Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What We Want; What We Need

I overhead an interesting conversation while out among the Christmas shoppers the other day. A couple of friends were talking about how difficult they were finding it to decide on a gift for a mutual friend. "I just don't know what to do!" one of them said. "She refuses to give us a list of things she wants." "I've about decided to give her a gift card and forget about it," the other one replied. I know that sometimes having a list or suggestion makes gift giving easier, but there is still something to be said for giving gifts we've picked because we know they're something the receiver will like. I also know that's a lot of trouble and can take a lot of time. My late mom was the world's best (or worst, depending on your perspective) at providing Christmas lists. Every year, right after Thanksgiving, my sister and I would get the same list of things our mom wanted. The list usually included at least two things that were not available. One year it was a bottle of perfume that hadn't been made in ten years. Her note said we could find it at a flea market if we looked hard enough. For several years it was whatever the most sought-after and not to be had kids' gift was that year: Tickle Me Elmo one year; Holiday Barbie another. No, I don't have any idea what she planned to do with Elmo or Barbie. We knew what the intent of the list was. It was not intended to be a suggestion. It was all the things she wanted, and our job was to divide it up and provide the goods. She never got either Elmo or Barbie, and we didn't knock ourselves out looking for well-aged perfume. I'm sure those experiences are part of the reason that Christmas lists still leave a sour taste in my mouth. I don't always get it right when I buy gifts, but I don't miss it often.

Overhearing that conversation and thinking about the things I still need to get bought helped me to think about another giver. As long as there have been people, we have been pretty good at telling God what we want. Our ancestors wanted freedom from bondage in Egypt until they discovered it meant living in the wilderness for a time. Another generation longed for home during the Exile and wondered why God didn't respond more quickly. We've all gotten pretty good at following their lead in telling God what we want. I'm thankful that when God decided to send Jesus into the world to accomplish salvation it wasn't because that's what we wanted, but because it was and is what we need. I'm even more thankful that God bothered to know us well enough to know our needs. I hope all of us get something we want this Christmas. I know that in Jesus Christ, we have access to what we need.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

First Loves

I heard part of one segment of what appeared to be a longer series on NPR not long ago. The series invited classical musicians to think back to that first piece of music they learned that grabbed hold of them and helped them to see that making music would be their life. I think the guy I heard that day was a violinist--someone I had never heard of and someone who can certainly do things I can't. I think the piece he remembered was Mendelssohn. He spoke with genuine affection about how learning to play that piece had changed his life. As I drove wherever I was going that afternoon (The car is my NPR place.) I thought about several pieces of music and the people who brought me to them that have been especially formative for me. Not a professional musician by any stretch, I've still been helped in many ways by singing and listening.

As I thought about that for a while, I began to broaden my thinking to other things that help to form me, and, surprise, surprise, my mind drifted to Scripture. I thought about what a series of interviews like the one I heard about the formative influence of music might sound like if it asked people to think about a text or story from Scripture that has been foundational in the development of their faith. So let's let this conversation place open that discussion. What are some texts or stories from the Bible that you remember from any stage of life or faith that have helped you to decide, "This is who I am. This is what I believe?"

I'll start: some who know me know what's coming. The opening verses of Isaiah 43 have God say, "Don't be afraid. I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name. You are mine." Long story. My only regret when I hear the affirmation, promise, and challenge in these words is that it took me so long to find them. In most of my growing up years, the Bible was more threat than promise, more accusation than affirmation. Finding this text, "You are mine," opened a whole new way to understand God for me. Now I try to start every day with it in some form: read, remembered, sung, or spoken.

