Requiem for My Father

I knew you – really knew you –  late

Which I suppose conventional wisdom

Would say is better than never.

And in this case, conventional 

Wisdom is wise indeed. 

The sages mingle with the masses

And with one voice speak truth- conventional, cliché, clear:

“Better late than never.”

Let it be written in the clouds

Let it be recorded on the limestone

Around which we scatter you. 

(For Curtis Edward Joiner, Jr. 1946-2016)


The Invitation of Finality

I preached this sermon Sunday, August 7, and found myself missing lots of people and places and times, and being grateful. So I thought I would share. Here’s to those things great enough to me missed. 

Preached by Christopher A. Joiner

First Presbyterian Church, Franklin, Tennessee

August 7, 2016

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Revelation 21:1-6 

​During a Christmas Eve candlelight service at the church I served in Alabama, it was the custom to form a circle at the end of the service while our candles were lit and invite people to share. In January, one of the core families in that church was moving across the country. The father spoke up and said, with tears in his eyes, “Thank you for making it so hard for us to move away.”


​It is a blessing that Joan Chittister commends to us all, the one a father said every time he hugged his daughter goodbye: “May every place you be make it hard for you to leave…May every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye.”


​I’ve mentioned to you before our daughter Chandler’s habit when we go on vacation of starting to anticipate the end before it has barely begun. We arrive on a Monday afternoon to the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast, just putting our feet in the salt water, and she says, “We will have to leave on Sunday. I don’t want this to end.” I used to try and argue her into recognizing that Sunday was a long way off, but we both knew the truth. It really wasn’t a long way off. It would be here before we knew it. And we knew the week would be wonderful; just being all together in that place, sharing uninterrupted time, Sabbath rest and re-creation. We would miss it for sure. She was just missing it ahead of time.


​And I saw it on the faces of students on Friday as they waited in our neighborhood for the school buses. A mixture of excitement and apprehension, and that telltale look that says, “Where did the summer go?” I sensed it in the scores of Facebook and Instagram photos of students on Friday. All of them a variation on the theme, “I can’t believe how fast they are growing up.” Where did the summer go, where did the years go? If you were one of those students, and you felt a little or a lot of sadness about summer’s end; if you were a parent or a grandparent and felt the sting of tears falling down your cheek as you watched your child enter the school building, then it is a sure sign you were blessed in some way by the thing you miss.


​Chittister says that life is made up of a series of choices, and gradually we build up a scaffolding of those choices, “each of which, sooner or later, one way or another, ends.” And the measure of our happiness, the measure of “our wisdom as we go,” is whether or not, when that period of life which those choices represent comes to an end, it is hard for us to leave…it is hard for us to say goodbye.


​We are sad because that which we are leaving or saying goodbye to is important to us, has become part of us in some way deep within. Often before a funeral, someone will start to cry and apologize. I always try to say, “Never apologize for your tears. They are a sign of the importance of this person to you.” And what we affirm at a funeral we see affirmed here today. Each of these moments in our lives, each of these goodbyes, anticipate a day when our lives will be gathered up into the life of God, when there will be no more goodbyes, no more tears, no mourning over losses. This is the vision of John compiled in the often-troubling and misunderstood letter called Revelation.


​It would be easy here to take a detour through this book’s eerie visions of dragons, lakes of fire, the four horsemen, and lots of other images that feel taken straight from the fertile mind of Stephen King. In reality, many of these images were taken straight from the pages of the Hebrew scriptures and the apocalyptic tradition, which tried to describe metaphorically something that is indescribable. What is it they were trying to describe? The end of days, the day when God would do what we cannot do for ourselves, the day when God would fulfill God’s intentions for the world.


​But today, we have skipped the detour and gone straight to the end of the book. All of Revelation’s seemingly bizarre imagery has been leading up to something, which we see with striking clarity here in Chapter 21. And what we see is that “God does not merely bring the end, God is the end.” God is “all in all.” Our lives and the life of the world will be taken up into the life of God so completely that it can only be called “new.” A new heaven and a new earth. The One we worship we will see, face-to-face.


