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Advent Devotional: Where's Your Head?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossians 1:15-20

Recently, I saw perhaps the weirdest video I’ve ever seen. It begins with a woman preparing fresh fish for supper. On the screen we see her hands: one holding a kitchen knife, the other holding a raw fish fillet on a cutting board over a sink. All she has left to do is cleaning off a few more scales and the fish will be ready to cook. But (here’s the weird thing), every time she touches her knife to the headless fillet, it spontaneously bends up towards her. She shrieks, “This fish is trying to bite me and it doesn’t even have a head!” Crazy, right?

You know what’s even crazier, though? The fact that fish aren’t the only ones guilty of acting as if they can operate without a rightful head in place. Too often we followers of Christ do the same thing. We flop around and can’t figure out why we feel distant from God. In our churches, we wonder why we can’t form community, why there’s so little harmony and so much discord. Could it be that we are trying to live godly lives and form meaningful connections without our Head?

Paul says that in Jesus “all things hold together.” Let’s keep Christ at the head of our lives not just at Advent, but always. We just aren’t made to function any other way.

Thank you God for Jesus! Help us always to make Christ first place in everything. Amen.

 

Away in a Grotto: an Advent Devotion

“Hold on to the railing,” our guide said as we wound down the stairs of the Church of the Nativity to the Grotto. “These steps are centuries old and very tricky.”

The church, built under the direction of Saint Helena, has been used continuously since 333 AD. St. Helena, using her influence as the mother of Constantine, Emperor of Rome, had this sanctuary built over the site where she believed Jesus had been born.

So, beneath this ancient church, is a cave—a cave that, back in first century Jerusalem, looked like any other inner-city cave. As the city grew up around it, the cave found a job—you know, made itself useful. Situated next to an inn, it offered its services to the innkeeper as a stable for sheltering his animals. The cave would have been a quiet, peaceful place, a place where guests often stayed when the inn reached capacity.

Today, a silver star on the floor of that cave marks the spot where St. Helena believed Mary gave birth. Another niche is considered to be the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger.

True? Hard to say.

To me, whether the Grotto of the Nativity is the real, exact place where Jesus was born is not the point. I don’t really care much about such particulars. This I know: for more than 19 centuries, believers have come to this place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. They have come from far, far away, and from right next door, on donkey-back, on camel-back and on Amtrak. They have come: speaking Aramaic, Latin, Greek, Spanish, Swahili, Russian, even English. They have come in a steady stream of expectation, watching their step and holding onto the railing, to worship in this place. It's like an Advent Devotion come to life!

So as I stepped carefully on those tricky centuries-old stairs, my spirit reached out to the great crowd of witnesses there in that grotto with me. I turned to face the silver star and, joining my voice with theirs, I prayed, “Glory to God in the highest. And on earth, peace, good will to all people.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 
Luke 2:13-15 (NRSV)
(Originally published in my 2008 Christmas letter.)
aunt edith and aunt edna

RIP Aunt Edna

After learning my father's oldest sister had passed away, I received a call from my mother, asking if I would write the obituary.

Wait.

That's not what happened. Mother said, "We need you to write Aunt Edna's obituary. And they need it ASAP. They want to have the service on Saturday. Here's your cousin's contact information. Call her. She'll tell you where to send it." (There wasn't any "asking" about it.)

My Mother knows me. She knew this direction would be a gift. I needed something to do with my brain. See, until yesterday, all my dad's siblings--he has six--were still living. I kind of thought they'd live forever. So, maybe you shouldn't be shocked by the passing of a 90 year old woman who was in poor health. But, as my daddy always says, "Should never could do anything."

After talking with one of my cousins, messaging another, and doing a little research for details, I sorted through some of my own memories of Aunt Edna. I remembered her making round pineapple and mayo sandwiches on white bread. I remembered her magical sewing room that frequently morphed into an assembly room full of cloth body parts. And I remembered her soft voice, her sweet smile, and the way she'd laugh with her mouth shaped in a small oval, her eyes crinkled, her head tilted back just slightly. What a dear woman. I loved her so.


aunt edith and aunt edna
Aunt Edna (right) with her sister, my Aunt Edith (left)

Edna Ruth Mitchell Jackson, 90, born in Bainbridge, Georgia on June 6, 1928, passed away at home on Wednesday, December 19, 2018. She was the second child of James Powell, Sr. and Naomi (nee Carter) Mitchell who preceded her in death. She was also preceded in death by her husband Robert Carroll Jackson, Sr., daughter Patricia Jackson Banks, sister Annie Mitchell, niece Sherry Mitchell, brother-in-law George Storey, and sisters-in-law Dollie Mitchell and Fran Mitchell.

