Listening to some Carole King

Just last week I was talking about the beautiful weather and now we’ve been in a week of rain.  I was listening to Carole King’s “Beautiful” earlier and in it she talks about reflecting in how you look, how you feel on the inside.  We know the research about how even when you’ve had a really cruddy day, there’s something about smiling, something about laughing, that can make a dark day seem a little brighter.  Turn that frown upside down, if you will.  If all of us reflect the love that we feel than what a world that would be.  I don’t think that means we walk around like Stepford Wives or people smiling and fake all the time.  Far from it.  I hope that it means that in the midst of us being real, we realize how blessed we are and how thankful we should be, and that the joy inside that we feel will bubble out from us.  If we are living as grace-filled people that have been given this new life, the very breath we breathe, than that should be reflected in the love and thanksgiving that we show the world.  So on this very cloudy yucky day, may we be thankful for both the little things we sometimes take for granted (running water, flowers, food, clothing) and the big things (getting to go to school, opportunities to learn and grow, a gift of wisdom, thought, discourse, dialogue).  Let’s rock it on from the inside to the outside and back again!  Not fake it to make it, but let our guards down to let the laughter and smiles of our hearts flow.

Carole King’s, “Beautiful”

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face

Some beautiful smiling faces!

And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel

Waiting at the station with a workday wind a-blowing
I’ve got nothing to do but watch the passers-by
Mirrored in their faces I see frustration growing
And they don’t see it showing, why do I?

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better

Some smiling, silly faces!

You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel

I have often asked myself the reason for THE sadness
In a world where tears are just a lullaby
If there’s any answer, maybe love can end the madness
Maybe not, oh, but we can only try

You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You’re gonna find, yes, you will
That you’re beautiful as you feel

Lent Week 3 – Water, water, water…say it with me

The text for this past Sunday is one of my favorites.  I feel like I say that just about every week though so it’s a little redundant.  It was a long one – John 4:5-42.  It’s hard for people’s minds not to wander with such a chunk of text but how can you break these things up?  It’s the story of the Samaritan woman at the well which is a familiar one to a lot of us.

Every week this semester, Josh, Adrienne and I have been playing basketball in the West Center (the gym on campus) on Tuesdays and Thursdays when time and no meetings have allowed.  It’s two against one and we go to 21 by 1’s and 2’s for a typical 3 pointer.  The best we’ve ever done against Josh is 15 to his 21.  The worst is 1.  Sad times.  Josh definitely takes a healthy joy in blocking my shots after me blocking his through out my growth spurt in high school.  After one of these lovely work out sessions, we went back to Wesley and I was beyond thirsty.  I asked them if we had anything besides water in the building.  I’m not a complete water hater.  Well, actually I kind of am.  I just don’t really like it.  How spoiled and snotty is that?  True.  Anyway, there were 3 or 4 students in the office at the time and we had a long, serious conversation over how I say the word, “water.”  Why do they have to hate on their campus minister this way?

Apparently, maybe due to my strong Southern roots, say something along the lines of “warter.”  When I should be saying “wa-ter.”  Whatever.  At the time of this conversation on Tuesday I had no idea that the text coming up was the one with the Samaritan woman at the well.  I pick texts along time in advance and don’t always remember where we are.  So on Sunday as I’m trying to read this text in front of a congregation and than later on in front of the students, I felt more than conspicuous and nervous about saying it – oh about a dozen times.  I was so concerned about the pronouncement and trying to get the words right, that it would have been easy to miss the whole point of the text.

Some of us that may not always talk right or look right or use the right scripture or dress a certain way or do a certain job or belong to the special club or organization, we may sometimes be afraid to speak up and be real.  In this week’s Neue This Week, they had a post from Relevant Magazine called Church Members Anonymous.  It spoke about a pastor visiting Alcoholics Anonymous with some friends.  It talks about some of the similarities he saw between AA and the church and the honesty he encountered in this meeting.  He talks about being real and these moments of personal confession and being active participants in our faith community.

This Samaritan woman didn’t show up at the well for an AA meeting, but Jesus made no bones about knowing exactly who she was and what was happening in her life.  The disciples walk up later and they can’t believe he was talking with someone from Samaria, much less a woman, and they didn’t even know about her husband history.  If she were a college basketball team, she wouldn’t be the one that people would pick to go all the way in a go spread the Good News and people are going to listen to you kind of way.  And yet, this little Cinderella story had the energy – she went around and rallied the people and told them about this man who could be the Messiah.  She might not have been the one anyone would pick to do it, but her sharing about this man that knew her better than anyone got people out to meet the One she spoke of.  In verse 39 it says, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”  She got them there just by sharing her story, her interaction with this man who told her everything she had ever done.  And then they saw it for themselves and believed.  “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

She had this interaction.  She had this experience.  She felt this grace and had to share it.

I love it.  It was never really the big shot teachers or the intidating people that none of us think we can live up to, but regular folks just like me and you that just spread this thing like wild fire.

