"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.

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.   

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Coveting Koinonia

[Cross-posted from my other blog, www.thepudgyparson.blogspot.com)

I wish I could remember who said this, but I love it even if I can't correctly attribute it. Speaking on what is good about the church, she (whomever she is...) said, "Your yoga teacher won't bring you a casserole when your mom dies." She was talking about the community that is at the heart of who the church is. Don't get me wrong, sometimes the church blows it. Sometimes we become gossipy and self-interested, but that happens within any organization. Yet, a church can be a very valuable gift when you need someone to be in your corner.

I've been interested to see this unfold as I've become public with my journey of losing weight. I was kind of nervous about being so open, but especially as a leader. I wondered if people would frown when I let them know that I would be making time for the gym and that it was a priority. I wondered how many I would upset when I hit the point of no longer eating at church dinners. (Which has actually been a gift-- now I'm free to talk and listen and make eye contact, knowing that I'll eat my 200 carefully measured calories at home.) I made a game plan for defending myself, saying that if I wasn't healthy, then I couldn't be a healthy pastor for them. But I've never needed to defend myself. No one questions it when I go to the gym mid afternoon if I have an evening meeting. Aside from curiousity, no one seems to mind my lack of food consumption at meals.

And more than not needing to defend myself, I've actually found myself on the receiving end of lots of support. I have an elder who calls me "Slim." ( I tell him that his elder status is not in question and that he doesn't need brownie points, but we both know he gets them!) I had a lady who used to work for weight watchers offer to make some low calorie things just for me so I wouldn't feel left out. And when I told another lady that I had some questions as to whether I needed to see a doctor to rule out some medical issues, she not only gave me a recommendation, but is faithfully following up with me every time she sees me to make sure that I do it. Someone once told me that "a real friend is one who loves you into being accountable for the intentions you set for yourself."

But maybe that's more than friendship. Maybe that's Koinonia. Koinonia is the greek word that loosely means "fellowship" or "common life." But in classical Greek, it also means partner or companion. The idea denotes a unity of purpose in some ways. In other words, because my health matters to me, it matters to them. They see themselves as partners in what I would have described as a completely individual journey. Maybe that's why Weight Watchers is so popular-- because anyone who has ever done this knows that it's easier to have a community. I'm grateful for the ways my congregation teaches me about Koinonia-- and for the ways they love me enough to help me love myself.

Worship is Messy

[Cross-posted from www.fpc-franklin.blogspot.com]

If something is going to go wrong, more than likely it's going to happen during Communion. (Not, of course, that I haven't found ways to mess up other parts of the service... I've now gone completely blank on the words to the benediction no less than three times. I've face planted out of the pulpit. I've gotten my high heel stuck in a grate in the floor. I shouldn't say this or I'll jinx myself, but so far, *fingers crossed* I haven't had a bad vocal preacher flub-up that we're known for.) Which is completely logical, because that is the time when you are trying to be the most careful and somber and reverent. It's simply a prime opportunity for something to go amiss.

And amiss it went-- at least Sunday. I didn't do anything as innocuous as tangle with the Great Thanksgiving or anything so easily covered. But as I was sitting down meditating after the communion had gone out, I looked at the table and realized my error. One side of the sanctuary had gotten bread and the other had gotten juice. My first thought was "How the heck did that happen?
Which was followed closely by "How the heck do I fix it?" The first was easy-- I had sent out the wrong element on my side. Bread first, then juice-- unless you're me, apparently. And I knew why. I'd had a heavy conversation right before worship, and it was weighing on my mind. That comes with the territory of being a pastor sometimes-- trying to be fully present in one moment, even while trying to figure out something completely unrelated.

But this was a helpful reminder of theology I've held as long as I've been a church attender: worship is messy! If only it were easy enough to turn worship into a carefully rehearsed performance! Surely the Lord would smile on something so well-crafted? But worship can never be a performance because it is filled with people. And people are messy. We come as we're told: Just as we are without one plea! We come with "stuff"-- with minds overloaded, with shaky hands, with unshed tears, with a song ready to burst forth, with wiggly children and grandchildren. We come with agendas and needs, seeking power and simultaneously yearning for peace.

