One of my favorite stories of all time, from May 2014.
When the youth group goes to Fort Caswell for the spring retreat, one of the many traditions involves a team building exercise known as The Wall. The Wall is about 10-12 feet high and 6-8 feet wide and kids who choose to participate scale the wall with others in their grade. It’s always a beautiful thing to watch.
This year, Cameron, a 16 year old who has been raised in the church, made his first trip to Caswell. He’d been on other youth trips, but not this one; so he’d never seen The Wall, never participated in this tradition. Of course, he didn’t have to do it. No one would have objected if he’d taken a pass.
You see, since birth, Cameron has developed at a different speed than other children. One orthopedist even told his parents not to expect much in the way of gross motor development, saying that Cameron would likely be in a wheelchair. (His parents got a different orthopedist.) It took him awhile, but with the help of a kid-sized walker, Cameron put one foot in front of the other, and by the time he was four and a half years old, he was walking on his own. These days, while his muscle tone is still relatively low, he gets around fine. He does, however, walk slower and more intentionally than most folk. And, well, he just has to work a little harder than other people to move through the world.
But back to Caswell’s wall.
“Are you going to climb The Wall, Cameron?” We asked him mostly out of courtesy, not wanting him to feel left out.
“Yep,” he said, looking over his glasses that had once again slipped too far down his nose; and he made his way over to lifelong friends who awaited him at the wall.
Physically, Cameron couldn’t offer much assistance at all. He couldn’t push or pull himself up. He couldn’t reach out or grab hold. If he panicked, he would fall. If he struggled against them, they would drop him.
Cameron put his hands on sure shoulders and lifted a foot onto the human stool; his friends did the rest. One adult and two girls standing on the back of the wall reached down, while several guys at the base helped lift him up. Other teens gathered around, arms extended, ready.
He progressed, inches at the time, eventually straddling the top of the wall. Once there though, he seemed to get stuck. A moment of uncertainty followed when no one was exactly sure how to proceed. Then another teen—a bulky weight lifter—popped up on the back of the wall, reached down, and gently lifted Cameron’s leg up and over.
Cameron got his balance, looked out over the crowd, and hesitantly lifted a hand to wave.
Now for most kids, getting down is easy; but Cameron couldn’t jump off the platform to the ground without injury. No worries! His friends had already figured it out. Four strong arms waited to cradle Cameron from the wall to the ground. He let go, they held on, and then he was down, smiling at the cheers and congratulations from his youth group.
Cameron punched his fist into the palm of his hand and said, “I did it!”
And he did. He really did.
First Baptist Church of Asheville Youth Group, Fort Caswell 2014
. . . like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood . . .
from 1 Peter 2:5
How fitting that on my first day as shepherd at Ecclesia Baptist, my "Hur" surprised me and came to the service. Thanks be to God for this precious and dear friend!
8Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. 13And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword. Exodus 17:8-13
Imagine the pressure: Moses—who as we know had his share of problems as leader of the children of Israel—is now in the midst of a battle. The battle goes well for his people as long as Moses lifts his arms; when his arms sag, so does the will of the people and the battle goes badly for them. Think about it. Or try it. Just try lifting your arms while you read this short blog. (I know: you have to lower one arm to scroll down. Make that little exception.) The leader, Moses, was faced with a situation that was physically taxing—one he could not manage on his own. Thank goodness for Aaron and Hur.
Most of us church goers have heard of Aaron. He’s the brother of Moses, the one who spoke for Moses. You may remember the story (you can find it in Exodus 4:13-15). But Hur is a less familiar name. Yet Hur seems to be a part of Moses’ inner circle of support just as Aaron was. In this passage, he’s there offering support to Moses when he grows weary. In a later passage (Exodus 24:13-15), Moses refers the people to Hur and Aaron for handling disputes when he left for the Mount of Sinai.
Leaders need people like Hur: people who will hold them up during times of trial, people they can rely on when responsibilities call them off site. In fact, leaders cannot lead effectively without the Hurs in their lives.
