It has been a sad morning. I just found out that a friend from the Marfan's forum on Facebook died; probably from an aortic dissection or rupture.  I think she was from Virginia; I never interacted directly with her but her death has hit the online marfan community pretty hard.  She is the embodiment of all of our worst fears.

Today is also the anniversary of the accident which led to the death of  Professor Adolf Hansen's daughter Bonnie.  He was a professor of mine at seminary who taught classes on ministry to the sick and on Death and Dying.. His faith in the face of an unimaginably horrible event was powerful then and has become more meaningful over the years.  Professor Hansen helped us to understand that when we experience tragedy, God understands! After all, God in Christ was crucified! God experienced loss.  Yet, and most importantly, God turned the ultimate tragedy into the ultimate good. Christ was resurrected!

Adolf told us what helped him cope with Bonnie's death. (One never "get's over" a death; and really, would you want to? )  He told us that while God understands and shares our pain, "God works for good in everything."

So, to Shanon and Bonnie: May you rest in peace and dwell forever with The Lord.

As for those of us left to mourn their passing, we pray The Lord will deal graciously with us and help us to see Hope despite our grief.


Longing to Write.

I have always wanted to be a writer. I envy you that you are.  I have been told since College that "Writer's write."  I guess I gave up long ago. Most people who know me know me well enough to know that I can be very stubborn when I want to be. Combine stubbornness and perfectionism and you have the perfect excuse to not write. and so I don't.  I would like to write. I've had people ask me to write more. But I can't seem to do it.

I was watching the Bush Library opening yesterday and I was struck by the fact that President Bush paints for three hours every day! Thinking back on his administration I am struck by the fact that he and I share stubbornness  He has the advantage of having discipline.  I have none. Never have.  So, how do I become a writer?  I've been told countless times to be disciplined about it. Write for an hour every day without censorship. But I fail. I make lots of pretty noises and set up blogs or post things to FB... I think the longest I've gone has been a couple of weeks.

I certainly have enough material.
Several near death experiences
a chronic debilitating medical condition
chronic pain
experience as a chaplain on a Hospice floor
My fight with Depression
My mother's Alzheimer's
Being a stay at home Dad and being part of a very strange sort of almost reverse discrimination.

Another part of my problem is that I really love to read. I would much prefer to read than write. But, let's be honest. I also love watching television!  I really don't understand how folks like Gigi and Adrienne or any of my other blogger friends do it. They all have houses to keep clean, books to read, Doctor's appointments, kids to pick up.  How do they do it?  I would love to know.  I have 2 distinct audiences waiting. I've been asked to be a guest blogger. I know there really is no secret to doing it other than simply doing it.  Here's hoping I can continue with it...

On being "Disabled"

Maya Brown-Zimmerman has asked an interesting and good question.

She asks "What does it mean to be disabled? Is it different than having a disability? What does it mean to view ourselves as such, and is that different from how the world views us?"

On a simple level this is just an exercise in semantics.  But words are important when it comes to determining how one views oneself.  This is the first step in answering Maya's question.

Part of Maya's question is easy for me to answer. I have a government agency which has defined me. The Social Security Administration has judged that I am "Disabled." Therefore, I am eligible to collect money that I paid into my Soc. Sec. account; I'm also eligible for Medicare. So, as far as the government (IRS, HHS, etc.) are concerned, I am Disabled. When health care folks ask about my status, I have an easy answer. In that sense, I really don't care what the answer to Maya's question is; just keep the checks comin'!

But, more importantly, how do I see myself?  For me, this is the crux of Maya's question. The word disabled brings to mind an image of a car on the side of the road with its hazard lights on.  What to do? Call a tow truck to take it to get repaired. I've done a lot in my life. I've managed retail stores, sold things, worked in law offices, trained horses and riders, taught school, more recently I've worked as a chaplain.  I was born with Marfan's. Yet I've still done all these things and more.  Yes, like Maya, I have limitations (which are so great I can't work full time) and need a lot of help.  But I am far from being broken down.  I am not Disabled.  I have a disability.  You can even say I have a handicap. (I actually am fine with being called handicapped. For me, it is more accurate and less bothersome than being called disabled.)

Words and labels are important.  But the context in which they are used matter too.  I don't care what a government bureaucrat or health care provider calls me.  But I am not disabled.  I am a stay at home Dad to an unbelievably energetic 2 year old. I am a Sunday School teacher. I am a husband. I am a friend and confidant. I have a disability.

