All posts by Andrew Whaley

Careless Grace

This week I’m accompanying ten high school students from Holston Presbytery to the Montreat Youth Conference in North Carolina.  During this week, students are exploring what it means to be rooted in Christ and reaching out with his love to the world.  There are 1,100 high school students at the conference, filling up all the lodges and private homes in Montreat.  Church vans can be seen from Charleston and Chattanooga, Grand Rapids and Tallahassee, Cincinnati and Tuscaloosa.  There are students from mega-churches and students here as the only youth from their church.  And they’re here for a week in the mountains to grow in God with each other.

10367186_500942716673346_1417969141440860559_nEach day in morning energizers and keynote presentations, recreation events, small group study, and daily worship, conferees explore scripture together and connect it to their lives and the world around us to see how our rootedness in Jesus nourishes us to reach out to the hurting, lost, and lonely.

On Monday we explored Jesus’ parable of the sower.  The keynote presentation reinterpreted this parable in light of contemporary horticultural knowledge.  Often we read this parable as a parable of soils, that God (the sower) casts the Gospel (the seed) on all different kinds of ground (humanity).  The seeds that fall on rocky ground are eaten by birds.  Some seeds take root and spring up quickly but without enough water and deep roots, they wither and die of scorching heat.  Other seed grows up with weeds that choke out their life.  And finally the seed that lands in the fertile soil yields a great harvest.

In the keynote, however, we explored how some seeds, like raspberry seeds, have to be ingested by birds and released through their digestive tract in order to be able to be planted in the soil and grow.  And Sequoyah seeds must be scorched in order to open up and enter the earth.  The point was made, then, that just because a seed is eaten by birds or scorched as a young plant doesn’t mean that the soil it was thrown on is worthless.  Perhaps the Gospel can only take root through those times of bird digestion and scorching sun.  Maybe our lives are like that too, that God’s grace becomes real to each of us in different ways and at different times.  Instead of some soils simply being non-responsive to the Gospel, their simply embody the Gospel differently.

In small groups we talked about the character of God that is revealed in the parable of The Sower.  I’m always reminded in these settings why I love studying scripture with young people, because there is no pretense, not need to protect the Bible, no fear that they’ll be “heretical” in what they say.  I often find in adult studies that folks just tell me what they already thought before we began studying, and I sometimes feel we lack the openness to receive something new from God.

In this youth study, the students said the sower seemed random, throwing the seeds all over the place without careful planning.  They labeled the sower as “careless” to throw out that seed in places where it couldn’t take root.  Why not just carefully place all the seed in the fertile soil?

And that peaked my imagination.  Because really, at it’s heart, isn’t the Gospel of God a careless act?  God comes to us in Jesus, lives, dies, and rises to bring us to the realization that we belong to God and our life is shaped by the sacrificial love God gives us in Jesus.  And God lives this costly life and death and resurrection without the guarantee that we will respond.  God casts the Gospel through all the world through the church with seeming carelessness, not planting in the most “fertile” places but in rocky places, dry places, and weed-infested places.

Grace as gift is by definition careless.  It doesn’t fit into our categories of efficiency or profitability.  The sower just throws that seed out there and will make use of whatever elements it requires to bring us to the realization that we are loved not because of our soil pH but because of God’s grace.

Grace is free. Grace is random.  Grace is careless.  May that grace capture us, that we might welcome that news into our soils.

And finally, watch this video used in worship last night to see what a life of careless grace can look like (It’s a life insurance commercial but beautifully illustrates the point):

The Faith We Form

I remember as a ninth grader signing up through my youth group to be a member of the Fellowship Committee of my local congregation.  Our youth pastor had encouraged the youth to be part of the committees of the church, to learn more about how we follow Jesus together, and to offer our ideas and reflections on the ministries our congregation embodied.

Through middle school I had become a major golf enthusiast, and though I wasn’t able to play as often as I liked, I looked for any opportunity to get out on the course.  I knew many of the men and women in my congregation played golf too, and so in one of our committee meetings, I suggested we organize a golf tournament for the congregation, with the proceeds benefitting a local charity.