And we're only part of the mess of worship. Because whenever the Holy Spirit is involved, all our "rules" and preconceived notions are undone. We are in the hands of one who makes dry bones dance, who causes smart people to babble ridiculously. We're in the hands of one who doesn't mind shoving us out of our comfortable worship to teach us what it means to worship truly. Maybe the Holy Spirit is even messier than people!

Worship is messy. Sometimes I wonder if God minds that things don't always go the way they were planned. Then I ponder the God I meet in the scriptures--and I always come back to my image of God--the one whose eyes sparkle with merriment. And I think that God must smile at us, who think we can so carefully plan and construct so that we can iron out every wrinkle. And over and over in the scriptures, I hear that God chooses to dwell with us. With us. The broken ones. The overly structured ones. The messy ones. Maybe God doesn't mind messy worship.

And maybe that's part of the lavishness of grace-- knowing that we don't have to be perfect to be loved.

No Buts

conjunction junction
I’ve said it thousands of times: The church’s favorite word is “But”. (Yes, with a capital “B”) ”But we don’t have the money.” “But it’s risky.” “But I’m not sure that’s really related to our mission.” “But we don’t have enough volunteers.” Or, my personal favorite: “But we’ve never done it that way before.” It seems there’s always a gigantic but in every conversation.
Yet, until recently, I didn’t know that my favorite word is also But. I would’ve sworn it was something much more positive and affirming, much more forward thinking. And I would’ve happily continued in my ignorance had it not been for a gifted outside-the-box thinker, an unapologetic “none”. He gives me wonderful ideas about the church, and all I can do is stammer that word. “But, polity says I can’t do that.” “But the session won’t approve it.” “But that’s not my job as pastor.” “But I’ll make people mad.”
How is it that three letters have become so powerful in not only the life of the church, but also in the life of one who longs for and believes in what’s NEXT? But is, at best, a word with its feet in the past. But does not know how to dream of a future or imagine possibilities. All But knows is limitation.
A few weeks ago, the lectionary stepped on my toes. Peter was all “Nuhuh, not me, Lord. I’d never touch anything that was unclean.” And the Lord easily countered that Peter didn’t get the deciding vote on what was clean and unclean. I’d never heard the story this way before, but suddenly I realized that maybe the church still shouts “Unclean” not just at people, but at ideas. We decide that something is “unclean” if we don’t have all the answers or if it requires too much stepping out in faith. It’s unclean if its a little bit radical or if it necessitates the use of scarce and precious resources. The thing that really grabbed ahold of me in that passage was Peter’s rhetorical question as he’s trying to defend himself: “Who am I to hinder the Lord?”
What else could But ever be except a hindrance to the Lord? Jeremiah said it: “But I’m too young.” Moses said it: “But I stutter and I killed a guy.” Sarah said it: “But I’m too old.” Mary said it: “But I took the ‘stay away from boys’ lecture to heart!” Somehow, the Lord transformed But into something more. The Lord gave them three new letters– Y.E.S.
I want new letters too. If I want them, though, I recognize I’m going to have to give up my old ones. Whether the church always knows it or not, it too is longing to embrace something other than But. The church yearns for new language that gives it promises to cling to. The church is praying for the courage to be able to say yes and needs leaders who will help them try out the word.
If I’m going to be that leader, then I’m going to have to go on a But diet. (Which might just be harder that the butt diet I’ve been on the last few months.) I will no longer start sentences with But. I will not let But be a defining part of who I am or what I’m doing as a pastor. I will lovingly challenge my congregation to fast their Buts off too.
Maybe that’s at the heart of NEXT: a community of people who face boldly into an uncertain future, not because we are any braver than the rest, but because we have embraced a different word. Our word also only has three letters, and they seem to be even more powerful than snarly and limited But. Our word is yes. Conveniently enough, the God who calls us to be reformed according to the Word specializes in transforming But into YES!.

(Cross Posted from the Nextchurch.net site)