Homecoming Thoughts

Gray Rock UMCI sat in the pew and watched the Youth Choir of Gray Rock UMC stand in front of their microphones and sing a praise song immediately before I was to get up and preach. I listened to the beautiful harmonies they made. I watched as the young woman directing them smiled as she led and I was transported back almost twenty years…

The Gray Rock Youth choir was singing for a Maundy Thursday service. The director I had just been watching was one of the singers and this group was being led by her mother – a second generation member of the church who was married to a fifth generation member of the congregation. They had history. When the youth were singing in the 90’s, I was listening closely to the words – “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord…” and I was thinking about what I was going to do next.

Earlier in the week, the director and I had a little “clash” over when the youth should sing. I wanted it during communion. She wanted it before communion. She wasn’t mean about it at all…just firm. But it was also a clash that made me feel so disconnected from this group of worshipers that I decided then and there that I would not partake of communion with them again. I would pray for the elements. I would serve them. But I was NOT going to share with them. We just did not see things the same way and I knew that this was the only way I had of separating myself from them. Perhaps, just perhaps, if I could get the director to see things my way, it would be different. But this was a battle I would not win.

And I thank God for that.

I listened to them sing those words and my heart was strangely warmed. Not heartburn. Not conversion. But it was warmed with conviction. I heard Jesus saying to me: “I love these people just the way that they are. Who do you think you are to find yourself better than them…righter than them…separated from them. I love them and I love you.”

When the song was over, I walked to the communion table, said a prayer of Great Thanksgiving and served the youth choir director. With tears in my eyes, I asked her to serve me. She did.

Even then, I didn’t know how profound a moment this was but over time it has taught me that there is probably a much greater concentration of grace in the pews of any church than I will ever find behind the pulpit on any given day.

When I found myself back in the moment of 2014 and watched the new director smiling as her daughter sat beside her and a cousin (or two) sang in the choir I was overwhelmed with a feeling of connection. Not my own connection, mind you, but the connection that these generations of people could count on to share the gospel, build the faith, and be the Kingdom. I was teary again when I walked into the pulpit. I was overwhelmed with happiness for them at the moment but I was also filled with quite a bit of jealousy.

I am an itinerant United Methodist Elder. I live in a home provided by a church congregation and I serve congregations at the will and pleasure of my Bishop. I actually have very little to complain about in this regard. The congregations that I have served have been loving and accepting of me and my family and they have challenged me to grow in my faith and in my calling. I love the life of a United Methodist pastor.

However, every once in a while, my heart longs for something that it has trouble naming.

I found the name for this on, October 28, as I stood among the people of Gray Rock UMC and proclaimed God’s word for their 160th Homecoming Celebration.

I served Gray Rock (along with Bethel UMC) while I was a student at Duke Divinity School. Churches that have the courage to accept a student pastor into their midst have a special place in God’s Kingdom. Student pastors are constantly being shaped and changed by the theological education that they are undertaking. I was NOT an exception to the rule. From the story above I think I could make a case for becoming the 1990’s poster child! There were weeks when everything that I learned in school that week came regurgitating out of my mouth in something that I would call a sermon. And my leadership decisions…well, we will let the one above speak for itself.

The word I found as I walked into that pulpit for the first time in twenty years was connection. They had it each and every week when they gathered. I did not. I was the outsider, sent by the Bishop, connected by an appointment but not connected by generation after generation.

However, as I preached about Paul’s love for the Church in Philippi that morning and remembered, with no hint of sarcasm, the true love that I have for this little church in Kittrell, North Carolina, and as I looked at the proud – yes, proud eyes of the congregation watching this preacher who had continued on in the journey for twenty years, I was suddenly more than just an itinerant preacher. I was part of their family. I was connected.

And I thank God for that. I thank God for that.

It was a beautiful day…conversations after that were wonderful. The food was even better than I remembered. The walk through the grave yard reminiscing about people who had gone on to their reward was bittersweet.

I stood for a moment by myself at the grace of the last person I helped bury at Gray Rock. I thought of the family she left behind. I thought of the grace with which she faced her death. I thought of the grace I saw being lived out in her husband, his new wife and all their children.

My God…was I blessed to have been a part of that church twenty years ago and even more blessed to have been a part of it this year.

Gray Rock UMC…I thank God for you everyday in my prayers! You taught me grace. You taught me love. You taught me!

