The Morning After Ash Wednesday 2018

Ash Wed Kids_Moment

As part of our Ash Wednesday observance last evening, I read the following passage from 2 Corinthians 6. Although I used a different version during the service, The Message  spoke to me on the morning after:

“People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly…in hard times, tough times, bad time; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all.”

When I arrived to prepare for the service, I noticed that our children and youth, who usually meet on Wednesday evening for lessons in discipleship of one type or another, were gathering in the building as well. I then learned that both groups would be attending the Ash Wednesday service. I loved the thought of having their energy, their wide-eyed faith being among us as we observed this holy day. As they gathered, I heard one little girl excitedly tell her friend how “Pastor Scott was going to put a cross on our foreheads tonight.” I chuckled as I listened.

I sat on the front pew at the start of the service and little Owen sat beside me. We had words flashing on the screen to help people “set the tone” for the service. I asked him if he needed help reading any of them. He stumbled on “Scripture” and had no idea what “Fasting” meant, although he did a great job reading it. He got “Deny Yourself” and “Pray” very easily as well as “Kneel Now”. It was a good conversation when a great kid. One of a dozen or so young ones…along with the dozen or so youth.

Lord, did it hit me while I was reading that passage above.

I was so joyful just to be in worship with the younger ones that I hadn’t forgotten briefly about the big news of the day. I forgot that there were parents and children in Florida who were dead or severely traumatized by our lack of ability to balance safety and rights once again. I was struck while reading this passage that our witness in the face of such tragedy is to go on as people of hope, to keep showing the love of God even as we fight the good fight of doing what was right.

I was reading the passage and I knew that in just a few minutes, Owen and many other children and youth I have grown to love even as my own would soon join the line of people that walk up to their pastor and have me mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross as I said, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”

There are times that I wonder about Jesus’ words of taking his “easy yoke” upon ourselves. This didn’t feel easy at all. With every wide eyed child and every interested teen that came to me last night, I choked just a little more. I didn’t cry. I don’t think any tears escaped, but they wanted flow like rivers.

And then this morning, I came across this poem by Mary Oliver (from a book I’m reading for Lent) and I was struck with the enormity of the creation God has made in us:

We Shake with Joy
We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

I leave with you a brief image, in video form, of what God might have seen last night…Faithful children…a pastor shaking with joy and grief…the people “immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy.”

To all God’s children in Florida struggling with the unspeakable…
my heart goes out to you in love…
my mind fills with thoughts of prayer for you…
and my spirit longs for hope for us all.

Prepare

I sat alone in the cathedral after a long day of visiting the campus. Yeah, I know that because it is a Protestant building it is called a Chapel, but when you are in it calling it a chapel is like calling the Empire State Building a tent. It just doesn’t capture the immensity of the structure. Doesn’t come close to the holiness. Whatever it was, I sat there tired and either prayed or thought, not sure which.

Then and now, I sometimes have trouble telling the difference between praying and thinking.

Prayer for me has always had little bit to much gray matter involvement. I would love to be one of those people who always seem to be able to let the Spirit pour into them and through them as their words rise up to God’s ear. Instead, the synapses will always start firing inside my noggin and I would “think” to God. I am communicating with God so I always count it as prayer.

It’s not always that way though.

There was the time I held my youngest daughter’s head for the first time. (Yeah…just her head, but don’t worry, it will make sense in a few.) It was before she was even born. (I’m not doing very good clearing this up…) Okay, the most precise way to say this is that it was immediately before her birth. the nurses had underestimated the progress of my wife’s labor but after our first child I had picked up a couple of important clues from the woman I love. One of the most important was the moment when she went from labor to transition. On her, it was like a switch going off deep inside her and involved her whole body and face. I knew it the instant I saw it. There were labor pains (that we had been dealing with all day) and then without much warning there was this “Okay, this baby is getting out of my body right now and nothing short of God is gonna make me stop pushing and even if God does show up God had better have a Plan B that works” kind of focus on her face.

I pushed the button to call a nurse and they were quick to respond. When she came in I said, “I really believe she is in transition and needs to push.” She smiled and said, “Let me check things out but after only a quick peak she started hitting other call buttons, turning on lights and said, “I will get the doctor right now. You get her to breath instead of push.”

I would have rather tried to blow back a freight train, but I did my best.

