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Jesus is a sound sleeper

June 23, 2015

A sermon delivered June 21, 2015, at Central Presbyterian Church-Waxahachie by the Rev. Matt Curry.

Psalm 9:9-20
Mark 4:35-41

In 1988, my mother was away on a trip that she had been planning a long time, and I was home with my Dad. For some time he had been experiencing some health issues for which we had no answers.

He began to notice that when he got up from his recliner, he would careen to one side, and it seemed to be getting worse. I noticed he had trouble signing a check. His handwriting was shaky and tentative. My mother was still away when we received the news that my father was suffering from a brain tumor that in months would end his life.

That was a difficult day, of course, and it was followed by what I remember as a very dark, lonely night. I was wide awake. I had lots of questions running through my mind, and plenty of fears. Those thoughts tormented me for most of the night. But my father did not let his new reality overwhelm him – at least not to the point where it prevented him from resting. As I thought about what his news meant for the future, the unmistakable sound of his snoring traveled across the hallway from his room to mine.

I worried, while he slept.

In the years since, I have been accused by certain members of my own household of being a fairly sound sleeper myself. There have been times, for example, when I have awakened from a restful night, and the first words I have been asked are, “What about that storm last night? Did you hear that thunder? What about that lightning” and “the dogs were going crazy weren’t they?” And I will have to respond, “That what, and the what and what? Sorry, I was asleep, did not know anything about it! I missed it!”

And not everyone is entirely happy when I miss all the excitement – apparently, excitement is meant to be shared!

Of course, to be honest, though I am able to sleep through thunder and lightning, I have been less successful in sleeping through the storms of life. Worry holds me captive from rest on more than a few occasions, and frankly, it is not always over life and death matters. Sometimes it is related to a relationship, or when I was in seminary, it could relate to an important final exam. Sometimes I know that I am being kept awake by something that is really not worth losing sleep over, but as I think about that, I only lose more sleep. If you share this problem with me, know that at least we are in good company. Even the Apostle Paul lamented that I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

I am not the sound sleeper that my father was — and apparently, nobody can sleep like Jesus.

Jesus was very tired after a day of teaching parables: the parable of the sower; a lamp under a bushel basket; the parable of the growing seed; the parable of the mustard seed. He spoke the Word to the people through parables, as they were able to hear the Word. Privately he explains everything to the disciples, and that must have been exasperating, because they often just do not get it. We affirm that Jesus was 100 percent human, 100 percent God. In the fullness of his humanity, he must have been really tired when evening came – that was a lot of parables to explain, after all – and so he and the disciples finally decide to retire for the night, leaving the crowds behind. They head out in a boat to the other side of the water. But a great windstorm arises, according to our NRSV translation.

Other translations refer to a fierce gale of wind, or a violent windstorm. This must have been a very serious storm because, remember, there are people on this boat, experienced fishermen, who know what it is like to deal with bad weather on the sea. And they are concerned. Waves batter the boat and break over the boat, quickly filling it with water. As the disciples grapple with this grave situation, the one whom they follow is sleeping on a cushion in the back – nice and comfortable. The disciples are frightened, and certainly they must also be angry. And if they even had time to think, perhaps they are thinking something like this: We are trying to bail out this boat, perhaps we will survive if the waves don’t tear our vessel apart – and here is the so-called captain of our ship, at rest. And someone probably said: Wow, Jesus is really a sound sleeper. That man can sleep through anything!

Jesus is not stirred by the terror of the moment; not by the crashing waves; not by the storm all around them; not by the violent tossing and turning of the boat; and so finally they go and shake him awake! Do. You. Not. Care That. We. Are. Dying!

And I think they raise a pretty good question.

Why is Jesus sleeping when the storm is at its peak?

I have been hearing that question a lot lately. When an armed white racist walks into Bible study in a historic black church and kills nine people – in a church, at Bible study – is Jesus asleep?

Is God on vacation?

For others, this, along with the continuing epidemic of hatred and gun violence, is further proof that there is no benevolent, supernatural being overseeing the world. This is not a new concern. Check out the trials and tribulations of Job, or read Lamentations or the Psalms. The psalmist writes that my tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, Where is your God?

Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?

Instead of answering their question, Jesus responds by demonstrating his command and control over the elements. The wind ceases at his word and the conditions become overwhelmingly calm. And now he has two questions for them:

Why are you afraid?

And …

Do you still have no faith?