Being fifteen at the time, I’m sure there was some skepticism among committee members about whether or not I was going to be able to make this happen, but I sifted through my Golf magazines, cutting out pictures and gluing them to a tri-fold display board.  I put together a sign-up sheet, set up tee times at a local course, found a charity that could use our support, and personally called men and women in the congregation whom I thought might be interested in playing.

We ended up with eight foursomes.  I still remember the manager at the golf course looking for someone else when I arrived to fill out the paperwork for our group on the day of the tournament.  And on that day, a massive rain storm moved through East Tennessee, soaking the course and us.  Several golfers called and cancelled, and we had to adjust from foursomes to threesomes, but the majority still showed up in their rain gear.

In the end we didn’t raise that much money, maybe $500.  No major prizes were given to the winners, nobody went home with great swag from the event.  For me, though, it was a powerful and transformative experience of church community.  A committee made up of church leaders listened to my idea, encouraged it, and helped me bring it about.  A local ministry gained some needed resources.  And members of my church slopped through eighteen holes in support of the effort I had put into the tournament.

Many of those men and women have died now, and others will continue to do so.  But each time I hear about another passing, I’m reminded of those folks in the pouring rain, supporting me, supporting the church, encouraging a new generation of leaders in Christ’s community.

10356349_498206303613654_3178036972688738695_nI was reminded of this experience yesterday when our church celebrated the ark we are donating to Heifer International with a petting zoo and a “Kiss the Pig” competition.  One of our ninth graders, Scott, serves on our Mission Committee and had this idea as a way of educating our children about the animals we were giving through Heifer and to create a deeper sense of community for our church.10441230_498206756946942_1111190435204932892_n

The committee went to work, gathering a cow, two sheep, two goats, three chickens, and two pigs.1797400_498207500280201_4491330533649750096_n  Through the morning members went from station to station to learn about the animals and how they can support a family.  And then, with boxes filled with money, Phil, Angie, and I were each told that due to the amount raised, we would each have to kiss the pig.

It was fun.  It was silly.  It was a little gross.  But I hope it was an experience for Scott where he got to see his church listen to his idea, take it up, put it into action, and try to live out the Gospel of Jesus together a little better.  I hope it serves as a reminder to him when he’s frustrated by the pettiness that weaves its way into church, when he’s bothered by the inward-focus we sometimes take, when he feels the church spends more time looking backward than forward, he can remember this morning, when the Spirit of God swept us up into the ministry idea of a fifteen-year-old who is pushing us all toward deeper faithfulness to our Lord.

Thank you Scott for living your faith.  Thank you church responding.10346616_498207666946851_7642146292955491030_n

The Futility of Feeling Futile

Over the weekend Rebecca and I were in New York City, where we had pre-purchased tickets to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.  I must admit we fell into the marketing trap of the play, selecting it from the headlining actors without any prior knowledge of the content of the production.

Pinter’s play is set in one large sitting room and involves two major players, both elderly gentlemen, in various moods of joy and anger, morose longing and stoic resolve.  It is easy as an audience member to grow tired of the circles in which the dialogue moves, to the point that one is almost prepared to shout from his seat, “Just get up and leave the house already!”

As Rebecca and I read about Pinter and his play and reflected on our experience of the production, I have come to believe that is exactly the effect the play is meant to have on its audience.  This is a play about the futility of old age.  There are two elderly men, trapped between a meaningful younger life and their coming deaths, who struggle to make sense or meaning of their present-day reality and so spend their time drinking in excess, recalling stories of the past, and repeating previous thoughts again and again.  They are like a song stuck on “repeat.”

The more I thought about this play the more I began to reflect on my experience at the most recent stated meeting of the Holston Presbytery of which our church is a part.  One portion of each meeting is spent in a forty-five minute small group, and if there are no agenda items to discuss, each person in the group talks about what is happening in his or her local congregational setting.  I have been to several of these small groups, and over the last two years the most frequent refrain from our churches is, “Well, we are mostly an older congregation, who really wishes we could figure out a way to reach out to the young people.”