She is survived by countless loved ones including brothers James and wife Nell, Edward and wife Anne, Harold and wife Gloria, Joseph, and Earl and wife Jennie; and her sister Edith Storey. She is also survived by her children Robert Carroll Jackson, Jr, Linda Jackson Johnson, Anne Jackson Griffin and husband Clarence, Jane Jackson Stephens and husband Bertrom, Debbie Jackson, David Jackson, and her son-in-law Steve Banks; her grandchildren Emily, Maggie, William, Marilyn, Michael, Timothy, Jeff, Teelah, Kelly, Mark, Jason, Melody, Randy, Christopher, Jennifer, Mary Catrina, Robert, and Bradley; 19 great-grandchildren; and 15 nieces and nephews.

At six years old, Edna suddenly became her parent’s oldest child when Annie passed away from appendicitis. Since that time, Edna has been the consummate oldest sibling to her younger sister and her six younger brothers, setting an example for them of quiet faith, gentle strength, and everlasting love. Her love for them formed the prequel to her life role as the mother for her own seven children for whom she modeled the same godly qualities she exhibited in her childhood home.

In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, Edna was a sharp business woman who turned her fondness for sewing into an impressive cottage business. From hand-sewn garments and custom alterations to beautiful dolls and whimsical toys, Edna could transform fabric into magic. Her sewing room, full of teddy bears and ragdolls, spilled over with Christmas fabrics selected for her favorite projects: holiday arts and crafts. Eventually, she began selling her wares at craft shows across the state of Georgia at which she nearly always sold out of her inventory, no matter how much she had made for the event. Counting the ones she sold, the many she made as gifts for grandchildren and other loved ones, plus all the ones she gave away for the pure joy of it, Edna created thousands and thousands of dolls and toys that are loved to this day.

Aunt Edna Doll
My Aunt Edna doll, 1977

Edna was an ardent learner. When her children were still young, she was taking classes at the local junior college in pursuit of a liberal arts degree. When a technical school opened in Albany, Edna switched her focus to arts and craft classes, honing her innate artistic talent to the professional level. She truly was a lifelong student, never missing an opportunity to learn something new.

Edna was also a faithful teacher. Her love of God that sustained her throughout life, gave her the longing to share the gospel with others through Sunday school classes. She taught both children and adult classes over the years, sharing lessons she gleaned from Holy Scripture.

Her godly influence spread far beyond the church walls, beginning in her own home. She never missed a chance to tell her children that she loved them, that God loved them, and that she was praying for them. Her family knew they were loved. And she defined “her family” more broadly than most. It didn’t matter how distant—or questionable—the relationship, to Edna, you were family. The highlight of her year was planning the annual family reunion. She had a way of making every single person in attendance feel as if she had planned the whole event just so she could see them. Her sweet smile welcomed each newcomer as she called them by name, inviting everyone to the table.

Edna Jackson, a treasure of a woman, is best described by the words of Proverbs 31:25-30: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: ‘Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’ Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”

Funeral arrangements to be determined. For more information, see Kimbrell-Stern Funeral Directors, Albany, Georgia. https://www.kimbrellstern.com/

anna kate and houdini

An Advent Devotion: Joy Comes Home

An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah
"Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord."  
                                                                                                  Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV

2 Year Old Girl Caucasian"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"

Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.

"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"

Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."

And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.

Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.

This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.

"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."

Anna Kate & family 2018

Peace Is the Real Thing

2nd Sunday of Advent: Peace--the Real Thing

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV

Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.

I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.

Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.

In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)

sunrise hope advent

Advent hope for difficult days

sunrise hope adventMicah 4:6-13, Revelation 18:1-10

Lately, I can hardly scroll through the headlines without feeling a sense of despair. It so often seems that we are moving away from the holy day described in Micah 4:6-13. We witness the lame and afflicted overwhelmed by the waters of hurricane-borne floods and the flames of rogue forest fires. We see them shut out by institutional systems that deny their worth. We listen as wealthy power-brokers amplify their own significance while diminishing those Micah promises will be redeemed.

It’s into this cacophony that John the Revelator calls God’s people to turn away from luxury and influence and look to the authority of heaven. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that John has been doing a bit too much stargazing. According to my newsfeed, the winning team is the one with money and power, not the one with poverty and disenfranchisement.

Reading these texts in the context of modern injustices, I listen as Micah speaks of labor pains and John speaks of destruction; I wonder: what will be born of this destruction? What redemption lies on the other side of all this misery and injustice?

