Happy Birthday, Carson! Ah, 19

Carson
Carson with his sister, Sara

My son Carson, who many say favors me, turns 19 today. Ah, 19.

I do see myself in him in a few ways: in his smile, in some of his mannerisms, in his creativity, and in his public speaking.

Then he possesses many traits that I can only pray to God to one day obtain: an unwavering confidence, uncompromised ethics and a maturity that does not match his age. Maybe those traits came from his mother!

And then there are those attributes that I can only envy. After all, he is 19. His entire life is before him. There is so much hope and promise. A clean slate of adulthood awaits him. He has yet to burn a bridge, amass debts, disappoint loved ones and make costly mistakes.

Ah, 19. If I only knew then what I know now. If I could only go back. Do some things over. Make some different choices.

When Jesus suggested to Nicodemus that he could be born anew, Nicodemus asked if he could physically go back. Although he was being sarcastic, perhaps he was thinking about being 19 again.

Jesus responded by saying something like: “If you are born of the Spirit, the Spirit will make you anew in ways that you’ve never imagined!”  John 3:1-10 NRSV

Nicodemus could not physically go back, but he could spiritually go forward, anew, enveloped in grace.

With faith in this Spirit, maybe I favor my 19-year-old son more than I thought. With faith, perhaps we all do.

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Snowflakes from Heaven

snow-covered-road

J.B. Priestley once wrote: “The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found?”

Yesterday, Stantonsburg Road was littered with empty Natural Light cans, leftover trash from Bojangles and McDonalds, and the carcass of a possum or two. This morning it is a majestic, untarnished pathway through a winter wonderland.

Yesterday, my lawn was brown, covered with ugly winter weeds and strewn with fallen tree limbs and dog droppings that I have been too lazy to pick up.  This morning it is glistening white, void of a single blemish.

Yesterday, the flaws and faults of this fragmented world were all too apparent. This morning everything seems to be forgiven, blanketed by grace. And although this world is still a very dangerous place to drive and to even walk; this morning, the hopeful wonder and potential beauty of this world is obvious.

Yesterday, my excited facebook friends posted prayers for snowflakes to fall, believing that they somehow come from heaven. This morning there is no doubt that heaven is exactly where they come from.

Why Should I Join a Church?

why-join-a-church

To entice people to join the church, I once heard a minister tell a group of prospects that members of the church enjoy special member “benefits.” For example, he said: “You have the benefit of a pastor to visit you or pray for you when you are sick or hospitalized.  You have the benefit of programs that are designed to meet the needs of you and your family. And you have the privilege to use the church’s facilities for weddings or funerals without a fee.”

However, I do not believe this is what Jesus ever intended the church to be. Church membership is not like an American Express Card membership, a Sam’s Club, a country club or gym membership where membership has its privileges. The gospel truth is that it is quite the opposite.

Church is not some place to come and receive, but is a dynamic opportunity to go and to give. Church is a chance to fulfill the greatest commandment of Jesus to love God and our neighbors as ourselves.  Church is an occasion to deny and lose one’s self in sacrificial service to others. The purpose of church is not to meet your needs, but to transform your needs.

And the gospel truth is that church membership will not eliminate fees. On the contrary, church membership, if it is about following Jesus, will cost you dearly.

When Life Kicks You, Let It Kick You Forward

Mary Scott (right)
Mary Scott (right) with Julie Warren

Former North Carolina State Women’s Basketball Coach, Kay Yow, who passed away on January 24, 2009 after a courageous battle with breast cancer once said, “I felt like I had zero control over getting cancer, but I have 100% control of how I will respond to getting cancer.” She then said something that was absolutely inspiring: “When life kicks you, let it kick you forward!”

These words became even more magnificent to me this morning after running with my dear friend, and breast-cancer survivor, Mary Scott. Today, January 23, 2014, marked the two-year anniversary of her last radiation treatment. We ran five miles at 5:30 am before she put on her US Army fatigues and combat boots and drove to her National Guard post in Raleigh. It was 14 degrees. Mary has run every day since Thanksgiving, including a day that she had a surgical procedure to remove a suspicious lump that, thankfully, turned out to be benign. That is fifty-seven days straight totaling 200.5 miles.

In Mary’s determination and perseverance, I can hear the voice of Kay Yow: “When life kicks you, let it kick you forward!”

Old Testament professor, Walter Brueggemann, once put it this way, “In life, we can never go back to the ‘good-old days,’ but with faith in Christ we can go forward with God into ‘good-new days.’”  The Apostle Paul said it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.”

