Spending Time

I am spending time in a place in the mountains of Virginia with dear friends and colleagues. It is a place not many miles from Tinker Creek, where Annie Dillard went on a pilgrimage. 

There she wrote of “spending” time, not in the passive way we normally use the word, but in it’s literal, more active (and troubling) sense. Each thing we do or don’t do each day is a trading in the currency of minutes. “Spend the morning,” she said. “Spend the afternoon,” she implored more emphatically. “You can’t take it with you,” she proclaimed, the words on the page evoking the cadences of an Appalachian country preacher in full invocation. 

As I sit in this circle of friends, framed by mountains bathed in the morning sun, I have only one quibble with Annie. Time spent with friends and family, time spent in community, time spent cultivating love, time spent giving and receiving grace…it may pass, but it is never gone like a twenty at the grocery store. I believe, in the mystery of God’s grace and God’s time, it remains. 

Paul said faith, hope and love remain when all else has passed away. I believe he meant that in the economy of God there is a kind of time you can spend, and, when you find yourself at the end, reach in your pocket and find you were able to take it with you after all. A walk with a friend by a running stream passes time and comes to an end, and yet remains, by grace, in the heart of God and in mine as well. 

Could that be what Jesus meant when he said, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…?”

Time for me to stop writing. I have yet more time to spend and treasure to store. 


Coming to You Live

I remember Jessica as an eighth grade girl, riding in the car with me going to some church youth event at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when the familiar words came through the radio, “Coming to you live from the Fitzgerald Theater in beautiful downtown St.Paul, Minnesota…”

Jessica made a face and reached to turn the station.

“No you don’t. Don’t you know what this is?”

“It sounds terrible,” she replied.

“This is ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ with Garrison Keillor,” I said. I proceeded to give a ten minute speech on why this was the best thing she would ever hear on the radio, while Garrison crooned a Patsy Cline duet with Emmylou Harris in the background. Jessica cringed with visceral disgust at the steel guitar solos.

A few weeks ago I was sitting next to my friend Jessica and Garrison, decked in red tennis shoes and gray suit, said those words we were longing to hear, “Coming to you live from the Ryman Auditorium in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee…”

She’s almost thirty now, and still a friend. She’s become everything a pastor could hope for – thoughtful, engaged, compassionate – a follower of Christ in word and deed.

And we sit in that old theater that before it hosted the Grand Ole Opry was a church and we hear Garrison talk about retiring and say, “Some of you were subjected to this show as children and youth, and now you subject other children and youth to it…” Kim and I both look at Jess and she laughs and smiles a knowing smile.

When the show is over Garrison hangs around and starts singing songs.

Out of nowhere, in this theater with pews for seats, he sang something it seems everyone in the place knew:

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

We were all singing. And I was remembering all the times over all the years I had sung this very song with my friend Jess. I thought of so many other friends as well throughout the years who have stood and sung this hymn of praise with me – too many to name, but all dear to me, all bound to me and I to them by the God whose blessings we sang in that old auditorium on those wooden pews.

I put my arm around Jess as we sang, “praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”

The sound seemed to linger, echoing off the walls. And in our hearts.

I am thankful for the blessings that flow from God. Among the one I’m most thankful for is the beloved community of the church and friends bound together by Christ in bonds which can never be broken.

I will miss Garrison. But I’m glad Jess will be subjecting young people to reruns for years to come.

Bound and Free – Sermon Preached May 8, the 7th Sunday of Easter

Paul and Silas travel to that place of prayer. You remember the place by the water from last week, the place where Lydia, the wealthy dealer in purple cloth, listened eagerly. It must have quickly become the place where they came to listen for this Spirit that was tearing down old walls, opening hearts and homes, changing things for them and in them.

I bet they sang there. We know the Philippians sang. It’s right there in Paul’s letter to them. He quotes a hymn – maybe it was the congregation’s favorite hymn. “Though Christ was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, and being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

Every congregation has its favorite hymns, the ones they sing standing a little straighter, with more volume, a little less self-consciousness. “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…” “Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart, Naught be all else to me save that thou art…” Immortal, invisible, God only wise; in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…” How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in God’s excellent Word!…”

So many of our congregation’s favorite tunes are accompanied by the pipe organ, an instrument that can rattle the walls. I have a friend who came to worship with us once, and as we were visiting later he said, “Man, your organist really blew the dust out of those pipes today. I loved it…wanted to stand and dance. You can dance to Bach, right?”