So what made faith possible for you?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sometimes the Reasons Matter

I live close enough to Gainesville, Florida to have heard more than enough about the Dove World Outreach Center and its plans to burn the Qur'an on Saturday, September 11. We've been hearing about it for weeks. At first, I didn't pay much attention, since somebody's always doing something wacky in Florida. As the date has drawn closer, though, and the media attention (that's another whole issue)has ramped up, it seems that everybody has had something to say about this stunt. At the outset let me say that what the Dove folks are planning is wrong. It's not just insensitive or uncaring; it's wrong. It's wrong primarily because it is not in linen with foundational teachings of Jesus Christ, who came to show us the best example of what human life can be. This week we're being told that the planned burning of the Qur'an is wrong because it endangers American and other troops. I'm sure that's true, and I'm as opposed as anybody to anything that endangers military personnel more than they already are just by being there. But the primary reason this is wrong is not a matter of national security. The primary reason this is wrong is that it does not demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ, who came to bring peace and to bring people to an awareness of God's gracious love. If we are going to call ourselves Christians, then we must constantly evaluate our own lives and the witness they bear to the faith we claim. I do that every day, and encourage others to. I rarely have difficulty finding areas in my own life and witness that need attention. When I'm through with all those areas, maybe I'll think about telling someone else how to live. But I don't expect to be done with my own spiritual formation for a while. I doubt that anything I or anyone else can say will deter the people in Gainesville who think they are responding to a call from God. The primary call I hear from God is to love others with the love of Christ, and to trust that love to do the work God sent it into the world (even through me) to do. I know that radical Islam is a dangerous force in the world. I also know that radical Christianity is just as dangerous. God, help us.

If it's True

As some of you know, my mom died earlier this summer. She was a difficult person. I did the simple graveside service. It was nowhere near the spectacle she would like for it to have been. It was nowhere near the event most of our family had anticipated. I hope it was faithful. In that service, which was mercifully brief since it was 105 degrees that day, we talked about the assurance that God loves us and wants us to know peace and contentment. My mom never knew much of either of those, and it was mostly of her own choosing. What I tried to share in the service was that it really is the truth that God loves us and wants good for us. If we never find it in this life, as she rarely did (and she is not alone)I cling to the assurance that the way things do in eternity is not up to us, that God will be in charge, and we will know life as we could have known it in this life if we had paid more attention to God's way than we had to ours. Here's part of what I said in the cemetery: "...if what God really does want for us is for us to be happy and to enjoy life as long as it lasts, then where she is now, in the everlasting presence of God, that's all that matters. And God's in charge of that place, and God can find a way to help her experience the happiness and the joy that she was rarely able to find in the past seventy-seven years." I believe that.
Most of my family who gathered there that afternoon are pretty life-weary people. They have all had their share of adversity. One of my cousins came to me as we were leaving the cemetery that day. She, herself, has buried a child and a brother, and suffered more failed marriages than I remember. I haven't had any of those things happen so far. It's what she said, though, that I remember. She said, "I really appreciate what you said today. I just wish there were some way we could know it's the truth. It would make all this a little easier, wouldn't it."
I've thought about her comments a lot since that day. What I said to her was that I believe what I said was true. I have to. But I can't prove its truth to her or to anybody else. Believing that God loves us and wants us to know peace is the foundation of everything else I believe. If that's not true, I'm up the creek. We all are.
I haven't seen that cousin since that day in the cemetery. Probably won't for a while. The fact that she was listening enough to say what she did give me hope for people who do what I do, even (maybe especially) when we do it among those who know us best--or think they do.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What I Did This Summer

