and its need for companionship and healing. There is meaning as we find our attempts to care incomplete and leaving us dependent on God to care in ways that transcend the ways of human beings. Releasing ourselves to God and God’s care can liberate us from the false sense that we are the ultimate word about ourselves and about our lives in the world. From our position of weakness, if we listen with eagerness and humility, we can hear more clearly the words of Paul, apostle and our brother in Christ, when he writes:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Times like these can illuminate the meaning of our salvation. We are the Lord’s. We live in faith through the gift of his Spirit. We have been given the gift of life to be used of God for God’s purposes to God's glory in the world that “God so loved.” We can launch ourselves in faith into the darkness of grief, death and perplexing and paradoxical questions with the assurance that God did not love us just once to save us from our sin, but loves us with an everlasting love that is at work redeeming the pain some of us are likely to feel for a long time. We are the Lord’s.
A Funeral Benediction (for B.L.R.) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 27, 2009
May the grace of Christ that promises a homecoming for us all be made real in your life.
Might you know within your own heart His presence.
Might you know that, while you are on this earth, you should be at home: enjoy the fellowship of others.
But know that in Christ there is a great fellowship coming, a great fellowship of the redeemed and there will be gladness and joy and singing and friendship everlasting
when we all gather at the Lord’s table when we all know His presence and His grace in fullness.
Light Reading/Prayer from the Shadows Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 14, 2009
This week I have walked with those who walk in the shadows—
the shadow of a graveside the shadow of death on a battlefield the shadow of depression the shadow of refusing to love the shadow of anger and pride the shadow of success achieved without integrity the shadow cast by fear more than present circumstance justifies
Thank you for reminding me that in the scriptures shadow is nothing sinister or to be feared but more like
the shadow of cedars and palms bringing respite from the heat of another day in Palestine the shadow of rocks in the desert cast by nations who shade the poor, the grieving and the lonely with equity and justice the shadow of the eagle-wings of refuge of the Lord
Help us to trust you even in the shadows of life, O Lord, that we not be fooled into forgetting that, even in shadow, it is the Son of God standing near, carrying us through.
Light Reading/A Prayer for Dreams(and Dreamers) Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 1, 2009 (All Saints Day)
O LORD, Though we come from a family of dreamers holding on to dreams is so hard especially as our lives are buffeted by life's disillusionments and temptations and lesser affections. Listening to life's hard and calculating side, we "grow up" believing we have outgrown dreams.
Yet, we come from a family of dreamers. Abraham dreamed blessing Jacob dreamed ladders to Your presence and calls home along difficult roads toward reconciliation Though he did not understand it, Joseph dreamed rescue and relief for his family Solomon dreamed, Job dreamed The Prophets dreamed of justice, peace and plenty for the poor
Daniel dreamed deliverance Joseph dreamed safety for Mother and Child Peter dreamed grace-full new ways between human beings who had assumed they were enemies You promised we would know your Kingdom come when young and old shared dreams
Remind us that You still speak in dreams: Voice in the night when we are vulnerable and no longer arguing with You about what is "real" Vision in the day leading us toward the Kingdom
Dream for us, within us dreams of blessing, of presence, of deliverance, of justice, of sharing, of safety and peace for others of warmth and grace and joy and love.
Awake the dream gene within us, O LORD. Grant us wild and demanding visions of how You would have our lives and the lives of others be, Visions that propel our waking, dreaming work of growing earth more like heaven every day.
As much as I love the roses growing in my front yard, common knowledge warns me (and us) to beware the thorns among the roses. Such is true in life in general as well as with floriculture. All of us have to deal with "thorny" people. The patient who demands more than her share of attention from you, her physician. The critic of an in-law who is sure to remind you that you were not exactly who he had in mind for his first-born. The child who seems heaven-bound to send you (the parent) there prematurely. The shopper who blazes by to beat you to the latest blue light special, leaving you with scorch marks. You know the type. Maybe… just maybe, you have been "that way" too on occasion.
Not so common knowledge tells us that to prolong a rose's life, a florist will remove the thorns. Maybe there's uncommon knowledge for us, too. As much as possible, remove the thorns from your life. Give that prickly person over to God in prayer. As much as practical, avoid sticky situations. Strive to act in such a way as to be more like the Rose of Sharon than thorn-injured victim. Ask God to help you bloom bright hope rather than thick skin to ward off a thorn's pain, that your life may be lighter and longer in the garden of God's world.
Light Reading/A Certain Ambiguity Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 24, 2009
hough those who want their Bible and faith nice-and-tight, black-and-white resist the notion, the scriptures have points of ambiguity in the ancient texts that, when translating and interpreting, require biblical scholars to make decisions on which reading is “right” or “correct.” The process becomes more challenging when you know: (a) the writers of the Bible used a vocabulary of about twice as many words in Hebrew and Greek as we have in English—that is, they had more words with shades of meaning than we have in English as equivalents—and (b) the most trustworthy copies of the ancient scriptures we have now often have nuanced differences from copy to copy. If you have learned to study your Bible well, you have come to know the footnotes and cross-references as helpful friends in finding the “truth” in the midst of the “correctness.”
One important example of ambiguity in translation in the Old Testament can be found in the first half of Job 13:15. It is a striking example of translation ambiguity and, to my thinking, is, at the same time, a guide for those who are trying to walk faithfully the life God has given us in this world. Let me show you what I mean.
For those who have suffered or have questioned why, if God is so great, good and loving, do those who are innocent, especially children, suffer, Job is a companion and colleague in the suffering and in the questioning. Not satisfied by cliché responses or calls just to “trust God” without question until the sweet-bye-and-bye, Job launches into lament and dialog about God and with God. The challenge of Job’s life and his manner before God are summed up in Job 13:15 when Job proclaims he will make his case or defend his ways before God, no matter what it costs him. The ambiguity of what Job was trying to say in the Hebrew language comes out like this, depending on the English translation you read:
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust him.” (KJV) “Though He slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (NIV) “Behold He will slay me; I have no hope.” (RSV) “See He will kill me; I have no hope.” (NRSV) “I’ve lost all hope, so what if God kills me.” (Good News) “Because even if He killed me, I’d keep on hoping.” (The Message)
This ambiguity in translation has been recognized for a long time, according to New Testament scholar, Carol A. Newsom, who writes, “The Hebrew Bible preserves both traditions in the marginal notation” and was included by the rabbis in their discussion of Job: “The matter is undecided—do I hope in Him or not hope?”
Ah! That is exactly where we live, isn’t it? And isn’t it just like God to acknowledge this very human struggle in the midst of suffering and faith right in the middle of the Bible! God knows how suffering and intense trials can bring human beings to the point of despair. Our suffering, grief and trials can bring us to the point of decision not just about the truth of God—whether there is a God or not—but the truth about God—whether this God can be trusted with our lives and the lives of those we love.
If God can be honest about this struggle, voiced through God’s servant, Job, should we not be, too? It is when we are ready to be honest with ourselves and can confess that our desire to know all the answers and to nail down every point of our lives into neat little packages we can control is mostly a desire to avoid the pain of being human that God has an opening to make a difference in our lives.
It is when we are ready to cry out as we embrace the pain of a lost life, a dead marriage, a troubled mind, a prodigal child or intense suffering brought on by illness or an accident, that Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, can deepen our awareness to the reality that his never-ending embrace of us is not dependent on how we feel about God but how God feels about us.
It is when we have been brought to the place within our own spirits where we can finally let go of our false expectations of God, that we can accept the truth that the God we have met in Jesus is the God we meet in his glory at the cross. In the cross is nothing triumphal as the world sees triumph. In the cross is revealed the deep, deep passion—from the Greek word which means “to suffer”—and love for human beings that has always been true in the heart of God since before time began. In the cross is the passion of God that refuses to let us go forever our own ways—whether they are ways imposed upon us by unexplained grief, confusion, and pain or they are the self-destructive ways of our own choosing that bring suffering and chaos to our lives and to the lives of others. The passion of God hopes for us and is faithful to us in the midst of our darkest nights when we are not sure if God is true to God’s words of hope or whether or not our situation is truly hopeless.
In the midst of the ambiguity Job was feeling and inserting itself into the ambiguity of translation is the truth that, depending on the day and our circumstance, both readings of Job 13:15 are exactly where we may find ourselves. The truth about God is that, in Jesus, God walked in our shoes, stood in our place and knows about our struggles. God did that because God loves you and loves me. God loves us enough to carry us through whatever we face and enough to, in God’s perfect timing, say “Enough!” to the last measure of chaos remnant in creation with the passion of the One who knows we do not understand enough yet to be perfect in our trust.
