A Desperate Reach Of Love

There is a flickering in the wilderness.
Certainly we saw something, you and I, in the depth of all this darkness.
Over there, just to the left.
A light.
Somehow.
Pushing back against the darkness that tells us every day in screaming headlines that there is no God and that we are not—and could never, ever be—loved.
Something that seems to have fallen from the stars.
Come from the sky.
Tumbled down from a heaven which the darkness denies.
The darkness trying with all of its might to persuade us to believe that the voice we have followed, the voice we heard crying in the wilderness, is a figment of our imagination.
But the voice won’t be stilled or silenced.
And the voice is not mine.
The voice is not yours.
We both hear the voice testifying at this moment to the light.
And now, look. Certainly, the flickering grows brighter, as if our persistent steps have somehow fueled the light’s desperate reach of transcendent incandescence.
A desperate reach toward …
Can it be true?
A desperate reach of transcendent incandescence toward us?
Toward us all?
My, God! It is true!
But there’s more.
There is something inside the light.
As if the light has wrapped the greatest gift of all inside its bright shining:
A love brighter than the sun we cannot see.
A love that the darkness cannot hide forever.
Or even for another second.
An advent.
A coming that the darkness is powerless to stop.
A coming that has found us.
Finally.
Found us holding candles in a darkness that has become, for us, nothing more than a place for the light of this love to shine with greatest effect.
And now—just like that—the wilderness of sand has given way to the straw of a manger.
To a mother and her newborn.
To a father carefully tending the small fire that keeps us all warm as we gather with those who were there in the darkness with us, called by the light to unwrap this love.
A love that breathes.
A love that cries out into our own wilderness until our wilderness is healed.
A love that has a name:
Jesus.
A love that tells us that this love has other names, too.
Our own.
If.
If we let the light of this love reach out its incandescence through us toward those whom the darkness still binds with its lies.
If we go out into the wilderness of others and scatter their darkness with this truth:
There is a God.
We are loved.
And that love is forever.

In The Footsteps Of A Dream

(Note: the following is my keynote speech at the December 10, 2017 re-naming dedication ceremony of the Barbara Rose Johns, Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library)

What a truly good day this is.
A Sunday where we share this communion together.

I commend the Town of Farmville, Town Council and Town officials who have made this communion possible.

A communion that speaks for the transforming journey that is possible in this world when people are committed to becoming Founding Fathers, Founding Mothers, Founding Brothers and Sisters together in a nation still striving toward a more perfect union.

The United States of America is not a finished work.
The Founding Fathers did not complete the job when they signed these words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Founding Fathers were just beginning the process, commencing a national journey to give full birth and long life to those founding ideals.
We are still in the course of our human event as a nation.

A human event greatly shaped by the woman we are gathered today to honor by adding her name to this building, this treasure trove of knowledge, visions, ideas, ideals and creative imagination, a hub and gathering place of open minds.

For that is what this library most definitely is, as operated and cared for with such excellence by library staff, board members and volunteers.

But this library has also now become an historic milepost on our national journey together, all of us here now deep in the course of our human event.

Not everyone in America wants us to succeed. The tragic events in Charlottesville over the summer declare the intentions of those who preach and practice racial hatred and hope to prevent us from ever making Barbara Rose Johns’ dream come true.

And Barbara, truly one of this nation’s Founding Mothers, had such a powerful dream.
She believed that the story-book ending could come true.
She believed that we would all live happily ever after.

But the world isn’t always kind to dreams.

Fairy-tale endings—even one based on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America—are most often confined to fairytales.

After leading the historic student strike that gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement on April 23, 1951 Barbara Rose Johns had to leave Prince Edward County. A cross was burned at Robert R. Moton High School and there was a sense of danger all around. Suddenly, she was just gone, off to live with relatives in Alabama, leaving even her best friends wondering what had happened.

Three years later, the Johns home in Darlington Heights was completely destroyed by arson after the U.S. Supreme Court had validated the dream of Barbara Rose Johns with its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Prince Edward County’s Massive Resistance to the Brown decision turned the dream of Barbara Rose Johns into a nightmare.

But not forever.

Her dream is alive and well and standing in our own shoes.

The decision by the Town of Farmville to re-name this fabulous state-of-the-art library in honor of Barbara Rose Johns—who spent her entire adult life as a librarian in the Philadelphia public school system—is a milestone moment, a mile-marker showing how far the dream has traveled since 1951.

It joins the Moton Museum and Prince Edward County’s Light of Reconciliation as an indelible moral marker of this community’s progress. And it joins them as an example to a nation still so deeply divided over race.
The Barbara Rose Johns Farmville-Prince Edward Community Library will forever speak with emphatic clarity:

We shall overcome those who attempt to divide us over the God-given color of our skin.

