A few years ago I was reading the Bible through and I was struggling with some of the less riveting books. You know the ones: Leviticus, Numbers, Nahum, books like that.
Anyway, I was talking about my frustrations with some seasoned church goers one Sunday morning. They were nodding their sympathies, commiserating with the woes of Bible study, when a new believer approached our conversation. This guy is not what you’d call a theological scholar; he’s a country boy who hasn’t attempted proper grammar since 12th grade English. A wild streak from earlier days left a tattoo on one arm, and a repaired tooth that glitters when he smiles. And ever since he's turned to follow Christ, he's been smiling a lot.
I filled him in on the topic of conversation then asked for his input.
“You read scripture a lot, how do you manage those tedious books that are so difficult to read?”
He scratched his chin, looked down at his feet, and then laughed a little space-filler laugh.
“Well, you see,” he said, blushing a little bit, “Ever' time I set down to read my Bible, I say a prayer before I start. I just ask God to teach me a little something from what I’m reading. And every single time, he does.”
Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. John 16:24
My friend Traci is Catholic: Catholic by birth and by choice. She, her husband, and their third-grade daughter Audrey, live out their faith and participate fully in the life of their church. Because Traci and I are friends, and because faith is important to her, I was not surprised when her family accepted the invitation to attend my ordination as a Baptist minister held in the chapel of my home church.
Audrey, dressed in her Sunday best and seated between her parents, looked around at the growing crowd in the chapel. “Whoa. Ms. Aileen surely knows a lot of people.”
Traci is an introvert who somehow wound up friends with me, an unbounded extrovert. She shook her head sadly, as if acknowledging a personality defect folk generally try not to mention. “You have no idea,” she told Audrey, “You have no idea.”
“So,” Audrey asked, making conversation, “Is this about how many people you had at yours?”
“My what?” Traci looked at her daughter, wondering what in the world she could mean.
“When you became a pastor.” Audrey figured, I suppose, that ordination was a rite of passage all moms went through, not unlike her own first communion.
“Audrey, women can’t become pastors in the Catholic church.”
“What?” Audrey appeared astonished. Hear Audrey out though. Her shock had nothing to do with women in ministry. Nothing.
“This,” Wide-eyed Audrey went on, her hand sweeping in a gesture to encompass the whole building, “This isn’t a Catholic Church?”
Audrey, having spent all of her nine years in the same church, had assumed that worship happened in a Catholic community. Never mind the absence of images of the Holy Mother, the Crucifix, the Baptismal font. This was church, so it must be Catholic.
In a way, though, Audrey’s question was a good one, particularly if you replace the capital letters with lowercase ones. The adjective, “catholic,” does not mean “Christian but not Protestant.” It means “comprehensive,” or “universal.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catholic.)
“Isn’t this a catholic church?” That is, “Isn’t this a church for everyone?”
On the day of my ordination, the congregation included Baptists (of course), Audrey and other Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Presbyterians. There were members of the Church of Christ, the Church of God, the Disciples of Christ, and the United Christian Church.
There were people there who believe in infant baptism, believer’s baptism, baptism only in natural running water, baptism only by immersion, or only by sprinkling. There were people there who believe in speaking in tongues and those who would rather not speak at all; those who practice foot washing, and those who find the soaking of naked toes less than sacred. (These folks clearly have never had a pedicure, but I digress.)
Yep. This was definitely a comprehensive group. In fact, this was the the church universal, the holy catholic church, a veritable communion of saints.
“Yes, Audrey. This is the catholic church. And may it always be so.”
“. . . through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:10
In one, I’m late: late and lost. Everyone is expecting me, but I can’t find my way out of a maze of locked doors and dead-end hallways.
In another, it is exam day. The problem? The class never made it to my schedule, so I didn’t even know that I was registered for it. Now I have to take an exam on material I’ve never seen.