Light Reading/How My Praying Has Changed Robert W. Guffey, Jr. August 1, 2009
These days I am finding my praying has changed. When I was a child, I prayed what I realize now were most often simple prayers of trust, and I did so because of the influence of my parents. My parents emphasized the importance of prayer as talking to God and as listening for God, but they were careful to point out we were not to pray as if God were some kind of cosmic Santa who was waiting to grant our wish list for toys, ponies, new ball gloves or any other thing. Just because we wanted something did not make it something God wanted for us. Just because someone told us of bible verses that seemed to promise that God would do whatever a group of praying believers agreed to and asked God to do “in Jesus’ name” did not mean God was somehow bound to do whatever we together asked God to do. We were taught to pray prayers of trust, speaking of our hopes and needs, surely, but trusting God to answer within God’s will for us—whether we agreed with God that’s what we wanted or not.
Now, that does not mean as children or teens, we understood what we were being told or that we listened and followed our parents instructions at all times. We still would pray for some thing we wanted, especially as Christmas approached. We, also, prayed for our grandfather who died just before I turned 10 years old to be healed of lung cancer and emphysema. God did not answer those prayers in a way that turned back a lifetime of smoking cigarettes. We prayed for God to save a sick pet. God did not answer in a way that ignored the ways God had instilled in nature that line out the life expectancy of a living being on this earth. We prayed for our parents’ marriage to survive. God did not answer in a way that overrode human selfishness and hurt with God’s perfect will for reconciliation and peace. We let God know what we wanted—the silly and the sublime—and, I at least, had times of disappointment when God did not come through as I wanted.
As I have grown up and grown older, though, I have found my praying and my prayers have increasingly grown similar to my childhood prayers of trust but have changed in that my praying is both longer in duration of time and quieter in what I voice to God. I am finding the truth the Psalmist found when he admonished us to “be still and know” God. I am finding the centering power of praying for others by name then ending my praying, as I hope to conclude every prayer, with the words of the Lord Jesus, “not my will but Yours” be done. I am finding the presence of God through extended times of silence, silence which the world would see as “wasted time” yet the time which is required of us if we are to shed the distractions of that same world long enough to meet God in the midst of it.
I am finding my praying has become an entry point further into the relationship with God—as I have met God in Jesus—that affirms God’s love for me, challenges me to be honest with God about the reality of our relationship and confirms the truth that, as long as God loves me, I can weather any circumstance of life. In the end, God turns out to be the only answer to praying I—or anyone, for that matter—ever needs.
And for those times when God seems to not be there, when God seems to have moved and let hurt, grief or frustration come near? Those are the times when memory, worship, the Lord’s Supper, the comfort of singing songs of faith, silence, service to others in Jesus’ name and you become living reminders of God’s steadfast mercy. Those are the times for growing. Those are the times for remembering the long trajectory of our lives and that God’s plans for this reality are known to God, if not to you or me. Those are the times to keep on praying and to keep on struggling. Those are the times for faith.
he past seven days have been busy ones for the news cycle. Protests in Iran following the Iranian national presidential election were eclipsed in the U.S. by news of the governor of our state who went “hiking” after he was told to take one by his justifiably aggrieved wife and the deaths of two celebrities. These outpourings of public commentaries and superstar grieving have become, for me, a sad mix of commercial opportunism and vicarious experience far separated from concern for the human beings involved and their families. Money, power and technology distance us from knowing the “real” and soften any true sense of deep loss.
Such has not been the case in the death of Frank, my father-in-law, beloved husband of Sue and devoted father of Angie and Patti. For the thousands of Frank’s colleagues, friends and former students, the calls, emails and other expressions of sadness, grief and celebration of the gift that was his life carry sincere notes of missing someone who you knew loved you and was involved in the everyday becoming-more-like-Christ of your life. That Frank was connected to so many people, and so deeply, is evidence of the profound and real presence of Christ in his life that gave him the incredible energy to live, work and care for people that was rooted deep in his core sense of being. That energy was a gift from the Spirit of God that caused many friends, especially during his Mississippi days, to call him “Sunshine.” The nuclear reactions of the limitless love of the Son of God propelled him along roads where he never met a stranger and sincerely and openly offered himself as friend of God who saw within each person he met the possibility and potential of greatness as friend, brother or sister beloved by Christ. Many people through the years wanted to emulate Frank. Frank wanted to set people free to be the best that God intended for them.
Many words have yet to be shared among friends who are grieving the loss of Frank. Underneath the words that have been pondered and said is recognition of Frank’s resolve to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus. In Frank’s files, he kept a card entitled, “My Resolve,” he had signed and dated on December 30, 1956, 11:15 A.M., in Nashville, Tennessee, at a Baptist Student World Mission Congress. The card was a record and written reminder of his steadfast determination to be a faithful witness of “the redemptive love and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ,” to become “an informed Christian through the study of the Bible, world conditions and opportunities for missionary service,” to support “world missions with my life, vocation, prayers and gifts,” to “unite with other Christians throughout the world in carrying out the commission of Christ,” and to “prepare myself through serious study and dedicated professional training for a vocation in keeping with the will of God in my life.” Frank may have been great fun to be around and could be the hippest entertainer in the class but he was, too, a dedicated servant and student who took seriously being the best in all things.
Underneath the words, thoughts, feeling and actions of Frank’s colleagues, friends and students, too, are our shared memories of his call to others to be the church, to remember “you have to be a friend to have friends” and to live close to the words of scripture. Words like:
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. –Philippians 1:21
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view…So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! … So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. -2 Corinthians 5:16, 17, 20
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. -1 John 4:7–11
When Frank was present, whether in a serious moment of counseling or impish moment of humor, so was Christ. For Frank, Christ was real and involved in the everyday concerns and cares of his students. His ministry was about knowing Christ incarnate on the campus and following Christ who cared about the pleasures and difficulties of this life Jesus left us with and sent his Spirit to help us live into and through.
LSU friends of a certain generation know that Christ alive in Frank caused him great trouble at times. Because of Christ, Frank believed in the gospel applied to issues of social justice. During the early ‘70s, his outstanding LSU BSU choir was to perform for a regional Baptist assembly in Baton Rouge. When the all-white host church learned the group’s talented pianist, Ronnie Reynolds, was black, Frank was told the group could perform but only without Ronnie. When Frank and the students chose not to perform, Frank went through a period of loss of funding for campus ministry that resulted in threats to his job and ministry, the least being the electricity being cut off for a while. Like some of his more courageous colleagues, Frank stood firm. Being right sometimes means standing alone in the minority, with the minority. Being right means standing with the people Jesus is standing with, and those folks are often standing outside the church made with human hands. Being right sometimes means seeing Christ prevail in your own lifetime. Frank did. Most people today would be offended by actions that were considered the norm thirty and forty years ago at that church and many others.
At the private burial service last Monday morning, June 22, about two dozen members of the family and a few close friends from work and college days gathered at “Nora,” the 19th-century family farmhouse belonging to Sue’s side of the family. The house, “Nora,” is named after Angie’s and Patti’s great-great-aunt, Nora, and has been a part of the Carmichael family for over 100 years. The setting is quiet and pastoral, a great contrast to the busyness and speed of Frank’s work life, but just right for contemplation and rest. Frank’s ashes were buried in the small family cemetery, along with his tuxedo, as was his request, as the assembled congregation sang hymns Frank had requested and shared hugs and tears. His friend and campus ministry colleague, Gerald Stovall, who has Parkinson’s disease, too, along with his wife, Marcia, sang Frank’s LSU theme song, “No Man Is an Island,” a song Frank first heard being sung by his young daughters in the back seat of the family car after Frank had picked them up from a summer session at Camp Merri-Mac in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Inspired by lines written by the English poet and minister, John Donne, the girls had learned the song at camp. Frank heard it and never forgot it for he lived it.
Ray Crawford, a truly great friend and another campus ministry colleague, gave the eulogy. He pointed out Frank’s ability to see past boundaries not made by God and how he encouraged his students to grow and push the boundaries, too. Frank’s college friend, Caby Byrne, who would go on to follow Frank as BSU director at both Mississippi College and Mississippi State gave the benediction just after the singing of the hymn that is a grand affirmation of our hope: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Then the family adjourned to the Stonewall House, another family place, for the kind of food and conversation that would have been the perfect setting for Frank at his best.
