Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Parade's End

Ok, this is the last post on this blog. Moving to a new one,

Thanks and see you there!


Tuesday, September 18, 2007


There’s another woman in my life, and has been for 11 years. I guess that’s something I should have told the Church and my various Superintendents. Melissa was ok with it, and I guess everyone else will have to be, too. Her name, oddly enough, is Melissa. But it’s not what you think.

I used to see her in my downtown neighborhood. She was always walking around with her loser boyfriend. He usually had on the same shirt, a t-shirt with big letters that said, “Shut Up Bitch.” I don’t suspect I am much of a feminist, but that kind of stuff sends me over the edge. I would make up my mind to swing back around and kick his butt, but by the time I negotiated the one-way streets where I lived, they were gone. I could never quite catch them.

I did finally get to talk to her one day. She was remarkably candid about being picked up for prostitution. Then it seemed like she was gone. Saw her maybe a few months later at the McDonald’s on Limestone. I began to sense a connection between us and I had a strange sense that I would always find her again. Sure enough, saw her a few years later out by Fayette mall with the same loser boyfriend. They were panhandling, hoping to get to Florida where supposedly he had construction work. He looked too wimpy for that and it was probably a lie to get money for the next fix. And again, she was gone.

One day, when I was doing my CPE (Chaplain work) at Central Baptist, I saw her reflection in a door that was closing. (I’m telling you, I love her so much I know her coming and going). I was coming thru another door and the way the security was set up I could not get to her. But I knew she had come out of neonatal ICU. The nurse wasn’t real sure she could tell me anything, but I sweet-talked her, saying something like you know she needs help, and who better than a chaplain? So I get her name and run-down of her premature baby, probably born addicted to crack. I left a message for her to call me. Next day, she did. We got some cokes and went outside and talked. I know she was freaked out because I remembered her and all our conversations and was talking to her then. She was pretty tore up about the way she was being treated. No doubt, it must be frustrating to doctors and nurses to have to deal with a premature crack baby and not hate the mother. But she has her own problems, otherwise, crack would not be in her life. Can we love both the baby and the crack-addicted prostitute mother?

We talked every few days. Found out she is from Santa Cruz, CA, one of my favorite towns. I got a number, but it never worked. And then, she was gone. That was summer of 2000.

I never gave up. I just know I will find her when the time is right. About a month ago, I began to get this strong sense I was going to see her again. When, I did not know. I began to think, she could be back in CA, or anywhere. But it didn’t matter. I just knew I would see her again. I have been waiting 7 years. I simply trust I will see her again. It’s not that I am patient. I am relentless. Relentlessness and faith can make you feel strung out, but it sure is good when they work together, and you are proven right.

Thursday night, I stop at a gas station to get some milk. I look at a car filling up, and who is sitting in the passenger seat? Her. I walked up to her window and said, “Are you Melissa?” She nodded warily. I said something like, “You may not remember me, but I was a chaplain at Central Baptist when your baby was in ICU…” She said that the baby died a little bit later, in Florida. We got to talking a bit about Santa Cruz and she remembered me, and looked shocked. I don’t blame her; I must seem like a stalker. A holy stalker, but a stalker nonetheless.

I said, “I am back in town, preaching at The Rock on Limestone…” I got her number. We’ll see what happens. The guy she was with and a woman in the back were kind of freaked out, but asked when services were.

Y’all, this is some freaked out supernatural stuff. You can say it’s coincidence, but not if you have waited like I have. Not if you think she should be dead or in jail, could be anywhere in the country, because she has been lots of places. Why here? Why at the Speedway on New Circle? Why there when I stop in for milk? I could have passed her car by. But I am relentless, and it sounds crazy, but I am always looking for her. Somehow, she must come to Christ, and I suspect that now I am the pastor in the place the Holy Spirit has prepared where it can happen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Poverty Mindset

If we don’t face some things about poverty squarely, we will pull away from working with the poor. We’ll do the prudent thing, the task-oriented thing—helping in some limited ways, but making sure we don’t get taking advantage of. Maybe no one needs to reread my screed on the processes and procedures churches go thru to make sure they’re not letting someone work the system. But if you do need reminding, you can find it on my blog, back in January, titled “Walking Around Money.”

