"Graceland" is the name of my favorite song and album. It's by Paul Simon, but more importantly, it's what "home" sounds and feels like to me. We always listened to this album as we traveled from my home in Tennessee to my parents' childhood homes in Florida. But today, it's also a pretty good snapshot of my theology. Somewhere I really believe that the Christian journey is all about a wild trip to Grace-land. As I see it, Grace-land is the place where God is waiting to meet even us–with all the baggage and brokeness that we tote with us. Grace-land is the place where we will be received with open arms, even though our attempts at “getting it right” have been miserable failures at best. But, I think, every step we take is a step on the journey to Graceland.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Go out in life...

I know what I was supposed to say.  Because when the church calendar announces that it's Ash Wednesday, we all hop to.  We talk about sin and mortality and being made clean.  We say that we're going to sit in somber sobriety for the next six weeks, and that nary an "alleluia!" will cross our lips.  I mean, it's the least we can do... you know, since Jesus died for us.  The least we can do is do a little dying ourselves.

I have to admit I've struggled with Lent the last few years.  Last year, I said the right words.  I purely wept as I marked my congregation with ashes.  And then I wrote this manifesto.  This year, my brain and heart had a mutiny. The more I sat down and tried to write the words, the less I found that anything at all would come out.  I had a pretty little temper tantrum in my office.  Because no matter what the church calendar said, the words from Ecclesiastes rattled around in my head "To everything there is a season."  And while we might be out of sync with the rest of the church, I realized that we are not in a season where it is right our good for us to mourn or weep or ponder our brokenness too deeply.  We've had a tough year, and we're not out of the desert yet.  We're in a season where our words will be "Behold, I'm doing a new thing.  The former things will not be remembered." And our words will be "Do not be afraid."

So I forewent the usual Psalm 51, and anything else that smacked of what I was "supposed" to say.  And instead I lifted up for them Isaiah 61.  Before they came for ashes, I told them that I was marking them as a sign of life, not as a sign of death. As a sign of love, not one of condemnation.  And then as each lifted their forhead to me, I said the ancient words, but with something else.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  But go out in life."  Our eyes met, and every single one had the same response.  A weight lifted-- visibly.  And then a smile, mine then theirs.  Theirs then mine.  And before it was all over, we all smiled.

As the service came to a close, I said this. "Your bulletin says you should go out in silence, but for the  LOVE of God, please don't do that.  Please go out telling the good news, dancing for joy, and singing the loudest song of thanksgiving you know."

I realized what I should've added was "After all, what good is a Christian who has no alleluia to offer the world?"

It was a holy night.  A night when we traded our ashes of mourning and grief and anxiety and questions for a garland of beauty. A night when we together remembered what it is to be loved, and reclaimed our calling as people meant to shine.

Here's my Ash Wednesday meditation for those that have asked.
It’s not like Lent exactly snuck up on me.  I’ve had a year-ish, for pete’s sake.  But my brain isn’t ready for Lent-- and I think it’s having a mutiny.  Not in a forgetful way, but in a refusal to write the words way. Because what I’m supposed to say tonight is “Remember that you are mortal.  That you are broken and sinful.  That your body will die and it will be returned to the ground, Ashes to Ashes dust to dust.  That you should spent the next six weeks in somber reflection of that fact. That you should not say Alleluia, that we should not have flowers in the sanctuary.”  That’s what I’m supposed to say.

But every time I start to write it, I find that I am unable. And the more I pray about making those words come out of my mouth, and the less they still come out, I’m wondering if those are really the words I’m really supposed to say, or if they’re just words tradition says I’m supposed to say. Because every time I start to pray the Ash Wednesday words, the words that spring to my head are “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”  Maybe that’s the ashes part.  Because ashes are the most fertile thing for life.  A few years ago, when I worked at the children’s home, one of our children (out of anger) burned down one of the cottages.  But before we had gotten the building razed, there were flowers that started springing up. Beautiful, bold, alive flowers... right there in the place of burned decay.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

And as I look out (and as I thought about each of you tonight), I know that you’ve stood in Ashes more than you should.  I know that you’re worried and anxious and grieving and remembering simpler times. 

