Outsiders Grace

I sat at the end of the bench.  If there were a spot beyond the end of the bench, I would have gladly sat there.  The floor was a thought but Coach would not allow it.  The corner at the end would just have to do.

Greg, Walter and a few others had the best seats.  They were the starters.  Their seats were empty right then simply because they were out of the floor playing the game of basketball.  It was the United Methodist Youth team v. the Baptist Youth team in the remnants of the city of Mt. Hope, sometime in February of 1977.

I probably would not remember the date very well but forty laps at a practice that week kind of burned it into my brain.  When you are the ninth man on the team, you hardly think anyone would notice that you aren’t at practice so I blew one off that week to go see “King Kong”.  (It was the 1976 version with Jessica Lang and almost any eleven year old boy might choose laps to watch Jessica Lang.)  When I showed up for the next day’s practice the coach simply asked where I was and when I fessed up to being at a movie he thought it was worth forty laps.  At least he did not make the whole team run them.  They would have finished a long time before I did and each time they would have passed me the taunting would have been unbearable.

Perhaps that is why I was hiding in the little corner on the end of the bench so well at that moment.  It was not the laps.  It was not the impending taunts.  The Coaches were way to close for any of that to take place but I knew the locker room was just a couple of short basketball periods away.  The real taunting would start then.

I had played in the game.  It was a rule in our little church league that everyone got to play one quarter.  The coaches decided to put our weaker links out on the court in the second period and I marched out with them.  I remember Coach Groves words well, “Just play good defense.  Don’t let them score too much and when you get the ball, get it to Greg.  He can work it from there.”

Well, I played pretty good defense most of the time anyway.  I was the shortest guy on our team and could often sneak around without being noticed and occasionally steal the ball.  Shooting?  Forget it?  I was about 1 for 30 from the free throw line, another place I would never stand except during those interminable practices.

basketball net

But something strange happened in that game before I found my corner of the bench.  The other team had the ball.  One of their not-so-good players took a rather wild shot and it bounced off the front of the rim like a bullet and came right towards me.  I didn’t think.  I didn’t hear Greg yelling for the ball.  I dribbled twice and worked my way into the lane and shot…

…And scored…

…For the other team.
I didn’t even wait for the Coach to pull me out when I heard the laughing Baptists congratulating me for the extra two points.  I simply walked to the bench.  Grabbed my corner and stayed there till the end of the game.  I knew the taunting would come in the locker room.  It almost always did.  Meanwhile, I sat on my little corner of the end of the bench.

Even now, I still find myself sitting on the edge of the end of a pew from time to time.  I have even caught myself moving forward on those huge cushy seats that they give preachers to perch upon during the rest of the worship service.  Every once in a while, it is a comfort to sit on the edge and wonder what kind of grace it is going to take to allow God to use me the way God wants to use me.  Trust me, I am far enough forward in my seat as I type this to feel the back wheels of the chair lifting off the ground.

Sometimes, I know that being on the outside, well, that’s the only place to find true grace.

Daily Prompt – The Outsiders

 

Mired

He felt mired in the muck of mediocrity, that was for certain.  The Book lay open before him on the desk.  The damnable cursor on the computer screen blinked.  And blinked again.  And as if for good measure, it continued blinking well into the night. “Go into all the world and make disciples…”  The words mocked him.cold weather

It was Saturday night and inspiration had escaped again.  Perhaps it went out the window on Thursday afternoon when the parishioner dropped by to tell him that there were lots of problems with the church.  “We just can’t seem to get our act together and go any one direction.”  Go into the world and make disciples…

Perhaps it had left even earlier in the week.  Tuesday maybe?  That was when the counters let him know that there was not enough in the end of the year offering to meet the total obligations that they hoped to pay to the denomination.  Something left him them.  He wasn’t sure if it was inspiration or hope.  Go into the world and make disciples…

Or maybe Saturday morning when the other parishioner stopped by to say that he was leaving the church.  “Nothing wrong,” preacher.  “I just feel it is time to go on in order to keep the peace.”  Yeah…that could have been it.  Go into the world and make disciples.

