From Sorrow to Joy

gone-fishing-600x399Funeral Service for Hubert Chester Outland, Jr.

Aug 23, 1944 – Nov 26, 2014 

Esther 9:20-23 NRSV

John 16:20-24 NRSV

Chester never did care too much for funerals. If he had it his way, we probably would not here this day. Yet, I am sure he knew that, unless he outlived all of us, there would be a service.

“Well, if you’ve got to have a service,” I can almost hear Chester say, with a slight grimace, “at least make it a celebration. Play and sing music that is uplifting. Say things that are hopeful. Be joyful.”

Chester certainly did not want this day to be a day of sadness, of mourning, but a day of gladness, of rejoicing. Instead of a sorrowful, solemn sermon, he would want me to preach a happy, hopeful one, to even tell a joke or two, assuring his friends and family that everything is going to be alright.

“Jarrett,” I can hear him say, “Just tell people: don’t worry. Sing a happy song. If anybody ask where I’m at, just tell them I’ve gone fishing. Just tell them I’ve gone fishing with Daddy and Mama on that beautiful shore in the sweet bye and bye. So, Jarrett, if you have to have a funeral, and as much as I despise a funeral I know you have to, please do me a favor and make it a celebration. And please, do everyone a favor, and try to keep it short.”

“Well, Chester, my good friend, that is much easier said than done.

Because, Chester, you just left us so suddenly. None of us were prepared for it. We are having a hard time accepting it. One minute you’re at the Country Club telling jokes about Obama and the next minute you’re gone. Even now, three days later, it seems more like some strange nightmare from which we cannot wake than it does the reality that we must accept.

And the timing of it, during the start of the holidays, seems to make it even more tragic. As I was sitting with Ben at the hospital, he painfully reminded me that this Thanksgiving was Mernie’s and your 45th wedding anniversary. So Chester, please forgive us if we are somewhat slow and even reluctant to celebrate this day.”

And of course, this day is especially sad because we loved Chester so. And he loved us.

I know I am speaking for more than just me when I say that Chester loved me like I was family. I felt I could go to Chester for any kind of advice, from fishing, golf to finances. It was eight years ago that Chester taught me how to fry my first turkey for Thanksgiving. After I rubbed the bird down and injected it per Chester’s precise instructions, Chester made me come to his house to fry it, so he could supervise and prevent me from blowing myself up.

This is a difficult day, for how many of us here will not miss the way Chester loved us with his wonderful, yet peculiar sense of humor.

One day, he and Ben were fishing for trout off the train trestle in Beaufort. While they were fishing, one of his shoes got caught on the trestle, slipped off and fell in the inlet and was immediately swept away by the current. After a great day of fishing, a man noticed Ben and Chester walking off the trestle, Chester limping a bit, wearing just one shoe. The man asked, “Did you lose your shoe?” Chester said: “No, I found one.”

Yes, today is a sad day as we will miss his quick wit, his funny stories and his dry sarcasm. We will miss all the ways he made us smile, by playing a prank or by cooking us a meal.

This day is especially difficult for his family as Chester loved planning and cooking a meal, especially for a family gathering such as Thanksgiving. All who knew Chester knew that his family meant everything to him: his sister Niki and Eddie; his niece Lou, Tim and great nephew Nick; his daughter Emily, her fiancé Joey, his son Ben and Beth; his adopted grandchildren whom he loved as if they were his own blood, Hunter and Landon, his grandchildren Haley, and Jamison; and his wife of 45 years Mernie.

More than anything, Chester wanted all of you to be happy and fulfilled. For when you hurt, he hurt. When you were not satisfied, he was not satisfied. Although he had spent much putting Ben through school to go into law enforcement, he did not get upset when Ben changed his mind. As tight as Chester was, he never showed any disappointment. On the contrary, Chester encouraged Ben to do what was going to make him happy.

While her friends were critical of Emily’s selfless career choice to be a teacher in North Carolina, saying that she was never going to make any money, Chester encouraged Emily to follow her heart and do what was going to give her the greatest fulfillment. As much as he believed in the importance of making enough money to save some for a rainy day, he never complained that Emily did not have a more lucrative career.

And Mernie, for 45 years, Chester loved you, and although there were times you spent more money than he liked for you to, he would do anything he could do to provide for you, to care for you, to make you comfortable, to make you happy. It grieved him to watch you suffer as you have this past year.

And along with his family, this whole community is saddened this day, as Chester sacrificially protected us and our country when he was younger serving in the National Guard. Chester made this a better place to live as he gave himself in his retirement to the country club, and he as gave himself throughout his life to the service of this church as a faithful usher. He was a friend and encourager to so many, always doing all he could do to make us smile, bring us happiness.

