Mother’s Day Memories

Grief possesses a timing and logic all its own. It lurks in shadows and skulks around corners, appearing at the most unexpected of times.

Mother’s Day reminded me of this phenomenon anew.

My mother died four years ago in the midst of our move to Lawrenceville. A massive stroke eventually led to her death. I spent a frantic week rushing from Cartersville to Kennestone Hospital to Lawrenceville and back and back and back again.

I preached my first Sunday at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville on Sunday. She died 36 hours later on Monday night.

People grieve in different ways. In some ways, the busyness of serving a new congregation eased the pain. In other ways, I put grief on a layaway program, paying installments over time.

Four years later I still find myself surprised by grief. During December, I saw a gift and thought, “Mom would like that for Christmas.” This March I almost called to wish my parents a Happy Anniversary. Perusing Mother’s Day cards last week, I saw one she would have loved.

Grief possesses a timing and logic all its own. It lurks in shadows and skulks around corners, appearing at the most unexpected times

However, sorrow is nothing more than the long shadow cast by love. If we did not love, then we would not grieve. If we did not possess, then we could not lose.

In a poem entitled In Memoriam A. H. H., Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote:

  • I hold it true, whate’er befall;
  • I feel it when I sorrow most;
  • ‘Tis better to have loved and lost
  • Than never to have loved at all.

In times of grief, Christians claim what we proclaim: believers who have loved and lost never really lose their loved ones at all. Grief lasts but a moment, and joy endures forever.

Store Bought Sermons

A recent sampling of my weekend emails revealed the following offers:

  • Sermon for tomorrow—immediate access!
  • Sermon for this Sunday. Reliable. Professional. Easy.
  • Sermons freshly written for the Easter season.
  • Sermons professionally written for every Sunday.

Based on the subject lines, a thriving red-letter market exists for preachers interested in purchasing Saturday Night Special sermons.

In full disclosure, I certainly borrow from others in sermon preparation. After 2,000 years of Christendom, no one achieves originality. Dr. Fred Craddock, who taught homiletics at Candler School of Theology, warned: “He who steals from me steals twice.” And Fred probably got that statement from someone else!

However, preaching store bought sermons as sermon-dvd-blankhomemade homilies smacks of intellectual dishonesty and spiritual slothfulness. Like Esau, clergy that settle for “reliable, professional, and easy” store bought sermons have traded their birthright for porridge.

Preachers worth their salt labor over proclaiming the Gospel in a unique time and place to a particular people and parish. The integration of Word and World requires a pastor to stand with one foot in the sanctuary and another in the street.

Like Jacob at the Jabbok, faithful ministers wrestle with the Lord and struggle with the text. We limp away from the encounter to share with others our hard won experience.

A homemade homily prepared with love and preached with faithfulness may not be “professionally written,” but it inspires the hearts, minds, and souls of God’s saints.

Grateful

Each January I select a single word to serve as a focal point for the entire year. The spiritual discipline shapes my daily devotions and spiritual life.

During 2017, I am focusing on being GRATEFUL.

I begin and end each day with the question: “What am I grateful for today?” An attitude of gratitude directs my eyes from the gift to the Giver. It prompts me in a variety of ways to simply say “Thank you ” to the Author of all good and perfect gifts.

gratefulGratefulness begins with God and overflows to others. The Lord graces us with life-giving relationships with family, friends, and others. Our human nature leads us to take people for granted. A focus on being grateful has inspired me to both experience and express my appreciation for those around me.

Gratitude also helps inoculate my soul against whining, complaining, and grumbling. Gratefulness leads us to focus on blessings rather than inconveniences. It’s difficult to moan and groan while praising God and loving others.

We tend to be a forgetful people, so I’ve seeded each day with small reminders. It’s my first thought when I awake, and it’s my last thought when I fall asleep. The word forms (part!) of my computer password. And I’ve even taken the radical step of exercising gratitude while stopped at one of Gwinnett County’s many traffic lights!

During 2017, I am focusing on being GRATEFUL.

What’s your word?

It’s a Dog’s Life

(Bill decided to take a break from his writing duties. The family’s Yorkshire Terrier, Sam, volunteered to serve as today’s guest columnist. Views expressed by the canine in no way reflect his master’s opinions.)

SamBefore we begin, let me apologize for the whole “master” complex of my “owner.” Puh-lease! We all know who is really in control. However, I’ve learned from watching his wife that it doesn’t hurt to let the man THINK that he’s in charge.

In his defense, he’s a lovable sort—slow but trainable. After weeks of effort, he finally learned to give me a dog biscuit whenever I sat, shook, or rolled over.

It took longer on the house training. I committed a number of indiscretions on the carpet before he finally figured out the routine. Now he takes me outside on a regular schedule. One glance at the front door, and he comes running.

We use a leash on our walks. I’ve found this is the best way to keep my human from wandering away. A short tug of the lead gets his attention; but the leash still wraps around his legs if he doesn’t turn quickly enough.

Why are people in such a hurry? A walk involves so much more than locomotion and elimination. God’s creation calls us to play. The scent of each bush, tree, and hydrant reveals cosmic mysteries. Sigh—so many smells to smell and so little time to smell them.

Speaking of smells, so what if I enjoy an occasional roll in something stinky—who doesn’t? The best opportunities always seem to occur right after a bath. For some unfathomable reason, this practice upsets my humans. I imagine they would be less stressed if they followed my example.

I haven’t made any doggie friends in our subdivision. However, there are two ferocious mountain lions that live next door. My people insist on calling them cats, but I know otherwise. The irksome felines dare to slink across my yard on their nefarious escapades. I chase them whenever the opportunity arises, but my leash always pulls me up short.

Felines need to be reminded of their place in the animal kingdom. Dogs rule, cats drool!

