Below are selected writings, including my award-winning nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media distributed to over 600 papers reaching 21 million people in 36 states.

Hope Justice

It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace II

 This is part two of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.

It was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

 In my last column, I wrote about my opportunity to visit two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. It was there that a local resident shared why hot sauce makes fried chicken so fabulous. Sporting a mischievous twinkle, she explained, “It takes heat to bring the grace.”

Ain’t that true—for chicken and for life. Sometimes the hardships we face (the heat) come bearing divine blessings (the grace).

Which brings me to the second holy shrine I had the honor of visiting: the Civil Rights Trail. My trail walk included Kelly Ingram Park, the site of some of the most vicious confrontations over civil rights in Birmingham. Truly, a place where heat cracked open the door for grace.

The park is encircled by sculptures memorializing the violence, including fire hoses pointed at the crowds of protestors and cement walls you walk between that have three-dimensional police dogs lunging out on all sides.

Of all the powerful installations, perhaps the most visceral is “The Four Spirits.” It depicts four little girls around a park bench preparing for worship at the 16thStreet Baptist Church. On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the KKK exploded under the front steps of the church, killing those four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The deaths of those tiny civil rights warriors spurred an international outrage that marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and fueled support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, the tombstone for Addie Mae Collins reads: “She died so freedom might live.”

I walked to the church located across the street from the park, and there I discovered a huge stained-glass window on the back wall near where the bomb exploded. It glimmered in the sun, a black crucified Christ in its center.

A member of the church pointed out to me that the right hand of the Christ is flexed to represent the pushing away of hatred and injustice, while the left hand is outstretched, palm open, offering forgiveness. Under the image are the words “You do it to me,” based on Matthew 25:40: “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

She then explained the window’s remarkable history. As the news of the bombing spread worldwide, John Petts, an artist in a tiny coastal village in Wales, heard about the tragedy and offered to create a window to replace the destroyed back wall of the church. Rather than have a few wealthy individuals fund the project, donations were capped at half a crown (around 15 cents in current value) so that the window would be a gift from the people. All over Wales, people lined up to give. School children brought pocket money to donate. That tiny nation, more than six times smaller than Alabama, pulled together and created that window to help rebuild the church.

Sometimes it takes heat to bring the grace.

I walked home at the end of the afternoon, moved yet utterly disheartened. Here we are, fifty years of heat later, and the grace of true civil rights still hasn’t come. Violence is still aimed at our brothers and sisters of color. Racist hearts are still hardened against them. Equality is still held far from their reach.

I returned to Eugene’s for dinner, hoping for solace and grace from the heat of the chicken. But before I ate, I paused to pray for a larger grace, a grace for which Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley made the ultimate sacrifice. A grace that was and is the legacy of the crucified Christ. A grace that will come only if all of us—side by side, hand in hand—face the heat together. For it is then that we the people will bring the ultimate grace of freedom.

Empowerment Hope Risk and Reinvention Self care

It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace

This is part one of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.

It was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

 

Recently, I had the great privilege of visiting two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. For those of you who don’t know about hot chicken, my condolences. It’s one of God’s greatest inventions. You fry up chicken nice and crispy, and then right as it comes out of the fryer, you pour on some hot sauce that seeps into the batter.

Everybody prepares it differently. Eugene’s, for example, has four different levels of hot: southern (no heat), mild, hot, and what they call “stupid hot.”

When I reached this holy chicken shrine, I stood in line, pondering which heat level to order. Just as I was about to say, “hot,” I heard a voice behind me say, “get the stupid hot.”

I turned around, and standing behind me was a local elderly woman (I knew she was local because she pronounced the word “hot” with two syllables).

“Really?” I asked. “Should I go that hot?”

She smiled with a mischievous look in her eye. “Well, as I’ve always said, it takes heat to bring the grace.”

Honey, she was exactly right. After the fire of my first bite subsided, grace descended like a dove. Grace . . . and heartburn. But grace nonetheless.

