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.

Kindles

A few days ago I got a box out of the closet in the corner of my office. The faded markings on a address on the box, covered by several layers of packing tape indicated I received the contents while serving in Kincaid, WV as a student pastor in the United Methodist Church. I lived near the church in Kincaid, served a second church in Mossy and attended what was then called West Virginia Institute of Technology. That school, like a couple other of my alma maters, has since either closed or been relocated. It’s hard to tell which from their name and new location. If anyone asks, I tell them I graduated from WV Tech which is a little ironic for a guy who knew his next step in life would be a theological education. Then again it would explain why I justify writing my devotions, studies, blogs and even sermons on electronic paper when creating my “SFD”. (Writers and fans of Ann Lamont will get that. Others won’t want to know.)

That box at some point in time held a hot air popcorn popper but I don’t remember having one of those so I reckon the contents that are currently there were shipped to me in this container. The label says it was delivered to a post office box in Kincaid. Yes. I had one of those but the number meant nothing to me even after seeing it in writing. The postmark is dim that I can’t make out the date but I’m guessing the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m not so dim as to forget when I went to whatever the name of that school was.

The box isn’t all that important. Nor the mailing label for that matter. But they were interesting to me. In a way they remind me that the contents and I relocate from time to time. We’ve traveled quite a few miles this box and I.

IMG_20171205_124748.jpgInside it are ceramic figures of a sheep, a donkey, an ox (not to any kind of scale, mind you, because I’ve seen an ox and they are scary big) as well as a camel that has been glued together more than once. An angel is in there too as well as three suspiciously Anglo looking “Wise Men from the East” and equally White looking shepherd, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Don’t ever tell me that we don’t allow culture to influence our “pure biblical religion.” I will just ask you to show me your nativity set or a copy of the latest Christmas card you bought with a scene of Jesus’ birth on it.

We all make Jesus fit into our culture at times. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, it’s what the Son of God had to do to become one of us as well.

I carefully placed this suspect nativity set on the credenza in my office using some plants left over from my Dad’s funeral a couple of years ago as a back drop. I didn’t think much about the racial and theological implications of the pieces while I was placing them. I handled each one with care because I didn’t want to get the glue out again and because each one kindles in me a love for the group of people who got together decades ago and hand painted each one of these figurines.

I attended United Methodist Temple in Beckley, WV as a youth and young adult. They had a tradition of giving one piece of this set to each child as they grew up among them. When the occasion arose that they had some outlier like me who came late to the party, then they would send them an entire set when they went off to college or left home for whatever reason. The thing is that I knew that these pieces were labors of love. The people who painted and sent them to me were my last true church “home.” I have loved and have been loved by every congregation I’ve served but the fact is that I came out of Temple.

These were my people.

These were my people giving me a gift.

These were my people giving me a gift to remind me of the Incarnate nature of Jesus.

Every year I put them out and remember. Every year I put them away in the same box, with the same styrofoam popcorn – just caught that irony there of the box and the packing popcorn – and I remember the care taken to make sure I got them.

And I take them with me. Always.

Peace!

#ReThinkAdvent
#UnwrapChristmas

Mugs of abundance

The following is a work of fiction. It is the first installment of many and may at some point cease to exist on this blog and take up residence elsewhere. Any resemblance to people living and or not living is just because sometimes the people I meet are incredibly more interesting than the people who hang around in my head. I try to be nice to the ones who have inspired me. Sure, some of them are pretty poorly hidden, but “Cary” is not me. Trust me. We almost share a calling, but even there things are different.

 

The ancient experienced hands of the retired nurse placed the ceramic mugs with great care on the shelves in the cupboard. An occasional clink, as one mug hit another, was all the new occupant was expecting to hear. There had not been much chit-chat between the volunteer laborer and the new resident. But the music was broken by lyrics he didn’t expect. “You think you have enough coffee mugs, pastor? Looks to me that you could serve a whole bunch of people with all these mugs. How many of you drink coffee?”

“Just two of us.” he said. “It does seem as if we’ve picked up a few extra along the way, though. Guess we like our mugs.”

“Hmph. Guess you do.” was the end of the song. But the music continued.

