Monday, May 2, 2016

Where is Holy Ground--A Worship Wars Question



photo by Erica Joy / flickr
Carlyle Marney, great preacher used to say the funniest thing. He said God does not come to church every Sunday. God being God does what God pleases. And sometimes he doesn’t show at all. Some Sundays God strays home in his pajamas and reads the newspaper. But Dr. Marney said but every so often God puts on his clothes and comes down to worship. He’ll walk through the vestibule, through the doors to the Sanctuary, and walk down the aisle and stop at your pew. And Marney said So you better get up and come on to church because if God comes down that aisle and stops at your pew—something great is going to happen. Lightning will strike. You’ll be turned inside out—and you’ll never be quite the same again. 

I tell that story to talk about worship. One of the concerns that many of you expressed in our survey dealt with worship. Traditional and contemporary. Several of you feel like we need to deal with this subject. And so on Wednesday nights beginning in two weeks we are going to dialogue about worship. We have a guidebook. And you’ll have an opportunity to pick one up—but it seems like in our time that when we come to the worship wars we focus mostly on should it be traditional or contemporary. Some say God only comes to church when we have a traditional service—while others say that God only comes in 2016 when we have a contemporary service.

There is a whole lot of confusion today about what worship is and is not. In our desperation to try to undergird church attendance everywhere preachers and congregations are trying all sorts of things. Some of them are downright scary. 

ButI would remind you that everything that goes on in church under the banner of worship may not be worship at all. Worship is not entertainment. We do not come here to titillate our nerve endings—the entertainment world does a better job than we could ever do—but that’s not worship. Real worship is not predictable—just doing the same old same old Sunday after Sunday. When that happens no wonder people stay away. Worship is not simply an emotional experience. We can’t leave emotion out of what happens here—but if it only emotion—something is missing. Others say worship is an intellectual exercise. Not so.  Real worship is not just a heady thing. Dr. Fosdick used to say people do not come to church just wondering what the Jubusites or the Hittites were doing. And we might even add the mark of the beast axe heads that float or do not. That has nothing  to do with us. Worship is not preaching. We used to say just: “Are you going to preaching?” Despite what we Reverends think—people do come to church to hear a good sermon—but there’s a whole lot more to worship than preaching.  

photo by Rich Orris / flickr
Well, just what is worship? When is it that God walks down that aisle and stops at your pew and something happens? We frame an answer to this question by turning to Exodus 3. This was the call of Moses. He was just a sheep herder—and sheepherders were way down on the social ladder. They were not important in the eyes of the world.But as Moses was trying to take care of the sheep an angel appeared in a bush that burned. One translation says that Moses “turned aside and looked.” He had never seen that before.He looked. In fact before that nine verses is over ten times the word look or see is used. 

The text says: :When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see…” God spoke. What would have happened if Moses didn’t have his eyes wide open. Hmm. God called Moses name. “Moses…Moses.” And God said the strangest thing: “Take off your shoes .” Do what? “Take off your shoes…Moses.” And I am going to ask you to do something right now you have ever done in church. I want you to take your shoes off. And if you take your shoes off—I will take my shoes off too. It was an old custom even then—when you came to a sacred placed you took off your shoes. So Moses took off his shoes. And God said: “The place where you stand is holy ground.”

Now we must remember where he was. It was just an ordinary place. Nothing special. Stubborn sheep. Probably burning sun. Ordinary. Nothing special as Moses looked around him. A place where he had tended sheep again and again. And what was it God said: “The place where you stand is holy ground.”

Let’s leave Moses and that place for just a minute. This is as good an understanding of real worship as anything I know. God speaks. God speaks not in some spectacular way—but in the most unlikely of places. The ground right here.Right chere. This ground. This is why we take our shoes off—to remember that where we are…not just church but where we live and work and just try to get along. 2016 with a crazy election going on and problems galore everywhere. This, my friends,  might just be holy ground. 

Real worship is when you open your eyes. We miss so much—don’t we. Because we have all that other stuff on our minds. Wonder how much longer this is gonna last? When will he stop? Did  I turn off the stove before I left?  Look at old Margie over there with pursed lips—wonder what going on with her? We do everything we can to make sure we don’t see. What? 

God walks down this aisle and calls your name, much like he did Moses. Worship is personal. Our names are called. Our names. Bill, Helen. Mary.  Alison. John. David. Henry. Worship, real worship is when we are addressed. And the reason that the ground is holy—here of all places is because God calls our names.