My Hur: Keisha
Several years ago, I was serving as coordinator of special grants at a community college. While there, I found out how a Hur can help a leader serve more effectively. In that job, (believe me) I had my share of battles. Sometimes I felt as if I were on the frontline, with student frustrations and provider disputes exploding all around me. I could not have managed on my own. Thank goodness for Keisha.
Keisha worked with me, fielding the frustrations and deciding the disputes. She held my arms up when I grew weary. She stood in for me when I had to be away. Of course, Keisha did not get a lot of credit in the annals of community college history for being my support system. But like Hur, Keisha shared her talents and abilities readily, making possible any successes we experienced in our little department.
Oh, you can put your arms down now. And be encouraged: you don't have to lead alone. Thank Goodness.
(Are you a Moses or a Hur? Have you had a Hur in your life?)
In 2009, I wrote this post for a different blog. June 22, 2014--I preached from this text, in part because our children had heard this story during VBS the previous week.
A rerun originally published July 31, 2011
Noise. Grating, irritating, cacophonous, noise. The strings sounded awful—each one seeming to play a separate tune. The brass burped out the bass clef—15 individual bass clefs that is. The woodwinds must have been playing the melody, but no one could tell it by listening. The whole orchestra was an utter mess. In fact, if this was any indication, the concert would be unbearable.
And it would have been too, because each musician focused on her own sound: each one listening for his own errors or her own expertise. Not one in the group was concerned with how they sounded as a whole. It was all about individual performance.
But then the conductor mounted his stand. The musicians silenced themselves. Maestro raised the baton. The instruments snapped to attention. With a wave of his hand, the music began. Stringed instruments lifted notes into the air as percussionists tapped out the beat. Horns came in, announcing their arrival, as the woodwinds snuck in behind them. Music floated through the auditorium, sending waves of delight through the audience. Harmony. It’s a beautiful thing: even more beautiful than the dissonance was annoying.
Here’s the thing: when the musicians’ thoughts were on their own weaknesses or their own strengths, their whole community suffered. Sound familiar? Isn’t that what it is like in the body of Christ? When individuals, persons or congregations, begin to focus on what they can and can’t do, the world hears clanging gongs and crashing symbols. To those listening, the discordance is jarring.
Yet when we turn our eyes to the Conductor of our faith, when we release our concerns and our confidences and allow ourselves to be led by Jesus, what beautiful music we make. The peaceful tones we express draw others to us and thereby to Christ.
We are called to make a joyful noise. Let us set aside our differences and sing in harmony, “Hallelujah! Lord God Almighty!”
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6 (NRSV)
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
It was January 13, 2009 and I was on my way to the college when my cell phone rang.
"Where are you?" my GWU friend asked.
"On the way. What's up?"
"Uhhh, nothin', just wanted to see if you wanted to meet Gary and me for coffee."
"You're out of class?" I asked. It was only 8:30 and they had Dr. Cal Robertson. Doc Cal never ends class early. Never. "I thought you had Robertson."
"We do. . . we just . . . well . . . we're at the coffee shop."
"Is something wrong with Robertson? Is he sick?" There was something she wasn't telling me, but she said he was fine. "Robertson is NOT fine if he let you out of class early."
"No, really. Robertson is fine."
I'm slow on the uptake at 8:30 in the morning. I didn't hear the shock in her voice, the utter disbelief. I didn't hurry. When I got to GWU, my friends met me, not at the coffee shop, but in the yard outside the divinity school.
"Aileen. Dr. Goodman died this morning," Donna told me.
"It's true Aileen," Gary said, "He collapsed in the shower. We don't know any more details right now."
"Dr. Goodman?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you sure?" (We ask stupid questions like that when we are in shock.) They nodded, even while still disbelieving the news themselves.
"We're having chapel today, but they changed the planned service. Now the focus will be Dr. Goodman." In a few hours, we all went to church. Here's what I wrote about that service.
The church of my childhood met in this space back in the 70's. It's where all my friends were and I loved it.
