Monday, September 11, 2017

La Jolla Caribe

If you know me, you know that St. John, USVI is my most favorite place on this earth – not just
because of the blue, blue water, not just because of the lush, green mountains, not just because of the donkeys, not just because of the colorful coral, not just because of the colorful fish that eat the colorful coral, not just because of the giant turtles that swim right alongside, not just because of the yellow kayaks, and not just because of the hikes and the views.  St. John is my most favorite place because it is a sacred refuge. 

For the last 12 years, our little group has vacationed in St. John...often extending our stays just a day longer each year.  We have rented a jeep and driven on the left hand side of the road up a goat path to get to one of the first homes built on the island…la Jolla Caribe.  The view from La Jolla
is the prettiest view of the entire island.  I’ve sat on the deck many times drinking coffee as the morning rolls in.  Before too much daylight has burned, we've been in the water – swimming, snorkeling, and at the end of the day, noodling around Leinster Bay.  At night, we watched stars shoot across the sky and listened to the night sounds which cannot be adequately described. We ate meals around the dining table, played friendly games of Pictionary and competitive games of Scrabble around the table, and worked jigsaw puzzles around the table.  I ran into a glass door at the house – so hard that I fell backwards and thought I might have given myself black eyes!  Then, I laughed so hard that I thought unmentionable things might happen. My mother accidentally cut a lizard in half with her glass door.  We stayed in the same house adding to our memories year after year.  As you can imagine, with each return, we often began our conversations with “Do you remember when?”

 We did not personally know the owners of La Jolla, but during the 12 years we visited, we watched their children grow up in the photographs that were placed around the house.  We saw them as little children posing on the deck all the way to grown children getting married on the beach.  So, while we did not REALLY know the family, we felt like we did.  We really felt like their house was a little bit ours, and we always left detailed – and sometimes rhyming – entries in their guest book.

Well, this is what the house looks like now.  I am sad about that.  Really sad.  La Jolla Caribe was a place I felt particularly close to God and particularly safe.  Now, it is in ruins.  Even the trees have lost their green.  I've heard that the island is not safe right now because of crime. Desperation can compel people to do almost anything.  

So, the place that was my sacred refuge is, well, for all intents and purposes, gone.  I hope this special island finds the resilience to rebuild.  I hope that while the houses are crushed, maybe a few spirits are strong and already mobilizing and planning a comeback.  And, speaking of a comeback, I hope my feet make it back to St. John one day.  No, I hope they make it back soon.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

That's church

I was recently chastised in the nicest possible way for not having updated my blog in, well, let's just say a very long time.  It's not that I have not been writing, but I have not been typing out what I've written.  But, I wanted to write tonight because we have just finished Vacation Bible church circles, that is known as "VBS."  Perhaps finishing VBS does not sound exciting, but this year, we partnered with two other churches, and the partnership was the exciting part to me.

It is no secret that most mainline churches are experiencing a decline in active participation and membership.  So, churches can be very protective of their congregations and unwilling to work together for fear that congregants might "defect" to another place.  Perhaps they will like the other church building better.  Perhaps they will like the other minister better.  Perhaps they will like the programming better or the music better or the classes better.  That leads to fear of ministering together.

When people are fearful, they don't reach out, But, as the movie, "Amazing Grace" taught us in the adult class of VBS, "when people's fears go away, their compassion comes back."  VBS is a labor intensive effort, but when more than one congregation comes together, we have ample teachers and volunteers. When congregations work together in ministry like VBS, we realize that we are not in competition.  That lights a fire. We realize we are not alone in trying to meet the many ministry needs that are before us.  That sparks interest in working together.  We each have strengths that partner well with the other's weaknesses.  And, we each have weaknesses that partner well with the other's strengths.

I guess I dare to dream of a day when that's the  norm for ministry....congregations offering their gifts and resources for the good of the Body.  Perhaps we can lead the way in Johnston County...I am ready to get creative in committing to more than just a ministerial association, but to the universal church where we are all one in Christ.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Epiphany Snow Day!

Epiphany Snow Day (We will have an Epiphany do-over next week, but in the meantime, here is a little something to encourage worship tomorrow even though we will not be in our sanctuary together)

LOGOS starts back on Wednesday, January 18th!  Please pray asking God to show you how you can help to support and strengthen this ministry.

Prelude – “We Three Kings” (the Piano Guys)

A few fun facts about Epiphany to read while you are listening!

Opening Prayer and Call to Worship
Jesus, as we travel far and fast,
lead our minds back to the wise men following your star,
and forward to the day
when all will see your shining light.

Jesus, light of the world,
let your bright star stand over the place
where the poor have to live;
lead our sages to wisdom and our rulers to reverence.

