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    "Plus Ultra"

    Posted April 2014

    Prior to Christopher Columbus setting sail across the Atlantic in the late 15th century, it was believed that the world ended out there somewhere beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. One of Spain's great “claims to fame" was that their nation was the last outpost of the known world. They were positioned, so they thought, at the edge of the great beyond.
    Illustrating this belief, the Spanish Royal Coat of Arms portrayed an image of the Pillars of Hercules, the ancient name for those mammoth stone monoliths on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. Printed on the Pillars image was the Royal motto, with no modest pride: NE PLUS ULTRA, “No More Beyond."
    However, Columbus and his crew returned with remarkable “crack in the universe” information. They encountered, beyond the wildest of comprehension, a whole new world.
    In reality, they experienced something much "more beyond." The Royal Coat of Arms had egg all over its face. Then someone (I think it must have been an early advertising genius with a quick eye and daring spirit) made a noble and thrifty suggestion which was immediately accepted by the King of Spain: simply that they strike the first word, NE, from the motto. And so, the coat of arms would read, and has read ever since:  PLUS ULTRA. “More Beyond!"
    This historical anecdote is a good parable for Good Friday and Easter. Good Friday declares that Jesus is brutally executed. Killed for the cause of God's countercultural movement: The Kingdom of God! But his dead body is placed in a deathless grave. For, on that morning after Shabbat, there is that astounding announcement from the graveyard. As James Weldon Johnson proclaims: “Then comes that great ‘gettin up’ morning." Jesus is alive!  

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    Fast For Justice

    posted March 2014

    His loud "trumpet" blares at us on Ash Wednesday. The thunder hurts our ears and shakes our souls. The prophet bellows with disappointment and frustration. Isaiah is announcing that God has no appetite for Lenten fasts from chocolate or bourbon or ice cream. After all, we just return to such feasts on Easter Day, and thereafter. What lasting quality is found in that kind of fast?

    No! booms Isaiah, God demands an “acceptable", enduring fast. God's dream for us (particularly urban/city churches) is to fast for justice. To fast for “freeing the oppressed". To fast for “sharing our bread with the hungry, for bringing the homeless poor into our homes (and churches)." Only then, shouts Isaiah, shall you attain the name: “repairer of the breach; the restorer of streets." (Isaiah 58: 1-12; Ash Wednesday lectionary).
    “The restorer of streets!" That powerful promise has become forever transformed for me after a personal experience with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

    Archbishop Tutu

    In September 1992 Archbishop Tutu arrived in Memphis to receive the International Freedom Award presented annually by the National Civil Rights Museum. City mayor, Dr. W.W. Herenton, appointed two Memphis civil rights icons (Rev. Dr. “Billy" Kyles and Rev. Dr. Fred Horton) and me to represent his Office for Tutu’s arrival at Memphis International Airport.

    We presented the legendary Archbishop with the Mayor’s “Key to the City" at the beginning of a brief press conference. Then, Revs. Kyles and Horton informed me that they had to depart for a meeting of their National Baptist Convention. I became the designated driver for Archbishop Tutu and his wife, Leah, to the landmark Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.
    The Tutus were exhausted from their overnight flight from Johannesburg. The Archbishop placed Leah in the backseat, “for rest." She was asleep as soon as we drove out of the parking lot. The Archbishop, however tired he surely must have been, was vibrant in conversation during the drive to downtown.

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    Subversive Prayer

    posted February 2014

    Subversive: “to undermine the authority of a system or an institution" (New Oxford Dictionary). I personally prefer the Old French and Latin root, sub-vertere: “(sub) from below” in order “to (vertere) turn” life downside-up and outside-in.

    Sub-vertere Prayer: To alter a pattern of prayer that often becomes starved for fresh Wind and passionate Fire. Subversive Prayer: Praying from “under" life’s belly. “Turning” our life to the outside and bringing it inside.         

    Most every morning, near that curious edge when darkness is fractured by the primitive light of a new day, I make my way to my“hand of God" chair. 

    That phrase belongs to the Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, former Senior Minister of The Riverside Church, NYC. When I used to lead Divinity School students on urban ministry pilgrimages in NYC, one of our regular pilgrimages was with Dr. Forbes and Riverside Church’s compelling Wednesday evening “Space for Grace". Forbes never failed to warn us (beginning with me) of the necessity, particularly for a pastor, to use a “hand of God" chair. Within that chair, the practice of persistent prayer reminds us that we can only live and do ministry within the clasping hands of God.

    My chosen chair is under a lamp, next to an antique chest, in our dining room-library. It is a straight back, wooden dining table chair. Hot coffee fills the mug in my hand. Close by is a Bible, a prayer list with world news, and Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, my preferred title for Claiborne, Wilson-Hargrove and Okoro’s excellent and subversive guide for daily prayer.