I learned an important lesson at Eugene’s that afternoon: good things can come from moments of fire. The Bible shares the same lesson in the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel-type figure in Genesis. Rather than give up, Jacob holds on and does something audacious. He looks the figure in the eye and says, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing!”

The nerve! Yet, what happens? God gives him that blessing: a new name—“Israel”— which translates to “God prevails.” By refusing to let the struggle defeat him, Jacob turns it into a blessing, something that makes him stronger for the days ahead.

What do you wrestle with in your life? What “stupid hot” things are you facing right now? What would happen if you took hold of one of those issues, looked it in the eye, and said, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing?”

Do you face a job loss? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of faith.

Are you facing a medical crisis? Maybe you would receive a blessing of courage.

Do you have a relationship problem? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of humility.

Even something as minor as sitting in traffic, asking for a blessing might bring you a lesson in patience.

In the end, we’re all just trying to be better people, striving to be more like our creator. And perhaps God is offering us a little help through situations that challenge us.

There’s an old myth in metalworking that says a silversmith knows the metal is fully refined when he can see his reflection in it. Perhaps God is doing the same: refining us through fire not only to make us stronger, but also to make us better reflect our creator’s image.

Consider the possibility that each hardship in life comes bearing a divine blessing. Rather than turn from it, wrestle with it. Look it in the eye and face the fire.

Demand a blessing.

Hey, who knows what might happen? Like with Eugene’s hot chicken, sometimes it just takes heat to bring the grace.

[Stay tuned in two weeks for the second part of this series on finding blessings in pain when we visit our second holy shrine in Birmingham: the Civil Rights Trail.]

Self care

Looking for a God App

This blog was also featured as a nationally syndicated column at GateHouse Media.

I recently found myself in a place of spiritual disconnection. (Yes, it happens to ministers, too.) Sadly, I got wrapped up in running my world and conveniently skipped chatting with God about how God wanted that world run.

In corporate America, if you went rogue and spent weeks planning a project without checking in with your boss, you’d probably be fired.

Thank goodness, unlike Citibank, God is merciful.

To remedy this disconnect, I decided to spend a little quiet time at our beautiful lake cabin in the north woods of Wisconsin. Remote, isolated, and wild, this place is like Eden, but with a lot of Scandinavian Lutherans.

The first morning on the dock was spectacular—the sun was just coming up, the mist rising off the lake. And in this pristine setting, what did I do? I pulled out my iPhone. Why? Because of course, the best way to connect with God is to find a good God app.

Within seconds, I was in the dungeon of the App Store, oblivious to everything around me. As I perused the religious wallpaper, games, and virtual meditation sites, I suddenly stopped, having the distinct feeling that someone or something was watching me. A huge shadow floated over, darkening the iPhone screen. I looked up to see a bald eagle silently gliding about ten feet above me, heading out across the lake.

I couldn’t help but think of the words from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” How ridiculous was it that I was sitting in the midst of Eden, surrounded by the very face of God, searching for the holy in a tiny electronic box?

God is not in our cell phones, our iPads, our Instagram, or Pinterest accounts. Sure, they’re great tools for sharing news of inspiration or healing, but if we find our spiritual tanks empty, the best way to refill them is to walk outside and look around. Nature is God’s greatest work.

Consider the work of other great artists. You get a peek into the mind of Picasso when you look at his paintings; you listen to St. Matthew’s Passionand get a glimmer of the heart of Bach; you taste a Shake Shack burger and find out a bit about restauranteur Danny Myer. In the same way, when we stop and notice the beauty of creation—God’s finest artistic work—we see a spark of the holy.

After the eagle soared overhead, I turned off the iPhone and began to look around, noticing some of the smallest, most intimate things in my vicinity, such as a spider web that was gleaming in the sun. The dew had caught in its intricate pattern, revealing a beautiful, sophisticated work of art.

The shimmer of the web made me ask myself this question: Who taught the spider to do that? No architectural school in the galaxy could impart that kind of talent. I immediately thought of the line from the book of Job when God gets annoyed at Job’s doubts, and says: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4) Every day we must take time to acknowledge nature, the evidence of a higher power in our midst, for it is a poignant reminder that we are not in charge—not even close.