O God, by the leading of a star
you revealed your Son Jesus Christ to the gentiles;
grant that your Church may be a light to the nations,
so that the whole world may come to see
the splendor of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Scripture – Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

THE MAGI COME ASKING, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Tradition has it that there were three Magi, probably because the Bible account names three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh.) The names used for these Magi are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and tradition also says that they are of three different ethnic groups, signifying that Christ comes not just for one nation but for all people.
In fact, that is what we celebrate in January at Epiphany: Jesus Christ as the Light of the world. We celebrate Christ as Light to the whole world, not as the Light to one small group in the world. …
Commentators have said we seem in a hurry after Christmas to box up once again our patience, our tolerance, our generosity and put them back in the attic, as if we can sustain good behavior for a few weeks but wouldn’t want to risk making it a way of life. We may also put away our willingness to give a bit more, to be more forgiving, even to be more patient in traffic as we often are during the holidays. Perhaps we even box up our desires to hope and our openness to miracles and mystery, as if the messages of the Christmas stories can’t quite survive the rigors of real life in the rest of the year. The Magi call us to continue our observance of Christ’s coming after December is over.
– Mary Lou Redding in "While We Wait"

Worship Activity Options
Family/Individual Star Collage (paper, scissors, crayons)
One of the symbols of Epiphany is the star.
Draw or cut out 3 different stars for each participant.  Write somewhere on those stars where you have seen God recently. (In a place, person, or situation)
Decorate your stars as you discuss with one another your “sightings.”  If you are working on this alone, take a picture of your stars and post them to Facebook!  Or send them to the church office, and we will post them on the church Facebook page!

Family/Individual Star Collage Take Two! (paper, scissors, crayons, a candle)
The wise men brought gifts to Jesus.
Draw or cut out 3 different stars for each participant.  Write somewhere on those stars the gifts that you would like to bring to God with your life in 2017. (generosity, a positive attitude, hope, mercy, compassion, etc.)
Decorate your stars and discuss how you can help each other remember these gifts each day.  If you are working on this alone, take a picture of your stars and post them to facebook!  Or send them to the church office, and we will post them on the church facebook page!
Light your candle and pray for God to help you remember to offer your gifts with joy!

Door Blessing (paper and pen)
Did you know that it is a tradition during Epiphany to bless your house?
Create a blessing for your own home.
Need some help getting started?  Here you go.
God, bless this house and bless_____________________________(Names of all who live in your home).
Fill this dwelling with______________________________(what are the traits you long for in your home?  Peace? Health? Happiness?)  
Let this space shine with your divine light that we can see in our family_______________________ (name any areas where you would like for divine light to shine.  Your conversations? Your calendar?  Your rest?)
May we be visited by family and friends, especially___________________________(name family and friends you hope will visit).
May all who enter here receive what they need, and feel richly blessed with their heart's desires.

Closing song
Brightest and Best (two different versions from which to choose)
Option 1 – choral and a fun, great recording -
Option 2 – Kathy Mattea with a few different words -

Closing prayer
O God, you made of one blood all nations, and by a star in the East, revealed to all peoples him whose name is Emmanuel.  Enable us who know your presence with us so to proclaim his unsearchable riches, that all may come to his light and bow before the brightness of his rising, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Uncharitable Thoughts

I had uncharitable thoughts toward Franklin Graham this week.  Those thoughts are nicely summarized in 2 words.  Shut up.  Then I added a third word.  Shut up, Franklin.  Then, my third word changed a few times.  Please shut up.  Just shut up.  Finally, I added 5 words to my 2 words, for the love of Christ, shut up.  I meant that last one literally.  For the love of Christ, shut up.

So, what brought forth such a response from me?  Well…this.  

I do not fault Franklin for his belief in heaven and hell.  However, this is not a pastoral response.  This is not an appropriate response.  I would go so far as to say this is not a truthful response. 

Yes, Franklin is right about one thing.  Jesus is recorded as saying “No one comes to the Father except through me.”   As I've pondered this response, I can't help but think of an experience I had many years ago.  My father had a heart attack, and everybody wanted to visit him in the hospital.  But, he needed rest.  So, when it was my turn to be on duty, no one came to my father except through me…meaning that I decided who got in and who stayed out.  My decision.  I wonder if this verse suggests a similar dynamic with God.  Jesus decides who gets in.  Not Franklin Graham.  And, not Lea Slaton.  Jesus decides.

And, for the Jesus I read about in the gospels, his decision will not be just a matter of belief.  He says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’  (Matthew 7:21-23)

What criteria will Jesus use?  Well, I don’t know the mind of God. My thoughts are not God’s thoughts nor are God’s ways my ways, but Jesus does give us a clue in Matthew 25 – he talks about all the nations being gathered before him, and he has the job of separating the sheep from the goats.  Here are his questions of discernment.  When I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty, did you give me something to drink?  When I was a stranger, did you invite me in?  When I was naked, did you clothe me?  When I was sick, did you look after me?  When I was in prison, did you come to visit me? 