Think about a time when you had a real worship experience. Something happened you couldn’t quite explain—and it turned you inside out. Now that doesn’t happen everyday. But if you only look for what we can see on TV or Netflix or Facebook…you’ll never hear what God has to say. 

There’s an old movie that I keep remembering. Danny Glover plays big part in the movie. It is set in some run-down
photo by Curt Mills / flickr
neighborhood in Los Angeles. Danny is a tow truck operator.He lost his wife. He has a hard time paying his bills. And at night the bullies come out—and it’s scary where he lives. Some with guns. Some were selling drugs. Life is rough and raw. But once a year he saves up his money and goes out west to the Grand Canyon and stays a couple of days. One of his friends kept wondering why does he do that. He' doesn’t have enough money for a vacation out west. And so he asks Danny, “Why do you take off and go out to the Grand Canyon of all places. Why don’t you go to Las Vegas or Dallas or somewhere.” And Danny says, “I’ll tell you. Sometimes I get it up to here—and it just about strangles me. And so I get in the car and drive to the Grand Canyon. And when I get there I stop my car and get out and sit on the ledge and just look and look. It never gets old. But then I get back in my car and head back to my hard reality.  My tow truck.  And I keep remembering that somewhere in this world there is a place that’s quiet and beautiful and takes my breath away. I find something out there bigger than I am. And I come back and I can make it another year,”

That’s what I’m talking about folks. Opening our eyes and looking. Just looking. Where we are. The book says the ground on which we stand in our bare feet is holy…holy. You can have all the rah-ray you want…but if there is not a place where your name is called and you are not touched by something deep, deep down—then you are missing something.

Think about your own life. When was it that some bush burned. It’s back there on my left in the third window from the back. A burning bush. Reminding us Sunday after Sunday that in everybody’s life there just might be a holy place.

Let me tell you about one of those times in my own life. Like you—like all of us—this doesn’t happen every time we come to church. There are just enough mountain peak experiences in our lives to help us get through the valleys. But once in a whole like Danny Glover we stop long enough until our names really are called. And when that happens we know we are loved and that we are somebody and whatever happens to us or ours—he really does have the whole world in his hands. And you and me brother and sister, and the tiny baby and everybody here in his hands. 

When I was Pastor at Clemson my little boy and two of his buddies joined the church and we scheduled a baptism. But it was tricky. One of the boy’s fathers had cancer—and he was taking chemo and it made him so sick—we had to plan a time between treatments when he wouldn’t be so sick and could be there. Our family went on vacation and we got in on Sunday afternoon—and we were to have the baptism for my son and the two other boys that night. When I got to the church and the cars were coming into the parking lot—I discovered somebody had forgotten to fill the Baptistry. One of these Baptist bloopers. What were we going to do? We had scheduled this service around the boy whose father was so sick—and a time when he felt pretty good. Well, in church you better have  contingency plan. I called one of our members who had a swimming pool and and asked him if we could use his swimming pool in about 30 minutes. He agreed. But  I was heartsick. I could just see that baptism in a swimming pool of all things…and everybody standing around snickering. That didn’t happen. I had asked the Daddy so sick if he would have the baptismal prayer. And what a prayer it was. Not a dry eye around that pool. After the boys got dressed this same Daddy took them in his car to McDonald’s for a baptism celebration. It was that father’s last public appearance. We don’t ever know when God is going surprise us. And in the most unlikely of times our names may just be called and something will happen to us that we can never, ever forget.

I guess it is time for us to put our shoes back on. Knowing this is part of real worship. And all that other stuff that in our desperation we try is just cotton candy. Moses was told to put his shoes back on and leave there to lead his people out of slavery ,across the Red Sea, through the wilderness into the Promised land. Reckon what is it that God wants us to do. So since we have put our show back on—maybe it is time to open our ears, look around us and find out what God wants us to do. And maybe where our feet ought to go.

photo by photo by Mobeans / flickr

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Words from Our Muslim Neighbor

photo by rana ossama / flickr



All this talk about Muslims has a lot of people scared--here and in Europe too. A great many Muslims have talked about how some their children have ugly names called at school. Some of the women are scared to go to the Mall or store alone--they are afraid of what people might say.  We're talking about America 2016.

Years from now when we look back we will be ashamed that when thousands of Refugees from the Middle East fled for their lives--we turned our backs on them. We were afraid we might let in some terrorist. People will not understand our actions or inaction.