​When God is all in all, there are certain things which can be no more. Death, the thief which takes those we love away from us, which stalks the world in violence and war, which hides away in cancer cells, which hangs over us as threat, always in the background of every goodbye and every ending, which is the source of crying and mourning and pain, will be gone.


​But true to form in this book of images, all those things that disappear when God appears are summarized in the disappearance of one thing. John writes it at the very beginning of our text: “And the sea was no more.”


​Remember back at the beginning, the very beginning as narrated by Genesis, when God created the heavens and earth and the earth was void and without form, and darkness covered the face of the deep. The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. It is chaos, disorder, formlessness. And God creates by pushing the seas back, causing land to appear. The ancient Hebrews believed that it was only God’s grace that held those chaotic waters at bay. We see in the story of the Flood the one time God’s gracious hand was lifted from those waters, allowing them to run free, and chaos and death ensues. The sea represents that chaos. It represents all that is broken in the world, all that threatens.


​“And the sea was no more.”


​I don’t know that I fully understood the power of this image until I stared out through night vision binoculars onto the Aegean Sea. Standing atop a hill overlooking a lighthouse, temperatures below freezing, the chopping waters rising and falling in colors of green, chaos was a word that made sense. As I scanned the waters – up and down, up and down – I occasionally saw the far shoreline of Turkey, knowing that in the deep woods on that other shore there were thousands of people waiting. The smugglers advertised bad weather discounts for those desperate enough to get in flimsy boats, more than likely wearing fake life jackets for which they had paid extra, to make the journey across the sea to where we were, on the Island of Lesvos, in Greece.


​What must that water have represented to the refugees on the other side except tohu wa bohu, formless and void and full of chaos?


​How much more powerful is that promise, standing on top of a cold hill in Greece – “And the sea was no more.” It is not a promise about the literal disappearance of the sea, but about the banishment of what it represents. Refugees drowning in the cold waters? No more. Cancer? No more. War? No more. Homelessness? No more. Broken relationships? No more.


​And goodbyes? No more. All things new.


​It is easy, though, when reading these promises, to begin to pine for that new day, to say things like, “I know it is hard now, but one day, in the future, on the last day, everything will work out.” Not only is that cold comfort for someone experiencing the chaos of the sea now, it is not faithful to the call of the Book of Revelation itself. We are called to live now as if that new day were already here, because, in Christ, it is already present though not fully realized. We catch glimpses of it when we walk in the Way of Christ in the world. We participate in it when we cry with those who weep, when we sit alongside those in pain, when we mourn with those who mourn. We participate in it when we give water from the well of life to those who thirst.


​One of those nights in Greece, Harding McCall saw a boat through those night vision binoculars. By the time the next day dawned, Harding and Tony Inglis were in the Aegean Sea, guiding the boat to the rocky shore, where other members of our team were waiting to tend to babies, help people out of wet and cold clothing, guiding them up to the lighthouse. The refugees were filled with joy, taking selfies with our people, laughing. They had made the journey across the sea. Every cup of water given to them, every bowl of hot soup and mug of warm tea was a participation in that day, that coming day.


​“And the sea was no more.”


​So that feeling you feel when you are sad to see something go, whether it is the summer or the year or a season of life? May you see that feeling as a grace, a sign of the blessing that was, and a foretaste of blessings to come. But may you also see this: a day is coming when all those events and seasons and times, all the love that you have ever given or received, along with the world itself, will be taken up into God.


​Last June was my last time to take classes at Austin Seminary, as I move to the writing phase of the program. From the moment I arrived on the campus for the two-week term, I was saying to my friends I dreaded the end. It was like my toe was barely in the water and already I was anticipating the end. I know where Chandler gets it. My friends were begging me to stop talking about it. It was two whole weeks away. But they knew. We all knew. It flew by. And what a blessing that at the end, it was so hard to say goodbye. And yet, those friendships, that time, it is not gone. It, and all the other times when we have loved and been loved, all of it is taken up into the life of God. So let us live each day by the light of that coming day, let us live each day so that every place you be make it hard for you to leave and every person you love make it hard for you to say goodbye. Amen.