And that was two churches ago for the preacher. Long before others in the house began drinking coffee and adding to the plethora of caffeine dispensers that crowded the cabinet in their newest, smaller parsonage. He was quite certain that somewhere in the maze of boxes yet unopened there was a treasure trove of mugs aching to be used, long over their own sense of caffeine withdrawal and simply settled in the darkness of their moving paper rest home.

But the four were there.

Mugs

There was the one he had since his time in seminary, the last of a group of four that he purchased from the Baptist House at Duke Divinity. Cary always thought it a bit ironic that one of his most cherished possessions from his days at a United Methodist seminary was a Baptist mug. And yet, every Wednesday and every Sunday, this was the one that made the trip from cabinet to Kuerig. Well, truth be told, it would sometimes come straight out of the dishwasher and make its way to the coffee machine. But on Sundays and Wednesday, Cary needed the reminder that the mug brought with it.

It wasn’t a reminder of all that he has learned. It wasn’t a reminder of his Master of Divinity degree. It wasn’t even a reminder of particular people or places. He used that mug to remind him that truth be told, he wasn’t even close to having all the answers. On Sunday morning, as he got ready to somehow stand before a congregation and preach, he needed that reminder. He was just happy that it only took a mug and not a two-by-four upside his head. And sure, he used it on Wednesdays too as a reminder that when he taught Bible Study, the Bible was usually going to teach him more than he could manage to squeeze out in a lesson or two.

And then there was the brother mug. One of his two brothers got him that one, but truthfully he couldn’t remember which one. Didn’t matter much. He used Brother one day a week to remind himself of them. The three weren’t the best at staying in touch with one another but when the chips were down, they knew that they could count on one another. The mug reminded Cary of them, their differences, their similarities, but especially their connection to one another.  Since the loss of their father, Cary looked forward to the Monday encounter with this mug. He could sip and say a prayer for his brothers. And he needed that grounding as much as he needed the humility he found with the Duke.

He remembered offering the MTSO mug to his buddy, now a Chaplain in the Army, on one of his visits. “What in the world are you doing with a Methodist Theological School of Ohio mug?” was the question Ray asked. Cary shrugged and said, “I got it during a visit of their Course of Study one year. I hope I cleaned it before I filled it. Been sitting on the shelf a long time.”

Truthfully though, this mug got used as much as Duke and more often than Brother. MTSO came out twice a week, typically on Tuesday and Saturday to remind Cary of the two best friends he had in ministry. Ray went to MTSO but his other friend, Ann, went to Candler, or as Cary loved to jokingly call it, “Chandler.” No Candler mug in the mix but it didn’t matter. When he drank his coffee from MTSO he thought of them both, prayed for them both and gave thanks to God that he knew they were always just a call away. MTSO was a good memory mug – laughter from residency, long, late night talks at Annual Conference, and just the memory that these three very different people ended up so close to one another. If someone would have taken wagers on the military haircut Ray and the long haired Cary becoming friends, they would have lost a bundle. It was rocky, but perhaps the rockiness made the friendship that much stronger. Of the three, and sadly there used to be four, but that is a story for another day, Cary is the only one still serving a local church. He acknowledges that the other two do great work for the Kingdom…better work for the revolution that Jesus wishes to bring…than he often manages on his best days.

Friday was the day for the “Brown Mug from North Carolina.” Cary wasn’t sure of the pottery that produced it but it clearly was hand thrown and it was his Friday mug. Given to him by a former Associate Pastor, this mug was Cary’s Sabbath mug. (Yeah, pastors do take a Sabbath day and it ain’t Sunday, that for certain.) Cary uses BMNC because it’s all about grace. The Deacon who gave it to him taught him a lot about receiving grace. They worked well together, but they did so in a difficult place at a difficult time. Her creativity and spirituality helped to keep the church they served very well grounded. Truth be told, Cary wasn’t completely forthright about how bad things were when he brought this Deacon into the mess and that was wrong. And Cary didn’t talk about everything that went on with him while they worked together. It was one of the many wrongs Cary could never make right again. The BMNC was a reminder of that tragic truth of life. More so that despite the wrong, their was peace between Cary and Julia, the Deacon, not because of Cary’s honesty, but due solely to the amazing grace Julia showed.

“It’s a good way to start a Sabbath,” Cary would think. “The bitterness of coffee and the sweetness of grace.”

Yeah, there is an abundance of mugs in Cary’s parsonage. Most of them don’t get used by him. There are others in the house who find the other mugs more to their liking. But these four take up six important places in Cary’s life. And they cover six days.

