Thursday, February 15, 2018

You Are Dust

Ash from my fireplace

Remember that you are dust, 
and to dust you shall return.

I’ve loved Ash Wednesday services for as long I can remember.  Sure, Christmas Eve and Easter celebrations can be great with the colorful decorations and grand music, but some years I’ve found them bittersweet—hard to keep up the pretense of joy when my soul is feeling something more complicated.  Good Friday gatherings, in contrast, can also be powerful in their sadness, but their focus on the agony Jesus experienced and the cruelty of our world can sometimes be more than I can handle contemplating that day. 

Ash Wednesday is something else, though. It allows us to show up however we happen to be at that moment. It is about reflecting on who we truly are and our place in the universe.  It is, for me, an invitation to begin again on the Lenten journey—a time of intense introspection, repentance and mindfulness—the nearest thing Christians have to Ramadan. We begin by the reminder that we are made of dust,* and that to dust we will return.

There are a number of traditions on how best to get the ashes that are placed on our foreheads on this holy day.  Many burn the leaves they had saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and by doing so highlight the fickleness of humans--we praise a person one day and tear him/her down the next. In the congregations I attended in my youth, my father preferred to distribute notecards for all gathered so that we could put on paper the regrets, grudges and fears that we needed freed from in order to draw nearer to God. Watching my card burn was so cathartic that I began ritually burning a notecard every year—even inviting friends to join me in the ceremony when there otherwise was none.

This year, however, I have a new relationship with ashes. I now have the image seared into my mind of the small transparent bag filled with pale dust which I numbly placed into a columbarium tube—my father’s physical remains compact enough to fit in a coffee can.

There are realities of life which we can know intellectually yet not truly grasp until, well, we do. I can no longer scoop ashes from the fireplace without my mind wandering. I can no longer gaze upon the ashes of Ash Wednesday without thinking “My father is now dust.” And someday we will be again too.                


Image Courtesy, Wiki Commons

*In recent years, when I was in full clergy mode, I preached on Ash Wednesday about the awe and wonder of being made of stardust and one day returning to the cosmos.  That's the thing about being made of dust; it is both a painful and magical truth.

Monday, February 05, 2018

In Support of Choosing Unlikely Friendships

Image from the book Unlikely Friendships 
A noteworthy thing happened on my Facebook wall this winter.  Few people noticed it--but those who did called it everything from a "miracle" to "hell freezing over."  What happened was this: one of my friends wrote that s/he agreed with what another one of my friends had commented on my post.  This would have been completely un-noteworthy except for who those two people are; both are extremely active in United Methodist Church politics on the denominational level, and they disagree adamantly on an issue that is dividing the church.  The idea of the two causally interacting and agreeing on a separate subject in a FB comment thread seemed surreal to certain

That such an unusual thing occurred is no accident; I consider it the fruit of a discipline that my late father, the Rev. Dr. "Biking Bob" Walters, attempted to ingrain in me and modeled in every area of his life. Ten years ago when we were brainstorming names for our new venture, he suggested Theopraxis (already taken) or something involving the words Skunk Works (too obscure a reference, plus possibly copyrighted).  We explored on and on "What will be the core values of our organization?" Then, Dad hit upon the name Friendly Planet Missiology.  I was uncertain at first, but he was insistent that was the right one just as certain as he was that he must build friendships by visiting others by bicycle. Over time, I've come to appreciate this wisdom.

There is something truly radical about resolving to take a friendly peer-to-peer stance with those you encounter. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive no matter who or where you are.  It can be complicated; it can get you ostracized by some, and it can come back to bite you. But, it can also build bridges; it can generate hope and illuminate a way forward where before there was none.

So, I reasoned, if church leaders in North Katanga and Tanganyika have been building peace by transforming war lords into friends,* then surely I can decide to build unlikely friendships by focusing on positive things we can accomplish together.  Sure, it would be easier to treat everyone as either good or evil--ally or enemy combatant, but the friendly way prevents bloodbaths.     

In my husband's line of work, this is what we call diplomacy. In mine, we call it grace.

Let those with ears hear what I'm saying.