A really, really old song that I think fits this well and one that I always think of with this text is Sierra’s “No Stone to Throw.”  I know that is hugely old school Christian music and showing my age.  I get that.  But some of the verses say:

I’ve got no stone to throw,
No ax to grind,
I look in Maggie’s life,
And I see mine.

I see somebody searchin’ for somethin’,
A little love and understandin’,
And the longer I know the Lord the more I know,
I’ve got no stone to throw.

I don’t think any of us would get away with much in the face of Jesus.  It’s like a kid caught with his/her hand in the cookie jar.  Or with crumbs on his/her shirt trying to cover up the evidence.  None of us has any stones to throw.

God can use any of us to spread the Gospel.  None of us has messed up too much or for too long.  None of us has won the perfection award for 10 years running.  If we are honest, like at that AA meeting, we know that all of us struggle and mess up at times.  Realizing that justifying grace that this Teacher, this man is speaking to me and is including and accepting me, is a big deal.  And then we keep moving towards that repentance and renewal.

The thing about that justifying grace is not just that it leads us to sanctifying grace or in other words, moving closer and closer to living in right relationship with God, but it’s something we’ve got to share.  There’s an urgency there to share what we have seen and touched and know.  Just like this woman, we don’t have to do this all by ourselves.  She just shared her testimony and the people’s interaction with Jesus did the rest.  She just opened her mouth and told the world.

I agree with the AA story that what the world wants to see is people being real.  They want to know that this is available for them too, not just a select few.

My challenge this week to the students and to me is that we intentionally pray for 5 things.

1.  a family member (this one should be relatively easy, but hey you never know – it could be hard)

2.  a friend (this one should definitely be easy.  they’re your friend for goodness sake)

3.  a broken relationship (when I described this to the students I literally break my hands together showing something breaking – this is a wound or something that hasn’t been resolved and forgiveness found, this is something that still needs some healing)

4.  someone you’d least like to pray for (when I started this list was their someone that came to your mind that you were like – heck no, I do not want to pray for that person?  that’s who we challenge you to pray for)

5.  the lost among us (even down here in the crazy South, there are people who haven’t heard the Gospel, or at least not as it directly relates to YOUR life and YOUR experience with God – how are we sharing that?  who are we sharing this living water with?)

Will that be hard this week?  Probably so.  Do we have to have a certain degree or knowledge to say the words?  Nope.  Do we even have to pronounce the words all in the most correct way?  No.  But I have a sneaky suspicion that intentionally praying for these folks may open our eyes to some other things around us and ways we can be in prayer and sharing in real and mighty and tangible ways with our neighbors.  Are we willing to surrender a bit to the Spirit some of our time and energy and resources to see where this will lead?  Are we willing to drop everything like she did to go and tell people?

Food for thought or should I say, living water for thought.  And for prayer hopefully.

Let's take this living water out into the world.

Neue this week:  http://neuemagazine.com/index.php/blog/6-main-slideshow/1217-church-member-anonymous?utm_source=Neue+Weekly&utm_campaign=575e03c79f-Neue_Weekly_03_30_11&utm_medium=email

Mean

On the Wesley trip to Washington, DC for spring break, I finally got a chance to listen to the new Taylor Swift CD all the way through.  I know there’s some Taylor haters out there, but I’ve always really liked her and I love this CD.  And all of us – ranging in musical loves – enjoyed listening to it, which is always a good thing.  Who knew you could bond over Taylor Swift singing at the top of your lungs together?

The song that keeps replaying over in my mind is her song, “Mean.”   The lyrics are below.  In talking with students or youth or friends for that matter, there are so many people that have been wounded by “that mean guy” or “that mean girl.”  There’s that person or people that get under our skin and say words that go straight to the heart in amazingly hurtful ways that we can sometimes remember for years.

It’s crazy how much these things can hurt.  And it’s amazing to me how many people are affected by this and they never get a chance to speak up for themselves.  I think about the movie “Mean Girls” and all the hate and power trips and nastiness.  I know, I know, that many a time these mean folks are covering for their own insecurity, but that still doesn’t justify their uber mean behavior.

Here’s the thing.  We’ve got to let go of the mean.  We’ve got to let go of the rude things people have said.  We’ve got to let go of the hurtful things that we remember at our lowest points or times when things feel like they’re falling apart.  We’ve got to step out of the round and round cycle of drama and situations that just hurt us, and say enough!  There are so many students that I see that are in friendships/relationships that are just plain stressful.  Nobody needs the added stress and emotional energy that it takes to deal with unhealthy relationships that just bring you down – especially during the end of semester crunch.  Maybe this Lenten season, letting go of some of those wounds and hurts is something we should think about.  As we look at this season of repentance and renewal, maybe it’s time we open our hearts to the Spirit of Truth and let go of the hurtful crud.

