Monday, April 14, 2014

Churches Are So Full of Drama!

Usually when people talk about all the “drama” at their church, it’s not a good thing. But this week? It certainly is.

Holy Week is the most dramatic week imaginable for people of faith. We began yesterday with grand processionals and palms, acknowledging the kingship of Christ who reigns in glory. During the services themselves, we moved our thoughts toward the passion of Christ, who emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant. We began to fathom the wondrous love this is, that he would pour himself out for others.

During the week, our thoughts and liturgies will move toward the cleansing of the temple, when Jesus made his boundaries clear that cultural and commercial religiosity is not acceptable to the heart of God. When Jesus got angry, we need to pay attention to it.

Then there is the betrayal and denial. I can’t imagine the sorrow Jesus felt when he was betrayed and denied by such close friends (as we all know, people you don’t care about can’t hurt you as much as someone you love). I often reflect that out of 12 disciples, which Jesus had spent 3 years closely with, one of them betrayed him, one denied him, and two of them couldn’t see past their own desire for status and position. In the end, 1/3 of the disciples let him down.

Then there is Maundy Thursday, when Jesus shared Passover with his disciples, dramatically changed the symbols of the night to become about his body and blood and sacrifice, instituted our precious sacrament, washed the feet of his disciples, and gave them a new commandment that we love one another as he has loved us.

Then we arrive at Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross and gave himself for you and me. How strange that we should call it “good” when it is a day so full of darkness. Yet we call it good because it is holy darkness; this is how God chose to save and redeem the world. Then we pause for the darkness of the tomb on Saturday.

Then we will gather for Sunrise service and breakfast on Easter. We are always (and have always been, and always will be) people of hope! All of our liturgies and activities lead us through this dramatic journey. I hope you will participate as much as you can.

But the drama of the story itself is greater than anything we can possibly dramatize. Let the week move your heart and deepen your soul. Let it bring you to tears and cause you to struggle. Let it be dark night of the soul, which brings us to the joy of Easter light.

It’s a good thing there’s a lot of drama at your church. That’s just what the world needs.

Pictured is Antonio Ciseri's "Behold the Man"

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Way of the Methodists

We are entering a time of transition at Saint Mark. On Sunday, our Staff-Parish Relations Committee chair announced that I am being appointed by Bishop Wallace-Padgett to serve as pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church in Arab, Alabama.

Saint Mark is truly an incredible church, well-known for doing great things in missions and hands-on ministry. Sandy and I love the people here, and the church has been very good to my family as we finished the journey of raising Jeremy and entered the transition into the empty nest. I will always cherish and value our time together, and I have learned so much about love and about life!

I couldn’t be more excited about the pastor coming to Saint Mark. Ron Gonia is a well-known, brilliant, and gifted pastor in our conference with 24 years of experience. He is presently serving as pastor of Fultondale United Methodist Church. His wife, Rachel, is also a member of the clergy and will continue serving as pastor of Hoover First UMC. They have a wonderful daughter, Jessie, who is 22 years old.

Rachel is well known in missions in our conference as former director of the Society of St. Andrew, and Ron plans to graduate in May with a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia seminary in Altanta where he did his DMin project related to his involvement in prison ministry.

Sandy and I love Saint Mark, but at the same time we are excited about the new opportunity and adventure with the people of Arab First UMC!

During Lent, I have been preaching on the theme of “The Way” and we have considered the “Way of the Pole,” the “Way of the Mud,” and the “Way of the Wind.” Smooth and healthy pastoral transitions are the “Way of the Methodists!” I look forward to the next steps of my life and ministry.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Setting Our Hearts Free

I had a most incredible week as part of the Mexico Mission Team from Saint Mark. As I shared on Sunday after my return, it was an amazing journey of connecting with brothers and sisters in the faith in our sister church in Rio Bravo, addressing the overwhelmingly systemic problem of poverty one casita (small house) at a time, and putting our hands and feet to work in service to our Lord. I came back tired but very full!

On the first day of our trip, as we gathered there for worship, shared testimonies, and met the families that were to receive the casitas we worked on, Pastor Marco did a sermon on discovering the truth of who we really are, the question of our existence that runs deep and that we can not avoid. It resonated with the people, and with me. It is a message that transcends all cultures and languages.

I took with me on the week's journey a devotional book that I went to during devotional time each morning and each night. It is selections from the writings of Francis de Sales, who was Bishop of Geneva in the early 1600's. He was noted for his deep faith and his gentle approach to the religious divisions in his land resulting from the Protestant Reformation. He is also known for his writings on topics related to spiritual direction and spiritual formation. One of the entries really struck me, and I feel led to share it with you today in hopes that it helps continue your wilderness journey of Lent, longing for the heart of God and rediscovering who we truly are.

A heart that is free is the close companion of a peaceful soul.
A free heart is one that is not attached to its own way of doing things, that does not become impatient when things don’t go its way.
A free heart will surely enjoy spiritual consolations, but is not dependent on them and will, to the best of its ability, accept troubles in their stead.
A free heart is not so tied to a schedule or a way of praying that any change is upsetting and a source of anxiety.
A free heart is not attached to what is beyond its control.
A free heart prays to God that his name be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
For if the name of God is hallowed, if his kingdom is in us, if his will is being done, a free spirit need not concern itself with anything else.