So to transform this sad day into day of gladness, this day of sorrow into a day of rejoicing and celebration, is much easier said than done.

But this is what our faith in God is all about. Throughout history, God has always been in the business of transforming: transforming defeat into victory, despair into hope, and sorrow into joy. The cross of our Lord is just one example of this great truth.

In the wonderful little book of Esther, we are told about the Persian Empire’s plot to destroy the Jewish people. Under Queen Esther’s leadership, the Persians are defeated and Israel was saved. Mordecai, who had adopted Esther, and raised her as if she was his own blood, decreed that the days had been transformed “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness…”

Days of sorrow transformed into gladness. Days of mourning transformed into a holiday. Days of grief transformed into days of feasting and gladness. This is exactly what Chester Outland Jr. would want this day and in these days to come.

But, again, that seems easier said than done. It was just all so sudden. We have all lost so much. And right at Thanksgiving.

Again, I can almost hear Chester’s voice: “Well, that’s the whole reason you should be celebrating.”

“Yes, it was sudden,” I can hear Chester say, “But who on earth has ever said: ‘When it is my time to go, I hope it is slow and drawn out.’ Especially after watching my daddy suffer the way he did after his stroke. I have often said, ‘When it is my time, I hope it is sudden and fast.’ And I hope to be doing something that I love. I hope to be out there giving myself to something like the country club. I hope to be doing physically well enough to play golf if it’s not raining. Right before I go, I hope to feel good enough to tell one last joke about Obama.

And yes, you have lost much, for God had certainly blessed by life with much. God has blessed me in my life with good health, the ability to do what I loved, the opportunity to play golf and go fishing. God blessed me with great friends and a wonderful family. Yes, like all families, we have had some tough times, but I was able to see us through them. Ben and Emily have jobs that they love. Emily is happy again as Joey has come into her life. I have been able to be there for my grandkids, all of them. I have been able to show them that I love each one of them the same. And how many people can say that they have been happily married for 45 years to the same person?

And the timing? Although I missed cooking for my family, if I had to go sometime, (and we are going some time) I can think of no better time for me to go than this week of Thanksgiving. For I left this world grateful, grateful for the life that God had given me, grateful for my family, grateful for the life that I was given, grateful that in the end I did not suffer.

So, please be grateful with me, celebrate with me, rejoice with me, give thanks with me and trust God to do what God has done throughout history and take these days of sorrow and transform them into days gladness, take these days of mourning and make them into a holiday, take these days of grief and make them days of feasting and gladness. Prepare feasts for your loved ones, the way that I taught you. Love each other, the way I loved you. The way our Lord taught us to love. Make one another laugh. Make someone happy. And when you do, think of me, and be thankful.”

When Jesus was preparing his friends and family for his death, he spoke these beautiful words which were recorded by John:

Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn…you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

Just as Chester wanted, I believe our days of sadness will be transformed into days of gladness when, instead of being bitter for what we lost, we become grateful for what we had. These days of mourning will once more become holidays. However, that is not saying that we will not continue to have pain. Even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, even we are the most thankful for what we had in a friend, a brother, a uncle, a father, a grandfather, and a husband, we will continue to have some pain. However, Jesus promises that all of our pain will one day be transformed into joy.

As a mother forgets her pain during labor when she holds her baby, Jesus says that when we see Chester again, when we see our Lord, all of the pain that we have this day and in the days to come will be transformed into joy.

So, for those of us with faith in Christ, this is a day of gladness and rejoicing. This is a day of celebration. This is a day of hope. And if we listen, we can almost hear Chester say:

“I am with Mama, and I am with Daddy. I am with my Lord. Tell people: don’t worry. Everything is going to be alright. Sing a happy song. If people ask where I’m at, just tell them: I’ve gone fishing.”

Bumper Sticker Theology

Jesus is my co-pilot

Sermon Excerpt from Jesus Is the Answer posted on 11-23-14

There are few things in this world worse than bumper-sticker theology. It is amazing that people try to limit something as far-reaching as faith in the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ into a few pithy words to slap on the back of a vehicle.

“Jesus is my co-pilot.” If Jesus is merely your co-pilot, I suggest you switch seats. Jesus wants to be your pilot. Jesus wants to be the one who makes the decisions, charts the course, and steers the ship. As Carrie Underwood sings, it is Jesus who needs to “take the wheel.”

“Honk if you love Jesus.” Please don’t do that. The world does not need any more people tooting their own horns. The world needs less noise and more action. If you really love Jesus, do the things that Jesus did. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, love the outcast, visit the imprisoned, welcome the stranger, defend and forgive the sinner, care for the dying and be a friend to the lonely.

