In Praise of the “Mundane”

Shots ring out in a church basement, the Bible on the blood-stained table opened to the Gospel of Mark, and nine people are dead, including the pastor. Such horror, and yet…

Amid all the words spoken about the event, the ones that stood out to me were contained in a story that described the pastor’s day that Wednesday leading up to the shooting. Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the story said, began his day in Columbia doing some work as a state senator, but then told his colleagues he needed to leave to go to his church in Charleston, where he had an important meeting with the presiding elder of his church district. “There was the matter of the church elevator, long under construction. The budget needed review, and three congregants were officially received as new preachers. One by one they stepped before the group to receive certificates and applause. The meeting in the church basement ended around 8 p.m., and the crowd of about 50 dwindled to 12 of the congregation’s most devout members, who would remain for the Wednesday night Bible study. That was when the visitor, a young white man, came to the door, asking for the minister…the Bible study was open to all, and Mr. Pinckney welcomed him. They sat together around a green table, prayed, sang and then opened to the Gospel of Mark, 4:16-20, which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit” (New York Times, June 20, 2015).

My mind kept drifting back to this article as I heard other stories: The family of the slain one by one telling the killer of their loved ones that they forgive him, that they are praying for him, because “our faith teaches us to forgive.” The church opens its doors for worship only days after this horrendous event, singing hymns of hope, preaching a word that says evil and death do not get the last word, proclaiming that anyone who expected them to go out into the streets and riot, “doesn’t know us.” The churches all over Charleston – white and black – tolling their steeple bells in support and grief. Politicians abandon their usual partisan warfare to speak a unified word of support, and people across the nation examine once again our fraught history and ongoing struggles with racial divisions. Hope springs up from devastation, nurtured in the mundane like a seed sown in the earth.

We say at First Presbyterian that we are forming disciples of Jesus Christ, that the work of the church is to join God’s Spirit in transforming lives. Our mission statement is a simple one: “Responding to God’s grace through worship, study, and service.” We speak of the mission of the church beyond the walls of the church. We do this work in so many ways, often seemingly mundane. There are committee meetings and budget decisions. There are Sunday school classes and Wednesday evening Bible studies. Sometimes the elevator breaks or the roof leaks or the parking lot needs to be repaved. In the midst of these things, medical teams go to Beirut and high school youth go to West Virginia, Habitat houses are built and ice cream is churned for Martha O’Bryan Center.

People like me, whose vocational life is centered in the church, can sometimes fall into the trap of worrying whether or not the week after week of worship and preaching, the teaching and formation, the seemingly unending meetings, really make a difference. We scatter so many seeds and sometimes look longingly at the ground for evidence of growth, in others, and in ourselves. But then nine people are killed in a church basement at a routine Bible study after a day of meetings, a pastor is laid to rest along with some of the most devout members of the church, and the very next Sunday the doors swing open and words of reconciliation and hope are spoken once more.

It shouldn’t take such an event for us to see what is always right there in front of us: God is at work through the ministries and missions of God’s church, God is transforming lives in ways visible and not so visible each day, and nothing…nothing at all that we do in response to God’s grace is ever wasted, is ever without impact – from the interminable committee meeting to the singing of a hymn to the swinging of a hammer – God takes up all our gifts and uses them, and us, for the healing and hope of the world. We scatter seeds, but God gives the growth, God transforms lives.

We saw that healing and hope, that growth and transformation, with crystal clarity this past week in Charleston. May we see it with the same clarity in our own midst, for it is surely here, even in the “mundane,” which, by God’s grace, is anything but.

Breaking Bread – A Poem in Honor of our Wednesday Night Live Cooks

Breaking Bread

In Thanksgiving for Nancy, Lucy, and Margaret

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Bread is broken

In an upper room, feet wet from washing

At table with a stranger met on the sad road from Jerusalem to Emmaus

Among Jews and Gentiles in a Centurion’s home

By the glimmering lake with five thousand friends

In a hall called Wilson

Bread is broken

 

French bread rich with butter

And chicken spaghetti, which shouldn’t work, but does

Tortilla chips stacked high on Taco Night

Bread firmly, lovingly embracing hot ham and cheese

Cornbread that settles on the tongue like honey

Topping off the grand champion meatloaf and mac and cheese

Lines out the door for dressing and turkey

 

