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
"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
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)
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.” 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. . ..
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
 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.”
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:
Original (sans update and other minor edits) written for and published in Gardner-Webb University's 2017 Advent Devotional.
“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
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.
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.
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
8/12/2018 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.
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.
Today, August 11, 2019, I celebrated my one year anniversary at Ecclesia Baptist. The kids made me a poster-size thank you note with our favorite saying on it along with their hand prints. I love it! What a joy it is to be in fellowship with this wonderful congregation! Here's to many more years of ministry together.
(This post is from August 2019 when I announced my job change.)
I still call myself a preacher’s kid, even though Daddy has been retired from the pastorate since 2001 and I am 50-something years old. Growing up, I listened to hymns on the record player, talked theology around the kitchen table, and regularly helped my mother prepare and deliver meals to parishioners and neighbors. When I recall my childhood, many of the memories are drenched with Baptist life: games of tag in the church yard, solid biblical teaching, trips on the church bus, youth choir practice, habitual church attendance, Vacation Bible School, deep and meaningful relationships with godly people. And from an early age, my Baptist life also included weighty theological discussions. (Daddy wasn’t threatened—and assured us God was not either—by the questions our human minds conceived.)
Thus, it’s not all that surprising that I felt called to ministry. The first time I heard that call clearly came in the form of a dream back in 1985.
I’m walking along an open trail, that leads up a hill. Just as I reach the crest, three crosses appear in the distance. The crosses loom large, towering over the tallest trees. The rugged beauty before me catches in my throat. I look around. There should be a crowd viewing this extraordinary sight, but I am alone.
I look for someone with whom to share my find when, as often happens in dreams, the scenery suddenly changes. Now, I am looking down into a valley where I see a group meeting—it looks like an outdoor classroom of sorts.
“Hey! Have you guys seen this?”
I yell, but no one hears me.
“It’s amazing. Three huge crosses right here on this hill!”
No one responds.
I try again. “I can’t believe you’ve not seen this. It’s so beautiful.”
They keep at their tasks as if I am not even here. Frustrated and confused, I turn back to the crosses; it is then that I hear a voice. “If they are to know, you are to tell them.”
When I told my college roommate about the dream, she was ready to walk me over to the religion department right then to discuss changing my major. It was indeed a compelling dream, but I would not be making any changes just so I could go to work in some church, of all places. First, it was 1985 and things did not look good for Baptist women called to ministry. Secondly, I had lived that life already. My father was getting his heart broken almost daily by his Baptist denomination; I had no interest in aligning my career with an organization fraught with such cruel infighting and painful division. (Plus, let’s be honest, I was 20 years old and knew far less than I thought I did.) I stuck with my history major, figuring God would come around to seeing things my way soon enough.
Over the next 20 years, I often felt the divine tug of that unanswered call. Of course, I did other things that God redeemed, bringing forth lifelong friendships and continuous opportunities to share Christ’s love in tangible ways. Yet the call persisted. I talked to my closest friends, my family, and my pastor innumerable times trying to work out what I should do. (Note to younger self: “Ummmm, how about you do what God’s been telling you to do for TWO DECADES!)
In January 2008, I enrolled in Gardner-Webb University’s divinity school, graduating in December 2010. From January 2011 on, I have worked in a variety of ministry positions; in 2013, I began as Minister with Youth and Children at First Baptist Church of Weaverville, NC (FBCW).Theologian and author Howard Thurman once said, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Click To TweetI truly enjoy most aspects of ministry—church planning, relationship building, curriculum preparation, Bible teaching, and for me, at FBCW, handbell ringing! (A6 and B6 ringers unite!) Since beginning at FBCW, though, I was invited to share in the task of preaching. Preaching for me is . . . well . . . it’s transformative. Theologian and author Howard Thurman once said, “Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Alive. That’s how I feel when I preach: wholly alive and most completely in line with who God created me to be. It’s like every time I preach, I am born again.
So, a few months ago when I learned about a small local church in need of a minister, I applied. Following a time of discernment on both sides, I have accepted the call to become Pastor of Ecclesia Baptist Church in Asheville, NC. My first Sunday will be August 12, 2018. (Ecclesia is currently meeting at Oakley United Methodist Church and we’d love for you to drop in for Bible study at 10:30 and worship at 11 each Sunday.)
My daddy always says, “Everything of value requires some sacrifice.” Such truth. Indeed, I will miss the church family at First Baptist Church of Weaverville: the precious children who have ministered to me, the dear friends I have made, and the greatest co-workers anyone could imagine. My ministry at FBCW has been rich and full and has given me great joy; I will always be grateful for the ways we have loved each other.
It’s been 33 years since I had that prophetic dream. It gives me unspeakable joy to realize it at last.
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)