It’s easy to allow ourselves to become spiritually disconnected in this loud, demanding, secular world. But the fix is easier than you think. As the old saying goes, “If God feels far away, guess who moved?” God is always there waiting. We just have to pry ourselves from the apps, iPhones, and computer screens and step outside to admire the work of the greatest artist of all.

 

 

 

 

Empowerment Gratitude Hope Judgment and Forgiveness Laughter Risk and Reinvention

A Letter to Madeleine

This piece was featured as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City as well as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media. 

 

Dear Madeleine:

I am writing this letter to you, my fabulous 16-month-old-granddaughter.

Wait—what’s that you say? I’m an astonishingly young grandmother? Awww, yes, thank you. Always the charmer.

You know, people don’t write letters anymore. It’s all texts, emojis, or maybe an email if you’re old school, but I miss the handwritten letters that you can hold, and, more importantly, keep. So, here’s my letter to you, Madeleine.

I was thinking about what pearls of wisdom I might offer someone at your bright new stage in life. Then I realized that you don’t need help. You’re fresh out of God’s arms, which means that you still have all your superpowers. Actually, we adults still have them too. It’s just that we’ve forgotten.

Let me give you an example. I know that currently one of your favorite things to do is go head-first down the slide. And that’s just the beginning. Soon you’ll rip the training wheels off your bike and zoom too fast down hills that are too steep. You’ll do these things because they’re fun and new—and because they’re there. That’s your superpower.

Sadly, many grown-ups have lost their appetite for risk and adventure. Unlike you, we hesitate, saying, “I’d better be careful because I might get hurt. I might fall. I might fail.” And you know where this tends to happen the most? Love.

Oh girl, in a few years, you will discover love. And when you do, your Dad, who is now an avid supporter of gun control, may change his mind.

You will break many a heart, and you will have your heart broken too, but it’s okay. All you have to do is remember your courage and sense of adventure. One skinned knee never stopped you before, right? The knee will heal, your heart will heal, and you’ll move on to the next too-steep hill and the next love. Remember, life is just like your favorite slide. The best way to live it is head-first, full-on.

Here’s another example. Something wonderful will happen in about six months. You’ll discover a fabulous new word. Your parents will hate it, but you will love it and say it with more gusto than you say any other word.

And that word . . . is “NO!”

As in, “Madeleine, will you please eat this delicious broccoli I have cooked for you?”

“NO!”

It’s a great word and one you will use freely. Ironically, as people get older, they use it less and less. Big people say “yes” instead of “no” a lot more than they should. And you know what happens then? They get really grumpy and mean because they feel put-upon and over-worked.

Once again, if we could remember what we knew when we were your age—our ability to draw boundaries, to take care of ourselves, and to say “no” when we need to—we’d be in a much better place.

I want to mention one last superpower, Madeleine, and this one is not only your greatest, but also the one the world needs most desperately: the ability to see our common humanity.

Recently, as your parents pushed your stroller through midtown Manhattan, you waved, flashed a big smile, and said your current favorite word to every single person you saw:

“Hi!” to the woman with the briefcase and angry expression rushing for a cab

“Hi!” to the young guy standing on the corner with gang tats

“Hi!” to the elderly woman no one else noticed

Thanks to your greeting, a momentary smile appeared on each face. Such a tiny gesture with such profound impact. You didn’t judge people based on what they looked like. You simply cared if they smiled back.

You have so many gifts to share, Madeleine. Whatever you do, hang on to them! Remember your courage, your confidence, your sense of adventure, and your open heart. These things will inspire a full and wondrous life and will give you—and all our children— the superpower to truly change the world.

You are loved. Until next time. G-ma Susu

 

 

 

Religion and Spirituality Self care

Wasting Time with God

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column by GateHouse Media.

Recently, I returned to my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s funny how when you return home, the memories start pouring in. For example, as the plane was landing, I spied an old, abandoned parking lot with weeds and broken asphalt at the end of the runway. Seconds later, as the plane touched down, images of my childhood began to emerge.