We’re like this teapot.  Everytime I walk by it, I remind myself to polish it.  And I tell myself that who ever made that teapot wouldn’t be so thrilled to see it that way.  Heartbroken maybe. Because I’d guess that teapot was meant to be a lovely piece, that was tea between friends, that was a cup of warmth at a holiday gathering, that was the mark of true and genuine hospitality.  But since that tea pot came to my house, that’s not been it’s life.  It sits there on a lonely shelf, neglected in a room that I rarely enter anymore.  It’s badly tarnished.  It’s a tragic thing I think when something of beauty isn’t beautiful anymore.  This teapot was meant to shine.

I think maybe we get tarnished too-- though it isn’t so obvious as my poor teapot.  But don’t we get tarnished when we’re weighed down by worry and concern? Don’t we get tarnished when we’ve lost the notion that the gospel is the Good News promise of amazing love? Don’t we get tarnished when we keep it to ourselves? 

So, the more I think about it, the less I’m willing to tell you to spend the next six weeks thinking about your sin, and focusing on what you’ve done wrong. I’m unwilling to tell you that it’s proper to give up things in the name of Jesus.  Because the truth is that Jesus died for you, but he died so that you might have life and have it more abundantly than you’ve ever known.  Jesus did not die so that you or the church could sit in the ashes.  Jesus died so that you might know grace, because the problem of being a human being is that we’re all broken and incapable of getting it right.  So why would we talk about sin, except so that we can talk about grace?

Here’s my proposition for you for Lent.  If you’re really feeling called to give up something, do.  If you’re really called to take on acts of service, do. That’s fine and good. But I’d like to invite you into a very different spiritual discipline for the next six weeks.  Warning: it may not be any easier than giving things up. It will require discipline.  My invitation to you is to spend the next six weeks shining.

Whatever it is that is tarnishing you, let it go.  Let it go, let it go, let it go. And instead, shine. We shine when we are joyful from the inside out, shine when our trust is unshakable because of the one it is in whom we trust. We shine when we love, even when it is hard or inconvenient.  We shine when we tell the story.  We shine when we invite people in-- meeting them where they are, not where we want them to be. 

So.  Shine.  This (hold up cup) is who you are meant to be.

These are the words I leave you with: 
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,    and the day of vengeance of our God;    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Make Space, Make Art

Confession: There's one room in my house I never finished moving into-- uhem... a year and a half ago. Oh, I by turns made it presentable when I had to, but it's never been my space.  (Which is a shame because the space was intended to be my sanctuary-- a beachy themed room with the loveliest light blue walls where I would write and think deep thoughts and create. Maybe even do yoga if I felt extra rowdy.) There were boxes I never unpacked, and the things I wanted were not where I could easily access them. And lately, in effort to keep other parts of my house clean (or to get it company ready), it's become a storage facility for stuff I didn't have time to deal with.  It was always a project for "one day".

Today was finally the day, courtesy of an unexpected snow-in.  Well, that... and a fierce need to be creative. I was an artist in my pre-preacher life.  Not in a professional way, though I entertained the notion for a little while.  But in a way that I saw things in a creative way, with big bold colors and strokes of inspired imagination.  I painted and drew and took pictures and designed a quilt or two.  I wrote.  But somehow, over the last few years, I've blocked that piece of me off.  I've done other things with my time.  I've been sort of remaking myself. I've been intentional about both growing up and growing young.  Those things take a lot of energy I guess.

But the creative energy is resurfacing--and has been clawing to get out for the last few months.  I've longed to paint things with vibrant colors and alive energy.  I've wanted to play with messy and dramatic charcoals.  And to dot myself to death with stipling.  I've wanted to actually print some of the pictures that have been living in my computer for years.  And I want more than ever what I've always wanted: to write.

I made myself a deal.  If I would clean up my blue room, I would allow myself to buy some fun new art supplies.  I'd buy a lamp for my drawing table.  I'd quit telling myself that I'm not creative or that I don't have time for it or that I don't miss it.

So I did it.  I really did it. I cleaned the room-- and threw away tons of stuff that had just never been dealt with, or things that no longer suited me.  I cleared away clutter on my shelves and desk. For the first time in years,  I opened my art bins. I sorted markers and gathered up the cheap pens I'd never use for any serious writing. I threw away brushed that I hadn't taken care of, or ones that just didn't feel right in my hands. I threw away the dried up paints.  I repurposed a seven drawer thingy and put all my supplies where I could easily access them. And I made a list of what I needed to buy and what I wanted.  A box of fun will be arriving on Monday.

