Click here for my nationally syndicated column distributed to over 600 newspapers reaching over 21 million people in 36 states.
Click here for my nationally syndicated column distributed to over 600 newspapers reaching over 21 million people in 36 states.
(This piece was also preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.)
I don’t know how it’s been where you live, but for us in New York City, it feels like we haven’t seen the sun for, oh – ten years? Every day for the past week it’s been overcast or rainy or snowy. It’s been damp, dank, dark. It’s like New York City has suddenly become Seattle without the Sky Needle.
Sometimes I wish we could just reach up and push away the clouds – like opening the sunroof on our old Chevy Avalanche. The truck sits around at our cabin in Wisconsin, all closed up. So, the cab can become like our weather – dark, dank and musty. But then, you open the sunroof, and it completely transforms the environment. You look up through top of the cab and see the blue sky, breathe in the fresh air and feel the warmth and light of the sun streaming down.
The bad news is that the weather doesn’t work that way; we can’t just push away the literal clouds in the sky like opening a giant sunroof. The good news? We can push away the clouds in our hearts. And the way we do it is through prayer.
To me, prayer is like opening a sunroof. Every day we ride around in a dark, stale, musty environment of our own creating. It’s called life. And when our sunroof is closed, our world is limited, contained in its little box. It’s full of the clouds of self-doubt and fear. It’s a stale world, devoid of fresh air, warmth and light.
But when we pray, it’s like opening the sunroof. We reach up, push away the clouds and open our hearts to the light and warmth and power that is waiting to stream in. I once read that prayer is like joining our “natural” abilities with God’s “supernatural” abilities. That’s the power we can access. And we can access it anytime.
Case in point. We get periodic crank calls at the church. But this week we got one of the funnier ones. Here’s the replay:
Caller: Is this the house of God?
Brian (our church Administrator): Yes.
Caller: Well, can I speak to God.
Brian [long silence]: You don’t have to be in the house of God to speak to God.
We all surrounded by light—from birth to death and past. A light that you can access anytime, anywhere.
You never need to feel afraid. You never need to feel alone. All you have to do is push away the clouds and open the sunroof.
This piece was written as a column for GateHouse Media.
I hail from a state that offers a no-fail plan for world peace. It’s not from politicians or pundits, peaceniks or pedagogues. No, my friends, the secret lies in how the people of North Carolina have learned to live with a difference of opinion so deeply ingrained that’s it almost genetically encoded. The bone of contention? Barbecue sauce.
If you didn’t have the privilege of being raised in a BBQ-centric state, this may seem a bit far-fetched. But those of us who have lived with the tension, endured the heated debates, and been dismissed or demeaned because of our sauce preference know better.
To paraphrase Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, there is no clear line between religion and [North Carolina barbecue]. And religion is something you don’t monkey with.
The sauce saga began over 300 years ago with the introduction of a tangy, vinegar-based sauce—a vestige of Caribbean and West Indian influences that included vinegar, salt, and black and red pepper. The turning point came in 1876 when Heinz introduced a new-fangled concoction called ketchup. Soon after, the western part of the state led by German immigrants in Lexington, North Carolina, began experimenting with a different, sweeter tomato-based sauce. Like a Baptist church that stopped lovin’ Jesus, this was the ultimate blasphemy.
Brother began to turn against brother, family against family. Everyone jumped into the fray, and the name calling continues to this day. For example, Dennis Rogers, a columnist, western sauce advocate and the self-appointed “Oracle of the Holy Grub,” once publicly referred to the eastern recipe as “imitation BBQ.” At the other end of the spectrum, author Jerry Bledsoe, a rabid eastern sauce advocate, and the self-professed “world’s leading, foremost barbecue authority,” once wrote in the Raleigh News and Observer, “”People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything.”
This is war, and it’s a war not unlike many of our modern headlines. In fact, most of our global problems break down into the same formula as the NC barbecue ruckus: someone is trying to mess with something that is “holy” to someone else.
Some people treat money like it’s holy. Others give holy status to land, power, oil, truth or barbeque sauce. Given this parallel, perhaps our global leaders might consider studying how North Carolinians have engaged in a generations-old fight without annihilating each other.
Our solution is quite simple. Step one: we remember what we have in common. North Carolinians may fight over the sauce, but in the end, we are all lovers of what it enhances: pulled pork. What if Democrats and Republicans tried this approach? Our two parties fight over, well, everything. But in the end – Democrats or Republicans – we’re are all Americans.
Step two: North Carolinians realize that while we disagree on the means, the end goal is the same: we are all just trying to make a better barbecue sauce. What if we gave the same consideration to those who walk a different path? What if we assumed the good intentions of those who are different and offered them the benefit of the doubt?