It was in that old parking lot that my dad and I would hang out on lazy Saturday afternoons, sitting in our lawn chairs, eating peanuts and watching the planes come and go. While to some that may sound pedestrian, we loved it. It was our time. Quality time with just us — no agenda, nothing to do, nowhere to go. We didn’t even really say that much. It was just wasting time watching the planes—together.

In thinking back on that memory, I began to realize that “wasting time” with those you love is, perhaps, one of the most important things you can do. Spending unstructured time together helps you reconnect, bond and build intimacy, honesty, and trust. It makes you stronger.

So, if it’s so important in our human relationships, why don’t we ever talk about wasting time with God? Quality time with just you and God — no agenda, nothing to do, nowhere to go, not even really saying that much. Just wasting time together.

Thanks to our modern-day views of efficiency, wasting time with God may strike many as a bad thing. Our society is all about multitasking, results, and getting a lot done in a short amount of time. Our mantra is: To do more is to have more and to have more is to be more.

The Internet has exacerbated the issue. Recently, I discovered some mind-bending global statistics: 281 billion emails are sent each day, and over 200,000 text messages are sent per second. Think about the amount of information that comes through your computer and phone every day. To survive in this crazy cyber world, we have to be able to multitask with lightning efficiency.

And so, in this giant cyber gerbil wheel of efficiency, we relegate God only to times and places that are productive and useful. Like church. Church is very efficient — you meet God for an hour, you see your friends, have a cup of coffee, and you’re done for the week.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the church. As an ordained minister, I have dedicated my life to the church. But if you only consign God to one hour a week from 11 a.m.–12 p.m. on Sunday, that leaves 167 other hours. One out of 168 is not the ratio of someone who prioritizes the holy.

In her book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, theologian and priest Barbara Brown Taylor argues that the whole world is the house of God: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”

She then tenders these two poignant questions: “Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours?”

The world is so full of opportunities to draw near to and “waste time” with God. Yet, we continue to prioritize productivity. Maybe somewhere deep down, we think that if we are less productive, we will be less loved. News flash: The value of our lives has nothing to do with whether we’re efficient or productive. Our innate worth was given to us the second we were born, and no one can take that away.

This week, waste a little time with those you love. Intentionally leave unscheduled gaps in your day — time that has little to do with attaining or achieving but everything to do with building and bonding. Commit to time with no agenda, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and where you don’t even really say that much.

Remember, God is with us every moment waiting — longing to spend time with us. As James 4:5 teaches, “God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” Make that relationship your priority. Give God the gift of more than 1:168. This week, pledge to yourself: I will make time to waste time with God.

Hope Religion and Spirituality

Pray Like A Telemarketer

PRAY LIKE A TELEMARKETER

 This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column with GateHouse Media. 

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You come home at the end of a long day, hoping for a little peace and quiet. You change into some comfy clothes, click on Netflix, then—of course—the phone rings, and an enthusiastic voice on the other end chirps, “Hi! You’ve just won a timeshare in south Florida!”

Ah, telemarketers—one of God’s great mysteries and the #1 consumer complaint in 2018. Whether it’s a salesperson pushing timeshares in Florida or a politician trying to get votes, they are interminable, unceasing, relentless salespeople that never give up.

Will we ever get our peace and quiet? Who knows? But as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” So, I say, let’s learn something from their tactics.

The Bible gives us an example of how to do this in the book of Luke. There Jesus offers a parable in how we should pray and never give up. The story involves an unjust judge who “neither fear[s] God nor ha[s] respect for people” and a widow who constantly—relentlessly—pesters the judge for justice (a telemarketer kind of approach). The widow eventually wears him down, and the judge gives in. (Luke 18:1-8).

So, Jesus is saying that we should pray like a telemarketer? Really?

I guess one could argue that with all the billions of prayers going up, we need to pray relentlessly in order to be heard, especially this time of year with March Madness brackets and the Mega Millions jackpot edging toward $100 million (not that I track it).

But honestly, I can’t see Jesus saying that we need to pray like a telemarketer to be heard. I think the parable is about something deeper—about how consistent, unceasing prayer can soften even the most hardened heart.

