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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Snow Fatigue (Reprise)

(This is a blog I wrote in the midst of a particularly snowy winter in February 2011. Much is different today. We haven’t had nearly the snow this winter we did then. I no longer have children at home doing the snow dance. Kim refuses to sled with me, so we are enjoying the white landscape from the warmth of the living room window. The blessings of the day are different now, but no less real. So I thought I would dig out this post and share it again, with my prayer that all our southern tribe might choose to do the snow dance. It could be another four years before the next one.)

It didn’t take long for everyone to grow weary of the snow. In the south, the first snow is greeted as an almost sacred event, complete with Advent-like waiting, rituals (ice cube in the toilet, pajamas worn backwards, regional variations of snow songs and snow dances), meditative practices (sitting next to the phone or in front of the television, eyes closed, praying for a herald’s voice announcing the close of school), and, after long anticipation, the holy day itself, the first falling flakes sending everyone into praise.

I think we love it so much because it is, at least in these parts, a rare thing to behold. But this year familiarity has bred contempt. And I would say that most of us regard this latest blast of snow with a good deal of contempt. Schools have already been out for eight days this winter, bread and milk are once again leaving the grocery shelves, and southerners are displaying their complete inability to safely navigate the slippery roads. The snowflakes that only a couple of months ago brought squeals of joy now bring cries of protest.

We welcome the first snow and gladly receive its gifts. After that, the gifts begin to lose their luster until, by now, we see it as less gift and more curse.

But it remains true that if I go outside tonight and look out on this blanketed landscape, I will be greeted by a silent field of white, no less beautiful in the fourth iteration than the first. The time I can spend with my daughter, free of the constraints of the school day and the relentless march of assignments and projects, will be just as life-giving in February as it was in December. The joy of watching children bundled against the cold taking off down a hillside, screams of joy trailing behind them, is just as luminous today as on that first day.

The gifts are the same. The only thing that keeps me from receiving them with joy and thanksgiving is my own relentless need for the world to conform to the schedule I have set, for the times that belong to God to somehow correspond to the times as I conceive them.

Each day brings its own gifts, and not one day passes that does not contain within it blessings from Almighty God. The only thing that keeps me – keeps us – from seeing them, receiving them, and living into them, is my own ego, my own need to be sovereign.

As I type this, I am looking out the window of my study on another snowy landscape, and already I am worrying about the drive home, grousing about yet another Wednesday night cancellation of my all-important Bible study, angry that I’ll have to stop for bread and milk, and thinking about all the work I need to do tomorrow that may not get done if I can’t get back over here. And yet, somewhere deep within, another voice is vying for my attention, inviting me to step outside and see beyond the inconvenience, beyond the worry, beyond my ego – and receive the gift of the day, in all its glory.

I hope I can embrace the gift and receive the grace, to heed that voice this snowy night, and tomorrow, and all my days.

Time to get on the road to home – – gifts await. Who knows, maybe we’ll put our pajamas on backgrounds, place an ice cube in the toliet, listen for the herald announcing the closing of school, and dance the snow dance deep into the night.

There Your Heart Will Be

I am posting the sermon I would have preached tonight at our Ash Wednesday service. We had to cancel due to weather. It is based on the Gospel reading Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. I invite you to read the text prior to the sermon, and spend some time reflecting on its meaning. We will have elements from the Ash Wednesday public worship service this Sunday, including the imposition of ashes for any who choose to receive them. Blessings to you all as we observe a holy Lent.

It has always seemed a bit strange to me that the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday every year is this passage from Matthew where Jesus warns his followers to “beware practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them…”

On the day when Christians around the world will do the very thing Jesus says not to do – walk around in public practicing our piety with ashes smeared on our foreheads – we hear this cautionary note.

At the beginning of a season when followers of Jesus will take on various fasts – from chocolate to Facebook to alcohol to various and sundry bad foods, bad habits, or bad language, and everyone will want to know “What did you give up for Lent?” – Jesus himself warns about the dangers of calling attention to our fasts.

At the outset of a forty day season that sees a steady increase in worship attendance, with a popular spirituality center that invites all ages to pray with water and stones and art work and a labyrinth, a sanctuary kept open for people to come and pray, and lots of folks taking on spiritual disciplines, we hear Jesus say to pray in your room with the door shut in secret.

We could be excused for being a bit confused by these mixed messages. Lent seems at one and the same time a very public display of spirituality with a label plastered across it like those black box warnings on some prescriptions – Beware, Lent could cause unexpected side effects.

Perhaps it is a good thing that Ash Wednesday arrives on an icy Middle Tennessee this year, forcing the cancellation of the evening service. The weather has forced most of us into the very position Jesus commends – to practice our spirituality out of sight of others, locked in our ice-covered prayer closets, the only ashes available the homemade variety, and no one to see except perhaps our closest family. It has forced us to begin our fasts – whatever they are – in secret.

Note that Jesus doesn’t issue a blanket condemnation of public prayer and fasting, but instead addresses motives. Do not practice your piety in order to be seen. Do not give alms that you may be praised by others. Do not pray that you may be seen by others. Do not fast in such a way as to show others you are fasting. In doing these things, Jesus says, the ones doing them are seeking a reward – the reward of being seen as righteous, pious, and generous by other people. Jesus condemns faith practiced as self-promotion, as performance for other eyes. If that is the reward they seek, says Jesus, it is the reward – the only reward – they will have. It is as if they are storing up treasures on earth, instead of in heaven, and everyone knows the earthly treasures are temporary and vulnerable, and, like us, destined for the ash heap.

