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.

Mystery – Joy and Sadness

coffee mugI walked into the United Methodist Church building where I have served as pastor for the past three years. It was quiet. Of course, it should have been quiet. It was “Conference Sunday” and everyone knew that the pastor was away and there were no evening activities scheduled.

It was a wonderful Annual Conference session. I watched my daughter Erin become a delegate to General Conference in 2016. I took a bit of pride in that – but I thanked God, the one I knew had really blessed her with the gifts that led to that moment. I am just blessed to be her father.

I attended wonderful worship sessions and business sessions that for the most part were filled with holy conversation. Yes, there was a moment or two when people forgot to respect their sisters and brothers as they spoke. There was a particularly painful moment when one of our youth tried to share her faith in the Bible and our need to at least attempt to hear those sacred words the way she hears them. But many good Christians forgot to listen as Christ would and mumbled angrily as she spoke. Lesser things have created great prophets, so I will continue to pray for this brave young woman.

I participated in a service of anointing on Saturday night that reminded me once again just how broken we as Christians really are in this world. We need the Balm of Gilead. We need the healing presence of Christ. We. Need. So. Much.

I wept during the ordination service as I watched five wonderful pastors be ordained. For the past three years I had the honor and the joy of sharing in a covenant group with these five and one more who decided to wait a year for ordination examination. I don’t know why I wept – it was a mixture a joy, hope, and fear – but I do know that a perfectly good stole became a handkerchief for my snotty nose.

I listened with quite a bit of joy on the way home as my youngest daughter quizzed me on parliamentary procedure, rules, and the United Methodist Discipline. Our drive from Conference took more than two hours, but there wasn’t a quiet moment. I was a bit gleeful that she shares some of my love for these tricky little procedures that give us order.

There was a whole lot of joy this week.

And then…after we had been home a little while, my wife and I walked into the “Conference Sunday” quiet church. We gathered a box and she set about taking her personal things out of her office at the church.

On Friday, our Conference debated and passed a petition to General Conference that would change our Discipline to prohibit any member of a pastor’s household from holding a financial office in the church. This was passed in a hope of providing protection to pastors and their spouses of even the “appearance of impropriety.” Yes, I know that this legislation has a long road to make it into our Discipline, but I also listened closely to the voices that were shared during the debate. The voices in support were loud and clear and the favorable vote stated that our Conference did not want our pastor’s and spouses open to this “appearance of impropriety.”

On the other hand, First UMC Princeton had worked so hard to make this a safe place for my spouse to use her gifts. (And she is so very gifted at what she does!) She never touched money – only offering envelopes that had been checked by two (or more) non-related persons and the amounts included written on them. She balanced the counters work with the deposit slips they gave her. She printed out electronic checks after receiving vouchers from authorized persons. She would call check signers – none of these persons were counters – to come and check the validity of the vouchers and sign the checks. She would balance the books and print reports as we needed them. And then, every month, yet another person would come in and audit those books and accounts. First UMC put in processes that kept this gifted woman safe from accusation. But nothing can protect her from “appearances”.

Appearances, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.

It wasn’t as quiet when we left the church that evening. There were tears. There was sadness. There was the rattling of coffee mugs and a bowl she often used to fix oatmeal for lunch.

This is all part of the mystery I have grown to know as Christ’s Church: It will build you up and it will pull the rug out of from under your feet.

I am just thankful, that underneath it all, under the mountain top experiences and under the roughly tugged rugs there is a God who is greater than even the Church we make in his name. I know God loves this Church, because God loves me, an imperfect person in an equally imperfect group of people.

I go on because I choose to behold this: Jesus loves me. Jesus loves you. Jesus loves us.

Peace…

On Capital Punishment

During the “Pray-As-You-Go” exercise for Good Friday, I was challenged to imagine myself as one of the people in Jesus’ group o041314_1740_ACrossBetwe1.jpgf family and friends who were witness to the execution of Jesus on the cross. I found this very difficult. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine the scene – I have seen so many depictions of it in art and movie that my imagination didn’t have to work very hard – it was that I found that I could not remain among the group of people who were there with Jesus. My mind kept slipping over to view this scene from the perspective of the family members of the others who were being executed by Jesus. (If you want to read what became of this imaginative exercise, you can click here.)

Granted, the fact that Jesus was killed between two thieves has been something that has captured my theological imagination for quite some time. What does it mean that “a completely innocent man” was killed in the name of the state between two people who were also “convicted” of capital crimes?