  I did a lot of saying goodbye today
-- to energy sucking stuff, to various pictures of who I've been, to things that had "so much potential", to a feeling of dread at knowing I had such a task ahead of me.  But in the saying goodbye, I made space for me. Who I am now, and who I still want to become.  I made space for breathing.  I've made space for art, and mess, and capturing beauty and life.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

When I Grow Up

When I was in kindergarten, I made a dinosaur.  No, really.  He took up the whole width of the classroom, and had as many names as there were children in the class. Parents came in and helped our inept hands slap papier mache on to the form, of what would be a green diplodocus.  (That's dip-LO-doc-us.  Making the dinosaur also inspired a 27 year debate between me and my dad.  He, mistakenly, thinks it is a di-PLOD-o-cus.  That's just plain silly.) But 27 years later, I'm still pretty awed by the whole experience.

I had some phenomenal teachers: one who helped me imagine I was in France by having a group of us over to her house to watch Sleeping Beauty in French and giving us brie and baguettes and sparkling grape juice; one who was brave enough to take a group of middle schoolers to New York City; one who finally taught me about vectors by teaching me about a pool table; one who opened the world of writing to me; one who taught me to see the Bible in a whole new, living way; one who taught me that art was mostly about seeing; and one whose job was to teach me about literature, but who really taught me about life, and knitting, and relationships.

The fact that these people were so passionate about their love of learning that they took the time to make it an experience still impresses me. They went way beyond the bounds of their "job" and they invested themselves.  They were wildly creative, but I'm sure that didn't come without cost.  I'm sure these are the ones that stayed awake at nights daydreaming and brainstorming and planning the best way to show us things that really mattered.  All of these people in some way moved me to excitement, which far exceeded the boundaries of book learning.

It occurs to me as I look at a brand new year that this is the pastor I want to be.  Not that I want to generate experiences of the gospel, but that I want to do everything I can to move people to excitement by the ways they have already experienced the Good News. I want to tell the stories of a God and covenant people in a way that draws people in so that they can continue to experience love and hope and joy, and in a way that invites them to share the stories with all that they meet.  I want to be the pastor who will look for ways to put new life in ancient wisdom. I want to be the pastor who helps people know, not just in an intellectual way, but in a lived way, the depth and bredth of Love their God has for them.

That's what I want to be when I grow up.  That's all.

Friday, November 22, 2013

I Have a Dream

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.  (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

I'm young enough to easily say that one of my heroes, trite those this seems, is Martin Luther King, Jr.   His writing alone is enviable, never mind the amazing things for which he stood.  Of course, I didn't live through those times.  I don't know what it was like to have to deal with this thing that seemed to completely fly in the face of "But it's always been that way."  Wait, maybe I do understand.  And maybe that's another reason I admire him.  Because he was able to dream of better when it was just that-- a dream.  He was able to hold a vision in the midst of living in a world that told him he was wrong to hold such a brazen hope.

Probably someone will tell me I'm wrong too. Somehow dreams are like that.  One person's dream threatens another's comfort.  But still I have a dream.

I have a dream that our love for Christ may change who we are-- that it spills over on to everything we do, enabling us to really love each other-- even more than we love to call attention to our differences.  I have a dream that love becomes the most important thing we do, more important than practices or politics or polity, more important than gatekeeping or glowering... or dare I say it, even growing.  But of course there's the "Begat Rule": Love begets love.  So if there is love, there will be growing too.

I have a dream that we begin to pay attention to what Jesus did and did not say, and that we stop incorrectly attributing words we want to hear to Jesus.  Jesus had a peculiar need to use "All" and "Every" with alarming regularity.

I have a dream that when we hear "Do not be afraid", we take that every bit as seriously as the "Thou Shalts." Fear is all to often at the heart of decisions in the church. We are fearful that people will take their marbles and go home, fearful that we won't meet the budget, fearful that the church will change, fearful that what the church has always stood for is in jeopardy.  We are even fearful that grace is too extravagant, and that some how, it must be for only perfect people.

I have a dream that "Behold, I am doing a new thing" might indeed be good news, not a source of sheer terror, and that we may hear "Sing a New song" as an invitation rather than a threat.

I have a dream that we might be Christians Who Get It Right, not people, who in the name of Christ, perpetuate smallness.  May we take notice of the world around us and feel responsible for it and all things created, including people, including people we don't like.