Some of us who are old enough to remember when going to school was about something other than taking tests can remember that first writing assignment of the year--What I Did This Summer. I'm not sure whether our teachers ever really used those things to assess our writing abilities or if it was just habit, but I thought about those essays as I saw the school buses pass this week. I also remembered that it had been all summer since I had updated this blog. So here's what I did this summer.
Our summer began with hosting Hal and Martha Hopson for a church music event. Like most people who sing in church, I had sung his stuff for years. His nephew is a friend of mine in Huntsville, but there is still something a bit daunting about working directly with a composer so well known. All of that went out the window when I picked them up at the airport. Two of the most delightful people I have ever met. I am happy to count them both as new friends and look forward to staying in touch with them. They told me about an organization for worship and liturgy that I didn't know, so hopefully we will connect there sometime in the not too distant future.
The end of June took us to the Music and Worship Conference at Montreat in North Carolina, which has become a highlight of our summer. The choir director was demanding but excellent this year. All of my workshops were helpful and well done. The only bad thing about Music and Worship week at Montreat is that it's just a week. The bookstore always drains my bank account, but it's good to be able to browse and handle books instead of getting them from Amazon, which I usually do.
The last day, literally after the last event, we received news of my mom's unexpected death. That meant returning to Florida to preach on Sunday and get a new round of clothes (Burying your mom in shorts and a t-shirt doesn't even work in my family, although one of my cousins' children did show up in hot pants!) and then going to Kentucky to make arrangements and begin to sort through her affairs. They are a mess, but my sister and I are working through them. Some of you know that affectionately referred to our mom as Her Majesty. She was a difficult woman, so her death has brought all kinds of emotions, but mostly frustration. I was there again last week to dispose of stuff and begin the process of selling her house. There is more drama involved than needs to be told here. If I ever write that book I've been promising or threatening for years, it might all get told. Maybe not.
Kyle got to go spend a few days with his brother in Chicago in July. They went to Wrigley while they were together. If you're a Cubbie, you know it's been mostly downhill since then.
We did manage to steal a few days to visit Charleston with friends from Alabama in August. Beautiful city. We hope to go back and see some of what we missed.
We celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary, Deanna had a birthday, and so did Kyle in the midst of it all.
We are excited about our involvement in an effort to feed the hungry in our community that is finally going to happen in September after more than year of planning and delays. I'm also helping a leader development event happen in our Presbytery this weekend. Great team of folks have done most of the work.
It's hard to believe that Labor Day is around the corner, but, of course, at our house that means ROLL, TIDE--it's time for 'Bama football. We'll keep an eye on what our Cats in Kentucky do this fall, too, but we'll be mostly Tide boosters this fall before we turn our attention toward Lexington when basketball season starts.
I guess if I've already conceded the World Series again this year, am counting Tide wins before they happen, and am already looking forward to basketball, summer is about shot. Hopefully, I'll have a bit more time to keep this thing something like current. Hope your summer has been more restful than mine, and that your fall is faithful, fun, and productive.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Graduation Speeches

I'll warn you: this one will not set well with some, so you have a delete button for a reason.

Graduation season is about over. I didn't attend any of those ceremonies this year. Sent a couple of out-of-town gifts, but was mercifully spared the exercises. I did, however, read the predictable stories in at least a couple of papers about kids who were making what they considered to be bold stands by including prayer or some overtly Christian statements in their public school commencement speeches. The issues which bring these stories before us are far more complicated than most people realize and cannot be dissected in sound bytes or easy formulas. The whole concept of taking God out of school and public life makes little sense to me since omnipresence continues to be one of the primary attributes of God. I think that what people usually mean when they use that kind of language is that their particular understanding of God is the one that matters. If I remember the various graduation exercises I've attended accurately, paying attention to anything but the name we're waiting to hear called doesn't happen much. If we're band or choir supporters, we might be interested in their contributions to the festivities, but most of the speeches and comments are usually pretty un-memorable. I've never figured out, then, why it's such a big deal to include references to God or Jesus in a speech not many are paying attention to anyway. Doesn't that happen often enough in church? I doubt that very many can look back on a graduation speech and say, "There. That's when I first became a believer!"
So I wonder when all of us who talk a lot about our faith, preachers and non-preachers alike, will think about how effective our speech might be if we talked less about Jesus and talked more like him. What might a faithful student embarking on a new phase of life have to say to peers and community if that student talked from the perspective of one whose life had been transformed from following the culture in which he had been nurtured to responding to God's call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God? What might that student and others of us have to say if we focused less on what we can't do or say and more on what God is empowering us to do and say by making us new creation.
I suspect that next year's graduation stories in the press will have another story or two about students who think they're effective witnesses by being controversial. I can't think ahead to anyone graduating who will expect me to attend commencement. On most of the fifty-two Sundays between now and then, though, I will be in the pulpit, where there's not a lot of control over what I can and can't say. I think I'll try to talk more like Jesus than about him on those Sundays. I'll let you know how it works out.

