Christmas is coming. I know this not because of the weather, which is still balmy, nor the date. I know it because yesterday I saw the county prisoners putting up Christmas decorations in the town square.
Recently I met someone who had been to South Africa to witness the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He had all the usual admiring things to say about it, with one new piece of information. All of the members of that commission are ill in one way or another, he said. No one has survived the process with his or her health intact.
Recently I received a letter from the CEO of a not-for-profit corporation that is dear to my heart. After seven years of leadership, he said, he believed it was time for him to step down. The first reason he gave was that the organization needed new vision for a new millennium. As noble as that sounded, I did not buy it. The second reason struck me as authentic.
When I travel, I like to bring treasures home with me. I have four carved wooden masks I bought in Kenya, and one of the Buddha I found in Katmandu. I have an eyeglass case made out of frog skin from China, a prayer rug from Turkey, and two woven reed baskets from Ethiopia. I collected so much booty in Israel that I had to ship it home in three separate boxes.
The parable of the sower has just failed at my house. Last winter I decided it was time to start a garden—not only because I thought it would give me pleasure but also because I hoped it might help me read the Bible. Since I moved to the country, I am more aware than ever what a rural preacher Jesus was.
Since I left parish ministry almost two years ago, the oddest question I have been asked is, "What do you preach about now that you have left the church?" The people who ask tend to be deeply involved in their communities of faith. Many are clergy or denominational officers, while others supply the volunteer hours upon which any community depends.
Among the many compelling reasons for religious people to engage science is the human tendency to base our worldviews on the prevailing physics of the day. Our governments, our schools, our economies and our churches all reflect our understanding of how the world works, and when that understanding changes—as it is changing right now—all those institutions are up for revision.
As best I can tell, most Christians follow eight commandments, not ten. The second commandment was dispatched at the Council of Nicea in 787, when the church decided graven images were OK. If it had pleased God to become incarnate in a person, the church reasoned, then it should not displease God for us to have images of that person.
I have a seven-year-old granddaughter by marriage named Madeline. She is blond, skinny and tall for her age. When she comes to visit, we cook together. Our most successful dishes to date have been mashed sweet potatoes with lots of butter and crescent dinner rolls made from scratch.
One of my worst fears recently materialized in-of all places-the post office. It was lunch hour on a busy day. When I came through the door, ten people stood in line with cardboard boxes, postage machines and priority mail envelopes in their hands.
Today another package arrived from Ethiopia. I handed the post office clerk the yellow claim slip and he handed me the brown paper package with the exotic stamps on it. Inside, wrapped in old plastic bags, I found 12 exquisite icons on tanned goat skins. Each is about a foot square, painted in primary colors that range from egg yolk yellow to royal blue.
About a dozen years ago, I took a bunch of rich kids from midtown Atlanta on a mission trip to rural Kentucky. To be fair, many of them did not know they were rich. Because they had only each other to compare themselves to, they thought all teenagers received cars for their 16th birthdays and went on cruises to the Bahamas for their senior class parties.
A few years ago I bought a book called The Managed Heart on the basis of the title alone. At the time I was deeper than a decade into full-time parish ministry, serving a congregation of some 400 souls in rural north Georgia. My heart was sore from overuse. I had what is sometimes called "compassion fatigue," and I was looking for anything that might help.
A couple of weeks ago I rode the subway to the Atlanta airport. It is not a proper subway, since much of the track lies above ground. But now that I live in the country the subway is my favorite mode of transport when I go to town--in the first place, because I have lost the nerve required to drive a car in the city, and in the second place, because I like to look at people.
I suppose we are in the minority now, but there are still some of us who preach on the saints of the church. Their names show up on liturgical calendars with a little “W” beside them if they died of natural causes or a little “R” if they were martyrs. This tells the clergy what color to wear at the small midweek services where their lives are remembered.