“Got Jesus?”  That is such a silly question. For Jesus cannot be “got.”  It is Jesus who wants to get you. He wants to get you to deny yourself, pick up a cross and follow him. You don’t get Jesus to meet your needs or to fulfill your desires. Jesus wants to get a hold of your needs and rearrange them, get a hold of your desires and transform them. You don’t get Jesus as some sort of ticket to heaven. Jesus wants to get you to bring heaven to earth.

“Jesus is the reason for the season.” Isn’t Jesus reason for all of the seasons? Jesus wants to be the Lord over every season, every month, and every day. Jesus wants to be the reason you get up out of the bed every morning.

“Keep Christ in ‘Christmas.’” Why don’t you first try to keep Christ in “Christian?” The reason so many people are turned off by Christians today is because many Christians act nothing like the Christ they claim to worship and serve.

With our bumper stickers on the back of our vehicles, we look like pompous people who are trying to arrogantly impress others who follow us, instead of a humble people who are trying to selflessly love others as we follow Jesus.

Give Thanks in All Circumstances

eeyoreThe Apostle Paul admonishes us to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thes. 5:16-18).

When life is good to us, it is easy to be thankful. We are thankful for the beauty of each day. We give thanks for the splendor of autumn and for the crispness in the air. We are thankful for cold mornings, the warmth of the sun at noon and for the brightness of the moon at night. We are even thankful for the more simple things in life: the excitement of football games, for warm cookies and cold milk and sweet potato pie, for movie theaters, for popcorn, for restaurants, for the pleasure received from Christmas shopping and for the brilliance of Christmas lights. When life is good, when life is happy, it is very easy to give thanks.

However, when life is cruel, and when life is miserable, thankfulness is something that comes hard. Autumn appears drab. The air seems stifling. Cold mornings only symbolize the frigid callousness of living. The sun is an annoying glare. The moon is irrelevant. Football and basketball games become pointless. Cookies and milk and pie are petty.

When your child is in the hospital, when your mother has just been buried, when your spouse is undergoing surgery, when you hear words from the doctor like cancer and Alzheimer’s— restaurants become mundane, movie theaters and popcorn are trivial. When you are laid off from work, when you are behind on your mortgage, when you are struggling to just buy groceries—Christmas shopping becomes oppressive and Christmas lights appear dismal.

So, how in the world are we ever to do the will of God by rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances?

In Philippians 1, we read how Paul himself did it during his imprisonment. Alone in a dark, dank prison cell, with being beheaded as his apparent destiny, Paul rejoiced. But, notice that Paul did not rejoice or give thanks for being restrained in a prison. Paul did not give thanks for the morning or the air. Paul did not thank God for the sun, moon or stars. He did not rejoice for flowers or trees or cookies or milk or pie. Paul gave thanks and rejoiced in the only thing that he had left in that dark, clammy jail cell. Paul gave thanks and rejoiced for hope. Paul hoped that the gospel would be spread with even greater boldness because of his imprisonment. Paul hoped that through prayers, the Spirit of Jesus Christ would work out all things for the good. Paul hoped that God would wring whatever good could be wrung out of this, his most difficult hour.

Hope was the only thing that Paul had left. And hope was enough. Hope was all that Paul needed to give thanks and to rejoice in his miserable circumstance. The good news is: for persons with faith in Jesus Christ, who offers us a living hope, who promises to always be with us for our deliverance, whatever our circumstances may be, who promises us a new life even when our old lives end— thankfulness can be something that comes easy.

We may not be experiencing happiness. We may not be able to develop an extensive list of things in which we are thankful. But, on the list of every believer, even if there is only one thing, there is hope. Life can take away much and destroy much in our lives. But, there is no thing and no one that can take away our hope. And, hope is always enough. So, rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen.

Choosing to Listen

smart phone distractionsLuke 10:38-42 NRSV

I believe we can learn a great deal from remembering that Luke’s story about Jesus and these two women took place in the first century.  A Jewish woman named Martha invites a well-known Jewish Rabbi into her home. His name was Jesus. Apparently, Martha and her sister Mary were both single women living together—living in a time and place where single women have little or no societal worth. The mere fact that Jesus would even accept such an invitation would raise more than an eyebrow or two in this day and age.

Immediately, Mary, has the courage, or you might say the audacity, to sit down at the feet of this rabbi named Jesus to listen to what he had to say. Now, remember, this is not storytelling hour at your local library where little children and parents sit down on the floor to hear a fairytale or two. In this time period, only disciples were permitted to sit at the feet of a Jewish Rabbi. And disciples were always, always male.

So not only does Jesus elevate the status of women by accepting the invitation to enter the home of these two single women, he affirms their equality with men by allowing Mary to sit at his feet and listen to his teachings, making her one of his disciples.