I don’t know that there’s 

A more holy,

More sacred, 

More poignant


Than the laughter

Coming from the upstairs room 

Of your child

With old friends. 

You say

“How can friends be old 

When they are one score,

And so many more to go?”

But you are not sitting below,

Hearing, as I do, the joyous 


Cutting through the air

Like old grooves,

Old souls,

Old friends. 

You could do worse than pray

For your children nothing more

Than this. 

The End of Job

In a Doctor of Ministry course I took a couple of years ago with Rabbi Blumofe at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary on “Theology after the Holocaust”, we were given the assignment of re-writing the end of the book of Job based on our studies. The piece I wrote for the assignment was based on Elie Wiesel’s story of the night the prisoners in the Nazi death camp put God on trial. I am preaching on the end of Job in a couple of weeks, and that, plus Wiesel’s recent death, caused me to dig out the assignment and share here. It is hard to overstate the impact of Wiesel’s voice and actions on the ways we think about suffering and faith, war and peace, and our propensity for silence in the face of atrocity. His words inspired these. May he know the peace of the presence of God.

For the context of the poem, see Job, chapters 38-42 and Wiesel’s book, Night.


The End of Job – By Christopher Joiner

I had heard you with my ears,

But now I see you with my eyes;

Therefore I gird my loins.

I am a man, a God-breathed creature,

I will ask of you, and you will answer me.


Where were you

when the Sabeans attacked,

Slitting the throats of my sons save one,

For the sake of oxen?


Where were you

When your own fire (your own!)

Came down from the skies

And burned my boys

So that nothing remained but ashes;

For what? The sheep?


Tell me if you know.

Were you out drinking with friends

Gambling with the lives of your faithful ones?


Where were you

When the Chaldeans descended in formation

And spilled rivers of blood of my children

To acquire camels?


Where were you

When my sons and daughters

The few I had left in the world,

Felt the rafters shake

And the roof collapse on them,

As they lay dying slowly,

Some suffocating,

Some broken and bleeding and screaming,

For You.

Where were you?


I called out to you

And you answered with silence.


It is true I do not know

I was not there,

When you laid the foundations of the earth.

But I do know suffering.

I know the feeling

Of wanting to pull my skin from my body,

Such was the unrelieved pain.

Do you?


I know the indignity of the sidelong glance,

The accusing stares,

Words of imputed wickedness from those

Who would call me friend.

Do you?


I know the void of grief without end,

Without meaning,

Useless and cold and unrequited.

Do you?


I never claimed to set the foundations of the earth

Or to create one thing in it,

Save a life of faithfulness to you.

You, though, have claimed much

About yourself.


So answer me with more than questions,

See me and know my suffering,

See me face to face,

See me in all the glory of my name –

The Sufferer.


And God said,

“I see.”


And Job said,

“Then you are guilty,

And all I have suffered is useless to me.”


Then Job went inside,

covered in whirlwind,

and spoke into the darkness,

“It is time for evening prayers.”


Thus ends the book.

Spending Time

I am spending time in a place in the mountains of Virginia with dear friends and colleagues. It is a place not many miles from Tinker Creek, where Annie Dillard went on a pilgrimage. 

There she wrote of “spending” time, not in the passive way we normally use the word, but in it’s literal, more active (and troubling) sense. Each thing we do or don’t do each day is a trading in the currency of minutes. “Spend the morning,” she said. “Spend the afternoon,” she implored more emphatically. “You can’t take it with you,” she proclaimed, the words on the page evoking the cadences of an Appalachian country preacher in full invocation. 

As I sit in this circle of friends, framed by mountains bathed in the morning sun, I have only one quibble with Annie. Time spent with friends and family, time spent in community, time spent cultivating love, time spent giving and receiving grace…it may pass, but it is never gone like a twenty at the grocery store. I believe, in the mystery of God’s grace and God’s time, it remains. 

