Amazing Grace – William Wilberforce

This past Friday night, a group of us watched the film “Amazing Grace” which is the story of William Wilberforce, his faith, and the fight he led for the abolition of slavery in England.  Wilberforce was pulled between the call to the religous life and the call to use his gifts and passion in the political process to abolish slavery.  Ultimately his choice was grounded in his deep faith.  God’s call on his life resulted in years of persistent, painful work in the face of the horrors of slavery.  Bill after bill failed in parliament.  Yet Wilberforce,  mentally and emotionally tortured by the horrors of slavery could do no other than to continue to fight.

Indeed, the the context of the story is the abolition of slavery; but the focus is the life of mature faith.

In discussion following the movie, we explored what sustained Wilberforce and what sustains us when the work is hard and the journey is long and we see defeat again and again.  Several sustaining influences were named:

the community that called him out, worked with him, and encouraged him along the way

Pitt, who needed Wilberforce (as Wilberforce needed Pitt)

the woman who became his spouse — who called him to talk about his deepest passion even when he said he could not because the pain was too great

the willingness of Wilberforce to pick up the witness begun by John Newton, to hear his confession, and to make it his own

the deep knowledge that God had found him — which as he stated “was terribly inconvenient.”

This is a film of passion, humor, and maturing faith.

I recommend going to the Amazing Grace website where pastors may order a copy of the film (free) for group use and teaching.  The Faith study guide is very helpful whether you are viewing and discussing the film in one sitting, or using clips for discussion.

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Best Actor for “Milk”

The Academy Awards always serve to remind me of the amazing positive contribution films make in our world.  I am also reminded of the array of people with a creative passion who are behind these films.  Tonight was no different … except that the presentation was spectacular!

In the weeks leading up to this year’s awards, many have remarked on the films nominated and their social commentary.  By all accounts we knew that Slum Dog Millionaire would make the sweep that it did.   Still, I was moved that this film focused in the poverty of the old Bombay (present Mumbai), India with no cast of well known stars was truly seen and appreciated.  When you think about that and look back over the years, you realize the movement — however slow — that we are making.

My greatest moments of celebration, however, were when “Milk” won Best Original Screenplay and when Sean Penn was awarded Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Harvey Milk.  It was sad, but not surprising to hear that there were protesters outside the site of the Awards.  However,  the prevailing voice is the witness of the ages in films that retell the stories of those gay and lesbian people who have gone before us in courage.

This morning as I looked out at the congregation, I saw the wonderful community of people worshiping together — those who are single, gay and straight; couples gay and straight;  families with children, gay and straight, African American, Asian, European American.  People of all ages.  Slowing, imperfectly, we seek to live into God’s kingdom. We celebrate and give thanks that God reconciles us to God and each other, healing our brokenness through the incarnation in Jesus Christ.

It breaks my heart that the gospel of God’s Christ has been so often distorted and misused to sustain hatred and violence against God’s people.  Whether that fear and hatred has been against women, or people of color, or people of other religions, or people who are gay, it is a sign of our sin and brokenness.  But we are assured that God is reconciling the world to Godself; therefore we may trust and know that the sins of racism, homophobia, and sexism are being and will be transformed into the right relationship of God’s realm.

Indeed, our world is still full of fear and prejudice, of deep seeded homophobia and racism, but I am reminded day by day that the hatred never wins.  For Love is always stronger than hate.  And Life is always stronger than death.  Thanks be to God.

Where’s the outrage?

Yesterday, I took that bike ride with a woman in the congregation. It was beautiful day and we road 16 miles. It felt good. Today I talked with a colleague about the images of the shooting still in my head. The sense of anger and frustration at not being able to stop the violence. The very particular pain at not knowing what happened to this specific young man. We talked about the fact that so many in our society just shrug and seem to accept that young black men kill each other. It is as if it is somehow okay. As if this young man — any young man or woman — is dispensable. Where is the outrage? I know there is outrage in the Black community and in the Black Church. Where is the outrage in the white community, and every other community?

If a white kid had been shot in that spot two days ago, wouldn’t the neighborhood be shocked, outraged, looking for answers? I realize it is not about me or how I feel; it’s about the young man in the white t-shirt laying in the street. But I believe my inability to get past seeing him is precisely because I saw him. I don’t want it to be okay. I don’t want it to be normal. I don’t want it to be just “what they do” (as someone said to me). That is not acceptable. That acceptance is what grows out of racism.

I think of youth who have been active in the church — Some are still here or perhaps in another place, but doing well — in school, or working, or raising their own families. There are others who are or have been in jail and in prison. Two currently. Both young black men with families who love them. I remember specifically when one of these boys was young. It was during a “Children’s Moment” in worship when we asked what they children wanted to do when they grew up. This young boy said that he wouldn’t grow up. He already knew older friends and family members who had been shot. He accepted what others accepted for his life. I ached and raged inside then. We tried for years to instill an expectation of life and purpose and future. Today, I am painfully aware of our failure.

We have work — ministry — to do.

This morning when we were on the street for “Happy Friday”, we were meeting people and serving coffee and cocoa as usual. It was not “as usual” however; I kept looking at the spot when the young man fell and lay. It wasn’t the same. It could not be the same.