Don’t get me started on squirrels. They act so high and mighty with their bushy tails and twitching noses. Lucky for them I keep my people on a leash while I’m outside. Otherwise, I would be on them like white on a Maltese.

I love to go for rides. I sit in my man’s lap and drive. It’s tough to watch the road with my nose out the window, but I manage.

However, not all of our road trips end well. Sometimes they take me to the bad place where they shampoo my hair and trim my nails. I will spare sensitive readers a description of what they do to the back of my front. Let’s just say that it involves squeezing certain unmentionable glands. ‘Nuf said.

For some reason, my family prepares and serves meals at a level above my reach. I am reduced to sitting at their feet, whining pitifully. You’ve just got to know how to work your audience. They all blame one another for feeding me scraps, but then each one slips me something special.

I am The Master of All I Survey. Sometimes strange people or animals dare to walk on the street in front of my house. Per dog decorum, I exercise my right and duty to announce my presence loudly. My family pretends to fuss about the barking, but I know that they treasure this endearing quality.

I may only weigh 10 pounds, but it’s not the size of the dog in the fight—it’s the size of the fight in the dog!

I’m waiting at the door when my people arrive at the end of the day. They always act so excited to see me. I indulge them with some dancing and prancing of my own. Humans love that sort of stuff.

At bedtime, I decide which human to grace with my presence in bed. They started me off in a crate followed by a dog bed. Puh-lease—get a grip and buy a clue. They can sleep in a crate while I snuggle under the covers.

It’s a dog’s life, and I’m not complaining. The Great Master in the Sky has blessed my family richly. Between you and me, I believe the Hound of Heaven has a soft spot for canines.

Think about it—“dog” is “God” spelled backwards. Coincidence? I don’t think so!

The Tomb is Empty

A group from our church traveled to the Holy Land in 2015. We took a walking tour of Jerusalem on the final day of the tour. Entering the Old City, we walked the Via Dolorosa and prayed at the Stations of the Cross.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher marks the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Although the claim cannot be supported with historical certainly, Christians have worshiped at this sacred site since the fourth century.

Church of Holy Sepulcher

Altar marking Golgotha

Past the entrance we climbed a stairway on the right that ascended to the site of Golgotha. Under an elaborate altar, pilgrims knelt and touched the rock where the crucifixion took place. The Chapel of Adam is located beneath the altar. Legend claims the blood of Jesus seeped through the rock and covered the skeletal remains of First Man.

A large rotunda left of the entrance houses the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. I stood in a line winding around the sepulcher. The anteroom contained the “Angel’s Stone” which is purportedly a piece of the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb. A priest stood inside, directing three people at a time to enter the second chamber of the tomb itself.

The low entrance forced us to bow while entering the site of Jesus’ burial. An altar marked the place where Joseph of Arimathea placed the body. We knelt in silent reverence on holy ground.

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb

Later in the afternoon we visited a second site claiming to be the possible place of the cross and empty tomb. Golgotha (Calvary in Latin) literally means The Place of the Skull. A British general and amateur archaeologist named Gordon found a rock formation outside Jerusalem’s walls that resembled a skull. He then unearthed a tomb nearby bearing a striking resemblance to the Gospel’s descriptions of Jesus’ burial place.

The Garden Tomb certainly gave us a sense of what the tomb might have looked like. Our British host talked about the various claims supporting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Gordon’s Calvary. Finally, he paused and said in true English fashion: “However, ultimately it doesn’t matter which site is authentic. The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!”

The Crucifixion and the Resurrection bisect history. History swings on the hinges of the cross and empty tomb. On the far side of Easter, nothing remains the same.

The Easter angel’s words continue to ring down through the centuries and in our ears: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here—he is risen!

God has conquered sin and death. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the resurrection, and he invites us to receive life, abundant life, and everlasting life. Easter people need not fear the grave because we serve the Lord of Life.

The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!

Holy Week

During Holy Week, the church rehearses the final days of Jesus’ life. We began the week on Palm/Passion Sunday. The dual title recognizes the twin realities of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Christ’s agonizing death at Golgotha.

This week Christians experience the extremes of the human condition:

  • Palm Sunday
    • Passion Sunday
  • A parade
    • A death march
  • Palms
    • Nails
  • Cries of Hosanna!
    • Cries of Crucify him!
  • Laughter
    • Tears
  • Celebration
    • Grief
  • Life
    • Death

Many believers skip from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, from palms to lilies, from celebration to celebration, skipping the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday which separate the two Sundays. In doing so, they fail to witness the unimaginable height, width, and depth of divine love.

During this Holiest of Weeks, we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus on the Via DolorosaThe Way of Suffering—which leads to Golgotha. Let us journey together to the foot of the cross . . . and beyond.

holy-week

Go Where Sent

Ordained elders in the United Methodist Church serve as itinerant pastors. During ordination, we promise to go wherever the bishop sends. It’s like signing a blank check with the currency of your life, trusting another to spend it wisely.

This past Sunday Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson announced the pastoral appointments for the North Georgia Annual Conference. In June, she has appointed me to serve as the senior pastor of Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

The opportunity to serve Northside fills me with both excitement and humility. The church’s website highlights a community of faith that invests in the congregation and community. I am excited about the fresh opportunities and challenges, and I am humbled to follow other pastors who have led so capably.

I also grieve over the prospects of leaving First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. God has richly blessed during the years here, and it has been my privilege to serve such a grace-filled church. My gratitude for the church’s graciousness and support goes beyond words.

Although Methodist elders take formal vows of itineracy, God calls ALL Christians to go where they are sent. Faithful disciples walk in the footsteps of Jesus. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.

We serve the God who is and was and is to come.  So we enjoy the present, cherish the past, and embrace the future.

Go where you’re sent, and you’ll find the Holy Spirit there.