Today, there is a Johns family home in Darlington Heights, built on the exact spot where the flames of arson had burned down the home where Barbara dreamed her dreams.

Wondrously—despite everything that had happened to drive her away—it was Barbara, herself, who had insisted that her brothers and sister re-build at their home place in Prince Edward County. And Barbara drew up much of the construction plans, herself, and consulted with the local contractor, often visiting the building supply company here in Farmville to see the materials herself.

Barbara wanted the family to have a home to come back to when they returned to Prince Edward County to visit friends and, as it turns out, to celebrate this community’s ongoing journey of racial healing and reconciliation.

A journey that offers living proof, and living hope—not only to the nation, but also to the world—that our lives, that we ourselves, can become human bridges across the deepest chasms.

Unfortunately, cancer claimed the life of Barbara Rose Johns in the fall of 1991, before construction on the new family home was complete. But she did see the foundation. And, in her mind’s eye, I am sure she saw the finished house because she was a human being of extraordinary vision, seeing things that nobody else saw.

Like her vision of “happily ever after” for us all.

Some people in this nation will shout, No, not ever.
But the Town of Farmville today provides the nation with a different answer.

Happily ever after is possible and it is what a loving God is hoping and praying that we will achieve together from sea to shining sea.

Not in the way that it is portrayed in the world of fairy tales. But in the way that life offers us happiness in the real world if we are willing to sweat and strive for it…

If we are willing to be wounded and then healed together.

Wounded and healed together.

Today, we are closer to that dream come true than we were yesterday.

And yesterday we were closer than ever seemed possible in the fall of 1959 when the schools were locked and chained.

This Sunday of communion is no fairy tale and Amen to that.

May God bless us all as our national journey together, as children of God, continues. Founding Brothers and Founding Sisters. One family. Under God Indivisible. With liberty and justice for all.

In The Wilderness Again, And Hallelujah!

Here we are again.
Turned upside down.
Turned inside out.
Sheep in the wilderness again.
But that’s alright.
That can, in fact, be a good thing.
The wilderness doesn’t have to be dangerous.
The wilderness doesn’t have to be scary.
The wilderness can be liberating.
The wilderness can be deepening.
The wilderness is beautiful.
Filled with wonder.
The wilderness is where things happen.
The wilderness is where we can most deeply encounter the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was all about the wilderness.
The wilderness was where he embraced his ministry after overcoming the temptation to do something else.
The wilderness is where we embrace our own ministry, overcoming the temptation to regard ourselves as lost or left behind.
We are nothing of the kind.
It may seem that we are in a lonely place.
But that’s alright.
That can, in fact, be a good thing.
Jesus was always going off to a lonely place to pray, contemplate, and commune with God.
Lonely places are where things happen.
Lonely places are where we can most deeply encounter the Holy Spirit.
Jesus was all about lonely places.
And funny thing about the word lonely.
Take off the first L and the word becomes “one-ly.”
A one-ly place.
A place where we become one with Jesus.
A place where we become one with God.
A place where we become one with the Holy Spirit.
A place where we gather and become one with each other.

Finally Weightless

FINALLY WEIGHTLESS

Unburdened of myself

at last

I discover your orbit

and float in tighter circles

around the warmth of this risen skin

between us,

closer and closer until we touch

undiscovered days and hold them,

rising and setting,

un-calendared between heaven and earth—

certain of both,

afraid of neither—

love freeing us from all gravity

as we swallow the Milky Way together

and wonder how far the speed of our new shared light will take

this finally answered prayer,

determined to find the weight of those

surrounded by something darker than this night

and carry them

as we, ourselves, were shouldered by those

who brought us to this understanding:

we go only as far as those we bring with us.