And it does not say in the text, but I wonder if he then went back to the stern of the boat, found his cushion and continued with his nap – because Jesus was apparently very good at sleeping soundly.

The disciples, however, are still restless. Even now, at this point in their journey together with Jesus, they wonder just exactly who this is whom they have followed. They are filled with a great awe, this translation says. Literally, the original text says they are filled with a great fear – even now, after Jesus calmed the storm, or perhaps BECAUSE he calmed the storm. They have a glimmer of understanding when it comes to this matter of faith but it is not a fully resolved matter for them. Jesus’ power over the wind and sea leads to more questions. And ultimately, the Gospel of Mark repeatedly directs those questions to us: Why are we afraid? Do we have faith? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Sometimes Jesus falls sound asleep. And maybe that is so his followers will learn to rely upon their faith that God is in control, even in the height of the most disastrous storms. Jesus’ ability to rest in the midst of trouble is not abandonment. He never leaves them in the boat to fend for themselves. You know, I guess he could have said I have had it with you guys, got out, and walked his way across the water over to the other side. But he does not do that. He stays with them. His restful sleep in the back of the boat is not due to his lack of concern, as the disciples initially suggest, rather, it is a sign of his complete and obedient faith in God. It is not only faith in Jesus that saves – but the faith of Jesus by which God has claimed us. It is a faith that stands in stark contrast to the worry of fishermen tossed around on a boat or a seminary student who tosses and turns in bed all night.

God vindicated the faith of Jesus by raising him from the dead, and it is in the very midst of the harsh realities of our world that we are called to consider who he is to us.

Fred Rogers, the children’s television personality and Presbyterian minister, said that when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news, his mother would say to him, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. And so, Mr. Rogers would say, even in the midst of disaster, he remembered his mother’s words and was comforted by realizing there are many caring people.

When my father was diagnosed with his brain tumor, it felt for a time as if God had abandoned us – but I don’t think my Dad ever felt that way. If he did, he never expressed it. I came to see Jesus in my father’s ability to do the best he could with the news he had been given, and to hand the rest over to his Lord, even to the extent that he could sleep soundly at night. Not only that. I saw that Christ was present in the people who came from the church to our home to kneel with my Dad and me and pray. Those same people stood with our family in the difficult days that followed.

Yesterday at Joshua Chapel AME Church here in Waxahachie, clergy and parishioners from churches throughout the city joined our sisters and brothers to share our love and concern for them, as well as for Charleston, S.C., and for our nation. Some of you were there, too, and your presence in that prayer service made a difference.

On the day of the tragic shooting, many understandably asked, “Where is God?” If you watched the arraignment of the young man arrested for this crime, then you heard families of the victims say words like I love you, I forgive you, I encourage you to repent and give your life over to Jesus and be saved. Only God could do something like this.

Where is God? From across our nation and in our own city, the answer has begun to be heard: God is in the helpers, in those who are praying and responding, in those who are mourning with those who mourn and in those who are standing up to say they will do whatever it takes to make our society a better place for all of God’s children.

We live in difficult times – times that call for taking a stand and making a difference. Make no mistake about it: It takes faith. When gunmen are entering churches and killing worshippers and shooting pastors, we each have decisions to make – questions we must answer for ourselves. To choose fear is to align ourselves with powers and principalities that are the rulers of darkness in this world.

But we are Children of the Light, already claimed through the obedient and complete faith of Jesus. If he is asleep, it may be only so that we will wake up and do his will in the world.

Why are we afraid?

Do we still have no faith?

Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Let us pray:

Gracious God, in the midst of a chaotic, broken and sinful world, sometimes it seems as if you have abandoned us. Help us to remember the faith of your son, which claims us, and the commitment of the prophets to justice, reconciliation and peace. Give us the strength and the audacity to stand with Christ and to share his love, even when waves are swamping the boat. In the name of the One whose trust in the sovereignty of God produces restful sleep – even on the tumultuous sea – AMEN.

Father’s Day post: Building something that will last

June 20, 2015

Witness to Grace

Every Father’s Day, I remember ‘The Bus House.’ And every day in between, I miss the presence in my life of its determined builder and caretaker. (This was first posted here on Jan. 12, 2012.)
—-

From our big picture window, the skinny white building at the end of the gravel road looked like a sentinel, standing at attention against the backdrop of a cold, gray Texas sky.

Bundled in my winter gear – the ski mask reminded me of Dr. X, one of the bad guys from the “Championship Wrestling” show on Friday night – I trudged the quarter-mile route carrying my metal, Charlie Brown lunchbox and perhaps a few worries over what the new school day would bring.