For a time I felt compassion for them.  These are people who have poured their heart and soul into their church’s life, and they simply want to know that their efforts are not coming to their final conclusion.  But as I hear it time and again, I have begun to wonder if there might be some benefit in focusing less on what we “lack” and instead focus on what we are capable of accomplishing.

There seems to be this belief, modeled in Pinter’s No Man’s Land, that we reach an age when we are no longer useful or important or helpful.  We simply feel ourselves fading into history and grieving when we have no one who will take up the mantle of our causes.  Unfortunately, I think this a terrible theology for those in the Christian Church.

We should not forget that it was from Abraham and Sarah, at 100 and 90 years old respectively, that God brought forth Isaac to be the first in the long line of the Hebrew people (Genesis 21:1-7).  These very old people, who made a point of reminding God how old they were (Genesis 18:12), actually created the new thing God needed to continue to carry out God’s promise.

Perhaps there is some wisdom to gain here.  Instead of focusing on the futility of our graying congregations, the statistics that speak of the decline of all American institutions, and the easy prejudice to judge the young as irresponsible or narcissistic, maybe we should look to the places where we can make a difference.  What might happen if instead of considering ourselves useless or accepting congregational hospice, we took up the challenge of allowing God to birth something new in our communal life, even if that doesn’t lead to another fifty years of a sustainable financial congregational community?

We can either follow the example of the two aging men in Pinter’s play and stick to recounting the glory days and counting the hours of our remaining lives, or we can live more with the surprise of Abraham and Sarah, and allow God to grow something through us that gives our lives meaning and hope and declares to the world that there is Good News beyond the current anxieties that try to claim our souls.

Folded Hands

On our recent vacation, we spent a weekend with a couple of our friends from seminary.  It was a great weekend, with lots of stories and inside jokes revisited, wonderful hospitality, and much laughter.  Inevitably many of our conversations turned to church, things that had happened in the past few months, ideas tried and failed, budget concerns, and broader conversations about where our congregations seem to be going.

As I listened to my friend’s reflections on his time in ministry in this place, I grew continually more amazed that he wasn’t a wreck of anxiety.  Attendance is down.  There are a lot of funerals.  The session is open to his new ideas as long as he and his wife do all the leg work.  There isn’t much interest in growing, and so the worship attendance of forty or fifty in a sanctuary built for over two hundred and fifty people looks empty week to week.  The choir is at best six people on a Sunday.  There are about four elementary school children who are all brought to church by grandparents, and a few teenagers who show up on occasion.  We talked about the future of the congregation, whether it could rebound or should try to rebound.  What does it look like to know you’re a pastor called to walk a congregation to its death, ultimately to serve as a hospice chaplain?

We laughed about the similarities of our small town southern communities.  This town is not unlike Jefferson City, lots of fast food chains on the highway, a super Wal-Mart that serves most shoppers, a couple of Mexican restaurants, empty storefront in the downtown, and each community boasts a closed and decaying Krystal.  This particular rural southern town we were visiting, however, has no college community, is not a retirement destination for seniors, and is further than thirty miles from a major city.  It’s a post-textile town where the only people living there seem to be those with no other options.

On Sunday, Rebecca, Simon, and I accompanied our friends to church.  We arrived shortly before worship and were greeted by several friendly people who asked who we were and where we were from.  People told us about themselves, how long they had been in the church and in the community.  We climbed the stairs and stepped into the sanctuary, the golden light streaming in the stained glass windows, giving the room a warm, languid feel.  Like three movie stars, we walked down the bright red carpet of the aisle way to the rear of the sanctuary, strategically sitting where we could escape out the back door if Simon decided that he and not our friend was being called to preach the sermon this particular morning.

He was squirming in his seat, dissatisfied with the toys and snacks we had brought it.  An elderly woman in front of us took out her car keys and turned them into a makeshift toy, eventually handing them over to Simon for his own jingling pleasure.  She smiled at him and us, telling us he was a cute baby.

At 11:00, a woman in a choir robe, her gray hair pulled tight in a bun, stepped through a side door into the choir loft and began solemnly to toll a handbell eleven times to mark the hour.  As she rang, a young girl and another older woman entered through a different side door, the girl carrying the acolyte torch, the woman the large sanctuary Bible.