In my favorite recurring dream, though, people from all over the world, “children from every nation,” come together in peace. They sing. They laugh. They hold hands. Lifelong friendships form instantly. Differences are dealt with civilly. The world is at peace. It’s a great dream—one that leaves me with a wakeful longing for unity.
But this week, my 16 year old daughter is actually living my dream. She is in Nairobi, Kenya attending PassportKenya. At this camp, kids from the US and Kenyan kids, experience true cultural exchange. (Trellace’s roomie is a Kenya native.) All the kids—American & African—are followers of Jesus Christ. This is not an evangelism trip on which middle class suburbanites go into the wild to save the savage tribesmen. It is not a mission trip in the traditional sense; that is, the Westerners did not rush off to a foreign land to offer aid. This is a mission immersion trip: a time for Christians from this country to develop friendships with Christians from that country. They have worshipped together; they have ministered together; they have sung songs together—some in Swahili, some in English.
And in so many of the pictures I’ve seen, they are holding hands—white hands and brown, black hands and tan. Peace. Right here on earth. It’s like a dream come true.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
Originally posted July 19, 2010
You can’t miss it. If you travel that road, you will see it. Looming over the highway for all motorists to see: a billboard-sized picture of a mangled motorcycle with the ominous declaration “Death is forever.” Every time I pass it, I get the message; I never intend to read it, it is just that prominent, that unavoidable. That . . . gripping.
And every time I see that sign three faces rush to my mind: faces that are forever never-changing. Paxten, always 3 years and 7 months old—even after his younger sister turns four and then five. Matthew, staying 12 while his twin rushes into high school. Caleb, forever 11: his younger brothers eventually matriculating to grades he never got to start. And I just wonder: How can you face forever when your boy is gone?
How can you imagine a future without your child, your parents, your beloved? I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t want to face tomorrow without my beagle, much less my people, and I’m not kidding, not even a little bit. Death is forever. And it hurts. It hurts on the big days (the ones you know will be hard): the anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. But it hurts on the little days too: when the family gathers and one is forever absent, when you go to the restaurant that will forever be her restaurant or his, when you go to the ball field, the bookstore, the band concert. Everywhere. Always. Forever.
I hurt so much for loved ones who are bereaved; my heart screams about fairness and longing. Yet if I hurt for them this much what must it be like for the childless mother, the lonely widow, the grieving child. I can’t bear even the thought of it. And that’s because, well, it can’t be borne—not by human hearts anyway.
At that thought, my soul stretches out, finding hope within reach. Because for me, on account of my faith, while I know death is forever, I also know life is eternal. I can rest in that assurance. So, I slip my hand into the nail-scarred hand and fall deep into Christ’s embrace. There, I feel the tears of Jesus mixing with my own. There I am reminded that even when I walk through valleys that are permanently shadowed by death, I do not walk alone. And somehow, because Jesus lives, I really can face tomorrow. Forever.
Guy Sayles says those words each time a new believer rises from the baptismal waters. Those of us who attend First Baptist Church of Asheville have heard these phrases many times, but never did they ring truer than they did that day.
Cameron is older than his brother Collin by several years. Yet Collin learns at a higher level, and moves with greater ease than his big bro. He’s what the world would call academically and intellectually gifted. Collin is a delightful child, interacting as easily with kids his age as with the adult friends of his parents. He’s a great kid.
And so is Cameron. But Cameron’s words are sometimes hard even for adults to understand; kids his age too often fail to communicate with him at all. His steps are slow, particularly when stairs are involved. Cameron is what the politically correct of the world would call “special.” And they would be right. They would be right in ways they can’t even imagine.
Cameron’s smile brightens the world around him. His laugh brings joy to all who hear. His ready hugs can lift the lowest of spirits. Cameron understands love. He knows his family loves him, particularly that precocious little brother who does double duty as Cameron’s best friend. He knows that everyone at his church loves him, especially the little girls in his Bible study class who rush to sit beside him and to hold his hand as he goes up and down steps. And, in a way others will never understand, Cameron knows that Jesus loves him. So Cameron, being Cameron, just loves Jesus right back.
