Once during my seminary career I attended a worship service and a guy named Joey Jeter was preaching. I didn’t really know him. Others did, but being from a different part of the country, I was generally clueless. Here was a young man fresh from the Peace Corps heading off to do his doctoral work. What I did notice, in addition to the fact that at that time he wore bangs down his forehead cut straight across? Even today I remember that he preached from Psalm 25: “In you, O Lord, we put our trust. Do not let us be put to shame.” Where Joey took us was precisely to the places in our national life where we would indeed feel the shame most. And he kept asking, again and again, “Do not let us be put to shame?” It was a powerful moment for hope to rise up out of those particular ashes. It still is. Before we knew it he was heading to Brite Divinity school to become the professor of Homiletics.

There are too many stories about Joey to remember them all. We could tell of surprise appearances in General Assemblies, provocative sermon series from which everyone borrowed, students who benefited from his unusual patience, and most of us  who weren’t worthy to untie this homiletical sandals.

Then there was his compassion, his loyalty. He shared concern for his friends who passed through hard times. He bled for preachers who were routinely and often unfairly beaten up by congregations. I know Joey was of personal help to me with one aspect of my doctoral work. He once reached out to me at just the right moment when I really needed some support. You can add to all this with hundreds of other examples.

But what I really want to share is a story, one story only.

Some years ago I was attending a conference in Santa Fe and Joey was the presenter. He was addressing generational shifts and  uniqueness. And during one of our free afternoons Joey and some of his friends determined that we would make the relatively short trek down to the old town, Madrid, New Mexico.

In its heyday, Madrid was a mining town. But later, long after the mines had played out and the place turned into a ghost town, it was taken over by a band of hippie artists who transformed Madrid into a center for the arts. It thrived. What a great place to go for an outing, down to Madrid. So we piled into our cars and headed out across the high desert.

Just as we were pulling into Madrid we spied a huge banner that stretched all the way across the main street, from one side to the other:

Madrid Chile Festival

Now really, how good can it get? Imagine: We decide on the fly just to drive to Madrid for an ordinary drop in visit, and what’s happening? A Chile Festival. The Tex-Mex gods were smiling on us. The whole decorated town was ready for guests. Joey waxed eloquently about the synchronicity of the whole thing: Sometimes you just decide to go somewhere and there’s more waiting than you expected.

I was driving and as I turned into what appeared to be the first parking lot on the right, I rolled down my window and the attendant greeted me. He was fairly gruff but I smiled and asked if this was the right place to park. He asked, “Are you with the cast?” I said no, that I didn’t know anything about a cast. What cast? And he, somewhat perturbed, answered, “The cast of the movie. If you’re not in the cast you have to park on down there,” gesturing to several streets over.

The reason that he asked if we were part of the cast is because we had stumbled onto a movie set. The Chile Festival was part of the set for a movie. Everything was made to look like a real town – the storefronts, imaginary Post Office, Saloon, shops. But what movie? Madrid, New Mexico, had just been transformed into the set of the movie Wild Hogs.

Actors like John Travolta, William Macy, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, Ray Liotta, and Peter Fonda roamed the streets. We were given strict instructions not to talk to the actors. Since everything was shut down for filming there were only a few real shops open. One of those was the saloon, which actually was a real functioning bar behind the saloon facade and it was open for business. At that, Joey made an announcement that held the ring of absolute certainty and gravitas: “In times like these there is only one thing to do, one thing to make the best of a situation just like this. To the saloon!”

We were persuaded. We had never heard truer words. And so we spent much of the imaginary Chile Festival of Wild Hogs in the town saloon. And I hear Madrid has never been quite the same.

Thanks, Joey. Not just for that. But for the thousand, unmentioned, half-remembered things that were for you simply, gracefully, all in a day’s work.

Living in the Hard Places

Posted: July 30, 2019 in Uncategorized

Our guest blogger is Nita Gilger – educator, writer, sojourner in the wide open spaces.