It was a time of mystery and grace. It was a time of remembrance. It was a time to be shared and expanded upon in a few months when the planned public celebration of Frank’s life convenes in Baton Rouge. It was a time to remember the goodness of God, the wonderful love of a wife and companion like Sue and the great cloud of witnesses who poured their lives into Frank and who many of us had the privilege of meeting because of Frank, great witnesses of the magnificent love of God like Dr. Chester Swor, a tremendously popular speaker among college students for decades. I last saw Dr. Swor at the conclusion of a weekend of events at our church in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he had wowed once again youth, parents and the congregation with his Christ-centered stories and insights. Dr. Swor insisted on taking the bus wherever he went. I last saw him at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in downtown Shreveport waiting for his bus home to Jackson, Mississippi, to board. I remember thinking he was a lot like the Apostle Paul with his limp, like Paul’s humbling affliction in the flesh, and in his going and going to town and city, one after the other. His long and fruitful life had been an endless going telling the good story, living the gospel, influencing others with his grace, charm and integrity, until his health finally failed and he arrived at last at home in the heart of God. I remember thinking at that time that Frank would be the same way, going and going, continuing to influence others with his charm, wit and authentic love long into the winter years of adulthood. But it was not to be—the influencing with charm and wit, that is. Frank continued to be a witness of the love of God in the silence of his life, reflected in the prayers and love offered by so many for Frank and Sue, love God had put in their and our hearts through his servants like Frank and Sue. If true love is made known fully in sacrifice, we have seen that in their lives. Frank and Sue’s love showed the real of Christ, too.
My only regret in what has seemed the great injustice of Frank’s illness and early loss to us has come in thinking about his grandchildren. I never would have thought these wonderful four young adults would have had to grow up without the man who would have certainly won every award as the world’s greatest grandfather. They have had to learn of Frank through others and I think they have learned of Frank and Sue, too, through the mystery of whatever passes down through the genetics of love and spirit. All four are bright and talented, with gifts for making a difference in the world. They are.
Whatever our regrets in the death of someone dearly loved, the gift of a life like this far outruns the regrets. Because of the gift of the person and the real place he or she had in our lives, we grieve but, as Paul told the church at Thessalonica, we grieve with hope. Our hope is in Christ who died but was given his life back by God. Our hope is in the real presence of Christ in us, too. Our hope is in seeing Frank as a real person, not an icon. Our hope is in knowing that nothing separates us from God and the love of God we share with others.
Over the past week, I have seen that love expressed in a hundred ways, but I saw it particularly strong in a photo of Sue and Frank taken on their wedding day. They stand together with smiles and promise at the beginning of their new life together. They stand resolved to follow Christ, to allow Christ to make a difference in them, between them and through them. They stand as witnesses of the new creation Christ can make when human beings say “Yes” to God’s love and to love like God loves. They stand young and strong in the grip of faith and the faithfulness of God. Their faith and the faithfulness of God carried them a mighty long way from those beginnings. Their faith and the faithfulness of God are eternal. Their faith and the faithfulness of God are still making a difference for Christ in this world.
Light Reading/The Thickness of Grief Robert W. Guffey, Jr. June 12, 2009 The grief is thick today with clear view of the losses of the past, the pain of the present and the future that never will be. The grief is thick today with faces and names carved into my mind, heart and soul, faces and names and being that cannot be extinguished yet are far beyond my reach in this life. The grief is thick today with yearnings from time lost, dreams deferred and wrong turns.
In his book, The Twelve Keys to an Effective Church, leading church consultant Kennon L. Callahan lists twelve central characteristics of churches that are effective in reaching, teaching, nurturing and sending out people to minister for Christ. The twelve characteristics divide easily into two categories with sixrelational characteristics andsix functional characteristics. The relational characteristics are the most important and make up numbers 1-6; the functional characteristics make up numbers 7-12. Number one, before all else, is the mission of the church.
What is the mission of the church? Is it to uphold tradition that may or may not be rooted in the New Testament practices of the church? Is it to chase every new trend, worship-style, marketing scheme or teaching of attractive and smooth-talking preachers or teachers? Is the mission of your church different than the mission of the Church Invisible of the Lord Jesus that makes up all Christians of every time and place? Is it to try to hold back the future, hide from the world or think only of what "we" need-want-desire? What is the mission of the/our/your church?
For me, the mission of every church since Pentecost has been--and still is--to embody Christ in, to and for the world. Our mission is become like Christ, to minister like Christ, practice grace like Christ, love the world like Christ and sacrifice who we are for the calling of Christ. Seminar leaders, preachers and teachers--and even you and I--try to make it way too hard. It is simple. The mission of the church is to be Christ to the world. How and what that looks like can change as God reveals to a particular congregation how they are to be Christ to their little corner of the world, but the mission is the same. Every time we meet, we should ask: How are we being like Christ to the world? We should ask: How are our practices of being a church--our worship, study, fellowship, prayer, ministries and missions--either preparing us to be Christ to the world or helping us be Christ to the world? Every time someone accepts Christ as Lord, we should ask if, as well as accepting the grace of Christ which brings someone into the kingdom, does he or she understand now it is time to get busy learning and being Christ to the world?
My friend and colleague, Marion Aldridge, Coordinator for Cooperative Baptist Church of South Carolina, reminded me recently that before Jesus gave us disciples a Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), he gave us a Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). Before we "go" into all the world, we had better learn how to love the world we are going to in the name of Christ. Love. It's what the Apostle Paul spent a lot more time talking about near the end of his ministry than at the beginning. In the beginning, he's straightening out errant churches and correcting doctrine. In the end, he gets down to the nitty-gritty of daily life among Christians and Christians in the world when he describes the love that makes the church the church of the Lord Jesus.
Check it out for yourself. Love. It's what the Apostle John wrote of in his letters, too. The guy who wanted Jesus to rain fire on a Samaritan village became the apostle who preached about loving the neighbor you see every day like you claim to love God whom you can't see. If you don't love your neighbor, it's mighty hard to claim you love God. That's what John said. That's Paul's practical application of the gospel. That's what Jesus was doing on the cross.
Want to be part of the mission of the church? Get busy loving people as Christ loves you. Get busy being Christ to the world.
Light Reading/The Same Old Bunch Robert W. Guffey, Jr. May 30, 2009
Like many pastors, preachers, ministers, teachers and leaders I know, I must confess to suffering at times from a self-inflicted but sure impatience over the slow grasp of some of us all of the time and all of us some of the time to move on from what the Apostle Paul called the “milk” of the spiritual life to the “solid food” of the life of faith. At times I feel like the preacher illustrated in an one-panel cartoon printed long ago now in an issue of Leadership Journal. Seen in close-up leaning on the pulpit and looking out at the congregation, the beleaguered, middle-aged preacher says something along the lines of, “This is my fifth-sermon on ‘The Transforming Power of the Gospel.’ How come you look like the same old bunch?” Ah.
In my pastoral ministry, I see this resistance to be embraced by the gospel and to let it do its radical and transformational work in certain men and women who present themselves from time to time in my office, in the midst of panic or trauma. They go to the doctor and get a death sentence, or get arrested or fired and think some last minute prayers or token financial gift to the church is going to make a difference. The girlfriend turns up pregnant and they want the preacher to bless and sanctify the “problem,” without wanting to admit to the preacher there is baby growing between them or that the girlfriend is pregnant. They think they have to pull one over on the preacher and God to get what they want or think they need. It’s as if they believe showing up at church all of sudden is going to wipe the Etch-a-Sketch screen of their lives clean. Not that such an outcome is impossible in God’s hands, of course. It’s just that I have found God seems more interested in letting us stew in our own juices of trouble or distress, to mix metaphors, before intervening. It’s like God knows we’ve got to marinate—to take the mixed metaphor a bit further—in the results of life in general or our sin or our moment of doubt until we are ready to move closer to manhood-womanhood-personhood in Christ.
It’s as if God wants to transform into a gift the trauma, crisis or results of our sin as much to the everyday person of faith as to the con-artist-in-us, the denier-of-reality, the person who has thought all her or his life that the world revolves around his or her wants-needs-demands-desires, or the person who may have just not thought about God much at all. It’s a gift that can force us down until we are ready to declare, before God and those who will love us into the believing community, no more playing around, no more token religion, no more fire-sale faith, no more us in denial of Who-is-in-charge-of-this-world and, by extension, our lives.
In the Old Testament, it took the children of Israel forty years in the desert of Sinai and much longer than that in exile in Babylon, having lost nation, cultural identity, heritage and the Promised Land itself, before the gifts of Exodus and Exile helped them “get it.” It is a lesson their modern descendents are learning still.
So are we New Testament children of God in Christ in many areas of our lives and life together. It is a lesson we are still in need of learning when we:
Confuse church attendance with life as a follower of Christ;
Think the church of the Lord Jesus belongs to the people who “run it” instead of the Lord Jesus who wants to embody it as himself at work in the world;
Choose judgmental-ism, personal preference and prejudice over the posture of forgiveness and “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:21-22: ; Romans 14:19);
Practice spiritual superiority, in particular that kind that thinks “head” Christianity is better than “heart” Christianity, and vice versa, when God values “head” and “heart,” especially in worship;
Refuse to practice a life of faith that marries thinking like Christ-among-us and doing like Christ-among-us in partnership with the lost, poor, poor-in-spirit, sick, imprisoned, alien-in-the-land, oppressed and the innocent who cannot speak for themselves;
Live vicariously through celebrity Christians and take their words as the gospel with little or no discernment or critical thought of our own;
Fall easily to gossip and rumor because the lie reinforces a belief or worldview we cherish;
Give up our place as homo sapiens (“wise humans”) and let ourselves be redefined homo economus, that is, to be defined by the world by what we purchase and consume instead of being defined as God’s own treasure;
Embrace good Bible words like freedom, liberty and grace without holding in the same place more good Bible words like duty, obedience and responsibility;
Engage in parenting that values being a child’s friend over being the grownup in the house who sets the boundaries and rules and enforces behavior designed to successfully raise a child who loves God more than family;
Confuse patriotism and love of country with the belief that God is for our country more than others, which in biblical Israel was seen as the sin of idolatry; or,
Become so invested with being “right,” that we lose our willingness to entertain the gospel truth that God’s world is bigger than our parties, platforms, denominations, institutions and doctrinal statements.