Bread is broken

 

Through the torn and fragrant edges

Through mouthfuls of meatloaf

Sweet tea poured like wine

Children laugh

Friendships deepen

Families slow down and sit

Free from the wheel of activity

To talk and eat and love

 

Every time, every place, every meal

He is there, as he promised

 

It is said

Blessed are the feet that bring good news

Let it also be said here

Blessed are the hands that make good food

Feeding bodies

Feeding souls

Sharing hospitality in the form of scalloped potatoes and spaghetti casserole

Holy work, done with joy

And we are grateful

Chris Joiner, May 13, 2015

Baptism and Confirmation

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Every Confirmation Sunday, the students process down the center aisle at the beginning of worship with a long, narrow baptismal banner. In various shades of blue, it helps us imagine a stream of water flowing down through the gathering. They place the banner on the font itself, and it remains there throughout the service.

From its position, one can imagine the waters flowing into or out of the font. In fact, they are.

The waters flow into the font when we gather, each of us empowered by the Spirit to worship God with heart and mind and voice.

The waters flow out of the font when we scatter to what we call “the world,” but which is really God’s world. God is already at work in those places where we go – in our homes, in the marketplace, in our schools, in political discourse, in our places of work and play, in the wider world which we read about or watch across the computer or television screen. The waters through which we pass catches us in their gracious flow to join in God’s work in God’s world.

The Confirmation class plans and leads the service. As they make their way to the chancel, my eye catches the font, its silver bowl gleaming in the natural sunlight in the sanctuary. Each one of these impressive students has walked through these waters. As I see them lead us so well, with their many and varied gifts, I can almost see the waters running down their faces, claiming them and calling them. It leaves me with one feeling.

Hope.

Hope for the church, to be sure, because these young people are not part of the church of tomorrow, but very much part of this community today.

But more importantly, hope for God’s world, because these youth flow out the doors of this place, drenched in water, and become part of God’s mission in the world.

Flowing in…flowing out.

There is hope.

A Thoughtful Gift

I walked into my study last summer and found on my desk a gift. It was around the time of my tenth anniversary as pastor here, and the gift was ten of my favorite things. It was clear that each item in the basket had been thoughtfully considered. I just want to run through some of them here in case anyone has thoughts for the eleventh anniversary – there was Peet’s Coffee, and an Alabama tumbler, a bottle of red wine from Sonoma, and some really peaty Scotch – the kind you can still taste a few days after drinking it – organic dark chocolate, and did I mention Scotch? The most meaningful part of the gift was the cards inside, each one with words of grace and love that were immediately written on my heart. And there was Scotch.

There is no moment more fraught with the potential for transformation than the moment two people stand facing each other, one bearing a gift, the other poised to receive it. Will the one for whom it is intended receive the gift, or reject it? If accepted, will the gift be cherished, or discarded? More importantly, will the gift alter the relationship between giver and receiver, perhaps facilitating reconciliation, or joyful transformation, or deepening love?

Some of the busiest days of the year for retail stores are the ones leading up to Christmas, as people rush to the stores to buy gifts so they can stand face to face with someone in relationship to them and have that moment – one giving the gift, the other receiving it. And some of the equally busiest days of the year for retailers are the days after Christmas, when the lines to return or exchange the gifts are long enough to rival the lines only days earlier when they were purchased.

Maybe that phenomenon is a sign, among others, that we should take more seriously the impact of that fraught moment, when we stand face to face, gift in hand, giving and receiving, that we recognize what is at stake. More is happening than the exchange of goods, more is happening than the fulfillment of a cultural obligation – to give and receive is to remember who we are – children of God, children of grace – and when we give grace and receive grace, we are tapping into the thing that sustains us all, the love of God.

We come here this night on the receiving end of a gift God offers us, face to face in Jesus Christ. Rowan Williams says, “For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted.”

This table set before us is a sign in the world of this giving God. We remember that on this night, Jesus told his disciples that the things that were about to happen to him, the tearing and shredding of his body, the pouring out of his blood, were going to be the ultimate sign of God’s welcome and God’s mercy. Jesus reaches out with the gift – bread and wine – in a moment fraught with the potential for transformation – this is my body, this is my blood – take and eat, make your home in me, allow me to make my home in you.