Poverty is a mindset. That is, when you begin to work with the poor, you will find yourself frustrated at their lack of initiative, their giving up as soon as they hear any kind of negative answer. Their inertia.

Part of that is that for most of the poor, life has been one long beat down. It’s not like they up and decided at 21 to be poor and “losers,” as we might be apt to call them. It started in childhood. It started in their parents’ and grandparents’ childhood. They learned early that things don’t work out. That there is not much point in saving money because it will get soaked up by some “emergency” later on. You might as well spend it now because you need it now.

They learn very quickly that they are different. It is both enraging and heartbreaking to go with a poor family to any kind of social services or hospitals. Too often, they are treated rudely, treated as if they are stupid. After spending some time and building some trust with one family, both parents let out that they did not like going anywhere that might help them because they always come back feeling badly about themselves. It’s deep. It goes from the fact that they look, talk, dress, smell differently than “normal” people. Then it goes to the fact that if someone like me walks in with 5 cute kids, they’re cute kids (I have run a sort of experiment to see how people respond to me when I end up picking up a particular bunch of kids vs. how people respond when they are with their own parents. It’s shocking. There’s something remotely sentimental when it’s me, something almost reprehensible if they are with their parents.) If a poor family comes in with 5 cute kids… which one of them should die? Because that’s what we mean, finally, when we get mad that they have too many kids. We never stop to think that God gave us what we have for those who have nothing. And if you are going to hold a parent’s irresponsibility (if that’s what it even is) against a child, I don’t hold out much hope for you and Jesus’ meeting.

I grew up pretty privileged. My dad has more books than most county libraries. I never lacked for education, motivation, encouragement. I could have been on cruise control, and life probably would have worked out from the simple force of middle class. But what if you don’t have that? What if your parents can’t read? What if, God forbid, you’re just not very smart? You add rambunctiousness and boredom to the way the poor look, talk, and act, and a child hears from day one in school (and maybe even at home!) he is stupid, will not amount to anything… how long before this becomes reality?

Part of why we have to put down the poor, why we have to be against them is that they tear down the myth that we live by: that anyone can make it if they try hard enough. Poverty, if taken seriously, may make us realize that we did not achieve anything on our own, that we were set up for success from the get-go, and some are not so lucky. Not to say that it can’t be done, that this country is not countless stories of people making it out of the worst spots. But it does not always, or even often, work like that. It’s why the stories are so important to us.

So a child grows up miserable at home, miserable at school, miserable in his encounters with society because at each place he is either judged (and a mantle of fear is laid on him—us taxpayers worry he will be a burden on us) or realizes that he is constantly beholden if he is to get anything. So he learns to con and hustle. Or sinks into despair, alcoholism, drugs. Or just becomes shiftless.

If you can understand poverty as a mind-set, a build-up of lots of experiences, you’ll have a better chance of making an impact on the problem. You’ll know, for example, that more money will not solve the problem. We’ve been throwing money at it for years and… nothing. And then you’ll know what a double whammy it is to think that we’ll give some money, but then set up a complicated process to make sure we’re not being taken advantage of by giving away the thing that we want to keep but won’t solve the problem. The only solution is a committed Christian relationship. If you really feel like doing something about poverty, it will come down to becoming friends, becoming family, building trust and love so that they see another way of living. You have to change the mindset, and you can only do that by being a Christian presence aiding the “renewing” of their minds.

But this is a lot harder than giving away some money.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Good Poetry Test

Ok, so there are some objective factors in analyzing great literature. Even tho I don't particularly care for Dante, his stuff is, empirically, great. And it says more about me than him that I cant' really dig it.

On the other hand, there is a place where you just have to ask, "Do I like it?" and part of that question is, "Does it affect me? Does it touch me in some core, some place where it just feels right?"