And that leaves Thursday.

Well, you must wait to hear about Thursday because you don’t quite know enough about Cary to understand. You can rest uneasily, though, that there is a mug for Thursday.  And that mug is the only one he loathes to use.

Shoes

I bent over and tied the strings of the shoes and took my first couple of tentative steps in these new dress shoes. Well, new is not right. They are used but they are new to me. A color that is somewhere between Oxford and brown. Soles that are made to last or shoesat the very least be replaced when they wear out.

The first step was a bit odd. There was some tightness on the top of my right foot and I wondered if this was going to be a permanent rubbing spot of if the shoes would mold their way over from their old owner to me. I knew before the day was done, the shoes were still pliable.

What I really wondered about was whether the new owner was pliable as well.

These original owner of these shoes was not a pastor, but I have to say that throughout my life I never met a man who was more an advocate for his pastor than the owner of these shoes. I recall a time that one of his pastors came under attack by anonymous letters and he stood from the pulpit and said, “I will be checking the mail from now on, folks. And any letters that come to this church without return addresses or signatures will go in the trash.” Far as I know, the original owner of the shoes made good on that promise, for the attacks died away and the pastor continued leading in peace.

I recall one time when I came under some criticism as the pastor of the owner of the shoes and this time, he set out to order a load of horse manure and have it dumped on the front yard of the leader of these antagonists. His wife talked him out of it but I found out he had the price and was ready to write the check to have it done.

The original owner of these shoes was no pastor, but he knew what it meant to care for a pastor, advocate for a pastor, and even be angry for that pastor when the pastor could not do it on his own.

The original owner of these shoes was no preacher but he knew a good sermon when he heard it and gave praise where praise was due. The only problem was, you needed to know his scale of praise.

One week, while this shoe owner was out fishing with his family, he caught a fairly impressive 12 inch trout. He was quite proud of that catch and had his picture made with it. A little later in the day, his wife managed to land a 15 inch monster of a trout. The owner of the shoes looked at the fish and said, “Well, that’s decent, I guess.”

Preachers needed to know this. A “good” sermon was just okay, but chances are, if you hit one out of the ballpark, the owner of the shoes would tell you, “That was decent.”

The owner of the shoes which I put on for the first time yesterday, was not a perfect man but he was a man that was after God’s own heart. I cannot count the number of times I saw him sitting in a chair, Bible open, coffee at his side, eyes closed in prayer. Sometimes the shoes would be on. Sometimes they would be off. But this owner of the shoes knew he needed to walk where Jesus walked.

I put the shoes on yesterday and I wear them again today knowing that these are my Dad’s shoes. He passed away in December and my mom cleaned out his closet and asked me if I wanted these shoes – if they fit okay, that is.

Well, they go on my feet just fine. They tie up nice and neat and have even garnered a compliment or two. But I have a feeling it will take me quite some time before they really fit. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But at least I will have the reminder of what Dad was and what I can be.

Tomorrow, I think I will wear them again.

 

How do you pray?

When you said, “I don’t know how to pray.”
I thought:

Sometimes I pray with my eyes closed, watching the images of my imagination work their way across the part of my brain I am trying to keep perfectly still;
prayer-tearsSometimes I pray as the aroma of coffee wafts its way into my thinking senses;

Sometimes I pray with tears;

Occasionally, I pray with a soft pillow under my head and my beloved held in my arms;

Sometimes I pray with my feet propped up on my desk and a pen in my hand;

At times, I pray with words…but mostly not;

Sometimes as I pray I am surrounded by music that fills in the blank spaces and teases me toward God – Katy Perry does a fabulous job but Jewell is better;

Sometimes as I pray I laugh, well, I giggle a little – the absurdity overcomes me at times;

Occasionally the bitter sting of coffee goes across my tongue even as words to the Almighty find their way out;

Sometimes I pray with open eyes, glancing at the miracle of a new life, the wisdom held by the binding of a book, the serenity of a sleeping cat, or the soothing color of a glass of wine;

At times my prayers run over with thankfulness or fear – usually in equal measure;

prayerThere are those rare and precious moments when my mind and my surrounding conspire in their quiet and I know I must be praying.

I know some people say they don’t know how to pray.

Problem is…I don’t know how not to.