We would do well to listen to our Muslim neighbors. I read the Letters to the Editor in our daily paper. In the Bible Belt--some of the letters and anger out there is scary.

But here is a letter from a Muslim woman from one Letter we need to listen to:

"Yes, my neighbor is scared because I am a Muslim. Yet, aside from me, she has never met a Muslim before in her entire life.

As a Muslim I remain restless until my neighbor feels safe. I feel hurt by the prejudices I have been experiencing. But my mind is telling me to communicate with my neighbor and address her fears...I'd like to talk to everybody who has the same fears as she does. I want to tell my neighbor and everybody else not to be afraid of Muslims. The terrorists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims. They are enemies of all of us. I am a proud American who deeply respects the great American ideals which promote justice, equality and freedom. These are my American values and also my Islamic values.

My neighbor needs to know this and you also must know this."

photo by w wardana / flickr



--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com


                                                                                             

The Times--They are a Changin'...


photo by Katrina J Houdek / flick 

The church like most of society is going through massive change. Phyllis Tickle who has 
written a lot about church has said that about every 500 years the church has a garage sale. 
And we take all kinds of stuff that is not working and things that we have been storing 
back in closets and attics for years and get rid of them. The scary part is deciding what to 
keep and what is not longer useful.We have to make sure we don’t throw away something
that we ought to keep. My 52 year old daughter is still saying: “What did you all do with 
my Barbie camper?”

Isaiah gives us a clue about what we ought to keep if we are to have a living faith. And in 
our Scripture I have discovered that he has left us with four words. And that’s what I want 
us to talk about today.

We can’t throw out the word: experience.  Robert Frost used to say that real poetry
begins with a lump in your throat. And this is true of worship. One Sunday something tugged 
at your heart and you walked down an aisle and said you wanted to love Jesus. The old 
gospel song says it well: “Happy Day…Happy Day when Jesus washed my sins away.” It 
starts with the heart. 

Our Scripture today is about an experience that Isaiah had. His country was having a terrible time. The King had died. The people were afraid of the future. He wrote “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…” It was a time of desperation. It could well read—“the year in which I lost my job,” or “when I miscarried for the third time,” or “when I filed for divorce,” or “when I found this lump,” or “when the twin towers fell,” or “when I said goodbye for the last time to somebody I didn’t think I could stand to lose.” In that hard, trying year—Isaiah writes: “I saw the Lord.” I saw the Lord.  

We all need the same thing. To see something bigger and better than we are. Something that can give us hope and help us with what whatever baggage we keep dragging around week after week, year after year. It’s like John Wesley said of his conversion experience, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Authentic worship shows us a vision of something larger. “I saw the Lord.”  To see the Lord means to is to be moved beyond ourselves. In this Isaiah passage there is mystery and holiness and divinity and there are cherubim and seraphim. And there is smoke and there are voices and a real meeting occurs.
Interestingly the focus is on God. It’s not a pep rally for the Republicans or the Democrats. It’s not even a twelve-step program. And it isn’t a rally for anybody’s special cause—even the preacher’s. We are talking about something larger. Something we can’t find anywhere else but in church.

photo by Moyan Breen / flickr
Several years ago there a movie that came out that I keep remembering. Danny Glover played the part of a man who lived on the other side of the tracks where all the houses were broken down and drug dealers did this work. He didn’t have a good job--just barely enough to eke by on.  He had a lot of problems. And about once a year he said he would take off and drive out to the Grand Canyon. And he would get out and just sit there looking, looking at the colors and the vista and the wonder and the greatness of it all. And he would come back ready to do whatever he had to do. And he told a friend, “Once in a whole you just need to go and see something that is a whole lot larger than you are.” 

And this is what happened to Isaiah that day in the Temple. He saw something so big and so monumental and so moving that he was never quite the same. And worship ought to do that for you and me. Maybe not every Sunday but once in a while. It really is something experienced.