This afternoon I planted flowers. The Director of our Isaiah 58 Hunger Program came outside and with some amount joy described how much those we serve in the food pantry and clothing room are enjoying resting on the new benches in the garden before they walk or catch a bus with the bags they are carrying. Today was fresh produce day; I found a banana peel by one of the benches. I had to smile; it was a good thing. A little thing, but I’ll take it. A good thing.

Strangers and “Ashes to Go”

Lent has begun with challenge and invitation.  On Tuesday night following a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper with neighboring congregations, I headed to the grocery store to pick up some leeks with an eye toward beginning Lent with leek soup.  It was pouring down rain.  As I walked in the store, there was an older woman sitting in one of the motorized chair shopping carts.  A couple of bags of groceries were in the basket, and she was looking out the window at the rain.  As I reached for a shopping cart, I commented on the buckets of rain coming down.  She indicated that she had been sitting there for a couple of hours and hoped her children would back and get her.  She said she had been released from the hospital the day before, having had problems with her feet because of her diabetes.    She looked so alone.

I told her that I was going to get just a couple of items and that, if she had not heard from her children, I would take her home.  She seemed grateful.  When I had gathered my leeks and tomatoes, and reached the checkout, she was still sitting there.  I brought my car up close to the door and helped her get in.  She only lived a couple of long blocks away, so the drive was brief.  I learned on the way that she has a daughter  “on crack” and that the state had taken away her daughter’s children.  She grieved the loss of her grandchildren, but is in no physical condition to care for them.  A son was just simply not around.  When I took her groceries up to her door and stepped in, I could see that she lived in a very neat apartment.  We went through the difficulty of her trying to pay me — a me refusing.  Then she became tearful. We talked a bit about her declining health, her absent children, and her sadness.  She said she’s tired of living, and I talked with her about God calling her to life.   I found out that she has a church and a pastor.  I asked her if she would like us to pray and so we did.  Then I left, she opened the door again and asked if I would please keep praying for her.  I assured her that I would.  I drove away ready for Lent to begin; ready to be in touch with my own and others’ mortality.  I also drove away grateful that again and again in our world the barrier of race is breaking down as it did between us that night.  I went home and made leek soup.

This morning I dressed to be outdoors for “Ashes to Go.”  This was the second year that our ecumenical group of congregations have offered “Ashes to Go” on a  busy corner of Grand  in the city.  A local coffee shop sets up a tables and small tent for us and provides coffee and hot chocolate.  The pastors (in vestments) offer ashes on the street corners.  We have brief liturgy for those who would like to participate in that, or we can simply talk a bit about Ash Wednesday, have prayer together, and impose the ashes.  Last year the weather was wonderful and about a hundred people came for ashes.  This year it was bitter cold and sleeting; still a good steady stream of folks who came.  I had a wonderful conversation with a woman who had parked her car and come over “because” she said “I need to find a church again”.  We talked for a bit and she left, expressing her need for God and Christ’s community in her life.  I hope she will try one of our congregations — or any congregation for that matter.

I confess that it was slow, there were four of us, and I was so cold that I did not last the two hours.

I preferred the warmth of tonight’s Ash Wednesday Service!  What a wimp I am!

May God be in it all!

All Saints Sunday — Lift Every Voice …

All Saints Sunday is one of my favorite Sunday’s of the church year.  The power of Naming those who have gone before us in faith always moves me to depths I do not anticipate.  Though I know how significant All Saints worship is for me, I am still surprised each time at the power of Naming.  This morning, we began worship singing that beloved hymn “For All the Saints”  while members of the congregation came forward to light candles.  We had arranged about 15 pillar candles of differing heights and colors around the Christ Candle on the communion table.  The beauty of the light of all these candles was a lovely symbol throughout the service of the light of Christ and the light of that great company of saints.

In the sermon I talked about the power of naming; that when we stop speaking the names, we stop telling the stories.  I described my experience earlier in the week of writing the names of the saints who have touched my life — both those I have known personally and those I have known through the witness of others, through history.  Then I  invited the congregation to begin writing their own lists of names.  After a few moments, we began speaking the names aloud.  Voices throughout the congregation spoke the names of the saints of the church and the world.  Name upon name they came, rolling, at times speaking on top of one another.  They continued to come.  I don’t know how long it was; only that the names filled the sanctuary and God’s Spirit was in that place. (A gift of God was that my watch stopped this morning toward the beginning of the service. God has a way of curbing my control needs at just the right times!)

Following a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, in struggle, and in hope, we extended the Invitation to Discipleship and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  I had never before chosen this hymn for All Saints; for other Sundays, yes, but not for All Saints.  Now I wonder why!  I first saw the smile on the face of an African American Elder on the front row and then looked into the face of an African American man two rows behind her, who had just named several of those who had gone before him and now he sang with his whole being, never opening his hymnal — never needing to. (We who are European American and Asian needed our hymnals.)   But his entire body and soul seemed to move with the words.  As he sang them in this All Saints celebration, I heard them anew:

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 the 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 our new day begun, 
let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our people sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of the weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast 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 our God, true to our native land.

           (Words: James Weldon Johnson, 1921   Music: J. Rosamond Johnson, 1921)

All Saints indeed!  Thanks be to God.