He got up from his desk in the little study and stood by the Kuerig© as he waited for another cup of decaf to brew.  He walked over and got a couple of the leftover chocolate chip cookies.  He then stood in the living room where his family was watching some movie or another on the screen.  “Sermon fuel?” his oldest child asked.  He swallowed and nodded and then took the ten steps back to the study.  Go into the world and make disciples.

“This really shouldn’t be that hard,” he said to the blinking cursor or himself.  Or maybe it was a prayer uttered to God.  He really didn’t care all that much.  The coffee was hot.  The cookies were good.  His mind wandered back to the mornings earlier that week when the wind chills were well below -20.  He thought of the so called “Polar Vortex” and how interesting it was that meteorologist always seemed to be coming up with new names to call weather patterns that had been around for years.  “Winter Storm Ion?  Really?  We are naming snowstorms now?” he thought as he finished the last cookie.


A song played in the background – something from YouTube. His mind continued to dwell on the storm and cold and he remembered the phone call he received on Tuesday just after the counters left.  Someone wanted to do something about the few homeless people in the small town they lived in.  Maybe they couldn’t do it for this cold snap, but there would be others.  They had places for people to stay warm.  There were plenty of people around to help open doors, prepare food, share seats and conversations.

The cursor stopped blinking about then and letters started to appear on the blank page.  Go and make disciples.  Go, make, disciples.

And Grace Has Led Me

I have a bunch of bound journals that I write in quite often.  Occasionally, I put a story idea in them but mostly I just write about what is going on my mind.  I think through some of the more complex interactions that I have in a day and then revisit them and rewrite them until I can finally make some sense out of them.  It seems to me that the more I tell a story in which I am a character, the more I am able to understand it.  This is especially true if I take the time to tell the story from several different views.

I know that one of the journals contains about seven or eight writings about a tense meeting I had with my supervisor.  The first writing was done to get down the facts as I remembered them.  The second was done a few days later.  I even chose red ink for that one because I was so mad, I was seeing red and wanted the story to be in red.  The next time I wrote, I focused upon the furniture and other items in the room that people were using.  That retelling of the story opened my eyes up quite a bit for it was in that story that I realized that I was not the only person nervous in the room.  The way a water glass was used time and time again pointed out to me another person’s nervousness.  The other retellings were, well, just me exploring what happened and where I could go forward.  The last was a brief poem that will probably never see the light of day.  I wrote in red again but when I was done, I have to say, I felt much better.  I felt release.

Now, most of the things that I write in those journals will never meet the eyes of another reader.  I didn’t write them for anyone else to read.  I wrote them for me.  So, for the most part, they will remain mine.

I also spend about twenty minutes each week standing before a group of people and sharing something about how the grace of Jesus Christ has been revealed to me through that strange combination of Biblical text and life.  I write sermons every week and have the privilege of sharing them.  I call it a privilege because I take great joy in writing these. To have a semi-captive audience listen to them each and every week is humbling to say the least.  This writing is in a few different journals and occasionally even on my computer.  (Don’t ask me why but I get much more joy out of using a pen and paper than I do at pecking away at a keyboard.)

And then there is this blog.  This is not a place where I can sort out my conflicts and leadership plans.  As a pastor, I think those things are best left between me, God and my journal.  I also don’t think that this is a place where I can sort out my hopes and dreams for the church I serve.  I have a platform for that.

No, “Not Quite Home” is about all those other times that grace is around me.  Sometimes, it is about how I just noticed grace in some odd place. Most of the time it is in some very mundane place.  It is also about those times that I didn’t so much notice grace, but grace “got ahold” of me.  It is in all of these types of moments that I realize that I am not quite home.  If I were home, they would happen all the time and I would not have to have myself shaken to notice them.  These markers of the distance from home, however, are meant to be shared, so, you get to read them!

So…enjoy my glimpse of grace as they arrive. Welcome home! Or more precisely, welcome to that place that is not quite home.

Sarah’s Story

By Scott Sears

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7b NIV)

Sarah sat in the dust and dirt that had collected in the front room of her family home drawing with her fingers in the dirt.  At times, when she didn’t like the way a picture looked, she would rub it out of existence with her heel.