Because he is being raised in the Baptist church, part of Cameron’s upbringing has included conversations about making his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. His parents have talked to him about what it means to join the church and have entertained his questions, helping him to understand baptism. Brother Collin had already made his profession of faith privately, but found baptism itself intimidating and therefore hesitated to make his decision public. Not Cameron. Once his mind was made up, it wasn’t long before he stepped right out into that chapel aisle and walked straight to his pastor, letting him and everyone else know that he had chosen to follow Jesus. What’s more, he wanted to confirm his decision by believer’s baptism.
Whoa. This would be complicated. Collin had not even been baptized yet and he is not even scared of water like Cameron is. In fact, just getting Cameron into the baptismal pool and back out again posed enough obstacles to discourage the whole idea.
But Cameron was determined and his courage inspired Collin who decided he was ready for baptism if Cameron was. “This is something the brothers should do together,” Collin told his mother.
Collin went first. Dripping from his dunking, he stepped out of the baptistry. It was Cameron’s turn. The pastor turned to take his hand but Cameron hesitated. (Negotiating stairs is hard enough without water underneath your feet, for goodness sake.) Slowly, he made his way toward Dr. Guy. Within reach, Cameron grasped for his pastor who lifted him into place. Now, most people who are baptized, turn to look at the congregation or gaze toward the pool’s exit. Not Cameron. He turned to face Guy, waiting.
“Cameron, upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” Guy said looking into Cameron’s eager face. Cameron wrapped his arms around his pastor. “I baptize you,” Guy scooped up a handful of water and poured it over Cameron, “in the name of the Father,” another scoop, “and of the Son,” one last handful of water, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Cameron, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you. God is giving you everything you need to be all that God is calling you to be.”
Cameron leaned into Guy’s embrace, and after a moment or two, Guy lifted Cameron out of the baptistry, to walk in newness of life.
“And on March 9th, we’ll have a lab experience,” my professor said, “to practice baptism by immersion.”
Practice baptism? Shoot, I’ve been doing that all my life. No, I’m not an ordained pastor. In fact, I’ve only been in a baptismal pool once, for my own baptism 38 years ago. But, I’m a Baptist preacher’s kid and I’ve been baptizing folk ever since I started swimming, maybe even before then.
“I get to be the preacher first!” My sister, the oldest, raced me into the water. Whether we were vacationing at White Lake, NC, or playing in the local swimming pool, we spent much of our summers immersed. We could get pretty creative with water games and since our lives revolved around the church, it was to be expected that our experiences there would be reproduced in playtime. (Some kids play cowboys, firefighters, cops and robbers. We played Baptist.)
“Fine,” I told her, “But you only get to baptize me once. Then it’s my turn.”
Assuming a solemn expression and a preacher voice (which my Daddy never had but we’d heard our share) my sister placed one hand on my back and raised the other skyward. “Aileen? Why have you come?”
“Because I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior and I want to be baptized.” My voice sounded funny. I was holding my nose prematurely as my sister had been known to dunk me before it was time.
“Then,” she said, pitching her own voice down to sound more like Daddy’s, “Upon your profession in him, I baptize you my [giggle, giggle] little sister, in the name of the father, the son and in . . . the hole you go!” Before she got the last word out, I was under.
“Okay! My turn!” I said, wiping my dripping hair out of my face and taking my place behind her.
Now that I think about it, I suppose our little game was a bit disrespectful, maybe even borderline sacrilegious. (I won’t even tell you about our Eucharist tea parties.) But mainly, looking back at those days, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that my faith traditions were so familiar to me that they became a very literal part of my everyday life. As a child, that meant I baptized playmates. As an adult, it means that I continue to follow Christ. And I’m not even playing.