When Autumn Doesn’t Fall

On some mornings, I step outside and imagine myself among the Galilean hills, standing by the shore, waiting for the sea to brush my soles with its foam, feeling close to Jesus.
At first glance, this early morning looked for all the world like the grayest, dampest, most depressing un-dawning of a day I could remember. I hoped my little dog would get his business over and done with quickly so I could leave the sad state of the world behind and get back inside where it was warm and I could let there be light with the flick of a switch.
If I were looking for a moment by the Sea of Galilee today, it was nowhere in sight.
The World Series was over, which always leaves me melancholy as I bid farewell to my daily summer companionship with baseball. And, of course, that also meant Daylight Savings Time would leave—that night, in fact—an exclamation point to hammer in the return of darkness and the coming coldness of winter.
My annual adaptation to the falling of the year never comes easy. I’d have more success adapting a novel into English from a language I can’t read. For at least two weeks every November, I slog through—mentally and spiritually—making sure I’ve picked out a good novel by P.G. Wodehouse to read as I gain inner traction (which means any of Wodehouse’s 80-plus books).
And then I took a second glance.
What dawn was this?
The sun seemed to be rising up through the trees, stretching out through their limbs and glowing in their leaves of orange, yellow, red and every combination of those colors imaginable.
Literally, the leaves seemed lit up from within to such a degree that the world around me appeared to be filled with light.
Each leaf was a glowing ember that warmed my soul.
Against the grayness of the sky, the autumn leaves were nearly neon. The trees had puddles of light where their leaves had fallen, a reflection-like mirror so that I could see the truth:
The light that really matters doesn’t rise and fall from the east into the west each day and the departure of Daylight Savings Time cannot take it away.
The light that matters most finds a way to shine up through us into the world, as it seemed to be doing through the trees and their leaves on that first Saturday morning in the eleventh month of the passing year.
Just like Jesus said it would.
As our hearts overflow with God’s love and grace we spill over the brim of our own lives toward those around us. Like un-corked champagne from a shaken bottle, it simply cannot be stopped.
God reaches the light of love and grace into the world through our willing hearts even when every clock on the planet is re-set to accommodate a season of darkness.
Sometimes, only surrounding grayness can translate the immortal language of the truest light into words we can understand and share with one another.
Especially sharing with those whose own limbs feel leafless and silhouetted against a sky to which they are praying for light.
The wind suddenly blows my fallen leaves into yours.
And, just now, yours into mine.
They are so mixed up together now I cannot tell whose are which and which are whose.
But, it doesn’t matter.
Together, we shine.
Fall has risen.
Galilee’s tide is high.
Our soles are awash.
And, in this moment, we are not alone.

The Last Leaf At The Bottom Of The Sky

“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
—Matthew 23:12

I am the last leaf at the bottom of the sky.
Heaven seems to end just where I begin.
The last breath of angels just where I first inhale.
A leaf I am.
And shall always be.
Forever.
And ever.
I shall never grow up to become a tree.
Not even a twig.
Leaves don’t do that.
Not a tree. No, not me.
But I am changing colors now.
Just like the sky that seems to end right where I begin.
Just like the sky when the sun comes and goes,
or is it me spinning away from all the light I will ever see
but then—always—spinning back again?
Red, yellow and orange are turning my green inside out.
Just like all the rest.
The leaves that have fallen before me.
Green together at the bottom of the sky
until the sky began to paint us with its colors of dawn and dusk, heaven brush-stroking me in ways I never dreamed possible. The sky always listening.
The sky always there.
Even in the darkness when I cannot see a thing
and I whisper leaf words toward where I believe the sky to be,
hoping heaven will hear me
even though I am just one leaf.
Even though I am not a forest.
Not even a sapling’s dream.
Even though I feel my roots clinging fiercely to the earth at the same time the wind seems to give me wings.
I am flying in place.
Going nowhere.
Being somewhere already.
Right where God put me.
A leaf until I finally leave.
And that is enough for me.
Angels—somehow—all around me.

Loving Those To The Left And The Right Of Me

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Okay, Jesus, but who is my neighbor?
The most common dictionary definition tells me it’s the person who lives next door. That means there is a neighbor to the left and the right of me. Might I somehow love the whole wide world by simply loving my next door neighbors?
Could a “relay of love” spread household by household and neighbor-to-neighbor until one day there is nothing left in the world but love?
The whole wide world filled to the bubbling brim with love?
Sure. Right. Anything you say, Lord….
….But seriously, Jesus, that is so much pie-in-the-sky thinking that the clouds will be made of apples, pecans and a golden brown crust before the world ever spreads its lovey-dovey wings like that and flies off to a better place.
But, still, I must admit, kindness can spread kindness. A smile may beget a smile. I’ve seen and felt both happen.
Anger spreads like wildfire into war, so why can’t compassion put those flames out just as quickly? And why not before the first match is even struck?
Jesus knows that the biggest answers to the toughest questions all come from the same place: the human heart.
Every evil. All goodness. All darkness and every light are all born in the human heart before they ever flip a single switch in the world. That is why Jesus took relentless aim at the human heart, even to his dying breath of forgiveness on the cross.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he tells us, beseeches us, begs us.
Easier said than done. Which, of course, is why Jesus said it in the first place. It needed saying because it needed—and still needs—doing.
But, how long would Jesus last if he walked down the aisles of Congress preaching that soundbite of neighborly love?
What, are you kidding me?
Even the simplest definition of the word “neighbor” would have no chance at all in that political arena today.
Love the person to the political left of me?
Love the person to my political right?
You are asking me, Lord, to realize that you love them, too, those on my left and those on my right? Republicans and Democrats? And you’re asking me to love them all?
Jesus probably had a pretty sharp sense of humor, especially if it could help make a point, so I imagine him answering this way:
“Yes, because you are very much neighbors. Isn’t it called the House of Representatives?”
Everything Jesus ever said is easier to say than it is to do—until we actually go out and do it, and then we wonder what took us so long.
Washington, D.C. does often seem like a hopeless case—and it is a reflection of the current national divide among the nation’s population—but if you and I simply love those who live to the right and the left of us, well, one day that Relay of Love could reach Congress and then who knows what might happen next.
But before we begin that journey there is something we must do.
The first step, Jesus knows, is loving ourselves. Not in a selfish, egotistical way, but as a child of God—vanity replaced with humble, joyous gratitude. Only then can we recognize, and love, the child of God next door.
And from that moment we will grow to realize that our neighbors fill every nook and cranny of the world.