This is one of the reasons I am honored to serve with this church. For in this church, there is absolutely no distinction between male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. Here, women teach, pray, serve communion, read scripture, lead ministry teams, are ordained to ministry, and preach from this pulpit.

And in our church, the worth of the woman has absolutely nothing to do with any man that they may or may not be married to. Here we believe all people are worthy because God created them, God loves them and God in Christ challenged and defied first century societal norms when he encountered them.

Luke also tells us that while Mary was listening to Jesus, Martha was busy, assumedly preparing dinner in the kitchen for their house guest. Luke says: “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But [but, such a powerful word, but] Martha was distracted by her many tasks.”

Of course she was distracted by many things. Remember this was the first century, and there was a lot to distract a woman, especially in an ancient kitchen without all of the modern conveniences that make our lives so much easier, so much simpler so much less distractible. Because here and now, twenty centuries later, modern technology enables us to live free from all of those distractions…hold on. My phone is buzzing. I need to respond to this text. Sorry about that. Oh, just got an email.

Like I was saying, thank God life today is void of first century distractions. Would you look a there, it is going to be 74 tomorrow with thunderstorms and 22 degrees Tuesday night! Oh, and would you look at that. My new profile pic with Betty Lacoste has well over 50 likes now.

Luke says: “Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted.”

Can you relate?

Life is full of distractions, perhaps more today than ever. Today we have on our very person all kinds of distractions as we carry not only our phones around with us, but our mail, our cameras and photo albums, our news and weather, our newspapers and magazines, and even our television and entertainment.

This past week, I had a wonderful opportunity to go to Christmount, a Disciples of Christ retreat and conference center up in Black Mountain. It was especially wonderful for me as it gave me the opportunity to get away, to sit down and to listen with very few distractions.

It was good, for just a few days, to get away from all of the busyness of life, even the busyness of this our church, to sit down and just listen.

But that’s the one thing I love about this church: our busyness. Do you remember last year someone telling me that we had so much going on here, had so much on our church sign one time, that they had to pull over to read it. I said: “We have far too much going on here for twenty miles an hour!”

And I am proud of that. I am proud of you because like Jesus going into the house of two single women, this church has people talking. Everywhere I go in this town, I hear people talk about our extravagant hospitality and gracious welcome. And I hear people talk about how incredibly busy we are.

They say, “Jarrett, every time I ride by the Christian Church there are cars everywhere! I drive by sometimes at six in the morning and the parking lot is full of cars!” What in the world is going on over there?”

I say, “It is something going on all the time! We sometimes have people drive from Wilson and Greenville to run with our running group early on Sunday mornings. There are people working on our basement, our windows and our bricks. Before it got cold, you probably saw people working or picking vegetables in our community garden. We had a great Consecration Sunday which led to increasing our budget for 2015 over 25 percent. We had around 250 people attend Homecoming, and maybe twice that many to attend our Halloween festivities. New people are volunteering to serve meals on wheels, work in the soup kitchen and serve with Farmville Benevolent Ministries. The Quilters have been busy making quilts for people in the community who need our prayers. We have groups going to the Nursing home to sing and to lead devotions. Several of us just got back from West Virginia repairing the homes of folks living in extreme poverty. We just had a huge yard sale and dinner auction where we raised over 15,000 dollars so we can do more missions. We have started planning our Advent and Christmas activities, getting ready to once more host the Breakfast with Santa before the Christmas parade. We are collecting she box Christmas gifts for Samaritans’ Purse and coupon receipts to feed families during the holidays. And just this morning, at the Christian Men’s Fellowship breakfast, we talked about building a handicap ramp for someone in need in Farmville.”

“Jarrett, don’t you think you all are doing too much?” they say.

“Nooooooo,” I say, we believe Jesus is always telling us to go and to do. After he preached his first sermon on the mount, he said, “Blessed are those who hear these words of mine and does them, for they are like wise ones who build their house on the rock.”

“After Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan, who stopped and extravagantly helped the man he found wounded lying in a ditch, Jesus said, ‘Go and do likewise.’”

After Jesus broke the bread, representing his broken body, after he shared the cup, representing his life outpoured, Jesus said, do this in remembrance of me. And when Jesus said ‘do this,’ we don’t believe he was only talking about observing the Lord’s Supper, we believe he was calling us to sacrificially break our bodies, calling us to selflessly pour ourselves out. And each Sunday we gather together to worship, we remind ourselves of this. So we are a church that goes, and we are a church that does.

Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

I believe Jesus is saying that in all of our 21st century busyness, with all our email and texting and skyping, facebooking, and googling, with all of our running around, even with all of our ministry, our service, there are times when we need to slow down, stop, sit down at the feet of Jesus and listen.