We held Simon up to see the girl and the woman, to watch the choir member ring the bell.

With the last toll the organist began the prelude on the old electronic organ in the sanctuary.  And in this moment, among these forty people who seem to be a group who seem content to passively watch their ministry end, who struggle to stay afloat in a town that has been mostly abandoned, with a young pastor and his wife trying to do something to proclaim the Good News among a people who are pretty satisfied with the current news, Simon looked up at me said, “Da!” taking both his hands and intertwining his fingers into his praying hands position, the folded hands we make when we bow our heads as a family before meals.

As far as I know Simon has only been in a sanctuary to hear an organ on his baptism day.  He hangs out in the nursery at church most of the time, and I assumed he associated the plastic slide, the trucks and balls with what it means to go to church.  But church as a place where we pray to God?  I didn’t know he had made that connection.

But in this moment, in this historic brick church in this dilapidated town, as the light gleamed golden on the old dark pews and the old gray heads, as the organ crackled and heaved out another prelude, as the handbell ringer sat solemnly in the loft and the acolyte squirmed on the front row, I realized that believe it or not, God had shown up again in friendly greetings and jingling car keys and a baby’s hands folded in prayer.

Church Futures

547447_10200761043722261_918916375_nA couple of weeks ago, reforming Evangelical Christian, blogger, and rising prophetic voice in American Christianity, Rachel Held Evans, posted a blog on the CNNBeliefblog page titled, “Why Millenials are Leaving the Church.”  In it she sights several reasons why young adults (millenials are those born between 1982 and 2000) are leaving the church in massive numbers.  Using her experience in the Church and research being conducted by national research organizations, she asks that if churches want millenials in their communions, we need to end the culture wars, reconcile the divide between science and faith, to be open to questions that do not have predetermined answers, and to be transformed by lives of holiness in all aspects of life from work, to recreation, to participation in our communities.  She also emphasizes how young adults are less interested in being “marketed to” and seek authenticity in community over slick advertising campaigns or trendy music, coffee shops in the narthex, and a pastor in skinny jeans.

There have been MANY responses to this post, some agreeing with her premise and others vehemently disagreeing with her stance.  Some I have found interesting include a response from Adam Copeland, a fellow Presbyterian minister and professor at Concordia University, who writes about the importance of practices of faith within the home and parents’ responsibility to pass down their faith tradition in authentic ways to their children.  Additionally, I found the post by Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, interesting, as he highlights how young people may be leaving the church because they never experienced the church spiritually, corporately, and personally.

There is an inordinate amount of anxiety about the future of the church in America these days and with all of our polling data and sociological research, we are desperately longing for someone with a crystal ball to open up to us what the future will hold.

I cited last Sunday in my lesson on the ninth commandment, “You Shall Not Bear False Witness,” the research of Phyllis Tickle, a church historian and thoughtful contributor to what has become known as “Emergeance Christianity,” forms of Christian faith that may be our guide into the future.  If you’re more interested in her reflections, take some time  to watch one of her lectures below.

She has come up with an “interim report” on this new expression (or more rightly these new expressions) of Christianity.  I heard these in the lecture she gave at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville in May.  I find her reflections helpful as we think about the Church of the future and what that means for a new generation coming into the world with professional, personal, and social obligations.

1.  We need to rethink our Doctrine of the Atonement.  For many Christians, the only interpretation of what God was doing in the cross is what is known as the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement.  In that theological construct, God’s wrath and anger have been kindled by our sin, and the only way God’s wrath can be satisfied is for someone to suffer the debt owed by all of humanity.  God sends Jesus, therefore, to satisfy His wrath.  Now this image is based in some of the images of the cross in the writings of the Apostle Paul, but the thorough description of this transactional theology of the cross was actually given flesh by Anselm of Canterbury in the eleventh century.  We need a more fully theology of the cross for our time.

2.  The issues regarding Universalism.  As we have come to encounter many different faiths around the world, how do we deal with the particularities of Christianity?  Do we simply condemn everyone who isn’t Christian or is there another way of interpreting how Christians relate to people of other faiths and no faith?  In a world growing small, we need to think more carefully regarding how we live the particulars of our faith in an age of many and no faiths.  As Tickle puts is, “Does the Christ story only occur in Jesus of Nazareth?”  We need to be asking these questions.