“How much longer, Daddy?” she said to one of the two men standing near the doorway.  The boredom in her voice was both evident and intentional.

“Not long, little Sar,” her father said.  “Not long at all.  Keep quiet or you can go and help your mother in the kitchen.”  Sarah frowned and went back to her drawing.

Sarah had seen people coming and going for most of the past week.  Some stayed as they proved to her father and mother that they were indeed relatives.  “Some are so distantly related they might as well be Gentiles,” her mother said more than once.  Some stayed even if they weren’t related.

Many of these strangers brought food or other items to share with Sarah’s family.  That was good.  Bread, salted fish and even the rare sweet were shared among the lodgers and the family.  Some of the travelers had nothing to share and relied totally upon her family’s ability to provide.  Sarah’s father gained more energy with each new visitor, each new person lodging in their home.

Her mother, however, was tired.  Sarah saw it in her eyes. And Sarah could definitely hear it in her mother’s voice.  She also saw it in the way her mother held her stomach where Sarah’s new baby brother or sister was growing each day.  It wouldn’t be long now.  And Sarah so hoped for a little brother around the house.

Yes, Sarah enjoyed the treats she got at times and had even found herself entertained by some of the stories the travelers told, but for the most part she was bored and Sarah could tell that many of the travelers were bored with her as well.

She thought about going in and lying down on her parents mat in their room.  She knew she would be sleeping there again tonight.  Between her father’s exhausted snores waking her, and her mother’s ever growing belly taking up space on the mat, Sarah had found it was better to go to sleep early.  But Sarah really wanted to wait and see what strangers would be sharing their home this night.

Bored or not, she listened and continued to play in the dirt on the floor.  She made a star, which she kept, a bird which she erased and several very passable sheep.

“It’s only me.  Just one person!  That is all, my cousin.  I brought my own mat and I have food for myself.  I just need a place to shelter after my journey.  Even a corner in this room would be a palace compared to sleeping on the streets.”

Sarah’s father shook his head, “I hate offering such meager lodgings to my kin.  Have you checked with everyone else?”

“Every one.  No one has any room nearly as nice as your floor.”

Sarah stopped her drawing long enough to look at the floor and wondered if these works of art were what made this cold, hard floor seem nice to the stranger.  It was a floor to her.  It was a very boring place to be.  She certainly didn’t yearn for the floor like the traveler and she thought the crowded mat with her parents a much more comfortable place.

“Look!  I even have a gift to offer.”

Sarah looked up again at this possibility and saw the man reach outside the door and bring in a small, sad looking table.  Yes, it had four legs like a table should but when he sat it on the floor it wobbled back and forth.  The top of the table was not solid but had five pieces of old weathered wood across it giving it some use, although Sarah couldn’t imagine what.

“There, there, my kinsman,” her father said, “gifts are not necessary.  My home is always open to those who need a place.  I could not bear to have you part with any possession for the lousy accommodation of a corner in my front room.”

“You will let me stay, then!” the stranger laughed as he said it.  He kissed her father on both cheeks and worked his way into the room before her father could object again.  He set down his bedroll and the meager belongings he had with him and immediately knelt in prayer.

Her father shook his head and sighed and laughed.  He looked to the ceiling and said, “Hospitality.  Addonai, I bring these people into my home because you have blessed me with it.  May we all be a blessing to one another.”

Sarah watched as her father moved towards the door to close it for the night.  Her room, the roof and now the very front room were all filled with people.  She was certain there would be no more strangers this night.  Yet, as he removed the table from the path of the door, another stranger appeared.

Her father paused just long enough to make out the man’s face.  “Joseph?  Joseph of Nazareth?  I believe I recognize the face of my sister’s son.”

“It is I,” the new stranger replied, “and I have my wife, Mary, with me as well.  She is, well, with child and it is very close to her time.”

Frowning, her father sat the table down in front of the window and patted Sarah on the head.  “You: my little Sar.  I think we might make this a stool for you to look out the window and keep an eye out for more travelers.  Perhaps you can say we are full before they darken the door.  If they think a little one has taken residence in a window, they may well believe!”