I think about the ending of The Help where Aibeleen tells Mae Mobley, “You kind.  You smart.  You important.”  That’s the part that broke my heart because so many don’t realize this, and it was so evident that Aibeleen wanted badly for Mae Mobley to get and feel this.  I know about the “me” generations and I get that, but I also feel like often my students are reflecting their questions about themselves back to me through their questions, their hurts, their eyes.  The heck with the mean ones that just want to tear you down.  The heck with those that haven’t walked in your shoes and who are just hurling darts because they’re scared themselves.  You are kind.  You are smart.  You are important.

Let’s let go of the mean…and grab hold of the good that God has spoken over our lives.

Taylor Swift – “Mean”

You, with your words like knives
And swords and weapons that you use against me,
You, have knocked me off my feet again,
Got me feeling like I’m nothing.
You, with your voice like nails on a chalkboard
Calling me out when I’m wounded.
You, pickin’ on the weaker man.

Well you can take me down,
With just one single blow.
But you don’t know, what you don’t know,

Someday, I’ll be living in a big old city,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Someday, I’ll be big enough so you can’t hit me,
And all you’re ever gonna be is mean.
Why you gotta be so mean?

You, with your switching sides,
And your walk by lies and your humiliation
You, have pointed out my flaws again,
As if I don’t already see them.
I walk with my head down,
Trying to block you out cause I’ll never impress you
I just wanna feel okay again.

I bet you got pushed around,
Somebody made you cold,
But the cycle ends right now,
You can’t lead me down that road,
You don’t know, what you don’t know

The song –

Taylor Swift talking about the song “Mean.”

Week 2 of Lent – Oh Nicodemus!

John 3:16 is one of the most well-known verses in the Bible.  It may be THE most well-known verse.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him nay not perish but may have eternal life.”  It was one of the first ones my mom had us memorize and we memorized the KJV so I’m remembering some “whosoever believeth.”  We see this verse all over the place – bumper stickers, t-shirts, written on the facepaint of Tim Tebow when he played for Florida.  It’s a popular verse and one that focuses on the gift of grace given to each of us.

I totally get that and appreciate it.  What I think we get less of is the passage proceeding it.  This chapter comes after the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the Temple – after the beginning of John where he has introduced Jesus and then proceeds in the coming chapters to show that the words he wrote in the beginning are backed up by signs, actions, and other bits of evidence.  He’s doing these things and already there is grumbling by those in power.  There’s always some grumbling when something new and not the norm.

Then here comes Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is a leader of the Jews, meeting with Jesus in the night.  Many have said that this looks like Nicodemus is afraid of what other people will think or that he might be in “cahoots” with Jesus.  Don’t you love the word “cahoots”?  He even seems to be speaking the party line, using the word “we.”  “WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Maybe he didn’t want to be linked to Jesus.  Maybe he was afraid that his fellow Pharisees will think less of him, be suspicious of him, or will ostracize him.  There was probably at least a little of that.  But it also could be that he wanted to talk to him and it was private, personal, something on his heart.  Have you ever been to a conference or workshop or concert or sometime when you’ve heard or seen something really powerful and you really, really want to talk to the person that moved you but you don’t want to line up with all the other well wishers or those asking questions?  It’s not that you couldn’t wait in line or that you don’t want to talk to the person or you too good to do it, but it’s something you want to ask and digest and unpack away from other listening ears and prying eyes?  It may even be a little embarassing for some reason.  Sometimes the things that we believe and hold dear in our hearts or the things that we question and are trying to make sense of are not something we want to broadcast to a room full of people.  So I don’t think the darkness necessarily makes Nicodemus a sketchy person.

When I preached this text a couple weeks ago, I was preaching in Cannon Chapel at Emory University.  Love Cannon Chapel.  Love Emory.  Loved catching with old friends and seeing people I love and respect and meeting new friends as well.  I’m telling you though there’s not much that scares me more than preaching in Cannon or at Glenn Memorial where all the smart people that actually know the commentaries and all the angles are.  Maybe I’m giving them too much credit.  Could be.  But I know for sure and certain that my hands were shaking before I started preaching.  When you come to someone and ask questions and you really respect that person and are a little star struck, it’s hard to say what you want to say.  It’s hard to get it out.  Especially in front of folks.

Jesus answers to him are not sugar coated, pulling punches or making easy leaps for him.  He’s not watering down his language or making it an easy transition, but says that “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Now that is not something that Nicodemus automatically understands.  He’s not like us who has seen billboards or tracts or heard over and over that you must be “born again.”  This wasn’t in his common lexicon.  He didn’t have a giant billboard outside the local bowling alley saying that May 21, 2011 is judgement day and you better be born again.  He also didn’t have any handy dandy tracts.  Sad times.  But you know what – the text itself doesn’t say “born again.”  Many translations don’t talk about it happening again, but that it is something “born from above” or “born anew.”