Oft quoted American minister and reformer Theodore Parker (1810-1860) said “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, . . . [but] it bends towards justice.”[1] That’s a lovely sentiment, indeed one of my favorite quotes. But first, does that arc have to be so ridiculously long and second, what of the arc of pain? Where is it headed?

On December 5, 2016, Judge Clifton Newman declared a mistrial in the case of Michael Slager, the former Charleston, SC police officer accused of murdering 50-year-old Walter Scott. Judy Scott, Walter’s mother, surely stood on the arc of pain when she received the news of the verdict. Yet she strode forward and declared,

Today I'm not sad.  And I want you to know why I'm not sad.  Because Jesus is on the inside and I know that justice will be served because the God that I serve, he is able. . .. God is my strength and I know without a doubt that he is a just God and injustice will not prevail. . .. I’m just waiting on the Lord.  I'm just gonna rest in the Lord.  I'm gonna rest in the Lord ‘cause you see, . . . there's something about Jesus, when he's on the inside I fear not. . ..[2]

And as she spoke, the arc of pain bent towards hope, towards righteousness.

Here at the beginning of the Advent season, as we await the coming of King Jesus, hear the good news: labor has begun and Hope will be born. “’Cause you see, . . . there’s something about Jesus.”

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Romans 12:9-12

[1]  According to his Wikipedia bio, Parker lent words to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and most certainly to Martin Luther King Jr’s “Where Do we Go from Here” speech when King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

[2] www.cnn.com/videos

Sources for update:/justice/2016/12/05/walter-scott-family-reaction-slager-mistrial-sot.cnn

UPDATE: On May 2, 2017, Michael Slager plead guilty to federal civil rights charges, accepting responsibility for the shooting death of Walter Scott. On December 7, 2017, Slager was sentenced to 20 years for the second degree murder. According to abcnews.com, "At one point during the sentencing Scott's mother looked the former officer in the eye and told him she forgave him. Families on both sides of the court burst into tears." (See "Ex-cop Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years . . . " below.)  Slager is serving his sentence in a low-security prison in Colorado. 

Sources for update:

  1. Ex-cop Michael Slager sentenced to 20 years ..., abcnews.com
  2. Michael Slager plead guilty ..., abcnews.com
  3. Ex-policeman Michael Slager serving time at Colorado prison . . . , postandcourier.com

Original (sans update and other minor edits) written for and published in Gardner-Webb University's 2017 Advent Devotional

Reign of Christ

Dreaming Big on Reign of Christ Sunday

“Before I was ordained, I just thought every day was Reign of Christ Day,” the rector quipped. Comfortable laughter wafted through the sanctuary.

I was attending the early service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown with my husband and our daughter who was a senior at Georgetown University. She worshipped regularly with this congregation, so it was a delight to join her there in her chosen sacred space. The Sunday we were there was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent: Reign of Christ Sunday.

Referencing Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann in her sermon, the rector discussed one difference between good and evil. “Good doesn’t like big imagination because it requires us to be too vulnerable, to work too hard. Evil, on the other hand, loves big imagination.”

I wasn’t sure I understood; she continued.  “A wistful mention of the end to local homelessness tends to be met not by enthusiastic support, but by scoffing judgment and wringing of hands. But let Evil mention a big idea. ‘Let’s kill an entire race of people! Let’s fly planes into buildings! Let’s open fire inside an elementary school.’” She listed these real-life tragedies with machine-gun fire rapidity.  “Evil has a preposterously huge idea and gets busy, plotting and planning, seemingly unconcerned with any possibility of failure. Good holds back. Good lists all the reasons this dream is improbable and unrealistic, then Good shrugs its shoulders and walks away.”

It was a valid point and frankly, hit me right in my self-righteous intentions.

“On this reign of Christ Sunday,” she challenged us, “the Body of Christ needs to remember where our center of government is. It’s not in Washington, but in the tender hands of merciful Jesus. Those hands can handle any dreams we can conceive, regardless of magnitude.”

Prayers followed the sermon and then it was time for Holy Eucharist. (What we Baptists call the Lord’s Supper and have monthly or quarterly, the Episcopalians have weekly and then some. If it were a competition, I’d say they are beating us on this count.)

We all filed to the front of the church and circled around the table—there were about 30 of us, maybe 40. The officiants blessed the bread and the cup, then handed one plate of bread to the left, one to the right. The organist began playing a familiar hymn as the elements of communion passed from person to person around the circle.

Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.

“The body of Christ, broken for you,” said a silver haired man as he leaned over to the caramel colored girl next to him.

“Thanks be to God,” a bespectacled brown man said as he received the bread from a young white man sporting a fresh military haircut.

When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun.
O Lord, have mercy on me.

