Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dem Bones

Does any Baptist out there besides me remember “M” Night? The “M” stood for “Mobilization” and the annual “M” Night held in each Baptist Association was a program designed to inspire the churches to ever greater discipleship heights through the program known as Baptist Young People’s Union, then as Training Union, then as Church Training, and then (and finally, so far as I know), as Discipleship Training. The rally was typically held on a Monday night in mid-autumn.

Once when I was a young pastor I was invited to bring the “inspirational message” for a neighboring association. I chose as my text Ezekiel 37:1-14, the story of Ezekiel’s vision of a valley filled with dry bones. In that vision God shows Ezekiel a valley filled with dry bones. The prophet is told to preach to the dry bones (here I resist the temptation to insert the silly line I have often used about this being every preacher’s experience at one time or another) and the dry bones come together to form skeletons (you know, the thigh bone’s connected to the knee bone and all that). Then sinews and flesh and skin come onto the skeletons so that now Ezekiel sees a valley full of nice, fully formed cadavers.

It is only when Ezekiel preaches to the breath/wind/spirit (the same Hebrew word means all of that) so that the breath/wind/spirit comes into those bodies that the bodies come to life. The Lord told Ezekiel what the vision was about: God was going to “resurrect” the people from the graves of their Babylonian captivity and give them new life back in their own land; “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and will act, says the LORD” (v. 14).

In my sermon I pointed out that while the bones looked much better when they came together and became covered with flesh and skin, the bodies were still dead until the Spirit of God came into them. I went on to make the (very valid, I thought) point that in our churches, we could have all the fine-looking ministry programs we could manage but, unless the church and its ministries were filled with the Spirit of God, our programs and our churches were still dead.

After the service, this one fellow came up to me, shook my hand, and said, “I liked that if nobody else did.” Story of my preaching life …

I thought about that night because Ezekiel 37 was one of my scripture readings this morning (Tuesday). Sometimes in our churches we find ourselves in search of some new life and to that end we try some new things. Some, and hopefully all, of those new things will go real well and we’ll be rightly excited about it. Let me say, though, what I said at that “M” Night some twenty-five years ago: we can look real good but we are only truly alive when we are enlivened and empowered by the Spirit of God; that Spirit is a gift of God and so the real life that we experience comes to us only by God’s grace.

There is a difference between looking alive and being alive—and that difference is the Spirit of God. We can make ourselves look vital but only the Spirit of God can cause us to be vital.

We can manage resuscitation with our own breath but only God can bring about resurrection through God’s Spirit.

So is there anything we can do to become more open to the Spirit of God? Yes—we can move toward praying regularly and constantly; we can read our Bibles with an ever-increasing prayerful attitude in which we seek to know and do God’s will; we can worship God along with our sisters and brothers; we can enjoy the communion of Christian fellowship; and we can gladly and sacrificially serve God by serving others. Such practices make us more open and available to the Spirit of God who is with us, wanting to give us new life.

Can I get an “Amen”?

Or at least an “I like that if nobody else does!”?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Lessons from a Jar

I wrote some of my deepest secrets on a piece of notebook paper, carefully folded the sheet, placed it in an empty Mason jar, and screwed the lid on tight. I then dug a hole about a foot deep out behind my father’s utility house, placed the jar in the hole, and filled the hole with dirt. My plan was to return to it at some unspecified time in the future to see if my fears had come to pass and if my dreams had come true.

Being ten years old and having homework to do, baseball games to play, clover to lie in, a creek to play in, books to read, baseball cards to collect, Braves games to listen to, a dog to pass the time with, and a bike to ride, I soon forgot all about the jar that was buried in our backyard.

Until one day some months (maybe even a couple of years) later the memory of the jar hit me out of nowhere and I rushed outside, retrieved a shovel—and walked around the yard trying to remember exactly where I had hidden my treasure, since the falling pine straw had made one spot indistinguishable from another. After a few false starts, I finally found the spot—I knew it was the spot when the shovel broke the glass jar.