Now, Martha was not doing anything wrong. She was doing what she was taught to do as a faithful Jew, serving the guest who had come into her home. She was practicing the hospitality that was taught over and over in her Bible. She was doing ministry. But Jesus suggests, it may do her more good to slow down, to stop and to listen.

I believe we do so many things well here because we have been doing them for years. Sometimes we don’t even need to think about it. And to be honest, we are sometimes tempted to believe we don’t need to pray about it. We just come, go to work, do what we need to do, and it gets done. And it gets done very well.

But what would happen if we stopped, sat down, and listened to Jesus. Listen, in the silence.


What is the Christ is calling you to do.


Who is the Christ calling you to be?


Where is the Christ calling you to go?


To whom is the Christ calling you to see today, to care for today, to love today?


Listen to the Christ. What is God calling our church to do? Who is God calling our church to be? Where is God calling our church to go?

Grace of Froot Loops

Froot Loops

Excerpt from Check Your Oil for The Farmville Enterprise.

How many times have you heard “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”? You don’t know what you’ve got until a relationship ends, a moment is lost, or a freedom is taken away.

A woman suffering with cancer, who lost her ability to perform even the most mundane tasks, once told me: “It is amazing how much we take for granted every day. Oh, how I would give anything in the world to be able to get up out of this bed, walk into my kitchen and just pour me a bowl of Froot Loops.” She went on, “When I was healthy, when I could get out of bed and walk to the kitchen, when I could feed myself, when I could chew and swallow my food, I don’t believe I ever thanked God for something as boring as a bowl of Froot Loops.”

Who in the world even thinks about the awesome gift of being able to do something as mundane and as boring as pouring a bowl of Froot Loops? Someone who can longer pour a bowl of Froot Loops thinks about it.

Who in the world thinks about the miraculous gift of being able to walk? Someone who has lost the ability to walk.

Who in the world thinks about the gift of healthy lungs? Someone living with COPD.

Who in the world thinks about their kidneys or their liver? Someone on the way to a dialysis thinks about their kidneys. Someone living or dying with cirrhosis thinks about their liver.

And who in the world the world truly thinks about the miracle that is their life, the miracle that is this creation? People diagnosed with a terminal illness do. Those who have recently lost a loved one to death do.

In one of his parables, Jesus said that some foolish bridesmaids missed the whole dance, because they forgot to fill their lamps with oil and did not see the bridegroom when he showed up. Jesus ended the parable with the admonishment: “keep awake” (Matthew 25).

Keep awake. Check your oil. Keep your lamp burning. Don’t miss the dance. Keep watching and keep looking, recognizing that we are never promised tomorrow. Take nothing for granted. Don’t wait until it’s gone to know what you’ve got. Treasure your lungs, your kidneys, and your liver. Cherish the ability to walk into the kitchen and pour something as mundane and boring as a bowl of Froot Loops. Relish every taste in creation. Revere every sight and every touch in this world. For in life, nothing is ever mundane. It is never boring. It is all miracle. It is all gift. It is all grace.

Check Your Oil


Matthew 25:1-13 NRSV

Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like a group of bridesmaids getting ready to meet the bridegroom to enjoy a grand wedding reception. Half the women are very wise and fill their lamps with oil. The other half are foolish and forget to fill their lamps. Then, when the groom, “Love himself,” shows up to take them to the party, the ones who ran out of oil are left in the dark, while the ones with oil in their lamps go to the wedding banquet and have the time of their lives.[i] Later, when the women who forgot to check their oil somehow find their way in the dark to the dance, they find the door to the banquet hall has been shut, and no one any longer knows who they are.

How many times have you heard “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone”? You don’t know what you’ve got until a relationship ends, a moment is lost, a freedom is taken away, a window is closed, a door is shut.

I visited a man in the hospital recently who one day found himself completely paralyzed from the waist down. After he had a successful surgery to remove two cysts on his spine and regained the use of his body, he said, “One day, you are going about your business taking everything in life for granted; then the next day, everything is gone.” Then he said, “You better believe, I will never take anything for granted anymore!”

A woman who was suffering with cancer and lost her the ability to perform even the most mundane tasks to take care of herself once told me: “It is amazing how much we take for granted every day. Oh, how I would give anything in the world to be able to get up out of this bed, walk into my kitchen and just pour me a bowl of Froot Loops.” She went on, “When I was healthy, when I could get out of bed and walk to the kitchen, when I could feed myself, when I could chew and swallow my food, I don’t believe I ever thanked God for a bowl of Froot Loops.”

Who in the world even thinks about the awesome gift of being able to do something as mundane and as boring as pouring a bowl of Froot Loops? Someone who can longer pour a bowl of Froot Loops.

Who in the world thinks about the miraculous gift of being able to walk? Someone who has lost the ability to walk.