On a miserable, snowy hunt in Robertson County, back in 97, I had trudged up a hill in a cold, blinding snow. Had a good spot picked out, heard the bad boys but never saw any of them. Just sat there cold, being unhappy that I had taken a day off on such a miserable day and no deer to show for it. As the sun came up, three crows jumped out of the cedar tree next to me, a crash of wings and raucous "caws" announcing the dawn. I like to think that I redeemed part of the day because I was able to get that close to them (last of the Mohicans, here) and because I really like crows.

Later on, I came across a short ditty by Robert Frost:

The way a crow shook down on me
A dust of snow from a hemlock tree
Has given my heart a change of mood
And saved a part of a day I'd rued

We can talk about iambic tetrameter, internal rhyme or how because all the words except two are native to English the sound is strong and direct... but in the end, it just captures a moment, for Frost and me.

He does it again in "They Were Welcome to Their Belief"

Grief may have thought it was grief.
Care may have thought it was care.
They were welcome to their belief,
The overimportant pair.

No, it took all the snows that clung
To the low roof over his bed,
Beginning when he was young,
To induce the one snow on his head.

But whenever the roof came white
The head in the dark below
Was a shade less the color of night,
A shade more the color of snow.

Grief may have thought it was grief.
Care may have thought it was care.
But neither one was the thief
Of his raven color of hair.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fasting, Posture, and Mystical Silence

Josh McDonald has an interesting testimony about fasting. He fasted for 5 days last week. He said that he realized that fasting allows him to say no to the flesh, and clears out a lot of the stuff that hinders him from hearing from God. That’s it in brief. Fast, clear out the crap, and listen.

Today in prayer and fasting, four of us were on the floor, face down. Posture can be very important in prayer. Especially in fasting, there is an element of contrition, a seeking humility (the root meaning of which is dirt. Thus, get close to the ground!), an admission of sin. But that may not be where everyone else was, in being face down. It’s where I stay in fasting.

A few years back, I began to engage the discipline of silence. I know, I know, none of you (Meg) believe that. Of course, I had to subvert it! I was in the sanctuary at Dunaway, being quiet. But I so wanted to read Psalms, and I like to read them out loud from the RSV. I finally broke down and read them. And an amazing thing happened. I realized I was actually deep into the discipline of silence in spite of the sound of my voice. The point of silence is not being quiet, just like the point of fasting is not abstaining from food. The point is to becoming open to hear from God. And in reading the Word, I cleared space to hear from Him.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Still Life With Woodpecker

So today, Taildragger’s live show drummer plays with the praise band—chick drummer! I guess we should just call her Sherri. I met her step dad last week, Greg Martin from The Kentucky Headhunters. How bizarre. I mean, it’s all part of my rock and roll fantasy! And it was a total accident, or rather, an accident of ministry. Sherri’s husband’s brother died suddenly, and a few of us drove over to Bardstown to be with him during the visitation.

I used to really like The Kentucky Headhunters, so it was weird to talk to the guy, and even more powerful to find that he is a believer. Yesterday (Saturday) he sent me 5 of his newest CDs—he’s behind a band I mentioned before, The Mighty Jeremiahs, a kind of Skynyrd meets Missisippi John Hurt gospel band. He knows Billy Gibbons (from ZZ Top) and Phil Keaggy plays on the album!

The praise songs today were awesome, but laid back, and one day I hope when Sherri’s up there, we really let her wail. I had her kids with me, and Meg mercifully came to help me restore order in the pews with them and John and Joe. I said to Evalina (Sherri’s girl), “It’s awesome that your mom is playing with us!” John says, “She rocks!” Yes, indeed. I long for the day when Taildragger plays a praise set at The Rock…

John and Joe have done pretty well at school, better than I thought they would with all the transition. I asked them about it, why are things going smoothly. They said they had a hard time at the school they were at before because they knew I was far away. So I guess the idea that I am right next door and anyone at the church could take care of them, too, has helped.