Another soundtrack of our church is the drone of the bagpipes. I know when those doors open and Tom appears in his kilt and strikes the first note of Highland Cathedral over the drone, tears will be shed.

We’ve been singing in the church from the start. The Philippian Christians go down to the water, outside the gates of the city, to the place of prayer. And there they pray and sing and listen.

Little do Paul and Silas know, but their singing in that place of prayer is a rehearsal for a time they will not sing by the water in the bright light of day, but in the deepest darkness; for a time when they will not stand and sing, but sit in painful shackles.

The little hymn they sing tells them the journey they are about to make. Christ emptied himself. Even to the point of death on a cross. Have the same mind in you that was in him.

Their cross waits in the form of a slave girl in the street.

She’s a fortune-teller. Her gift has caused her to be taken by people who are peddling her in the streets. She will tell you your future for a little money, but she doesn’t see any of the cash herself. Rome and all its colonies ran on these little micro-economies. The girl was probably sold to them by her own father. She is not free. Her owners are just around the corner, watching. Surely Paul and Silas know this. It explains why they allow it to go on for days. They know if they say anything or do anything, there could be trouble.

But on this day, Paul’s had enough. He believes this girl’s gift is really a burden, a possession by a spirit, and so with a word he sets her free.

Her freedom reveals the bondage of her owners, who are now without a source of funds. The salaries they earned off the back of this poor girl are gone. So they go to the police and the police arrest Paul and Silas and take them to the magistrate. The charges are simple. We do things a certain way around here. There are customs we observe. These are outsiders. They are Jews. If we let them get a foothold here, the whole system could come crashing down.

There’s fear in the air. Who exactly is bound and who is free? The magistrate makes quick work of these two Jews. The blows from the rods rain down on their backs in this painful and humiliating spectacle. They are forced not just into the prison, but into the interior of the prison, a dark and inescapable place. Still in terrible agony from the beating, their legs are forced open and stocks locked around their ankles in a painful position. The jailer is placed at the door for good measure.

Who is bound and who is free? The former owners of the slave girl, who were completely dependent on her oppression for their livelihood? The magistrate, who represents the Roman Empire and yet is so threatened by two Jewish preachers he has them beaten and thrown into the deepest part of the cell? The jailer watching the prison? Or the two men inside, singing?

Martin Luther King, Jr., in the last speech he gave in Memphis the night before he was assassinated, said, “There’s a certain kind of fire that no water can put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing, ‘Over my head I see freedom in the air.’”

Christians have been singing a long time – sometimes in beautiful sanctuaries like this, accompanied by pipe organs, and sometimes in prison, shackled and dark; sometimes in comfortable pews, and sometimes in the streets with water hoses and dogs trying to silence their song.

I wonder if it was when they got to the final part of the hymn, their favorite hymn, when the walls began to shake. You know the part. They would have already sung the part about Christ emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, suffering death on the cross. It is there, at that darkest moment of the hymn that it takes a dramatic turn.

“Therefore, God…”

There’s a change in key. “Therefore God highly exalted him, and gave him the name that is above every name…” The singing gets louder and louder, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth!” And maybe that’s when the ground begins to shake under the earth, when things begin to change, when old chains fall away, and closed doors open, and things take on a great clarity there in the darkness of that inner cell…a light shines, as the hymn reaches a crescendo, “and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus is Lord not Caesar and his magistrates. There’s freedom in the air.

Jesus is Lord, and no beating can change it. There’s freedom in the air.

Jesus is Lord, and no prison can hold him. There’s freedom in the air.

The organ changes key, there’s a grand pause, and we stand a little straighter and sing a little louder those last stanzas, the ones that rattle the walls.

“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.”

“High King of heaven, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision, O Ruler of all.”

“Thou reignest in glory; thou dwellest in light. Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight. All praise we would render, O help us to see ‘tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!”

“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose, I will not I will not desert to its foes; That soul though all hell endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Just when you think Highland Cathedral cannot get any higher, the organ joins the bagpipes, and you feel like you just might need seatbelts in the pews to hold you down. And when that final note ends and silence descends, I sometimes catch myself holding my breath.