The second word that we can’t put out in the garage sale is the word, taught. So now we come to that heavy, ponderous word we call theology. A woman asked a man one day working in construction. “What are you doing?” The man said: “I’m carrying bricks—what do you think I’m doing?” She asked another worker what he was doing. He said, “I’m making a measly ten dollars an hour.” And she asked somebody else and he said, “I’m building a cathedral.” Now that’s theology.
What are we doing in this place? What are we doing? Are we just taking up money and paying bills and keeping the program greased and meeting some sunup to sundown. What are we doing? Are we just filling up an hour and hope we get to the restaurant on time? The church I used to serve in Memphis started a contemporary service early on Sunday. And one of my wife’s friends said: “Oh, I just love that early service—it’s great to get it over with.” The challenge is for all of us to come together and as Mother Theresa used to say, do something beautiful for God. That’s what we are about. 
It really is something taught that stays with you all your life. I thought back to my own growing up in that little cotton-mill village church in Columbus,Georgia. I remember the names of my teachers. Miss Ruby and Bessie Granberry and Mrs. Clark and Mr. Jones and Hoyt White. I don’t know if they ever knew how very, very important they were to shaping my life and many others. I don’t think but one of them had a college education. But the gifts they gave me in those classes and hauling me and many others to summer encampments and Sword Drills and taking us on hayrides and BTU and a multitude of other occasions, they helped shape my life. I don’t know if I would be standing here today if it were not for them and what they did. I still remember some of the things they taught me: “The Lord is my Shepherd…” “God so loved the world.” “Jesus wept…” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” A great church is a church where something is taught that you never, ever forget.
photo by Kevin Vertucio / flickr
When we have this garage sale we have to remember we have to keep this word done. Something done? What does that mean. It means we have to talk in church about ethics—do’s and don’ts. Once a little boy was talking about his family and he told his teacher, “There are ten kids in our family and one bathroom. You got to have rules!” We have to have do’s and don’ts. We have lost a lot of credibility because we really haven’t followed the rules we know. Love one another. Turn the other cheek. Let the grudge go. We forgive our enemies. If we do not treat each other differently here in the church than all the other organizations out there—why are we here? The old book says our lives show our faith or our lack of faith. 
We were all moved by those last phone calls that people on those planes and in those offices made on September 11. What did they say? What was their last will and testament? They talked about their children. They told their wives and husbands that they loved them. Give Mama a kiss. They didn’t talk about sex or money or success or being popular. No. They boiled it all down to a relational word. They knew there at the end what mattered.
So the Spirit came to Isaiah, “Who is going to go? Who is going to go? What are you going to do?” And Isaiah must have sighed and finally said: “I guess I’ll go. I’ll go.” And I don’t know what God has to say to you and to me here in this time together. But I do know this. It will mean that we will not just talk about doing things—but we will do them in the name of Jesus. Teach a class. Sing in the choir. Revise your pledge. Ask God to help you forgive somebody that has hurt you. Quit nursing some old wound. Help somebody. Isaiah said: “Send me…Lord…send me.” It really is ethics. It is what we do. That’s what our kids watch. That’s what the people at the office watch. It is what we do.
photo by Malenga / flickr
By now we’ve put a whole lot of stuff in boxes and black garbage bags. We can’t keep all that stuff. But one word we can’t get rid of is the word: share. I never will forget that night, October 9th, fifty-something years ago. I came home real late from the hospital and called up friend after friend. And do you know what I said? “Guess what? I’ve got a girl! She’s redheaded. She’s got ears like mine—unfortunately. Her name is Leslie! Prettiest baby in the whole world.” It was late at night, I called people up and got them out of bed. I had to tell somebody. I could not keep quiet. For it was news that was so good that I just could not keep it inside without just splitting apart. 
And I think the church has a story to tell that is good and real and right and true. This is missions and this is evangelism. One day some little boy and girl fifty years old from now living a long way off will remember a time when they had little money and some Sunday School class at some church in Pendleton helped them at Christmas. Or somebody who lost almost everything and everyone they loved in Indonesia remembered that in the hardest time in their life somebody from America—a Christian had responded.

We all can’t do the same thing, but we can all do something. We have to share what we have one way or another. Isaiah, in a time of exile when everything was destroyed—looking very much like Iraq must look today. He took his pen and began to write and helped a people through a hard time. 

We still fall back on those words after all these years:

