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Troops are coming home from war each day – not redeploying as they have over the last twelve years – but trying to find new ways of reintegrating with what was once familiar. Families, friends, workplace, faith communities – you name it. None of it will ever be the same. They’ve seen too much…felt too much…experienced the wounds of war spiritually, emotionally, physically.

Many Americans who disagree with war itself also turn a blind eye to veterans – personifying war with these men and women who joined the military to better themselves, their families and honor their country. Where has that blind eye gotten us? Today, thousands of veterans are living on America’s streets – many addicted to drugs or alcohol. Others may be keeping “their chin up” – doing everything they feel is right – but suffering a darkness that is unimaginable to those of us who’ve never experienced war. Others still quietly suffer, sometimes ending their lives to quiet the pain that feels irreparable.

You may have heard the parable of the river.

“Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river…One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly swam out to save the baby from drowning. The next day this same villager noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more! One day, someone raised the question, “But where are all these babies coming from? Let’s head upstream and find out who’s throwing all of these babies into the river in the first place!”

The complexity of war demands a comprehensive response. We don’t have the luxury of choosing only one approach to heal the wounds of war and prevent it from happening again. We must care for those who return home, even as we work towards new means of conflict resolution that help humanity rise above violence that only begets more violence.

America’s Sunday Supper is an event that’s happening once again this January in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service (January 21, 2013). King gave his life to matters of justice like those we face today and fought against the military industrial complex. What he said in the 1960s resonates today:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

After increasing the national deficit by spending trillions of dollars on war, many are now calling for “entitlement” cuts as a means of fiscal responsibility. Yet, if the opportunity presented itself, these same people would also rally for new wars against nations they hate. So, it’s not really about the money. It’s about priorities.

How can we work towards new priorities as a nation? How can we honor those who’ve given – in many cases, the best part of their lives – even as we fight the systems that promote war?

We’ve often romanticized war as a solution because we don’t bother learning about its damage to individuals and to nations. America’s Sunday Supper can be an opportunity to raise awareness, promote dialog, and participate in service.  Watch a movie together, dialogue, do something. For more information, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org.

Operation Homecoming is a movie that you can screen without charge in your church or community setting. Note: language, violence.

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No Social Security, no Medicare, no retirement account. What is life like when you can’t work anymore and there are no safety nets? For United Methodist pastors in the Central Conferences (Africa, Philippines & Europe) there is reliance on God providing daily bread, and on the generosity of strangers. In a way, it’s a life put into reverse…while they spent their lives caring for others, they are now living at the mercy of those who will show God’s love to them.

Rev. Karmah Early, Liberia, heard God’s call to ministry when she was a little girl and says she was “happy” to be a pastor. She has been blind for several years.

In these parts of the world, local communities provide what they can for one another, and simple gifts of shared grain may prompt a celebration of how God has provided. But when the body aches from aging, and there is no Tylenol or Advil, no affordable or free clinics, these pastors just suffer. There’s nothing much that the local community can do when so many are also living in poverty.

I remember once seeing a commercial about starving children, and my mom angrily saying, “If there is a god, why would he let children suffer like that?” I think God might say the same about us. God has given creation enough for everyone to have what they need.  Either we don’t like to share, or we don’t know how best to share with those who need it the most.

CCPI (Central Conference Pension Initiative) is addressing the pension crisis for pastors in Africa, Asia and Europe problem in a just, equitable and compassionate way. I don’t give that much but because of automated withdrawal, it’s consistent. I think of it as if I’m taking a couple of these pastors out to a restaurant monthly. If each U.S. pastor who has a retirement plan did something similar, together we could make a huge difference. Some facts about CCPI:

“The Initiative has two objectives. One is to provide pension support to central conference clergy and surviving spouses already retired or when they retire. The other is to help define and establish long-term self-funded sustainable pension programs, so all future retirees will receive support. There are now ten CCPI-sponsored pension projects approved across the central conferences (Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Russia, Nigeria, Philippines and East Africa), and three more programs currently in development. By the end of 2012, all thirteen pension programs will be operational – two years ahead of schedule. CCPI is focused on helping these conferences create pension plans they will fund themselves so that, over time, all pension plans will be self-funded and self-sustaining.”

It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve made creation a better place…to those who’ve increased the world’s joy through weddings and baptisms, at the birth of children and the milemarkers of life that without ritual would go unnoticed. It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve helped the world bear its sorrows – in death both natural and death from war, poverty and disease; in hardship that if suffered in isolation may have blanketed the light that God still shines. It’s a blessing to give.