The words we use in the Lord’s Supper are words given to us by Paul, who says they were handed on to him by others, and are heavy on memory. Take, eat, and remember. Mark, the earliest gospel writer, follows closely to Paul, as do Matthew and Luke. And the church through the ages has largely followed suit, seeing this meal as a remembrance. On the front of our Communion Table are the words, “In remembrance of me.” It is important to remember. There is power in remembrance.

But there is more to this meal than remembrance. John, the last gospel writer, tells his story of the last meal with an eye cast not to the past, but to the future. The disciples are called upon to observe what Jesus does. Jesus gives. He stretches out his hand and offers this most fraught of gifts, to take the feet of his students, his disciples, and to serve them, to wash them. Peter tries to reject the outreached hand, but is gently reminded that to receive grace is as important as giving it, that to be part of the community Christ is building is to participate in this vulnerable giving and receiving.

They are asked not so much to remember, but to go and do, to live into the future knowing that the power of this love will be present in the Risen Christ, not as a faded memory, but as an active agent in the world; not as words in the pages of an old book, but as a living Word.

John sends us out looking for this sacrament in every place we go. His is an invitation to live sacramentally in the world, to recognize that any moment can be a moment of gift.

It is unfortunate that the name Leonardo DaVinci gave to his magisterial painting (which we see so beautifully represented here) was “The Last Supper.” It seems a mistake.

It was not the last supper. If anything, it was only the beginning, a foretaste of many to come. We sometimes call this meal Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. When we give thanks, we “connect our experience with the reality of God the giver…If in every corner of experience God the giver is at work, then in every situation we encounter, God the giver is present and our reaction is shaped by this.”  We become a Eucharistic people, a thanksgiving people.

I recall a Choctaw family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma who fed us cornbread and drunken beans after a long day of building. The cook’s shoes had holes in the top, yet his joy was palpable as he ladled the beans and sent the cornbread (the kind that melts before you can swallow it) around again and again. As he served, he kept saying, ‘thank you.’ I had the sense it was not so much to us, as it was to the God who had brought us all together.

I remember a meal – tuna casserole and sweet tea – in the basement of a church building on Highway 13 after we buried Russ, age 19, after he slid off the road on the way home from college for the summer. His grandmother prayed for the meal, thanking God for the food through her tears.

Then there was that Peruvian restaurant in the Mission in San Francisco, when we devoured fish and pork and wine and laughed like the kingdom had come, where the whole restaurant seemed to unify in a joy that transcended language and race, and we found ourselves saying thank you.

He broke the bread and poured the wine and said “remember me,” but it was not the last supper.

Each time we eat, we remember the mandate – “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

Each day is held before us, a basket on the desk, from the hand of the giving God, fraught with the potential for transformation. We take it – dare we take it? – it has the texture of bread, the aroma of wine – it is both gift and command. Love.

Amen.

The Last Supper

I’m not sure when we started calling it the Last Supper, but it seems a mistake. It was not the last supper. If anything, it was only the beginning, a foretaste of many to come. 

I recall a Choctaw family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma who fed us cornbread and drunken beans after a long day of building. The cook’s shoes had holes in the top, yet his joy was palpable. 

I remember a meal- tuna casserole and sweet tea – in the basement of a church building on Highway 13 after we buried Russ, age 19, after he slid off the road on the way home from college for the summer. His grandmother prayed for the meal, thanking God for the food through her tears. 

Then there was that Peruvian restaurant in the Mission in San Francisco, when we devoured fish and pork and wine and laughed like the kingdom had come. 

He broke the bread and poured the wine and said “remember me,” but it was not the last supper.

Each time we eat, we remember the mandate – “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.” 

It was the first of many. 

The Peace of Christ

G.K. Chesterton was one among a number of writers in Britain that the London Times asked to write essays answering the question, “What’s Wrong with the World?” His reply was shortest and most to the point:

Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G.K. Chesterton

Yesterday, the Presbyterian Church (USA) ratified a change in our Constitution that defines marriage in a way that includes same sex couples. This change represents the culmination of thirty years of debate within the church. There are some in the congregation who are overjoyed with this news. There are some who are upset in the congregation. There are some who have already left the congregation and denomination over the last four years, as we first allowed for homosexuals to be ordained in 2011.