Come now, let us reason together, say the Lord, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” “The Lord will create a cloud by day and a flaming fire at night. It will be for a shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light...on them has light shined.” “For unto us is born, unto us a son is given... “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” And we have only gotten to the twelfth chapter. He took that vision in the temple out where the people were and it made a difference.  And some of us here know that all too well. For we have hung on to those precious promises like a life raft at different times in our lives. Some things do not go out of date. It is always something shared.
photo by Marco Catini / flickr
Tom Gillespie was President of Princeton Seminary and he told a wonderful story a couple of years ago that I just love. David Hubbard who was at that time President of Fuller Seminary was given a tee shirt one day by Tom Landry who was then coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It was a big shirt and across the front in large letters was: “Dallas Cowboys.” The next day Dr. Hubbard and one of Tom Landry’s scouts went out to play around of golf. Dr. Hubbard wore the big tee shirt. The caddy looked at Dr. Hubbard who was not exactly a young man, and the caddy said: “You play for the Dallas Cowboys?” Dr. Hubbard laughed and shook his head and said, “No, I don’t play for the Cowboys.” The caddy said, “I would give anything in the world if I could play for the Dallas Cowboys.” Dr. Hubbard said, “Why don’t you talk to this man here. He’s one of the scouts.” So they talked about what was involved all the time they were playing the game. When they came to the end, Dr. Hubbard turned to the scout and said, “I think I’m going to give him my tee-shirt but it looks awful big.” Extra-extra large. So he turned to the caddy and said, “You know, I would give you my tee-shirt but I don’t think it would fit. It’s too big.” The caddy said, “Mister, give it to me. I’ll wear it till it fits.” I just love that story. It’s more than football.


Pendleton we need a garage sale. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For when we come here we know there must be four words that we keep and treasure and follow Faith is something experienced. Faith is something believed. Faith is something done. Faith is something shared.And we wear the words week after week…we wear them until they fit. And that’s what you call a real church.


photo by Gitte Gorzelak / flickr

(This sermon was preach at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC where I serve as Interim Pastor.)

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com


Friday, April 15, 2016

Report from My Trip

Remember on the first day of school when the teacher would ask you to write an essay on: "What I Did on my Vacation"?  Some of us who hadn't been anywhere just sat there. Somebody else wrote the most fantastic essay on seeing lions and tigers and somehow salamanders got squeezed into the process. One little boy wrote about his trip to Disney World: "We had the best time we saw a Raccoon in a cage at a McDonald's in Florida." So much for family vacations.

My wife and I just returned from a river cruise from Prague to Paris. We were on Viking's long boat. It held 175 vacationers plus the crew. We were gone for 14 days. At the end of the trip I asked my wife: "Who is going to serve us in the morning at the breakfast table--you or me?" Two weeks of being pampered does not exactly hurt. But here are a few of my observations.

1. Safety. Just before we left the Brussels attack made us wonder if this was not a dumb idea. Who wants to get in danger in so place where you can't speak the language. Guess what? We saw few soldiers with guns when we arrived in Prague. Security was not any more severe than other trips we had taken. We saw a few soldiers with machine guns--but not many. Probably more here at home than overseas. These countries where we stopped: the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg and Paris--had all been scarred terribly by war after war. Yet they rebuilt and life went on. ISIS had not won. And we
Americans with all our politicians fanning our fears ought to learn something from, as my Mother used to say, those "across there waters." Pablo Casals once said,  Love of country is a wonderful thing, but why should love stop at the border?

2. People. The people on the boat came mostly from the States. Those who worked on the ship were from all over the word. College-age kids mostly from place like Romania and Slovakia and the Philippines, Russia--and all over. And then there were the people along the say that could speak English far better than we could their language. We are all the same the world over. Most of them we're gracious and kind. The kids on the ship that worked so hard were alive and excited and wonderful to be around. Underneath it all we are all the same.

3. Politics.  It was an enormous relief to be away from the round-the-clock politics in this country. Folks we have overdone it--and when the election comes we might just find that many people stay at home because they have politics fatigue. I hope this doesn't happen--but don't we have something better to do than to wonder: "What Trump said or Cruz or Hillary or Bernie." Over and over like a broken record they say the same things. It was great to pause from all our political shenanigans. I was struck by two things. Most of those in the countries we visited love America and love our President. But from cab-drivers to peopled who stopped us on the streets we heard. "This man Trump scares me." For those who have lived with bullies and dictators--they fear Mr. Trump. And they are all interested in what this country will do in the fall election.

4.  History.  We visited churches that dated back to the 800's. We visited places where the Romans
had set up camp even before the birth of Jesus. We walked into churches that had survived war after war.  Fascism, Nazism, Communism. Even though we saw many monuments for the brave soldiers and statesman in many countries--people still walk the streets.  They sit at corner cafes--life goes on. Americans that are constantly screaming Armageddon need to pack a suitcase and visit abroad.