My sister in law is due to have her baby today.  She is.  The baby still hasn’t come and we’re all on baby watch.  Every phone call, facebook post, and everyone I see – all of us want to know when this baby is going to be born.  As we have watched Karen grow more and more “with child” we have witnessed the growing and changing of her body as the baby has expanded and expanded, and the grand finale isn’t even here yet.  None of us in any shape or form want to try to crawl back up into the womb and be born again.  I’m not getting all scientologist on you with the silent birth thing, but the image of being born again doesn’t much seem like a quiet or peaceful process.  Being born from above or born anew speaks to something different.  This isn’t quite like your first birth but is something that is different in its nature.

Nicodemus asks these same questions about birth and Jesus answers him saying “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is borth of the flesh is flesh, an what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  This isn’t a fleshly birth.  This isn’t just raw humanity at its finest.  There is something more here.  This is about Spirit, not just flesh.

The week before I preached on this text we were in Washington, DC for a seminar on human trafficking and immigration and it was a rich experience with students from all over the country.  Northern Illinois Wesley, Arizona State Wesley and Winthrop Wesley all came together for the experience and the dialogue back and forth was fantastic.  The only thing that seemed to bother me was that on several occasions there were times I felt like we were talking past each other, or that as soon as someone threw out a statistic than the debate or argument was supposed to be over.  This to me is flesh.  When we’re just trying to win or have our point heard, but we don’t care about the other person or want to have a back and forth dialogue and not just a championship – it’s hard for me to see the Spirit there.  But when opposing viewpoints come together and some semblance of truth comes out and reigns forth, it’s easier to see the Spirit moving.

I often feel like people are missing the point in the midst of the fray.  As I watched the US launch missles against Libya that evening on the news and as I tried to gather information on what was happening and why it was happening, at the bottom of the screen in the ticker tape CNN was reporting that Kevin Costner had signed on to play superman’s dad in the new Superman franchise coming out.  Now, I love my celebrity news as much as the next person and I’m not hating on Superman, but the beyond irony of seeing us bomb Libya at the same time seeing the casting news of Kevin Costner was a little much.  Flesh versus Spirit.  “What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  When we look around us in the day to day what do we see of the Spirit?  What do see that’s born of flesh?  Verse 8 says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. ”  One of the things that we say as part of our “What We Believe” on Sundays says “We believe in the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Comforter, who blows peace, strength and perseverance over our lives.”  The Holy Spirit really is in some ways, this uncontrollable force that we invite to shake up and invigorate our lives.

The thing that I really like about this text is a part of it that we usually gloss over.  Or maybe pastors where you’re from don’t usually gloss over things, could just be my own inclination.  Verse 14 talking about the serpent in the wilderness that Moses lifted up is usually something that I would keep on trucking past and not necessarily dig into.  But I love this part that I had never discovered.  Here’s Moses in the book of Numbers with the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years and even though everything is being provided for them – land, food, everything, they still start complaining because the food being provided isn’t good enough.  How often do we complain about not being able to get that next new thing or the best food, when God is providing abundantly for us?  So here’s God in Numbers 21 sending some poisonous snakes amongst the people and suddenly the Israelites really do have something to complain about.  Suddenly, it’s legit and even more griping ensues.  So God asks Moses to make this bronze serpent and if they look to it, they will be healed.

So you’re like okay.  We get the reference but what does that have to do with this?  This whole serpent thing became a crutch.  It wasn’t some cure all for all that ails humanity.  But they kept on worshipping it, generation after generation.  It talks about the same serpent in 2 Kings 18 when Hezekiah is cleaning out the temple.  In verse 4 it talks about him breaking it into pieces and how the people of Israel had continued to give offerings to it and had named it Nehushtan.  They had named the thing.  No longer had there been poisonous snakes.  No longer was it necessary, but they kept on doing it. 

There’s a part of us that love the formulaic or the ritual.  It’s easy.  If it worked before, let’s keep using it as much as we can.  (To talk about how we do this in the church, is just too easy.)  If healing came the first time, than maybe if we rub this magic rock or if we do ______ than it will protect us again.

But the thing is, God can’t be reduced to a formula when it comes to special stones or idols.  For that matter, the Christian life, can’t be reduced to a formula or simple ritual.  We can’t just pay homage to relics, even if they once meant something in one time or place.  Not that I’m saying we throw everything out, but the One who is lifted up in the Gospel is greater than any simple thing we could create.  Jesus as the Son of Man is lifted up and that’s more powerful than any snake or any idol of our own – whether wealth or security or power or sense of safety or self.