The path ended at the cattle guard, which lay between two handsome red brick pillars. Just this side of the last barrier between our farm and the road to town…

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Why I went to McKinney and what I saw there

June 10, 2015

Last Sunday after church, I was scrolling through Twitter when I noticed the hashtag #McKinney. Not knowing what I would see, I clicked onto that now viral YouTube video.

You know what I saw:  a foul-mouthed white police officer chasing black teenagers in swim suits, pulling his gun at one point and forcing a girl’s face into the ground and climbing on top of her– behavior the McKinney police chief now acknowledges as “indefensible” and clearly “out of control.”

I am thankful to God that officer did not kill anyone. We would be having a far more troubling and sorrowful conversation today. As tensions escalated – mainly his –  who knows how close he came to opening fire on what was, at most – depending on whom you believe – not much more than an unauthorized pool party.

So, on Monday, I went to McKinney.

In order to explain why I went, I must also tell you how watching that video made me feel.  As a father, I felt physically sickened by the level of violence used on children, many of whom, it turns out, may not even have been involved in the incident that prompted police to arrive in force to the Craig Ranch subdivision where this all took place. And I wanted to cry for this community and for our country.

I could not sleep Sunday night, and I knew if there was a protest on Monday, I had to go. It is not my community, so it is not my place to tell them what I think should be done. But I just wanted to walk beside those parents who were feeling grief over what happened. And I remembered that Dr. King said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Just as I did not know what I would see when I first clicked on the YouTube video, I did not know what I would encounter at the protest march in McKinney.

What I saw was hundreds of people from different races, backgrounds and religions calling for justice and fair treatment for all of God’s children.  I saw protesters escorted safely and respectfully and without interference by McKinney police.  I heard speeches from people representing various groups and political perspectives with very different ideas about how to work for justice. Many voices were gathered at one large, diverse table.

I saw hundreds of marchers and only two counter-protesters, one of whom held a sign that said “I support the police!”  Many of the marchers would have agreed with that statement. They spoke of their frustration as taxpaying McKinney residents who would rather feel protected by police officers than fear them. One marcher held a large sign that said, “Lord, heal our nation.” Others said they are thankful for officers in their community – especially the two who grabbed at Eric Casebolt when he pointed his gun in a fit of rage. The protesters also expressed a deep and heartfelt connection to tragedies in Ferguson and Baltimore and other places where black lives have been shattered under the color of official authority.

The spirit in that rally Monday was positive, energetic, and it was not mean-spirited or ugly. Not from what I saw. I only recall one sign that made an offensive statement toward police. (By the way, it was held by a white person).  A group of young African-Americans near whom I was marching “self-policed” our group as we wound our way through the narrow streets of Craig Ranch. They sternly ordered marchers to stay off homeowners’ lawns and to stay either on the sidewalk or in the street!

I drove home that night with hope – though I also remain troubled. I am worried that the resignation of a single officer will lead officials to consider this a “solved” problem instead of engaging in real dialogue on race within their community.  I appreciate that a number of officers perhaps acted appropriately – at least one was an example who certainly shined by comparison.  But I wonder: Why didn’t officers forcibly detain Casebolt at the scene before this situation worsened? And what about the white civilian who is walking around aiding him in his abuse of children? Why would that man take part in promoting the indefensible actions of an out of control officer? Why would anyone? It occurs to me that  “supporting the police” is a dangerous mantra to follow if you mean support must come no matter what they do.

I wore my clerical collar to the march. A white, college-age man asked to take a photo of me with another pastor so he could show it to his mother – who is also an ordained minister but did not attend the protest with him. These young people, black and white, give me hope for the future.

march mug

What if …

May 22, 2015
tags: ,

The painting is called “His Supreme Moment,” and it depicts Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee being cheered as a conquering hero while riding past his troops following victory over the Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville.

The framed Mort Kunstler print, commemorating the May 1863 battle, was a birthday gift, and it hung prominently above the desk in my study.

This was a gift I had insisted on having, a culmination of my many years as a Civil War enthusiast who has visited battlefields and compiled a somewhat extensive library on the bloody All-American conflict.

But a few years ago, I began to see the painting in a different light. What had at first seemed like a friendly guest in my suburban home gradually became unwelcome.

I came to a decision then: It had to go. So, as we began to pack up our house to move to a new community where I would serve as a pastor, the print was boxed up for either sale or storage.