A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits.

Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have always had my interest and respect. Now, coming back to them after spending time in seminary and working in ministry, I see this.

What an amazing eschatology these two have. Here are the lyrics and comments from the creator.

A musical tribute to two great men of science. Carl Sagan and his cosmologist companion Stephen Hawking present: A Glorious Dawn - Cosmos remixed. Almost all samples and footage taken from Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Stephen Hawking's Universe series.


If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch
You must first invent the universe

Space is filled with a network of wormholes
You might emerge somewhere else in space
Some when-else in time

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day venture to the stars

A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the milky way

The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths
Of exquisite interrelationships
Of the awesome machinery of nature

I believe our future depends powerfully
On how well we understand this cosmos
In which we float like a mote of dust
In the morning sky

But the brain does much more than just recollect
It inter-compares, it synthesizes, it analyzes
it generates abstractions

The simplest thought like the concept of the number one
Has an elaborate logical underpinning
The brain has it's own language
For testing the structure and consistency of the world

For thousands of years
People have wondered about the universe
Did it stretch out forever
Or was there a limit

From the big bang to black holes
From dark matter to a possible big crunch
Our image of the universe today
Is full of strange sounding ideas

How lucky we are to live in this time
The first moment in human history
When we are in fact visiting other worlds

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean
Recently we've waded a little way out
And the water seems inviting!

"lower case, Upper Case" - Sermon for Project Renewal 9-19

I preached this sermon during a worship service for a group called Project Renewal. It is a group that bring folks with disabilities together for worship, lunch, Bible study and friendship. The scripture that was read is Romans 8:16-39.

This is the first sermon I've written and presented.

