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photo-1I wrote this song six months ago inspired by the story of Moses and the burning bush. Of all the things I have learned about the story through the years, one comment from a Bible study group back in seminary has stuck with me: when you take off your shoes, you’re gonna stay a while.

The lyrics are simple:
Take off your shoes and stay around.
Take off your shoes and stay around
For the land on which you stand is holy ground.

Throughout our weekly chapel with the preschoolers this year, I’ve shared a lot of music, and so it seemed right to do so on Preschool Sunday.

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In his first week at school, my kindergartner got in an argument about Galloway’s origins.
One of his classmates said Mr. Galloway built the school. “No,” Ramsay responded, “my grandpa built the school.” I had to explain that, in a way, they were both right. Grandpa’s construction company built the Early Learning building (where the argument took place), but it was Mr. Galloway who created and shaped the school indelibly. It led to a wonderful conversation about origins and vision, about legacy and future, and about what it means to “build” a school. Is a school a place we carve out, or an idea we cultivate?

I have my own ideas about Galloway, many of them a product of my “lifer” status. We old-timers love to invoke our history – at least, our version of it. And if we’re honest, there are those times when we veer into hardship nostalgia. Call it the Chastain version of Bill Cosby’s going to school “uphill, both ways”. We had one building with chipped paint and noisy radiators; many of our classes were held in trailers that dotted the perimeter of the property; our athletic facilities had to be borrowed; and a mascot? We didn’t need one: we were the Galloway School!

The truth was that we knew deep down that being a Galloway student was to be part of a movement, not an institution. We were different. We were outsiders. Our friends were baffled that we didn’t know what grade we were in. College admissions offices needed translation guides to turn our transcripts into something approaching a G.P.A. And we liked it that way. We learned how not to fit in, and if we look back, we know that our outsider status has continued to serve us well.

I am a proud Galloway alumnus, proud of the school that shaped me, and proud of my enduring friendship with Mr. Galloway. When I started at age 4, I went by my middle name: Elliott – two l’s and two t’s – just like Mr. Galloway. When I married, he spoke in our wedding. When I entered Seminary, his influence was at work again. When we returned to Atlanta, we were fortunate to reconnect with him. And when he died in 2008, I was honored – and stunned – when his family asked me to officiate at his funeral. My roots run deep. How could we not continue the legacy with our children?

And so, as our eldest left pre-K, we began the school application process. Our first impression of Galloway as prospective parents was how different the school looked. There are a multitude of pristine buildings, decked out with the latest technology. The trailers are gone, replaced by fancy extras like a gym and a theater. Since my senior year, Galloway has had a maScot. And, most obvious of all, Mr. Galloway is no longer walking the halls, cup of hot water in hand. The school looks more established. So our question was simple: has the institution replaced the movement?

Our primary concern was to find a school that was a good fit for our eldest. After the tour, I commented to Elizabeth, my wife, that Galloway passed the test. It was, I said, the right school for him. Her response was right on the mark: “It’s the right school for any student.” And a year into the brave new world of Galloway parenting, I’m convinced she’s right. The movement is still moving. Galloway is still different. And that difference is what makes it stand out from the crowd.

Instead of seeing the student as a purely academic vessel, Galloway nurtures the whole child, because wellness, not success, is the goal. Mr. Galloway taught me that. Critical thinking skills take precedent over information, because there will always be new data to integrate and challenge. Mr. Mathis taught me that. And a life-long love of learning is cultivated, because curiosity must not end with graduation. Ms. Coffin taught me that. The times are different, and the methods might vary, but the values and the vision endure.

And that, I see, is the challenge before our community right now. We are only four years removed from the death of our visionary founder. The school can and must continue. But will we successfully navigate this transition so that “The Galloway Way” moves from being Mr. Galloway’s way to being the Galloway community’s way? Can the progressive vision of one man starting a simple school in the 1960s be articulated and expanded into the 21st century by a whole new generation on the cutting edge of education? The historic vision of this community has served us well. As times change and things look different all around us, the values that have guided this place from day one will continue to provide the clarity we need and the direction we desire.