Paul said faith, hope and love remain when all else has passed away. I believe he meant that in the economy of God there is a kind of time you can spend, and, when you find yourself at the end, reach in your pocket and find you were able to take it with you after all. A walk with a friend by a running stream passes time and comes to an end, and yet remains, by grace, in the heart of God and in mine as well. 

Could that be what Jesus meant when he said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…?”

Time for me to stop writing. I have yet more time to spend and treasure to store. 

Coming to You Live

I remember Jessica as an eighth grade girl, riding in the car with me going to some church youth event at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when the familiar words came through the radio, “Coming to you live from the Fitzgerald Theater in beautiful downtown St.Paul, Minnesota…”

Jessica made a face and reached to turn the station.

“No you don’t. Don’t you know what this is?”

“It sounds terrible,” she replied.

“This is ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ with Garrison Keillor,” I said. I proceeded to give a ten minute speech on why this was the best thing she would ever hear on the radio, while Garrison crooned a Patsy Cline duet with Emmylou Harris in the background. Jessica cringed with visceral disgust at the steel guitar solos.

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to my friend Jessica and Garrison, decked in red tennis shoes and gray suit, said those words we were longing to hear, “Coming to you live from the Ryman Auditorium in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee…”

She’s almost thirty now, and still a friend. She’s become everything a pastor could hope for – thoughtful, engaged, compassionate – a follower of Christ in word and deed.

And we sit in that old theater that before it hosted the Grand Ole Opry was a church and we hear Garrison talk about retiring and say, “Some of you were subjected to this show as children and youth, and now you subject other children and youth to it…” Kim and I both look at Jess and she laughs and smiles a knowing smile.

When the show is over Garrison hangs around and starts singing songs.

Out of nowhere, in this theater with pews for seats, he sang something it seems everyone in the place knew:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

We were all singing. And I was remembering all the times over all the years I had sung this very song with my friend Jess. I thought of so many other friends as well throughout the years who have stood and sung this hymn of praise with me – too many to name, but all dear to me, all bound to me and I to them by the God whose blessings we sang in that old auditorium on those wooden pews.

I put my arm around Jess as we sang, “praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

The sound seemed to linger, echoing off the walls. And in our hearts.

I am thankful for the blessings that flow from God. Among the one I’m most thankful for is the beloved community of the church and friends bound together by Christ in bonds which can never be broken.

I will miss Garrison. But I’m glad Jess will be subjecting young people to reruns for years to come.

Bound and Free – Sermon Preached May 8, the 7th Sunday of Easter

Paul and Silas travel to that place of prayer. You remember the place by the water from last week, the place where Lydia, the wealthy dealer in purple cloth, listened eagerly. It must have quickly become the place where they came to listen for this Spirit that was tearing down old walls, opening hearts and homes, changing things for them and in them.

I bet they sang there. We know the Philippians sang. It’s right there in Paul’s letter to them. He quotes a hymn – maybe it was the congregation’s favorite hymn. “Though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Every congregation has its favorite hymns, the ones they sing standing a little straighter, with more volume, a little less self-consciousness. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” “Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart, Naught be all else to me save that thou art…” Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…” How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent Word!…”

So many of our congregation’s favorite tunes are accompanied by the pipe organ, an instrument that can rattle the walls. I have a friend who came to worship with us once, and as we were visiting later he said, “Man, your organist really blew the dust out of those pipes today. I loved it…wanted to stand and dance. You can dance to Bach, right?”

Another soundtrack of our church is the drone of the bagpipes. I know when those doors open and Tom appears in his kilt and strikes the first note of Highland Cathedral over the drone, tears will be shed.

We’ve been singing in the church from the start. The Philippian Christians go down to the water, outside the gates of the city, to the place of prayer. And there they pray and sing and listen.

Little do Paul and Silas know, but their singing in that place of prayer is a rehearsal for a time they will not sing by the water in the bright light of day, but in the deepest darkness; for a time when they will not stand and sing, but sit in painful shackles.

The little hymn they sing tells them the journey they are about to make. Christ emptied himself. Even to the point of death on a cross. Have the same mind in you that was in him.