“When I was a kid,” my octogenarian friend told me, “I went to church every time the doors were open. But I didn’t necessarily go to learn about Jesus; I went because that’s where my friends were.”
I could relate; truly, the church was the hub of my social life until I went to college. Vacation Bible School, church camp and ice cream socials were highlights of my summer. All year long, I attended Sunday school, Training Union and any special event scheduled at the church. That’s where all my friends were. Why wouldn’t I want to go?
Of course, to be fair, in those days, there wasn’t much else to do on Sunday.
I grew up in the 1970s and back then, blue laws kept most stores in my part of the country closed on Sunday. Movie theaters didn’t open either, except for a few drive-ins which opened for the late movie (which was at 8, not 10). No way could you find a bowling alley open on Sundays, though, if memory serves, I did play a game or two of mini-golf after Sunday night church on occasion. The skating rink might open for a church party on Sunday if you prearranged it, and most public swimming pools opened on Sundays (but only from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so as not to conflict with services). Thus, when I was a kid, and certainly in the 1940s and ’50s when my senior friend grew up, church was just about the most fun you could have on Sundays without breaking a law.
The same applied to Wednesday nights when most Protestant churches (which back then were the only ones that counted anyway) had Bible study and family activities. I am certain I never had homework on a Wednesday night until late into high school — and that was likely because I had procrastinated and was playing catch-up. My brother’s little league sports never scheduled events — games or practices — on Wednesdays. The same was true for any civic or community activity. Whether it was Boy Scouts or dance lessons, Wednesday scheduling was out of the question. You might as well go to church. You didn’t have any valid excuse for missing.
Not true today.
In 2017, we can visit any number of fine restaurants and enjoy a leisurely Sunday brunch before catching a matinee at a nearby cinema. We can then follow that up with any activity we like: craft brewery anyone? Exception: if our kids play travel ball of any sort, they probably have games on Sundays, games that are out of town and require us to go on Saturday and spend the night.
On Wednesdays, kids have just as much homework as they do any other day (which is way too much, in my opinion, but that’s another column). Performances, practices and lessons happen just as frequently on Wednesdays as they do on other days. Wednesdays, once protected by societal norms from conflicting activities, are now fair game.
I hear lots of complaints about this perceived disregard for church culture. “Back in my day,” I’ve heard, “no business would dare open on Sunday. Little League ball games on Sunday? Not a chance.”
The thing is, though, businesses don’t open if they don’t make money. And they can only profit if they have customers. Same goes for kids’ ball games. You know why games are held on Sundays? Because children and their fee-paying parents participate on Sundays, that’s why. Plain and simple.
Parents tell me, “You would not believe how much homework little Johnny has on Wednesday nights. He couldn’t come to church tonight because he had too much work for school.” That sounds exactly like parents have no choice, doesn’t it? I mean, the kid has to do their homework, right? OK, but just to be clear, when we had essentially no other choice, we went to church; now, when we have a conflict, church is absentmindedly kicked to the curb.
Me, I think it is good that now we have to make a choice. It is harder, yes, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, usually the more difficult a task or decision, the more valuable it is or will become. Gone are the days when we can just follow the masses to church without ever actually following God’s Son, Jesus Christ. But isn’t that good? Isn’t it better that we must choose how to spend our time and energy now? Isn’t it better that we make conscious choices to turn towards Jesus and away from other distractions?
So how about this: how about we stop wringing our hands about the things of the past that we can’t bring forward to our present day? Why don’t we step up to the challenge and choose church, choose Christ? If we do, I’m pretty sure that’s one choice we’ll never regret.
Originally published at baptistnews.com. Baptist News Global is one of my favorite sources of news and information related to faith. Really. You should check it out. Societal norms no longer bow to church. So what? – Baptist News Global
Back in 2011, I wrote this little parody of the classic children's story "The Little Red Hen." From time to time, I pull it out for the children's sermon. Today's message was from Acts 2:42-47; it felt like a good time for a retelling of The Little Red Church.