Watch this video,  donate online or get resources to share CCPI with others.

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Today is Mother’s Day – a day first celebrated as a national holiday in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson. Efforts had begun actually much earlier than that to get women everywhere to rise up for the efforts of peace. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, who had written the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War, wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. This, after she had worked with women, children and soldiers both Union and Confederate, having seen the devastating affects of war and having come to the conclusion that the two most important things are peace and equality…and seeing the world at war once again:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.”

Mother’s Day was not imagined by Julia to be a day where flowers were purchased and women were to be tenderly remembered for bedtime prayers and lullabies. It was a day where women would rise up to the full occasion of motherhood of the earth and all humanity to give birth to a season of peace.

As we remember this Mother’s Day– whether it be through flowers & chocolate, or by other means, let us call to mind Christ’s mother, her burden and her gift.

John 19:25-27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

This is a poignant story of adoption – adoption by a mother of a son and adoption by a child of a mother – Jesus last act of compassion for others before he gave up his spirit and embraced death on our account. The following verse begins, “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” Think about that…All was now completed…the joining of loved ones together so that they would have comfort in the days to come was Christ’s last act.

We have probably all heard the expression, “blood is thicker than water” – what does that mean to you?

By Christ’s blood, we are given a new meaning of “blood relatives.” We may or may not be related – us here in this room. We may not be first, second or third cousins – even twice removed! But by Christ’s sacrifice, we are blood relatives in an even more powerful way – one that stands the test of time – even throughout eternity.

To those present at the time of Christ’s death, this adoption meant that just because Jesus was dying, Mary’s motherhood was not over. Her son was dying on the cross and her agony must have been immense. Yet Christ knew part of her – the mothering part – would not die with his physical body, so he united her with one who would need care, the beloved disciple – the one whom Jesus had turned to and cared for and nurtured and the one who had followed and obeyed and loved. These two persons needed one another – because in losing one whom they both cared greatly for, they would also lose a part of themselves – a part that could only be restored through relationship.

Isn’t that still what Christ does in the world today? Restore us through relationship? Bring out the best in us, the gifts that God has given us that can only be fully revealed through relating to others?

John Wesley once said that there is no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. In the scripture read today, we see the need for connection – the need for us to be in relationship with each other. We cannot live the life of faith in seclusion or isolation! We each have a part to play in the creation of God’s kingdom on earth and we can only get there together!

So when we think back on our families…looking at how we were raised, how we are being raised, and how we are helping to raise others, we must expand that view to see that our roles as caregivers, nurturers, instillers of the faith are not limited to simply those whom we can trace in our family lineage.

We have a responsibility now to care and to be cared for by others. We must let God break into our midst and shed light on those who He seeks to connect us with as Christ did Mary and the beloved disciple.

Now I know that we can get off course sometimes can’t we? We get our sights set on doing things that seem right to us – that seem to be the logical thing to do – yet if we examine these things a little closer God may reveal to us that we are failing to do the very one thing that is the most important. Sometimes we focus more on institution than on kingdom…whether that institution be of family, of denomination, or of nationality. Sometimes we forget that Christ calls us to be blood relatives with all of humanity!

Years ago, I was working with a group of people on a project to create affordable day care for impoverished children. We kept meeting and meeting and meeting. And the meetings often involved talking about the building – which was necessary – but certainly not the main thing. One night in the midst of this planning, I had a dream…I dreamed that the building that was to house the daycare was in tiptop shape. I dreamed that when I entered the doors, there was a great celebration going on for those who had made this thing possible…who had made this building great…it was a policeman’s ball and there was dancing and eating – people even dancing on tables. But when I looked around, I remember wondering where the ministry was. There were no children present. I walked throughout the building only to find the children in a room to themselves, sitting on a wood floor with no toys, no supervision, isolated from the party – forgotten by those who celebrated their own accomplishments.

In our family, in our congregation, in our community, in our world, who now sits in a room by themselves? Who awaits the care that we as their blood relatives should give? What things can we do to create a Christian home, not just in the conventional, limited, institutional sense, but in a broader, kingdom sense, where the world is the home and Christ dwells within it?

There are people right here in Nashville who need mothering and to mother. Children whose birth mothers cannot care because of poverty or drugs or alcohol. Programs like the one at 61st Ave UMC that need tutors is one example. There are women who need to remember their motherhood because their sons and daughters have been lost to them – in war or illness or accident or miscarriage. There is a need for blood relatives here in Nashville!