3.  How we understand the Authority of Scripture is a third element of Christian faith that we need to rethink.  With Martin Luther, Protestants championed, “Sola Scriptura” (only scripture) as their authority, which led us to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which tried to make the Bible into something it was never intended to be.  We need to think differently about how and why we read scripture.

4.  Finally, Tickle sights that we no longer know what it means to be a human being.  What does it mean in our time to be made in the Image of God?  With Decartes we began to identify the human with the mind, but as we have learned from neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, that there may be passions and emotions within us that are at work in ways that our cognitive minds do not comprehend.  What does it mean to be human, if we cannot trust the rational thinking of our cognitive brains?  What makes us unique from other animal species?  For the first time in some two hundred years, we are having to revisit this question.

The good news for churchgoers, I suppose, is that the challenges before us do not dwell on whether to use guitars or organs in worship or if there should be an appropriate dress code for Sunday morning.  The issues are actually much deeper than surface elements of style.  The question for a church like ours, therefore, is, are we willing to accept that there are things we do not know and are we willing to have our minds changed on some of the beliefs we thought were unquestionable about our faith?

These are always the challenges of times of Reformation, but the good news for us is, we are the “Church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”  We are always growing, rethinking, bringing our life in closer alignment to the will of God which continues to be revealed to the Church through the power of the Holy Spirit.  May we be open to that reforming spirit in this age.

*photo by Doug Berryhill used by permission

 

Following Up on Adultery

This summer I have been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  I knew going into this project that eventually I would come to the seventh commandment: You shall not commit adultery.  That is a sensitive subject, as sex is still somewhat taboo in our culture, and the pain associated with marital infidelity is complex and prolonged.  In the sermon I attempted to hold out these sensitivities as well as the hypocrisy of many preachers in our culture who have spoken on this topic while their personal lives do not reflect adherence to this command (listen to the sermon

      HERE
).

One of the primary points of the sermon dealt with the purpose of Christian marriage.  Christians are not required to be married, not even really encouraged to get married.  Marriage, for Christians, is permitted, but makes one no more or less faithful to Christ than the single person.  As Christians we marry, then, because we feel that we can live more faithfully in our walk with Jesus by doing that in a covenanted relationship with this other person.  Through this other person we learn intimacy, vulnerability, trust, reconciliation, and daily practices of grace.

I recognized even in the preaching of the sermon that there was a potential subtext to what I was saying that spoke wordlessly to those within our family of faith who may have had marriages end in divorce, perhaps because of sexual unfaithfulness.  I did not address divorce in the sermon, but in the lingering hours since noon yesterday have worried that some might feel that based on my claim that our marriages should witness to the world God’s faithfulness to us and Christ’s faithfulness to the church, I left the divorced members of our fellowship feeling as though they had “failed” in their witness to their Lord because their marriage didn’t work out.

And so I wish to offer a caveat to my argument about Christian marriage being about a public witness of faithfulness to the world.  One, no married couple, even the happiest husband and wife in the world, does this in perfection.  It is a lifelong process of hurt, confrontation, forgiveness, and perseverance.  Nobody should become braggarts about how well they show the love of God to the world through their marriage.

Secondly, this witness to the faithfulness of God through a marriage relationship can only occur if there is a willingness of both parties to make their relationship about something other than their own needs, fleeting happiness, or economic incentives.  Perhaps this central focus of the relationship is made easier if each party sees marriage as a way they can follow Jesus better, but I think there are some Christians married to non-Christians who would still say that their marriage relationship is a testament to the faithfulness of God even if both parties do not profess Christian faith.

There are times, however, when our faithfulness to God can come into conflict with our faithfulness to a spouse.  When one party cheats on the other and seeks no way to reconcile, regain trust, or make peace, the relationship becomes toxic and destructive.  When one party abuses the other physically or psychologically there is a conflict between staying with this person to whom you pledged your life and your safety and flourishing (which are ultimately the intentions of God for all of us).  God does not intend for us to show how faithful we are to God by staying in abusive marriages that destroy us as creatures made in God’s image.  God also does not want abusers to stay stuck in that cycle of violence and sometimes only drastic action can bring about recognition and repentance.

