Archive for October, 2015

St. Fred Rogers

// October 24th, 2015 // 1 Comment » // Church in The Cliff

I haven’t really watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood since I was a kid.  I don’t remember much about it except what has been parodied: the song, the sweater, the tennis shoes, vaguely the puppets.  So I decided to refresh my memory and watch a little.  It all comes rushing back, mostly this character: Mr. Rogers.  Although, by all accounts, it is not a character.  He is, as he always encouraged his viewers, simply being himself.

Fred Rogers complained of the parodies that they made him look too wimpy.  Lest I be sucked into that wimpiness, lest I be transformed into such a gentle and anemic form, I finally sat down to watch American Sniper this weekend as well.  It’s quite a contrast.  I’m not sure Chris Kyle watched Mr. Rogers growing up.

Kyle’s philosophy was simple: find the bad guy, kill the bad guy, make the world better.  However, the subtext of the film was the ultimate failure of this philosophy.  I have no doubt that Chris Kyle was a man of honor and conviction, a man who cared deeply about the people in his world, a man who would do anything to protect them.  He claims not to regret the people he killed, only those he was unable to protect.  It turns out that there are always bad guys.  It turns out that in seeking vengeance, we only create more violence and death, even to those we profess to love and intend to protect.  It turns out that finding the bad guy and killing the bad guy doesn’t actually make the world better.

It also turns out that those who are put in a position of finding and killing the bad guy are often traumatized by the experience.  Chris Kyle, like so many other veterans, suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He couldn’t sleep and when he did, he was haunted by nightmares.  He drank heavily.  He flew into fits of rage.  He felt isolated, unable and unwilling to talk about what had happened to him and how it made him feel.

Fred Rogers famously testified before Congress to defend funding for public television.  What people don’t know about Fred Rogers’ testimony before Congress was the reason he had to fight for funding in the first place.  The budget for national public television was threatened in response to the first national episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, which imagines war coming to Make-Believe.  War is overcome with creative “peace balloons,” but more importantly with the refusal of the governed to go along with the fearful policies of King Friday.  The analogy was obvious and Mr. Nixon was never one to let a slight go.  But Mr. Rogers was no wimp.

In that testimony, he said, “I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”  That sounds like something Chris Kyle needed to hear after four tours in Iraq.  Rogers went on to exalt conversation over confrontation as dramatic content.  He would rather depict two people working out feelings of anger together than show gunfire.  Mr. Rogers knew that honestly understanding our own feelings and being able to communicate about them, respecting ourselves and others as full human beings, was far more powerful than any weapon humankind has devised.  That sounds like something Richard Nixon needed to know.

Each saint we have canonized has some rough spots.  This sometimes produces some anxiety, whether it’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s disturbing coziness with Southern racists or Johnny Cash’s lifelong dance with amphetamines.  Our hope is that talking honestly about those things will paint a broader picture of healing and redemption, of the miracles that are possible in a human life.  With Fred Rogers, there is no such anxiety.  He knew exactly who he was and knew the power of being just that.  He made every person he encountered know the same thing.  Most importantly, he knew the power of such a posture to transform the world and he lived every day to spread that message.  Mr. Rogers was no wimp; he was a saint.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the gentle and powerful life of everyone’s neighbor, Fred Rogers.  Won’t you be my neighbor?

Grace & Peace,

St. Samuel Mockbee

// October 17th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I am so thankful to Fred Pena for bringing Samuel Mockbee to our attention.  When the saints series was originally conceived, I had in mind people who had some direct impact on who we are as a church.  My thinking has since changed for the better.  There are so many who labor out there in the world, who are doing work that could and should inform what we do.  Even if we don’t know who they are now, we are all a part of the same ecosystem.  It’s almost like there is something unseen flowing through all creation and history and we all find ourselves a part of it.  Probably no one has ever thought of that before.  I’ll have to come up with a name for it.  In any case, Samuel Mockbee floats in the same stream as the people of Church in the Cliff.