This is what leads into that familar John 3:16 passage.  It’s not just for a select few that bow down to the snake, but for everyone that believes in him who is lifted up for all of us.  I love the next verses too, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

John 3:16 is important, true.  It is.  Mom wouldn’t have made us memorize it otherwise.  Christian merchandising definitely indicates this is so.  But we shouldn’t make the words the magic formula, but the Savior that they’re pointing to.  We shouldn’t break everything down to a 3 step process, but should let the Spirit of God speak through the words of scripture and our words as we greet the world with light.  We shouldn’t just grasp hold of these verses without also looking at the rest of the teachings of our scripture talking about justice and loving our neighbor and our God.  If we don’t just go back and depend on the old relics, but we see what the Spirit has in store and if we choose not to limit how far God’s redemptive love can reach, what a world we could be looking at.

Yes, there’s a battle of darkness and light.  Yes, there are choices to be made.  And I think often some of us are right there in the middle right where Nicodemus is.  You see these verses don’t end Nicodemus’ story.  We see him again in John 7:50 sort of trying to ask some questions to help Jesus but not really committing to actually step up and put a stop to anything.  Then we see Nicodemus again with Joseph of Arimathea in John 19:39 and it’s done.  Jesus is gone and he brings some myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body.  John specifically says that this is the same Nicodemus as the one who visited Jesus in the night.  He doesn’t tell us if Nicodemus regrets not doing something or if there’s sadness as he prepares the body of Jesus or if he struggles with his part played.  John doesn’t tell us any of those feelings, but he tells us actions.  Nicodemus came and asked questions, Nicodemus attempted to speak up, and Nicodemus helped prepare the body.  We don’t know if Nicodemus regretted just going with the status quo or old relics, or if he eventually caught on to this new vision in Jesus.

How have we reduced our Christian walks to a formula?  When something challenging or difficult happens to we begin the same ritual that has worked before or we start promising God all sorts of things that we’ll change if God would only…?  How are we like Nicodemus, curious, questioning, sort of trying to step up, and yet…?  How have we reduced God’s power and vision into tidy boxes?  Can we discern what is “flesh” in our lives and what is Spirit?  Are we ready for the Spirit to burst into our lives…into the lives of our churches…into our workplaces…into the day to day?  Or are we so awesome at compartmentalizing our faith that we’re letting a lot in this world just pass us by because we don’t feel that sense of urgency?

For God so loved the world…

Week 1 of Lent – Storms

We began the Lenten season with Matthew 4:1-11 which is the familiar section where beforehand Jesus has been baptized and he goes into the wilderness for 40 days and nights.  He is then tempted by the devil 3 times with questions about his power and Jesus responding in scripture back to him.  When people are questioned about their power and their authority is questioned, sometimes their hackles are raised and it’s easy to react out of a defensiveness or justification of how powerful you think you are.

When this Sunday rolled around a couple weeks ago, the Charlie Sheen saga was at a fever pitch.  It was right after he started waving around a machete on top of a building.  Now I know that people in Hollywood generally may have a healthy sense of self, but waving around a machete and talking about bi-winning and having goddesses are not really the way to go about winning America’s love much less your argument that you are the one with the most power that everyone should praise.  And yet, there was something about this terrible spectacle that at least some people watched because ratings have been up for the show and people couldn’t get enough of the news stories, interviews, and magazine covers.  There’s a certain kind of power that needs attention to be validated.  There’s a certain kind of power that feeds on the frenzy whether good or bad and the ego just continues to grow and mutate.

Now Jesus, who is both God and man could be argued to have been the most powerful human to ever walk the face of the earth.  Nope this wasn’t some demigod or Zeus.  This was God, right here, Emmanuel – God with us.  Now, you didn’t see Jesus waving around machetes or calling for press conferences to do great miracles and healings.  In all actuality a lot of the miracles and healings that he did, he did with what was handy whether a couple loaves and fishes or his own spit mixed with some dirt, and about half the time he told the people don’t tell anyone about this. 

In this snapshot with the devil in Matthew, he’s not falling for the trick of the attack on his ego, he’s answering clearly and definitively in scripture.  In some ways this would have been prime time for him to show how awesome and powerful he is.  He had just been baptized and a loud voice had burst through the clouds and said “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)  That’s bigger than any political endorsement that you could get.  With a ringing pronouncement like that you would think he would have immediately used all that capital and start ministering everywhere showing all the he could do.

And yet, in Matthew immediately after the baptism it says that Jesus was then “led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”  Jesus was led by the Spirit.  He didn’t just go off on his own and start building his own little kingdom on earth with a huge building, marketing campaign, and tv spots.  He listened to the Spirit and followed even if that was into the wilderness where he would be tempted.  One of my dad’s favorite Bible verses in high school that he shared with me when I was in high school was 1 Corinthians 10:13 which says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  Jesus could handle this testing.  He could.  That didn’t make it any easier to go through.  That didn’t mean it was any less tough.  When is fasting ever easy for the human body?  As any youth group that has done the 30 hour famine can tell you, fasting is not easy.  As anyone who has given up desserts or chocolate or soft drinks or sugar for Lent can tell you, fasting is not easy.  Mother Theresa used to say, “I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.”