I knelt down and pulled the broken jar from the hole and retrieved the carefully folded piece of paper that held all the hopes and fears that had been in me just a few months before, only to find that it was damp, that the layers were stuck together, and that the blue ink in which I had written my precious words had run and faded. When I tried to unfold the paper, it came apart in my hands; I was not able to read a single word that I had written.

I was disappointed. But the thing that really struck me was that I could not remember a single thing I had written on that piece of paper. Just months before I had committed my greatest fears and my fondest hopes to that blue-lined sheet—all the things on which my young world seemed on that day to hinge—and now I had no idea what those fears and dreams had been. I had, of course, moved on to new ones or perhaps to more highly developed versions of the old ones. I had put away childish things and moved on to slightly more mature childish things.

There were things I could have done to preserve the record of my dreams and fears; I could have, for example, wrapped the jar in layers of aluminum foil before burying it. We make such efforts sometimes; we take every possible step to preserve and to hold on to what was and to what might have been. Maybe we are better off if we let them go; the truth is that even had I been able to read what I had written I would have thrown it away and would soon have forgotten it all anyway.

Such forgetting is a gift of the childhood experience. It’s harder for adults.

It’s bad math, but here is how I’ve come to look at it: we should spend 5% of our time and energy looking backward (because that’s where we came from), 95% of our time and energy looking forward (because that’s where we’re going), and 100% of our time and energy living in the moment (because that’s where we are). That’s the way, I believe, that God would have us live because God is the God of our past and of our future, but it is in this moment that we experience God and that we live the life that God has given us to live.

After all, the lesson I learned from the jar I learned not in the retrospective and prospective thoughts I placed in it but rather in the act of digging it up…

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Headwaters of the Tobesofkee

I recently spent a day with Wade Rooks, an old friend from my hometown; at the end of the day we realized that we had spent more time together in that one day than we had in the previous thirty-five years combined. It was a good day.

We were driving on a short bypass north of town that connects Highway 41 to Highway 341 and that, compared to most roads in Barnesville, has not been there very long; on the side of the road was a sign telling us that we were crossing Tobesofkee Creek. I said, “You know, until they built this road I had no idea that Tobesofkee Creek ran through Lamar County. I cross it all the time on I-75 and I-475 south of Macon but I didn’t know it came this far.” “If I’m not mistaken,” my friend said, “the headwaters of Tobesofkee Creek are here. Do you remember that creek we used to go to? I think the headwaters are around there.”

I was dumbfounded. I’ve crossed Tobesofkee Creek in Bibb County hundreds of times but didn’t know that the stream originated in my home county. So, to all you folks who live around Lake Tobesofkee and who boat, swim, and fish in the lake, I say “You’re welcome.”

And just like that, the Tobesofkee became for me a metaphor for the way life goes.

Wade has lived in Lamar County for all of his life; he stayed near our headwaters, near the source of everything for both of us—faith, friendship, family, and a fair amount of foolishness. He has made his life there; it is there that he has found his career, his interests, his gains, his losses, his struggles, his relationships, and—most importantly, he would say—his daughter and his grandchildren.

I, on the other hand, left home to go to college and, except for visits, have never (at least, not yet) moved back. Interestingly enough, my life in its outline has followed the course of the Tobesofkee. I first went to Macon, where at Mercer University I was blessed with an education, a worldview, a mentor, and a partner that together proved to be the most formative realities in my life. I got my start, like the creek, in Lamar County but it was in Bibb County where I, like the creek, got dammed up and built up and developed; it was in Macon that I became a little more useful. And the Tobesofkee empties into the Ocmulgee River which runs through Ben Hill County where I now live and work. It is in those places that I have made my life; there I found my career, my interests, my gains, my losses, my struggles, and—most importantly, I would say—my wife and my children.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have along the way wandered off the Tobesofkee path and sojourned in lands where other rivers flow: Louisville, Kentucky and the Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee and the Cumberland; Augusta, Georgia and the Savannah; and Adel, Georgia and the Little, the New, and the Withlacoochee.)

When we got together the other day, though, Wade and I found ourselves catching each other up on what’s been happening over the past three and a half decades while at the same time celebrating our mutual roots. We spoke of how our faith has developed in different ways, largely because of the different paths we’ve taken, but also of how our faith was birthed, nurtured, and blessed by our families and by our older sisters and brothers at the Midway Baptist Church.