Sarah wasted no time in climbing up on the table, listening to the boards creek as she did so.  She then hoisted herself into the window.  Though it was late and dark, she could see from the lights of many lamps in neighboring houses that her town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity.  For a moment, her boredom was gone.  She even noticed the young woman belonging with this new stranger standing in the shadows. Even at her young age of six, Sarah knew that Mary was closer to having her baby than Sarah’s mother.  She certainly did not want to share a mat with that woman!  But Sarah knew she needed some lodging.  She must have shelter.

“Joseph, I am so very sorry my kinsman.  My house is yours, but there is simply no place for the two of you.  My last spot on the floor has been taken.  I am so very sorry.”  Sarah’s father said with sadness.

“I see,” said Joseph.  “The peace of the Lord be with you.” And he bowed to leave.

Sarah wanted to tell her father about the very pregnant woman waiting outside.  She knew she wanted to do this even as she watched her father begin to close the door on Joseph and his wife.

But she never uttered any words to her father.  She jumped from the window ledge to the table and then all kinds of other sounds muffled the words.  Either the sound of the center board of the table breaking, or the sound of her own cries, or her father shouting her name as she fell to the floor drowned out even the thought of what she wanted to say.

Her father was there before she hit the ground and Joseph was right there beside him.  Both of them look at her, alarm on their faces and both sets of eyes scanned her from head to toe as if they were looking for some unknowable lost item.

“Your table!” Sarah said between tears.  “I broke your table!”

She buried her face in her father’s beard and her father patted her back and said, “Now, now little Sar.  Let’s be sure nothing important is broken – like you!”

Sarah’s cries died down as her father held her tighter and she was convinced that the most damaged item was the table.  She did notice the feeling of scrapes on her legs and she was aware of little pricks of pain as if something had stung her.

“A few scratches and splinters is all,” Joseph said to her father.  “If she will keep holding still while you hold her I will have the rest of them out before she knows.”

Sarah looked down toward her legs and saw that Joseph had two tiny splinters of wood on the tip of a calloused finger, while his other hand moved toward her leg.  She wanted to flinch but Joseph’s hands were quick and talented.  With caresses more than with tugging and pulling, he removed the rest of the stinging splinters even as Sarah’s tears dried in her father’s beard.

“Brave little girl you have there,” said Joseph.

“Yes.  Yes.  That’s my brave little Sar.”

“But Daddy…your table.”

“It is nothing, little one.” He said to her as he placed her on the floor.

Joseph had already moved to the remaining pieces of wood that had once been a table and began sorting them out on the floor.  The stranger who brought the table had stopped his prayer and come over to examine the damage as well and said, “It really was just cobbled together from old wood from a neighbor’s stable.  I am so very sorry of its terrible workmanship.”

“That too, is nothing,” said Sarah’s father.  “The gift was offered and received as a treasure.  We are sorry it did not last us longer.  We will remember the spirit of the giver nonetheless.”

“Old stable wood, you say?” asked Joseph.

“Yes.  It is from my neighbor’s home,” the lodger said.

Joseph pulled from his belt a little hammer and asked Sarah to come and be his helper.  He removed the nails even quicker than the splinters.  He had her hold two of the legs of the table together in an “X” on the floor.  Each set of legs was fastened together in this fashion and Joseph asked Sarah to stand them up and hold them apart from one another.  Joseph attached the slats that were the top of the table to the inner parts of each frame with the nails he had removed and a couple more that appeared from behind Sarah’s ears with a giggle.  He told Sarah to let go.

“Not perfect,” said Joseph, “but if you know anyone with a stable this old wood might make a good feeding trough, now.”

“The stable!” Sarah’s father exclaimed.  “I forgot about the stable.  Joseph…it is so very little for me to offer given your exceeding kindness, but we do have a stable that could be shelter of sorts.  And my wife has had one little one, should your Mary have need of her.  I know it is so little to offer, but, please accept what little hospitality I have left.”

“It is nothing,” remarked Joseph with a grin, “and it is everything.  We will accept what God has provided.  Thank-you, my kinsman.  And thank-you, little Sarah, for being such a fine helper.  Would you like to show Mary and me to our room?”