We human beings are remarkably resistant to the gospel. We hang on to the “milk” instead of letting the power of the Spirit work to grow within us the deeper, more thoughtful, soul-sustaining and community-creating substance of faith. Perhaps that is why the scripture says the proud and the powerful won’t “get it.” Little children will. Old people will. The poor will—and the poor-in-spirit sometimes. All those on the outside of society, culture and power will “get it.” Get what? GOD. Present and accounted for in patient loving suffering to bring glad union with the Spirit to our souls. Those who have abandoned everything are usually the first to awaken to the reality that they will never be abandoned by God.
There is our hope. There is the grace to be found at the heart of God’s character, defining God’s essential being. In that grace, God abandons impatience and condemnation. In that grace, embodied by Christ on the cross, is the doorway to salvation. In that grace is the promise that God is not through with us yet and will remain at work until all of God’s children eventually do “get it” and yearn daily for God’s presence and to do God’s will.
That is especially good news for we who have been called to be pastors, preachers, ministers, teachers and leaders for we know what Paul means when he calls himself, “the chief among sinners.”
Though it’s been a few years since I awoke to the calculation, all this reconnecting with treasured yet geographically-distant friends and family made possible by the social Internet has brought home with force the speed at which the years of our lives are passing and the limits of age. Just a quick look through the photos we are posting online shows we are not quite in appearance who we used to be and how we remember ourselves. We are growing older. We have come closer to the experience Frank, my father-in-law, shared with me while he was still with us in mind and not just body. There came a day, he said, when he looked into the mirror, stared intently into the image reflected there and asked, “And just who is that old man?”
I am feeling the same way in these days of middle age. “Suddenly” I have been married to the same wonderful woman for over thirty years. “Suddenly” I am making reservations to attend my thirty-fifth high school graduating class reunion. “Suddenly” all my professors, teachers and mentors have retired or been promoted to “the church triumphant.” “Suddenly” many of my treasured yet geographically-distant friends and family are looking a lot more like our elders who are moving or have moved stage left off the scene to retirement and eternity. “Suddenly” I am sharing that strange combination of gratefulness and grief that comes when one realizes the familiarity of a world commonly shared and cherished has changed and will continue to change whether you or I are in it or not. (“Suddenly” I am particularly glad to live in a community where many of our friends and church family are vital and working into their 80s and a growing number into their 90s!) I have entered that stage of life where, unless I live to be 105, the years behind me are more than the years remaining. Even as a person of faith who believes in a life with God that fulfills and redeems the hope and promise glimpsed in this life, that awareness fills me with a mixture of grief over the good-byes I’ve said already to people and places important to me, some of whom contributed immensely to who I have become, and of hopefulness over the possibilities of what adventures God may have in store for me yet today and tomorrow if I will live into this human finiteness with love and trust.
In my pastoral ministry I have seen the surprising reality of growing older as a common experience in the lives of peers, friends and congregants. Indeed, what we are experiencing is not new and is common to all human beings who are blessed with the gift of age. I sometimes see that reality in the stunned looks emerging on the faces of those who have “suddenly” realized that their own journey into age has occurred much faster than they had thought it would. I have seen it in the panic of those who have realized they will not accomplish all the hopes and dreams they had held for themselves; some of these have nearly self-destructed through proverbial mid-life crises. I have seen it in the energy of those who have chosen to view growing older as working against the hardiest deadline of their lives, determined to redeem the time ahead in well-doing and faithful response to God’s call in the later chapters of their lives. I have seen it in the peace and liberty aging can bring when we finally accept the truth of Psalm 100:3:
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
We are the Lord’s, created by the Lord through the grace of the Lord to live God’s purposes, cradled in God’s grace. We are the Lord’s. Whatever has befallen us in the years now past and in whatever befalls us in our remaining ones, we are the Lord’s. Like the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and those who will come after us, we have experienced our own times of deep joy and times of great sorrow. We have known and been changed by our own encounters with illness and by the deaths of those we cherish. We have known what it is like to be successful and, if we have grown wise, have found how much of our success came because of our gifts, talents and grit and how much of it was luck, timing, inheritance or simply the grace of God. We have come through the fires of family life, though we are certainly not finished there. Some of us have known divorce, and others the trials of raising children. Some of us have seen our children suffer major illnesses and a few have outlived their children. If we have been paying attention, we have moved into a quality or presence of life where we have become skeptical of the manipulative voices of culture and politics and more likely to yearn to be guided by the still, small, shaping, compassionate voice of God. We have learned what it was like for our separated-in-time-and-distance brother St. Paul to see the challenges and trials of his life as opportunities for God to work and to be able to proclaim, “I have learned in all things to be content (2 Corinthians 12:10, Philippians 4:11, 1 Timothy 6:6-8)… For to me, living is Christ (Philippians 1:21).”
On approach to growing older, I have been blessed by many who are ahead of me on the timeline of this world, friends in Christ who have taught and are teaching me still what it means to be content in Christ as my life and reason to be. During our final two years in Shreveport, I had the privilege of leading a series of theological reflection groups for physicians and other health care professionals. Each group met for a series of six 90-minute sessions over six weeks as we worked together on finding God in the midst of the calling, caring, compassion fatigue and communion with suffering that is the vocational reality of the life of the medical professional and her or his family. Each time we reached the final session, we would celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At the next-to-final session, I would ask each member of the group to bring to the final session some object that symbolized their life in medicine as a calling from God.
Of the several groups I led, Dr. Charles Black was by far the oldest person to participate. He was a surgeon who had had a marvelous life, in many ways. He always came well-dressed to the sessions and was the only member to ever wear a tie. His insights were timely. He never took over the conversation or group process but was an encourager to me and to the doctors and nurses who were in our group. When it was time for us to gather around the Lord’s Table at our final session, I asked each participate to tell about the object they had brought to symbolize their calling and to add their symbol to the symbols of bread and cup set upon the Lord’s Supper table. When it was Dr. Black’s turn to share, he reached into the pocket of his vest and took from it a slender blade. He said, “This is the blade with which I can perform a thyroidectomy. With it I can cut into the neck of a patient and remove all or part of a thyroid gland that has become cancerous or otherwise diseased. I have done this procedure so many times over the years that I could perform the surgery with just the blade, but…” He paused and reached into his vest pocket a second time, this time taking out a longer piece of metal. “If I want to do the procedure with the greatest of precision, I must affix the blade to this scalpel handle. With this handle, I can make an incision so fine within the fold of a person’s neck that it can hardly be seen once the incision has healed.” Another pause. “In my life, I am the blade. God is the handle.”
Dr. Charles Black was 80 years old then and still a precision instrument in the hands of God. He had heard the voice of God early in his life and had learned to live with trust into the call of God as his reason to be. He had found and given witness to the reality that when we trust our lives to God, in whatever work or life to which God has called you and me, we can live to the glory of God at every age.
That is what we want, don’t you think? To know our lives have meaning and purpose? To know that as much as those we love matter to us and we matter to them, all of us matter so much more to God and that God is at work in all things, redeeming all things and every circumstance of our living and dying? To know “It is he that made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture”? To know that just as we belong to God in our yesterdays and our today so do we in our tomorrows even unto eternity?
I think so. I think it’s true and I am ready to awaken to that hope-full reality for every day remaining that will be God’s gift to us all.
We ended our Thursday night study of the Acts of the Apostles last week and were astounded once again by the actions of the Holy Spirit. Not only had the power of the Spirit taken Paul and the gospel of the Lord Jesus all the way from Jerusalem to Rome but, in the process, had broken down barriers between the rich, the poor, Jew, gentile—European, Asian, African, slave, free, male, female, the intellectually sophisticated and the "everyman"—all with the same gospel of the Risen Lord who loves all, died for all and lives for all. To read this story amazes and renews wonder and awe at the grace of God.
The body of Christ in Acts has incredible richness and diversity of persons and personalities. It was adventurous for the gospel, willing to risk lives and traditions to befriend every person who might respond to the gospel. In the midst of it all was the Spirit of Jesus pushing, provoking, proving and providing so that the faith community was growing in vision, ministry and mission. The church then, just like today, was dependent on the Spirit of Christ to be able to handle the stress and to find creative ways of living the Way of Jesus in a world that is lost and sometimes hostile.
