Double-Edged Lent

February 24, 2012

The story takes us where we need to go.  That is one of the wonders of the Christian year.  From Advent’s preparations to Christmas joy, through Easter, Pentecost and beyond, the story unfolds, with God’s truths revealed and divine mysteries encountered.  If we allow it, the story will embrace our days, invigorate our spirits and challenge our minds and actions … even as we move through the common stuff of life.

So, now we enter Lent.  During the weeks ahead, we will walk with Jesus the road toward Good Friday and Easter.  We will examine ourselves in the light of his truth, seek to learn from him what it means to live a life of wholeness and grace, and all along the way experience the joy of a journey shared.  Lent, which literally means “Spring,” can be for us a season of growth, if we wish to grow.

As we move along, consider the landscape of your own life.  What are the sights and sounds that bless your days?  Can the journey make you more grateful … and gracious?  What do you hope to find before the journey is over?  What questions need to be answered?  What answers need to be questioned?

The story will take us where we need to go, but, of course, we know where the story is heading.  We’ve heard it all before.  We know that Good Friday’s cross awaits us and that Easter lies beyond that.  That makes Lent, well, a strange season.  It is a time of penitence and honest self-examination, a time to wrestle with the “folly” and “offense” of the cross.  But at the same time the truth of Easter shines through. After all, we know where the story is heading.  Hope is central to who we are as Christians.  The good news that Christ has triumphed over sin and death and that in him all things are made new is what we’re all about.

We Christians are Easter people.

So, we don’t walk through Lent in abject sorrow, mourning our sorry lives and fearful of the future.  Instead, we move through this holy season in the assurance that the Lord who walks with us toward the cross does indeed live and dwell in our midst even now.  We know the story and how it ends, and how it ends is that it doesn’t.  The story of Christ is forever new and real, and the gracious mission of Christ goes on.

And so the Christian year acknowledges both realities—the Lenten journey and the needs of our souls, along with Easter triumph of God’s grace and love.  Sundays stand within Lent’s journey but also apart from it.  Do the math.  Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days.  So, every Sunday we acknowledge Lent’s journey, but we also remind ourselves of the joy that awaits us at journey’s end.


With Spring Springs Hope and Diamonds

February 17, 2012

This Sunday, February 19, is a big day.  Yes, it’s Transfiguration Sunday; yes, the confirmation class is on retreat; yes, it’s school break; but those aren’t the things that draw me to this keyboard.  In case you’ve forgotten, this Sunday Braves pitchers and catchers officially report for Spring Training (and, yes, it should be capitalized).  NFL—done; NBA—never done; MLB—ready to go.  Soon the “beautiful game” will commence (I know another sport has claimed that title, but I’m an American).

One quality that sets baseball apart from other sports is that it is so gloriously and simultaneously about team and individual.  With every pitch, every player on the field is engaged, ready, moving, and yet, always, the spotlight falls, moment to moment, on an individual.  Jurrjens fools a hitter with a change-up; Chipper one-hands a slow roller up the line; Pastornicky makes an amazing grab at deep short (we can hope); Freeman stretches; Heyward, diving, makes the catch.  The team goes as individuals go.

And, of course, each player has a role—starter, closer, everyday player, utility man, etc.  A speed guy is a speed guy, and power is power, except that sometimes they aren’t.  Bourne is certainly capable of a lead-off homer, and even McCann has been known to steal a base or leg out a triple (albeit barely).  And with two out and the bases loaded, you can’t ASSUME Hudson won’t drive one into the corner.  In baseball, you can never quite pigeonhole anybody.

Over the run of a long season, players soar and fall, heroes are made and fade.  Rarely is the whole team healthy and hot at the same time or injured and cold (let’s not talk about October).  Instead, streaks and slumps share a batting order, and heroes and broken hearts put on their uniforms side by side.  On the best clubs, players pick each other up.  Someone steps up and finds a little extra for the sake of the team.

In baseball, individuals have their moments of glory, and when enough individuals have enough moments, something amazing happens.  The whole team (which is to say every individual) starts to believe that anything can happen (Remember ’91?).  Call it mojo; call it spirit; but the whole team starts believing that no deficit is insurmountable and no game over until the last pitch is thrown.  In such times, the whole is greater than the parts; the team finds a way to win; individuals play “over their head”; heroes come out of nowhere.  And players, bruised and sore and tired, start to talk about how much fun they’re having.  And for a fan, there’s nothing more fun than watching a team have fun.