It has remained in storage for nearly three years now.

In case you are wondering, no one made me put it away. There was no discussion with anyone about it, ever. No great debate – other than a lingering conversation within – led to it being put out of sight instead of re-adorning a wall in my new home.

There were some factors, however, that seemed to contribute to the ultimate decision that I no longer could share living space with the print.  One was the night my African-American brother-in-law slept on a couch in my office while Gen. Lee, surrounded by Rebel flags, stared down at him throughout the night. He never mentioned the painting, and I never asked. But I kept returning to the thought: How did it make him feel? How would it make me feel, if I were him?

I also thought about a conversation with a colleague at The Associated Press, where I worked for 13 years. The conversation centered on a then-hot topic: “racial profiling.” We talked about our individual encounters with police. Both of us were college educated. Both of us were writers. Among our differences – besides the fact that he was black and I am white – was that I had never been stopped for simply driving in the wrong neighborhood, and I learned it happened to him many, many times. I heard then of an expression that is well known in the African-American community: DWB. That is, being pulled over or arrested for Driving While Black.

Many of us have no idea what it would feel like to be constantly reminded we  live in a society in which we are a minority and in which the ancestors of the majority once held our ancestors in brutal bondage. And what if those who held our ancestors in servitude were honored with statues on the courthouse square, or their banners were waved from pickup trucks or even in the annual Fourth of July parade? Or maybe the era was heralded in an article in the paper every Sunday. Could we join in celebrating this heritage?

If we are honest, we have to admit that even though it is no longer enshrined in segregation laws, racism still exists, only in different ways. Not to say that vast progress has not been made. Yet in the small community where I live, we remain segregated by race and class. There is a polarization – a deep line of demarcation – that is ever-present, yet almost never talked about. Isn’t it easy for many of us to simply “back the Blue” in the wake of our nation’s recent civil unrest while disregarding the idea that some people might be very frustrated and angry with civil authority for legitimate reasons? We prefer simple solutions, but they will not lead us to justice and reconciliation. We have not yet even begun, it seems to me, to deal with root causes of our tragedies. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words ring just as true today as they were during the civil rights movement:

“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

In my childhood, I bought Confederate flags at roadside stands and displayed them in my bedroom, and I regret to say that in my zeal for that period in American history I have done my part to contribute to the glorification of slaveocracy and the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. As a son of the South and the great-great-grandson of a slaveholder, my wish is to seek repentance and chart a new path.

This morning I was reading First Corinthians 13 – the love chapter.  You probably remember some of the words: Love is patient … love is kind…love never ends. This passage is often read in weddings, but we should remember that this is about something much stronger and deeper than the excitement of a new relationship or the warm sentiment of a Valentine’s Day card. Scripturally, love is action – action on behalf of the other, modeled after the greatest act of love, God’s self-giving sacrifice in Jesus.

Verse 11 says this: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

I have not put an end to all my childish ways, but I am trying. I do not want to live in a way that is offensive and oppressive to my neighbor, and so I not only want to put away Confederate flags and vestiges of institutional racism, I also want to move from attitudes that have been engrained within me simply by being born into the dominant culture and playing a part in upholding it throughout my life.

I want to stand for justice for all people, which is what my Bible teaches me to do. (And yes, that includes police officers, whom I respect and realize have a very difficult job that I would not want to have.)

I talked recently with representatives of a social service agency about how we might listen more to the people in our community who are not ordinarily heard. Our conversation seemed to immediately turn to what they should do to live into our expectations. And so we failed from the start: We were just listening again to ourselves, and none of the people whom we were talking about were even in the room. I understand that people of color are more than familiar with this phenomenon.

What if, though, we who are in the majority put away our childish things, voluntarily, out of our love for our neighbors who might be harmed by our careless and dangerous playthings?

What if we began to realize that we live in a different world than some other members of our community and tried to find ways to see them, hear them and even walk in their shoes?

What if we started simply by seeking to get to know our neighbors and listening to their worries and their dreams? They talk. We listen. (In Presbyterian churches, we commit ourselves to doing this every Sunday morning in which we recite our Brief Statement of Faith, which says, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”  How are we doing on living that out?

What if, as a community, we quit romanticizing an idealized past that did not really exist and started working toward a common future based on dignity for all God’s children?

What if, in doing these things and more, we discovered that there is not only much that separates our community, but much that unites us as well?  Could we not then begin to walk a path to a place where we could all equally mourn the injustice of a black life lost, or the loss of a police officer killed in the line of duty?