Five years ago, Kay Yow died. However, the way she courageously lived out her life, and the way people like Mary Scott continue to press forward today, rekindles a great hope within our souls. A hope burns eternally, as we begin to know that we can and will always go forward, even when our very life is one day kicked out of us.

As I think about running with Mary, I am reminded of something Bernice Chambers once said about cancer:

Cancer is so limited.

It cannot cripple love.

It cannot shatter hope.

It cannot corrode faith.

It cannot eat away peace.

It cannot destroy confidence.

It cannot kill friendship.

It cannot shut out memories.

It cannot silence courage.

It cannot invade the soul.

t cannot reduce eternal life.

It cannot quench the Spirit.

It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection. Amen.

When life kicks you, let it kick you forward.” With faith in the God who makes all things new, it might be easier than you think.

A Personal Thought on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

martin-luther-king-on-pulpit-robert-casillaWhen I moved to southern Louisiana to preach the gospel, my church had a policy to close the church office on Fat Tuesday (the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), but not on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I immediately changed the holiday policy stating: “I believe that churches should especially honor the MLK holiday. After all, he was a preacher who was martyred for preaching the gospel of Jesus!”

So, for me, today is a day to remember not only the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., but to also reexamine my own preaching, or lack thereof.

I have always believed that there is a lot of correlation between what happened in Memphis in 1968 and what happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. I truly believe that if you love all people, and live your life trying to convince others to love all people, then there will always be some people, probably religious, who will want to kill you.

Today, I am reminded that if my preaching does not take grave risks by offending and outraging those who do not believe that God’s love expands past the lines of race, class, religion, nationality and sexual orientation, then I am not preaching the gospel of Jesus.

It’s Time to Get Personal

adam

Isaiah 49:1-7 NRSV

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 NRSV

John 1:29-42 NRSV

The season of Epiphany is the time the church traditionally talks about the revelation of God to all of humanity.

It is the time to ask some of the most difficult questions of our faith. Who or what is God? What is God like? What does God feel? What does God want? How does God relate to and interact with us and the world? How does God reveal God’s self to us?

These are very difficult questions, because with our mortal minds, I do not believe we can ever answer them completely. And as I said last week, I am okay with that. In the words of Fosdick: “I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.” I am very comfortable living, as the Apostle Paul wrote, in a world where I “see through a glass dimly” (1 Cor 13).

I love the way we begin each service with the Lord’s Prayer praying, “Hallowed be Thy name.” For the name of God is so above our mortal comprehension it always evokes reverence, awe, and respect.

And I believe that one of the problems with religion these days is that, for many in the church, there is no mystery. Too many people have the world and have God all figured out. They are know-it-alls and listen to a sermon or attend a Bible Study not to learn anything new, not to be challenged, but to have what they already know reaffirmed. They have all of the answers and never have any doubts.

A parishioner came to see me one day almost in tears. She was so upset that she was shaking. A friend of hers was dying. She said that she was not sure about her friend’s faith so she asked her: “Without any doubt, do you know that if you died today that you would spend eternity in heaven?”

Has anyone ever asked you that before?

The dying woman responded, “I hope so.”

Well, that response tore her friend completely out of her frame!  For she wanted her to respond: “Yes! No doubt about it, I know! I know unequivocally, for absolute certainty!”

But her friend’s response did not sound that troubling to me. She may not have responded with absolute certainty, but it sounded to me as if she had faith.  She hoped. She believed. She trusted.

To be honest, I tend to get along better with people who are honest enough to admit that they sometimes have their doubts; that they do not always know absolutely. And I am often wary of those who have no doubts whatsoever, because it has been my experience that those are the ones who are the quickest to judge and are the first to belittle, even condemn, others who hold different beliefs.

A member of a pastor search committee once asked me if I believed the Biblical account of Jonah and the whale should be taken literally. She asked, “Did it actually historically happen the way the Bible says it did?”

I responded, “I believe that God can do what God wants to do. I have no trouble believing that God can use a whale to actually swallow man and spit him out on the beach of God’s choosing. However, if I die and get to heaven and find out that it was just a fictional story to reveal a great truth about the will of God, then I am not going to get angry and ask for a transfer!”

I believe the problem with the church today is that too many church people are so closed-minded they would opt for the transfer. They are so convinced, so right, so certain about the things of God that they leave no room for mystery and thus no need for faith, hope or trust.