In closing, we read these words from Jim Wallis of Sojourners as he reflected on the greatest need of the Christian fellowship, then and now, if it is to continue to breathe and grow in Christ (don’t worry about all the Greek words!):
The greatest need in our time is not simply for kerygma, the preaching of the gospel; nor for diakonia, service on behalf of justice; nor for charisma, the experience of the Spirit’s gifts; not even for propheteia, the challenging of the king. The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. The creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level is the foundation of all the other answers.
Want to reach the world for Christ? Be the church. Be the church. Be the church. It’s not about programs but about people. It’s not about power but about people. It’s about the integrity of loving, of looking over one another’s rough edges with a sense of grace, of encouraging one another toward the image of Christ. It is as simple and as difficult—or at least we human beings make it difficult—as that.
Light Reading/The Last Time I Saw My Grandmother Robert W. Guffey, Jr. February 17, 2009 (Written on October 23, 2008) Winnfield, LA
The last time I saw my grandmother, Ola, she sat both smaller and greater than I had seen her before, ninety-six birthdays showing in her face. The ninety-six birthdays showed not so much from the lines or wrinkles in her face but in the worry and pain in her eyes. Unable to move on her own from bed to chair or to stand unassisted, she sat and wondered aloud if this would be our final visit this side of heaven. It might be. She sat unable to move around the large, old, wooden round table of her kitchen in the small, cozy, white house that sat at 307 Jack McEnery Street in Monroe, Louisiana. That kitchen, that house, exist now only in our memories. The day lilies out front, the pale blue and pink hydrangeas out back, bloom now only in our minds and in whatever echo of heaven that seeded their beauty and warmth upon the earth and in my South Carolina yard in the pale blue and pink hydrangeas I have planted in sustenance of a memory. She sat unable to drive to work as a volunteer at the hospital, where she was a founding member of the volunteer auxiliary, or to teach four-year-old Sunday School at the First Baptist Church or to travel the state and beyond as she once did attending with love and encouragement the birthdays, graduations, and weddings of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She has survived the loss of a husband, forty-two years before, and the untimely death of a child fifteen years earlier to that earthly evil called Cancer. She is not so sure she has many days remaining for memory or gladness or pain. She sat within the limits of age that made her seem both smaller and greater. Beyond this moment of perception, transcending the closing parenthesis of this life, her spirit stood tall and formidable. Her love and determination burn brightly in children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-greats. The sparkle in her eyes draws strength to we who know her love. Her stubborn refusal to give up reflects the fierceness of God’s love within. Had she been born in a later time, in another era where the choices available to women were more expansive, more like today, her bright mind might have taken her many places. In her time, she took her callings as wife, mother and friend and made a legacy through the raising of generations of faithful teachers, educators, business people and ministers who, whether we remember it often or not, are graced by a legacy of service, determination, grit, quiet strength, a bright mind—and a measure of stubbornness, which is, of course, a blessing at some times, but not at all times, as our own spouses and families might say. Beyond this moment of reflection, we shared tears, kind words, and a kiss on the cheek of goodbye. Ola Melissa Dickerson Mobley left this life on February 6, 2009.
A Prayer Along the Path Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 12, 2008
O LORD, Please guide me this day along the paths I should go: paths of those glad paths of those grieving paths of those rejoicing paths of those in need paths of those certain of Your love paths of those confused, bored or uncaring.
Guide me, O LORD, in Your paths and to those who need to discover your Way.
Make me a holy directional signal pointing toward Your holy, healing Presence in all situations and circumstance.
ounded by a Harvard University student in a dorm room five years ago this week, Facebook.com, or simply “Facebook,” has become an Internet social networking phenomenon with over 150 million active users worldwide—and it’s still growing. Though initially created for college and university students, it was not long before Facebook was opened to the web surfing public in general. Angie and I signed on last fall so we could share easily with our daughter, who was studying abroad, the photos and reports she was posting of her travels. Since then, the breadth and depth of the connections and re-connections we have made with family, former classmates, colleagues and church friends have been amazing, and the timeless nature of special friendships has been affirmed, sometimes surprisingly. How encouraging it is to know we have all survived this far along in life and that God is making something of our lives.
Now it is true that to use a social networking tool, like Facebook or its competitors, there are rules to be followed, the most important of which is, to me, to be sure your time on Facebook does not replace “face time” with real human beings. One of my friends who lives in Texas said he smiled when he realized one of his around-the-corner neighbors wanted to “friend” him on Facebook. He decided to walk down the street and knock on the neighbor’s door. Still, until some genius solves the real life issues of long geographical distances and time travel, social networking tools like Facebook will remain a place for making contact and as a placeholder for some good reminders.
It reminds me of the importance of being human and the value of sharing the truth of our lives with those for whom we care and who care about us.
It reminds me that being “face-to-face” (and heart-to-heart) with God and others, whether the encounter holds compassion and love or the need to resolve tension and conflict, are moments of togetherness full of possibility built on vulnerability.
It reminds the pastor/preacher in me that the Bible has a lot to say about what it means to be “face-to-face” with God and others, and of the experiences of individuals and families who longed for, or who feared, what such intimate presence might mean.
In Numbers 6:25, the prayer of benediction Aaron and the priests were told by God through Moses to pronounce upon God’s people connected the blessings of God with the Lord’s “face shining upon you.”
In Genesis 48:11, elderly Jacob had the shock of his life when he was reunited with Joseph, the son he thought long dead: “I did not expect to see your face; and here God has let me see your children also.”
In Exodus 33:20, God told Moses “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live,” but that wasn’t exactly the case, of course. We knew already from Exodus 33:11, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend.”
As if Moses seeing God’s face in friendship was not enough, which it wasn’t, we New Testament types got Jesus, who was and is God’s face (and presence) incarnate.
All of this reminded me of some lines from Helen Lemmel’s beloved old gospel song, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.
Which is fine and good—“the things of earth” growing “strangely dim” part, that is—but for now, though, Lord willing, I’ll stay with seeing the face of Jesus in family, friends and strangers (friends-yet-to-be) here and now, thanking God for the strong connection to God I find in and through spiritual friends-in-Christ near and far, and praying the Spirit of Christ will help me more resemble his face in love and service to God’s world today.
Your Face to Face Friend, BG
LightReading/Famous Black Americans I Was Late Meeting
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
January 20, 2009
ne of the most meaningful worship experiences of my life” is how many of our members have described the Sunday night, January 18, Community Inaugural Prayer Service, hosted by our church. The gathering of over 300 people from at least 10 churches across racial, ethnic, cultural, economic and denominational lines was blessed with the unity of God’s Holy Spirit, a desire to bring glory to God, a healthy sense of humor, and a lot of truth-telling about the old ways of race and division. All of us were moved by the power of the Spirit to restore relationships, bring joy and hope for our shared future and find the liberation in Christ truth, confession, praise, worship and authentic friendships can bring. We were glad to add our very small part to an historic week in the life of the nation, too.
American History I Was Late Learning. It was the summer of the Bicentennial Year, 1976, and, just having completed my junior year at LSU, I was back in Pearl City, Hawaii, for a second summer as a summer student missionary with the SBC Home Mission Board, when I learned from an unexpected place American history I had not read in my history books. I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s two-record set—remember records?—“Songs in the Key of Life,” when he began singing about persons, White, Black, Asian and Native American who had made significant contributions to your life and mine.
You may have been ahead of me on this, but I did not know the names and accomplishments of many Black pioneers and Americans. I knew of Dr. Martin Luther King and wept with my family at his passing. I knew of 20th century leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, a few outstanding preachers and many famous Black athletes, actors, and entertainers. I did not know of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams (early successful heart surgery), Benjamin Banneker (surveyor, clockmaker, mathematician, astronomer), Matthew Hensen (first to the North Pole with Robert Peary), Dr. Charles Drew (expert in developing blood banks in early World War II), Elijah McCoy (inventor, the “real McCoy”), Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (commander of the WWII Tuskegee Airman), and Dr. Vivien Thomas (cardiac surgical pioneer and teacher of doctors at Johns Hopkins; his story is told in the 2004 HBO movie “Something the Lord Made,” an excellent film except for brief strong language)—and that is just a few of the men!
I’m looking forward to learning more about all the good done by as-yet-unmet (by me, anyway) members of the human family, all children of God, members of my family.
On Sunday, October 26, 2008, we said "good-bye" to our 15-year- old sweetheart of a dog named Clifford. The first writing is one I wrote in 1995 when Clifford adopted us (read it and you'll see what I mean).