Think about it like this: If we are sick and a doctor prescribes a course of antibiotics, we don’t take just one pill, then ask, “Why am I not cured?” We take the whole course. And we take it consistently. Why? Because we trust the doctor who prescribed it.

Prayer operates the same way. God prescribes it. For example, in Jeremiah 29:12, God says, “Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”We can’t just raise up one prayer, then say, “Why am I not healed?” Prayer is a course of medicine. Why? Because we are the ones who are sick—we are the ones who need our hearts softened, our eyes opened, and our minds changed about how we see and treat others.

Some of you may argue, “My heart is not hardened. I pray and serve God.” Great. But that’s only half the formula. It’s no accident that the unjust judge in our story is described as someone who cares neither for God NOR others. Those two things are inextricably bound. Remember the words in 1 John 4:20: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Some of you may also be thinking, “I want to pray for others, but I’m in pain—I need help, too.” Praying for someone else is the way to heal both of you at the same time. The act of focusing outside yourself simultaneously blesses those you pray for and brings you a perspective and purpose that takes your mind off your own situation.

This week, when the phone rings at an inconvenient time, and a voice says, “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about buying land in Nevada,” use that moment (after you hang up) to say a prayer for someone in need. Rather than getting mad at the annoying calls, use them as a reminder of the power of incessant, relentless, unceasing prayer—prayer that can not only soften the hardest of hearts, but also bring strength in the face of great pain.

All we have to do is pray and never give up, just like a telemarketer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Justice Kindness Religion and Spirituality

WINTER IS COMING: A Study of Holy Week and Game of Thrones

This column was preached as the Palm Sunday sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC as well as featured by Baptist News Global. 

 

It’s finally here! The last season of Game of Thrones! And when did the first episode debut? Palm Sunday. The parallel seems too obvious to ignore.

For those of you who aren’t wrapped up in this addictive show, it’s a medieval fantasy epic about kings, queens, knights, and renegades, all of whom are playing a deadly game for control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. One of the great houses of Westeros, the House of Stark, sits far in the north where the onset of winter can be fast and perilous. Their motto, one of warning and vigilance, is comprised of three words: Winter is Coming.

How ironic that the final season debuted on the same day as Palm Sunday, when we remember how people welcomed Jesus and hailed him as the Messiah, though all the while, winter was coming. And oh, how fast people can turn when the cold sets in.

The story of this treachery during Holy Week shares an important lesson about hospitality and welcome. It invites us to ask what true Christian hospitality is all about.

Sadly, if you Google “church hospitality,” you get articles about, yes, coffee hour.

Coffee hour!

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love a good coffee hour, but I think Jesus had something bigger than coffee hour in mind for hospitality and the church.

It’s easy to welcome people with smiles and pleasant words at coffee hour, but it’s life aftercoffee hour that matters. It’s life when faced with an onslaught of winter that matters. It’s life when the cold sets in that matters. It’s life when the trials start that matters.

What do we do then? Do we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters, or do we step back into the shadows in silence as the crowd yells, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Thatis the true test of hospitality.

Many people hear that question and answer, “Of course I stand in solidarity with people. I would never stand in the shadows in silence—or worse, yell ‘crucify them!’”

In truth, I am afraid we do it every day.

Think about it on an individual level. We can be the best of friends, partners, spouses, or parents at coffee hour on the sunny Palm Sundays, but what about when winter sets in and the trials of life start? What happens when the divorce hits, when the addiction crisis surfaces, when the cancer diagnosis is made, when a job is lost? Can we still wave the palm of hospitality and stand in solidarity in times of trial like these?

Or consider it from a national perspective. Oh, we’re right there in the beginning waving the palm leaves. In fact, we have a huge statue in New York Harbor that waves a proverbial palm leaf:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

But winter is coming. When the trials of life start, do we really show hospitality as a nation? Or do we allow the cold to harden our hearts? The answer is pretty clear. Just look at the statistics.