5. Pain. Even though life goes on--the scars were everywhere. As one tour guide in Germany began to talk about her country she broke into tears. She apologized and said, "Forgive me...I shouldn't do this. I was a little girl when Hitler ruled. But my parents told me the stories--it breaks my heart to think of what happened to our country then." I asked one person in Prague which was worst the German or the Russian invasion of their country.  She said, "They were both the same."

We visited the Holocaust Museum in Paris. It sits on the site where thousands of Jews were hauled into cattle cars and boats and then taken too Auschwitz and Buchenwald. and other concentration camps.  Most of them would never return. In the Museum we saw a time line of hatred against the Jews. The first traces of Anti-semitism could be found as soon as 80 AD maybe sooner. But the time-line told the story of how the Jews had been persecuted in every age. We sat concrete walls ten-twelve feet high covered in names of those Jews that were put to death. I could not bear to read of the terrible experiments they did on children. And then there were the pictures of the children themselves that did not come back. The Germans could not believe what happened to their country and how everyone was sucked into the vortex of Hitler's message and making the trains run on time, making sure everyone had a decent job. Put a car in every garage. Making, the Fuhrer promised, their country great again. Well-all the country.
-not

I
n the tiny country of Luxembourg we stopped at the military cemetery that hold the graves of
American troops that perished in World War II. All those mostly men who would never return to their families and their country. General Patton, quite a hero there is buried in that cemetery.

5. Promise. We came home to a country where many take for granted the richness of our lan We do not have the beggars lining our streets as they do in foreign countries--but we have our poor that are as important as the rest of us. We have immigrants that look to this country for a new chance to live in freedom and hope. We are far from perfect--but we have the unending task of keeping the flame of freedom alive.

When Benjamin Franklin emerged from Constitution Hall, a woman who recognized him asked,  "What kind of government are you giving us?" "A republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it.
These are some of the things I learned on my vacation.






--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com









Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ever Found Your Name in the Bible?

photo by WELS net / flickr
I love the story about little Michael who loved to read books. Every night his parents would read page after page and book after book. The same stories--never veering. They could not change a word--he knew them by heart. But Michael loved one particular book. And one night his mother came in and found him standing on his favorite book crying. Just standing there, his feet on the book. His mother asked, "What are you doing?" And Michael said that he thought if he stood on the book long enough and sort of scrunched down and gritted his teeth he could enter the story and that story would become his story. But it did not work.

The church is a lot like Michael. We really do believe that we can enter the story, and that it is more than just something we find in a book. Remember those funny cartoons entitled, “Where’s Waldo?”  You’d have this whole page of faces and characters—trees, birds and animals. And the challenge was to find Waldo in the middle of all these characters. It wasn’t usually easy. But if you kept looking you’d say: “There’s Waldo!”

The Bible is like that. We look at the stories—and if the book is to mean anything to us we have to keep looking, looking until we find our faces and see our names. For until we find our faces and see our names—the book is not really our book at all—but just a beautiful book on a shelf. So take your Bible down from the shelf and open the book and see what you find.  Adam and Eve are people we know. We’ve all sinned—not just stubbed our toes but we done things we are ashamed of—ashamed as Adam and Eve that day God came back and said “Where are you?” And like them we want to hide. We bumped into Cain and Abel at the family reunion just struggling to see who Mom loves best. Or who gets Mama's cedar chest. Or the Christmas story about a 16-year-old pregnant girl scared, scared—and her 20 year old husband. Embarrassed. What will the neighbors say when they count up the months on their fingers?  Hmm.

Or let your finger run down just a little further and we read where Joseph and Mary found no place to stay. Nobody wanted them. And we stop and think about all those people from Syria that nobody wants. Is there a connection? Or read the passage we all know: “For God also loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believe…” and we look up from the book and look out at our world. God so loved the world. No qualifications. Everybody. Even that woman wrapped in a blanket on a cold windy day in Germany with a baby in her arms and a cup in her hands saying: “Help me…Help me.” Reckon he really does have the whole world in his hands? Not only you and me brother and sister but not only the little tiny baby…but all of us. He’s got the whole wide world in his hands. Which means of this is true we all have some homework to do.

Little Michael was more right than he knew. We really can enter the story. Because you see it is not confined to some thin pages in a book. It breaks loose and stops on our doorstep and knocks on our door and comes in—whether we want him there or not.. 

So the writer Thomas Mann was right after all. “It is, it always is however much we try to say it was.” And this is narrative theology at its best. Theology as story— our story. When the words leap from the page and take root in our lives.