How do we do any of that for Jesus?  He tells us.  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

It seems to me that Christianity sometimes behaves as if heaven and hell are the main points and that our faith is primarily about assuring our eternal destination.   I believe in heaven.  I do.  But, if our only reason to follow the teachings of Christ is to advance our status in the afterlife, have we not missed the point?  It seems to me that Jesus was pretty serious about what we do on this earth, too. It seems to me that Jesus was serious about being set free from resentment and anger and greed and the lust for power on this earth.  It seems to me that Jesus expected us to live by the rules of the Kingdom of Heaven right now.  Those rules fall into two categories.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  And, remember, when it comes to loving neighbor, "whatever you did for one of the least of did for me."

I don’t know much about Richard Adams, but news sources indicate that George Michael was a very generous man.  He gave millions to charity...and did not want anyone to know.  That's right!  He did not build charitable foundations in his name or take any credit.  He went out of his way to be anonymous in his giving.  He gave quietly.  Contrast that with individuals today who post every good deed and every donation on Facebook.  Type Amen if you agree.

Carrie Fisher was an advocate for the mentally ill – some might call those an overlooked “least of these” today.  She told her story, so that others who live with mental illness might find hope as well.  Carrie was a patron of the Alzheimer's Association, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the International Bipolar Association, just to name a few of the causes she pursued.

It is beyond arrogant to post on Facebook about who we believe God will send to hell.   God can decide whatever God wants.  Exploiting death to threaten hell shows an incredible callousness to the grieving families.  Furthermore, for those who do not believe in God or heaven or hell, this kind of public rhetoric, though it may excite a certain base of Christianity, hurts the cause of Christ.  I can say with confidence that not a single non-Christian read Franklin’s remarks and said, “Wow, I want to learn more about this Jesus.”  However, I can also say with confidence that many non-Christians read his remarks and said, “A-ha!  This is exactly why I don’t want to have anything to do with Christianity – it is full of judgmental hypocrites who just want to scare you into believing.”

I wish the media would stop covering Franklin Graham.  He does not represent all of Christianity.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

Advent After the Election

Recently, I was asked if I thought our nation would heal after such an antagonistic campaign season.  I had to think about that.  I’ve heard calls for unity, for coming together…and that is all well and good.  But, no, I don’t think we will heal from this season.  I don’t think there is a recovery.

Recovery is defined as “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”  I will take a guess that God has little interest in “returning” us anywhere.  If that is what we are waiting for – to be returned to some idealized state of well-being – we misunderstand the power and mystery of this holy season of Advent.

God did not bundle up in our flesh, walk this earth, teach us, eat with us, die in front of us, and be resurrected for the purpose of giving us a “return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”  No, the Word became flesh for our transformation, not our recovery.  This is not just a play on words.  This gets to a deep truth of our faith.  Jesus was not simply returned to life after the crucifixion.  He was resurrected!  Transformed into a life that was and is and will be forever.  That is a promise for us today.

Life with Christ is an exercise in transformation right now.  We have received grace upon grace right now.  We are the children of God right now.  We’re not just waiting for heaven in the sweet by and by, we are waiting for transformation right now.  We are practicing for transformation right now.  Christ makes us different than we were before. 

Sometimes, Christians miss that point.  We put our attention on protecting our beliefs rather than living our faith.  That’s a human thing to do.  We put our attention on clenching our fists around our stuff and our rights, rather than stretching our hands out to embrace and serve others.  That is a human thing to do.  We make our faith about life after death rather than growing the fruits of the spirit in the here and now.  That’s a human thing to do.  We find more passion in enforcing our rules and our moral codes on the rest of the world than in basking in the mysterious grace of “I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)  That is a human thing to do.

But, as Brian McLaren reminds us in “We Make the Road by Walking,” “Jesus’ birth signals the beginning of the end for the dark night of fear, hostility, violence and greed that has descended on our world.  Jesus’ birth signals the start of a new day, a new way, a new understanding of what it means to be alive.” 

That’s why we wait.  That’s why we hope.  That’s why we work.  We live in a new day and we must share it with others.  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

People, it's Advent, and we have work to do!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Apologies and Epiphanies

With all of our election news, I am struck by how often politicians end up apologizing for words that they have spoken or actions that they have taken. In my ponderings, I've had an epiphany!  First, though, I have a few pre-epiphany thoughts on what makes a good apology.

A good apology owns the words or the actions that were wrong or that have offended.  There are no ifs, ands, buts, excuses or justifications in a good apology - just a complete ownership of the offense.  There are no accusations against others in a good apology.  For instance, if I steal money and want to apologize, I need to own what I did NOT point out that so-and-so stole, too.  Or, everybody steals.  Or, that's just the way things are, and grow up.  No!  It's my offense.  I need to own it.