One of the great things about our heritage as Disciples of Christ is our individual freedom to interpret the scriptures and to understand God and God’s relation to the world. We are encouraged to have open-minds when reading the Bible. No one was more of a free-thinker or had more of an open mind than our forefather, Barton Stone. That is why I believe he was so inclusive, welcoming all people to the Lord’s table. And that is why I believe we are such a non-judgmental, non-self-righteous, accepting people today. We do not presume to have all the answers. And we are not even close to having God all figured out.

Now, I wished we could just end the sermon right here. I wished we could just stand now and sing our hymn of commitment, pat ourselves on the back, and then go get some lunch. But, we can’t do it. We can’t do it, because now, now the sermon is just beginning.

We open-minded, free thinkers have to be very careful, that while embracing the mystery of God, we do not completely depersonalize God. While we accept broad views and opinions, while we practice widespread inclusivity and acceptance, we do not make the mistake and generalize God.

In emphasizing God as mysterious Spirit, a Spirit that Jesus says is comparable to the wind, blowing when and where it wills, in stressing God as Light in our world working in mysterious ways, we must be careful not make God into some sort of generic, vague enigmatic force.

In church, we say very specifically, “May the Spirit of Christ be with you.” We do not say very vaguely say, “May the force be with you.” That’s from Obie One Canobie and Yoda; not from the Old and New Testaments.

I have noticed, especially over the last decade, how Christians, in their attempts to find common ground with other faith groups, talk more about following a general God and less about following a specific Christ. When relating to Hindus, Muslims and Jews, I have heard Christians say things like: “We have our differences,” “but we all believe in God.”  But in our attempt to find common ground and unity, I believe we sacrifice God as a distinct, particular, and very personal being.

You hear a lot of talk today about spirituality.  More and more people are calling themselves “spiritual” instead of “Christian.”  There are far more books at Barnes and Nobles on Spirituality than are on Jesus. William Willimon says he can understand why this sort of reasoning is so attractive. “The more vague, indistinct, mushy, and impersonal we can make God, the better for us!” Willimon says that if God is so mysterious, “Then we can make God just about anything we want. We can render God into a projection of our sweet sentimentality and we will never have to grow, change, or be born again.”[i]

And when we depersonalize God we ignore about almost everything said about God in scripture. Take, for instance, today’s lectionary lessons—every one of them. Each of them, in their own way, speaks of a very personal God who sees, speaks, acts, moves, feels and intrudes. In the Old Testament Lesson for the day, the prophet Isaiah recounts how, even before he was born, God knew him personally and intimately and had special plans for him.

In the Epistle Lesson, Paul, when challenged by some dissidents at one of his early congregations, defends his authority as leader on the basis that God Almighty, the creator of all that is, had reached down and touched him, personally authorizing him as an apostle. The Greek word apostle, literally means “someone personally sent from God.”

And in our Gospel Lesson that I read this morning, John the Baptist looks at Jesus and sees in him the very presence of God in the flesh, the personification of God among us.  And Jesus himself said, that if we know him, we know his Father as well (John 14:7).

I believe we should think of this hour on Sunday morning as our attempt to get personal with God, to give that word “God,” which can be terribly abstract and general, some specific concreteness. Sunday morning is the time when we tell God who we are, but more importantly, it is the time when we listen to God tell us who God is.[ii]

Our God is not distant, aloof, some indistinct concept or some abstract idea. Our God is a personal being who yearns for the most intimate of relationships with each one of us. Our God is one who continually rips the heavens wide and swoops like a bird when we least expect it, calling us by name, affirming us as God’s beloved children. God reaches out and reaches in and touches the places in us that most need touching. And our hearts, our very souls burn with love.

Let me just stop my sermon for a moment and just look at you. As your pastor, part of what I love about you is not your vague generalities, but your very personal ways: the particular ways you love, the intimate ways you care, the unique ways you act, the peculiar way you share, the specific you give, the distinctive ways you serve, the certain ways you accept, the special ways your forgive.

I love you not for your generalities, but for your personal uniqueness.

“Humanity in general” does not move me.  A congregation “in general” does not energize me, evoke me, persuade me or love me—but you specifically can. You particularly can. You explicitly and certainly can.

The same is true with God. Here in this season of Epiphany, it is time to get personal, to get down to the specifics. We believe, that in the personal specifics of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we have seen God. We have seen not some general, vague idea, not some mysterious force, but we have seen a person, a person walking among us, calling us, urging us, challenging us, loving us, forgiving us, changing us, and one day resurrecting us revealing the true life of God—revealing who God is, what God is like, how God feels, and how God relates to us and our world.