The best of Broadway may find its greatest challenge from a funny little bird. Killdeer birds are incredible actors. Because the killdeer eggs are so vulnerable and exposed, the adult killdeer birds have some well-practiced antics to pull predators away from their nests. Their nests are often very visible in a gravel area or shallow grass. Killdeers have a shrill and loud call as they run away from the nest with the broken wing ploy. If the predator buys the drama of feigned injury, it goes for the adult bird and never finds the nest. The hope is safety. The desired effect is to keep the eggs from being a feast for another larger bird, skunk, or raccoon. When I walk along with my sweet dog, the killdeers go into their performance with gusto. We have no desire to disturb the eggs but how do they know? How does a bold bird with a little bitty brain really know what my intentions are? All it knows to do is what it is created to do. Its instinct to pretend injury so as save its babies.

I recently found nest with four eggs in it is right on top of a gravel parking area near one of the ranch houses. The nest has survived a front loader coming and going filling in potholes from recent rains. The operator noticed the momma killdeer protecting the nest. He took care not to run over them and even asked us to watch out for it. A few days later, a worker arrived with heavy machinery to fertilize the yards. The driver saw the nest and momma and actually stopped and built a little rock ring around the eggs so no one would crush it. These workers are guys who I would not have guessed would have taken time or been interested in taking care of these vulnerable little eggs. But they did take care–a great deal of care to protect life in this very hard place. I hope the eggs survive all of upcoming festivities soon to happen around the ranch. I really can’t move the eggs for concern that they might be abandoned. So, I am left to hope life survives in this harsh, hard environment. Sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

The Bible often speaks of rocks and hard places in its metaphorical way. The Psalmist calls God our Rock and our Redeemer and our refuge and salvation. The Gospel of Matthew exalts us to build our houses upon a rock. If we think of images of rock as solid, dependable ground, these wonderful biblical pictures of God come to the forefront. But there are also biblical warnings about the unwise practice of planting seeds in rocky soil. There is caution given about hardening one’s heart.

How do we live in the hard places of life? The killdeer birds choose open, rocky and exposed places to lay their eggs. They have adapted to protecting their nests with all sorts of distracting behaviors and noises. If I have my druthers, I would prefer images of rivers and flowing waters or lying down in green pastures. I like to think of flowing fountains and living waters. However, not all of life unfolds in the lush, easy places with refreshing waters and peace and calm.

The hard places in my life have a lot to say to me. I know from experience that I can and will survive and flourish with the dependability of God’s care and love. I believe that to be true even in death. My task during the hard place times is to learn and be open to the possibilities of blessing and growth. Hindsight is 20-20. Most hard places in my life have been times to be endured. It is often only when I look back that I can I see how much I have learned and grown. At times, it is only in revisiting my memories of difficult seasons that I can determine that God was really there; God was loving me in and through those times. There in the desolate, harsh places were many friends placed in my life who offered protection, care, guidance, and love.

This morning, I am paying attention to the lessons of the killdeer and the gifts of the hard places. I hope the eggs and I can survive the hard places of the present moment and all that is on the horizon. My prayer is to have the awareness and courage that I need to incubate new life as I learn from the rocky moments. What a gift it is when I can catch glimpses of the gifts of living in the hard places especially in the present moment. Like the killdeer birds, I hope the drama of my life is worth it. I hope I can fully be who I am created to be. And, I hope I stay open to the creativity of God in all times and in all places. Perhaps with heightened awareness, I won’t have to wait for 20/20 hindsight to find the fullness of life–even in the hard places. To Kill a Mockingbird is a major hit on Broadway as of late. Perhaps there will be another show that rises to prominence, a show entitled, The Killdeer Way. I wonder if Jeff Daniels is available as my co-star? Now that would be sweet.

Today we ran into a group of 29 young adults bicycling from Baltimore to San Francisco accompanied by a chase van with water, food and repair parts.  They were raising funds for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. We spent some time talking with some of them. They are some of the most exiting, passionate, committed young adults I’ve ever met. They come from everywhere across America. And they give selflessly to support what they consider important.