Step three: We put all the sauces on the table and share a meal together. Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” I found out the truth of this statement growing up in Charlotte, the war-torn border of the barbecue wars, which meant we knew a thing or two about compromise. For example, during holiday dinners family members gathered around our table would include people from eastern and western North Carolina, South Carolinians (who worship a completely different, mustard-based sauce), and even, gasp, Texans, who prefer brisket to pulled pork. My mother, always the diplomat, would place all the different meats and sauces on the table, give one of her “looks” to the gathered barbecue enemies, then announce like a general on a battlefield, “Now sit down and eat. And let’s agree to disagree.”
And that, my friends, is how you accomplish world peace. Like mixing a beloved barbecue sauce, it just takes a dash of diplomacy, a pinch of patience, and equal portions of empathy and respect. So, the next time you feel your blood pressure spiking over the daily news, imagine pulling up a chair, putting all the sauces on the table, and enjoying a meal with those with whom you disagree.
On Sunday, December 3rd, we gave everyone in our congregation a five-dollar bill. The members could choose anything they wanted to do with the money as long as it lifted someone up. In short, they had to “pay it forward.” And so those $5 bills went out into the world and lifted up people from every walk of life.
Last week we gathered to share what people did with their money . . .
One person gave it to the street vendor outside their apartment to help offset the cost of fruit that someone had stolen from his cart.
Another person went to Dollar Tree and used the money to buy mittens for kids in an inner-city school in the Bronx.
Someone gave their five dollars to help a struggling artist performing in Grand Central Terminal.
One member used it to fund supplies for a woman in Afghanistan so that she might learn tailoring skills and eventually start a business
And one person gave it to their waitress at lunch and said, “take $5 off your next bill, then tell the customer why, and invite them to pay it forward in their own life.”
It was a powerful lesson on how to do a lot with a little. We don’t need tons of money or a huge foundation or an army of people to change the world. We can help others with tiny, personal gestures that show we care. Sometimes just making someone feel acknowledged or heard can heal.
Try it this week! Take a five-dollar bill and see what you can do to “lift someone up.” Hopefully, they will be inspired to do the same. And eventually, one kind gesture at a time, we can leave this earth better than we found it. As the author, Margaret Mead said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever has.”
I’m sure you have all heard of the great composer Beethoven and his famous piece the 9th Symphony. It was heralded as a work of genius because Beethoven did something that had never been done before: he added voices in the fourth and last movement. He basically turned a symphony into an opera.
But here’s the real kicker. He wrote that breath-taking piece toward the end of his life.
When he was deaf.
In fact, when he conducted the Symphony for the first time, one of the soloists had to turn him around at the end to see the that the audience was furiously clapping.
What a great lesson on the power within. Beethoven could have could have focused on his deafness – could have focused on the silence he heard coming from the outside world and never composed again. But instead, he focused on the music inside. He listened to the beauty inside and brought forth one of the great musical pieces of all time.
How many times have we listened to the noise and evils of the outside world and ignored the inside of our own heart?
How many times have we shunned our inner voice for the opinion of the crowd.
How many times have we based our self-worth on what other people say?
How many times have we given up a dream because someone “out there” said it couldn’t be done.
We have to tap the power and beauty in here (in our hearts) to offset the evil and ugliness out there.
Let me give you one example of how to do it. Recently I had a phone call with my dear friend, Paul Lambert. A Broadway producer, Paul was sharing with me his idea for a new show. Paul also talked about how he was praying constantly about the project. He said, “I think about it like visiting with God. Every day and every night we have the opportunity to ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe. We can just go and chat with God. Anytime! And so I do!”
Amen to that.
The next time we are fighting the corrosive voices of the world, remember the voice of wisdom and power and beauty inside our own heart; remember that true healing comes from an inner power; remember that we can ring the doorbell of the most powerful force in the universe – anytime — and bring forth the greatest that dwells within.
There is one ritual I really hate during the holidays: taking down the tree.
It’s a sad job, as it marks the end of the season. And it’s messy– dragging out a month old, dried up balsam. Most of all it leaves the house with this big empty hole in the corner of the living room. What was there before the tree? I can’t even remember.
But I took it down. And here I sit, feeling sad, staring at a bare spot in the living room and a house strewn with needles.
I really need to get over this annual trauma. January is supposedly the month of moving on, cleaning out, and lightening up, right? It invites us to think of the things like my tree – the old, dried up parts of our lives – that need clearing out. Maybe it is an old grudge that we need to release or a lingering sense of self doubt. Whatever it is, the hardest part of the holidays is the clearing out. For with it come sadness, messiness and emptiness.