I have a dream that the Church might be a place of authenticity and genuine hospitality, that having the right answers may not be nearly important as having the courage to ask the hard questions.

I have a dream that the Church may have a more grand and glorious mission than pointing fingers and drawing lines.  I long for the day when mouths are only used for building up the community, not tearing it down, and when hands are only used to extend love and forgiveness, not to bear witness to hate.

I have a dream that the Church may be filled with people of all generations.  Each has something to offer to the others.  One generation cannot be catered to at the exclusion of the others, for all are necessary to the vitality and mission of the Church.

I have a dream that "church" may be something more than a Sunday habit or a "necessary to-do" in order to get in line for heaven.  I dream that that the community is so inviting, engaging, real and hospitable that it's the highlight of all the things we do.

I have a dream that the church will begin to see itself as a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.  It's the people that have missed the mark, and been beaten down by the world that most need the church.  Of course, though, people who judge themselves to be saintly might need a place to heal just as badly as anyone else.  The thing about hospitals is that they take anyone who needs them, not just the ones who look nice or speak well.

I have a dream that the church will rise up from the ashes of mourning yesteryear, and become the bold and vibrant pheonix that is a living testimony to resurrection, as well as The Resurrection.  I dream of the day when our songs (not just the ones we sing on Sundays, but the ones we live) no longer sound like death marches, but joy-filled jigs.

I have a dream that the church will be loosed from notions of comfort and safety and "right", that we will be set free from all things that hold us captive.

When I saw this, I knew that it was a glorious visual representation of my dream. Because at the heart of my dream for the church (not just "mine" but the church universal) is creating this joyful playground of sacred and ordinary, a place where people in tuxedos (or 3 piece suits) can break it down with those wearing hole-y jeans, a place where all can play a part and know that their presence changes the whole symphony for the good.  I dream of a place where a little child, who can offer only a smile, is as important as the grown-up ringleaders.  I have a dream that the church becomes so grand a song that any who are near enough to hear want to join in, and that all who leave do with a memory of having their world rocked by such an encounter.

Yeah, I have a dream.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


When I was young, I plastered my walls with Bible Verses.  It made sense to me, and as I was learning what it meant to be a Christian in a Southern, Bible-belt town, I thought that's what we were supposed to do: to have a plethora of Bible verses at the ready, for any given circumstance. The verses I seemed to gravitate toward and hold on to were the ones that said "Do not worry" or "Do not be anxious" or "Do not fear." As a person who very much likes to be in control and who very much dislikes being surprised, these were the reminders I needed.

I'm great at sharing these verses with anxious people I encounter.  I'm fabulous at reminding people that fear and anxiety is our human condition-- if there weren't a need, then the scriptures wouldn't have repeated the same reassurances over and over.  Of course there is a need.  We're always franctic about something.  Yet, even as I'm so great at saying these powerful words, I have to acknowledge that I'm not so great at hearing them.  Or maybe I hear them, and I just forget that they are meant for me too.

So I sit.  Or more exactly, I flounder and writhe in my own anxiety and need to have things play out exactly as I imagined them. And when something is bigger than I am, I'm a mess. I had that happen this week.  I was beyond anxious about an event.  I called several people to ask them to pray. I couldn't eat.  Every time I thought about it, my heart started to race.  It felt like a disaster waiting to happen. If I were being honest, I'd have to say that I felt pretty alone.

But then things played out in a way that was thousands of times better than what I could've ever imagined.  And I know.  Those powerful words are for me too.  Because it is always the case, whether I can see it or articulate it, that I too am remembered.  My needs and worries and frustrations do not go unnoticed.  I do not go it alone.

So maybe the words I hang on to now are different.  Maybe I'll still tell myself not to worry and fret.  But maybe I'll more helpfully remind myself that I am remembered.  And it is enough.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Be Opened

I'm now a week-ish removed from the Festival of Homiletics.  The event, on the whole, proved rather disappointing to me-- and maybe in some ways I've out grown it.  But in other ways, there were surprises and learnings and Words.

The preacher with whom I most identified was not one of my careful, wordsmith preaching heroes.  It wasn't someone that would ever wear a preaching robe, not someone who'd likely ever have a Ph.D behind her name. No, she was not that kind of preacher-- she was not the kind of preacher I've always dreamed of being. Instead, she was tattooed and ripped, and had the huge ear-stretching earrings.  She wore sleeveless shirts that showed off her tats, and a stole and clerical collar.  She cussed during her sermon, completely unbothered by the "that's not a proper way to worship" tsks.  She was honest. And raw.  And the person who most faithfully and unapologetically brought the word.