My takeaway today: I think we mischaracterize Millennials. They may not view the world through the same glasses we wear, or view the world of work the same, or live our their spirituality with the same forms, but they are willing and wanting to live honest lives of purpose and love. I met them on the road today and was filled with admiration. And hope.

Let’s let them grow, serve and lead in their own ways. They may have the answers to the thorny challenges facing us, be willing to name it and do it differently. And just in time.


The Lead Singer

Posted: July 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

The lead singer always wears red,
her signature color, the way the notes feel best,
and she prances on stage, flits,
and steps out for a break,
maybe in the alley out back,
catching her breath or even a snack.

But the three pips never leave their positions
as they crane their necks
arching them to the sky, letting loose
a cacophony of sound, waiting
for the woman in red to return
with just the right bug.

Timothy Carson, July 4, 2019

As the Rain Pours Down

Posted: June 23, 2019 in Uncategorized

As the rain pours down
and down
cleansing and correcting,
creating new tributaries
and stretching old ones
beyond what is uncomfortable
for those who thought
they were in control.

Every little human effort,
the designs of tribes and groups
that actually believed
they had some last word
go downstream
where the river finally delivers
the final verdict,
an ultimatum laced with hope:
to the sea with you

(Timothy Carson, June 24, 2019)

Nita Gilger

Our guest blogger today is Nita Gilger, an educator and writer who lives in the wide open, rugged landscapes of The Big Country of Texas.

In Celtic book of prayers Sounds of the Eternal by J. Philip Newell, one of his morning prayers speaks to me:


Glory be to you
for the beauty of your image
waking in opening eyes,
lighting the human countenance.
Glory be to you, Glory be to you.
But where the glistening is lost sight of,
where life’s colors are dulled
and the human soul grows hard,
I pray for grace this day,
I pray for your softening graces.

Softening graces. How beautiful is that? I feel enveloped by such love and grace. I drink it in with the challenging lesson that waiting is important, necessary, and ever so instructive. And I liken these softening graces to the beautiful process of giving birth. Women’s bodies must soften to be ready for the birth of a beloved child. The body must be ready and when it is the miracle of a newborn baby happens almost on its own.

I remember my own labor and delivery of our son. He was ready even if I wasn’t sure or settled about the physical challenge about to come. It all unfolded very quickly for a first pregnancy, lasting just shy of six hours. Contractions had begun. Everything was ready and softened. The only hold up was that my water would not break. After the doctor deemed it necessary, my water was broken and very soon our son arrived, a healthy eight-pound, four-ounce, twenty-two-inch bundle of joy.

Though I had never participated in the birth process before, I was ready to hold my child in my arms and welcome him with the utmost joy. My body was set on go. The marvelous 9-month preparation in utero had given my baby boy all he needed to come bursting into life.

This moment in time will always be held as a supreme and miraculous gift of God. It is the most precious kind of love. It is a love that nothing can destroy. Little did I know then that I would never be able to have more children. Two subsequent miscarriages and major grief would follow.  Even so, I have always felt very blessed to have one child. I know some never have that joy even when prayers are prayed and everything has been tried.

As life has unfolded, I have known and still know many hard places. But it does not benefit me or anyone else to somehow compare the degree of my struggles with that of others. Though some people seem to have it worse and some better, what real certainty can I have in knowing the differences? What I can and do know is that God is present in all the hard places, the waiting places, and in the giving, celebratory places of my life. When life’s colors are dulled and my soul grows hard, I know I can pray for and receive softening graces.

Those incubation periods are not wasted; the waiting and clearing moments can be filled with lessons on surrender, vulnerability, and listening. As I grow and lean into softening graces, I have a deep trust that direction comes in the tough seasons. Though patient waiting is not exactly my most noticeable virtue, I still trust that those seemingly fallow periods of my life will be held with softening graces. Let it be so.