In thinking over the loss of our dog, who truly was a friend to the family, our son, Kyle, wrote: "I spent about an hour writing and as I wrote it became more and more apparent to me how Clifford's personality was very much the simple traits that we as humans all need honestly in our own lives—that loyalty and honest feeling as if others come before our- selves and that that thought and feeling is perfectly okay. It's very amazing how that works I think. It is beyond amazing if you really think about it. We spend our lives in wars with nations of humanity where all that's missing is that 'Clifford-ness.' I know I will take that with me as a shining example and truth the rest of my days without a doubt."
I'm glad God speaks through God's creation and creatures God's wonders.
Grace and peace, BG
___________________________________________________________________ Light Reading/The Red Dog Robert W. Guffey, Jr. Shreveport, LA June 29, 1995
Six weeks ago last Tuesday, the red dog came. He sat at our garage door, paw extended to shake hands, and with what seemed exactly like a smile on his face.
The red dog. Who knows where he came from. Lost. Abandoned. Just wandered away so far from the familiar that he lost the scent home. Maybe.
For two weeks, he was the neighborhood’s dog. Neighbors who rarely spoke more than greetings spent warm May evenings in front yards talking about the red dog, theorizing from whence he came and what to do to help the red dog home.
Signs announcing “Found Dog” went unanswered. Calls to Animal Control revealed no one looking for him. The “Lost and Found” ads yielded no distressed someone desperately seeking a red dog.
So now he’s ours. The red dog and Ashley (that’s our Siberian Husky) doing their dance like two long lost friends, muzzles nuzzling and tails wagging. They are doing fine.
So are we. Home for the homeless. Rest for the stranger. Banquet for the hungry. Friends to the friendless. There’s Good News in the Gospel for all God’s creatures. Even a prodigal red dog. Go, Red Dog.
(By the way, Susanna named him Clifford, after the literary big, red dog.)
Light Reading/When It Comes to Voting, Think on These Things Robert W. Guffey, Jr. Conway, SC October 31, 2008
When I was growing up in Baton Rouge, presidential election seasons were adventures. As a family, we stayed up late watching the political nominating conventions of both parties. In those days before the political conventions had become staged theater, you never knew what real drama might unfold, or how many ballots it might take to determine the parties’ candidates. At school, like students still do, I suppose, we learned of the candidates, made projects and created posters for our choices—our parents’ choices, really—and had mock elections to determine who we would choose, if we could. On Election Day, we watched our parents exercise the right and privilege of voting, and then settled in to listen to Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, report the vote tallies from around the nation. It was a great lesson in civics and a witness to the world of the power of democracy to bring peaceful change and orderly transitions of power in government.
Then as now I know there were shenanigans, some terrible, going on behind the scenes but, for the most part, the system worked and still does. I know there were decades when women and Blacks were disenfranchised when it came to “the vote,” but the system and the sacrifices of many, some even unto their lives, is working to correct those injustices. I know and still believe in the responsibilities and capabilities of the people to consider the situation of the country, to choose those people who each citizen believes can address the needs of the country, and to speak boldly, like Daniel, Esther, Paul and the Lord Jesus, truth to power when those we elect, and those they appoint, abuse our trust as citizens. We are not perfect—and we some- times wish we had remembered the words of Abraham Lincoln when listening to politicians: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time”—but it is our system and will work as long as the majority of citizens take the time to vote thoughtfully, courageously and for the good of all the people, not just some of the people. It will work as long as the majority of the people who claim to be Christians stay awake to the moment of possibility that we can live into the principles and ethics of Christ when we stay true to higher ideals and embody God’s love and mercy in action.
When I vote, I always try to follow these steps:
(1) Pray God’s best for the decision, the candidates, their families and the unity of the nation. Whoever is elected will need our prayers. Whether “our” candidates are elected or not, we should pray for an attitude of confidence mixed with humility and wisdom, and safety for those elected. We should pray for our elected leaders to feel the conviction of God’s Spirit to be honest, truthful, authentic and full of integrity. We should pray for God’s will to be done, including the healing of the divisions in our country brought on in the atmosphere of ends-justifies-the-means-win-at-any-costs campaigning.
(2) Take nothing from candidates at face value. Nothing corrupts like power, whether in business, politics or religion. Read and investigate for your self. There is nothing more dangerous to a partisan politician with a partisan agenda than an informed public. Read what the candidates say and of what they have done on the public record. Learn from a variety of sources. One excellent source I have found is the nonpartisan Annen- berg Political Fact Check (www.factcheck.org). (The Annenberg Political Fact Check is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals but is funded by the Annen- berg Foundation, which was founded by Walter Annenberg, billion- aire publisher and philanthropist, who served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Nixon, and Leonore Annenberg, who served as U.S. Chief of Protocol under President Reagan. Though they worked for presidents of one party, they have done democracy a service by establishing a tool for sniffing out misdirection, truth- stretching and downright lies whatever the source.)
(3) Vote hopes not fears. One of the values of being a pastor is being able to help people of differing views find common ground where they can come together. Sometimes I do that with married couples in trouble, with parents and angry adolescents, and with church members or business competitors or members of the com- munity. My work is to help divided, often discouraged, people find hope and a future. Differences inflamed by fear and opinion become powerful ways to divide, confuse and obscure facts about people, policies and the future our country deserves. Again and again in the Bible, God says, “Be not afraid.” There is plenty to be afraid of in the world but God says to be wise, discerning, and full of God’s love that conquers fear. When candidates try to manipulate me through fear, I reach for my wallet to be sure it is still there and check my brain to ask what they are really up to.
(4) Vote over the balance of all issues not over just a single issue. Deciding who will lead the nation means finding those who can understand and provide direction through a host of com- peting issues, demands, needs and crises. We need leaders who see the whole of our nation and the broad range of issues and challenges we face. Like most people, I don’t want to pay more taxes, see gov- ernment grow for the sake of more government or have less control over my own day-to-day decisions—I prefer governmental structures that are as small as reasonable to get the maximum impact of what government should be about—but I am less concerned about the size of government than the honest, competent efficiency of government doing for the common good what individuals and corporations can- not do or will not do alone. Specifically, government’s job description includes taking actions that: affirm the value of the human person and the life given each one by God, keep its citizens safe, establish just courts and legal systems, address public health and education challenges in ways that build and enrich life, provide a capable military and diplomatic presence in the world, ensure local police and fire departments are capable of doing their jobs, build and main- tain the physical infrastructure of transportation, and encourage proper stewardship of God’s world and its natural resources. We need leaders who can direct the whole of this enterprise with integ- rity and accountability to the people.
(5) Remember that God is still in charge no matter the outcome of human endeavors and affairs!
You can certainly add to and improve my list. You should. When it comes to elections and voting, our democratic system will con- tinue to work as long as most people think through the issues, see through the fog and haze of aggressive campaigning and stay close to the truth of 1 John 4:18 that affirms: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
Light Reading/The Choice Between Faith and Fear Robert W. Guffey, Jr. October 11, 2008
Not surprisingly, as Americans, we find ourselves once again at a junction in history that will tell us and the world just who we truly are. Election seasons have enough emotion to bear on our everyday experience. This election season has intensified because of the added fears of the economy and our feelings about financial security. When we feel our sense of self and security threatened, it’s easy to let fear turn into panic—and panic stands in opposition to faith. On Tuesday of this week, I heard Jack Welch, the former head of General Electric, interviewed about the current economic crisis. He affirmed the banking and credit crisis as very real but gave his opinion that much of the reaction to the banking crisis has been made worse by panic. As Christians, we have every reason to see the crisis of confidence in the world’s institutions as an opportunity to be reminded of what is most important and Who it is that truly holds our future. In this time of testing, Christians have been given an opportunity by God to show themselves as thoughtful, confident, honest and reasonable persons who can be trusted. We can claim the truth of Jeremiah 29:11 in our trust in the God who does not fail--For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. We can let the Holy Spirit convict us of our unwise use of the resources God has given us, where that is the case. We can be sensitive to the needs of persons on limited and declining incomes who now have one more worry in their day. We can pray for this experience to humble those who have taken their financial prosperity as a signed of might, privilege and power rather than a resource given by God in stewardship for God’s purposes of compassion and ministry. We can explore the issues behind the turmoil of our day and vote each according to our conscience for those we believe will make a difference and be wise stewards of the blessings God has given ourselves and the nation. I began by saying we stand in this place “not surprisingly” and I believe that is true. For thousands of years, God’s people have found themselves faced with the choice of faith or fear. I’m choosing faith over fear. Let’s do so together.
Grace and peace, bg
A Prayer Between Faith and Fear
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
October 11, 2008
when the voices of fear cry out without ceasing
when the faces of confusion seem all around
when the emotions of frustration overwhelm us
when we find we have placed our security in false gods
when we discover human failings no longer surprise
when we find ourselves exhausted by the TV prophets of doom
please send your Spirit to remind us we have forgotten—once again
take a deep breath
take a quiet moment (or hour!)
take You at your word
take our place as your people who hear
again and again in the scripture to
May these be the times that re-awaken our hearts (and minds and spirits)
to the truth of the promise of Your I-AM-WITH-YOU presence
and the benefits of rest in your Spirit.
