First Words

First words are important.

After all, well begun is half done. A carefully-crafted opening provides a proper introduction to an author’s thoughts. So I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page.

Some days the words flow like a fast moving stream. Other days the syllables ooze like molasses in January. I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, wondering why the inventor didn’t call it a CURSER!

First words are difficult because an author must CHOOSE. Out of an infinite number of beginnings, there can only be ONE first word, sentence, and paragraph.

This Sunday I will preach my first sermon as the new senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Like Jacob at the Jabbok ford, God and I have wrestled over the past weeks about what to say . . . and what not to say . . . and how to say it. After all, first words are important because they form first impressions.

Over the past weeks, those adolescent first-day-at-high-school-anxieties have welled up inside. Will they like me? Will the other children play with me? Can I get my locker open? Where’s the bathroom? What if I get lost?

Time and again the Holy Spirit whispers in my soul: Peace, be still. Then I am reminded that the Lord IS the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. All of life occurs within the context of God’s providential grace.

God always has the first word . . . and God always has the last word. So Psalm 19:14 has become my prayer for the first word of the first sermon on a first Sunday:

  • May the words of my mouth
  • and the meditations of my heart
  • Be acceptable in thy sight,
  • O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

First words are important.

The Five Senses of Summer

SummerSummer Sights:

Children erupting from school house doors, tests and homework forgotten in the summer daze. Boats cutting crisp, curling wakes through lake water. Cloudless skies with molten gold sunbeams gilding the earth. Tanned toes curled in seaside sand with a froth of salt water whipped like meringue. High, wispy, sugar-spun, cotton candy clouds. Dawn-born day lilies brighter than Solomon’s finery but already fading by nightfall. Fireflies twinkling in the gloom while children with glass jars race across the dew-damp lawn. Sunflowers bowing in homage to their Creator as they trace the sun on its appointed track.

Summer Sounds:

  The BOING of a diving board weight driven to its limits before springing back and launching laughing youngsters into a cannonball splash. Distant thunder of sullen clouds that have absorbed the day’s heat. Sandals flip-flopping and stick-stopping on hot asphalt. A neighbor’s lawnmower jumpstarting with a roar before subsiding into background noise. Tree frogs serenading the darkness, lonely voices seeking community in chorus. The off-key jingle of a childhood song as the ice cream truck stops and starts and stops through the neighborhood. Seven year cicadas a whir with the brief joy of life. The mournful dirge of a whippoorwill bemoaning missed chances and lost dreams. Baby birds cheeping impatiently in nests, snuggled among tree branches or shrub limbs, wide-mouthed and waiting for mama’s return. A bat’s crack and the slap of leather as baseball meets glove.

Summer Smells:

 Sizzling hamburgers smoking on the grill. Bouquet breezes with an intoxicating aroma of honeysuckle, jasmine, and gardenia. The green smell of fresh mown grass that lingers in the air. Coconut oil scented lotions that evoke images of exotic locales and past vacations. Chlorine drenched children wrapped in towels beside the pool. The smell of rain still hoarded in the depths of cloud cisterns, waiting to quench a parched earth.

Summer Feelings:

  Humidity so thick that a glass of water could be wrung out of the air like a soaked bath towel. The heart-stopping chill of an early June swimming pool not yet heated by the dog days of summer. Bare feet tip-toeing through dew-soaked grass. Fan slapped air gently caressing one’s skin. Sun stung shoulders and faces, reddened and peeling from summer afternoons. Sweat soaked shirts clinging to arms and backs.

 Summer Tastes:

 The sour-sweet taste of an almost-ripe blackberry as it pops between the teeth. Dewdrops of nectar teased out of a honeysuckle bloom. Heart-red watermelon that satisfies both thirst and hunger. Homemade ice cream fresh from the churn with just a dash of rock salt from the ice. Georgia peach juice dribbling down the chin—the sweet fruit heavy on the tongue. S’more fire browned marshmallows and chocolate embraced by graham crackers. Steaming hotdogs fresh off the grill. Snow cones soaked with cherry, lime, grape, or tutti-frutti syrup. Tart lemonade in Dixie cups sold by youngsters in roadside stands.

The Five Senses of Summer:

Use your five senses this summer. See, hear, smell, feel, and taste that the Lord is good.