"lower case, Upper Case" - 9/19/09

I have good news! I realize it is in my job description to have The Good News. But this is a bit different. This is good news in lower case. My wife and I are expecting our first child in March! Now deciding to have a child is frequently a difficult decision. But for Mary and me, it was even more complicated. I have a genetic disorder called Marfan’s Syndrome. It is a connective tissue disorder that affects every system of the body. It is autosomal dominant, which means that there is a 50-50 chance our child will have it. It is a leap of faith for us to decide to have a child whose future health is decided by the same odds as a coin-flip.
Marfan’s is a serious condition. As I said, it affects every system of the body and it affects every person differently. For me, the most problematic part is that Marfan’s can affect the structure of blood vessels; Most at risk, is the aorta, the artery that attaches to the heart and which carries all of the blood to the rest of the body. To keep it strong, the aorta is encased in connective tissue, sort of like a garden hose with a hard outer casing and a softer lining. In people with Marfan’s this connective tissue is weaker than normal. This causes weak spots that can lead to a tearing of the inner lining (called a dissection) or even a total rupture. In 1994, my aortic arch ruptured. By the grace of God and expert medical care, I survived.
I was working behind the counter at a small electronics store in St. Louis, were I was living at the time. I was talking to a customer and I bent over to pick up an owners manual, in order to explain something to her. As I bent over, I felt like somebody had punched me in the throat. No pain really, just a pop. Then everything went black. I went to the hospital. I had surgery immediately. Recovery from this kind of surgery is long, difficult and frequently incomplete. It was a few weeks before I could walk any distance at all. It was over 2 months before I could drive. I was prescribed a permanent and daily dose of blood thinners that complicates everything from the food I eat to dentist appointments, to say nothing of further surgery. I was almost fully recovered when, a year to the day, I had another emergency room visit that led to another surgery. Another year of recovery and I was able to function somewhat normally.
Since those surgeries in 1994 and 1995, I have had 4 others on my aorta. Actually, six years ago today, I had surgery to almost completely replace it. I’ve also had numerous other procedures for Marfan’s related issues; the most recent was just six months ago.
So, why am I telling you this? I certainly don’t have a monopoly on health issues; especially not in this room. I’m telling you because having this history is really the only way I feel like I can say anything to you about the love of God amid suffering. It frustrates me to no end when good-intentioned folk try to offer reassurances when it is clear that they have no understand of what chronic illness is about. Especially professional theologians who write about suffering from academic ivory towers, or preachers in expensive suits who clearly don’t get it.
However, there are some professional theologians who understand suffering and have their own dramatic stories. Jurgen Moltmann is one. I recently had the good fortune to meet him when he spoke at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary’s academic convocation. I already knew his story from reading his books, but it was much more moving to hear him personally recount the story of his conscription into the German army in WW II and how he watched his hometown of Hamburg burn to the ground as a result of the Allied bombing campaign. Professor Moltmann eventually found himself in the forests of Belgium where he surrendered and became an English Prisoner of War. He ended up in a labor camp in Kilmarnock, Scotland. He plunged into despair as he learned for the first time about the systematic murder that took place in Nazi concentration camps. But it was also at this point when he received a Bible. It was his first encounter with scripture. He was struck immediately by the Psalms of lament. He discovered that not only was it permissible to rail at God, the Bible actually gives us a way to do it! Even more dramatic though, was Professor Moltmann’s reaction to the story of the Passion of Christ. As he read the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Moltmann thought “now, here is one who understands me!”
Moltmann’s encounter with the crucifixion came comparatively late in life. Many of us have been taught from childhood that Christ died to save us. We see it on t-shirts and bumper stickers that we are “Saved by the blood of Christ”. It is unfortunate that this truth has become a soundbite. I imagine that the use of these slogans is in many cases more of a shot across the bow in the so called Culture Wars than a real theological statement. Perhaps it is the politically charged rhetoric that some use, perhaps it is the gruesome reality of crucifixion. Perhaps it is for other reasons, but many have turned away from discussing the story of Christ’s painful and bloody death. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that crucifixion was a lousy way to die.
But, No matter how disturbing or controversial the story of Christ’s painful death is, it is crucial in understanding the scriptures like the passage from Romans we heard earlier. Christ’s death has much to say about suffering in our own lives. Many of the world’s greatest theologians have tried to explain the existence of suffering and how we, as Christians should respond to it.
Allow me to briefly outline the tradition this way: St. Augustine, in his discussion of the Psalms, expresses concern that we not grieve for our pain too much. It might show a lack of faith and is a preoccupation with the world when we should be concerned with higher things. We should understand that any suffering that we experience has a purpose, and as Augustine writes “it’s purpose is that the flame of our own desire for God may burn into a brighter blaze.” This may be wonderful theologically, and is appropriate for his time and place, but I can imagine the response Augustine might get if he said something like that to you folks.
Martin Luther is slightly more helpful. He says that grieving is understandable and God wants us to be able to do so, but in the end he really only disagrees with Augustine by a matter of degrees. God wants us to be able to grieve, just not too much.
John Calvin discusses suffering through the lens of predestination by writing that “all adversities proceed from God’s hand.” Calvin redeems suffering explaining that it is part of the divine. Pain is as much a part of life as is pleasure. Again, helpful academically, but unfortunately, well meaning people incorrectly invoke Calvin saying such things as “This must be all part of God’s plan.”
Now, these ideas were ground breaking and probably helpful in their own time and context. But things have changed greatly since when Calvin, the most recent of these three wrote in the 16th century. The modern theologian Karl Barth discusses the miracle of The Cross by saying that Christ’s death is a victory over sin and death. I think Barth is getting closer to something very helpful. We also know that he initially posited this idea during a funeral sermon for his son, who had been killed in an accident a few days earlier. Clearly, Barth knows something about suffering.
Building upon Barth is J├╝rgen Moltmann. In his book The Way of Jesus Christ, Moltmann writes, “At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the Cross.” This is echoed in the comments he made to my seminary colleagues a week ago when while telling the story of his first reading of the Bible he said that, “Christ became (his) brother in suffering.”
But for many of us, God still seems remote. So, how do we bridge the gap? How can we be comforted by God? One way is in community, by coming together as you have today with similarly situated friends. Another way is through prayer and the rituals of the church.
Since my first surgery in ’94 and ’95, I have had numerous others. But, the most extensive and serious was in April of 2008. The most powerful example of the power of prayer and ritual I have ever experienced occurred during the bleakest point of my recovery from that surgery.
Before I had surgery, I told my wife Mary that if things got bad and I was very sick, the UMC Book of Worship had a wonderful service that might make the family feel better. Initially things went well, but after a few days, my condition worsened. I spent 4 weeks in Intensive care on a ventilator. I became so sick and was having such trouble breathing that the doctors decided to perform a tracheotomy. The doctors then told my family that it might be months before I was well enough to walk out of the hospital if, in fact, I ever recovered that well at all.
My parents’ pastor, Rev. Alex Hendrickson, agreed to perform the ceremony at my bedside. She even had an anointing balm that she had gotten on a recent trip to Jerusalem. I remember that my whole family, including Mary’s parents and older sister, were arrayed about my hospital bed. They laid their hands on me. Rev. Hendrickson took the balm and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. I remember feeling a wonderful warmth come over my body and a sensation of light going through me, piercing my chest and going skyward. I could actually feel the light! It was a feeling I had not felt before but somehow, I knew exactly what it was. I hesitate to name it for fear of minimizing it, somehow limiting it. It is indescribable, impossible to understand, but I think most call it the Holy Spirit.
Now, despite being in seminary and being a candidate for ordination, I am a bit of a skeptic. I realize that I was heavily medicated. Prior to and after this experience I was having hallucinations. But I remember vividly that everyone in that room was in tears. They all felt something too.
Again, I don’t recommend relying on faith to cure disease. I’m a big fan of doctors and am in awe of their skill. I believe it is important to pray but believing that prayer can cure disease is a theological slippery slope that I’m not willing to tread on. But having said that, the prayers of my family and friends were heard. While I’m not willing to say that I was cured by prayer and by the anointing with oil, they made me and the ones I love feel closer to God in their time of greatest loneliness and despair.
So, The Good News. And this time I mean The Good News in capital letters.
The Good News is that God gets it. God is not a clockmaker who set the world in motion and has gone away. God became human knowing that pain, limitedness, sorrow and grief waited. God became Christ knowing that Christ’s death would be painful and bloody. God knew Christ’s friends would betray him and God knew that Christ ultimately would be abandoned.
But God also knew that ultimately God in Christ would be raised from the dead. God knew that his death and resurrection would give us hope that someday we too will overcome our grief and our sorrow and our anger and our pain.
As Paul wrote,
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Truly, this is one who understands us.