It wasn’t long till a lot happened all at once. More lights were turned on, the room got crowded with equipment dropping out of the ceiling and being pulled from the walls, and a doctor came in and stood between my wife’s legs. It was a blur of activity. the doctor was struggling to get his gown and gloves on when I heard him say, “Dad. I need your help here. I need you to do us all a favor.”

“Ok.” was the best I could muster.

“Put your hand down here and hold your child in a moment while I get ready to catch. Can you do that?”

That was a moment the synapses didn’t fire. I just prayed. I did what I was told but when my bare fingers touched that wet mound of baby hair there was a groan rising up out of me that just was not from me. I’m sure it wasn’t audible. The room was full of medical people and I’m certain if they had heard it, I would have become “patient” instead of Dad. But my heart felt it and I knew that God heard it.

It was prayer as I’ve never prayed before.

When I said, “Thanks,” after the doctor took over for me, I was disappointed when I heard him say, “Thank-you” back to me. I honestly expected a thundering “You are welcome, my child” to fill the room. I knew to whom I spoke even if the doctor didn’t.

I also recall a time when someone very dear to me was on the verge of dying. My brain could not wrap around the concept of her leaving, especially at such a young age. My heat couldn’t contain the grief that I knew would flood over others who were even closer to her. Nothing fired between my ears but somehow or another I heard myself start to hum. It was a stupid tune given the gravity of the situation and the noise of the life sustaining equipment running in the room: “I sing the body electric. I glory in the glow of rebirth…” I knew I was just humming the tune but the words hung in the air all around me and it felt more like a prayer than anything else at the moment. Weird, out-of-place, poorly timed prayer, but prayer nonetheless. I was actually relieved when someone in the room said, “Stop that. No music. I can’t take music right now.”

They had no idea that I was praying. I barely knew that I was praying. Truth be told, in the face of this very unfair death playing out before me, I couldn’t handle even thinking about praying.

So I was relieved to be able to stop.

Prayer still is a funny thing for me. It was that day I sat in Duke Chapel years before either of these other more spiritual moments in life. My prayer that day was my normal think-through of a conversation with God.

Duke ChapelIs this the place God wanted me to go to and prepare to be a pastor? Was Duke the right fit for me to learn about sharing life and death moments with people I would meet later in churches? Would this place shape me the way I needed to be shaped and molded? And God forbid, would they really be able to teach me? Could they reach down to my level in such a way that I would actually learn here?

Somehow through all the firing of neurons in my brain a peace over me in that giant space. I was still thinking. It wasn’t a “Aha, this IS it” sort of peace but more of a “Do you really think I’m the kinda God who wouldn’t be here? I’m mean, look at this cathedral they built me, Scott!”

I laughed out loud at that thought and knew without any doubt that The Divinity School was the place for me. I figured if God didn’t know it was just a Chapel, even my “in my brain God,” I’d do just fine.

We’d do just fine.

And we did.

 

Peace!!

TBT – Honey Bees and Root Beer Powder

I stood in the back yard of our little home on Bluestone Road feeling the dampness of the new mown grass tickle my barefoot toes. Normally, I would not venture into the yard barefoot. There were so many honey bees collecting pollen from the enormous amount of clover that grew there that it just wasn’t always bee on clovercomfortable to be barefoot. On more than one occasion I would hobble into the house with a stinger protruding from a toe, or heel and seek the medical attention of Dr. Mom.

Of course, after a while I thought I could handle it on my own and reached down and grabbed the stinger on my own and yanked it out. I soon learned how wrong I was. My foot would swell much worse than when Dr. Mom removed them and then I noticed that she never pulled, she scraped. And thus I learned the secret of removing a honey bee stinger without releasing all the venom into my system.

This day, I didn’t have to worry about honey bees. The clover got cut with the grass and part of me hated that. I had grown accustomed enough to the bees and their stings that I would often chase them and catch them in a jar. (And yes, I would sometimes wait until dark and put some lightning bugs in the same jar hoping for some sort of fight. Alas, they were insect pacifists!)

I walked into the house, leaving a small trail of grass clippings on the tile in our kitchen. I made my way to the counter where we kept all the Kool-Aid® drink mixes and searched around until I found that novelty of 1970’s, “Aunt Wick’s Root Beer Powder.” Aunt WicksThis powder made a passable non-carbonated version of a root beer tasting drink, but I thought its brown and yellow package contained magical botanical powers. I can’t remember why I first tried this, but one day I sprinkled a package or two on the fresh mowed grass and in the morning there was a whole new crop of clover just waiting for the bees. Several times I tried this trick and every time it worked. Of course, I never thought to run a control or two and not sprinkle it on the grass and see what happened. My guess is that the powder did nothing to the clover, however, the added sugar didn’t hurt in attracting bees.