When I speak of marriages being a witness to God’s faithfulness, I make this declaration in the hope of both parties committing to the greater good that comes from life together, with its turmoil, sacrifices, and compromises.  I do not intend to endorse marriages where the covenant is consistently broken by one party or where one person uses the other as a punching bag or a receiver of verbal violence.  In these situations, preservation of one’s safety and sanity can prove the most faithful witness to the love and grace of God.  A mentor of mine once told me that sometimes the only way to bring about reconciliation in a relationship is for the relationship to come to a peaceable end.

I do not wish to perpetuate a system of guilt and shame around marriage and divorce.  There has been enough of that.  Neither do I wish to downplay the high calling of the marriage vow as a public witness of faith for the world.  The command against adultery is not about shaming us or marking us with a scarlet letter for eternity.  It is instead an invitation to consider the holiness of human relationships and community, an opportunity to expand our witness to the world.

Early Morning Sacrament

I’m not actually sure how it happened, but somehow in the first months of our time in Jefferson City, I was invited (or I imposed myself…) to breakfast with a group of men from our community.  These gentlemen, one in his forties, two in their sixties, and one in his eighties convene for breakfast each day at a local fast food restaurant, ordinarily at 6:00.  Each day the same menu, the same booth, the same customers who come and go in their routine.

Looking back, I cannot remember what prompted me to rise so early, at this unnecessary time, to get dressed and meet them for breakfast, but I began making that visit part of my Monday morning routine.  Each day over coffee and perhaps a biscuit, we’d discuss the weekend sports events, articles in the local paper, issues in family or work.  There were pleasant and sometimes unpleasant jabs, words of consolation, laughter, and memories bubbling over into present situations.

As time has worn on, and as I have become more comfortable with rising hours before sunrise, I make a point to join these men multiple times a week.  There is this great sense of comfort that comes with knowing that each day, without having to text message anyone for verification, I can find them, cars in their usual parking spaces, gathered in the usual booth.

Pastors and teachers talk a great deal about “sacred time,” about practicing personal spiritual disciplines, times of silence and prayer and devotional scripture reading.  I have come to realize, however, that a biscuit and cup of coffee, in a gathering of friends in a corner booth can be sacred time.  I have had the opportunity to open up with these men, and they have shared joys and pains with me.  Their persistent presence each day allows for deeper discussion as well as continual updating on the “honey do” list at home.

In this space I find welcome and peace.  I find a center point to the week as it begins anew.  I find myself grateful for their presence as I drive away toward the church office, and I leave looking forward to the next time we will spend together. 

As I reflect on this holy encounter, I am reminded of the final verse of the hymn “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether,”

All our meals and all our living/ make as sacraments of thee./ That by caring, helping, giving/ we may true disciples be./ Alleluia, alleluia, we will serve Thee faithfully.

 

Experiencing Hospitality

On our session retreat several weeks ago, we explored Hospitality.  To open our time together, we watched a Ted Talk by retired minister Dr. James Forbes of the Riverside Church in New York City.  We used a brief excerpt from the opening of the sermon in the video below as a way of framing our conversation about hospitality.

In his talk, Dr. Forbes reflects on his childhood home.  He recalls the lessons of his mother about preparing for those who are absent and caring for those who were infirm.  He speaks about the celebrations for his siblings’ accomplishments and the frustrations over an outsider intruding into an intimate family Christmas celebration.  As part of our conversation, each elder was asked to share with one another a time when they experienced genuine hospitality, how if felt, and what values those people embodied that we could learn to share.

 

As I’ve been reflecting on times of hospitality in my own life these past days, I keep coming back to friends of ours named David and Alison Reid.  The Reids are a retired couple, David from banking and Alison as an elementary school principal, who live on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland.  I became acquianted with the Reids when I spent a week in Edinburgh doing a research project on Presbyterian history that required me to spend time in the national archives.