There is a need for blood relatives in America! For us to get past the divisiveness of a nation that sometimes lives out of fear more than out of faith, so that we can live into the courage that God brings to unite us so that we may see one another as brothers and sisters regardless of age, nationality, or citizenship!

There is a need for blood relatives in the world! In Zimbabwe, where children are living on their own, as heads of household because they’ve lost both parents to AIDS, there is a need! And God has given us in this day and age a means by which to reach them physically and financially. We barely have to give them the scraps from our tables in order to make their lives sustainable.

There is a need for blood relatives everywhere we look. And if we listen, and if we look, Christ is right there among us, calling to unite us with one another so that through his suffering we may find peace, true peace in the union of souls bound by the sacred blood of God.

In praise to God, let us sing now with vigor the chorus to Battle Hymn of the Republic, as a prayer that God’s truth will truly march on…let us sing,

“Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on!”

Amen.

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King's Montgomery Kitchen

Photo by Leslie Clagett.

Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.

In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)

The art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words.  The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.

King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.

As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community –  all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.

King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working on “America’s Sunday Supper” supported by Rethink Church and HandsOn Network. It’s a way for people to come together on January 15, 2012 (the day before the King National Day of Observance) and talk about issues over dinner – then follow with a service project. This project work is what’s made me think back to King’s kitchen table experience. What if we were to go to the table with angst over today’s issues of injustice? What might God say to us? How might we become the leaders who still inspire future generations?

Hosting a Sunday supper isn’t like taking to the streets and putting my life on the line. But if it creates an opportunity for me to meet God at the table and eat in the communion of saints (and sinners), I’ll be there.

For more info about America’s Sunday Supper, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org or email sundaysupper@umcom.org.

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Have you heard of the “two wolves” story? Inner wolves at war within us? Here is a very personal look at this struggle within me – in light of what is going on in Washington.

“They should just go to the banks to worship on Sundays . That’s where their god is.” The words of my friend Wafa still echo in my mind all these years after her death. Having moved to the U.S. from Syria, she was tired of being evangelized by clients whose lives seemed to resonate more with goods than with the good of humanity. I’m certain she would have a colorful commentary today on those who so loudly proclaim that this is a Christian nation, all the while cutting benefits from those who can least afford it.

I can’t reconcile the two – being Christian and not caring enough to create a just and equitable system for the economically disadvantaged.  I just don’t get it. So I’m trying to see another side….to hear another argument…another solution – one that involves limited government with vastly reduced social programs. Here goes.

Social Security goes away and becomes a self-guided, saving program. We Americans have proven in the recent recession how well we save for a rainy day. We don’t need government bailouts. If we invest in Wall Street and it crashes, well, stuff happens. To each his own. Squirrelling money away in the mattresses worked for our ancestors.

Health insurance goes back to what it was pre-health reform. If someone has a pre-existing condition, they will just have to pay for their own treatment. If they can’t afford treatment, maybe it’s just “their time.”  The poor have always had to make decisions like this. There was a young woman at church who died this year from such an event.

No more government housing programs…shacks are an acceptable way to live in (so long as it’s not in my neighborhood). It’s how people lived in the olden days (and how people in tent cities across the U.S. still live). I’ve been to plenty of countries where the government doesn’t help with housing. People can survive in tin homes and lean-to’s. I’ve got some great pictures from Africa to show what it could look like.

Let each family decide how its children should be educated…no interference and no government funding. The school system is broken and private corporations will deal with it much better than legislators. Other countries don’t provide free education. I’ve helped pay tuition in Honduras and Zimbabwe before…I could do that here as well. Children who can’t afford to go to school could be eligible for labor pools (the best parents could learn from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) They’re adding beds at the new privatized prison down the street in expectation of new “clients”….so still there’s still a chance they’ll have a bed and a roof.

I’ve thought this through and yet it still doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe after a while, I can just get numb to the sadness of it all and quit caring. Does the bank have Sunday morning hours?

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Walking through a neighborhood the other day, my husband noticed how beautiful a large oak tree was, but lamented that the yard around it was so dry and desolate. It was obvious that in the heat of Nashville, that tree had soaked up so much water for itself that it left little behind for grass, flowers, or anything else to grow.

Later in the week, I sat around a table with the women of Sixty First Avenue United Methodist Church at what became for me a deeply meaningful experience. I began to think of that tree as a metaphor for what is happening in the U.S. these days. For the common laborer, years of working hard has provided little to live on and nothing to save. Many laborers (laid off, retired or disabled) now stand just beyond the shade of these vast “trees” in what has become a barren space in America’s landscape.