Could we not begin, as hearts are changed, to change our community and change the world?

Thy Kingdom Come.

Thy will be done.

2014 in review

December 30, 2014

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 32 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Conversations with Ronda

July 14, 2014

These visits are never planned far in advance. How often do they happen? Once, maybe twice a year? I don’t know. I am not even sure how long I have been doing this, how many years.

All I know is, that from time to time, I am drawn to this place to talk with her.

I have been here on some early mornings, but I usually arrive in the evening to take my place in the small white chair that always awaits.

Sometimes I speak loudly and emotionally, and I become aware that time is passing and the western sky is turning pink and I wonder if the gates are about to be closed. Other days, words won’t come at all. They are somewhere locked deep within as feelings, and they refuse translation. It is as if they are caught between my heart and my mouth. So sometimes, on those days, I don’t sit in the chair. I leave the car running and I get out and touch the stone and I briefly look at the smile on an eternally youthful face and drive away, taking a long final look over my shoulder.

Most of the time I stay, quietly sitting and reading the words over and over again, I guess still trying to make some sense of them after all these years: “An Angel Came to the Green Earth, And Took a Flower Away. Ronda Leann Richter. Oct. 17, 1962-July 25, 1980.”

As I said, I don’t know when I first found this spot – it was a few years ago. After spending time at my Dad’s grave, I would look around for Ronda’s and wonder if it was even in this cemetery. I did that for many years. Then once I was driving through the narrow gravel roads between the plots with my window rolled down. I met her familiar and expressive brown eyes and broad smile in the picture that adorns her gravestone. I yelled, “There she is!” And I got out and went to the place and pointed, and there were no words.

The smile has always been the thing – the same smile I remember from the playground in third grade and in the Polaroid as she looks up from the pool at the junior high band party at Chaparral Baptist Assembly. I saw it again last night in the face of a small child – the second-grader in the black-and-white photo in the worn Bradford Elementary annual my mother saved.

I am not sure when I started phoning her house, maybe it was in second grade, as well. She lived in the country, like I did, and when I called she would try to explain the shortcomings of something called a party line. You see, I never wanted to hang up. But she said she could not talk long because her family had a party line, which meant a whole ‘nother family had the same phone number and probably needed to use the line right at that time. And at precisely that moment in her explanation, a menacing and uninvited voice interjected, “THAT’S RIGHT!”

“See!” Ronda said. “You got me in trouble!”

I did not dare call after that. At least for a few days.

Ronda was never in trouble much. She was the kind of person you went to with your troubles. The smile was a window to authenticity and openness, and it gave testimony to a spirit within that soared. Whenever I see old photos, her smile reminds me of what I thought was her most amazing characteristic as we tranformed from being young kids to teen-agers: She did not seem to know about social barriers or participate in putting them up. Smart, beautiful, talented and friendly, Ronda easily became known as one of those people we called “popular,” yet I never really counted her as being a part of the elusive “in” crowd because no one was ever “out” with her. I have heard so many classmates say that about Ronda – that she could be friends with anyone and seemed completely uninterested in the lines many of us drew between each other, particularly during the high school years, which were years I found could be awkward and difficult.

So when Ronda left our small town and moved to the big city of Wichita Falls, it was tough for a lot of us who were in band with her, and for a lot of other people, too. But at the same time, we all still saw her on occasion, and those small-town bonds don’t break easily. So it wasn’t the end of the world.

I still remember how surprised and happy I was to see her during the summer of 1980 at the Gibson’s Discount Center tent sale, of all things. I worked at Gibson’s, full-time during the summers, and the tent sale was our big deal – the week we hauled out a big carnival tent, put it up on the blacktop and all worked a lot of additional hours. It was a lot of fun and a lot of sweat and hard work for very little money. I loved it. Extra help was always brought in, and Ronda came and sold chili dogs that week for a quarter apiece in the tent. I got to talk to her every day. I bought a lot of chili dogs that summer. We were both going to be high school seniors. She was a twirler in band, and at her still new school she had been chosen as a cheerleader. I don’t think we talked about any of that. I wish I could remember what we did talk about the last time we were together.

A few weeks later, Larry, our store’s assistant manager who was not gifted in the art of sharing bad news, told me as I mopped up one evening that she had just died in a car accident. I said repeatedly that I did not believe it until he threw up his hands in frustration and walked away. I recall being at her funeral but remember nothing that was said by the minister or anyone else – I see only a picture in my mind of the scene as it appeared from my seat. Like a still photograph.