Second, I need to specifically ask for forgiveness.  This part often gets omitted because owning offensive behavior is humbling enough, but asking for forgiveness, well, our egos can hardly take it.  Asking for forgiveness implies that our well-being is at least, in part, impacted by someone else's welcome or rejection of us.  Yet, if we want to make a good apology, the request for forgiveness is non-negotiable.  We need to do it.

However...and here's my epiphany, good apologies are not the Christian ideal.  John the Baptist did not say, "Apologize!  For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near!"  Jesus did not say,, "Unless you apologize, you will all perish."  Peter did not say, "Apologize and be baptized, every one of you."  Paul did not say, "They should apologize and turn to God and do deeds consistent with apologies."

In faith, the apology is not the ideal.  In faith, we are called to something much more difficult.  We are called to an ideal higher than an apology.  We are called to repentance.  Repentance is the ideal.  The ideal is actually turning from the behavior, changing the behavior, not doing the behavior again, and perhaps even asking someone to help with accountability for the behavior.  Repentance, a change in direction towards God, is the ideal.  Intentional, deliberate, and tenacious repentance is how we begin to come into line with faith.

Repentance is a challenge because it requires an ongoing effort to "do right," be fair, and be charitable in our comments and hospitable in our relationships.  Repentance requires us to constantly evaluate how our lives line up with "loving God and loving neighbor."  Repentance requires us to relentlessly inventory our lives to determine where we are being selfish, offensive, demeaning, and dishonest.

Repentance requires that we change.

In reality, nobody likes change.

But, in faith, we live in a different reality.  We live in a reality that says loving God and neighbor are the most important things we can do.  We live in a reality that says, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, it's what comes out."  We live in a reality that calls us to store up "treasure in heaven" not treasure on earth. We live in a reality that tells us we are blessed for the sole purpose of blessing others.  We live in a reality that compels us to welcome the stranger, visit the prisoner, clothe the naked, and heal the sick.  We live in reality that tells us to stop poking at the speck in our neighbor's eye and take a look at the log in our own.  We live in a reality that is tired of hearing weak apologies for not doing these things.  We live in a reality that calls us to repent and change our behavior so that our witness is one of integrity.

How has this ideal been lost?  I'm not asking to point fingers and say, "He lost it for us, " or "She lost it for us."  I'm asking, how have I lost this ideal?  How have you lost this ideal?  How have each of us forgotten the call to repentance...and how can we get it back?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Bee in Bonnet

I got a bee in my bonnet this week.  A new church is starting in an adjoining town, and they've put up yard signs in our community...of course, that is their right.  However, within a 3 mile radius, we have at least 9 churches.  I digress.  My bee came to my bonnet with the media coverage...a recent article noted that "There are many churches in and around why start a new church?"  The answer from the new church's pastor was, "I would actually agree that the last thing Smithfield needs is another place where people simply gather on Sunday morning - if that is all we accomplish, then that is not a worthwhile mission."  He went on to talk about wanting to "make a difference."

I realize that as a pastor of a church that is over 140 years old, I can be overly sensitive about new church starts.  I also realize that the institutional church has earned its reputation of being judgmental and  unwelcoming.  When we are more interested in our building than in serving, we earn a bad reputation.  When we are more interesting in sin management rather than transformation, we earn a bad reputation.  When we are more interested in judging and leave no room for questions, we earn a bad reputation.

And, yet, the church I serve is not this way.  As I scroll through our church facebook page pictures, I find plenty of evidence that we are out and about...all the time!  We are indeed making a difference in our community.

Even the larger institutional church has made and continues to make a difference.  The larger church has made a difference in medical care with many of our hospitals having their financial start from institutional churches.  Disaster relief often comes from funds provided by the institutional church.  The means to have clean drinking water is often provided and funded by the institutional church.  Blankets for refugees and the homeless are given by the institutional church.  Counseling services, medical care, emergency food, emergency shelter, help with power bills...all supported by the institutional church.  Worship services after tragedies like the Charleston tragedy, the Orlando tragedy, 9/11...offered by the institutional church.  Many efforts to change policy to address homelessness,  poverty, sickness, and how we treat strangers are spearheaded by the institutional church.

And, frankly, my faith was born and nurtured in the institutional church - perhaps not a church I would wish to belong to today, but as a child, the institutional church taught me that "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know," and I should help people.  That is a great foundation.

I guess I just felt all lumped in with this misconception that area churches only gather on Sunday  mornings without any intent of making a difference.  That is just not true.  Many of our established churches are very intentional in getting to know their communities, befriending their communities, and being an active, helpful part of  their communities.  

The article also noted that "you won't see a suit and tie wearing preacher here. Pastor...will usually be seen wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt." Newsflash:  you won't see a suit and tie wearing preacher at WMCC either.  You'll see a woman in a robe.