No, we do not have all of the answers. And as I said, I am comfortable not knowing all of the answers. I fully embrace the mystery of all that is.  I believe that there is a very good reason that each Sunday, we unite our hearts and pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name.” For His name is so beyond our fragile minds, so above our finite understanding, so outside our mortal comprehension, so utterly mysterious, that it is a name that is to always be revered and respected and sanctified.

However, that name just so happens to be “Father”—a word that cannot be any more personal. And the good news is, we pray, not merely “Father” but we pray very intimately and very specifically and personally “Our Father.”

No, when it comes to God, we cannot know it all, but what we can know is certainly, absolutely, unequivocally, undoubtedly enough.


[i] William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 2006.

Heaven on Earth

DoveMatthew 3:13-17 NRSV

I have a confession to make to you this morning.                                                  

The truth is: I really don’t know what I’m doing half the time I’m standing up here behind this pulpit.  And if I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel certain that some, if not most of you, do not know what I am doing. This preaching thing is probably the hardest things about church. It’s hard on me, and I know it’s hard on you. I don’t know what is more difficult, preaching a sermon or listening to one.

After preaching for over nearly thirty years, I’m really not that certain if I really know how to preach. I’ve tried every technique.  Every once in a while I’ll try to be creative. Try to tell some good stories. Embellish a few if I have to. Robert Fulgum called it “making up necessary facts.” 

But it’s just so hard to talk about, and I know it’s hard to hear about the things of God.  And how do you really talk to people about God’s relationship to this mystery that we call life. How do you talk about Christmas, Epiphany, and the way God reveals God’s self in this world? I am in full agreement with Harry Emerson Fosdick when he said:

“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”

So if I cannot comprehend any of it, nor even want to comprehend any of it, how can I begin to talk about it?  

And here’s the real difficult part: How do you speak in such a way that people don’t just hear about God, but are brought to God or experience God?  How do you get people to get a sermon?  

After all, you have so many distractions.  There are so many obstacles to successful communication in this place.  First of all there are the people around you. I remember how hard it was when I was growing up trying to get something, anything out of a sermon! There was always somebody was always playing with a candy wrapper, getting up to go the restroom, some coughing, some sneezing, some biting their nails, some whispering, some dozing off, some even snoring. And today you have all of these electronic gadget distractions. There are ipods and ipads and iphones.

And then there are all kinds of entertaining observations. “His hair sure is thinning.  Her hair sure is graying.  What is he wearing?  And my, hasn’t she packed on the pounds!  She must have really enjoyed herself some Christmas!”

Then there’s the temperature.  It is either twenty degrees too cold or twenty degrees too hot. 

Then there are all of those other obstacles that you bring with you—attention deficit disorder, up too late the night before, too many things on your plate, a whole slew of problems and shortcomings, and then there’s that thing called, “sin” that is so much a part of all of us.

Let’s be honest:  It is an absolute miracle that anyone ever gets anything out of any sermon.

But sometimes, people do.  Sometimes, people undeniably hear.  Sometimes people do get it.

William WilIimon, who has written more books about preaching than anyone I know, once said that he suspected that the reason that most of you keep coming back here is “because having had the lightening to strike once, it could well strike again, and you want to be here for it.  Having once shuffled in here—distracted, unfocused, unsure—you have despite everything, irrefutably heard.”  You once came in here and caught a glimpse of something, and that something was undoubtedly from God.

You know what really annoys me about preaching?  It is when I preach a sermon that I had intended to be good sermon, a sermon that could have been a good sermon if I had a little more time, perhaps a been little less distracted and  a little more prayerful. It’s when I preach one of those sermons and you, you have the audacity to look at me on the way out of the church, grip my hand and say, “Thank you for that sermon. God really spoke to me today.”

You walk away to your car leaving me shaking my head thinking, “How did that happen?  How did anyone get anything out of that sermon?  Who pulled back the veil between us and God?  I know it wasn’t me.  It sure wasn’t anything that I said.”

It was just another ordinary day down at the river. John was down there baptizing people. At that time, baptism was a ritual that Jews sometimes went through, a kind of purification rite to prepare for the Advent of the Messiah.

“The Messiah’s coming!” John preached.  And as the people were going through the motions, wading into the water, some of them would ask John, “Are you the Messiah?”

