Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Guilty Gratitude

I am living with a guilty gratitude. It would be easy to be grateful to God if Katrina or Rita had simply fizzled before coming ashore. But they didn’t. They came in powerful and merciless, leaving thousands homeless and jobless. And it could have been us. Easily.

Friday morning I took my coffee cup and settled in the Lazy Boy in my grandmother’s front room on her peanut farm just outside of Floresville, Texas, south of San Antonio. I heard the local weather man describe Rita as the third most powerful storm ever to enter the Gulf of Mexico. At that time she was a Category Five with sustained winds of 165 MPH. The catastrophic damage she was capable of was incomprehensible. And she was headed on a trip up I-45.

I sipped my coffee and pondered what the future might hold. I recalled a conversation with Frank, a Katrina evacuee eating lunch at Clear Lake Baptist Church just a few days earlier. I’m guessing he was in his late fifty’s, a blue-collar worker from a Zatarain’s factory in New Orleans. He stood with his hands in his Levi pockets, looking down, rocking back and forth on his heels. “Last Friday,” he said quietly, “I had a job and a house. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I thought about something I said several times in reply to Katrina’s victims who expressed their gratitude for the way they were being cared for: “Well, but for a matter of miles, it could have been us. In fact, it could still be us. The hurricane season isn’t over yet.”

Now I sense a kind of guilty gratitude. I am definitely grateful to have been able to return to my home. But I do not think that God balanced the prayers of the people of Houston against those of the people of East Texas or Louisiana and decided to spare us.

A few weeks ago I shared this prayer at the close of the sermon. It seems appropriate now. This is the kind of gratitude I want to learn.

I do not thank thee, Lord,
That I have bread to eat while others starve;
Nor yet for work to do
While empty hands solicit heaven;
Nor for a body strong
While other bodies flatten beds of pain.
No, not for these do I give thanks;
But I am grateful, Lord,
Because my meager loaf I may divide;
For that my busy hands
May move to meet another's need;
Because my doubled strength
I may expend to steady one who faints.
Yes, for all these do I give thanks!
For heart to share, desire to bear,
And will to live,
Flamed into one by deathless Love—
Thanks be to God for this!
His Gift!
Amen. Amen.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Katrina Pledge: A commitment to build a new America.

NOTE: The following is not my own composition. It is a widely-circulated document found, among other places, at the www.calltorenewal.org website. I have signed it.

WARNING: The document may not be politically correct among some religous conservatives. Do not read it if you think you might be offended by the observation that what we are doing is not working.

"The poverty we have witnessed on the rooftops of New Orleans and the devastated communities of the Gulf Coast is morally unacceptable. If you care about building a new America, read and sign the Katrina Pledge today!

The Pledge:

The waters of Hurricane Katrina have revealed fault lines of race and class in our nation, washing away our national denial about the large number of Americans who live in poverty and about its disproportionate impact on people of color. We have now seen, and so has the rest of the world, the effects of public policies that sacrifice the common good to private interests and misguided priorities. In the aftermath of the storm's destruction, a new America must be born in which compassion and conscience reshape our society's priorities at all levels. Together we can transform our country into one where economic security for all is an essential part of our national security.As a person of faith, I believe that the poverty we have witnessed on the rooftops of New Orleans and the devastated communities of the Gulf Coast is morally unacceptable.

Therefore, I join my fellow Americans across the barriers of race, religion, class, and politics in the following commitments: 1. I pledge to be personally involved in helping those whose lives have been affected by this natural disaster - by praying for the victims and their families and by offering my time, talents, and resources to relief and recovery ministries that are meeting their needs. 2. I pledge to work for sweeping change of our nation's priorities. I will press my elected representatives to protect the common good - especially the needs of our poorest families and children - rather than supporting the twin social disasters of tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts that hurt the poor."

To sign the pledge, click here.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

People Like Kathy

Several years ago I had one of those airplane conversations preachers are always telling about. I hate to admit it, but I usually try to avoid those conversations. Maybe I shouldn’t. But the truth is that when I’m flying, I have a difficult time with conversations. I don’t hear all that well with background noises, like jet engines. And I am a bit introverted. Still, one of those conversations found me.

I was returning from Minneapolis on a Continental flight. I found my seat that Wednesday afternoon next to a “technomaniac.” He was a forty-something business type, cradling his cell phone between his shoulder and his jaw while he was unzipping his laptop case and setting up shop. He was sounding pretty important: “Yeah, I’ll be there in about two hours. The fax machine is on. Just send me the contract. I’ll evaluate it and send it back to you.” I was just watching it all.

I opened my briefcase and took out materials to work on the weekend sermon. He glanced over at what I was reading and said, “Looks like pretty interesting stuff you’re reading there.” We got to talking about religion and freedom and things like that. He asked me what I did, and I admitted that I was the pastor of a Baptist church. He said, “Our daughter went to a Vacation Bible School last week in Denton at a Baptist church. A lady across the street named Kathy goes to that church and invited our little girl to go.”

I asked, “Do you go to church anywhere?”

“No, I quit going to church a long time ago. My wife is a Buddhist. She’s from Japan.”

“Are you a Buddhist?”

“Well, sort of.”

“You quit going to church?”

“Yeah. I grew up in a Methodist church but when I got old enough, I quit going.”

“Tell me about that. Why did you quit? What sent you away?"

“To tell you the truth, the thing that bothered me most about it was that I knew everybody in this little town I grew up in. I’d see them in church on Sunday, and I knew what they did the rest of the week. Quite honestly, there was just no consistency between what they were doing on Sunday and how they lived the rest of the week. I decided I didn’t need that.”

So it had been more than twenty years since he had been in church. We talked a bit further, and he said, “But you know, this woman Kathy, across the street – she really lives it. She lives what she says. In fact, we had a party in our neighborhood for her. I got to give a little speech. She had been helping everybody in the neighborhood, and we had a surprise party for her. We invited her over to our house and gave her a present. She was completely flabbergasted. She really lives what she says.”

We talked a little further, and I said, “I’m the pastor of a church, and one of the things I’m interested in is finding people like you and helping them come to know God through Jesus Christ. How can I do that better?”

“Well, if you could get more people like Kathy…”