That must have been around the time the dreams started, and they continued for two decades. I always had one of the dreams after a period of not thinking about her at all. Suddenly she would be there and we would be talking, and at some point as we talked I would notice that she appeared broken, damaged and hurting, unable to be put back together, and I would suddenly awake, deeply troubled, and could not go back to sleep.

The dreams eventually stopped – completely. I don’t remember when, but it was a long time ago now.

Now I sit with her in the Highland Cemetery. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but most of these visits have been as disconcerting as my dreams. I no longer encounter her as broken. I’m 51 years old now. And so I sit here and I think about her being just a kid when we lost her, 17 – and all that she has missed. What would her life have been like? What would she have done? What would she have become? How many more people would have cherished that smile, or been changed by it? I think of the family I love, and the family she had no chance to have and the injustice of it makes me sick in the pit of my stomach, and angry.

These questions ultimately become directed to God, who has not answered them. But sometimes I feel better after I have prayed there, in the cemetery. And it seems to do good for my soul just to come here and to be present, as a sign of remembrance.

In fact, lately, I have driven away from here with more peace than I have known before. I realize I just want her not to be forgotten. Her life was cut so short but it was precious and meaningful and touched others. As you can see, it still impacts me today, and I struggle with the reasons why.

Once, in high school, our band had finished a marching contest performance, and we were in the stands as other bands played. And here came Wichita Falls High with Ronda as featured twirler. And so we all yelled for her – and Wichita Falls High, because Ronda was now part of it. The show finished with Ronda extending her arms in the sort of overly dramatic pose that twirlers do – and we all went crazy, yelling her name. Being Ronda, the center of attention but never too big for her small town, she held her final position on the field while slightly turning her head our way. Flashing that smile, with the rest of her body still frozen in place, she waved with her extended left arm. She knew we remembered and could not help acknowledging it.

The image of brokenness that invaded my dreams is not the mental picture that has stayed with me. When I think of her now, I see her elegance capped by a warm wave to old friends, a response to those she left behind but who love her still.

When will you worship?

May 1, 2014

A couple of years ago, when I was searching for a church, I had an interview with a presbytery executive who asked me a question that left me momentarily without speech: If I were called to be the pastor of a church in her presbytery, she wanted to know, when would I worship?

When would I worship? Well …. um, I will worship on Sunday with the congregation, I guess.

No, no, no, she responded. You must have a plan to take care of yourself! You need time off! What will you do? … and so on, at some length. In other words, she really had been trying to ask where I would find Sabbath for myself amid the demands of serving a congregation. It’s a good question. If I would have understood she was asking me about self-care in the first place, I would have given her a far better response.

She of course did what those of us in ministry frequently do – provide a lengthy and authoritative answer to the question you did not ask about an issue you do not necessarily need addressed.

By the way, I was not called to serve that church — it was just not the right place for me. However, I have from time to time thought about the question: When will you worship? I am even willing to admit in hindsight that perhaps it was not as badly worded as I initially believed.

In my initial experiences leading worship in a church, my mind was always so occupied with the next thing I would do – call for the saying of the creed, preaching the sermon, introducing the hymn, praying over the offering – that I could not focus on worshipping. In fact, I came to realize that I could open my mind and heart for worship far more often in the Wednesday morning service I led at a local Alzheimer’s unit – where the congregational expectations are nil.

Gradually, though, I have more often felt that I can worship on Sunday mornings – and for me, maybe that just had to come with experience. Last Sunday, though, was Youth Sunday. So I got to step out of the pulpit entirely and sit out in a pew, which, if you are a preacher, is something like allowing someone else to drive your car. (Yes, I realize it is not really my car). I got to worship from a different perspective and to observe worship in a way I am not able to normally.

It is clear that Youth Sunday is all about joy. I noticed this last year, as well. For example, a number of our kids live at Presbyterian Children’s Home and Services, and more than a few of them can tell you how a relationship with Christ has changed their lives. Some can talk about being embraced by a family called the Church after they were failed by other kinds of family. They share stories of transformation …. and joy.

Joy-filled worship is one of the signs of a healthy church. When we have Youth Sunday, the joy is contagious. It catches on. People talk about it all week long. It’s not that we do not have joy in other services. But Youth Sunday reminds me that we must always be looking for it. We need it.

Lately, I have come to wonder whether joy in worship is not as related to music or worship styles as much as it is related to real sense of our salvation: We have been saved, we are being saved, God will save us.