It is in that moment, when the hymn has ended and the shaking has stopped and the chains have fallen, in the silence after the crescendo, where the full power of what has occurred is known.

You know they are free indeed, because Paul and Silas don’t go anywhere. None of the other prisoners do either. They too sense a different kind of freedom in the air. You know they are free because they stay there in that place of vulnerability. They do not let fear of being recaptured make them run. They show mercy to the jailer. And now he’s seen a freedom firsthand that Rome cannot conjure with its beatings and its crosses.

So the waters of baptism flow, and the church expands, built not on power or fear, but love and freedom. And so Christ’s church continues to be built, continues to shake up the ways of death, continues to break free from bondage, singing as we go. Amen.



Eagerly – Sermon Preached May 1, the 6th Sunday of Easter

In elementary school, at the beginning of the year, we had to write and present an essay on “What we did on our summer vacation.” I thought I was a shoe-in for the most exciting presentation. We had driven in a Ford Pinto from north Alabama to Corpus Christi, Texas, then switched to a suburban with extended family piled in and went from there to Mexico City. Who could top it for adventure? I even walked to the top of a pyramid.

When one of my classmates shared his story, though, I knew I was beaten. His family went on a trip that summer that consisted of getting in the van and going wherever they felt like driving. His dad got behind the wheel and said, “Okay, where will it be? North, south, east, or west?” And, according to my friend, they took a vote, and the direction with the most votes is the way they went. At the end of the day, they stopped at the first town that looked interesting, checked into a hotel, and took in whatever that town had to offer. After another night of rest, they repeated the vote the next day. “North, south, east, or west.” And off they went.

Everyone in the classroom was leaning forward as he recited place after place in this zigzag journey. Finally, one kid couldn’t take it anymore. “Where did you end up?”

The presenter looked confused. “Home,” he said. “You always end up home.”

Today we are brought into the middle of a journey where it looks like someone is voting each day – north, south, east, or west? When the reading begins, Paul and his companions are in Troas, which is on the coast of modern day Turkey. But the journey to that place has been anything but straight. North from Jerusalem, a hard turn to the west just east of Tarsus, then a kind of wavy motion, until they get to Antioch. Something interesting happens in Antioch. They suddenly turn north, and head straight into Asia. It seems a decision has been made. Paul has decided they are going to Asia. But each time he tries, the Spirit of Jesus stops him. No, not here. No, not here. And you see the arrow turn west again, and then a hard southern turn and they are in Troas.

The result is that if you look at a map of what is called Paul’s second missionary journey, you will find the trail looks like a line drawn by a distracted preschooler, with no clear indication of a destination. And that’s where we are when the reading for today begins, in a holding pattern by the Aegean Sea…waiting.

It is in Troas that the Spirit of Jesus, who has been denying them entry and telling them no all along, sends a vision, inviting them to, of all places, Europe.

And that’s where this meandering, rather indecisive journey, takes a turn. They immediately begin making plans to cross the Aegean Sea into Europe. They are “convinced” that this vision of a man from Macedonia is in reality the Spirit of Christ, and that they are being called to go.

Note the language. No more stops and starts. No more zigzags. “We set sail from Troas, and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi.”

Convinced. Immediately. A straight course

And now they are in a colony of Rome, at the edge of Europe. Philippi.

Philippi is a lot like, well, it’s a lot like Franklin. Lots of people live in Philippi, but few of them are from Philippi. I will show you what I mean. Raise your hand if you were not born in Franklin. Now raise your hand if you were.

There is another wanderer there as well. Lydia, who hails from Thyatira, which happens to be in Asia, the place the Spirit turned Paul away from, lives and works now in Philippi. If the women Lydia gathered at the riverside with on the Sabbath were to raise their hands to show whether they were or were not born in Philippi, the results would be much the same.

Philippi was founded in the middle of the fourth century BCE because of its proximity to gold mines. It remained a prosperous city throughout the Roman era because of those mines, and it was a main stop along the Roman trade routes from east to west.

Philippi is the place where few are from, the place where people come to make it, to be successful, to have arrived.