The cup made its way around, passing from a teenage acolyte to a tall Asian woman with two children of disparate ethnicities.

“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” a college student said to a young dad who held his infant son, swaddled but squirmy.

A little girl—three years old or maybe four--rocked back and forth, toe to heel, in her shiny Mary Janes; a twenty-something year old woman, her raven black hair plaited in the back, smiled at the fidgety girl. A baby cried. A grown man, eyes glistening, shed a tear or two himself.

Let us praise God together on our knees.
Let us praise God together on our knees.
When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord have mercy on me!

What a holy and blessed time of worship. A challenging proclamation by a gifted and engaging pastor, sacred communion celebrated at the foot of the cross, and a rich foretaste of God’s kingdom: an eclectic, multi-generational, international collection of believers who came together for this one moment of connection. For me, it was like a glimpse of a dream come true.

Oh Lord, let me dream big and act with bold conviction that it is You who reign in my life.

What about you? What’s YOUR dream?

 

Published originally November 2015

 

 

Depression: RIP Beautiful John

I’ve not thought of him in at least 35 years. Probably longer. But when my Facebook feed included high school pictures of him, I remembered him instantly. John Wilkins. Perfectly gorgeous John Wilkins. He was way out of my league and I don’t remember having a crush on him, but I do remember his beautiful blue eyes, his brilliant smile, his infectious laugh.

You’ve seen his type; if not in real life, in afterschool specials or Disney Channel movies. He’s the athletic superstar who is more handsome than anyone should be allowed to be; he’s a super student in all honors classes; he’s every teacher’s favorite and every girl’s dream. He’s the kind of guy who is picked for so many class superlatives, that the yearbook staff limits his award to best-all-around so that other students have a fighting chance. All that . . . and he’s nice too.

THAT is John Wilkins. And that’s why I was so stunned to learn that he passed away this week.

When I heard, I sought out his obituary and found nothing to suggest the cause of his death. I kept checking the Facebook feed for more information and—okay—I did my share of social media research (some might call it stalking). He had a beautiful wife of 28 years and two—or maybe three—kids. He had a successful career and seemed to have a full life of friends and extended family. All of this only heightened my shock when I learned the cause of his death: suicide.*

Now, I can’t begin to know what led up to the moment of his final decision. I do not know any of his story except the cause of his death. I cannot speak to his reasoning, his pain, his relationships. I do not know him that well. I can only say that his passing affected me deeply, the grief of it waking me in the night and bringing prayers for his loved ones—his mama, his siblings, his children, his wife . . ..

I shared my story of depression publicly for the first time in February 2017. I came out on my blog with a post that was shared hundreds of times, many of those accompanied by the sentiment, “She always seems so happy! I never would have guessed.” People with depression can be very good at deception. Even before Instagram started filtering out all human flaws, we learned what to share, and what to keep to ourselves. Here’s the thing: we KNOW we don’t have any real reason to be sad (chemical imbalance aside) so we hide it pretty well. And besides, so many times when we have let our masks slip, the world has let us down.

• “You just take things too seriously!”
• “Don’t let it get to you!”
• “Count your blessings!”
• “Your problems are nothing compared to [Person You Know Who Has a Terrible Life].”
• “It’s not that bad.”
• “Have you prayed about this?” (My personal favorite.)

(For the record, we know. And we agree, which actually makes us feel worse, not better. So just, ya know, don't.)

Having struggled with depression as long as I can remember, I know how often I have thought, “It is just too hard to be me. I really do not want to do this anymore.” I’m better now, but I used to feel this way at least weekly (now it’s a rare and fleeting thought). I tried to explain how hard it can be for me to a therapist once, “The pain of the world is so very near all the time. It’s like I was born without an emotional epidermis.” She explained that some people do have more neuroreceptors than others; those individuals feel the emotions of others more readily and more intensely. When you have only a thin barrier between the pain of the world and your very core . . . well . . . life can get overwhelming fast.

I don’t know about John, I really do not. But I know this: when I was in middle school, I was bullied by a couple of guys who called me names and taunted me daily. On the social food chain, if John Wilkins was a soaring eagle, these two guys were . . . let’s see . . . worms. Those two worms tormented me for 2-3 years, through middle school and the first of high school. But John, beautiful eagle that he was, was kind. Simply and effortlessly, kind.

It is the habit of humanity to deify the dead, but It would be invasive and presumptuous of me to shoulder past those whose knowledge of him is much more personal and immediate. So don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t mean to imply that John single-handedly saved me from thuggish bullies. It was nothing at all like that. John just offered a momentary kindly distraction from the pain of being me.