What are some ways that we have been tested?  How did we respond to those tests?  How was God with us in those tests?  Tests are not necessarily things we look forward to whether in school or in life, but if we prepare for them, it’s that much easier to be ready.  One of the students and I talked last night about questions of theodicy or why God lets bad things happen.  She specifically was asking about a friend who had died while still in high school, about my brain tumor, and about the continued struggle and misery of the people of Japan.  I don’t have some big, perfect answer to give that’s going to wipe all the sorrow away.  I don’t.  But I do know that God is with her friend’s family and with the people in Japan.

I don’t believe that God causes cancer or earthquakes or tsunamis or abuse, but I do believe that God is with us in our sorrow and in our anger and in our doubts and in our fears.  I have no idea why God allows some things to happen.  Like I told her last night, as much as I think that may be one of those things that we would want to ask on the other side, I honestly don’t think we’ll care all that much at that point in the midst of God’s presence.  I also trust and know that if we dig into the Word of God and if we are fed spiritually that when the tests and struggles of life arise, we’ll be that much more prepared.  Jesus didn’t just let the devil keep taunting him.  He answered clearly and specifically from the Word of God.  Even when scripture was thrown back at him, he didn’t waver from the truth and where his heart and trust was.  He was strong.  He was ready.  He wasn’t just on a Charlie Sheen power trip.  He didn’t have to prove his power by some big display or some long soliloquy.  He just had to answer solidly and unwaveringly in faith.

Often it is our fears that get in the way of us feeling this security or confidence.  In the movie The King’s Speech a lot of the soon to be King George’s hang up with stuttering goes back to trauma and fear.  A lot of our fears and worries can be traced back to our own traumas and fears.  God is offering us something different though, better than any SAT or GRE prep course and better than any class we can take at the local college, community center or YMCA.  God is offering for us to know God whether through scripture or prayer or song or meditation or silence or just opening our hearts and eyes to the fingerprints of God around us.  God is offering us tools and foundations so that when the storms of life are raging, we know who’s standing beside us.

So as we continue this Lenten season, may we continue to prepare ourselves through repentance and renewal knowing that God is beside us and before us no matter what this world may bring.

When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou Who rulest wind and water,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou Who never lost a battle,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou Who knowest all about me,
Stand by me (stand by me).

In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
In the midst of persecution,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my foes in battle array
Undertake to stop my way,
Thou Who savèd Paul and Silas,
Stand by me (stand by me).

When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When I’m growing old and feeble,
Stand by me (stand by me);
When my life becomes a burden,
And I’m nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me (stand by me).

Dismantling a Home

Right now my mom and dad and aunt and uncle are at my grandparent’s in the big metropolis of Greeleyville.  It’s been over a year since my Ganny died and close to a decade since my Gandaddy died and it’s now time to start dismantling some of the home they created.  I don’t really like dismantling used in this context, but in the next couple months as family begins to decide what heirloom or furniture or keepsake goes where, it feels a little like that.

My mom called a little while ago and was asking about some of these pieces and what was going where and although I know that we can’t keep the house exactly like it was forever, there’s a part of me now that can’t imagine it any other way.  So I was laying in my bed, pondering what home means and admittedly crying – call me a sissy – yes I cry at series finales, heck sometimes just regular tv shows – and I realized that I could be laying there all night if I didn’t get up and try to write this out.

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, you move to a lot of different places over the years.  We had amazing church families and we always managed to make parsonages home.  You can do a lot with pictures, lamps, and other odds and ends.  I can’t imagine my life though with out Ganny’s.  I seriously can’t.

The very first Christmas we spent out in Greeleyville, was my first Christmas.  So the story goes, there was no heat and the wind was whistling up through the cracks in the floors and the walls.  Apparently everybody slept in sleeping bags together on the floor and Mom kept looking into the crib in the night to make sure I hadn’t frozen. 

It wasn’t fancy.  It wasn’t all dolled up, but it was family together.  It was love being shared.  To say we spent a inexplicable amount of time there is true.  Whether being dropped off as mom and dad led a youth retreat or when Caleb was born, (Josh and I had chicken pox), we weren’t there just for holidays and milestones but everything in between.  It was our safe place when we were children and always a running joke that if the end of the world came, we knew we had a place to go because no one was going to come looking for anyone in Williamsburg County.  We’ve talked about many a dream we’ve had and no matter what was on the outside whether monsters or wolves, a la our fear of Scar Face from Wilderness Family fame, we were protected in that house.

As I think about us packing things up over the next few months and disbursing things throughout the family, I begin to go over each room in my mind and what I love about it.  Even the most random thing can be so dear. 

Before Gandaddy died, their room was upstairs.  I’ll never forget her closet of bathrobes or the huge basket of makeup she kept in the top drawer of the upstairs bathroom (that took forever to build, much less put a bathtub in.  Still to this day, I’ve never seen someone with that much makeup in one place.  Everything was in tip top clean Ganny shape.  Make up in the top drawer with the lipstick worn down in a way that I can’t even describe but I’ve only seen her do.  Her brush, mirror and comb were in the next drawer.  I’m telling you – neat and orderly – no matter what. 