It is just the kind of place that attracted people like Lydia. She has come from Thyatira, which is in Asia, one of those places Paul was turned away from earlier by the Spirit of Christ. She has come to Philippi to pursue what must have been a lucrative career. She is a dealer in Purple cloth, which was highly sought after by the elites and royals, who paid well for it when they passed through Philippi, as they did often. We know she has a home and a household, which she clearly leads.

But there’s more to her than success. There’s something that keeps her coming on the Sabbath to the river bank, where other women also gather for prayer. Probably there were not enough Jewish men in this Roman colony to constitute a synagogue – you needed ten – so these women gathered by the water to pray. And Lydia is there. We don’t know how often she comes, but we do know on this day, her heart is open, and she is eagerly listening, hungry for the words Paul speaks.

I was in Whole Foods the other day preparing to give them my whole paycheck for a salad, when I heard a group of people talking in the check-out line. I deduced the three of them worked in one of the corporate offices around here, and they were here for a lunch meeting. One guy asked the other if he had gotten to the Title kickboxing workout he planned.

“No. Can’t find the time.”

“I know,” chimed in the third man. “I can’t believe we’re halfway through April. Seems like just yesterday it was Christmas.”

“Yes, and then summer. We’ve got our kids going in fifty directions this summer. Keeping them busy.”

There was a pause, like they were all reflecting for a moment. On what? The fleeting nature of time? The need for Sabbath? The longing in the depths of their souls?

The spell was broken when one of them got a text and moved the conversation back to the meeting at hand, the reason they had gathered at table.

Franklin is that kind of place. Filled with strivers. Filled with successful, well-educated, busy people. None of which is bad. It is what makes it such a vibrant and interesting and beautiful place to live.

Lydia is eagerly listening. Eagerly. Now, you need to be careful when you eagerly listen to the Word. Sometimes when that happens, when you do that, the Spirit that is always speaking and moving finds a way to break through the distractions, the stress, the drivenness, to reach the heart. And when that happens, we are not the same. Lydia is not the same. She and her household are all baptized. And she opens herself to the Spirit’s work in the world. She opens her home wide in hospitality, inviting Paul and his companions to stay with her. She shares her considerable resources; she has found the place and people that she wants to invest her time and money building.

We believe the church in Philippi was founded in her home and continued to meet there, and when Paul wrote the letter we call Philippians, the letter where he says of that church, “I thank my God whenever I think of you, and when I pray for you, I pray with joy,” it was read in the home of Lydia, where do doubt everyone leaned in to eagerly listen. Paul’s long and winding journey had brought him home, the truest home we will ever know, the heart of God.

I got my haircut last week. I know it looks like I decided to get a summer cut, but I actually did not go in intending to get it cut quite this short. The person who cuts my hair, who has cut my hair the whole time we have lived here, was clearly distracted. She admitted there were lots of things going on. She was really busy. I could tell she welcomed conversation, but I was kind of in that, “I’m just here to get my hair cut, not talk” mood. So I didn’t say much. But she kept talking.

And then, God spoke. She dropped her comb, and as she reached for it, the guard on the clippers just popped off, and proceeded to shave a strip about an inch and a half up my head. “Oh my,” she said. “That’s never happened before. I think I can fix this, but you’ll have a summer cut for sure.”

I couldn’t really see it. But she spent a lot of time fixing whatever it was. And apologizing. At least ten times. I could tell she was terribly upset with herself. When it was done, she showed me how it looked in the mirror, and said there would be no charge.

And that’s when I realized what I had done. I had closed myself off from the opportunity that had been placed before me to listen, to engage, to be present for someone who was clearly in need of that listening ear, and who probably thought she would find it in a pastor.

So I said I wanted to pay. She had cut a lot of hair, so maybe I should pay more. She laughed. And I said, “I’ll be praying for you in this busy time.”

She said, “I know I need to slow down. The days just fly by.”

“I know,” I said. “I know.” Then I left, because I had this sermon to finish. But I wish I had said, “I hope you do find that time. I hope we all do. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the long and winding and busy road leads you home, really home.”

But I was distracted myself, which is why I pray daily that my friend from elementary school was right, in a way deeper and truer than he could have imagined.

You always end up home. Let us eagerly listen for it. May it be so. Amen.