On Preachers and Preaching

I recently had the privilege of attending the Festival of Homiletics (a week of sermons, lectures, and other things related to preaching) in Nashville. I know. I know. Three sermons and a lecture or two a day and some other conversations in the evenings don't sound like fun to most people. So grant me that preachers are a weird lot to begin with. I heard some wonderful preaching that week. I heard lots of helpful things about how to preach in the midst of a culture that doesn't much care for it. I'll be thinking about some of the things I heard for a long time. I picked up some books (surprise, surprise) to help me with that thinking. They'll be a big part of my summer reading schedule.
Then I came home and heard a tale about a preacher from some friends that made me want to run back to that artificial world we lived in for a week instead of living out here in the real world that hadn't been to Nashville with me.
This guy preaches a much more expository style than I do. That means he usually has a lot more definitive answers in his preaching (and in his life, apparently) than I have or want. Worship in his church is all about the sermon. The bulletin doesn't have much in it that helps people know what to do or say because they aren't supposed to do or say much while they're there. They're supposed to listen to him. There is even a place in the bulletin for people to take notes. Really, it more like a programmed instruction text: When I say this, you write it down so you'll know the answers. Now he's apparently decided that not enough people are playing by his rules so he's instructed the other staff members (One version of the story says the male staff members. I'm not sure.) to sit down front in visible locations, act interested, and visibly take notes so that others in the congregation will follow their lead. (If that’s not a direct quote, it doesn't miss it by much!).
Wondering whether or not people are listening is always an issue for preachers. Wondering if they're paying attention, even if they're listening, is another issue. Sometimes I can tell when I'm not connecting. Sometimes I can even tell when it's because the sermon just isn't working or when it's because they're just not with me. But I can't imagine ever getting to the point that I'd have to instruct people to act interested.
Sometimes the loads people bring to worship with them are just too heavy to let them listen much. I contend that something can still happen that is helpful to them just because they're there. I have also helped to rear two people who are now young adults, so I know all too well that sometimes people are listening when I can't see it happening. And that sometimes they're not listening even if it appears that they are. I know that everyone in worship every week is not hanging on my every word. But I also know that just being among God's people can create an environment in which we can experience things we're not expecting. Telling a child to sit still and pay attention is one thing--whether they ever do or not--but telling adults to act interested is just too much. I work hard at crafting sermons that invite people into the process of communicating with God along with me. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. I think I'll continue to invite rather than command people to participate. Taking notes is optional.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Pray for Nashville

Those of you who grew up outside the South (You define it wherever you think it is; some of us know!) may not understand how devastating the flood damage in Nashville is to those of us who love that city. Though it is not my favorite category of music these days, I grew up in an environment in which Nashville music and church music were the only two kinds I knew there were--and sometimes they overlapped! Some of my best friends live in Nashville. Maybe it's the self-serving side of me that all of us eventually have to admit we have, but the images of people I don't know trying to find anything worth saving from flooded homes in Bellevue and downtown and other parts of Nashville are heartbreaking. I continue to care about the people of Haiti who also lost everything and the people of New Orleans, some of whom will never recover. But, even though I've never lived there, Nashville is one of my places, where people I know and love are struggling. I know it makes me sound like a bumpkin, but to see the Grand Ole Opry stage under water is a big deal. I never forgave Gaylord Entertainment for closing Opryland and opening a shopping mall, but I wouldn't have wished this flood on them. I know that the Opryland Hotel has hosted more than its share of redneck receptions, but it was a beautiful place just to walk around. To see all that underwater, and to think about the people who worked there being out of work for most of the summer is a big deal. There is a part of me that wants to run up there and bail water out of somebody's house, probably that same part that wanted to do the same thing in Haiti not long ago. I'll be in Nashville in a couple of weeks for a preaching conference. That group is already encouraging us to do what we can to help while we're there. I'm not sure what I'll be able to do, but I invite you to join me in praying for those who have lost so much and for those who are trying to help them. Some of those who are helping have lost things too. Pray for Nashville and for Clarksville, and for everywhere else where people are hurting. Pray for the beautiful Gulf Coast as people there confront their worst fears. Pray, and trust that God is at work in all kinds of ways in those places and everywhere. I don't know what else to do. Paul reminds me that I don't even always know how to pray as I ought. I know it's selfish to pray for the people I know. But I'm doing it anyway.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wal-Mart Trumps Us Again!