What I want to do this morning is to take a Psalm—a Psalm we all know and talk to you about it. Weeks ago with Evelyn Simpson we visited six of our homebound members. And I told them I wanted to read a passage of Scripture before we took Communion. And I began to read: “The Lord is my Shepherd…I shall not want…” And as I read they all, one by one did the same thing. They whispered the words. I could see their lips moving. And they said them as I said them. And it is my hope that on some night when they hurt and they might be scared they will remember those words were for them. He really is our Shepherd.

But what I want to do today is to talk about two occasions in my own life when the 23rd Psalm leaped off the page and I found myself right smack-dab in the middle of the story.

Several years ago I had an opportunity to study at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC. The College of Preachers is housed on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral, a gorgeous structure that many of you have visited. After studying hard all week long I decided, since I had not had much time, that I wanted to spend some time visiting the cathedral. I just wanted to walk around and soak up the splendor.

photo by zenm / flickr
I chose an early morning time right after breakfast, before my classes started. So I went up the hill to the cathedral and tried to try to get in. The building was locked. I walked all the way around the huge structure. Every door I came to was locked. I could not get in. It was too early. I was very frustrated so I came back around the corner after trying every door and saw a little sign that said, “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd”—Open 24 hours every day.”

So I thought, “Well, I can sneak in the back way. I can go through the basement and I can find an opening and get upstairs and I’ll find a way to get into the building before anybody else gets there!” And I went in through the entrance in the basement, walked down a long hall and turned right. The doors were locked. I could not get in. So I turned around and walked back down the hall and started to leave the building when I saw an arrow pointing to “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”

I found myself in a little room much smaller than this platform. I think there were four or five tiny benches. There was one stained glass window off to the side. There was in the center a tiny altar. On the stone altar—which was just a ledge—I looked up at this beautiful carved, sculptured piece. It was a Shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. Underneath that piece, somebody had lovingly placed a piece of forsythia. And that was it. 

I sat down and looked at the statue. And I can’t tell you exactly what occurred. But something happened to me as if for the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the first words of this Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Because as I looked at the stone carving, I saw the kindness and the tenderness in that face that looked down at the sheep in his arms. I noticed how he held that lamb so closely and so tenderly and so strongly. And as I saw the sheep, I saw myself. And it hit me as if for the first time, that he was my Shepherd. I had preached on that text a hundred times. But suddenly I saw that I was kept in the arms and I was loved and cared for. I don’t know what happened but it’s one of the peak experiences in my life in which the story was more than a story but it became my story. The Lord was my shepherd and I was that kept.

That afternoon I wanted something to mark the occasion, so I found the gift shop and discovered a little silver cross and I began to wear around my neck as a sign  that he is my shepherd and he keeps me safe and secure.  So on one occasion the story became more than story. And a Psalm became more than a Psalm. And the words left the page and took root in my life.

But there is another time in my life when the Psalm helped pull me through. My father had died. We had not had a very good relationship and he died before we finished our business. About the same time there were some troubles in the church I was serving. I was just having a really hard time. I, of course, was a good Christian and very strong. I was not supposed to have troubles or be depressed and I was supposed to handle it all. After all I was the Pastor. But the trouble was that I was not handling anything very well. I sealed it all off and tried to take care of it by working harder and harder. Of course this was deadly and destructive.

photo by Kyle Steed / flickr
Finally, things got so bad emotionally for me that I was desperate. I couldn’t sleep. I worked more and more for fewer and fewer results. My wife finally said, "I think you have got to get some help!" So I went to see an old physician in the town where I served. I had referred many people to him and we were friends. It was a time before pastoral counseling was really in vogue and not many people knew where to go for counseling, so I sent people to him.

So I went to see the doctor and poured out my story. After I told him all I could the old doctor, in his eighties, took out a card from his desk drawer and gave it to me. He said, “I want you to read this card.” I turned it over and the card read: The Twenty Third Psalm.And it began: “The Lord is my shepherd.” He said, “Keep reading.” “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He said, “Do you see it? I’ve changed a word. He doesn’t give us what we want, but he will always provide us with what we need—always. And I want you to take this prescription and I want you to live with it all day long every day. I want you to pull it out and read it and look at it. I want you to make it your own.” It became life a life raft for me. I pulled those tiny words out and said them over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” And those simple words, sometimes at night when the demons would rage and the terrors were high, I would remember the words. And strangely they would calm me down. Over time passed and healing began to happen. Not just because of this experience but many things helped: my wife, prayer, rest, medication and grace poured in from unlikely places and life moved on. Thank God. But I never forgot the power of those words.