“Yes.” Sarah said.  And she was out the door to show Joseph and Mary their stable.  She proudly carried the manger she helped make.  She thought of how her accident had let to the manger’s creation.  She was in awe of Joseph’s hands which now held onto his wife as the traveled slowly to the stable.

She only went out to that stable one time while Mary and Joseph stayed there.  Sarah snuck out of the house early to see the family a couple of mornings after her mother had gone out in the middle of the night.  She had gone to assist Mary in the delivery of her first born son.  Mary was now asleep and so was the little baby boy.  Joseph, however, was up whittling something out of some wood he found somewhere.

“A fine bed you made, my little one.  A fine bed indeed.  Fit for a king, I would say,” Joseph said with a smile.  Sarah looked at the baby, the shattered table that became his bed and she joined Joseph in that smile.

manger

*Sarah did not see them or many of the other stranger leave.  In those very busy days, her mother’s time also came and while her mother was busy caring for her new baby brother, chores and cleaning kept Sarah more than busy.

The very next time she was in the stable was a time very near her own little brother’s second birthday.  It was also just a few days after her brother had been taken and killed by soldiers.  Sarah went to the stable this time for some time away from her mother’s cries and to find a place to shed a few tears of her own.  She found herself kneeling by the manger and holding its side only long enough to get a splinter in each palm.

She cried.  She thought of her little brother.  She imagined him now “resting with Abraham” as the grown-ups had told her.  She thought of all the other families in Bethlehem that were hurting.  She knelt by the manger and thought of the sleeping baby she had seen there and hoped and even prayed that the Lord would spare Joseph and Mary from the hurt she and her family were feeling.

After a while, when the tears were gone, she wiped her face with her hands.  She glanced down and saw that the splinters that had pierced her palms were now gone.  Somehow, she knew in that moment that the baby who used this bed was okay.  For now.  For now, he was just fine in the hands of Joseph and Mary.

Sarah walked back to her home, a place so quiet compared to those days two years before when they were overrun with strangers, but a place now filled with tears and wailing.  Sarah walked into her mother’s room and lay down beside her.  She placed her palms upon her mother’s cheeks and wiped the tears away with her own healed hands.  She whispered to her mother that the Lord would not let her cry forever.

And she didn’t.

© 2013 Scott Sears

* The following paragraphs were not included in a Christmas Eve reading of this story.

On Words Dying

Yesterday, I read a haunting post from a pastor I follow on Twitter, Jonathan Martin.  You can find the post here and you may well wish to read it first.  It made me think for a long time and made me wrestle with some of my own demons about words.  Not all of them are worked out in this post, mind you, but it is a start.  Thanks, Pastor Jonathan Martin.  I think.

He sat as his desk and listened to the cats fighting three rooms away even as he listened to the voices inside him argue over the need to write.

“Practice,” the old, wise voice that had read masters and novices alike said.  “Put the damn pen to the paper.  Tap away at the crud covered keyboard.  Fill the empty space with some of those things floating around in that jumbled mass of nerves you call a brain.  Get something down so that mess of nerves can at least sort out what is good and what is trash.  Practice.”

“Nah, just wait for your muse to arrive,’ the other voice growled from the depths of the man’s belly.  The man never knew the age of this tormentor but he knew from the rumbles and discomfort where he had taken residence.  The gut.  “Wait for the muse to arrive.  That is, if the jerk ever decides to truly show up.  In the meantime you’ve got plenty to occupy your hands and mind.  For crying out loud, it is almost a New Year and leaves still need raked.  Cookies need baked.  I love the cookies, you know.  Besides, you will be pouring out words in a sermon or two soon enough.  Be content with what they will do.  (Or more likely, what they won’t do.)”

“Practice.”

“Just wait.”

He walked through the house aware of the war that raged between heart and soul, between blank space and filled lines.  He looked upon two cats, one stretched out in a windowsill batting eyes at the roaming person disturbing an important nap, the other, stretched out upon the recliner and oblivious to the footsteps of the man.  Stroking the fur of the undisturbed cat, he heard the restful sound of sleep.  He listened to the silence of words dying.  Again.