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    Confessions from an AA "Honorary" 

    posted January 2014

    My first sacramental function in 2014 was to preach on Epiphany evening (January 6) at the weekly Worship Service with Prodigals Community. It was a truth-telling way to begin a 50th Anniversary Year commemorating my Ordinations as a Deacon and Priest in the Episcopal Church.

    Prodigals Community (Winston-Salem, NC) is a superb long-term residential program for 20-25 men in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. It includes a rigorous Twelve Step recovery process, spiritual formation, a job-readiness component, and aftercare for graduates. A required Prodigals Community pilgrimage became a significant “learning laboratory” experience for students and auditors in my Urban Ministry courses at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Invariably, those Prodigals pilgrimages transformed us.

    As the “polar vortex” in early January 2014 extended south into North Carolina, the cold Prodigals Chapel was warmed by the Spirit of radiant gospel music, shared “attitudes of gratitude" and the palpable joy of recovering residents, returning graduates, and grateful family members in the pews. During the preaching event I shared some of these confessions from an “honorary” AA member:

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    Bethlehem, Bread of Life

    posted December 2013

    Have you noticed how a place is often stamped with an image due to an event which occurred there? Think about it. Listen for what happens within you as you methodically read the list of the following cities or places:

    Hiroshima……….Gettysburg………..Selma……Soweto……Memphis…… Auschwitz……. Dallas…… Pearl Harbor…….. Newtown.

    And, isn't it strange how history has a way of stamping places because they are  the scene of unspeakable violence like  assassinations, war battles, massive destruction, tragedy? It would seem that the primary note that history  stamps on a place is the human capacity to be inhumane. Memory seems to have a way of focusing on violence and tragedy.

    Yet, amid the places of our remembrance there is a profound  exception: Bethlehem! Say it out loud.Bethlehem! 

    What happens inside of you when you  speak or hear the name of that Judean village? Or, sing that haunting carol: “O little town of Bethlehem"? Or read the biblical text of Joseph and Mary making their way “to the city of David called Bethlehem"? Or hear a mezzo-soprano sing that announcement in Handel’s magnificent  MESSIAH: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord".

    Bethlehem is a most unlikely place for historical remembrance. Small, remote, dirty, insignificant. Yet, there, as the Gospel of Luke proclaims, a “crack-in-the- universe" birth happened. A birth, which Christians declare, changes human nature. A birth of a Jewish baby who brings Light and Life to the whole world. It is a faith proclamation that God’s Word has “become human flesh". That God has becomes vulnerable and earthy. That God has spoken in body language.

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    No "City of God" in 2014

    Posted December 2013

    There have been numerous inquiries. Therefore, we want to announce that the President and the Board of our Center for Urban Ministry, Inc. have discerned that we will NOT produce our “City of God" national urban ministry conference in 2014.

    Instead, our primary focus in 2014 will be on forming the necessary “next steps" of the succession plan for our nonprofit. The Board of CFUM, Inc. has been outstanding in its clarity  and support for this 2014 focus. We are enthused about the potential for our future. We pledge to keep you posted as we progress. Thanks for your support.


    City Church, Piazza Parish

    Posted October 2013

    A quick glance at piazza in my handy Oxford American Dictionary leads one to: “a public square; an open marketplace in an Italian city". The first and only time I recall hearing  piazza used as an adjective for a city church was approximately 10 years ago. It was gifted to me by a friend, The Very Rev. Tracey Lind, urban planner, photographer, author and the then new and still current Dean of Trinity  Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio. Tracey cast that metaphor as  she was imagining the next chapter of Trinity Cathedral’s life to be about  “becoming a piazza". FYI, she has written a superb book, Interrupted By God: Glimpses From the Edge demonstrating her edgy urban photography and  priceless anecdotes about some  experiences in her compelling urban ministry in Paterson, NJ.

    Intrigued by piazza, I requested her to say more. Tracey explained that her vision was inspired by  the Ursuline Order for women named after St. Ursula. Ursula  (Latin for “little female bear") is a legendary 4th century Romano-British saint who was said to have been killed by Huns in Cologne where St. Ursula’s Cathedral is built over the believed site of her death. The Ursulines are a community whose primary goal is for the education of women. One of the rules of the Ursuline Order is that it's members are to“become a piazza".

    What a vision for a monastic order! And, what a vision for city churches: To become a piazza…. To become an intersecting and connecting public square… To become a gathering place for all sorts and conditions of God's people… To become a Common Table with uncommon prayer and action, feeding everyone with the authentic Jesus “for others". That happens when the city church becomes a marketplace for the enormous energy of the Spirit. That happens when the city church begins to intentionally focus on diversity and dismantling racism. That happens when the city church becomes a public booth, a protest center, a demonstration place for trusted faith and followership. When the city church becomes a place of radical inclusion, following the Lover of Life and Sacred Dancer in the cross -cultural dance of all of humanity. Yes, that happens in the city church when piazza is regularly summoned and served. Every Sunday.  Every weekday. Every year. 

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