One thing is certain with a baseball fan.  With spring springs hope.  And, as you well know, one thing is certain with preachers.  When they talk about baseball, they’re not just talking about baseball.


Suggestions for Worship

February 13, 2012

Back in January, the Rev. Creede Hinshaw, senior minister at Wesley Monumental UMC in Savannah, and a writer I have enjoyed for years, offered some suggestions for worship.  I’d like to pass along 10 of Creede’s thoughts (in bold), along with my own commentary.  I think Creede will forgive me for messing with his stuff, especially if he doesn’t know.

1.    I will come to worship every week I’m in town.

Your presence is important.  We are the lesser without you, and your presence is a witness and encouragement to the new folks in our midst.  Can worship be a holy habit for you?

2.    I will park as far away as possible so late-comers can find a parking spot.

Even our parking is an act of faith and hospitality.  How close do you need to be?  Think about the newcomer; think about those who find it more difficult to walk long distances.

3.    I will arrive on time.

I kind of disagree with Creede on this one.  Sure, it’s better to arrive on time, but it’s better to arrive late than not at all.  See number 1: Your presence is important.

4.    I will enter the sanctuary with expectation that God has a word for me.

Amen.  But I would add: Come also with the expectation that you have something to offer to God and the people around you.

5.    I will be flexible about where I sit.

Preach it, Creede.

6.    I will speak warmly and sincerely to those around me.

The care you show, whether to a newcomer or veteran, might be exactly the blessing they need.

7.    I will pray that the worship leaders will be responsive to the Holy Spirit.

We need your prayers more than you can imagine.  And, while you’re at it, pray that the Holy Spirit will work in the life of everyone who is there to contribute to the service, which is to say everyone, including you (See number 1: Your presence is important).

8.    I will sing the hymns with the rest of the congregation.

I’ll admit even I have a hard time with this one, but we can at least join in the best we can and allow the words and music to speak to our souls.

9.    I will seek inspiration in the service even if the sermon is boring.

Did Creede visit with us recently?

10. I will praise God for the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Praising God keeps life in balance.  Praising God nurtures a grateful and gracious spirit.  Praising God in a holy congregation is a unique and wondrous experience that’s good for all ages.  And with every voice raised, the experience becomes the richer.  Which brings us back to number 1: Your presence is important.


Once Upon a Time, a Gift

February 3, 2012

Once upon a time, a gift was given.

And all who received it were changed.  The old found new excitement and enthusiasm; the young found purpose and meaning.  But, more amazingly, frozen hearts were thawed and raging souls calmed.  The love poured from this gift had the power to wash away hatred.  Enemies became family.  Hope-soaked desert lives blossomed and flourished.

Compassion flowed from the gift, filling empty lives; graciousness became a garment; and, strangely, for those who received the gift a new light shone, casting different shadows, illuminating possibilities previously unseen.  Indeed, the gift was light; the gift was compassion; the gift was grace.  All that it touched was made new.

And those who received the gift began to give.  The gift was shared and passed along and thrown around in acts of compassion and signs of grace, in mercy and selflessness. This is a gift that will not be locked away; like the manna of old it can’t be stored for tomorrow.  It has to be given.

And so the gift is given still.

We know because we’ve received it.  We know because our own hearts have been thawed, our own souls drenched with hope.  We know what it is to receive that for which we cannot pay.  And so we too feel now a twinge that nudges us, and we hear the voice that whispers simply, “Give; share; care.”

For us who call ourselves the church, the gift is a way of life.  Have you shared it lately?  Have you offered the grace you have found, or should I say the grace that has found you?  Have you invited someone to come and discover it for themselves?  Sharing the gift is as simple as a word, a gesture, your presence, and as profound as the highest calling, the grandest effort serving the noblest cause.

One size fits all with this gift.  Offer it to a friend; share it with the world.  But try to hang onto it, try to guard it, and it will only fade away.


A Discernible Wobble

January 27, 2012

A while back, I read of a group of astronomers who had discovered 10 hitherto unknown planets circling neighboring stars, the closest of which was 10.5 light-years from earth (in more general terms, that’s a long, long way).  The astronomers weren’t ready to say whether any of the newly discovered planets might sustain life, because they couldn’t really say much about the planets at all.  You see, the planets can’t actually be seen from earth.  So, you might reasonably ask, if we can’t see them, how do we know they exist?