I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Mark 1:8 NRSV
“I’ve probably only got a couple of months,” George said, drawing in a quick breath and blinking at persistent tears. He lay on his couch, a warm blanket covering him and cozy pillows tucked behind his head and under his feet. “But I’m at peace with it honey, I really am.” George squeezed his eyes closed but the tears seeped out anyway. “I don’t know how I can be at peace, but . . . well . . . yes I do. You know too.”
George loves living—cancer or no cancer—and he’s in no hurry to give this life up for the next. George knows where he’s going; he even has a son and a wife there waiting on him. He doesn’t fear leaving here for heaven; it’s not that. It’s just that . . . well, George loves life. He really, really loves life.
While we were visiting, his daughter brought me a cup of tea and on the tray was a serving of homemade fudge. “Oh, try that fudge!” George encouraged me, “I just made that last week. Oh, and Marilyn?” His daughter returned. “Bring Aileen some of my jelly too. You like jelly don’t you Aileen? I made peach and blackberry.” (Of course I like jelly—particularly the kind you can’t buy in stores.) “Bring her one of each.”
“Have you met my great-grandchildren? They’re downstairs.” I had not. “Of course Ben and Jocelyn--that's just two of them; you know I have eight?” I did not. “I’ve been so blessed.” George smiled, nodding.
“Hey did I tell you? I went to Florida last week.” George's eyes twinkled; he looked like a kid who had pulled a fast one on the adults of the world.
George, in the advanced stages of cancer, had been scheduled for surgery last week. By a fortuitous turn of events, the surgery had to be rescheduled for the end of the week; it just so happened that one of his daughters was Florida bound. George loves Florida.
“What in the world did you do down there?” I asked him, still shaking my head at the wonder of it.
“Mostly what I’m doing right here.” George laughed at himself, gesturing at his comfy set-up. “But it was good just to be near the water.” He sighed, wistful. “You know that’s not like me to sit around.” I knew.
In addition to making culinary delights to share, George has countless other hobbies and avocations. He goes to first run movies, art galleries, and the homeless shelter. He is an avid fisherman, a woodworker of remarkable talent, and a gardener with a bright green thumb. He reads voraciously, maintains his North Asheville home, and attends Asheville’s First Baptist every Sunday he is able, his time-worn, green-covered Living Bible in hand. And he’s planning even now for a Thanksgiving family reunion when he’ll be surrounded by his children and theirs, and theirs.
“I know you are at peace, George, but it’s okay to be sad too.”
My octogenarian friend nodded, tears flowing freely now.
“You really love living don’t you?”
“I really do, honey, I really do.”
Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.
(New Living Translation)
It can be so sneaky.
I know because recently it snuck up on me. I never saw it coming.
There I was, sitting in Jan Davis Tire Store (time to get the tires rotated), minding my own business, when in walks (I kid you not) Osama Bin Laden’s nephew. Olive skinned and bearded, with a pill-box shaped hat perched on his Middle Eastern hair, he wore billowing britches, a flowing blouse that reached his knees, and a long linen vest draped over the whole ensemble. He approached the counter; I didn’t hear what the clerk called him, but I think it was Mr. Bin Laden.
Now, it would have been bad enough having a terrorist’s blood kin walk into the place of business I was patronizing had I not been studying (you guessed it) biblical Hebrew, of all things. And I was sitting right by the door, practically in the doorway.
So I think to myself, Well now, Osama Bin Laden’s nephew has just walked into Jan Davis Tire Store and I’m sitting in his pathway reading Hebrew. How very nice is that. Well. Hmm. How should I handle this situation since I know I’m not an over-reactive person and I’m certainly not a racist for heaven’s sake!
About that time, the fella turns around and before I realize what I’m doing, I smile and say hello (because I smile and say hello to everyone—it’s a habit). He smiles back, says hello, does not pull out a machine gun, and proceeds out the door. Then he stops, noticing my book, and comes back inside the store.
“You’re reading Hebrew?” His eyes are kind.