Many of the youth have an understanding that God has saved them – that sense comes through in their smiles, the volume of their singing, the joyful expression of their worship. First Peter 1:8-9 declares: Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

When the pastor or the liturgist gives the Assurance of Pardon on Sunday mornings, the only appropriate response is joy. Pure joy. Hear the good news! The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, that we might be dead to sin, and alive to all that is good. I declare to you in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Powerful stuff! Do you believe it?

As I continue to bask in the joy of Youth Sunday, I am going to have in mind more ways that our congregation can discover or rediscover the joy of our salvation in worship – although I will be attune to not introducing this in an artificial or manipulative way. I may even want to find ways that we can incorporate testimony into worship– the lifting up among the people of what God is doing in individual lives in our community and among the congregation.

I think in attempts to experience joy in worship, we church people can get hung up on the wrong questions – questions about worship styles or music. I could be wrong, but I think the better questions surround what it means to be saved.

So …. when do we worship? I think we worship whenever we share the joy of our salvation and express our gratitude to God. But first we need to know what God has saved us from, and what God has saved us for.

What is your answer to these questions?

Some things this Christian pastor is ‘for’

April 16, 2014

A Facebook friend proposed today that fellow Christians use social media only to proclaim what we are “for” on every day that includes a ‘4.’ That, he said, would still leave plenty of other days to point out our theological superiority to others, but at least we would hopefully hit a few days each month in which we would not tear each other down – the 4th, the 14th, the 24th.

I think you get the point. If you spend any time on Facebook or Twitter, there can be no doubt why nonChristians believe that Christians are, well … contentious, judgmental, anti-gay, too political … to name a few. And as I am writing this, I realize that I can no longer in good conscience say this is about those other Christians. I am part of the problem. Within me dwells a divisive spirit that sometimes comes out when I am having dialogue with people who challenge my faith/beliefs. So, in the words of many older saints I have heard over the years expound on the topic of sin, “I’m talkin’ about me!”

We Christians have an image problem. Of course, we will disagree among ourselves on many matters – sometimes spectacularly. And if you have read of the controversies involving the early church, or the squabble between Peter and Paul, you know that we come by it honestly. Yet our continued divisiveness and separation from one another over who is more “pure” – and the ways in which we disagree – act as a form of reverse evangelism, convincing the world that we have nothing more to offer than what the world already has seen. (The world already knows plenty about polarization and divisiveness and separation.)

So maybe it would be a good idea to commit ourselves to trumpeting what we are for – for a change. Some of the Church’s confessional statements certainly do this. And perhaps as individuals we should do it every day, instead of just once in a while. But then again, maybe that is too tall an order.

I have decided to take up my friend’s challenge, yet I know I will never remember to say what I am for on days with a 4. So, I thought I had better just get started on it today.

So here goes. As a Christian, and a pastor, here are some things I am for – realizing that I sometimes fail gloriously at living up to what I am about to proclaim:

– I am for a God who was at the beginning and who will be at the end and is bigger and better, more loving and inclusive than any of us can possibly imagine.
– I am for Jesus and for trying to love others the way he did.
– I am for grace for myself and others.
– I am for potluck dinners.
– I am for reconciliation to God and one another beyond what I can see and imagine and in ways that do not seem at all possible to achieve right now.
– I am for building relationships. Even if you don’t believe anything I believe. Perhaps especially if you do not believe anything I believe.
– I am for hope, even when it is hard to find.
– I am for serving others — especially the poor. No strings attached. (See the second ‘for’).
– I am for seeking the divine image of God in others. Every other.
– I am for reading the Bible with an open mind.
– I am for throwing wide open the doors of Christ’s Church to all people. And all means all.
– I am for social justice.
– I am for the resurrection.
– I am for mercy.
– I am for transformation.
– I am for the Holy Eucharist, as often as possible. And then more often.
– I am for the truth that forgiveness liberates us all.
– I am for trying to find ways for Christ’s Church to be more welcoming to people who are hurting, broken or who have been harmed by the Church.
– I am for community.
– I am for asking questions and leaving lots of room for others to do the same.
– I am for leaving the judgment to God.
– I am for trust – continually renewing my faith and trust in God to forgive me and carry me through even when I fail to live up to the words I proclaim. Because I have been known to fail – spectacularly.

So, I am wondering, fellow Christians: what are you for?

God and the movies

April 8, 2014

I see a lot of films: good films, bad films, so-so films.