Once upon a time there was a little red church. The little red church had lots of friends. She had friends who were very old. She had friends who were adults but not too old. And she had friends who were still quite young. One day the little red church needed to bake some bread to send to God’s hungry children. The little red church went to her friends and said,
“Who will help me bake some bread to deliver to God’s hungry children?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We baked bread before, but we are tired now. We are too old to bake the bread.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We are busy busy busy. We have work to do and families to care for. We can’t take time to bake bread for people in need.”
“Not us,” said friends who were still quite young. “We are too young to bake bread. We don’t even know how. We will bake bread later when we are older.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not bake the bread herself.
But soon, the little red church tried again. Some of God’s children were sick, so she asked her friends,
“Who will help me visit God’s children who are sick?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We have our own aches and pains to worry about. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We have too many appointments to attend: not just for ourselves but also for our parents and for our children. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “We are not allowed to go to hospitals. We are much too young. We cannot go visit the sick either.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not visit the sick herself.
Before long, though, the little red church heard of another need: some of God’s children had just moved into town. So she asked her friends,
“Who will go and welcome God’s children who have just moved into town?”
“Oh, my, not us,” said the very old friends. “We have nothing to offer new people in town. They are young and we are old. We cannot go visit new people in town.”
“Not us either,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “Perhaps you could have them come to our offices. Or hey! We know. Tell them to come to the Civic Club meeting next Tuesday at 7. We will welcome them there.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “Stranger Danger!”
So the little red church just sighed. She decided to take a nap. She was so, so tired. The little red church slept for a very long time.
While the little red church was sleeping her friends began to get worried. They missed the little red church. They missed her singing. They missed her laughter. And they even missed her questions.
The friends who were very old talked together and decided, “We may not be able to do as much as we used to, but we could surely bake bread.”
The friends who were still quite young overheard them talking. “We have lots of energy but we do not know how to bake bread. Will you teach us?”
And so the friends who were very old and the friends who were still quite young began baking bread.
Meanwhile, the friends who were adults but not too old talked together and decided, “It doesn’t really take too long to visit someone who is sick if you plan ahead. We are very good at planning. Let’s make time to visit the sick.”
And some of the friends who were very old overheard their discussion and some of them said, “We would like to go and visit the sick, but we don’t like to drive downtown. Could you take us with you when you go to visit?”
And so the friends who were adults but not too old and the friends who were very old, began to visit the sick together.
About the same time, the friends who were still quite young began discussing the new students in their schools. “We can welcome these new children even though we don’t know their languages. Let’s go play with them.”
And the friends who were adults but not too old listened and thought, “We can welcome these children’s families too. Let’s have them share a meal with us.”
And so the friends who were still quite young and the friends who were adults but not too old began welcoming strangers.
In the little red church's yard, children were playing and laughing. In her kitchen, people were cooking and eating; in her sanctuary, people were praising and thanking God for gifts of hope and healing.
And so (naturally) the little red church woke up.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
This piece appeared first as my July column for Baptist News Global. You'll find the full text at the link below.
Source: Amazing grace: Settling a troubled soul – Baptist News Global
When I stepped onto her hall, I could see her slippered feet just outside the door frame of her room. In her wheelchair, she rocked heel to toe, toe to heel, back and forth and back again.
“Hey, there,” I said, crouching to her height and attempting to push her chair back so I could get into the room. (Imagine a 5’4” duck wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt pushing a wheelchair backwards; you get the picture.) I managed it, then pulled a stool right up next to her chair so I could speak directly in her ear. Nonagenarian ears aren’t especially known for their acuity, you know.
She does not know me; when I began my job at her church, she was already at the point of needing care. . . .
“You know that trick where a person pulls the tablecloth off of a table set with fine china, leaving everything standing as if it hadn’t been touched?”