Their cross waits in the form of a slave girl in the street.

She’s a fortune-teller. Her gift has caused her to be taken by people who are peddling her in the streets. She will tell you your future for a little money, but she doesn’t see any of the cash herself. Rome and all its colonies ran on these little micro-economies. The girl was probably sold to them by her own father. She is not free. Her owners are just around the corner, watching. Surely Paul and Silas know this. It explains why they allow it to go on for days. They know if they say anything or do anything, there could be trouble.

But on this day, Paul’s had enough. He believes this girl’s gift is really a burden, a possession by a spirit, and so with a word he sets her free.

Her freedom reveals the bondage of her owners, who are now without a source of funds. The salaries they earned off the back of this poor girl are gone. So they go to the police and the police arrest Paul and Silas and take them to the magistrate. The charges are simple. We do things a certain way around here. There are customs we observe. These are outsiders. They are Jews. If we let them get a foothold here, the whole system could come crashing down.

There’s fear in the air. Who exactly is bound and who is free? The magistrate makes quick work of these two Jews. The blows from the rods rain down on their backs in this painful and humiliating spectacle. They are forced not just into the prison, but into the interior of the prison, a dark and inescapable place. Still in terrible agony from the beating, their legs are forced open and stocks locked around their ankles in a painful position. The jailer is placed at the door for good measure.

Who is bound and who is free? The former owners of the slave girl, who were completely dependent on her oppression for their livelihood? The magistrate, who represents the Roman Empire and yet is so threatened by two Jewish preachers he has them beaten and thrown into the deepest part of the cell? The jailer watching the prison? Or the two men inside, singing?

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the last speech he gave in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, said, “There’s a certain kind of fire that no water can put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing, ‘Over my head I see freedom in the air.’”

Christians have been singing a long time – sometimes in beautiful sanctuaries like this, accompanied by pipe organs, and sometimes in prison, shackled and dark; sometimes in comfortable pews, and sometimes in the streets with water hoses and dogs trying to silence their song.

I wonder if it was when they got to the final part of the hymn, their favorite hymn, when the walls began to shake. You know the part. They would have already sung the part about Christ emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, suffering death on the cross. It is there, at that darkest moment of the hymn that it takes a dramatic turn.

“Therefore, God…”

There’s a change in key. “Therefore God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name…” The singing gets louder and louder, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth!” And maybe that’s when the ground begins to shake under the earth, when things begin to change, when old chains fall away, and closed doors open, and things take on a great clarity there in the darkness of that inner cell…a light shines, as the hymn reaches a crescendo, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus is Lord not Caesar and his magistrates. There’s freedom in the air.

Jesus is Lord, and no beating can change it. There’s freedom in the air.

Jesus is Lord, and no prison can hold him. There’s freedom in the air.

The organ changes key, there’s a grand pause, and we stand a little straighter and sing a little louder those last stanzas, the ones that rattle the walls.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

“High King of heaven, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.”

“Thou reignest in glory; thou dwellest in light. Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight. All praise we would render, O help us to see ‘tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!”

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not I will not desert to its foes; That soul though all hell endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Just when you think Highland Cathedral cannot get any higher, the organ joins the bagpipes, and you feel like you just might need seatbelts in the pews to hold you down. And when that final note ends and silence descends, I sometimes catch myself holding my breath.

It is in that moment, when the hymn has ended and the shaking has stopped and the chains have fallen, in the silence after the crescendo, where the full power of what has occurred is known.

You know they are free indeed, because Paul and Silas don’t go anywhere. None of the other prisoners do either. They too sense a different kind of freedom in the air. You know they are free because they stay there in that place of vulnerability. They do not let fear of being recaptured make them run. They show mercy to the jailer. And now he’s seen a freedom firsthand that Rome cannot conjure with its beatings and its crosses.

So the waters of baptism flow, and the church expands, built not on power or fear, but love and freedom. And so Christ’s church continues to be built, continues to shake up the ways of death, continues to break free from bondage, singing as we go. Amen.