Part of me imagines that Jesus would have chosen to be killed in exactly this way. He spent his life hanging around those who had reputations that were less than stellar. I think that it is only fitting that the man who gave up heaven to walk the earth spent his last few breathes on public display with exactly the type of people he loved the most – those who were always on the outside of any faith based on legalism. What were the crimes of these convicted felons? I know we have certain standards in our world today for executions, but what are those standards really based upon? And this says nothing of the “figurative” way that people are killed in the name of a group of people in power. I think of all the people who are ostracized by “the Church” in the name of legal interpretations of our Book as well. What about these people? Is Jesus still handing on a cross beside them and waiting for us to notice? It even happens in our communities. Not very long ago, a man in our community took his own life after being investigated for child pornography issues. Yesterday a man in South Korea took his own life rather than face the relatives of the children killed in a tragic ferry accident. What do these things say about us as a people? I know that this is not “capital punishment” but what does it say about our ability to stand with those who commit crimes or even those facing the tragic circumstances of which they played some part? Those who follow Jesus should be able to offer some hope, some joy, for even the worst among us. Jesus managed to do it on the cross.

Another part of me wonders about the justice issues that we as Christians cannot deny exist when we look at the cross. An innocent man was killed “by the state” for crimes he was convicted of by the judicial system of that day. Even an attempt at some sort of pardon by the state failed. It stands to reason, at least for me, that those who were hanging on the left and right of Jesus of Nazareth could have just as easily been every bit as innocent as Jesus. (Granted, one of those two confesses his crimes on the cross, but still, I have to wonder about any system that finds justified killing in the name of the people of a state somewhat suspect.) I know the stance of my church on this issue:

The Death Penalty

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – 2004. Copyright 2004 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Is it possible that even one innocent person is killed today? I can’t imagine that we are that much better than those who led in Jesus’ day. Things do happen. People do let their eyes be blinded by certain preconceived notions of what is happening. I know I do.

And yet, at the same time, I hear so little about it…especially as it relates to the way we sometimes “kill the spirit” of those who are convicted of other crimes in the Church. Both are serious problems that our society and church face today.

Sunrise over Princeton, WV

Sunrise!

I know…pretty serious thought for the Saturday before we celebrate the Joy of Easter. However, I had to get this off my mind. As I go through this day and even tomorrow, I hope I find myself praying for all those who are on “death row” these days, in our prisons, in our communities, and in our churches. I know that Jesus is with them still. I know Jesus would offer hope. I know that since “joy is the serious business of heaven” (C. S. Lewis) then that same joy should be our serious business as well – “on earth as it is in heaven” and all.

May the Joy and Hope of Easter be with us all!

Served Two Ways

I can see righteousness…

in those who claim to do no wrong…

who hold the commandments

for all to see.

Who work without ceasing to have them posted

on walls

in courts

on public ground.

Who stand beside the written word of God

And silence the voices

Of women…of those perceived as created unequal…

Who silence the voices of the very ones who listen to the Word

but choose to bow to the Author, not the reader.

 

And I see righteousness…

    In those who stand beside:

the one about to die for crimes…

the couple whose love is shunned…

the homeless one whose whole buggy-bound world

    cannot be found in this world at all…

the one who is dying while holding the hand of her

    crying, angry child…

their husband of sixty-five years

    and steal a kiss in public…

no one in particular, but who stand:

    in love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness

    and self-control.

 

I see righteousness served two ways:

    From the hubris that is potently human;

    And from the very Spirit of Jesus

        that lives within.

 

 

For more please see Romans 6:8-11

 

 

Mystery of Prayer

(Inspired by March 11, 2014 www.pray-as-you-go.com and Matthew 6:5-14.)

thinking_rfid-e1337372097366

I am alone, yet not by myself.
Words rattle in my mind and fall into the very heart
of the One who Created, Is Creating, and Will Recreate.

Joy!
God is near always:
Jesus sits with me in prayer…
Labors in my work…
Grins when I am laughing…
Joins me in my struggles…
Nods in agreement as I forgive…
Cavorts with me in play…
Sighs with me in hunger…
Touches me as I tenderly reach out to my lover…
Cries at my frustration…
Joy!

The mystery of prayer?
The Kingdom will be found in one –
praying in an empty room,
yet never, never, alone.