Lord, set our hearts free. Help us be who we truly are created to be.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Few Lenten Thoughts from a "Wild at Heart" Christian

Lent is a 40-day time reflecting Jesus' 40-day journey in the wilderness. Have you ever felt called to "wilderness time?"

I am a part of one of the two men's studies this winter at Saint Mark exploring the book "Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul" by John Eldredge. In addition to our studies, we have hosted a day of hiking, a night of shooting, and a guy's movie night.

I and the rest of the group members do have some issues with the material, but that doesn't bother me. Part of what I love about Methodism is we believe in using our brain (reason) in this way while learning.

I had read the book but the videos are new to me. I do feel that the author tried to make the videos epic and exciting, as an entry point to the concept of Christian masculine spirituality, while I the book reads a bit more solidly. In general, of course we noticed some denominational differences in language. Methodist literature does not generally use spiritual warfare language, for example, and I find that hyperfocusing on scriptural images of spiritual warfare can be very unhealthy. But we are really enjoying the study.

I guess the reason I like it so much is that I grew to a place in my 40's (the hard way at times) where I was desperate to reconnect with my true self. I had spent my 20's trying to figure out where I was going, and my 30's "going for it" (success, achievement, an adventure). Then all if a sudden, this felt empty and I began to want to reconnect with my true self, my "Christ self."

So part of that led me to various spiritual practices such as retreat, spiritual direction, and spiritual formation studies. But another part of that cry of the soul led me to the wilderness. I wanted to get outside and get quiet. Somehow, being in nature, rather than at a desk or coffee shop all the time, stirred up something in me. It was certainly the way of Jesus.

Adventure was part of it, yes, but not in the competition sense or crazy epic sense, but in the wilderness sense. This was part of reconnecting with my true spirit. So I love the epic adventures for that reason. I think that the curriculum videos do go over the top and are a bit cheesy, but on the other hand it is probably an overcompensation for all the "nice guy," docile, please-everybody assumptions the church has often made about what it means to be a good Christian.

More deeply, there is a theological undergirding underneath the yearning of the soul to get outdoors and to see the things of the Spirit as adventuresome. Too often in the Western church, we have assumed that spirituality is "from the neck up" (talking, reading, and thinking). But the essence of the gospel is that faith is embodied, it is about the heart of who we are. Our passions and longings are healthy and are part of our spirituality. And there is something about wilderness time reconnecting with nature that helps us find our true self.

We come out of creation, we are not separate from it. Humility means, in its true sense, reconnecting with the earth ("humus"), where the humble terminology "down to earth" comes from. I long to be truly grounded in God, which means to be rooted in scripture but also rooted in creation. And the processes we experience in creation (adventure, challenge, courage over fear, etc.) are mirrored in our spiritual and emotional lives.

So the Spirit drives me into the wilderness, and I love it. There is nothing like the adventure of being alone with God in the woods, on foot or mountain bike. I pause and breathe it all in, and I feel free. I am spiritually and emotionally connected to this earth, with love and respect for all of creation.

When Jesus said, in John 3, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son..." the word translated "world" in Greek is cosmos. Christ did not come because God loved the people, but because God loved, and desired to redeem, all of creation. Get in touch with the earth from whence you came. Jesus certainly did. And he came back refreshed and ready to be who he was called to be.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Saint Mark UMC in Vestavia serves community as impromptu shelter

Thanks to Walter Bryant of the church I serve for writing the article below, which was published in the Vestavia Voice and on the North Alabama Conference e-Voice. The experience was one of the most serendipitous and potent experiences of my life and ministry. To be honest, it "just happened." It was a privilege and joy to camp out at the church on the floor, with such gifted staff and volunteers to open our doors of hospitality for people in the name of Christ.

The expressions of thanks have been overwhelming and the spirit of the "refugees" was filled with gratitude and joy. I wish I could express what it was like to watch this unfold. From the moment on Tuesday when I realized I wasn't going home, to Thursday at lunchtime when I helped jump off the last car, I felt God was with us and the Holy Spirit was pervasively present. My feet hurt but my heart was full. I'll never forget it.

Saint Mark UMC in Vestavia serves community as impromptu shelter

Timing of the January 28 paralyzing snow and a Vestavia Hills church's location were providential for those stranded by the winter storm.

Food bought ahead of time for an upcoming fellowship meal at Saint Mark UMC (2901 Columbiana Road) and to serve the homeless at a downtown church was already on hand when the snowfall became more than forecasters had expected.

By late morning, motorists began abandoning their cars on Columbiana Road and asking if they could rest and warm up at the church before continuing home. By early afternoon, broadcast and social media notified others that the church was open as a shelter.

"Our proximity to I-65 and Highway 31 made us a prime spot," wrote Rev. Steve West, the church's senior minister, in the following week's church newsletter.