Wade and I easily fell back into our friendship; that was largely because of the project on which we had gotten together to work, a project that involves something we both love, though his love has been life-long while mine has been of more recent origin. (As to the nature of that project, let me just say “Watch out, Nashville!”) At a deeper level, though, we fell easily back into our friendship because, while he stayed there and I left there, we are both from there. While lots of things have changed, that is one thing that has not and will not—because it cannot.

Spending the day with my old friend Wade reminded me of the importance both of our roots and of our journey. We start where we start and we go where we go; our beginnings define us but so do the paths we choose to take and the circumstances that are thrust upon us. Wade and I have both done a lot of living and we’ve both in our own ways gone a long way from where we started.

Yes, we’re both a long way downstream now. But it was good—it is good—to return to the headwaters …

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Be Still

Everybody’s talking about meditation (wait, is “talking about meditation” an oxymoron?). Well, not everybody—but I have been hearing about it from fairly
disparate sources.

Russell Simmons has a new book entitled Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. Simmons is a very successful businessman who has found meditation helpful and believes that the practice can make anyone more successful. In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have not read the book. I did, however, hear Simmons being interviewed about the book on Morning Joe and I read an article on Huffington Post that Simmons wrote about his book (he was also interviewed about it on FOX News, so it’s a bipartisan subject).

Simmons maintains that sitting quietly for twenty minutes twice each day will make you a better person. In the Huffington Post article, he said that meditation will make you better balanced, less anxious, more connected, more productive, and healthier. His points are all valid. While Simmons came to meditation through the practice of yoga and apparently comes at it from no particular religious perspective, he does say that an emphasis on stillness is found in all religions.

The irony in Russell Simmons promoting the stillness and quiet of meditation is that he made his professional mark promoting noise and activity; he was one of the founders of Def Jam Recordings, a record label that for thirty years has promoted and produced mainly hip hop music, most fans of which play it very loud, much like I do my beloved rock & roll. Who ever thought that self-inflicted deafness would promote inter-generational and cross-cultural cohesion?

While I have no doubt that meditation is of benefit to anyone who practices it, I want to advocate for a particularly Christian practice of meditation.

In the March 5, 2014 issue of Christian Century, pastor Peter Traben Haas has an article entitled “Contemplative Congregation: An Invitation to Silence” in which he writes about how he has been leading the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Waterloo, Iowa toward adopting contemplative practices. Haas sounds like Russell Simmons when he writes, “Pastors are apprehensive about how to ‘be Christian’ and ‘do church.’ I am certain that this apprehension dissipates with a twice-a-day meditative prayer practice”; mediation, then, will make pastors less anxious and more effective in their work. While Haas in those sentences focuses on the value of meditation for pastors, his article is really about its value for all Christians.

Haas’s approach to meditation differs from that of Simmons, which is not surprising given that Simmons writes to a general audience and Haas to a Christian one. The form of meditation recommended by Haas is centering prayer. While Simmons encourages us to focus on the silence, Haas says, “In other forms of meditation we focus on a word or on the silence, while in centering prayer we consent to God’s presence. Our goal is not to have no thoughts or to continuously say a certain word but to consent to the presence of the Spirit of God in the silence.” In centering prayer we still sit in silence but whenever our thoughts wander from God we repeat a chosen word such as “Jesus,” “grace,” “love,” or “Abba” until we are focused again.

As Haas points out, being alone, still, and silent in the presence of God is encouraged in the Bible: See, for examples, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6).

The point of Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is not to give us an escape from the world; it is rather to cultivate within us a place where we are always aware of the presence of God as we go about living our lives. Writer Ronald Rolheiser puts it well:

Solitude … is a form of awareness. It’s a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It’s having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It’s the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough.
How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn’t just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?
The first step is to “put out into the deep” by remaining quietly in God’s presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer.
[Prayer: Our Deepest Longing (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013)]

The goal of the Christian life is to walk humbly with our God. In preparing for last Sunday’s sermon, I rediscovered the fact that in the biblical story of Noah, the great ark-builder never says a word. Noah was the great person of faith that he was because he listened to God and, when he heard from God, he obeyed God.

