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.

IMG_1132

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

IMG_1134

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

IMG_1137

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.

IMG_1138

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

IMG_1140

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.

IMG_1141

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

IMG_1142

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

IMG_1143

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

IMG_1146

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.

IMG_1148

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.