Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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For All the Saints.

I remember distinctly the day I fell in love with tradition and liturgy. It was All Saints day, 2007 at Trinity UMC in Gainesville, FL. For as long as I can remember my church has had the tradition where the last Sunday in October we remember all those who died the following year by showing their picture and ringing a bell. If you knew the person, as the bell is rung, you silently stand in honor of them and their connection to your life. In 2007 I had only stood up a couple of times, and almost stood up a few others, but in general had not thought very much of it.

In 2007, our church lost a young man named Chris Neiberger. He was about my age, we had been in the same Boy Scout troop for a few years, and I had seen his family a bit around church. We had never hung out, and would not have put his name on a list of friends. Chris was an Infantryman in Iraq and died after an IED explosion in Baghdad. His death struck me in a very strange way. It is the first time  I personally knew someone who had died in war, and brought the US war efforts home to me. I had not been able to make his service because of school, however, on that All Saints Sunday as his name was called, I stood. In that little action, standing next to my parents, we honored his memory, a life well lived, and a deep and generous faith. I realized in that moment the power of liturgy and tradition which allow us to make sense of the world around us. What was for many people just a yearly tradition became for me the language I needed to articulate something deep within myself that I could not have otherwise.

As I thought about All Saints Sunday today, I remembered my grandmother who died last December. Yesterday at my church, her picture was shown and a bell was rung, but I could not stand. As much as I wish I could have been there to participate with my family and my church family, the liturgy and tradition which gave me comfort in honoring Chris’ death also gives me the comfort for Granny’s as well. That is the other power in traditions, they are consistent. It does not need me to be there for it to happen because those things are not for me in the first place. The bells are rung whether anyone stands or not because as Christians we stop belonging just to our families and friends; we join a family of believers most of whom we will never meet. Most of my church never met my grandmother. But yesterday they saw her picture, heard her bell, and remembered her for me. That gives me comfort.

Today I attended the funeral of a woman named Mildred. She died right before I began working with North Road and so I never got the chance to meet her though I had met her daughter, a church member, several times. She told me that her mom, who was the child of a methodist minister, would have wanted me there–that is just who she was. It is an odd thing to attend a funeral for a stranger. But, at the same time, there is something very affirming and Christian about it. Since the beginnings of the Church, we have been a people who remembered our dead and the eternal hope which Christ offers to us, so that even though we die, will be given a new life in Him. Christian funerals (and Christian lives) proclaim this hope and celebrate it. It was an honor to be there for Mildred’s service and I was encouraged by the testimony given about her life.

As we enter into the end of the Church’s calendar and prepare to celebrate All Saints’ Day, let us remember those people we have lost who are closest to us, and those we lost and yet never knew:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

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Revelations at Publix

One of the signature questions on almost every Divinity School exam begins like this: “You are standing in line at a grocery store and the person in front of you asks…” Sometimes it is framed in a pastoral setting” “A member of your congregation comes into your office and asks…,” but essentially they are both asking the same thing. How do you take all of this complicated theology and make it intelligible for the person who has not suffered through dense readings for three hours puzzling over foreign sounding prose. These questions are actually one of my favorite parts of our curriculum. If theology is what we think about God, and if Christianity proclaims a God who desires a personal relationship with each person to the extent that that God became human in order to make that possible, then how can we as pastor-theologians not take the time to find ways to explain that God to our congregations in ways that they can understand?

I was reminded of this during my final trip to Publix before heading back to Durham. Because there are no stores in North Carolina (a truly sad state of affairs!), I was making the most of my visit. This includes stocking up on Publix recipes. On this occasion a nice older woman, Marcia, was making “Pub Style Chicken,” (which was delicious!) and we chatted for a while. When I got my second sample of chicken, she asked me where I went to school. When I told her Duke Divinity School I saw that familiar “oh-you-go-to Divinity-school” look which is by now so familiar. And then came the question: “So, in twenty-five words or less, can you tell me how the Bible came to be?” Really?! She even included a word limit! Where is my preceptor? I gave her my standard answer of the process being a very long and very Spirit-filled process, which J. Ellsworth Kalas describes as the “democracy of the Holy Spirit” (always a good line), and she seemed satisfied. We got to talking about her life and her brother who died from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and I promised to try and look her up next time I was in town (provided she had more samples of course), and I picked up a recipe card.

As I got into the car, I thanked God for allowing me to be in this place, to study at this school. Being labeled a seminary student and future pastor is one which I struggle with because of the baggage it carries for everyone you meet. But at the end of the day, being able to provide theologically informed pastoral advice in (slightly more than) 25 words is a gift which I am being given every day, and as I begin the second half of my seminary career, I want to thank Marcia for the reminder (and the chicken!).


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O Christmas Tree

Since I have been in school, we have always waited to get a Christmas Tree until I got home. What this usually means is that we get the dregs off the tree lot. This year, however, between the death of  my grandmother and me trying to finish my exams, it got until to day and we had no tree. Our usual lot had been sold out for a few days with even the dregs being snatched up.

My mom, insisted that we needed a tree for Christmas, but to me it seemed a waste of money to spend premium prices  for a tree for a holiday which would be over before we even knew it.  That was when I got my brilliant idea.

Over by the garage, sat a lonely Umbrella tree. Neglected unwatered, and half dead. It was perfect. I drug it into the house, and presented this tree to my mom as an alternative.

She was not impressed.

After much logical reasoning, interspersed by laughter, she agreed that it would work with a little bit of trimming. So I cropped off the dead limbs, puled out a few lights and bows, and in my most Charlie Brown/Linus moment created, what I think is a rather beautiful centerpiece for our family celebration.

And if I may wax theological for a moment, I cannot think of a more appropriate Christmas Tree. In a way it is a celebration of every person who is neglected, forgotten, dried up, and in need of a Love which can make even the most ridiculous stone, the Cornerstone. Merry Christmas!