This year a report by the United Nations showed that 40 million peoplelive below the poverty line in the United States. This is in the richest nation in the world. How about equal access to health care? 3.9 million childrenin this country have no health care. Or what about showing hospitality to the over 15,000 immigrant children being heldin detention centers across the country? We quickly turn from waving palm leaves in New York Harbor to yelling, “Crucify them! Crucify them!”

Don’t think that’s you? When is the last time you signed a petition against unfair legislation? When is the last time you wrote a letter to your senator or congressperson on a justice issue? When is the last time you stood up and publicly spoke out for something you believed in or against something you believed to be wrong? Standing in the shadows and saying nothing is the same as chanting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

One of the most painfully clear examples of this is a common response to racism in America. Last week, Kyle Korver, a white NBA basketball player, published a powerful articleabout coming to terms with white privilege. He reflected on all the times that players of color had been harassed by fans in his presence, treated unfairly, even injured by the police, all the while he stood by, in the shadows, saying nothing. He called it “blending in and opting out.”

Over the years, after watching teammate after teammate stare down the raw, ugly face of racism, he began to realize his personal responsibility in their pain. He explained, “[T]he more dangerous form of racism isn’t that loud and stupid kind . . . It’s the quiet and subtle kind. The kind that almost hides itself in plain view. It’s the person who does and says all the ‘right’ things in public: They’re perfectly friendly when they meet a person of color. They’re very polite. But in private? Well … they sort of wish that everyone would stop making everything ‘about race’ all the time.”

Ultimately, he recognized his responsibility, saying, “I know that, as a white man, I have to hold my fellow white men accountable. We have to hold each other accountable. And we all have to be accountable—period. Not just for our own actions, but also for the ways that our inaction can create a ‘safe’ space for toxic behavior.”

Winter is here.

Will we allow the cold to harden our hearts so that we simply blend in and opt out? Or will we recognize our responsibility and stand in solidarity? As the book of Romans commands, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”(Romans 12:13)

This week think about the palms waved for Jesus when everything was sunny and celebratory. Then think of the courage it will take, later in the week, to stand with Jesus and wave that palm in front of Pilate.

That trial—Jesus’ trial—is the same one that so many face every day of their lives. And when those trials of poverty, hunger, racism, homophobia, and religious hatred start, where are we? Are we standing in solidarity? Or have we opted out, preferring to hide in the shadows, yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Brothers and sisters, winter is coming.

Where will you stand when the cold sets in?

Empowerment Self care

Life Lessons from a Wooly Mammoth

This was featured as a nationally syndicated column with Gatehouse Media on March 6, 2019.

I love watching the famous Iditarod dog sled race that’s taking place this week in Alaska. Okay, yeah, I live in New York City. And yeah, the only dog I’ve ever owned was a Labrador retriever named Stuart who spent his days eating Fritos and sleeping. But (and hold on to your hats) I have experience as a musher.

Years ago, during the innocence (and ignorance) of my youth, I signed up for an Outward Bound dog-sledding trip in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota near the Canadian Border.

In January.

Oh, and we were camping.

It was there that I spent ten of the coldest days of my life learning to run a dog sled team. But this was not your average team of cute huskies you see at the pet shop. The Outward Bound camp had adopted a group of specially bred huskies from the Mawson research outpost in Antarctica. Unlike their state-side brethren, my dogs, including my two leads, Cardiff and Bear, resembled a cross between a miniature pony and a wooly mammoth.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. To be honest, there were days on that trip when I wasn’t sure which it would be. But I lived and eventually made it back to New York City armed with unforgettable life lessons, mostly from the dogs.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson was about life itself—and how to lead it. Those burly dogs wanted nothing more than to pull that sled. It was an ingrained passion. You’d hitch them up and their eyes would light. Their ears would perk, and they’d be ready to bust out of their harnesses with joy.

Each dog knew its role and had its place. For every team, there were two lead dogs that were particularly skilled at obeying directional commands and finding trails. Behind them were the two point dogs that acted as back-up leaders. Directly in front of the sled were the wheel dogs that helped keep the sled on the trail. And in between were the team dogs that brought the power and endurance to keep the sled going.