"I came to work at 6:30 a.m. that day to lead a men's Bible study," he said in a later interview. "When the snow began falling, I phoned my wife to say I'd be home for lunch. I just didn't specify which day, and I finally got home on Thursday after road conditions improved."

Volunteers were in the kitchen that Tuesday morning preparing meatloaf and mashed potatoes to deliver the next day to the Church of the Reconciler, a downtown church that serves the homeless. Ingredients for beef stew were also on hand for a Wednesday fellowship supper.

The kindergarten and daycare programs alerted parents of the 115 children who had arrived that morning. Plans were drawn up just in case any children had to be housed and fed overnight, said Janet Nebrig, the Saint Mark kindergarten director. Approximately 25 children stayed overnight Tuesday, and all went home Wednesday.

By early Tuesday afternoon, between 25 and 30 stranded motorists were congregating in the Saint Mark fellowship hall, warming up on coffee, eating donuts and connecting with their family and friends through the church's Wi-Fi connection. Some played cards or shared the day's weather and driving experiences. The growing crowd included a few parents who had arrived to pick up their preschoolers but did not want to risk driving the rest of the way home.

West said that by nightfall 200 adults and children had been fed. Some found their way home, but approximately 150 spent the night on sanctuary pews. Children slept separately in the gym or on child-size cots in preschool areas of the church.

By the second day, the crowd began dwindling. But those stranded a second night were fed beef stew, originally planned for a Wednesday night fellowship meal. And by Thursday morning everyone had gone on their way, West said.

Among the notes of appreciation received was a letter from Tuscaloosa resident Richard Raymond. He was northbound on Interstate 65 as snow began accumulating. A traffic backup diverted him onto U.S. 31. Initial shelter was found in a restaurant, but it closed so employees could go home. He learned through broadcast media that nearby Saint Mark UMC was available as a shelter. A combination of driving, abandoning his four-wheel drive truck and hiking up Columbiana Road bought him to the church by nightfall.

"Walking through the doors of your church felt like going home," he wrote. "It was a warm place to lay our heads at night where you had soft cushions, beautiful stained glass windows, the cross and an altar rail that open for prayer 24/7. What else could pilgrim want, but to be in God's house during a time of need."

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Woven Into the Life of Our Ancestors

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of a human life unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?" 
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 B.C. - 43 B.C.)

This quote touches me in deep place, not only because of my interest in genealogy and seeking the roots of who I am, but because this is the journey of the Christian spiritual life. The Bible is, shall we say, our Sacred Story because the story of our life is woven into the life of the larger Story of God's grace unfolding.

To be ignorant of the journeys, struggles, hardships, and refining fires of our ancestors in faith leaves us spiritually immature. We are not born with wisdom, and it doesn't come to us all at once. It must be gained through the journeys of life experience. We are called to be child-like, but not child-ish.

The scripture, God's revealed Word given to us for truth and life, has our story woven into its sacred pages. When our story becomes one with the greater Story, we see our lives are lived in context with the saints that have gone before us. And our lives makes sense, perhaps for the first time.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Shed a Little Light

As I write, our nation is observing the holiday celebrating the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. I keep a picture of him preaching in my study.

The picture reminds me of the power of the gospel, and those willing to live and die for it. It reminds me of the life-giving importance of living a dream, when the dream is a God-breathed vision of the kingdom of God ushering into our world. It reminds me of the power of courageously taking up the cross for what is right and good, despite the cost. So many saints have gone before us to stand for truth and justice.

I was born in 1965 in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, so I don't remember a time when I didn't know his name. I am still surprised in church work when I encounter children who know more about him than his namesake, reformer Martin Luther. He is a hero of our culture, no doubt.

Yet we have a long way to go still to heal the wounds of the deepest and oldest sin of our nation, racism. I pray for the dream to continue to compel us.

As a son of the South, a descendant of confederate soldiers, and a Birmingham native, this is close to my heart. I have signed the Birmingham Pledge and manage a Facebook page promoting it. I sponsor the online Findagrave memorial for Fred Shuttlesworth, companion of Dr. King from Birmingham. And on a personal level, I commit myself to building bridges however I can.

I am also of the James Taylor generation, so I share with you today the text of one of his songs that rings through my head today thanks to the Facebook post of a friend. Let us remember those who stand for what is right, with compassion and commitment. They embody the ministry of Christ.

"Shed A Little Light"

Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
and recognize that there are ties between us, all men and women living on the earth.
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood,
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become a place in which our children can grow free and strong.
We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead.
We are bound and we are bound.

There is a feeling like the clenching of a fist.
There is a hunger in the center of the chest.
There is a passage through the darkness and the mist.
And though the body sleeps the heart will never rest.

Shed a little light, oh Lord, so that we can see, just a little light, oh Lord.
Wanna stand it on up, stand it on up, oh Lord,
wanna walk it on down, shed a little light, oh Lord.

Can't get no light from the dollar bill, don't give me no light from a TV screen.
When I open my eyes I wanna drink my fill from the well on the hill,
do you know what I mean?