Who in the world thinks about the gift of healthy lungs? Someone living with COPD.

Who in the world thinks about their kidneys or their liver? Someone on the way to a dialysis thinks about their kidneys. Someone living or dying with cirrhosis thinks about their liver.

And who in the world the world truly thinks about the miracle that is their life, the miracle that is this creation? People diagnosed with a terminal illness do. Those who have had a close encounter with death do or those who have a loved one on the verge of death or those who lost a close friend or family member to death.

In the epistle of James we read: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14, ESV). In other words, life, creation, appears for a little time, then the window closes, the door is shut.

Frederick Buechner has said: “Intellectually we all know that we will die, but we do not really know in the sense that the knowledge becomes a part of us. We do not really know it in the sense of living as though it were true. On the contrary, we tend to live as though our lives would go on forever.”  In other words: “We know we are going to die but we don’t live as though we believe it is true. We live as though we are going to live forever.[ii]

In other words, we take life for granted. Most of assume that we will be here tomorrow, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, even next year. We live as if we assume that nothing truly ever ends.

A few years ago, I walked into an AT&T store to return a cell phone that had stopped working. As I was waiting in line, I could not help but to hear the conversation that was taking place between the sales clerk and another customer. It went something like this:

A man who seemed to be a professional business man in this mid to late forties said: “Here is my phone that no longer works. Am I going to be able to get my contacts off of the phone and put them on a new phone?”

The sales clerk, who appeared to be a college student, responded: “Sir, that depends. Did you back up your contacts on the computer with the USB cord that came with your phone?”

“No, I didn’t back them up,” the man answered with a very frustrated tone, “I had no idea that my phone would just die on me.”

The clerk said: “Well I am sorry there’s really nothing we are going to be able to do to retrieve your contacts.”

The man was flabbergasted. “What do you mean you can retrieve my contacts? This was an expensive phone. It was the best and latest version on the market when I got it. This phone was not supposed to just one day die!”

It was then I noticed the clerk getting a little exasperated when she said: “Everything dies, sir. People die!”

There’s nothing like being reminded of your mortality by a college student selling cell phones.

It was about this time of the year in 1997 when the doctors told my grandfather he would likely not be here for Christmas. He had been suffering with lung cancer for over a year. I believe he lived more during those last few weeks than he did his entire 74 years on this earth. He no longer worried about the insignificant things that occupy the majority of our time. He took nothing and no one for granted. He traveled to Florida to visit his brother whom he had not seen in a decade. He made it a point to spend precious time his family and his friends. He gave more of his money to the church.

Granddaddy had always been man’s man. And what I mean by that is that I never remembered him holding or playing with my little sister. In fact never remember him ever hold playing with any of his grandchildren. He never took us to the movies or to a playground. He took us fishing. I never remember getting a toy from him; but I do remember getting a pocket knife or two.

It is remarkable then when I think about the picture I have of him that was taken right before his last Thanksgiving. He is holding my daughter Sara, who was six months old, in his arms and looking at her as if she was his very own. I will never forget taking that picture and watching him adjusting her tiny dress, touch the ruffles on it with his tough, weathered hands as he held her and smiled.

Granddaddy appreciated each new day as he never had before. He cherished each breath. He was grateful for every bite of food and he relished every sip of drink. He treasured watching sunsets, cherished the frost on cold autumn mornings, and revered his friendships. He took absolutely nothing for granted. He didn’t miss anything.

Jesus said that the foolish bridesmaids forgot to check their oil and missed the whole dance. They never believed that the door to the banquet was one day going to be shut. And he ends the parable with these words: “Keep awake.”

Keep awake. Check your oil. Keep your lamps burning. Keep watching and keep looking, recognizing that we are never promised tomorrow. Check your oil. Take nothing for granted. Treasure your lungs, your kidneys, your liver. Cherish the ability to walk into the kitchen and pour something as mundane and boring as a bowl of Froot Loops. Relish every taste. Revere every sight and every touch. For in life, nothing is ever mundane. It is never boring. It is all miracle. It is all gift. It is all grace. And it all will certainly one day come to an end.

I met a man at the yard sale yesterday who told me that he attended the very last worship service of the Hassell Christian Church which was held last Sunday. After 100 years of ministry to the day, the church had only four active members and had to close their doors. He said, “You just don’t ever think that a church will close, that its ministry will come to an end, that the doors would be shut, and shut for good.”

Keep awake. Check your oil. Keep your lamps burning. Keep worshiping God. Keep following the Christ. Be grateful for every opportunity he gives you to serve others. Treasure every Fall Festival. Cherish every chance to love the poor. Relish every ministry team meeting. And revere every board meeting. Be grateful for even what appears to be the mundane or the boring parts of church, because the truth is, nothing is mundane. Nothing is boring. It is all miracle. It is all grace. And one day, the doors will be shut.