The little they’ve come to depend upon is drying up further. Distant bickering of elected leaders echoes in their daily lives, as they worry if a father will get the medicine he needs to prevent heart failure; if insurance will pay to stop infection in a friend’s recently amputated leg; and how they’ll survive if Social Security cuts are made. People who have contributed much in their lifetimes have so often been used up and tossed aside for cheaper labor pools, and greater profit. I’m reminded of a favorite movie quote: “A country’s character is defined by its “everyday rustics”…They are the legs you stand on and that position demands respect.” (Ever After, 1998)

Distinctions between “the wealthy” and “the poor” become chasms if we fail to engage one another, especially if we do not relate with persons living in poverty. It’s easy to judge a group of people, if you’ve only labeled them generically and remained at a distance. When you come to know “the poor” by name, hear their stories and realize their gifts, preconceived notions dissolve. Complexities arise. Shades of gray become varied, and what used to be easy judgment becomes greater understanding.

In the humble walls of Sixty First Avenue’s sanctuary, I’ve realized that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to love more than we think possible. If we leave presumptions on the altar and let something new arise, maybe we’ll be able to mimic the love that Jesus showed others while on earth. When we love more, we think beyond our own endless desires, personal growth and financial independence. The barren spaces start to matter and we imagine how we too can be suppliers of lifegiving water.

For further reflection:

Check out this living wage calculator and compare it with the minimum wage those who serve you may be making: http://www.livingwage.geog.psu.edu/

 

 

 

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The anticipation of the years culminated at the airport as Peter stood expectantly waiting to see his wife arrive with two of the three children they began adoption proceedings on seven years ago. Holding balloons and roses, every minute seemed like an eternity as eyes searched the crowd for Rose, Roseline and Grace.

This journey began seven years ago when Grace and her twin Mercy were born to Rose’s sister Worplah in Liberia. Worplah didn’t know that she was carrying twins, so when she went into labor she was unprepared for the difficulties the birth would bring. After delivering two healthy baby girls, Worplah died just hours later.  Rose and Peter immediately began adoption proceedings to care for the twins and their two-year-old sister Roseline. Met with one delay after another, the adoption process proved to be costly in fees, multiple flights, time off work and so much more. The ultimate cost of the delays came in the death of one twin – Mercy – who contracted malaria at eighteen months and died.

As Peter and Rose waited for the children, they brought Rose’s daughter Wilhelmina to the U.S. from Liberia. She was sixteen, and used to running through the village barefoot with friends and family caring for each other in humble sincerity. Her whole life had been there in Africa and transition to high school in Tennessee was not easy. She yearned to go back, and was often solemn and withdrawn. Soon, she became ill and when doctors at Vanderbilt checked her, they found a large, inoperable tumor. They recommended hospice care as there was nothing they could do for her. Wilhelmina wanted to return to Africa to die. Peter and Rose helped her with her final wishes as they said farewell to yet another beloved family member.

Rose continued to speak faithfully about God, and reassure me – one of her pastors – that it just wasn’t God’s time yet. Her firm, gentle way expresses a faith of steel – refined through fire and about as strong as earthly substance can get. Her love for family shines and she is quick to smile, always ready to laugh. I adore her.

A few weeks ago, Peter and Rose learned that the adoption was final. The last hurdle was making sure that the passports would be secured so they could board the plane one-way to the U.S.

On Thursday, May 26, 2011, Peter and I greeted one another at the airport. Three of the staff from Heaven Sent Adoption were there as well, with a child among them. Peter received a call on his mobile phone, and quickly asked in his thick Liberian accent, “Where you at?” followed by the urgent request, “Walk faster!” Each moment was filled with the yearnings of the years, and for me, a slight fear that yet again the reunion would not take place.

“I see them!” shouted Stephanie, their caseworker. Walking, then running, Rose and her two beautiful daughters in African dress and bright smiles spotted us. Bathed in tears and laughter, Rose initiated a group prayer. “God, you make everything perfect in your time, and today is our day!” The girls repeated a hearty “Amen” and we were off to collect luggage.

Tonight these children rest in the same home as their parents – something most people take for granted. I can only imagine that to the Gailah family, tomorrow morning will feel like Christmas – when they peek in and get to see with their own eyes two sleeping babes who’ve gone through such an incredible journey. What might their futures hold? What will they do with the love that’s been given so abundantly? What will they become? One thing I’ve learned from Rose is that all shall be well, in God’s time. It’s a gift to watch it unfold. And as I do, I pray that Mercy and Wilhelmina are dancing with the angels in heaven as we dance with these precious children on earth.

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