Ganny liked her cleanliness, even in the midst of Gandaddy’s “hunting lodge.”  We heard a lot about crumbs, putting coasters down and not putting our feet on coffee tables and a whole heck of a lot about germs.  “Dog” germs, “cat” germs, “school” germs.  When Ganny would give us baths as children, she would wash our faces and say that she was cleaning the “dirt beads” around our necks that we had missed.  As a child, I honestly did believe that she could see a dirt necklace right there if I didn’t wash up well enough.

I remember watching Dallas and Dynasty and all the CBS soaps – The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful and her two favorites that are now off the air – As the World Turns and not Guiding Light, but The Guiding Light as she would call it.  I had no idea what most of these things were as a child but I do remember her getting hopped up about Priscilla Presley being on Dallas and her always reminding me that she had listened to As the World Turns and The Guiding Light on the radio with her mother, Nana.

I’m telling you, each room means so much.  I never slept in the twin bed room upstairs, but I’ll always think of that as Josh and Caleb’s room.  And I’ll always know that the lock to that door was broken because me as a 2 or 3 year old accidentally locked myself in and couldn’t figure out how to unlock it.  I barely remember sitting on the other side of the bed (whose bedspread never changed) and my Gandaddy busting the door down and the lock never working right since. 

The double bed room was the room that I slept in growing up til I upgraded to Ganny’s old room when I married Mike.  There was many a night that I would stay up until the wee hours of the morning reading a book until I finished it.  Ganny never complained or scolded me about that, because a lot of my love of reading had to do with me seeing her read ALL the time.  Seriously, all the time.  I remember the rattly old windows as the wind would blow and thinking oh my goodness, something is going to get me.

I remember Ganny’s upstairs room where, when it was still her room, I didn’t really go into it very often.  It was a little intimidating.  You knew if you moved something or put something out of place, she would definitely notice.  Her crystal jewelry boxes, one with a donkey and one with a swan on them and her perfumes all laid out.  I have no idea why one was a donkey and one a swan.  This may be a little gross, but I’ll also never forget her showing me this stain beside her bedside table where I had thrown up one time as a child and her not saying, well that really is terrible because you messed up my blue carpet, but her saying it matter of factly and almost as if she was proud that it was there because she saw not just the good and clean and nice with us but also the real and sick and wild with us.

When I think about the house and the “things” I might like to have from it, most of them are architectural.  Gandaddy restored this late 1800’s house and there are so many pieces of it that could never be replaced.  The huge fireplace in the middle of the great room, the steps that served as a stage, a boat, a runway, all sorts of things, the wrap around porch where we played for hours on the hammock, the church benches, and the rocking chairs.  All of these things made this house something different.

Some of the stuff I cherish is long gone now.  The “train” of old bus seats that Gandaddy mounted to trailers to cart us around through the woods on a mini tractor seeing “Godwin Land” with Touchdown Teddy and a statue of Mary among other things.  The bus that Gandaddy gutted and added army bunk beds, a tv, chairs, and the most random assortment of odds and ends imaginable – a white clay hand, bowling ball, old telephone.  We played for countless hours in that bus.  These things aren’t there any more and neither is the swing in the grape orchard, but they’re still right there in my mind.

You see, as much as I love that house, and don’t think I don’t, what makes a house a home is the people inside it.  What makes this house special, or at least to me more special than a lot of them, was that Gandaddy and Ganny infused it with their love.  It’s felt in every piece of wood or tile on the island in the kitchen.  Even in all the complaining Ganny did about getting her “new” kitchen.  Have mercy!  It’s felt in every one of Ganny’s sometimes prissy decor choices – liked the fringed curtains in the great room.  This house is not just any house, but love seeps out.  I’ll never forget at the visitation for my grandfather Ganny telling people, that these grandchildren weren’t just the apple of their Gandaddy’s eyes, they were his very eye balls.  (I know that sounds sort of strange but that’s how Ganny was and how she said it.)

So I don’t know who will get what.  And I don’t know what I will do when we start moving things out.  There’s a part of me that wants to just remember it as it was and not step a toenail back.  I can’t imagine seeing some of those rooms empty and I’m glad that Dad is taking pictures now for us to remember and I’m thankful for Lindsay’s pictures of the cotton that she gave us at Christmas and the pictures Karen and Guyeth took of the family all together.  There’s a part of me that knows that the love in that house, is just a piece or a glimmer of the home that awaits, where we’ll all be gathered just as crazy and off kilter as ever.  Both the wonderful Godwin-Burch-Moore clan and the equally as memorable and hilarious McClendon-Jackson clan.  I keep thinking of the line in Steven Curtis Chapman’s song, “We are not home yet.”  That great cloud of witnesses may have grown over the past years, but they’re all here in our midst!