This summer, we will welcome Suzanna Jemsby as the new head of school. I am excited about what lies ahead. Suzanna’s background, skills, openness, and intuition seem extraordinarily well-suited for this “movement” I joined way back in 1974. And now, as a parent, I know what I want for my child. As he grows up and develops his own version of Galloway nostalgia, I want him to remember the whole community that continues to build this movement for the road ahead.

Reprinted from the Alumni Magazine of the Galloway School (Spring, 2012)

See a pdf of the original article here.

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Are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct God for ourselves?

Neither of today’s lessons are easy reads. They start off just fine, but then both take sharp detours into difficult territory. The road turns rocky, and the God whom we thought we knew does or says something we never would have imagined.

In Jesus’ parable, the great wedding banquet is the central image. It’s a fairly straightforward allegory. The original banquet guests are the stand-ins for the self-righteous religious leaders of any age; in Jesus’ time, imagine the Pharisees. The servants who are sent out represent God’s prophets, who, historically, have been ignored, mistreated, even killed. The king sends out the army to kill the murderers – a little revenge-y for God, but at least it’s a contained rage.

And then more servants go out, inviting anyone they can find. These guests are the riff-raff, the tax-collectors and prostitutes, the lepers and Gentiles. We seem to know where we’re headed, toward another “the first shall be last, the outcasts shall be called beloved, the humble shall be lifted up” moral of the story.

But then, there’s this guy…he shows up for the party because he was invited. But he’s not dressed right. And so he is seized and tossed out into that weeping and gnashing teeth place.

I don’t know how many of you remember our tagline for our “Come As You Are” worship this summer, but it was “God has no dress code…why should we?” Apparently, we were wrong, so starting next week, it’s black tie only.

OK – so, in this parable, what are we supposed to take away? That God is angry, exacts revenge, and invites poor people to parties in order to mock their clothes? Go and do likewise?

Maybe our Old Testament lesson can provide us some familiar relief.

Once again, we start off in familiar territory. Moses has gone to meet with God. It’s taking a little longer than expected, so the people get restless and fall into their typical pattern of short attention spans and grumbling dissatisfaction. We’ve reviewed this Exodus story each week, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the key points. So far, God has freed them from slavery in Egypt (which they asked God to do, remember), helped them cross the Red Sea on dry ground, provided daily meat, manna, and water in the desert…I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like they’ve got a pretty good deal going so far.

Even so, no sooner had they gathered their miraculous morning meal than they turn to Aaron, saying, “Yahweh who? How about making us a real god out of gold and stuff so that we can follow them and get out of this place!” Aaron, ever the people pleaser, following in the proud footsteps of well-meaning but wrong-headed Biblical leaders, gives them the golden calf that they request.

Once again, it seems like everybody is stepping into the roles that made them. Like Leonard Nimoy as Spock, the Israelites have become typecast as the permanent ingrates, and Aaron the deeply flawed prophet.

And that’s where this story takes its turn. God gets wind of this betrayal. And unlike before, where God has seemingly been able to turn the other cheek and provide some kind of miracle to rekindle Israelite faith, God gives up. “Leave me alone, Moses. I need to destroy them.”

But Moses, who once claimed to be timid, stays put and pleads to God’s ego: “Don’t give up now! If you do, the terrorists win. Think about how bad this will look. What will this do to your reputation?” Moses’ plea works. The divine mind is changed.

OK: so our takeaways so far are: God has a strict dress code, and God gives up unless someone appeals to ego.

This isn’t the God we know, is it? But then, are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct God for ourselves?

I have said before that it wasn’t until I became a father that I really understood the power and layered-nature of the image of God as parent. And this episode of the golden calf rings all too familiar.

There’s a new illustrated, tongue-in-cheek book for parents called Go the (Expletive) to Sleep. It’s kind of a Good Night Moon for the frustrated parent – not meant to be read to the child, but a much-needed release for parental angst.

The perspective is of someone who loves their child, but is at their wit’s end when it comes to enforcing bedtime. None of us can resonate with that, can we? There’s very little of the book that would be proper to read in an intergenerational setting, but I’ll give you a quick censored taste:

One typical two-page spread is of a beautiful desert scene with the sun setting, birds silhouetted against the night sky. The “goodnight” poem continues:

The owls fly forth from the treetops.
Through the air, they soar and they sweep.
A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love.
For real, shut up and sleep.