We will be having a congregational forum on May 18 from 6:30-8:30. A-J Levine of Vanderbilt Divinity School will lecture on “The Bible and Homosexuality,” and we will hear from the Director of the Synod of Living waters, Terry Newland; the Executive Director of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, Warner Durnell; and the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee (and member of our congregation), Therese Howell.

My prayer for this time together, and my prayer for the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a simple one. May God grant us all the gift of humility. In the end, the Church is born in and sustained by grace. We are, all of us, called to engage in the seemingly impossible task of following Christ. We will, all of us, fail at it again and again. And we will, all of us, discover in our failures a wellspring of grace that picks us up and places us back on the path. Not one of us is justified by our works, not one of us is justified by having “the correct position,” not one of us is justified by the church to which we belong. We are justified by grace.

The only honest answer any of us can provide to the question of “What is Wrong with the World?” is the one Chesterton gave. I am.

If we can find the humility and self-awareness to answer the question that way, the next step becomes clear. We need each other. We need the community of faith, because it is within the community of faith we can share the journey of discipleship, where we can bump up against people who perhaps do not agree with us, where we can weep with those who weep and laugh with those who laugh and together worship a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts and whose ways are not our ways.

I will take my usual place next Sunday at the baptismal font and call on all of us to do what we Presbyterians do each time we worship – to tell the truth about ourselves and this world. We call it the Call to Confession, but it is really just a simple question. What’s wrong with the world? When we pray what we call the Prayer of Confession, we are answering, “I am.” Then we hear the Assurance of Forgiveness, grace pouring down like baptismal water.

And then…then, we turn to each other – white, black, brown, rich, poor, liberal, conservative, gay, straight, broken, grieving, joyous, confused, self-assured – the whole heaping diverse lot of us…and we say:

The peace of Christ be with you.

That we would have the humility, and the courage, to say and mean and live these words – that is my prayer for the church and for a world longing for grace.

Turn It On

Last week one of the children of the church came up to her parents and asked if she could go to the Spirituality Center. The response of her mother was, “Is it on?” The child said, “I don’t know, but if it isn’t, I know how to turn it on.” And off she went.

It gives me joy to see the interest in spending time in the Spirituality Center coming from all ages. It is something we all look forward to every Lent, and I am grateful to all who help make it happen. But I had to make an admission to the mom after her daughter walked away. “I don’t understand what you mean by ‘turning on’ the center?” Turns out there were all kinds of things I had missed on my visit.

The truth is I had made a quick pass through the Spirituality Center one afternoon, casting glances at the various centers, seeing enough to know it was an exploration of each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer. But I had other things pressing in on me, so I failed to really see and experience the grace all around.

So I returned, and this time I turned it on. I turned on the candles at each station, the running water, and the music. I stopped at each station and did the practices each invited.

I touched the water in the crystal bowl, reminding myself that I am baptized, that I enter this space of prayer as a child of God.

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I lit a candle and said a prayer for someone in pain.

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I listened to music and read the text to the Hymn, “I Believe in God the Father.”

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I looked at the drawings of so many of our children’s visions of what the world looks like when the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.

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As I tasted bread, I prayed for those who lack daily bread.

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I acknowledged my sin by writing on a stone and submerging it in water as a reminder of the God who forgives and washes me clean.

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I contributed to the symbols of peace and forgiveness made from the stones.

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I added to the paths traced by others, praying that God would lead me in paths of righteousness.

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I knelt in prayer, breathing in and out the truth that “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

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When I said the final “amen,” I remembered words that the late Shirley Guthrie often said. “You cannot control the grace of God and you cannot predict where it will emerge. But you can put yourself in the place where that grace has been known to happen before.” I thank the child who reminded me that day to slow down, place myself in that gracious space, and turn it on. Spiritual disciplines are not how we control God’s grace or earn God’s grace. They are how we put ourselves in the place where God’s grace has been known to happen. And when we do that, we sense the truth and power that is always present if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

If you haven’t already, please visit the Spirituality Center this Lent. And don’t forget to turn it on.

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