Check your oil. Keep your lamps burning and dare not miss the bridegroom, Love himself. Dare not miss the dance!

Commissioning and Benediction

Go now into a tiresome world and keep awake. Keep checking your oil. Keep your lamps burning. Keep watching and keep looking, recognizing that we are never promised tomorrow. Take nothing for granted. Treasure your lungs, your kidneys, your liver. Cherish the ability to walk into the kitchen and pour something as mundane and boring as a bowl of Froot Loops. Relish every taste. Revere every sight and every touch. For in life, nothing is ever mundane. It is never boring. It is all miracle. It is all gift. It is all grace. And it until the door is shut, may you dance on this earth with the love of God, the grace of Christ our Lord and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

[i] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner:

[ii] This quote and the remarks in the paragraphs above came from and were inspired by:

A Prayer for Our Veterans

My grandfather, Eugene Gaston Banks, Sr., served in the US Coast Guard patrolling the North Atlantic during World War II.
My grandfather, Eugene Gaston Banks, Sr., served in the US Coast Guard patrolling the North Atlantic during World War II.

O good and gracious God, the framers of our Declaration of Independence testified that you have endowed us with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And ever since they penned these words, there have been those who would like to strip these freedoms from us. This week, we remember all those who have defended these freedoms through their service in our armed forces.

Some of them served during World War II or the Korean War. Some served during the Vietnam War, in Grenada, or Panama. Some served during the Persian Gulf War, War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War. Some served during the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crises. And some served during a time of unusual peace. Some served on foreign battlefields in harm’s way, whereas some served stateside in relative safety.

Yet, all of them left behind and sacrificed much. They left behind friends, family and dreams. They left behind homes, possessions, even love. And they all sacrificed their health. Many still bear the scars from their service, spiritual, mental and physical. Many lie, even today, in our veterans’ hospitals or struggle for recovery in rehabilitation centers. They suffer from post-traumatic stress and survivor’ guilt; they yearn for peace in their souls. Some find themselves wandering hopeless and homeless in the land they defended.

And many sacrificed their very lives. They gave up their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so we could have those rights.

For all of these, our veterans, we ask your blessing.

We also pray your blessing for family members and friends who have made great sacrifices to make their service possible. And we pray for families and friends who grieve the deaths of those who left to serve only to never return.

Jesus said that no one has greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. So for all our veterans who have been willing to lay down their lives for us, we ask your blessing.

Keep them in your care and grant them the peace that they sought to safeguard for others. As we honor our veterans, we also pray for peace everywhere. Teach your children of every race, creed and faith, in every land, the ways of peace, so that those who have sacrificed so much for peace and freedom will not have sacrificed in vain.

We pray all these things in the name of the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.[i]

[i] This prayer was inspired by a litany prepared by Eileen Norrington, ministerial authorization coordinator, Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio. Norrington is a veteran of the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps.

Voices from the Grave

AllSaintsSundayCandleHebrews 12

Years after her husband died, Betty told me that she still goes to the cemetery, almost daily, to visit his grave. “And Jarrett, I need to ask you something,” she said. “Oftentimes when I go, I stand there and talk to him. Sometimes I even bring a chair to sit in so I can talk to him for hours. I talk about my day, the good parts and the bad parts, and, of course, I talk to him about how much I miss him. Jarrett, here’s my question: “Do you think I am crazy?”

I said, “I guess that all depends. Let me ask you this: Does he ever talk back?”

However, when one considers the response of Jesus in the gospels, perhaps hearing voices from the dead is not so crazy. The Sadducees, who did not believe in eternal life, were trying once again to entrap Jesus by questioning his teaching on resurrection. Jesus responds:

“The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20).

So perhaps Betty would not have been that crazy after all, if she heard her husband’s voice from the grave.

Now, of course, I am not talking about hearing audible voices from the grave. I am talking about the hearing voices from the dead the way the writer of Hebrews describes it when he writes:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,* and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”

He is talking about being inspired by, encouraged by those who have lived before us. In the previous chapter, we read a list of those he is talking about: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau; Moses and each Israelite who escaped slavery in Egypt; Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, all of the prophets and every person had has ever been persecuted or martyred for their faith.

The writer to the Hebrews is saying, when life is hard, when the way is difficult, remember these, remember their voices, remember their actions, and especially remember how they point you to the way of Jesus, and be encouraged, be strengthened, and gain perseverance to continue not only life, but a life of courageous faith and selfless service.