This may be the God whom we face in these two lessons today, the over-tired parent who is simply burned out and frustrated beyond belief.

Do we ever get angry? Then why do we think that God is incapable of the same emotion? Are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct the God we want for ourselves?

There’s a wonderful proof-text from Ephesians that speaks to this anger.

We are familiar with part of it: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Or, more familiarly, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Settle your grievance now. Don’t let it fester.

But do we know what comes before it?

This little nugget: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Be angry, but do not sin. It’s a commandment!

We treat anger like there’s something horribly wrong with it. Perhaps it’s a cultural vestige left over from the Victorian era. In any case, the text is clear. Anger isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.

If we want to fashion God for ourselves, then we’re likely to take out all the stuff we find distasteful: anger, rage, fury. And while we’re at it, let’s edit out God’s mind being changed. That’s just a sign of weakness. Isn’t it?

But if that’s our approach, where faith in the God who fashioned us gives way to our own version of idol-making, then we’ve completely missed the point. There’s something amazing to learn, if we allow ourselves to be re-molded into the image of God.

Our moral path is a pretty simple one. We know we are imperfect, broken vessels; but we strive to be better. So what can we learn here? Well, for one, anger isn’t a symptom of our imperfection. It’s something we inhabit naturally. Sin arises from how we deal with that anger.

Look at God’s conversation with Moses. God is the more powerful party. God is the wise one. God is, well, God. And yet, God comes down to Moses’ level, vents a little bit, and then…listens. God listens to Moses; the same Moses who said he was too ineloquent to confront Pharaoh is now arguing with God! And, eloquent or not, God is convinced. Amazing!

So the question for us is: what are we to do with this image of God within us, and with our tendency to construct idols of our own making? When it comes to anger, is it better to suppress it and pretend we don’t have it, or to give voice to it productively in order to deal with it? Are we ever willing to let ourselves be convinced that we might be wrong? And can we do this when the one convincing us is someone we think beneath us, whether because of social status, or age, or educational background, or political affiliation?

There’s not time enough today to deal with all of the questions these texts raise. We’ve still got this problem of the ejected wedding guest. The short version is that the lesson is not about dress code, but responding in gratitude. Even so, is it possible that they, too, might be allowed back in, that the divine mind might be changed?

Amen.

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From the mind of a four year old:

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Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6

The whole idea from this series on Revelation began with the notion that we need to spend some time de-mythologizing and re-engaging the book of Revelation. And in order to do so, we need to strip away the bizarre political overlays that have come to surround this book and its imagery so that we might get down to its heart. And the fundamental purpose of it is this: to let a suffering people know that God wins. But that God’s victory doesn’t look like victory as we’ve come to know it. God’s victory is marked by its obsession with love, grace, and mercy.

Today we welcome our Preschool families, and with them, this thought occurs to me. I have one word of parenting advice as a fellow struggler: we don’t have to know all the answers to all the questions our children throw at us about God. Mystery is an absolute part of faith. What we do know is God’s character of love, grace, and mercy; we are best at answering these questions when we remember that.

Today’s lesson brings images of a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation is not alone in this, but it has a hand in shaping our image of heaven. So the question I ask today is this: how do you imagine heaven? What do you see and hear and feel?

My hunch is that our collective imagination, when pooled together, can do little more than give us a glimpse; and even then, imperfectly so, as it is limited by the stretches of our imagination. But the kinds of things I imagine hearing echo that Revelation text with suffering removed; joy beyond knowledge; radical equality in the presence of God. And why do we choose these things? Because these are the very things that Jesus’ life and ministry were about. He treated people equally, even those who were gravely marginalized in the 1st century: women, children, lepers. He healed and raised from the dead. He shared wisdom, his own version of imagination that parts the skies and opens up a fuller picture of heaven to us.