There is a name for this: my day off.

I don’t see a lot of overtly religious films. I half-jokingly told my congregation when “Son of God” came out that I don’t normally rush out to see new movies about Jesus because none of them measure up to the book. And I guess I must admit that I am also wary of the cringe-worthy moments that some of these films produce, like white Middle Easterners with English accents.

My local movie theater is offering two movies with the faith-based movie consumer in mind: “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead.” (“Son of God” was also recently showing.) I have not seen any of them.

“God’s Not Dead” feels too predictable. Based on the trailer, I think I might know how this story ends. I am also not a big fan of what seems like another scenario depicting God vs. higher education. I tend to avoid movies that I think want to hit me over the head with a religious message, and I guess I am the same way about churches. I have always preferred the ones that point me toward God rather than try to give me the hard-sell.

“Noah” is getting a lot of attention right now – at least on my Facebook timeline where a (Christian) friend who is involved in promoting the film does constant battle with some evangelicals whom claim the movie is an attack on God. This finally seems to have devolved into an examination of the filmmaker’s faith or lack thereof – as if that had anything to do with whether biblical themes can be depicted, sometimes powerfully, in film. Others, however, have said they just don’t think it is very good movie.

I cannot criticize any of the three movies mentioned since I have not seen them. I am trying to stick to that policy -not tearing down a movie I have not seen or ripping a book I have not read. After all, who knows? If I saw them, perhaps I would have a different impression than what I have taken from trailers or from what others have written. I try to remember that movies, are, well, movies. In certain cases I have found some very flawed theology yet still liked the motion picture or found it had something valuable to offer.

All of this got me thinking about where I have encountered God on the big screen. Here are a few places. Maybe this will prompt your own list.

“Places in the Heart” – Not just my favorite movie with spiritual themes, it is my favorite movie, period. The love and grace and mercy of God, wrapped in mystery, are depicted in one of the most memorable final scenes of any movie ever made, IMHO.

“The Shawshank Redemption” – My TV remote will stop here every single time, whether it is the first, middle or end of the movie. So many powerful biblical themes – particularly hope and redemption. I have used the movie in an Easter morning sermon and in the eulogy for someone who was like a brother to me: “…I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand.” (Apologies for the language at the beginning of this clip).

“Cesar Chavez” – Chavez had the zeal for righteousness of an Old Testament prophet. His Catholic faith, nonviolence and the strength of community are all important parts of the story. On two occasions in the film, the sacrament of Holy Communion is seen as binding the community together in its holy journey toward justice. 

“The Apostle” – another all-time favorite, the story of a Southern Pentecostal preacher with a few issues, to say the least. “Sonny” is a contradictory character who is in an all-out struggle with God and himself – not unlike many of the people we meet in the scriptures.

“A River Runs Through It” – A movie about grace and living, demonstrated through the art of fly fishing, with the main characters being two sons of a Presbyterian minister on different paths in life. The story is told amid the majesty of God’s creation, the Montana setting continually overwhelming the viewer and suggesting the unreachable glory and beauty of the Creator. 

“Bells of St. Mary’s” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” are two sappy, dated movies that we watch every Christimastime at our house – and we are drawn into the stories anew, every time. The faith of Father O’Malley and Sister Mary Benedict, and the strength of their convictions, inspires me in “Bells.” “It’s a Wonderful Life” reminds me that we are all connected and influence more lives than we know. Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.” – Matt. 5:13.

“Freedom Riders” is a powerful experience of the Gospel bringing people together to sacrifice everything, putting their bodies on the line to overcome evil – six months in 1961 when 400 blacks and whites traveled together on buses through the Deep South, enduring savage beatings and imprisonment. It is a story that is terrifying, inspiring and largely forgotten.

So … where have you seen God at the movies? 

Why I Am (Still) a Presbyterian

September 21, 2013

Amen!

christopherjoiner

It happened again yesterday. I lose track in the last nine years how often the question comes, but for some reason yesterday was a tipping point that sends me today to the keyboard and this blog.

Here’s the question (asked sometimes kindly and sometimes with less kindness, but always basically the same):

“Why are you still in the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Don’t you know it is in decline because it is too liberal/too conservative, too traditional/too trendy, too political/not political enough, etc.?”

Well, here’s why.

1. I think God is big, in the sense of sovereign, in the sense of “such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high, I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6), in the sense of “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). John Calvin thought this was the most important message of scripture, and the PCUSA thinks…

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