When we let go of something, even the old, bad, dried up stuff, we feel loss. What is known (good or bad) is gone. And any loss brings sadness.
The clearing out can also be messy, as it shakes loose a load of emotional Christmas tree needles in our lives; ones that can show up later in strange places we didn’t expect (like the needles I found in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator last May).
Most of all, letting go can leave a hole we’re not sure how to fill. If we let go of anger, for example, then what goes in its place? If we aren’t mad, then who are we?
Hard as it was, I guess I’m glad I took down the tree. Sure I have a lot of needles to sweep and furniture to rearrange. But if I didn’t take down the old dried up tree, then where would I find room for the new tree – and the new joy – next Christmas? Happy New Years cleaning to you all!
This sermon was featured on Christmas Eve 2017 by Day 1 broadcasting via Internet and AM/FM radio.
“There’s no room here, or at the Holiday Inn, the Days Inn, or the C’mon Inn,” the desk clerk said, shaking his head. “The Shriners have a gathering downtown, the Mary Kay convention is at the Coliseum, and there’s a quilt show at the Marriott.”
This was not welcome news. It was a cold, autumn night in Bismarck, N.D. My husband Toby and I had just finished a four-hundred-mile motorcycle ride from Wisconsin across Minnesota into North Dakota.
“Please … really … we’ll take anything,” I said, starting to worry.
“There is NO room here,” he said with an impatient tone in his voice. “The best you can do is ride up to Fort Mandan and try the Sunset Motel.”
“But that’s thirty miles!” I said. “Yup,” he said, “and you’d better hurry. Because they’re gonna fill up, too.”
Exhausted and cold, we fired up our Harley Road King and headed up the Interstate for Mandan. As we crested the last hill before our exit, we saw the sign in the distance – an antiquated neon marker with the “tel” of the motel’s name missing. It flashed: “Sun Mo.”
The missing lights were just the beginning. There had been clearly no maintenance in years, and the lobby smelled like the inside of an unfiltered cigarette. But we had no choice, so we walked up to the front desk. The woman behind the counter, gray hair to her waist, barked, “Can I help ya?”
“Y’all have any rooms?” I asked, praying fervently. “Last one,” she said proudly, producing an old-timey key with a plastic teardrop-shaped medallion attached.
When we opened the door to the room, I immediately flashed to Luke’s Christmas story ’cause this – this was definitely a manger. I’m pretty sure the last guests to stay in that room were livestock. It was a tiny space with worn carpets, a cigarette-burned bedspread, and a sign in the bathroom that read: “Please don’t use towels to clean guns.”
We didn’t care. We were out of the cold in a place we could lay our heads. That was comfort enough.
It’s a bad feeling to be left out in the cold. To be told there is no room at the inn, told we aren’t welcome. It’s a bad feeling to be excluded, left out, pushed aside. Tragically, I’m afraid the refrain “no room at the inn” is commonplace. We’ve all been there.
Maybe it was early in life when someone didn’t pick us for their sports team or invite us to sit at their table during school lunch. Or maybe it was later when we were pushed aside for a job we wanted. Or perhaps, it was even later in life, when we felt left out by our families or ignored because of age or illness.
The refrain “no room at the inn” is commonplace. For eight million American children, for example, there is no room at the “inn” of health care; for seven million Americans, there is no room at the “inn” of full employment; for 925 million people globally, there is no room at the “inn” of food and sustenance; and for more than 500,000 Americans, the only room available is a homeless shelter.
And then there are folks who are told there is no room at the inn because of their skin color, religion, sexual orientation or nationality.
And there are two more examples I must mention. First, there’s the “no vacancy” hung out by the church. Some church “innkeepers” say there is no room at the inn for those who are different. For some, the church is reserved for the paying customers, the high rollers, the VIPs. For others, church is a safe place to escape and be protected against “those people” who don’t have reservations.
And then there’s the second example and perhaps, the most important. An inn which, thanks to our own abuse, is about to hang out a no vacancy sign, and that is the inn we call Mother Earth. Between carbon emissions, strip mining, the proliferation of plastic, overpopulation, over-logging, over-fishing; there will soon be no room at the inn. That means no room for giant pandas, Sumatran tigers, polar bears … and us.
It’s a bad feeling to be left out in the cold, and we’ve all experienced it in one way or another. However, this scripture not only offers us a poignant reflection of our pain, but also a powerful way to transform it.
We have all lived Mary and Joseph’s story at some point in our lives, but guess what? No matter how many times we’ve been turned away, we all have the potential to transform into the one with the keys to the inn.