Last Words

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

In April, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson announced the pastoral appointments for the North Georgia Annual Conference. She has appointed me to serve as the new senior pastor of Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. This Sunday, June 11, I will preach my final sermon at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville.

God has richly blessed  during the past four years in Gwinnett County. I often tell people that pastoral service resembles dog years—one has to multiple the number of years by 7 in order to obtain the true age of a pastor! Using this math, I have actually served First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville 28 years over the last 48 months.

The past weeks have been a roller coaster ride of emotions. This is home, and we love this congregation dearly and will miss the community greatly. However, we are also excited about the fresh opportunity to serve Northside United Methodist Church.

The bishop has assigned Dr. Royeese Stowe as the new senior pastor of FUMC of Lawrenceville, and her first Sunday will be on June 25. I have no doubt the congregation will welcome Dr. Stowe with graceful love. I solicit your prayers for the pastors and congregations involved during this time of transition.

Sometimes more than letters are lost in contractions. Consider the word “Goodbye.” The term actually shortens the phrase: “God be with you.” So today I don’t say farewell to Christ’s saints in Lawrenceville.

Instead, my prayer is that God will be with you . . . until we meet again.

 

Death by Meeting

In 2004, Patrick Lencioni published a book entitled Death by Meeting. The author had me at the title. During my career, I have endured many murderous meetings. They didn’t kill me, but I almost died of boredom at times.

death-by-meetingLike them or not, we all spend a lot of time in meetings, including: business meetings, church meetings, school meetings, civic club meetings, Little League meetings, Scout meetings, homeowners’ meetings, and more. We even plan pre-meetings to organize meetings and post-meetings to debrief how previous meetings met!

Many times I would prefer to just do the work myself rather than meet with others. For the same reason, I never liked group projects in school. The weakest link determines the strength of a chain. I preferred to earn my own grade rather than depend on someone else’s efforts.

This solo approach works well in any organization with one member or less; however, it does not work in groups of two or more! Like children in preschool, we must learn how to work and play nicely with others.

From a Biblical and theological perspective, each person is a valuable, worthwhile child of God. The Lord gifts every human being with talents and abilities. Meeting enable people to share their talents in order to benefit the group.

Business leaders use buzz words like “synergy” to describe this process. Dictionaries provide a formal definition of the term; however, a simple math equation illustrates the principle:

Synergy occurs when 1 + 1 = MORE THAN TWO!

Such synergy enables the whole to be more than the sum of its parts. In other words, groups become more together than apart as individuals. We see the principle illustrated in athletic teams, jazz bands, project groups, and barbershop quartets.

The Bible uses many images to describe the church, including the body of Jesus Christ: one body, many members, all gifted in their own way. We complement one another in ways that enable the church to accomplish God’s work.

Death by meeting . . . well, maybe it feels that way sometimes.

Life by meeting . . . it turns out that’s how God does business.

Memorial Day

During my childhood, Memorial Day signaled the unofficial start of summer. I never thought much about the holiday’s deeper meaning. For a boy, enjoying a day off from school seemed significant enough.

memorial-dayIn the aftermath of the Civil War, Major General John A. Logan issued General Order 11. It designated May 30 as Decoration Day—a time of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Arlington Cemetery hosted the first major observance in 1868. The annual event quickly grew into a national holiday.

Today our nation observes Memorial Day on the last Monday of May. The holiday honors military personnel who have died during wartime. Parades, speeches, flags, and cemetery floral arrangements mark the occasion.

We remember the men and women who have given their lives in the service of their country. We also honor remember armed forces’ personnel who presently serve at home or abroad. Our liberties come at a high cost, and we recognize those who lay aside self-interest for their country’s sake.

We remember military families who also make their own sacrifices. Each member of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Reserves, and National Guard leaves behind a family at home. Our service personnel wear a uniform; however, parents, siblings, spouses, children, and friends support them on the home front.

This weekend fly the flag. Take your hat off when the National Anthem plays. Speak the words of the Pledge of Allegiance in a strong voice. Express your appreciation to a veteran. Visit a cemetery. Place a flower arrangement. Say a prayer. Remember.

America, God mend thine every flaw,

confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.

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.