This was to be our final staff meeting as a team. Dr. Jim McCoy had been at First Baptist Church of Weaverville, N.C., since 1997; his retirement meant the coming Sunday would be his last as our pastor. Our administrative assistant was expressing her feelings regarding the inevitable . . . . (continue reading at Ready or not, church, change is coming – Baptist News Global)
They had already been married six years by then, so it caught her completely by surprise. It was 1931 and they lived in Brazil at the time, far away from the small towns in South Georgia where they spent their respective childhoods.
Grandmama's ring visible on her left hand in this photo from September 1989
“He just tossed it over to me.” Grandmama loved to tell the story. “Just tossed it! The diamond only--it was in a little pouch of course; else I guess we would still be looking for it!” Grandmama laughed easily, particularly at her own jokes. “Asked me did I want to get it made into a ring.” She’d be fiddling with her ring by this point in the story, moving it this way and that so her diamond would catch the sunlight and throw it all over us. “Can you imagine? When I’d never seen something so pretty in my life.” The way she looked at it even then told us she hadn’t found anything yet that could top it. “Your Granddaddy wadn’t one to go and buy gifts much, so I told him right quick that I sure did want him to have it set into a ring!”
I heard the story nearly every year of my childhood. Grandmama loved that ring; I am certain I never saw her without it. She wore it with great joy and pride for more than sixty years until her passing in 1994, five years after Granddaddy died. She left her ring to my mother who wore it with as much love as her mother had.
My mother’s attachment to the ring extended far beyond the monetary value and physical beauty of it. That ring was a symbol for her parents, their love for each other, and their devotion to the family that grew out of that love. Mother wore it all the time. She was wearing it each time she welcomed a new grandchild (a total of eight in as many years). She was wearing it when she and Daddy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. And she was wearing it in January 2015 when she had an allergic reaction to a medication that resulted in an urgent 911 call.
The first-responders got Mother stabilized and out of immediate danger, but that did not alleviate her own sense of impending doom. As her heart raced and her breathing slowed, she fought to stay conscious while the EMT’s strapped her to a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance, bound for the closest hospital.
Her throat and tongue were too swollen for her to speak audibly, but she remembers crying out in her own mind, “I need to tell someone that I want Baker to have my mother’s ring!” She had made the decision, but had not yet told anyone, not even Daddy. She was terrified that she would die without anyone knowing.
Mother (who the grandkids call Gangi—which sounds kind of like “Angie” except “Gangi” is pronounced with two hard G’s) and her oldest grandson (Baker) have always had a close relationship. She stayed with us for three weeks after his birth and spend much of that time holding our cuddly boy. As he grew, Baker continued to look forward to his time with Gangi. Whenever she was around, he had what he called “a hug attack.” Actually, preschool Baker’s speech was hardly decipherable; his malady sounded something like “uh hud atat,” making the condition all the more adorable. Back then, he would climb onto her lap and snuggle in until the attack subsided. Relapses were common and frequent and Gangi was always willing to administer the necessary treatment.
It was this special connection—one that neither has outgrown—that prompted Mother’s desire to give Baker Grandmama’s cherished ring. Once she recovered from her near-death experience, she put it in writing that Baker was to receive the ring. That summer, she told him that she wanted to give it to him and that he could fashion it in any way he wished for the girl of his dreams. By that time—Summer 2015—Baker and Addison had been dating for over three and a half years. Mother already loved Addison and though she didn’t tell Baker then, it was Addison’s hand that Mother hoped to see adorned with the ring. (Only time would tell.) She told Baker that whenever he was ready, she would give it to him. In December 2016 at the annual Christmas visit, he went to her privately and said “Gangi, I would like to have the ring!”
I asked her how she felt about the whole thing, wondering if she questioned her decision or if she missed having the ring on her own hand.
“Oh no! I am completely happy about it,” she replied. “My heart is absolutely filled with joy knowing that this precious ring will be carried on into another generation. My parents were married 65 years and it would mean so much to them that their commitment to marriage and family continues in this way. They would be just thrilled that their beautiful diamond now glistens on the hand of their great-grandson’s fiancé.” Mother, unabashedly biased, added, “And I KNOW they would LOVE Addison!”