Like in our story from Luke, Jesus, even though his family was left out, was told there was no room. Jesus was born; a savior was born that night – a savior who opened the doors of the kingdom and welcomed the stranger, the needy, the lonely, the sick. A savior who taught: “What you do to the least of them, you do to me.” A savior who transformed from the one rejected by the world to the innkeeper of the world.
About a year or so ago, Jose Moran, the custodian for the Holy Child Jesus Church in Richmond Hill, Queens, New York had just finished setting up the Nativity scene and gone to lunch. When he returned about an hour later, he heard the cries of an infant. He went into the sanctuary and found a tiny baby boy swaddled in purple towels on the floor of the manger. He was so young he still had his umbilical cord. An earlier neighborhood surveillance video showed the mother with the wee baby in the 99-cent store buying purple towels, then heading out the door toward the church.
What transpired was a 21st century version of the book of Luke. For that day in Queens, the world had no room for this little baby. So he was left in the manger by what turned out to be a single, unwed mother, and wrapped in purple towels (the color of royalty) from the 99-cent store. In fact, the congregation nicknamed the baby “Emmanuel,” which as we know is Hebrew for “God is with us.” Today, the baby is with a loving family and has a chance to begin again.
Like baby Emmanuel, the story doesn’t end with Jesus being turned away from the inn. In fact, it’s here that it begins. His call was for something bigger, for Jesus came to fling open the doors of the inn for all to come and find shelter. Come to me, all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
And our call is the same. We will be rejected in this life, turned away, left out in the cold … but that’s not the end of the story. Like Jesus, we are all called to become the innkeeper, to become the builders of the kingdom, the protector of our brothers and sisters.
And when we step into that call, something amazing happens. Our own pain tends to fade when we are focused on others. Our own situation seems a little less important when we are reaching out a hand to someone in need. Brothers and sisters, when we lift someone else up, we not only lift up ourselves, we lift up the Christ child … for what we do to the least of them, we do to him.
For all those who feel left out this holiday, for all those who have been excluded, rejected, turned away, for all whose hearts and spirits are broken, there is good news on this Christmas Eve. For on this day is born to you, a savior. A savior who welcomes you – no matter who you are, no matter what your past, no matter what your present, no matter how lost or defeated you may feel,
UNTO YOU is born this day a savior, Christ the Lord.
To hear the full sermon “This was NOT on MY List” click here.
About twenty years ago, a cousin of mine (with a random sense of humor) sent me a Christmas gift — a toilet paper dispenser that played the song “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight” by Hank Williams, Jr.
My reaction (which I didn’t share with him) was, “I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. This was NOT on MY list!”
We’ve all been there. Maybe it was a crazy holiday present. Or maybe it was something more sinister, like a relationship conflict, or an elderly parent that needs increasing care, or a diagnosis that contains scary words like “can-cer.” Things that make us want to say, “um, I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. This was NOT on MY list!”
Let me tell you about someone else who must have been very tempted to say those exact words: Mary – the mother of Jesus. You may remember the story from the book of Luke where the angel Gabriel appears and tells Mary that she, an unwed teenage mother, was pregnant and was going to give birth, in a barn, to the Messiah.
If ever there was a time for someone to say, “I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. This was NOT on MY list!” it would be right here. But Mary doesn’t. She hears the news, and instead of getting mad, or scared, or running away as fast as she can, she sings a song of thanks!
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
Not the first thing you would think someone in her position would say. I would think the more appropriate response might be something like, “WUUUUUT?”
But not Mary. She uses her fear for something more.
We are all called—all given sacred jobs in this life. Some can be terrifying. Some can make us want to say “I didn’t ask for this. I don’t want it. This was NOT on MY list!” And in those situations, we have two choices: We can push them away in fear. Or we can use that fear for transformation.
Two thousand years ago in a tiny town by the Galilee a brave young woman was given news that would have terrified many a soul. But Mary chose to face those fears with thanksgiving. To look her fear in the face, and say let this give birth to something great.
May we all have the courage to do the same.
Don’t you think it’s odd that Christmas — the time of the year we celebrate the Christ child, the light of the world — is also the darkest time of the year? At least here in the Northern Hemisphere, you get up in the morning . . . and it’s dark. You leave work, and it’s dark. Somewhere in the middle, it gets light, but you don’t remember it ‘cause you are too busy complaining about how dark it is all the time.