 

Alison’s best childhood friend, Jane, was a member of my church back home, and when Jane heard I was going to be in Edinburgh, she called Alison and David to try and connect us.  The couple agreed not only to help me find my way but to welcome me into their home for the week.

 

Rebecca and I still reflect on our nighttime arrival in the city, as we carefully panned the faces of those at the train station, trying to figure out who David and Alison were.  Eventually we spotted them, similarly eyeing the strangers gathering their luggage and making their way off of the platform.

 

The Reids had meals for us over the weekend, provided comfortable beds for us to sleep in, and shared with us in lively conversation, everything from Presbyterian history to Scottish culture to stoires of family vacations to the current politics of the country.

 

Rebecca had to return to England for school the next week, but I stayed on with the Reids while I carried out my research during the day.  Each morning Alison cooked breakfast for us, and in the afternoon when I arrived back from my research we gathered in the living room for tea before beginning preparations for dinner.  I was exposed to a large range of traditional Scottish fare,  discovering I rather enjoy the taste of haggis!  At the end of the week, they even let me wash my clothes in their washing machine.

 

Since that incredible welcome, we have kept in touch with the Reids, inviting them to our wedding and sending them the birth announcement of Simon.  In 2011, when we visited Scotland again wtih two friends, the Reids welcomed the four of us back into their home for another delicious meal and delightful conversation.

 

Their hospitality made a very important impression on me.  The Reids treated me like an honored guest, not a college student who needed a place to crash for the week.  They continued in their usual rituals of breakfast and tea, but they intentionally welcomed me into those traditions, helping me find my way when some cultural education needed to occur.  Their warmth and care over the course of the week moved me far beyond feeling like an honored guest, instead leaving me with a sense of genuine belonging, a sense of home.

 

I believe it is that kind of hospitality God wishes us to extend to others.  We are to welcome people with honor regardless of where they come from or who they are.  We do not have to change our own ways, necessarily, but we are to invite new people into our traditions and practices in a way that they can understand and come to value them.  And the ultimate goal of our hospitality as Christians should be, like Alison and David, to move people from feeling like they are honored guests to feeling at home as an equal part of our family of faith.

 

Nostalgia

This week I have desperately been trying to “get in the Advent/Christmas spirit.”  It seems like we got a few extra days out of November this year, and our local weather has been a roller coaster of late, and so I have experienced some difficulty finding the mood of gaity that is to accompany this season.  In an effort to get the mood right (which I do believe matters for preparing sermons, writings newsletter articles, etc.) I have been listening to Christmas music in the office, and we have begun decorating and trimming Christmas trees at our house.

I fight a constant tension in this season.  There is the child in me who loves the lights and the presents and wrapping, the Christmas cookies and special movies.  I love the stories of Santa Claus and the festive television advertisements.  At the same time, I realize that these commercial elements of the season really have nothing to do with the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  Part of me wants to play the role of the prophet, decrying the unecessary buying, the gluttonous eating, and the self-absorption the holiday can breed.  It seems so contrary to the message of the one born in the stable who proclaimed that we should die to self, sell our possessions, and work to make sure all are fed.

My struggle, however, comes when I reflect on the meaning I have come to associate with those more consumeristic elements of the season.  The Christmas dinner where we overeat is a time where we remember our past celebrations.  It is a holy space.  Yes, buying and wrapping the gifts is not necessary, but there is a long-standing joy in seeing the paper torn and the excited faces of the folks opening their presents.  Yes, it is ridiculous to try and find storage for the artificial tree and ornaments, and it is time-consuming and takes money to replace the outside lights that do not work, but a deep feeling of home resonates in my soul when those decorations are up.

As a pastor I often worry about the church becoming a shrine to nostalgia and sentimentality.  When that occurs you can typcially put an “end date” on the ministry of a community because the means through which we proclaim the Gospel message are particular to specific historical moments.  If we re-create our previous traditions time and again without reflection or without consideration of contemporary circumstances, the church becomes merely a museum of a past way of life.