I absolutely love worshipping in this place. Because every person that first worshipped in this sacred place that was built in 1909 ran their race and kept the faith long before us. Every time I gather here, I can hear their voices: voices of those who sang the great hymns of faith in these pews through World War One and the Great Depression. I stand behind and preach from a pulpit and hear the voices of preachers who preached the gospel amid World War Two, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam and the Cold War. I hear voices of those who preached for the rights of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement.

I hear the voices of those who have served the poor in this community and around the world for decades, those who have donated generously, and served sacrificially.

Every time I gather here, I hear the particular voices of those who served faithfully with me through Farmville Benevolent Ministries while I was the pastor of First Baptist Church. I hear the compassion in the voices of AC and Vivian Turnage for the poor of this community. I hear the love in the voice of Gay Johnson who would always have jars of Molasses in the trunk of her car to distribute to those in need.

Listen, can you hear them? Can you hear the voices of the saints echoing through this place this morning? When I listen carefully, I can hear the voice of Marie Allen. I hear great perseverance in the voice of an extraordinary mother who selflessly gave her all in loving her family. I hear the voice of an extraordinary mother who got up each morning, made everyone breakfast, packed lunches, and then went to work herself every day at her full-time job at the drug store or the dry cleaners in town. Then, somehow, some miraculous way, in a world without fast food and microwaves, still managed to prepare a hot supper and have on the family dinner table each night. And whenever little Pete or Donna needed new clothes to wear, with needle and thread and some material, Marie could always create whatever they wanted with her own hands. I hear the voice of a faithful mother who made a point to raise Pete and Donna in this church giving them a foundation for a faithful life that is being lived out today.

Listen, do you hear them? I hear sincere gratitude in the voice of William Meeks. I hear a voice that thanked God, even amid struggle and difficulty, for his opportunity to selflessly and sacrificially serve his country through military service during the Korean War. Although he freely admitted that those years changed him, affected him, not always for the good; in some ways it broke him; he was still very grateful for the opportunity to serve these United States.

William was also very grateful for his opportunity to serve through the First Christian Church of Farmville, especially as an electrician. And the First Christian Church is very grateful that we were able to give him that opportunity! When you worship in a church building that was built in 1909, you appreciate someone with the skills and the generosity of William Meeks. There is no telling how many hours William freely gave to the church doing all kinds of needed repairs. William loved his church. Like his love for his country, there was perhaps something deep within William that yearned to be a part of something that was larger than himself.

William always talked about how good his church was to him, especially when he needed the church the most. I don’t think I ever visited him when he did not express his gratitude to God for Jimmy Lethworth and for the many times that Jimmy picked him up and carried him to the VA Hospital in Durham for his cancer treatments.

Listen, do you hear them? I hear gracious hospitality in the voice of Kenneth Ross. One could say that Kenneth Malcolm Ross lived his entire life preparing a place at the table, preparing a home for others, for Marilyn, Amelia and Ken, and even for all Americans, each one of us, through his service to this country.

I think this explains why life was so difficult for him these last eight years. When Marilyn died in 2006, something inside of Kenneth also died. For Marilyn was such a large part of his purpose for living. And having been diagnosed with lung cancer himself, at the same time Marilyn was diagnosed, undergoing chemotherapy alongside of Marilyn, Kenneth did not only survive with a great loss of sense of purpose, Kenneth survived with the guilt associated with surviving. He also survived with severe physical limitations, COPD and other side effects from his battle with cancer that prevented him from living and breathing, preparing and providing for others as he had his entire life.

However, although he struggled much these last few years, although he was limited physically, it was evident through each of my visits with him that he never lost faith. Kenneth continued to love and care for the First Christian Church where he raised his family, served as a deacon and practiced the greatest commandment of loving God and neighbor as self.  Each visit I had with him, he would always inquire about the state of the church and of the needs of the church.

Listen, do you hear them? I hear great hope in the voice of Marie White. I will never forget the confident faith in her voice that I heard from her the week she passed away. Each time I visited her in the hospital, although she was very sick and felt terrible, it was evident that she was never separated by the love of God. She was sick, but she was not despairing. She was neither eating nor drinking; neither was she giving up hope. Although she was in the valley of the shadow of death, she feared no evil. Although her body was tired and broken and in pain, she was at peace. Although she was near the end of her life, her cup runneth over. It was so evident, that although she was separated from her friends, most of her family, her youth, her health, she was not separated by the love of God through Christ Jesus her Lord. She was a living testimony to the truth that spiritual wholeness is more important that physical well-being, even more important than life on this earth.

Listen, do you hear them? I can. Thanks be to God that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. So let us set aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, [always] looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith. Thanks be to God that we clearly hear the voices of the saints that have lived before us.

And no, we are not crazy. We just worship the God of the living; not of the dead, for to God, all of them are alive.