After Crucifying The Light

“The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said.”
—Matthew 22:15

DAYLIGHT, ANYWAY

Even after
the sun set
for the very last time
we sat at the edge of the flattened, rubbled world,
dangling our legs over the side,
dipping our toes,
then up to our ankles and knees
until—not thinking—we were waist-deep,
and then over our heads,
wondering how we ever got there
and how long the baptism would last,
amazed that we could breathe while submerged in so much,
blowing bubbles of light
that became stars above a world that refused to be completely broken
by what people had done
to each other after the sun
rose that morning.

God’s Love Is An Eternal Season

We stood on October’s front porch and the door opens without our knocking. Autumn is upon us. Ready or not. The leaves of color begin to fall. They are blown against the bluest skies by breezes that mingle their coolness with the sun’s warmth. Humidity flies southward with the Monarch butterflies and beside the birds that have sung for us since spring nudged last winter out of the way.
There is so much to distract us in pleasant ways, to keep our minds off the coming darkness and cold that brings the inevitable scarves, ice-scrapers and our own frozen breath that hangs like a mist before sticking, frost-like, to windshields.
If you like sports, there’s football, baseball’s postseason, and soccer. There are fall festivals and school fundraisers, open windows and reading under a tree without swatting away gnats.
For those who love the great outdoors, fields, mountains and streams are now accessible in increasing beauty and inviting temperatures.
But always, lurking around the next football quarter and soccer half, is the bottom of Indian Summer’s ninth inning.
We can turn on all of the lights we want but the sun’s going to keep setting earlier and rising later. Soon enough, the landscape is going to take on funereal tones.
Melancholy finds me each year soon after the World Series ends, the sadness deepening when Daylight Savings Time follows the butterflies and birds, returning only when they do next spring.
But the seasons are blessings. All of them. They are different movements to the same symphony, necessary companions that allow the world of plowed fields and fulsome woods to rest and rejuvenate.
Without winter, there could be no spring.
Without darkness, who would recognize the light?
Walking through the woods and fields surrounding Appomattox Court House National Historical Park recently, I found a reminder that God is present in all of our seasons. Nature’s. And those within us, as well.
On a late September morning, I rounded a bend in a trail and could not believe my eyes.
Brilliant yellow crocuses in rich profusion!!
How, I wondered, could this possibly be? In all of my life I had never, ever seen crocuses shoot up from the ground and spread wide their sunbeam color in the fall.
The rest of the world, in a voice that was beginning to rise above a whisper, was speaking autumn, but these flowers, dozens of them clustered around the base of a tree, were declaring spring.
The sight felt miraculous and the spiritual message soon blossomed:
God’s love and grace are season-less. The rich bloom of God’s love is endlessly limitless and eternally everlasting. There is no Opening Day, no final Super Bowl. Not for God’s fathomless affection.
Most reassuring of all is that, like those crocuses, God’s love is not a miracle.
The flowers, I learned, are Autumn Crocuses. I’d never heard of them before, never seen them. But all of us can plant them in our own gardens to enjoy every fall.
Just as we can open our hearts to the love God yearns to cultivate inside us, the kind of love that can turn our seasons of the human soul inside out, blooming most brilliantly when it seems most impossible that we could even feel one petal.
Flowers come and go. Leaves fall. The final whistle blows on every season. But God’s love keeps playing beyond the final out of what seems to be our last inning. There is always a bloom for us somewhere around the next bend in our heart’s road.

An Impeachable Offense

Before being sworn into office, the president-elect places his or her hand on the bible and swears this oath in public to the people of the United States of America:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

I fail to see how President Trump kept his commitment to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States when he attacked NFL players for exercising their First Amendment right of free speech by kneeling during the National Anthem. I believe Trump violated that sacred oath when he stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field now. Out. Out. He’s fired!’”

Any president who encourages the firing of any U.S. citizen for exercising their First Amendment right has clearly committed an impeachable offense by violating their oath of office.

Out, Mr. Trump, you’re fired.

Seriously.