Her text was Mark 7:31-37.  It was the story of Jesus healing the deaf-mute man, where Jesus (who apparently had no boundaries, as the preacher pointed out) actually stuck his fingers in the man's ears and said "Be opened!" (Ephphatha! in the greek, if you're that preacher.)

She made an interesting point.  The ones who brought the man, brought him for his healing.  As she said, "He was the designated sick person-- all the rest were the designated well ones. They never realized they were broken too."

Then she said, "Be opened. Maybe healing is not about finding what's wrong and fixing it.  Maybe it's more about being opened."

Those are powerful words that I needed to hear.  But she didn't stop there.  She said, "Be opened! Be opened to the fact that your value is not in working 60+ hours for someone who will never be pleased.  Be opened to the fact that you are stronger than you think, and opened to the fact that you are not as strong as you think.  Be opened to the fact that the gospel is true, and that it is for you."

And then she drove it home with, "Whatever it is that you cling to with frozen fingers cannot love you like Jesus loves you. Be opened to hearing that Good News."

It was gospel.

As I sit here, a week later, those words still rattle around my soul.  What is it that have stopped up my ears? What is it that has caused blockages in my heart?  What expectations have I let define who I am, instead of believing that my value comes only from being a beloved child of God?

I don't know that I want Jesus to stick his fingers in my ears and shout "Be opened!" But maybe, refusing to let Christ deal with my brokenness is just too costly.  To what am I called to be opened to?

Thursday, May 16, 2013



            I love worship.  I believe that it is sacred and holy.  And I traveled a long way to be able to worship with 3,000 other preachers.  I’ve given up in a week of my pastor life to be here.  I’ve looked forward to this since last May,  when I came to last year’s conference.  This is, in many ways, the highlight of my years as a preacher—it’s my chance to have my spirit filled so I can go back to my community, ready again to be their pastor.  It’s my chance to rest and reflect, my chance to have my passion reignited.

            So I was primed for a great worship experience.  But that is not what I found the first night.  Apparently the venue was too small for all of us.  But they knew that, so the organizers were ready with a live-stream equipped overflow space.

            It turns out that watching a livestream is not the same thing as being in the worship space.  We had no hymnals—and few were lucky enough to have bulletins.  But it was more than that.  We were not part of the worshipping community.  The preacher was not looking at us, we couldn’t hear the fullness of the whole cloud of witnesses singing the praises of the Holy One.  And all of us felt it.   At first we tried to make the best of it—a few of us awkwardly stood for the hymn, but it just didn’t feel right.  When the preacher spoke, the livestream focused on his bible, or on the faces of the crowd.  The Word was an afterthought.

            What was fascinating to me was how the mood changed throughout the worship service.  I sense that most of us were excited to be there—we wanted to worship, we needed to be in the presence of the Sacred and to worship with each other.  But as the night went on,  not only the sense of palpable excitement of the community, but the community itself dissolved.  Cell phones (including mine) came out—and we began to engage with other people outside the room.  Likely most of us were complaining to others  about the experience.  At least that’s what I was doing.
I was dis-engaged with what was going on.  And heartbroken too.

            But now, it leads me to think about the communal nature of worship.  What is it that makes worship worship? I know, I know… God is everywhere—and therefore,  just as much in our living room as in a sanctuary.  Well, yes.  And, no.  Because God is also present in people.  If we are just seeing a preacher on a TV screen, we have one chance to see God—and that’s if the preacher is faithfully bringing the word.  But when we gather in church with a community of people, we see God in their faces, in their eyes, in their hugs, in their songs, and in their stories.  We were designed to be in community.  Can we learn about God’s forgiveness in the privacy of our living room?  Yes.  But  we experience it when we offer the genuine peace of God to someone with whom we have disagreed.  Can we sing songs of praise in the silence of the shower? Sure.  But we cannot hear the great cloud of witnesses singing together unless we are that… together.

            And more than these things, our presence in worship matters because each of us is part of the community.  Our presence changes the worship experience of those around us—and what we do while we’re there affects all those around us.  Dis-engagement breeds more dis-engagement.  

            So my question is this:  how do we create engaging, community building worship?  Because worship is neither about the individual nor is it complete when there is no genuine community.