*to clarify: most are still war lords in many senses of the term.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Moving forward: 5 months later

I’ve been a bit of a recluse lately.  A lot on my mind and a lot to do.  Since Dad’s unexpected death on my final day in Algeria, I feel like I’ve aged a decade or two, making the psychological transition from young adult to middle-aged human at a nauseating speed.   

In the past five months I’ve learned firsthand so much about grief, the bureaucracy of death in the USA, and how removing just one person from a family system can, like the classic game of Boobytrap, force everyone else into new positions with new pressures on them. 

These day I feel like the understudy who has been called to replace the beloved lead actor. I know I won’t perform this role the way my father did, but there are too many people counting on the show to go on for me to not step up. There are promises to be kept, forms be filed, another book to be published,* and dreams and friends that should not be abandoned.  

Yet, I still have my other roles to play too.  I’m a parent, a spouse, a bishop’s gal Friday, a doctoral student,** a devoted daughter, a pastor with congregants scattered across multiple time zones, and the manager of an NGO that has lost its Yoda. And, somewhere in there, as my dear friend Kate Koppy asserted when I lamented how little I've been getting done, I’ve overseen my household’s international move and decorated the house in time for the holidays.  

I’m not sure if this post has a point other than to say to those of you who haven’t heard from me in months that I’m still alive, been feeling overwhelmed and pulled in several directions, but hopefully will reemerge soon ready to do all that stuff I had planned to do once I became a real grown-up professional person.

 Much Love,


*Much thanks to Kate for stepping in as editor of Dad's second book manuscript.    

**as you may have guessed, that completion date has been kicked down the road

Monday, October 23, 2017

Fidelity is Up and Obedience is Down: A Fiery Furnace Sermon

Digging through the deep archives of my emails, I found this gem of a sermon that my father preached at a church in Indianapolis in 2001. Among other things, it explains why our de facto family motto was "Fidelity is Up and Obedience is Down." I hope it influences you as much as it did me.


Three Young Students in a Fiery Furnace
(A Tribute to Clarence Jordan)

Delivered by Bob Walters
Meridian Street United Methodist Church
April 29, 2001

As I was preparing the sermon for today I initially thought that I would tell you the story of Habitat for Humanity, how Millard and Linda Fuller in a time of spiritual crisis - career was going well, marriage was failing – went to Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia, for a retreat with Baptist preacher Clarence Jordan.  They stayed there with Clarence until they had the breakthrough that gave their lives new meaning and purpose. While living in the community they became aware that many families there lived in run down shacks, some of those families were partner families of the farm. Something had to be done and the community was brought together to build for one another decent houses. Thus began Habitat for Humanity which is this year celebrating its 25th anniversary.

But the more I worked with Clarence Jordan’s writings in sermon preparation the more I realized that that is not what he would do or want me to do.  Our church’s participation in Habitat for Humanity’s 25th anniversary build is a slam-dunk. We will do that. But for Clarence Jordan the Gospel pulpit is not for infomercials, even for a cause as great as Habitat for Humanity. Clarence was a tough preacher. He made people feel uncomfortable. He was kicked out of more churches than he was invited into. Clarence kind of saw the Gospel as a 2X4 and the Church as a mule. Occasionally you have to whack the mule between the eyes to get its attention.

Looking through Clarence Jordan’s old sermons I came across “The Three Young Students in a Fiery Furnace.” It was written in the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, so I won’t preach his sermon but I want to use the same title and preach in the style and spirit of Clarence Jordan.

Biblical Text: Daniel 3:8-23

A couple Saturday’s ago we were in the family minivan pulling out of the Wal-Mart parking lot, stopped at the light, sun warm through the windshield, windows down, light breeze, Jimmy Buffet on the radio and Teri said, “Life just doesn’t get any better than this.” And I agreed. Granted, we are simple folk and a Saturday that begins at the soccer field with Robbie, lunch at Taco Bell, a stop by Wal-Mart to pick up fertilizer, mulch and other garden supplies, motor oil, filters and other car supplies, then a day of yard work and changing the oil in the MG is a Saturday well spent. And life just doesn’t get any better than this.

On a rainy, dreary, depressing day we know what the Gospel means. It means that the sun will shine again. Resurrection overcomes crucifixion, life beats death, and hope replaces despair. But on a beautiful day like today, what does the Gospel say to us? When everything is going our way and our lives are lives of privilege, how does the Gospel challenge us?

Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were three young students enjoying the life of privilege. They were the best and brightest of the land, hand-picked to govern. They were trained in the best schools, they ate the finest food, and they dressed in the finest clothing. They were the spoiled and pampered pets of King Nebuchadnezzar. They were on the top of the world going up. All they had to do was embrace the king’s values, bow to his gods.

No one was more disappointed in this turn of events than King Nebuchadezzar. His disappointment turned to frustration as he tried to reason with them and then to rage when they refused his command. He loved those young students and had given them everything a young person could ask for and he couldn’t understand why they would refuse to participate in the pageantry that celebrated his reign. He also needed them. Those sycophants who told on Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were useless to him. He didn’t need that kind of leadership. To run a kingdom he needed the kind of character that Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego demonstrated.

Every generation needs students like Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego, the best and the brightest who will take our training and frustrate us with a solid refusal to work for our system, who will challenge the values of our institutions, even the Church.

Let me give you a couple examples. Please forgive me on the first example for some fatherly pride. Taylor, our daughter, is a student at American University in the School of International Service, soon to be a graduate student in that same school. Graduates of that school are frequently hired to work for the World Bank or the IMF or any number of multi-national corporations exploiting globalization. Taylor instead works on Capital Hill for our denomination’s General Board of Church and Society as an advocate for justice in the area of population and development. In that job she was called upon to draft a response to our new president’s first executive order – the order that stopped funding to any aid agencies that include in their programs, albeit, funded by other sources, any counseling including abortion as an option in family planning. The response noted that we are cutting off desperately needed aid to the poorest of women and children in the world and that we were in effect legislating laws in other countries stricter than the laws of our country thus retarding the growth of democracies. You do not have to agree with Taylor and the response of the General Board of Church and Society. It would surprise me if you did. But we still need students like Taylor who will say, “Mr. President on this point you are wrong.”

The second example is Emily Greising, a student at Brebeuf and soon to be student at St. Louis University. She has learned well from her Jesuit teachers the values of social justice. She has rented a 15 passenger van and loaded her otherwise conservative family into it to drive them to Fort Benning, Georgia, to stand in the rain to protest the School of the Americas, the school where our army trains the elite fighting units of other governments. Emily will tell you that far too often these units have been used as assassination squads. We need young students like Emily to stand up against the most powerful army in the world and say, “On this point, you are wrong.”

That is two. According to the story we need three. We probably don’t need many more than three. If you’ve ever had to live with these students, you know how difficult they can be. But every generation needs at least three young students who will stand up to us and refuse to participate in our institutions of power and wealth.

Emily, Taylor, young people, we need you. Preachers like me are getting old and tired and we are too wedded to our pensions to go into the fiery furnace any more. We need you to do it for us.

Parents, nurture your children toward authenticity. Teach them to be genuine and true.

At the Naval Academy the answer to the question, “What’s up?” is “Fidelity is up and obedience is down.” That’s how you knew which way to wear the parade belt buckle. The word “Fidelity” was stamped on the top of the buckle and “Obedience” was stamped on the bottom. Its been a long time since anyone cared how I wear my belt buckle, the answer has stuck with me. Fidelity is up and obedience is down. Fidelity, faithfulness, genuine loyalty, true love trump blind, stupid obedience every day.

Parents, nurture your children toward authenticity.

Teachers, don’t teach toward the test. Teach toward the genius in each child. We are not running wiggit factories. We are creating geniuses. Teachers, teach toward the genius that is in every child.

Captains of Industries, you Masters of the Universe, be afraid. Be very afraid. There are students out there who will take you down. They will take your scholarships, your gifts and your job offers and they will say, “No.” Some day you will invite a young student to your skybox and she will say, “No, thank you.” Be afraid of this student. Be afraid because her parents nurtured her toward authenticity and she lives with an internal integrity that you cannot buy. Because her teachers have given her the skill of critical thinking and she can see the truth behind the seduction. Because her church has introduced her to the God of justice, righteousness and compassion and she will not bow down to any other gods or serve their minions.


Suggested reading:
The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John, Clarence Jordan
The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan, Dallas Lee
The Cotton Patch Evidence, Dallas Lee
No More Shacks! By Millard Fuller with Diane Scott