“No,” answered John.  “I could not even tie the shoelaces of the one who is coming after me.  I baptize with water; the one who is more powerful than I, will baptize with fire!”

John keeps baptizing.  Then this one from Nazareth comes—and then, all of a sudden—a miracle happens—a dove swoops, the Spirit descends, a voice echoes, the heavens are ripped open, the veil is torn asunder!

This dove, this Spirit, and this voice is the biblical way of saying that heaven had come down to earth, and God’s Spirit was inexplicably but undeniably present. 

And this voice is of “heaven.”  It is not of the earth.  It is not from John.  John, unworthy to tie the laces of the Messiah, would be the first to admit that.  It has come from some other place. It has come from God.

I don’t know how many heard the voice that day.  I’m just glad that somebody heard it, experienced something like a dove, felt the Spirit and had the foresight to tell us about it.  Because maybe then we, with all of our distractions and obstacles, all of our doubts, all of our shortcomings, and yes, all of our sin, just maybe then, we may be open to such a voice and such a vision.

Professor Steven Vryhof writes about visiting a Lutheran church in a small village on the coast of Sweden where only fourteen congregants had gathered.  The blonde-haired minister was very young and somewhat nervous, right out of seminary.  Vryhoff struggled throughout the service with the Swedish hymns and the Lutheran tendency to stand to pray and sit to sing, the opposite of what he was used to.  He joined the others at the front for communion, taking the bread and the wine and then returning to his seat.

While the minister had his back to congregation, putting away the elements, a parishioner, a middle-aged woman, returned to the front, but this time pushing a very elderly woman, presumably her mother, in a wheelchair. 

He described the mother has having the “classic nursing home look: slumped to the right, thin, scraggly, colorless hair, vacant eyes, and a slack-jaw with her tongue showing just a bit.”  She was there for communion.

There was an awkward minute as they all waited for the minister to turn around and notice the two waiting at the front.  He finally did turn, perceived the situation, and then proceeded to retrieve the elements.  He carefully administered the bite of bread and the sip of wine to the old woman. And then he paused.  

It was then that Vryhof held his breath, because he knew what was going to happen next. The minister looked at the old woman, physically a wreck of a human being, and he said to her the most important words that one human being can say to another human being. The minister looked her straight in the eyes and said to her in Swedish:  “Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose body and blood you have received, preserve your soul unto everlasting life.”

Vryhoff writes:  “I suppose it was a coincidence, but it was a God-given coincidence nonetheless. At that precise moment, the bells of the church started pealing, ringing and resonating and resounding and reverberating through the church and through me, making the hair on the back of my head stand up.  Heaven touched earth and it seemed that Jesus Christ, himself was saying, ‘Yes, I will do that!’

And then the Father and the Spirit joined the Son, and using the same words given to Julian of Norwich [in fourteenth century England], the Triune God proclaimed loudly over the ringing of the bells, “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well!”[i]

No, the reality is that I can’t preach God’s Word to you.  Forgive me when I try to explain Jesus or attempt to talk you about faith, God, epiphanies and this mystery life.  I can’t do it. And it’s not because I’m a bad preacher. It’s not because I lack the experience or the training.  It’s because true revelation, authentic recognition—when it’s about God—is always a gift from God.  It’s always a miracle.  It is always “from heaven.” The truth is, I can’t preach.  And the truth is, you can’t hear, except as a miracle, except a gift of God’s amazing grace.

I’m not saying that the baptism of Jesus happened with a literal dove descending and with an audible voice. I’m not saying that visions like this happen every day.  Because I really don’t know. I am saying that if we keep the faith, I believe it can and it will happen to you and to me!

You might be being baptized or receiving communion or listening to a sermon or a choir.  You might be kissing a child on the forehead, holding a puppy or sitting on a front porch with a friend. You might be taking a shower, driving to work or just staring off into space doing absolutely nothing, and then, when you thought you’ve got your world all figured out, the once hushed heavens open up, and something like a bird swoops down.  Heaven comes so close you can feel the breath of God.  A voice speaks. It’s inexplicable but undeniable.  Warmth fills your soul.  And you know beyond any doubt whatsoever that you are God’s beloved child.[ii]  Thanks be to God.  Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us.  Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices.  Abandon us not to our own voices.  Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and give us the grace to see and listen and the courage to follow.  Amen.


[i]Crash Helmets and Church Bells, Perspectives, August/September 2000, p. 3

[ii] Inspired and adapted from a sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions, 2009.