It works like this: The gravitational pull of the planets causes the parent stars to wobble back and forth.  That wobble, in turn, causes a slight wobble in the wavelength of light coming from the stars.  And that wavelength of light is indeed measurable from here on earth.  And so, from a wobbling light, scientists can reason their way back to the presence of a planet.

Makes sense to me.

Not that I know anything about astronomy, but I do understand the logic.  It is, after all, central to our Christian theology.  Call it wobblology, if you will.  We talk about it all the time in the church.

It works like this: If you follow the movement of Christians in the universe, you should discern a certain wobble—an alteration of course that implies the presence of another force.  That wobble might be a word of grace here or a an act of compassion there or a stranger welcomed as friend or some unmerited kindness in an unlikely place that sets the Christian apart from the rest of humanity.  “There, do you see?” I can imagine some objective scientist noting.  “There is definitely something different about the movement of those Christians and the light they emit.”  Reason your way back and you will discover the cause—the presence of Christ and the gravitational pull of his love.

In the end, there is no greater evidence for the existence of a divine love than the people who dwell in that love and no greater evidence for a Savior than the people who have been saved.  So, wobble on, and in your wobbling bear witness to the Christ whose love changes everything.


What Will You Do With Your Day?

January 20, 2012

Back in my days at the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, I was visiting a church one night, hoping  in vain to sell subscriptions, when a woman came to me and announced, “Wish me a happy birthday; I’m 23 today.”  “Poor thing,” I thought, as I nodded, smiled and looked around to see if there was someone who was supposed to be keeping an eye on her.  The woman had to be in her 80s, and clearly she was, well, a little confused.  But then the people standing near her smiled, too, not in an “ah, poor thing; let’s humor her” way, but as though they were all in a joke that I clearly didn’t get.  “What day is it?” one of them finally asked me, and at last I understood.  The date was February 29, and I was wrong; she wasn’t in her 80s at all.

This Leap Year thing has always fascinated me, and I think I more or less understand it.  The intercalary (look it up) day of February 29 synchronizes our Gregorian calendar with the solar calendar, giving us 366 days instead of the normal 365.  But the important thing is this: We get an extra day this year.  Granted, it might not feel that way, but look at the calendar!  There it is.

So, how will you use it?  I mean, bonus days don’t come along that often, so make the most of it.  But be creative.  The day is a gift, after all, so don’t use it to catch up on work or chores or blah stuff like that.  Instead, mark off one item from your bucket list.  Or just make it a play day with your children or grandchildren.  Enjoy it.

If you’re in a generous mood, give the day to a friend.  Sit and talk; go to a movie; share a meal.  If you’re going to catch up, catch up on conversation.  Or, if you prefer, you can give the day to a stranger.  Join with our SafeHouse team one night—serve a meal and worship with folks who probably can’t do a thing in the world for you but be with you.

Spend some time with God.  Sit, read, reflect, pray, watch birds.  You’ll be amazed at the difference a day makes.  If you insist on spending your extra day at work, then give the money to the Children’s Home (That’s the whole idea of the Work Day Offering, after all).

Or maybe you would prefer to take the 24 hours and spread it through the year.  An extra hour in worship here, a 30-minute walk there, a conversation you didn’t think you had time for, a prayer.  The time is there.  Use it.

Now, which day you take as your bonus is entirely up to you.  But if you’re having a hard time deciding, just assume today is the one.  Enjoy it.  Do good with it.  Share it.  It’s a gift.



Words We Dimly Hear

January 13, 2012

Last Sunday I quoted a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.  I wanted to share it with you here as well.  At the heart of our being is a profound mystery.  We are made in the image of God, and we bear the mark of Christ, through whom “all things came into being” (John 1:3).  Rilke expresses beautifully the ineffable sense of divine connection that haunts us, the still, small voice that “we dimly hear.”


God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
 then walks with us silently out of the night.

 These are words we dimly hear:

 You, sent out beyond your recall,
 go to the limits of your longing.
 Embody me.

Flare up like flame
 and make big shadows I can move in.

 Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
 Just keep going.  No feeling is final.
 Don’t let yourself lose me.

 Nearby is the country they call life.
 You will know it by its seriousnes.

 Give me your hand.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke ~


Some Roman Resolutions

January 9, 2012

Have you had time yet to break any of your resolutions for 2012?  If so, let me suggest some replacements—something biblical even (I am, you know, a preacher).  You’ll find them all in the closing chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

Start at the beginning of chapter 12 (My translations here are all NRSV, unless otherwise noted).  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” Paul writes in verse 2.  OK, I admit that’s a pretty broad resolution, but wait, Paul gets a bit more specific.