At the same time, though, there is something good about nostalgia and sentimentality, even in the Church.  Our celebrations and traditions shape who we are and connect us to the saints of the past.  Just as we feel that sense of “home” in our decorated houses, we can feel a sense of “home” when we walk into the sanctuary on Christmas Eve and see the greenery and poinsettias in their usual place.  We walk in and know, “I belong here.”

So, maybe nostalgia in moderation is not a bad thing.   In a time when so much in life seems temporary and transitory, nostalgic practices help us connect again to our roots.  These are the trustworthy practices that shape so many of our otherwise chaotic moments.  Now these traditions can become idols if we let them, but we need not, I think, shirk them all together in some effort to create a more “pure” Christmas (and let’s not forget that the original Puritans actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas).

I suppose the happy medium might come when our celebrations remain something other than a way of “consuming” Christmas and serve more as a kind of holy connection to the past and the future of life.  When that occurs, maybe we are experiencing a kind of sanctified moment, when the Advent of Jesus into the world meets the second Advent of preparation for his return.  In this, perhaps, is holiness.

Thankful for You

If you’re a Facebook user, most likely you have noticed some of your friends taking time each day in November to name something for which they are thankful.  I have enjoyed reading these reflections, and it has led me to do some thankful reflection as well.  Thanksgiving is on November 22 this year, and so I would like to offer twenty-two things about First Presbyterian Church for which I am grateful (these are not in order of importance, just a random numbering).

1.  For a history of outreach and mission that understands the role of the church to be beyond our walls and in the world.

2.  For genuine relationships of support, laughter, and care.  People are encouraged to be themselves at FPC, and I am so grateful for that.

3.  For a committed staff who see their roles as part of the mission of God.  Their dedication, reliability, passion for their work, and cooperative spirit help us worship and service and learn with greater effectiveness.

4.  For the great storytellers who help us remember the stories of our church family.

5.  For a music program that engages all ages and uses a variety of gifts to lift our hearts to the heavens in worship.  Our music truly helps to illumine God’s word to us each week.

6.  For members who quietly clean the sanctuary, organize the pencils, gather the sign-in sheets, and ensure our worship space is welcoming week to week.

7.  For Family Night Suppers where I get to indulge in many foods we never eat at our own house because of Rebecca’s food preferences.  I particularly enjoy the deviled eggs, baked beans, potato salad, and corn bread!

8.  For a congregation willing to learn new songs, preach to each other during sermons, and easily forgive mishaps in worship!

9.  For the stomping of preschool feet above my head in the church office on Sundays as our children actively engage in God’s word

10. For stories of second chances, fresh starts, and lasting forgiveness I have the privilege to listen to

11. For readers and learners who challenge me to keep up with my own study

12. For a session who remains diligent in their work and who seek God’s will above all else.  These dedicated disciples are wonderful leaders who continually teach me so much.

13. For congregational mentors who gently keep me in line, who remember that a pastor has as much to learn as to teach

14. For new faces in worship and study and service as our community of faith continues to grow

15. For the “resurrection” stained glass window in the sanctuary above the narthex, that reminds me at the beginning of each worship service of the Good News we gather to celebrate and proclaim

16. For those who make sure our homebound members feel part of our community of faith by taking them recordings of the worship services and visiting them, making them care packages and holiday greetings

17. For the quietly generous who seek to give to God without a desire for recognition and praise.  You humble me and strengthen my faith in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.

18. For those who make sure our website is up-to-date and interactive for visitors and members to get and stay connected

19. For the extended families that form among our members.  At this time of year I celebrate the stories I’m hearing of church members who aren’t near family getting together with each other to celebrate Thanksgiving.  That’s genuine community.

20. For the stories you share about times when you have seen God in your life.  These stories lift my soul and give me great hope.  The ability for some to see God in the midst of trial and suffering is amazingly powerful.

21. For baptisms when we see so clearly the extravagent love and grace of God for us.

22. For funerals (I know that may sound strange) when we sing for joy in the face of death and gather as a community to declare our ultimate hope in Jesus Christ.

Those are some of things I thank God for about First Presbyterian Church.  It can be so easy to miss those little things that give our life meaning and remind us of God’s presence.  I hope you find some time to reflect on the blessings of God in your life in this week.  Happy Thanksgiving!