The success of the team depended on each dog using its particular skill in concert with the others. When they were in full swing, each dog fully zoned into his or her role, it was thing of grace and beauty. It was in those moments of watching my team at work that I learned the value of using individual strengths to support a group’s effort and the lesson that the gifts of others are all important, even if they are different than ours.

Sadly, there were a few dogs at the camp that were injured and unable to pull a full sled. I would spend a little time sitting with one of my favorites every day. Petting her, I couldn’t help but notice that her coat and eyes had grown a bit dull. Then, one day, an instructor brought over a tiny, super-light sled that they were going to let her start pulling for just a few minutes a day, and she exploded into life.

We all have that place where we, too, come to life—where we feel like we’re doing what we were born to do. Of course, there is the opposite as well—the places in life where our coats and our eyes grow dull. And what a waste it is to spend time there.

There’s an old saying that every creature has its rightful place, and in that place, it becomes beautiful. The Psalmist put it another way: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Either way, it’s an affirmation of our unique gifts and our innate worth in this life.

This week spend a few minutes watching the Iditarod (Iditarod.com) and see first-hand the raw passion of those dogs. Once you see it, you’ll never forget. And, perhaps, like me, that image will inspire you to live to your fullest potential and never let your eyes grow dull.

 

 

 

 

Judgment and Forgiveness Justice Kindness

BAPTISTS IN VEGAS

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media as well as preached as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church.

 

I just played Vegas.

As a Baptist minister.

Okay, so I offered a workshop for seven people ninety miles outside of Vegas.

Either way, that trip created one of the craziest combinations imaginable: a Baptist minister in Vegas! Think about that. It’s like putting an Episcopalian in an improv troupe.

Vegas is nothing if not a series of crazy pairings. The town is one of humanity’s tackiest and most garish creations, and it’s situated in the midst of one of God’s most beautiful creations—the Mojave Desert. There are gondolas in fake Venetian canals floating by Elvis impersonators. The Eiffel Tower stands proudly next to the Statue of Liberty. The Sphinx and the Great Pyramid tower over an IHOP. And my personal favorite: a billboard for the Mormon church appears next to one advertising an all-male dance review from Australia called “Thunder from Down Under.”

But from all these crazy things that seemingly have nothing in common, a city emerges—a community that bridges the differences and unifies them into one joyful, celebratory spirit. Tell me that isn’t a lesson we need.

The joining together of unexpected things breaks open our way of seeing the world. It helps us approach situations in a fresh way. In fact, here’s a statement I bet you never thought you’d hear: Vegas and Jesus have a lot in common.

Jesus knew how to jar people out of their comfortable places and challenge old images with what might have seemed like crazy pairings: the kingdom of God and a mustard seed; the weakest as the greatest; a banquet table where the honored guests were tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. His images still jar us today. They make us stop, reconsider, and reevaluate. It’s like the old saying goes, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

When we jar our thinking, we shift our perspective. We begin to see and appreciate the marvelous diversity of God’s creation, things like heaven and earth, platypus and blowfish, Jerry Springer and Jerry Falwell.

It’s a crazy, wondrous variety, and yet a variety from the same creator. As the Apostle Paul said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Today, we are faced with factions, dividing lines, and anger. The only lens through which we seem to see is the lens of difference. And therein lies the problem—our current inability to see past the differences to our commonalities. I say current because we are capable of a much broader vision.

In addition to the Thunder from Down Under and Mormon Church billboards, I saw one featuring a photo of Abraham Lincoln with one of his most famous statements, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Underneath that familiar quote was a new phrase: “Civility is in you. Pass it on.” This was such a simple reminder, but one that hit me like a jet breaking the sound barrier. We have civility in us. Find it, remember it, and pass it on.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, died last week. In her poem, “The Summer Day” she wrote:

Tell me,
what is it you plan to do
with your one
wild and precious life? 


I can’t imagine a better way to spend that wild and precious life than to dedicate yourself to seeing our commonalities first.

Baptists in Vegas? Why not.

If Elvis and the pyramids can come together to create an oasis in the desert, then what greater thing might we build if we bridge our differences and come together with one joyful, celebratory spirit?