Mockbee grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, oblivious to the racial segregation that both tore apart the world around him and made possible the privilege he enjoyed.  But he was profoundly affected by the death of James Chaney, one of three civil rights workers who was killed by the KKK near Philadelphia, Mississippi.  Chaney had also grown up in Meridian, a scant year apart from Mockbee.  Yet, their worlds never intersected in their youth.  When he entered a desegregated army, he was, for the first time in his life, shoulder-to-shoulder with people of color.  Over time, he became aware of all the many ways he benefited from being white.  He also began to understand how those benefits came at great cost in the lives of people of color.

Following his Army service, Mockbee attended Auburn University and received his degree in architecture.  As he began working as a young architect in the South, he realized that many of the victories of the civil rights movement were not present realities for impoverished people of color in the South.  As an architect, he wondered what he could do to change that, to affect the material reality of people living in poverty.  One thing he knew: architecture was the domain of the rich, safely distanced from poverty, and it was taught as an abstract, theoretical practice that sustains that distance.

With this in mind, Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio.  Architecture students from Auburn spend a portion of their education building homes and civic buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama, one of the most impoverished counties in the South.  Students work in cooperation with residents as clients to build buildings that respond to the realities of their lives.  They not only design the buildings, but do the neck-down work of construction.  Because their clients are in poverty, they build sustainable, low energy footprint homes.  Because money is short, they use innovative building techniques that use recycled, salvaged, and waste products.  Yet they are not bland boxes in which we might stow away the undesirable.  Rather – to echo language that Mockbee uniquely applied to architecture – they are homes of distinct beauty, nobility, and decency.

Samuel Mockbee was certainly an imaginative person.  He must have been to be so innovative with such limited means.  In his paintings and assemblages, which feature his clients alongside gods and goddesses of the Alabama landscape, real objects and symbolic expression have equal weight, as if they inhabit the same world, as if they speak to one another.  If we understand one, we might have a key to understanding the other, and then we might understand something about the whole.  One commentator noted that Mockbee’s entire life and work “may have been simply the cast off foam from a vast imaginative sea.”  Somehow, out of that fecund abyss, Samuel Mockbee formulated a vision and made it real in the lives of students and clients.  He not only changed his corner of the world for the better, but created a model for how we might approach the most tenacious problems through cooperation, mutual respect, and living life together.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we celebrate the life and work of St. Samuel Mockbee.

Proceed and be bold.

St. Johnny Cash

// October 9th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Perhaps more than any other person we have canonized, Johnny Cash exemplifies what we mean by saint.  Not that he was a pure, moral, and good person; he was not.  But integral to sainthood is the hagiography, the story of the saint that we tell.  We know they are not entirely true, but we tell them because we are really telling a story about ourselves and who we might like to be.  In the case of Johnny Cash, he has done much of that work for us.

Johnny Cash was a legend in his own time.  He was a walking, talking mythological figure.  Much of what he said about himself was not true.  His stories changed over time, often becoming inflated with each retelling.  Yet, the embellishments to the kernel of truth often told of a greater truth about the man.  Part of our task this Sunday will be to unravel the man from the myth.

What is true is that Johnny Cash was born in the midst of the Depression to a cotton farmer named Ray.  Ray was a mean man, passing on the ill treatment he suffered at the hands of the older brother that raised him.  Ray was an alcoholic and meanest when he was drunk.  When Johnny’s older brother Jack, a young man so virtuous that everyone knew he would be a preacher from the time he was twelve, was killed in a sawmill accident, Ray let Johnny know that God had taken the wrong son.  Johnny believed him; he carried guilt and grief all his life.

The only cure for the guilt and grief was faith and love.  Tragedy and the compassion and faithfulness he saw from others in the face of it strengthened his faith in God.  His love for June healed him.  Johnny Cash was able to take his suffering and his feelings of unworthiness and turn them into deep compassion for others and a yearning for social justice.  He was a champion of everyday folk, those who were down on their luck or had taken a wrong turn in their lives.  He thought everyone should have a shot at redemption.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we honor the life and legend of St. Johnny Cash.  If you are inclined, bring an instrument and join in the singing and playing.  We’ll do a run-through around 10:30.

Grace & Peace,

Vote Annette for Co-Pastor!

We will vote this Sunday to add Annette Owen to our staff as a part-time co-pastor.  This will entail an addition of $500 per month to the budget.  If you are unable to attend, please make your vote by emailing