Light Reading/Days That Changed America Robert W. Guffey, Jr. September 12, 2008
This week I've been thinking about the ways God changes us and the ways the world can change us, too. With the 7th anniversary of 9/11 on Thursday, I took time to watch part of a to-the-minute replay of the events of that bright, sunny Tuesday morning in 2001. It was a day that changed the country. It was a day that challenged our values, character and faith in God, too. It still is. On 9/11/2001, our country entered a trial that is challenging who we think and say we are as people of faith and as citizens of the nation. There have been other days that changed our nation, significant-not-to-be-forgotten days, though some have been. Days like the founding of Jamestown and Plymouth, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the battles of the Alamo and Gettysburg, the ratification of the abolition of slavery, women winning the right to vote, the stock market crash, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Supreme Court decisions of Brown vs. Board of Education and Roe vs. Wade, the landing on the moon, the loss of Challenger--all of these were days that galvanized the national attention for better or worse. We should pay attention to these days--and the quieter days we experience for better or worse within our own smaller, private lives. If we pay attention to each day, God can use us as partners in the redeeming of the days. For each of us the partnership of redemption will take a unique shape and sacrifice as befits the gifts, callings, resources and personalities God has given us. If we will follow God's call, though, we will find God. I know that is true because the most important days that changed our selves, our country and our world are days without dates that we can put to memory. They are the days when God, who transcends time and place, chose to enter into time and place. The prophet Isaiah promised God's coming as Immanuel--God with us--not that God had been that far off you understand. God's spirit has always been near. God had something more in mind, though. Something unexpected. God came in flesh. The heavenly eternal incarnated into earthly finiteness. Jesus was born on a day we do not know and was crucified on a day we can only estimate as being near the Jewish Passover celebrations of A.D. 27-33. Those are the days which, if we have entered them, in the power of the Spirit, will re-interpret every personal, national and global better-or-worse. Those are the days of the coming of the Kingdom: days of grace, days of forgiveness, days of humility, days of healing, days that put all other days in their place, in the hands of the Ancient of Days. Those are the days that carry us to the person of Christ who carries us through the days, if we will but trust him, into the unending season of everlasting joy. The only "catch" is: we have to trust him.
Trusting as the days go by, bg
Light Reading/Why People Stop Going to Church
Robert W. Guffey, Jr.
September 8, 2007
In my years as a pastor, I’ve seen many people come to know Christ and live in the knowledge and experience of God’s love within the context of the fellowship (koinonia) of a church. That is one of the grandest reasons I know to celebrate with gratitude to God. I have seen people who leave churches, also. They do so for a variety of reasons.
Some people leave a church because their feelings were hurt by a church member or minister.
Some leave because they disagreed with a decision of a church or a theological stance of some in a church.
Some leave because they found a certain style of worship or ministry no longer met their needs, real or perceived.
Some leave because their personal theology of the Church was inadequate. By that I mean they saw the church as just another institution useful to socialize their children or to keep their teenagers out of trouble. Once their children grew to a certain age, their primary motivation for attending disappeared, and so did they.
Some leave because, in the midst of a personal crisis, God did not show up as they expected and they are mad at God or have become doubtful of God’s existence.
For these, the best we as the church can do is to continue: (a) to love unconditionally, (b) to pray intentionally for the healing and deepening of the relationship, (c) to forgive or ask for forgiveness if we have truly offended someone and (d) continue asking God to help us grow in authenticity and integrity as church members.
Our best witness is in actually becoming more like Christ and in living our lives as the kind of people we say we are: forgiven, servant-hearted and servant-minded children of God. This witness is our best approach, too, for reaching people who have not found the experience of God and church worth their time at all.
When I spend time with people who have had bad or no experiences of church, I have found most are open to be with people who are real and open to friendship. They are intrigued with an experience of worship that genuinely changes the way people relate to one another and that transforms a person’s attitude and action toward the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, the imprisoned, the battered, the grieving, the sick and the folks-that-don’t-look-and-talk-just-like-us. Around us daily are, I promise you, men and women who are looking for companions for the journey of life who think more of the Savior and Jesus' ways than they do about the dollar, the bottle, the vote or themselves.
The person they are looking for might just be you.
Just back from another summer week in Maryland with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. These folks are in love with God and good at nurturing in the rest of us the awareness and acceptance of the love of God for us. That happens in silence--lots of silence--and prayer and worship and holy conversation with peers in this journey of faith. As difficult as we pretend it is to get away for this kind of time of spiritual pilgrimage, the experience reminds us of why it is worth it and, perhaps, required if we are to grow in and toward the loving, inclusive image of Christ.
The prayer below came as a gift last Monday morning as our weekend of “silent Sabbath” was drawing to its end and I wanted to share it with you today. God tries always to get our attention!
In Christ’s love,
PRAYER FOR TODAY
UNDER THE OAKS OF NEW WINDSOR
The cicadas announce your presence With singing, thrilling alleluias. The world drives by intent on pursuit of women, men, mothers, fathers, the young and the not as young as they
wish they were or think they are, preoccupied and lonely, purposeful, and fulfilled, on busy paths toward meaningful and not so endeavor.
The cicadas announce your presence With singing, thrilling alleluias, silent sentinels of earth and time, emerging on timetables of your imagining, they announce their alleluias and beckon us, "Awake, O Sleeper, and sing!
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!"
And we thought they were only insects, not
members of the chorus of rocks and hills and trees, conduits of joyful presence of their
compassionate creator announcing your presence with singing, thrilling alleluias!
hile driving through North Carolina last summer, on the way home from a week of retreat centered on contemplative prayer, I stopped by a popular (and crowded) chicken sandwich establishment for lunch. Just inside the front door, I saw what looked very close to a parable of what I had been learning and experiencing all week.
Directly in front of me as I entered the restaurant sat a young mom with a beautiful child seated on the other side of the booth. The child was trying wildly to get Mom’s attention. Mom’s attention was focused on a cell phone and a lengthy conversation she was having with whoever was on the other side of the invisible waves of information traveling from the chicken sandwich establishment to cell towers and satellites back down to earth again. Though the crowded restaurant left little room for me to stand in line anywhere but near the booth with mother and daughter, and close enough to eavesdrop unintentionally, I will never know with certainty what Mom’s conversation on the phone was about. I cannot state beyond a reason of a doubt that Mom preferred the attention of the invisible someone on the other end of the phone to the real presence of the child before her. I know how exhausted moms and dads of young children can be, and how demanding some children can be, just as I know parents who vastly underestimated the emotional, social and spiritual cost to themselves of choosing to bring a child into the world. I know, also, the feeling of conviction of being a parent of a young child and realizing I had missed, through inattention, fatigue, preoccupation or selfishness, a yearningly bright opportunity to be present to the child who wanted my attention—and wildly.
For children and parents, there is no substitute for real presence. There is no substitute to being available when the moment comes and a child is ready to confide in you and let you into her or his world. There is no substitute for receiving the gift of presence and being where you are, rather than living your life always hoping for the better offer. There is no substitute to unplugging from the constant stimuli of our frenzied lifestyles and being attentive to the moments that pass too quickly in a child’s life, and in our own.
It is that way in our parenting; it is that way in our spiritual lives, too. God waits for us to yearn for God’s holy presence. God invites our worship, our prayers, our praise and our voices lifted in honest sorrow and pain. God waits and, unlike us human parents on our not-so-thoughtful days, God always is paying attention. God is ever present and desires to be known. In our world and frenzied lifestyles, it is not God but you and I who must cultivate practices that help us pay attention to God who is always there. Sometimes that happens in the busy moment. I find it more likely to happen in the unplugged moment, in the moment when we utter, with Jesus, “Not my will but Thine, O Lord,” in the moment when we enter our closeted space for prayer and softly whisper, “Into Thy hands, I commit my spirit, and life, O Lord.”
Come, Lord Jesus, and let us not miss a moment of living in your Presence.
Grace and peace,
Light Reading/Thank God for Grownups
Robert W. Guffey, Jr. November 18, 2007
ne of the delights and challenges of the work week at Conway’s FirstBaptistChurch is having small children near every day. The hundred plus little ones loved, cared for and taught through our Lovell Weekday Ministry remind me how important it is for adults to be consistent in living as persons of integrity and trustworthy character. When we walk together through the hallways or meet one another at lunch or on the playground, in the way of all children when confronted by the mystery of adults, these boys and girls study everything we do. They look for clues of what it means to be “grownup.” They watch how we walk. They scan our faces for hints of our moods. They listen to the tone of our voices or the silence with which we greet them. They observe whether our faces, bodies and voices match our professions of faith as persons who say they care for Christ and take the care of children as the holy and sacred calling, gift and responsibility it is.