We may not be home yet, but I think we can help create a little bit of home everywhere we go.  If we open our hearts and our homes to those around us offering, sharing, giving, than we will experience God in more ways than we can count.  That’s part of what made their home, home.  You never knew who would stop by, from former students (both public educators) to the amazing folks of Greeleyville UMC to family whether blood or bond.  You knew there would be hospitality and almost all the time laughter and stories.  You see, their legacy was not just this house or this furniture or this land, but their’s was all the people they loved and all the lives they touched.

I hope that whether we have the physical Ganny’s as true north anymore or not, that we share our homes, that we treasure our times with our loved ones, and that we pick up and carry forth the legacy.

I’m finally starting to wind down to fall asleep.  Wohoo!  But I leave you with these questions – where is home for you?  What does home mean to you?  What makes you feel at home?  How do we share that with others?

This song always makes me think of all of the granparents and wise elders we have lost – including my beloved and always candid and cracked McClendon family.  I am grateful for the tremendous legacy left to each of us on both sides of the family.

I’ve always enjoyed this song.  Even though it’s more romantic in nature, you can get the sense or “feeling” of the enveloping love in it.

What would our logo be?

Last night during the Ash Wednesday service there were many funny occasions as I caught Erica (our volunteer sign language translator extraordinaire) giving me and others looks like – what!!?  how am I supposed to translate that???.  But one thought-provoking moment stood out.  She had asked Mary earlier in the evening what the sign for the word forgiven is and so when I said as part of the liturgy, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” she thought she nailed it.  The irony came when she found out afterwards that the sign she was doing was punished not forgiven.  Mary of course knew what she meant and I am as always hugely grateful that Erica puts up with us, but I’ve been chuckling and musing about this since last night.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished. 

This morning at Wesley we hosted a district meeting for the clergy and Kathy James our Congregational Specialist talked about generational divides and opportunities for our churches.  How do we minister to all of these different groups and spek their language in the midst?  We talked a lot about images.  We could easily recognize the logos from products or stores whether there were words or not.  We’re a visual society and the shorthand that our communication has become in many ways has bled over into the images that we see and know even if the actual writing is explicit or not. 

Then came the wise question of what image or icon or logo does the church have?  How does society recognize us?  The cross and flame wasn’t mentioned although I do think that’s one of the images for the UMC, but do people on the outside actually get that?  The cross in general, buddy Jesus, a traditional picture of a church, a pair of hands praying….none of those came to mind for us this morning discussing it.  What our motley crew worried about was that the image people might have of Christians right now is of people protesting funerals or others condemning and judging people.  So seriously, what would our logo/image/picture/icon be?

When I think of the “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished,” I can’t help but think of some of those images and icons that people may recognize us by.  Are they images of hate?  Are they images of middle class complacency?  Are they images of frowny faced people in suits and Sunday dresses?  What do you think?

I was happy to see people sporting their ashes on ESPN and Colbert last night.  There’s a fun witness.  Will you watch them differently?  Hold them to a different standard?  Expect more?  I had no problem taking the students to IHOP last night while we were still “ashed,” but I must admit, that it did give me pause about how we acted or how we were perceived by the folks working there or others eating.  When we have that sign/image/icon of the cross on our foreheads, people are watching.  We know people can see it.  We represent something and someOne when we wear our faith.

In our every day, we don’t wake up every morning and put our cross on our forehead.  Heck, the Matthew passage last night (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) actually speaks out against practicing your piety before others and I completely agree.  I’m not saying you go stockpile ashes to begin this process every morning, but I am saying we shouldn’t just try to “act right” or live out our faith just when we have the sign of the cross on our heads.  We should dig deeper and show the world by our words, our acts, and our love that in the name of Jesus Christ they are FORGIVEN.  This crazy thing called Christianity is not a battle for Super Christian of the ages, but it’s a recognition that we can’t do it all by ourselves.  It’s a knowledge that we mess up, boy do we sometimes, but that there is One who walks with us and gives us new life. 

This forgiveness is available for each of us whether rich or poor, black or brown, lefty or righty, insider or outsider.  It’s a free gift unlike the Clinique bags that get quickly given out to the first wave of customers.  This is a free gift that never runs out and doesn’t expire.

So on this day after Ash Wednesday when our crosses have been washed away, what remains of our commitment to repentance and renewal?  What does God have in store for us this season?  What kind of visual do we as Christians offer the world?

If you could pick a universal picture or image to represent the church what would it be?  (No this is not a branding meeting where we’re going to put millions of dollars in and take the airwaves, but I’m curious as to what you name.)  Punishment or forgiveness?  Peace or hate?  I’m not saying that all of our images will be pretty or nice or clean, because I don’t believe that being the body of Christ is all roses and butterflies.  But I am saying that the images we project need to be real and they need to reflect the Gospel, not just what we’ve made it into.

this is every worship picture these days...wowzers...