I mow my own yard these days. I live in one of those neighborhood where many people have lawns and they care for them meticulously each and every week. I have a yard. It gets mowed every week but that is about it. This year, I was thrilled to see that clover had taken over a good portion of the back and side yards. I didn’t remember it sprouting up the previous two summers. (I can also rest assured that no one has been spreading Aunt Wick’s on my yard too. Jel Sert quit making it some time ago.) I was thrilled because I thought I would get a great chance to dodge some honey bees while I mowed or just watch them dance around on a summer afternoon.

The first time I mowed the clover, I saw one single honey bee. One bee.

How sad. I had heard that something was happening to our bee hives. I had seen the prices of honey go up. But I never knew the effect it might have on how I got to view the clover in my yard. Since that first clover cutting, I have seen several more bees, but never more than three at a time. They aren’t dancing around the clover like they did in the seventies. I’d go barefoot anytime in that clover.

I don’t know what has made the honey bees go away. I don’t know what made Aunt Wick’s Root Beer Powder go away.

But on this “Throw-Back-Thursday”, I wish they were both here.

On Children at the Border

Yesterday, I had the privilege to listen to Krista Tippett, host of NPR’s On Being, interview the (self-described “morose”) author, television and print journalist, Richard Rodriguez. Their conversation covered a lot of ground but part of it covered our current immigration crisis. Rodriguez sees this “problem” with very different eyes. The problem is here  and not in the scores of people who are making their way to our borders. The land of opportunity has so many people in it who feel the need to escape this terrific country that they fuel a drug industry that in turns allows thugs to take over countries to our south and send people – especially children – looking for a better life. Where do they look? The land of opportunity, of course.

I think that is a fascinating way of looking at it. Its a tragic comedy in many ways and one in which Rodriguez also pointed out was being played out with the voice of the Church being strangely silent.

That silence troubled me most of the day yesterday. I wondered why I hadn’t said more. I wondered why my church hadn’t said more and I even thought, “I think I know more people who would be upset that I was listening to a gay man suggest to the church that we could do more than there are people who are upset that we are expediting the return of children to places of death.”  I prayed a lot about it yesterday and today and the following came to me:

Father of all people everywhere, bless the new Americans who come in year by year from foreign lands. Help them in their loneliness to find friends, to get work and to be happy. May they feel that America is their country.

Help us, as people from all countries, to live together in this great world-nation. May we forget all difference in color and language and work for the future of our land, seeking to make it a home of freedom and brotherhood. Help us be more considerate of these immigrants, remembering that they may have more to give to American than we have. May we never speak disrespectfully of them, but treat them as our brothers and work with them for a greater America.

Now, I say these words “came” to me, but they are not my own. They are the words of Robert Bartlett found in the hymnal The New Hymnal for American Youth, copyrighted in 1930 by The Century Company.

I picked this hymnal up to look at it to see just how “dated” the hymns and prayers would be for our day and age. God laughed. I got the joke too. Granted the language is a bit more masculine than I would like but the words of that prayer are haunting. These children of God showing up on our borders are not a problem to be solved! They are our future brothers and sisters in faith and future patriots of this nation.

That’s apparently how it used to be so it makes me wonder about the terrific “conservative” voices I hear today saying we should send everyone back as quickly as possible: Just what are we conserving here? The American Dream or our slice of the pie.

 

Baby Birds

“I will love them freely…

    They shall blossom…

    They shall flourish…

    They shall blossom…

(Hosea 14, selected verses. Read entire chapter here.)

 

One left the nest a decade ago

and now cares for a nest of her own.

One is seeking the rise to wisdom and experience

and finds that the winds can carry you

down as well as up…left as well as right.

One continues the flight that only those

who wear the feathers of a teen

can truly understand.

 

I love them freely. I know I do.

I hope they hear my songs.

I dream their dreams.

I hope only the best.

I pray –

not for settled skies…

but for safe passage, nonetheless.

I offer…my self, my love, and shelter from the storms.

 

I watch my baby birds as closely as they allow.

I dream

of the songs they will sing…

        the vistas they will see…

the change they will bring through the

simple beating of their wings.

 

I watch and pray and be – a Dad.

 

God speaks to me and sighs,

“I know…I know.”

 

Inspired by three of the loves of my life as I listened to www.pray-as-you-go.org.