Stupid racism! I mentally slap myself for slipping into the stereotypes that are based on the tiniest minority and are so unfair. I know better. But knowing and doing have never been the same. This person is a potential friend, regardless of his religious or political background. Shame on me for missing that, if even for a moment. Ugh! I can't stand racism! Especially when I find it in my own self.
“You don’t see many people reading Hebrew in Asheville.” He smiles, chuckles a little.
I smile back and explain. “No, I guess not. I’m in divinity school. I’m taking Hebrew and I have a test next week.”
He asks where I go to school and then where Gardner-Webb is and we talk about that for a minute or two. The conversation turns back to Hebrew.
“I read Hebrew,” he says, “but only about as well as a third grader.” His countenance is warm, open.
“That’s great. I’ll have to learn a lot more to get to the third grade level.” We both laugh a little.
“Well, good luck on your test. Have a great day.”
“You too,” I say and I really hope that he does. I hope, I pray, that throughout this day, Godly people will treat him the way they would want to be treated.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say, and I really mean it.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)
Originally posted 9-27-09
“I got the invitation to my friend's birthday party, Mommy.”
My 11-year-old daughter, Margaret hesitated, seeming to withhold information.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, dragging the word into two syllables, “it’s a sleepover.”
“And . . . ”
“And what, Margaret?”
“Well, it’s on a Saturday night, but I really want to go and she only invited two other girls and if I don’t go then that would mean she only had two girls at her party and that’s if those two girls can actually come and what’s the chance of that, I mean probably one of them can’t come and that would be horrible to have a birthday party and only have one friend there don’t you think mommy, so can I go please?”
Saturday night sleepovers. I don’t much care for them. You see, I want my kids in church with us on Sunday morning and Saturday night sleepovers make that tricky at best. Sure it’s fine to visit church with friends, but I feel like there will be plenty of time for that when they are older. For now, this family goes to church together on Sunday mornings. It's a parenting priority.
After we talked about it, Margaret shared our plan with her friend. According to Margaret, it went something like this.
“Guess what? I can go to your party!”
“Only I have to leave at 8:00 Sunday morning.”
“Whoa. That’s really early.”
“Yeah. I know. But I get to go to the party and I’ll be there early so we can have plenty of time together. It’s just I have to leave at 8:00 so we can get to church on time.”
“Okay, but Margaret? Can’t you miss church just once?”
As she told me the story, Margaret demonstrated how she shook her head in disbelief before she laughed, answering her friend, “Ummm, have you ever met my mom?”
Church. Around here, it’s a priority.
Published August 29, 2009 when Baker was 13 years old.
Over and over again that week at divinity school, I was asked how my summer had been. I was seeing folk I'd not seen since last semester and the question was more of a greeting than an inquiry. I knew that, but I stumbled every time to say something that could sum up the last three months. It was a hard summer in many ways, and it felt almost deceptive to dismiss the greeting with “Fine, thanks. You?”
Eventually, I settled on a response sort of like this: “Actually, it was hard: I experienced a lot of losses this summer. Most of them were minor, some were a little more unsettling, and one was nearly overwhelming. And yet, this summer I witnessed the goodness of God in remarkable ways.”
It’s true. The summer was hard, but there were some amazing, almost miraculous moments. I was able to see those moments, in part, because of a conversation I had with my son towards the end of July. It went something like this.
“Hey Mom I think I thought of something pretty profound.”
“Oh yeah, Baker, what was that?”
“Well I was looking at fireflies, ya know?”
“See, it’s like they are all around us in the dark, and we don't realize it. Then they light up and suddenly we know they've been there all along.”
“And I think that’s kind of like Jesus is. Sometimes, we can't really see Jesus because of what’s going on in our life.”
“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”
“Yeah.” Baker, hands on hips, grinned. “That’s pretty profound don’t you think?”
"I do indeed, Baker-boy, I do indeed."
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 NRSV