I had a powerful time of prayer with the Itoula family today. These Africans are something else. I had laid off preaching in French, because Cedrick was helping me. He is working Sundays, and anyway, apparently the Francophones did not really like listening to simultaneous translation on the headset. I don’t know how the English went, but the French sermon was pretty good. I think better than English. Madame Itoula told me, “ch’a prepare un bon repas pour nous--” “you prepared a good meal for us.” I had laid off preaching in French for, finally, a spurious reason. It messes up how I preach. I just kind of roll and don’t always know where it is going. When I have to stop to translate, it messes me up and the flow is bad. Norbert Itoula pestered me for a while. “I know people are murmuring when you preach in French, but if they knew how badly we need to hear…” Indeed, we lost some people who didn’t like it, and who would get lost between the pauses. Anyway, I was praying with the Itoulas this afternoon about how on earth do we connect the The Rock’s ministry to Africa, using the people God has brought us.

I guess I have been pretty fired up about that question, because I see here what I was seeing in Louisville. The Africans come here with a powerful faith, but the church in America can’t handle it, doesn’t have anything to push them further. We’re into the whole “whatever” spirituality. So in a few months, the Africans get weak or drift away. Somehow, it’s hard for us to be infected by them—so many of you in Louisville remember George sharing about Abraham Chol’s faith, when he joined the church. We all need that! I suppose I will probably choose to live or die in a fight over pushing the church to the point that it can actually be worthy of our refugees. Like I said, this comfortable American faith is killing me.

What would have been me and Melissa’s tenth anniversary came and went without incident. I did not think it would bother me, because no day was really particularly special to us. They were just generally good most days, so it’s incidental things that might bother me. I have quit talking much about it, like I said, except with one poor dude who gets dumped on, largely because there’s this place I end up heading with some people—they think I am a terminator (someone else’s word about me, not mine), somewhat inhuman, pushing on, driving hard, either in denial, or just callous. I cracked a long time ago, so don’t look for it now. You can’t imagine how hyper and strung out I would be if I were my usual self. Picture Dan Stokes after four or five Red Bulls.

Me and the boys are winding down after the service, listening to some RUSH. John asks about the drums, because Neil Peart is flat out the best drummer there is (when it came time to do a Buddy Rich tribute, jazz drummers asked him to put it together). Anyway, I made some comment about him being the best drummer. John and Joe both jumped in and said, “No, Sherri is the best!” John added the coup de grace: “She’s a better drummer than Alison Krauss fiddles.” Dang.

Friday, August 31, 2007


I don’t want to lose the thread of exclusivity, but I have to get this out there. Pedro and I were hashing some things out yesterday, talking about the difficulty of really working with and from the poor—the way it grates on you, wears you out, aggravates you, tears at your relationships with the people who help in the work, etc. We’re conscious of this great need for those of us doing some hard-core work to simply just decide to love each other. Anyway, we discussed some joys and some validation. A particular family we are working with has started coming to the church, and after the first visit asked if we would baptize their babies.

It’s a powerful thing, infant baptism. The congregation is saying that we stand by the family in raising the child. There was a family who came to the church in Winchester and wanted me to baptize their baby. They did not live in the state, they were not believers, just wanted it done in a church they had attended as a child. I said I would baptize the baby if they would leave it with me when they went back home. Of course, they were shocked. I explained to them that this was not some magic ritual, but an entry point into the faith community, and I could not do this and let the child go back into the world. As my friend Charles Brockwell has said, “Baptism [adult or infant] is not our individual vote for Jesus. It is entry into the covenant community.” This is hard for us individual westerners to take—we think we make the decision and then we get baptized and then… so many adults baptized and where are they now? Fallen back, because the Church does not understand what God does through water and the Spirit! But I digress.

Anyway, I said to Pedro that this could be a huge moment for the church, to say that this family struggling to faith is giving us their babies while they figure it out. Peter’s comment was classic: “at that point, baptism is the only appropriate response.”

Ah yes, life in the fourth century is good!