Sacred Secrets…Scared People…Scarred Hope

Some observations and reflections of a United Methodist pastor during the Lenten journey.

 

And yes…I get the irony of reflecting and judging…it’s never lost on me.

 

 

 

 

In a community that proclaims there is a Light brighter than any darkness that exists in the world, there remains a culture a secrets. I am no stranger to its perpetuation and continuation.

We cannot talk about ourselves – the selves Jesus knows and loves – our bare and naked souls – because others are always watching, always listening. And yes, some of them take notes.

We cannot even whisper about the God-felt plans and dreams we have for our flock because it may upset those who have power.

We cannot dare to mention the call change, for there are sheep for which we care that will become unsettled and move themselves to another community.

Good as we are at keeping secrets, we breed a herd that knows all too well how to keep the lid upon the Spirit. The flock that we serve often hid their own selves away in their lives, their families, their busy-ness. The leaders who stand both beside and above us in this mixed up world of pastor/supervisor dare not speak of their plans as well, but cloak them – just like me – in nuanced words and Sacred Secrets.

 

Why do we, the people of the Light of the universe persist in living so much of our faith life in secret? In a word – scared.

That’s who we really are so much of the time – scared, sacred secret keeps. So sacred, we ignore the nightmare that is us, we, me and I as well as the daybreak open sharing would bring and force ourselves back into the safety of that which we know best and can control…back into the darkness…back to sleep. Scared People.

As I travel through this Lenten season I think of myself, those I serve, and those who lead me and I see us all as the scared, sacred secret keepers that we are. And I pray. And I remember.

 

There is one who faced a terrible death. His life would be viewed as wasted. His dreams for people would be seen as undermining authority. His hopes for those around him – all of those around him – would be viewed as revolutionary. And he knew he would die.

And yet…he did not keep this future a secret from those who followed. He spoke freely of the future that awaited him. He would be handed over. They would scatter. He would be tried. They would betray. He would be beaten, pierced and rejected at his death.
But he would come back. He would return. He would stand before us all with scarred wrists, feet and side. He would offer us Scarred Hope.

With the One that we follow, there are no Sacred Secrets. He chose not be a Scared Person. He comes even now to offer us Scarred Hope.

“Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Ephesians 5:14 NRSVA

Quote Me

“Only dead men (sic) can follow the God of the Cross.”  Erwin McManus

I sat in the sanctuary alone after pulling the plug on the baptismal font.   The sounds of the water going down the drain echoed through the space with a sound that mimicked my spirit at the moment.  Yes, I had just baptized two people new to the faith and I should have been rejoicing about that high moment.

But I couldn’t.

The third grader who had left a few minutes earlier with his mom had been very upset. He and his mom hung back from the crowd in order to talk with me. The instant I asked what was wrong, it hit me… I had promised this third grader that the next time we were baptizing people, he would be included. In my joy of preparing two adults for baptism, I forgot a child. Even as I listened to the mother explain this to me, my spirit sank. I felt awful.

As I sat and listened to the last of the water gurgling out of the font, I knew what had to be done. I had to go to this boy, tell him that what I did was wrong, and ask him to forgive me. It was always hard for me to apologize to adults when my memory caused hurt. More than a little of me would have to die to get through this one. Fortunately, God gave me and that family the grace to get through it.

Truthfully, his baptism was more meaningful to this pastor than any other. He may have been in the water, but this dead man was the one receiving grace…

“Only dead men (sic) can follow the God of the Cross. “

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure what to do. To move forward, I was sure the church had to take this risk but I wasn’t certain I wanted to be the one out on the limb offering the direction we should head. If we failed, everyone would know who had led them down this path. My thoughts were only on what might happen if we failed – we might lose members… I might end up leaving a community I loved… The thoughts raced through my mind as the leadership team and I sat in the room. No one seemed willing to speak.

I looked up and saw the cross on the wall and I wish I could say I was filled with courage and confidence in the direction I saw. Instead, I was filled with the sense that only one thing mattered – following the One who ended up on a cross.

With a different confidence and courage, I spoke a vision of where we could go together. The confidence and courage did not come from the certainty of my decision. It came from knowing I was already dead – nothing that could happen would change my future one bit. It had been changed forever when the God of the Cross found me.

“Only dead men (sic) can follow the God of the Cross. “

I don’t know when or where I first ran across this quote but I just can’t seem to forget it.pad2013