While having children of your own is no prerequisite to becoming a positive, consistent example and teacher of children, in my case it has been enormously instructive. As I encounter the children, I cannot help but think of my own children and grandchildren and thank God for the many grownups who have been there for them. As parents, we cannot be and do all for our children. We count on church, school, music teachers, coaches, scoutmasters, and other adults to help us set a perimeter of love, learning and accountability around our children. Children are still growing and learning. Some days they will reflect the behavior of the angels. On other days, you will wonder from which side of the family they inherited those awful traits. On some days, you will wonder what grown up worry from home they are trying to carry in their still too-small minds and hearts. On all days, I thank God for surrounding our children with adults who care, adults whose integrity and character better the possibility that these children will grow up spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally healthy enough to bring forward the next generation.
I have found that having children is like taking a piece of your heart out of your body and setting it free in the world, a world that, in general, does not see my children or yours as we do. God did not intend for our children to be little consumers, potential sources of income, little adults or victims of the plans and causes of others. God intends our children to grow up to be God’s children, more like Christ every day. Every day I thank God for adults who know how important children are to God, adults who know how to listen and to instruct, who know how to set boundaries by saying “yes” and “no” (and mean it), and who are not so busy being children themselves that they are absent from their duty of securing a child’s future as one that is healthy and confident as a child of God.
e spent Independence Day at the movies. “Evan Almighty”—a fun movie worth your time—was playing down the road in Myrtle Beach. In the movie, God, played with a smile by Morgan Freeman, answers broadcaster-turned-congressman Evan’s prayer to help him “change the world” by giving him the Noah assignment. Along the way, Evan’s family questions his sanity, his congressional aides begin updating their resumes, and the neighbors laugh out loud. When Evan questions why God puts human beings through such challenges and trying times, God replies, “Because I love you.” Along the way, Evan wishes God would not love him so much.
Evan’s response reminded me of another bearded conversationalist with God. Tevye, milkman and Jewish peasant philosopher of “Fiddler on the Roof,” talks with God, too. While putting his wagon away in the barn one day, he’s doing the talking and God, we presume, is doing the listening. His words: “O Lord, I know we are your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose someone else once in a while.” Amen.
Both these characters, in different ways, remind me of the push and pull of the life of faith. God calls us to salvation. Through God’s grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit, we accept, Then the real work begins. We learn of God’s vision for the wholeness of creation and of God’s love for the world. We are admonished and encouraged to take our place as God’s servant-partners in ministry. We hear Christ beckoning his disciples to be as Christ to the world. We take steps toward Christian maturity. We have some splendidly joyful times. We absorb the pains, griefs, and disappointments of life, too. We catch a glimpse of God’s vision, of God’s plans, of God’s promises. We get up and try to follow, like Paul, through a glass darkly. It’s the life of faith. It’s the life of trusting in God’s love and ultimate intentions for us, even though circumstance tells us otherwise. It’s the life made possible by the belief that God does love us and that, in God’s time, this love will be enough, no matter the difficulty or ease of the path. We believe. We question. We embrace what we must. We move on.
At key points in “Evan Almighty,” when Evan has something to celebrate, he does a funny, little dance. In “Fiddler,” the dancing of Tevye and the cast carry the plot along. For me, the dance as metaphor for the life of faith works just fine. God leads, we follow. Sometimes we lose our way in the crowd. Sometimes we stumble over our own feet. Sometimes God leads us to moves and turns completely unfamiliar and daunting. But still we follow. Even if we sit and rest for a while, eventually we step back in and follow. We have to. It’s the dance we do to keep moving through life. It’s the dance we do with an eye toward tomorrow. It’s the dance we do in hope of eternal presence, peace, and jubilation.
What Tomorrow Brings/A Prayer after Virginia Tech
“Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring.” –James 4:14
College days are supposed to be days of learning
about our place in the world
about how we might help make a difference
in the healing of your world.
They are not supposed to be like our yesterday, a day
of urgent, rushing heartbeats stilled.
As Your body at work in the world, O LORD, we pray
for the healing
of bodies wounded
of emotions afflicted
of spirits in turmoil
of trust beset.
Would You redeem this moment in our today by reminding us,
that You are our certainty
that You hold our today, tomorrow and forever
that You are already at work mending the scars
of grief and sorrow
that You will make sense of what is senseless one
We do not know about tomorrow but we know about You.
In that lives our confidence, our hope, our persistence,
Our everlasting desire to be present as Christ to the world
Meaning for Today: Why John’s Revelation Is Worth the Trouble
February 9, 2007
In our Wednesday evening explorations of the Revelation of John, our first concern has been to answer the question, “What did John’s readers know then that we might not know today?” In answering that question, we have become students of the Old Testament scriptures and the world of Christians in the first two centuries A.D., assuming John’s congregations brought to the text certain experiences and assumptions regarding (a) what was then a popular style of Jewish and early Christian writing in times of peril (apocalyptic) and (b) the biblical, social, political, and economic circumstances of their times. Learning about these unlocks for us the value they found in this profound, and often profoundly confusing today, word from God.
In understanding the context of the earliest Christians, and in coming to grips with the reality of Christian martyrs and martyrdom—the New Testament words standing behind our words witness and testimony—that mark the early centuries of our faith, we find Revelation truly fulfilling what its name means. Revelation means “to pull back or undo the veil.” In coming to understand John and his times, we create the opportunity to discover, not a confusing set of signs and symbols designed to tell twenty-first Christians details on the unfolding of cataclysmic events in the future, but powerful and deep connections to the hope Christians in every time have in Christ and his cross, past, present, future and forever. It is a hope so strong it can pull Christians through the darkest circumstances because of what Christ has done for us.
Our work in Revelation can, also, connect us to the roots of our forefathers and –mothers in the faith and their courage and passion for the gospel. We can discover what it meant to them to be followers of Jesus Christ. These earliest Christians were reached by the gospel of Jesus that called together a new and large family made up of men and women, rich and poor, young and old, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, laborer and members of Caesar’s household. They believed the gospel and so trusted the gospel that they risked everything on God’s version of reality, not Caesar’s. In the literal testimony—that is, sacrifice—of their lives they proclaimed the true life of Christ that is (still) bringing to fulfillment the values of the Kingdom of God, even in dark and fierce times. They embodied the words of Paul, spiritually and literally, to be “crucified with Christ; and it is no longer [they] who live, but it is Christ who lives in [them].” In the family of faith, we stand on their shoulders.
In our context, it’s hard to study Revelation without disagreements about “end times” and over interpretations that tend to divide the Body of Christ. Still, Revelation can speak meaningfully for our day from the standpoint of pastoral care and discipleship in ways in which we can all agree and benefit.
What does Revelation have to say clearly to us today in this way? Let me offer seven ways, a good number and one woven throughout the fabric of the drama of the Revelation.
1. In the most challenging circumstance, hold on. You are not alone. You will be able to hold on because Christ is present and holding on to you.
2. Do not be surprised when difficult life circumstances get worse before they get better.
3. A Christian’s relationship to God calls for letting go of relationships and practices in the world when those relationships and practices threaten allegiance that belongs only to God.
4. Choosing primary allegiance to God and God’s ways can have enormous costs, worth paying.
5. Great love and faithfulness among Christian brothers and sisters is made possible by the great love and faithfulness of Christ.
6. God has already conquered evil in this world. It has limits and will not prevail.
7. The power of the gospel of Jesus Christ conquers through sacrificial love. Christian martyrdom reflected deep love and steadfast belief in the gospel to bring life. Compare that to radical fundamentalist martyrdom of any kind that seeks to take life and affect change through violence. Christians are to resist evil with vigor and to do so as Christ does.
In context of its first hearing as the Word of God—the Babylonian Exile—the first chapters of the Bible addressed, not modern arguments about creation, evolution or worldwide floods, but the hidden, gnawing questions, doubts and concerns echoing in the hearts of God’s people, Israel-in-Exile, about God’s power, knowledge, providence and protection. The people wondered if God really was in control and if God cared. The Word of God proclaimed, “In the beginning, God.” God was in the beginning, and before the beginning. All that was created was created by God for the purposes of God. That same God who spoke, “Let there be” still speaks and cares and guides.
In context of its first hearing as the Word of God—Roman Empire and domination—the last chapters of the Bible addressed, not modern arguments over timetables, but the same hidden, gnawing questions, doubts and concerns echoing in the hearts of God’s people, the Church, anticipating and then living the exile of persecution and martyrdom. The same Word of God, that is Christ, who proclaimed, “In the beginning, God,” now proclaims, “In the ending that yields new beginning, God.”
Revelation is the supreme application of the gospel in the lives of human beings. In Revelation, God’s dreams for Eden are finally coming true.