And so, well, I just can’t help but wonder . . . was he born without an epidermis too? Did he somehow—perhaps even unconsciously—sense the pain I felt? Were his incidental kindnesses to me more intentional than either of us realized? I can’t possibly know. But I know what it is like for the pain of others to seep into my soul. I know how it is to feel far too much. Maybe John did too.

Oh Lord, we know that you heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3) In your infinite mercy, we pray that your love would reach into the hearts of the family and friends who grieve the tragic loss of your child John Wilkins. May they grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those whose hope is in Christ Jesus.

*Are you having thoughts of suicide? Is someone you love struggling with suicidal thoughts? You are not alone, there are those who can help, and you have no need to be ashamed. Call for help. Do it for you. Do it for me. Do it for whatever reason you can. But just make the call. 

my daddy my pastor

My daddy, my pastor

Back in January 2008, I had just started divinity school at Gardner-Webb University; one of my classes was Introduction to Preaching with Dr. Danny West. Among the assignments was writing an "Autobiographical Analysis of an Influential Pastor." We were tasked with describing the pastor's impact on our lives, including how their preaching style affected our spiritual formation. For me, this one was easy: it had been writing itself my whole life. 

I stumbled across it recently and realized I'd not shared it with my aileengoeson readers. Thought you might enjoy it.

Daddy, you must be so proud.” The two of us lingered over our toasted bagels and yogurt in the Hampton Inn breakfast area; Mother had gone to finish getting ready for church. Daddy looked up from his Bible and sermon notes; he hadn’t heard me.

“What was that baby girl?”

“Proud! You must be. I mean this church is having Harold Mitchell Day. Heavens, that reunion last night with twenty-five grown-up once-upon-a-time youth group members was enough to make your heart explode. How many of them did you baptize anyway? Daddy, this is huge.” I was surely proud. All the times I’d seen my daddy deal with dumb deacons and constipated committees. . . I was basking in this glow, even if I was in its shadow.

Few Baptists can say they have had the same pastor from cradle roll through baptism, to youth group all the way to their wedding day. That’s me: one preacher—for twenty-two years.  And here’s the thing: when Daddy’s preaching, I get so caught up in the message, I often forget he’s my daddy.

I get caught up right away too. Daddy often hooks his audience with a story, an illustration that pulls us in from the start. He’ll build on that story or use similar stories throughout his sermon so that at each juncture of the message, I am connected to it by real-life examples.

In fact, when I was little, Daddy’s stories were my favorite part of his sermons. I waited for them, hating for one to end, knowing it would be a few minutes before the next one. As I’ve grown older, and as my love of scripture has deepened, I’ve come to value a different component of Daddy’s preaching. Daddy’s sermons bring God’s Word to life for me.

I remember (it’s been at least 25 years ago) one sermon Daddy preached from Psalm 8 called “A Little Less than Divine.” In that sermon, he expounded on this psalm of creation. He pointed out that above all creation, humans were so precious to God, that he placed us just a little lower than the heavenly beings. He went on to talk about the pros and the cons of this distinction. In other words, he underscored our self-worth by showing us that God made us nearly equal to the angels. Then, he reminded us that we were in fact less than divine and didn’t need to get, as it were, too big for our heavenly britches. The whole sermon wove in and out of the text, using illustrations and personal reflection to connect listeners to the message.

That’s the way Daddy always preaches. The scripture carries the message. Daddy just delivers it.

Daddy is not a quiet preacher. He reminds me, sometimes, of those old Southern preachers you see in old movies but no longer in real life: preachers like Sally Field’s in The Places in the Heart or like the Waltons had. Daddy is passionate when he preaches. His tone of voice rises and falls. He gestures. He cries. And because Daddy never shies away from feeling the intensity of God’s message, I am freed to plunge into the depth of its meaning as well.

But while Daddy never speaks in monotone, he never speaks in what we children called a “preacher voice” either. He just talks like Daddy. Or Harold. Or Papa, or friend, or brother, or uncle. He is sincere. He is real. He is himself. When Daddy preaches, I never feel as if he is talking down to me or casting judgment on me. I feel as if I am being led to a holy message by a sinner like me. Consequently, I willingly go with him to the throne of grace, unfettered by misplaced self-defense.

Daddy fiddled with what was left of his Hampton Inn breakfast. “Yeah, it’s all been mighty nice. But I got a sermon to preach here in a little bit and there might be somebody there this morning who hasn’t heard the Gospel. That’s what’s on my mind right now.” He turned back to his Bible and went back to work.

youth ministry

A Wall of Living Stones at Caswell

camwall1

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

caswallwholegroup14

. . . like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood . . .
from 1 Peter 2:5