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Go Set a Watchman

I have the book!  And I’m going to start reading Go Set a Watchman tonight. 

  
I’ve read the reviews, and I’ve listened to the critics on NPR.  I know that Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist, and I know that many other readers have been disappointed.  Still, I’m looking forward to reading this book. 

In some ways, I feel a bit like Scout.  I was a child when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird just as Scout was a child during Mockingbird’s action. Having grown up in a small town in the southern United States, I could relate to many of the things that Scout, Jem, and Dill encountered.  I don’t remember a Boo Radley in my hometown, although there were plenty of characters around whom I felt at least a little uneasy.

And, like Scout, I knew racism.  I heard it at school, and I knew the attitudes of many people around town. I saw the different sections in which people with different skin color lived.  There was an invisible but very clear color line dividing our town. 

I am thankful that my parents taught me to respect all people regardless of their racial or ethnic background.  But I still knew and observed racism. 

I read To Kill a Mockingbird again as an adult. I also listened to the audio book, and although I knew the story — although I knew that Tom Robinson would be falsely found guilty — still I cried when the verdict was announced. How could people treat someone else with such dismissive disdain and searing hatred, I wondered. 

To prepare for Watchman’s release this week, my family watched Mockingbird on Monday night. Gregory Peck was just as calm and determined as always as Atticus Finch . I still felt the pit in my stomach during Tom’s trial. 

And, now I have Watchman. Like Scout in Watchman, I’m older now (though I’m considerably older than Jean Louise in Watchman).  I’m sure my perspectives have changed since childhood as Scout’s surely did. 

While other readers have expressed frustration and disappointment with Jean Louise’s portrayal of Atticus, I’m looking forward to it.  Much of the disappointment seems driven by people’s desire for a completely good, upright hero without flaws or blemishes. 

I don’t think life happens that way, and I think it is heroic to do the right thing even if one has mixed motives and undesirable qualities. At this point, I think Atticus still is a hero. 

I wonder what I’ll think after reading Go Set a Watchman. 

Now, it’s time to read!

Whales and Seals in South Africa

Shortly after we arrived in the Western Cape of South Africa, we were told that we may be able to see whales during our stay.  The Southern Right Whale spends summer feeding near Antarctica and migrates north in winter for breeding.  September marks the end of winter in South Africa, and we have seen signs of spring all around.

A couple of days after arriving in Yzerfontein, South Africa (the beautiful seaside town that is our home for the month of September), my wife and daughter were enjoying time on the beach, when they spotted something near the town’s dock.  At first, my wife thought it was a rock, but on closer inspection, they saw that it was a whale.  They sped home to gather my son and me, and the four of us went to the dock.  We spent the next forty-five minutes transfixed by the whales.  There were three whales within fifty meters of the dock, and they appeared to be two large adults and one small young whale.  We could see another whale about three hundred meters away.  They seemed to float effortlessly, rising and falling with the waves.  Their mouths came out of the water, and they occasionally fluttered their fins and tails.  It was a sight to behold!Whale

We have seen whales on two other occasions.  Once was while at the West Coast National Park, a beautiful place set on the coast just north of Yzerforntein.  And the second time was from the beach while walking the dogs. A storm was brewing, the winds were strong, and the seas rough. Just off shore — no more than 200 meters — we spotted a whale easily floating in the water. It seemed to take no mind to the storm that was leaving us damp and windblown. And we didn’t mind the cold and damp conditions as we watched this majestic creature.

SealIn addition to whales, I also hoped to spot some seals while in South Africa. We traveled to Robben Island (more about this experience in another blog post), which is named for the seals in the waters near Cape Town. Robben is the Dutch word for seal. As our boat approached the island, we saw eight or ten seals sunning on rocks. It was a nice sight, but I really was hoping to see seals in a more natural setting.

Yesterday, while my daughter and I were walking the dog on the beach, we looked behind us, and we saw a seal on the shore. We stood still for several minutes watching the seal. With Pella the dog securely on the leash, we walked closer to get a better view. As we approached slowly, the seal looked at us for a while before walking into the surf. It started swimming in the water just a few feet offshore. As we walked back home, the seal swam parallel to the shore in the same direction we walked. What a gift in this wonderful town! Seal 2

Tears

Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I concluded our time as Pastor of Fernwood Baptist Church, Spartanburg, South Carolina.  We served in this position for five years, and our time was wonderful.  We left because we have sensed a desire to live closer to our family, and we are moving to Florida where we will live close to both sets of our parents and my wife’s brother and his family.  

Unlike many departures, ours was not motivated by frustration, burnout, or anything negative.  We left a place and setting we loved to move to a place and setting where we sense we are supposed to be.

The congregation provided many wonderful occasions to say good-bye.  We shared meals, read cards, enjoyed conversations, and had the great pleasure to say and hear many good words.  On our final Sunday, the congregation hosted a wonderful lunch for us.  When the lunch was over, it finally came time to say good-bye to a group of dear people that we loved very much.