He starts by bringing us all down a notch or two: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (v. 3).  Instead, Paul says, consider the needs of the people around you.  “Let love of the Christian community show itself in mutual affection.  Esteem others more highly than yourself” (v. 10, REB).  Now, that doesn’t mean you should spend the next year putting yourself down.  To the contrary, Paul wants you to know you are God’s gift to the church, a wondrous part of the body of Christ, with important gifts to share.  But share you should.

Paul follows with a series of wonderful admonitions, each a noble resolution for 2012:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:15).

“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:16).

“If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (13:18).

“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions” (14:1).

“Let us, then, pursue the things that make for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (14:19).

“In a word, accept one another as Christ accepted us, to the glory of God” (15:7, REB).

Does this still seem a pretty formidable list?  Fear not, for all these resolutions can be summarized in a word, Paul says.  Love.  “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:10).  And that, in the end, is a resolution and a truth that can transform your mind and even the world around you.


Writing the Gospel

December 29, 2011

With pen in hand, we approach each day, you and I, and we write.

Now, maybe you would disagree. “I have no desire to write, Mark,” you might say. Or maybe you prefer a word processor to a pen.  But it doesn’t matter.  One way or another, you’re writing.  Every day, a chapter at a time, a moment at a time, you’re writing your part of the Gospel according to Fayetteville First United Methodist Church.

So far the story is a good one—all about a church with deep roots in Fayette County and its response again and again to the needs of a community that has grown from rural county seat to thriving suburb.  It’s an epic story really, with a cast of thousands through the years. It has involved young and old, women and men, and it’s had its moments of drama and suspense, along with some comedy and maybe even a bit of farce now and then.  But the central theme has remained the same.  This is the gospel you’ve been writing, after all; this is God’s good news.

In one way or another you have told the story of Jesus, shared his forgiveness and mercy, nurtured children in the faith, and offered to hurting people God’s compassion. It’s the old, old story really, but you’ve made it uniquely yours.

Now, with a new year begins a new chapter.  The story will spin from your life and from mine and from ours together.  A sentence at a time, a scene at a time, a day, a month, a lifetime—the story reveals itself as we write.  It’s a bit of suspense this story, except that really it isn’t.  The great story of which we are a part is in the hands of the Author of authors.  We can write with confidence, knowing that the ending will not disappoint.

There are some other things I know for sure, too: Wonders will unfold before us as we write.  The old, old story still has a surprise or two for all of us.  And the more of us who pick up our pens, the more beautifully the story will get told.





Now, Remember

December 16, 2011

I don’t remember how old I was—10, 11?—but I remember as though it were yesterday sitting by our lighted Christmas tree, which stood beside the fireplace, in which glowed a fire freshly lit by my father. Alone with him in that flickering light I listened as he told of how his father built a fire in the family fireplace at Christmastime. And so a memory became a memory.

I remember services at the church and the voice of that congregation singing carols. I remember another church at our house, small and plastic with a light inside and glittery snow on its roof. I remember the angel atop the tree, the cookies and milk carefully set on Christmas Eve, and the creak of the kitchen door swinging behind us the next morning as my brother and I launched ourselves through the dining room toward the tree and gifts beyond.

I remember. That seems to be what we do this time of year. In fact, is there any time of year more weighted with memory and tradition than this one?

Sambo’s Christmas Gift, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales—the memories of others, once read, blend with our own and become treasures to share and pass along. Memories upon memories, Christmas grows, a great oak (not a fir, not a pine) in our midst, and at the heart of the rings upon rings of memories the one story of birth and wonder and mystery, of angels and shepherds, of feed troughs and cattle lowing. We remember the story, and we remember remembering.

But here’s the strange thing about it all. The Christmas story, once remembered, ceases to be a memory. If it does not speak to our lives right now, and to our hopes and our future and our mission, then it is little more than one more pretty tale retold, one more batch of traditions consumed like so much comfort food.

What does it mean for our world today that Emmanuel, “God with us,” was born in the midst of poverty? What does it mean for you that the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, was as human as you? What does it mean that God should come to us now in the ordinariness of life, offering love, mercy and a WAY of life that is truth and grace? Forget remembering for a moment. What does this birth have to say to you today, in this moment, with life as it is, not as it was?

And so, remembering once more through services traditional and carols familiar, we will tell the ancient and glorious story.  But listen … listen.  The Word divine and living comes to you now, always now.