Taking a couple of times a day to practice Christian meditation in the form of centering prayer is a wonderful way to learn to listen; as we learn to be still in God’s presence and to listen to God in those moments of silence, we will become more and more able to be still and to listen all the time …

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Bridge Called Lent

We are anticipating another blast of cold air here in Fitzgerald, Georgia this week; it’s supposed to get all the way down to 39° one morning. “Cold” is relative, though. One day during one of our really cold snaps I sent a text to our son in Madison, Wisconsin telling him that it was cold in Fitzgerald; the low here was 29° that day. His response to me was that I should not talk to him about cold, given that the high in Madison that day was 12° below zero.

How cold has it been in Madison, Wisconsin this year? Well, Madison had twenty-three consecutive days of sub-freezing weather this winter. Madison has had almost ninety consecutive days—from early December until now—with at least one inch of snow on the ground.

Joshua is right—I shouldn’t talk to him about cold.

Still, it has been winter here, one effect of which is that aside from the pines and the evergreens, everything outside has looked pretty dead. Not long ago, my Good Wife and I were sitting in the den sipping coffee on a “cold” Saturday morning when I said that I needed to do some yard work but really didn’t want to do it. She replied that she wasn’t surprised because in the winter, no matter how much work you do, things aren’t going to look good when you finish.

That’s a wise woman I have there.

I have managed, though, to get out there the past couple of Saturdays to do some pruning and weeding and preparing. After all, the daffodils are blooming and the hydrangeas are budding and everything else won’t be far behind. It’s time to trim things back to make way for new growth, to dig up and discard dead things, and to prepare the ground for fresh planting—which brings me to Lent.

Lent, the forty-day period leading to Easter, is a time to pay some attention to ourselves, to reflect on our humanness and to repent of our sins. It’s a time, personally and spiritually speaking, to prune, to dig, and to prepare. Lent very appropriately bridges the seasons of winter and spring, the seasons of death and new life. Lent gives us the chance to deal with what is dying in us in the natural way of things as we move toward everlasting life and with what needs to die in us as we grow in the newness of life we have in Christ.

During Lent we have special opportunities to reflect, to repent, and to respond. It is helpful to adopt a daily discipline of prayerful Bible reading and reflection during which we open our lives up to God, asking for insight into the ways in which the Spirit would like to help us grow.

Soon, all the plants and trees that have been dormant will spring back to life.

We might as well join them …

Monday, February 3, 2014

America Is Beautiful When America Embraces Diversity (Mainly in English)

I would like to state my two main points right up front.

Main point #1: I believe that all people living in these United States of America should learn to speak American, by which I mean, of course, our particular version(s) of English.

Main point #2: I believe that America is truly beautiful when we gladly embrace our diversity.

I am thinking about this because of—what else?—a Super Bowl commercial; this is America, after all. The commercial for Coca-Cola (“Coke” to its close friends) has, as you probably know, caused something of a kerfuffle (notice how I snuck in an English word that is mainly used in Great Britain to make a subtle point), at least in the Twitter-verse, a community in which many of us hold dual citizenship along with our American citizenship and whose truncated, abbreviated, hashtag-driven language we have had to learn in order to communicate clearly and irritate successfully.

When in Twitter-land, speak as the Twitter-dwellers speak.

I really do think that people living in the U.S.A. should learn to speak English. I think they should want to learn to speak English. My approach to this is admittedly simple: were I to move to Lithuania tomorrow I would start learning Lithuanian tomorrow because I would want to be able to converse with my new friends and neighbors and I would want to be able to conduct my business as smoothly as possible. However, I would not abandon my Southern dialect of American English because I appreciate my roots and my heritage. Even if I became a citizen of Lithuania I would likely continue to speak English at home because I would always be most at home with English.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, around 20% of Americans—around 60 million of us—don’t speak English at home; about two-thirds of those speak Spanish. And the percentage of Americans who don’t speak English at home has been rising; it was about 18% in 2000.

As I say, it seems to me that if someone lives in an English-speaking country, it is to their benefit to learn to speak the dominant language. Besides, there is national unity and strength to be found in a common language.