As mere human beings, it is hard to wait for the light of the world during the darkest time of the world. However, if we were, say, a Christmas cactus, it would be easy. My grandmother, who lived in the North Carolina mountains had these huge hanging baskets of Christmas cactuses that were just loaded with red blooms. We couldn’t figure out how she did it, until one day she shared her trick. She put them in the cold, dark root cellar. In short, the plants use the darkness to bloom.
Maybe this Advent season, we should take a lesson from the Christmas cactus, for life can be found in the darkest times. In fact, that is when life explodes forth.
This may sound counterintuitive to some because we tend to equate darkness with evil, with bad things. We have to be careful about the language we use. What we say over time affects what we do and what we think. If, for example, we consistently think or speak of darkness as evil or bad, how can we help from translating that to race? Or racism?
Lord knows, these days, we cannot afford anything that separates us, anything that undermines love, anything that weakens our fight for justice. As Nelson Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
There are infinite examples of the goodness and beauty of darkness. The sheen of a raven’s wing in the noonday sun, the deep, dark haze of the Blue Ridge mountains, or most obvious . . . chocolate.
Darkness is also a source of life itself. Look at Genesis 1: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and a wind from God was sweeping over the water. God then said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Darkness was God’s first creation and it is a life-giving gift. The night is the time all life sleeps and rejuvenates. Human life begins in the darkness of the womb. Seeds germinate in the deep darkness of the earth. And the darker the soil, the richer the crop.
Darkness is where life forms. It is a birthing place for hopes and dreams. Like the Christmas cactus that needs to enter a stage of dormancy in the darkness to bloom, we too need the darkness to thrive and to flower. So this Advent season, let us ask ourselves: what beautiful new thing do we want to birth?
The great actress Lana Turner once said to Frank Sinatra, “There’s something so enchanting about twilight.” How true. There is something enchanting, and magical and healing about the darkness of this season. This week, when you get up in the dark and go to bed in the dark and wonder when, if ever, the light will come, remember that life itself springs from the darkness. Remember that it was in the middle of the night, in the darkest time of the year that the Christ child was born unto us.
Toby and I took an epic trip over Thanksgiving. First, Amtrak across the country from Chicago to LA in a sleeper car. Then a drive through the great national parks of California, including visits to the sequoia and redwood trees.
Anyone who has stood in the presence of redwoods knows that it’s a holy experience. As I walked under their great canopy, I began to wonder: what if these massive trees could talk? What wisdom would they share with our twenty-first-century society? What redwood wishes might be offered for our broken world?
While I’m not sure of the answer, if I had to guess, I’d say they would share three wishes. And those three wishes would come straight out of Corinthians 13: 7: “Love bears all things, love believes and hopes all things, love endures all things.”
Redwood Wish #1: Bear Each Other up
One of the tallest living things on earth, redwoods can grow up to four hundred feet in height (comparable to a thirty-five-story building). But they don’t reach these towering heights by sinking their roots down into the ground. They grow to these heights by sending their roots out — horizontally — and connecting with the other trees in the forest. In short, they’re tall because they bear each other up.
Redwood Wish #2: Believe and Hope All Things Good
As I sat in that forest, I was struck by the cycle of life all around me. There were the great mature trees forming a huge canopy shading the entire forest. Then there were the tiny seedlings; scrappy, feisty little green shoots straining, reaching up and out to find sunlight to help them grow.
Perhaps that’s what meant in 1 Corinthians when it says, “love believes all things and hopes all things.” Love looks for the good. Like those little seedlings, it strains to find the best, the sunlight in others.
But of course, there’s a trick. In order to see the best in others, we have to be able to see it in ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us tend to go to the negative first, the faults first, the flaws first. We forget that we are made in the image of the divine; that each of us at our core is holy and loveable and full of sunlight. There is a reason that the bible says, “love your neighbor AS yourself.” Like the sunlight for those little seedlings, love is about finding the good in ourselves and our neighbor; it is about finding our source of life and being.
Redwood Wish #3: Endure with an Eye Towards the Longview
Not only are redwoods some of the tallest living creatures, they are some of the oldest, many dating back two thousand years. That means that some of these trees have lived through everything from the Roman Empire to Lady Gaga.
It makes you wonder: how would our lives be different if we had such a long view of the world. How would our choices – our life – be different with such a perspective?
It is so easy to get caught up in our day to day stress, the “crisis” de jour staring at us from our inbox, the ringing phone, the emails, the tweets. While these may seem important now, if we look at them with an eye to the long view, they begin to fade into obscurity. In the long view things like family, community, health, joy, and compassion become the clear priorities.
Do we bear each other up? Do we believe and hope all things good? Do we take the long view? Our lives might take a different turn if we would only begin to orient our path toward love, compassion, and these three redwood wishes.