The Wal-Mart store closest to us is being remodeled. We ran in last night, and just inside the door is a huge banner telling us that Easter is just around the corner. Hanging off that Easter announcement was a sign intended to say something about the ongoing renovation of the store. What it says, though (right under the news that Easter is coming) is "The Wow is coming very soon!"
I'm pretty sure I don't want to reduce the Easter message to "the Wow," but I do wish there were some way to communicate the Good News we have as well as Wal-Mart communicates theirs.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Even a Calvinist Gets a Day Off When the Queen is in Town!

I've tried to be faithful to my commitments during Lent this year. I'm chipping away at the books and articles I said I'd read. I've tried to work even harder than usual to preach faithfully and creatively during this important season. I've prayed more faithfully and more specifically than I have in a long time. I know that the Lenten season and all the benefits it brings are good for me.
But last Friday night, I took the night off. At Christmas, Deanna and Kyle had given me tickets to see Aretha Franklin at the St. Augustine Amphitheater. At Christmas, that date seemed so far away. The winter in Florida has been unusually dreary and dank this year. But on Friday night, the Queen was in town, and none of that mattered. We don't do concerts much. The frugal Calvinist in us just won't let us spend money on things like that every often, but this time it was Aretha!
We heard all the things we expected to hear--"Chain of Fools," "Think," "Pink Cadillac," and an encore performance of "Respect" that was worth the wait. We also heard a couple of things from her new CD which were great. The best part of the night, though, was when she stopped singing a lighter piece and said she was going to change the program a bit. She went to the piano and sat down to play "Bridge Over Troubled Water," an anthem for any of us children of the '60's. What a joy!
I'm back to my hard core discipleship efforts now. Working hard to make Palm Sunday a meaningful time for our congregation. But in a very real way, I went to church on Friday night. Did my soul good. And I'm thankful.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

As If Inadequacy Isn't Already Enough of a Problem....

Like most people who do what I do (pastor a church), I've just come through that time when we look back at the record we wrote for last year. I'm a new church pastor, so the numbers are never good enough, but I was feeling pretty good about the numbers we discussed in a meeting last night. We added 19 new members (even though a new church at this stage of development doesn't really have members). We only had 5 people decide that what we're doing isn't for them and move on. So our net result was a good one. Giving numbers were also good. We came closer than I had thought we would to meeting our budget for 2009, even in the midst of all the economic downturn that we've all heard enough about. That give us hope as we project even bigger goals for 2010. Nobody died last year. We baptized two new babies. Had one profession of faith (not bad for Presbyterians, I guess.) Participation in programs was good. People met to study, to serve, to worship. Overall, I was feeling better than I had hoped to feel now that the new year is well underway.
Then today I opened a book I've been reading and rereading in spurts for a while. It's a book of advice from seasoned preachers and teachers to all the rest of us. I won't cite the specific author or essay, but at one point a writer encourages us to look realistically at our ministries. As he looks at his, he comments on how the location of his church building has helped them grow and do many things. When he lists down sides of his work, the first thing he mentions is that the sanctuary in which he preaches only holds 1200 people at a time, so they have to have five worship services on Sundays.
As if inadequacy isn't already enough of a problem for those of us who serve in the church..... I'm trying to convince myself that growing attendance and participation numbers are still something to feel good about. I'm not sure about preaching five times on Sunday is even something I want to do.
When talking about the trials and struggles of life, I have a friend who tries to be positive when she says, "It's not much of a hill for a climber." I'm trying to find the place to grab onto to continue the climb.