“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
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
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)
My mother, a stay-at-home mom, made Easter the true highlight of Spring. We had neighborhood Easter egg hunts, attended by 1000 kids or so. (Or maybe 10, but it was a lot.) She always made my sister & me matching outfits, and not just dresses either. From the same fabric, she stitched purses, hair barrettes, and even bows for our shoes. She also made our younger brother little miniature seventies-style leisure suits. And if she was running around on Easter Eve getting basket goodies, we never knew it.
It’s the Saturday before the Saturday before--
Everything’s almost done.
Easter dresses, matching: hemmed and hanging.
Eggs, two dozen, waiting to dye.
Basket treats purchased and hidden away.
It’s the Saturday before--
Our guests are all here.
Neighbors, church folks, family and strangers
Eggs, freshly hued, tucked low in tall grass.
A prize egg too, stuffed with secret delights.
“Go find them” “I see one!” “All done!” “Oh! Let’s see!”
It’s the Sunday we planned for
And it’s all just right.
Baskets with bunnies and chocolate and more.
New dresses, new shoes, and purses to match.
Lunch nearly made before breakfast is done.
A long-eared cake, a smile on its face.
There’s the camera, take the pictures, hurry up, let’s get moving.
It's Easter Sunday!
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen Indeed!
Here's to you Mother! Thanks for taking care of the minutiae so we could experience the magnificence!
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.
Originally posted in March 2013
We always draw the attention of strangers as we—nearly 20 of us—claim our spot on the beach. It’s impossible for our cumbersome crew to go unnoticed: a half-dozen pale-skinned adults slick with sunscreen, eight bathing-suit-clad Caucasian cousins ages 9 to 18, and one African preschooler whose skin tone matches the color of rich, dark chocolate. So even on South Carolina beaches where almost anything goes, we are the exception.
It all started when my cousin lost her ever-loving mind. I found out from my mother, who called me to give me the news.
“You are not going to believe what your cousin Kathi is doing. You are. Not. Going. To. BeLIEVE it.”
Kathi is about ten years older than I am. Despite a life laced with heartbreak and disappointment, Kathi has done well for herself. She’s always been employed: factories in the early years, grocery stores for most of the last twenty. She owns her own home and has developed a network of faithful friends and beloved family. Her two sons, who she raised without the help of her ex-husband, their dad, grew into responsible, hard-working, family men.
“Kathi is taking in a 3-year old African child,” Mother said.
“Come again?” I figured I’d misheard.
“Your 50+ year old cousin is taking in a toddler from another country.” Mother proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. (For the sake of privacy and protection, I’ll refer to the child as Little One.)
Little One’s mother, a friend of a friend of a friend, was incarcerated and needed someone to keep her child for just two weeks. Kathi didn’t know the mother and neither did the woman who called her. To sane folk, the whole thing sounded like a legal disaster. We cautioned Kathi. We advised her. We insisted she procure some official statement of custody. She listened, but as I said, she’d lost her mind right about the time she learned of this child in need. (It might also be possible that Kathi’s mind was right where it was supposed to be, being transformed.)
Little One moved in and soon everyone who loved Kathi loved the child. Two weeks came and went ten times and after five months the mother saw fit to reclaim her child. By then, the bond between my cousin and Little One was strong enough to last.
So for the last three summers, Little One has been with us on the beach: playing in the surf, building sand castles, looking for shells, never out of sight of this new family-in-love. And at some point, salty and sleepy, Little One seeks out Kathi and climbs into her lap.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Kathi says in response to our praise of her selfless actions. She enfolds the sandy brown hand resting on her knee into her own; the child leans back, snuggled against the shoulder that has proven so reliable. “Little One needed a place to stay. God told me to offer my home. So I did.”
And to Kathi, it really was—is—that simple.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
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. . . .