It seems to me the key verse in this text, and for all of Lent, is the last one – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If our faith, our spirituality, is all about being seen and heard by others; if our ego becomes more important than our service; if our life of faith is motivated by the equivalent of Facebook “likes,” then our heart is precisely there in those “treasures,” rather than in God. It is not really about whether we pray in a locked room or in the sanctuary or the spirituality center; nor is it about whether we receive ashes or fast or take on spiritual disciplines; it is not even about whether other people see us – no, the fundamental question of Lent and of Jesus’ teaching here is why do we do these things, the question is the location of our hearts.

Today many of our brothers and sisters are walking around wearing ashes. Far from a public display of piety for the purpose of being seen by others, it is actually the very opposite. The ashes are a reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. On the very first day of Lent we are reminded that our faith is a gift, not an accomplishment; that our lives, including the next breath we take, are gifts; that we are sustained not by our religious practices, but by the grace of God to which these practices point.

And we dare to say that this is good news. It is good news to know that we are dust sustained by God. It means we can finally put away the pretense of perfection, we can be done with the need to impress, we can banish from our consciousness the soul-killing, heart-displacing idea that we are the sum total of our success. I am dust. You are dust. The Pope is dust. The wealthy are dust. The poor are dust. No matter your race, your nationality, your gender, your sexuality, your politics, your righteousness or lack thereof, your success or failure, you and I are dust.

Ash Wednesday is the great leveling day when we are invited to look deeply into our hearts and see beating in that center of our being not our ego, not our carefully constructed selves, but simply God’s grace – which holds all things together.

From this posture we are prepared to walk into Lent meaningfully, to take on disciplines, to lay down distractions, to pay attention to the placement of our hearts, knowing that we are sustained in this practice not by the praise and attention of others, not by our ability to do it right, but only by the God who breathes into our dusty selves the breath of life which is true life.

I have been troubled all week by the heart-breaking news of a family who in the process of stopping to help a motorist on the icy interstate were killed. Much was revealed in that event. The clearest revelation is the fragility and vulnerability of life and how easily and unexpectedly it can be snatched away – we are dust.

But something else was also revealed on that highway. Beating beneath the dust were hearts focused not on themselves, but on the stranger, on the other whom they did not know. There is no doubt where their hearts were located. We are more than the flesh and blood bodies we possess – so much more. And when we awaken to this reality, we can be agents of God’s transformation of the world.

Yes we are dust.  And we belong to God, who made us and in whom we live and move and have our being.

So this year, in the cold and quiet landscape of this rare Tennessee ice and snow, let us take Jesus up on his challenge and receive the gift of this most unusual Ash Wednesday to go into our prayer closets, take up our fasts, and take on our disciplines… with very few witnesses. Let us remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and quietly align our hearts with the only treasure worth pursuing.

Let us observe a holy Lent. Amen.

And…

I just completed a Doctor of Ministry class entitled, “Stop Making Sense: Searching for the Hidden God: Judaism after the Holocaust.” It was taught by a rabbi in Austin who is also an accomplished jazz musician, Neil Blumofe. As you might imagine, the subject was intense, and it brought out lots of emotions and strong opinions.

He had a phrase he used over and over as we discussed topics that were often painful or controversial. Someone in the class would offer a few words, either in response to the professor or to someone else in the class, and he would respond:

“Thank you for sharing that. I really like the way you are coming at this issue…and…”

The and was followed by another way of looking at the issue, another perspective that could be brought to bear, or an alternative voice that might argue with the one just presented. It was his way of reminding us, especially when we became sure of ourselves and our positions, that there is almost always an and

It was our professor’s way of acknowledging that the things we were discussing were complex, with multiple points of view, and no easy resolution. There may be a “right” answer, but it would be hard for us in our human limitations to arrive at one on which we could all agree. So, instead of searching for the right answer, he invited us to consider that there might be more than one right answer, that instead of saying “I heard you, but you’re wrong,” in situations of great change and controversy, we might try saying, “I heard you, and here’s another way to look at it.”

These ands opened up a gracious space where real learning occurred. We valued each voice at the table and together tried to uncover the larger truth we were exploring, while knowing we could never, as limited human beings, arrive at absolute truth.

I thought quite a bit during my time in Austin about our meeting of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, which occurred on the Saturday before I left for Austin on Sunday. The presbytery took up several amendments to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of which, having to do with the definition of marriage, was complex and controversial. We ended up voting in favor of all the amendments The process we used to arrive at that vote included several small group discussions, worship with communion, and very careful and respectful listening to each other, even when we did not agree. I came away from the meeting encouraged that it is possible for us to address the issues of our day in a manner that models the way of Christ, who built a church marked by reconciliation and peace in the midst of diversity.

Some left the meeting overjoyed. Some left the meeting sad and perhaps even angry. All left the meeting as part of the Body of Christ, committed to living together in the tension and uncertainty of our changing times, knowing that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. In that affirmation, we are freed to say, “Yes, I hear you, you are by brother/my sister…and…”

I left the meeting grateful to be part of the congregation I serve and the denomination to which we belong. In many ways, First Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a model for how people can come together from a variety of places and hold a range of views while still remaining one body. We can disagree, even significantly, and yet we realize that our unity is not an achievement we can boast, but a gift from God, a sign of grace. As we continue on this journey that seems to involve great change all around us, may we be ever mindful of the quiet center that never changes – the presence of Christ, who claims us in Baptism, addresses us in the Word, and nourishes us at the Table. It is only from that center that we are able to speak with each other in honesty and love.

I didn’t realize at the time, but the professor was conducting our class like a jazz concert, unafraid of improvising, welcoming the discordant note, making room for all the instruments, and striving to make of this diversity a unity that reflects, however imperfectly, something of the beauty and truth of God. May it be so for this church that God calls to be a blessing to the world