But there is also national unity and strength to be found in an open-minded and open-hearted embrace of the many and diverse cultures that exist in the United States. Indeed, I believe that the many cultures in our midst should be celebrated.

That brings me back to the Coke commercial that aired during the Super Bowl. The ad featured shots of Americans from many different national backgrounds with “America the Beautiful” being sung in eight different languages: English, Tagalog (a major language of the Philippines), Hindi, Sengalese, Hebrew, Mandarin, Keres (a Pueblo language), and Arabic. I found it a very moving sixty second film on the beauty of the American melting pot and a nice visual representation of our de facto pre-1956 national motto of E Pluribus Unum (that’s Latin, y’all!). It also made me want to go buy a Coke.

Some folks have a different opinion than I do on this “issue,” which is fine, this being America and all. Hate is not fine, though, and some people’s comments have crossed that line, to their and our shame. Some commenters have opined that “America the Beautiful” should be sung only in English; I will avoid comment on those poor misguided and misinformed citizens who said after viewing the commercial that the National Anthem should only be sung in English, except to note that (1) “America the Beautiful” is not the National Anthem and (2) as I heard Chuck Todd say during a discussion of this matter, it should be.

By the way, you can go to YouTube and watch videos of the young ladies recording “America the Beautiful” in each of those non-English languages that are all spoken in households here in the U.S.A. Those videos also include the singers talking—in excellent English—about what singing that great celebration of America in their family’s native tongue meant to them.

In the book of Acts we read of the Holy Spirit falling on the earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost; when the Spirit came upon them, they were able to speak in foreign tongues which enabled the pilgrims who had come to the festival from all over the Mediterranean world to hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed in their own language. I know that America is not the church and that the Holy Spirit is not inspiring those in our nation who speak different languages to speak those languages. Still, there is this parallel: like the early Church included and the present Church includes people who come from many different cultures and who speak many different languages, America at her best not only tolerates but celebrates the many different languages and cultures that are present among us.

At the beginning of the Muppet Vision 3D show at Disney World, Sam the Eagle introduces the show as “A Salute to All Nations, But Mostly America.” Here in America, let’s speak all of our languages gladly and proudly.

But mostly English …

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Lessons from a Winter-Time Yard

It’s winter in Georgia.

Now, granted, that’s not such a bad thing, even considering the snowpocalypse (Two inches in Atlanta! A dusting in Fitzgerald!) of recent days. After all, the temperature is predicted to hit 62 today and 75 tomorrow.

(On a side note, the temperature tomorrow will be in a range that makes it impossible to know how to set the environmental control systems in our sanctuary. We’ll probably have the heat on even though it will be marginally “cool” outside and that means that it’ll be 10 degrees warmer in the balcony than downstairs. Some upstairs will be fanning while some downstairs will be wearing coats; those hovering in mid-air will be comfortable.)

This morning while my Good Wife and I were sitting around sipping coffee (ah, blessed Saturdays!) and discussing the major issues of the day (a discussion which these days usually begins and ends with our daughter’s upcoming wedding) the conversation took an unexpected turn toward needed yard work.

Pine cones need to be picked up. Bushes need to be pruned. Limbs need to be gathered. And so on.

I don’t want to do any of it. I’m looking for excuses not to do any of it. I’m even writing about it to keep from doing any of it.

My Good Wife said, “It’s too bad it’s drizzling today. The temperature would have been just right to do some yard work.”

I said, “You know what’s strange? I’ll spend an entire Saturday in July when it’s 3000 degrees outside working in the yard; I’ll even want to do it. But in the winter I just can’t get motivated.”

In response to which my Good (and Wise) Wife observed, “That’s because in the summer you know that when you finish working the yard will look good while in the winter you know that no matter how hard you work, it’s not going to look good.”

And all the people said, “Boom!”

We don’t mind working when the results are going to be obvious but we do mind working when the results are not going to be obvious.

We don’t mind working when our work is going to make things (and us) look good but we do mind working when our work is not going to make things (and us) look good.

Meanwhile, the pine cones await.

So let’s see—what else can I write about?