And that’s the bottom line for me. Heaven isn’t just about an “over yonder” “pie in the sky” situation. Heaven is about the here and now. We sometimes refer to it as the “in-breaking of the kingdom of God”. We are the body of Christ. We are Christ’s hands and feet. We are the ones to show this world what heaven is supposed to look like. And whether its parenting or anything else we do, the most profound wisdom we can offer is not answers; but the deepest desire to live and reflect the character we know of God in God’s victory: love, grace, and mercy.

Amen.

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By special birthday boy request here. It’s becoming a biennial event.

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Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

It’s time again for New Year’s Resolutions. Do you make them? Did you make them this year? Did any of them include God? Church? Prayer?

We’re starting a new series of conversations this week around the topic “Lives in the Balance.” There are so many things that compete for our time: work and school, family and community commitments, financial pressures and political anxieties. We’re pulled in so many different directions. And given that, we need to try and keep a healthy balance.

My suggestion for the first step in getting that healthy balance is being sure of where we are rooted. We need to create time and space for God in our lives. If we don’t, then we are tempted to think that everything rests on our shoulders. And when we get to that point, we set ourselves up for failure. Carrying the world around means we will collapse.

The Luke text, I think, gives some indication of this need for rootedness. You’ve got John the Baptist, my favorite dramatic Biblical character, out in the wilderness. He’s calling people to repentance (literally “facing again”, or returning to God) and offering a baptism to match. The buzz around him is intense; so much so that people are beginning to wonder if he’s that Messiah they’ve been waiting for. He dispels that, lets them know that he’s only laying the groundwork for the stuff that’s coming, and that this Messiah is far beyond John. Can’t even touch this guy’s laces, that’s how awesome he is.

Then Jesus appears suddenly, and who baptizes him? The same guy who was worried about touching his shoes! Shouldn’t Jesus be the one baptizing John? Talk about an intimidating baptism gig! But I think there’s one simple reason why Jesus begins his ministry by submitting to John’s baptism: as he’s heading off into this ministry, these years of preaching, teaching, and healing, the crucifixion and resurrection that await him in Jerusalem, he wants to be sure that he knows where it is that he’s rooted. He is grounded in the God of love, as symbolized by this ritual of baptism.

Do you remember your own baptism? We Presbyterians practice infant baptism, which means if you were born and raised in a Presbyterian church, you probably don’t. My own story, which some of you have heard before, is that I was baptized long before I remembered much of anything. My parents made that promise on my behalf. But what I do remember is when my sister was baptized. I was about four years old, and when the pastor asked the congregation to raise their right hand as a sign that they would raise my little tiny sister as a Christian, I wanted to raise my hand, too. My mom was holding that hand, and simply thought that I was trying to get away to cause some mischief. But I broke free and joined the rest of the congregation in pledging that support for her.

I don’t remember my own baptism. But the point is that there were so many there who promised to remember it for me. And they made good on their promise, telling me the stories of salvation again and again until I made them my own. It’s that public commitment in our practice of baptism that’s so important: not only for the one being baptized, but also for everyone there who is making a promise on their behalf. And it’s this communal memory, whether or not we may actually remember our own baptism, which is so crucial.

It reminds me of Martin Luther, the great reformer, who had his many moments of doubt as he stood up to the excesses of the church at that time. And when he felt beaten down and surrounded, it was this simple mantra that held him firm: “I am baptized.” Not “I was baptized,” but “I am baptized.” It has happened already, but my life remains changed as a result. I have been made clean. Not, “I won’t screw up again” – in fact, the opposite is probably more true. I will mess up. But I am in a relationship with one, The One, who is more committed to reconciliation and forgiveness than I can ever be. There’s nothing magic about the water. It’s just to two hydrogens and an oxygen. But it’s the sign of what it means as we follow in Jesus footsteps in the River Jordan.

My invitation is to recommit yourself to your baptism. And if you’ve never been baptized, to consider it for the first time. Remind yourselves of that baptism, and what it means, to be held in that profound love of God’s healing mercy. And even if you’re not usually in the habit of New Year’s Resolutions, consider making one this year to get rooted again – or, for the first time – in God and God’s desires. In other words, make time for God. God’s got all the time in the world for you.

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