I had thought about so many details related to our departure, but I had not thought about how to finally say good-bye to people.  As the lunch ended, people gathered to extend their good wishes, and I found that I was unable to share words with them.  Instead, I shed tears — lots of tears.  Tears flowed down my cheeks, and many times, I would simply stand with a parishioner — and cry.

Rather than being embarrassed about tears I could not control, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the tears,  They seemed to express what my words could not.

It was a new experience for me, and just one more reason to be grateful for my time with these wonderful people.

God’s Loving Paths

I am deeply grateful to be married to a preacher. A while ago, my wife, Lisa, preached from Psalm 25, which includes the beautiful promise: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.” She called on the congregation to remember that God’s paths are good (notice the plural: paths).

There can be more than one path in your life on which you may please God and live according to God’s ways. There can be more than one path on which you can serve God, do good with your fellow humans, and find deep meaning in life.

Lisa’s sermon reminded me of a story from Kirk Byron Jones. Kirk is a longtime, faithful Baptist minister. I had the pleasure of serving as Kirk’s colleague at Andover Newton Theological School where we taught Christian Social Ethics. In his book, Holy Play: The Joyful Adventure of Unleashing Your Divine Purpose, Kirk describes an episode in which he sensed God’s promise of presence with him as he faced a crucial decision.

At the time, Kirk was serving as pastor of a vibrant congregation, which he loved. He also had another opportunity presented to him that would move him in a different direction. While deciding between the options, Kirk sought God’s guidance in prayer as he walked along a river. He said:

I walked to a spot and began to silently voice my confusion and consternation. I remember, in the words of the gospel song of total surrender, laying it “all on the altar.” After a while, I stopped speaking, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and just stood still. My prayer became a posture of quite waiting. Having talked myself empty, I just stood there.
Some moments passed, and I finally opened my eyes. For the first time since coming to the riverbank, I noticed my surroundings; that’s when I saw them: two paths, just below where I was standing. I held them in view for as long as it took these words to sound in my soul: “Know this: Whichever path you choose, I will be with you.”

May you find the good life on various paths where you sense you are being led.

Endings

On July 15, my wife, Lisa, and I will conclude our time as pastors at our church. As the date approaches, I have been thinking about endings. How can you have a good ending? Is there such a thing as a perfect ending? How can we have the best ending possible with the good folks at our church?
Katherine Anne Porter was a twentieth-century writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. In reflecting on her writing, Porter said, “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, first. And then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”
Porter sums it up well. Knowing the ending can guide our actions and open us to God’s grace along the way.
I do not know exactly the ending we will experience at our church, but I suspect it will be filled with gratitude for the wonderful years we have shared, tears in remembering that we have been deeply blessed, some fears as we all move into an unknown future, and deep hope that we will continue to journey with God.
This week, Lisa and I will have our portrait taken, which will join the portraits of other former ministers in the church’s concourse. This act reminds me that our time together is fleeting, but the congregation will continue its ministry, with God’s grace, for many years to come.

They Ran Like Mad

We are in Holy Week, the special days between Palm Sunday and Easter, when we focus once more on those final events of Jesus’ life. These are days filled with meaning and memory that unite us with our forebears in the faith and our siblings the world over. And also, they can be deeply personal days when individually – you and I – reflect on these events and their meaning in your life and my life.
This year, I am preparing to preach at two services on Resurrection Sunday. The first one will begin at sunrise in our town’s cemetery. I have gathered in this cemetery on many occasions to bury loved ones and commit them to God’s safe keeping. Easter will begin in the cemetery, and that is fitting because that is where the first Easter morning happened. Then, the second service will take place in our church’s sanctuary where people will gather with children in bright clothes, other members in pretty hats, and everyone appreciating beautiful music. This also is fitting because, while Easter began in the cemetery, it did not end there.

Mary Magdalene on Easter, Jesus Mafa

Mary Magdalene on Easter, Jesus Mafa

Our focal Scriptures for Easter Sunday will come from Matthew, chapter 28, and in these verses, Mary Magdalene and another disciple named Mary came to the cemetery, learned of Jesus’ resurrection, and then ran to tell Jesus’ other disciples the news.
In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch translation of Matthew’s gospel, he says that the women “ran like mad” to tell Jesus’ followers of his resurrection. Their running was mad in many senses of the word. I imagine them running as quickly as they could, but also I suspect they were confused, disoriented, and fearful. Still, they ran!
On Easter, we gather in the cemetery – where death is close and present – and then, like the earliest disciples, we will run like mad to other places of life and hope.

St. Patrick’s Prayer

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, the day of Patrick’s death in 461 CE. It is believed that St. Patrick was born around 385 CE and was taken to Ireland as a young man. In 432 CE, he returned to Ireland to serve as Bishop for almost thirty years.

ShamrockAccording to tradition, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to teach the Irish about the Trinity.

The “Breast Plate Prayer” is attributed to St. Patrick. Its reminder that Christ is ever present is helpful on this day and all others.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.