There was a time when those of us in Western democracies, republics like our own in which the First Amendment allowed for religious freedom without establishing any form of religion as the official religion of the realm, looked with horror upon militant forms of Islam that took over the law and governance of entire countries. The political leaders were one and the same with the religious Ayatollahs and they conflated Sharia – religious law – with civil law. We witnessed what a theocracy could be in both theory and practice.

We watched as women were forced into tightly prescribed roles and mores that included required dress like hijabs or burkas. They were not allowed in public spaces and had limited freedom. Everything was prescribed by religious authority combined with the enforcement power of government. The conformity police harassed and beat offenders in public. Be-headings and punishments took place in the public square to create fear and reinforce the rule of absolute authority. In every respect men were deciding exactly what women should be and do.

Thank God nothing like that could ever take place here, we said with relief.

Theocracies, however, have never been limited to one religious faith or one geography. Whenever fundamentalist strains of faith become militant and strive to create society in their image, theocratic systems are born. The development is gradual at first, with religious actors entering the public square and exerting influence, which at first only appears as an aspect of freedom. But their objective never stops there. What is desired on the part of those systems is control of everything. Through assimilation or revolution, those religious actors work into positions of authority and influence upon political figures. The politicians eventually need the support of these religious power brokers who control their constituents.  And in time the separation between civil government and religious law dissolves. Religious convictions or values become codified into civil law.

We are living in just such a time in the United States.

Over the past few decades the religious right has joined forces  with one political party. They now serve one another’s interests, trading favors for the promise of power. Even when the values of either party or religion run counter to those of the Theocracy partner, they remain silent or give tacit approval. In statehouse after statehouse across the country the religious agenda of one brand of Christianity is now being reflected in the legislation. On the national stage a certain class of judges are now being appointed who reflect a particular worldview and make those judgments accordingly. We are now living during the rise of the Christian Taliban.

In this Theocracy the Christian Taliban present their values as the only values and enact them into law. The control of women by men is high on the agenda, especially when it comes to reproductive rights. The Ayatollahs of the Christian right – megachurch pastors, televangelists, popular conservative authors, religio-political pundits – present the absolute truths by which everyone should conform. They go so far as to criminalize the violation of their Christian Sharia and punish those who do not conform.

In a regime theocracy such as the Reichkirke in Nazi Germany – the State Lutheran Church became the legitimizer of the Third Reich, naming Hitler as God’s manifestation in the world. As Swastikas flew alongside crosses, there was no separation, no independent ethical reflection, no protest against any policy on the basis of faith or morals. The values and goals of the state were baptized by the church and the church became the religious arm of the regime, the megaphone for religious propaganda. In exchange for that submission the church received the tokens of power, prestige and protection. Until it shamefully came crashing down.

Religions that participate in theocracies inevitably lose their souls for worshiping the golden calves of power. The governments often end up endorsing narrow religious views that are not shared by the majority of its citizens; people conform only under the threat of punishment. Both are sullied in the process.

Protest of a theocracy can be very difficult, especially as power is centralized. But resistance is essential, a necessary refusal to accept either side of the toxic formula. The religious values of the theocratic religion must be publicly critiqued. The government’s policies must be publicly critiqued. And all of this must take place through an articulation of a different set of values and ideals.

The Christian Taliban are terrified of true freedom, allowing for real moral choice on the part of fellow citizens. They deal with this terror of freedom by attempting to control everything and everyone through coercive power. Freedom is the opposite of that and advocating for it, insisting upon it, requires suffering on the part of resisters. The Taliban are fierce in their crusades. They are willing to do anything to both seize and retain power.

The difference between living in a Theocracy and a free society is that in a free society one religious group does not set the agenda, limits, rules, or priorities for everyone else. That Christian Sharia does not become the law of the land, defined by Christian Ayatollahs and codified by Christian Taliban.

Theocracy? Here? Now?

For God’s sake, no.