"imagining and constructing a church that incoporates the whole human family"

"Until white people recognize their own ethnicity, they will continue to be trapped in a taken-for-granted world in which they think of their own ways as normative and everyone else as an aberration. They thus will have no perspective from which to tell their own story or name their cultural strengths and needs. This unreflective condition not only drains away the vitality of their congregational life, it also makes them poor partners in imagining and constructing a church that incoporates the whole human family."

Frank, Thomas Edward. "Polity, Practice and the Mission of the United Methodist Church", Abingdon, 2007 p. 96

I was reading this book as I catch up on overdue work for Dr. Crain. Don't worry Dr Crain! I'm making progress on my paper!!! And don't worry Dr. Hogue, I'm getting to your stuff too!!! ;-)

This quote caught my eye. It is a powerful reminder that white people have a heritage too. The world is not made up of us and everybody else. When we forget this it is not only a detriment to those against whom we discriminate, but it is a detriment to our story as well.

I recently had a brief and somewhat heated discussion (on Facebook) with a high school classmate who is now a UMC Elder serving a church downstate. He was displeased with ELCA's recent decision allowing homosexual people in long term relationships to be ordained. He passionately believes that homosexuality is a sin. Ergo those living unrepentantly in a condition of sin should not be ordained. This conversation unnerved me quite a bit (until I was soothed by three amazing women, thanks Elaine, Alex and Mary!) But I've still been thinking about it. Now I've come across the quotation above and I started to wonder, would the above quotation apply if we changed to language from ethnicity to sexuality? With apologies to Professor Frank, it might read something like this:
"Until -straight- people recognize their own -sexuality-, they will continue to be trapped in a taken-for-granted world in which they think of their own ways as normative and everyone else as an aberration."
I'm not sure I'm willing to say that opposition to ordination of LGBTQ people is an "unreflective condition." But I am sure that it "makes them poor partners in imagining and constructing a church that incoporates the whole human family."


Rev. Joseph Lowery's Benediction ~ A Capstone

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along 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 thy hand may we forever stand -- true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.

We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we've shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.

For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.

We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.

And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.

And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.

Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.

We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.

Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around -(laughter)- when yellow will be mellow -(laughter)- when the red man can get ahead, man -(laughter)- and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.


REV. LOWERY: Say amen --


REV. LOWERY: -- and amen.

AUDIENCE: Amen! (Cheers, applause.)


Transcript courtesy Federal News Service