It was a year or so later that I was visiting the hospital one day and woman at the desk asked : “Do you know the Doctor is upstairs. Sick.” So I got the room number and found his room. His door was closed and I knocked quietly on the door. Nobody answered. So I knocked again and a quiet voice said, “Come in.” I walked into the room and it was dark. The blinds were closed. He was sitting in a chair by his bed. I asked him how he was doing and he said, “Not so well. I got this report and it’s not good. And I know what’s going to happen and I’m scared and I am just down.” We talked for a while.

Before I started to go, I said, “I want to give you something.” He said, “What?” And I took out my pocket a calling card and I wrote some words down and gave it to him. He read it. Do you know what it said? It said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He looked up and there were tears in both our eyes and he said, “It’s right. It really is right.”

And once again the old miracle took place. The words leaped off the page and took root in the human heart. And whenever that happens we discover that it is more than a story. It is real life itself. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack.” For he really never gives us all the things we want but all of our needs, the lacks of our lives, are always attended to.

The old gospel song is true after all: 

“My name's written there
On the page white and fair
In the book of God’s kingdom
my name's written there.”


Oh yes is it my friends—oh yes it is. Our names really are written there. Jennifer...Tom...Wayne...Bill...Mary...Evelyn...Frank..Pat. It is, my friends, it is, however much we try to say it was.


photo by Leonard J Matthews / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC where I serve as Interim Pastor. April 10, 2016)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

It's Easter !

photo by NumiGuy / flickr


Every Easter I remember a story that fell into my hands several years ago. There was a woman named Kay who was Associate Pastor of a Methodist congregation in Georgia. After twenty-five years of marriage her husband came in one day and told her he wanted a divorce. He had found someone else prettier and younger. He wanted to be free and she gave him his freedom. She writes that she and her sixteen-year-old son had to begin life over again, rebuilding their family, just the two of them. There was a two-year separation before the divorce, which she found very difficult as she tried to adjust to single life again. She leaned on her pastor-colleague continually. He was a great man who would listen to her without judgment. She said she would sit in his office and cry and wring her hands and say, “I don’t know what I am going to do. I just do not know what I am going to do.” One day, between sobs, he pulled from his desk drawer an Easter egg. He gave it to her and said, “I’m going to give you this plastic egg. One of this days you will use this egg to bury your relationship and let life begin again.” Those were the only instructions he gave her. He told her she would know what to do with the egg when the time came.

Two years later the divorce was to be finalized in Myrtle Beach. She and her son flew down for that unhappy occasion. As she sat in the office of the lawyer she remembered that day in 1963 in Oklahoma when a nineteen-year-old and a twenty-year-old had been hopelessly in love. As the lawyer droned on and on, she remembered the happier times. The lawyer kept saying: “You get this, he gets that…”. Finally the divorce decree was granted, and she stumbled out of the courthouse. Kay said that she brought with her the plastic egg her pastor had given her. She and her son walked down to the Atlantic Ocean. She took out of her purse a picture of a young couple and the happiest Christmas they had ever spent. She took the picture and folded it and placed it inside the Easter egg.  She walked across the sand to the water’s edge and threw the egg as far as it would go. She ran through the sand, grabbed her boy and they sobbed and sobbed. Mother and son began to walk slowly back to the car. She remembered praying, "Dear God, bring something good out of this bad thing. Let Easter happen to me."

Kay reported that she was tempted to look back hoping to see a butterfly emerge from that egg. She longed to hear a voice that would say comfortingly, “He’s going to come back. It’s going to change. It’s going to get better.” But she did not look back. She heard no voice. She just kept walking toward the car. Later she would realize that painful act of throwing away that egg with the picture of her and her husband inside was really the first funeral she ever conducted as pastor.

After reading her story, I gave each person who came to church the next Easter a plastic Easter Egg. I told them Kay’s story. I asked everyone to take a scrap of paper we had provided and write down a word that represented some hard thing in their lives. I then instructed them to place their petition inside the egg and ask God to give them a fresh start. After all were finished writing the Ushers came forward with large baskets, collected the eggs and brought them to the altar. At the front of the Church on the communion table the broken things of all our lives covered that table that morning. Eggs of blue and green and yellow and red symbolized our need for Easter. We had a prayer that day in which we asked God to take the broken things of our lives and make them right.

I wrote the Methodist preacher and told her how much I had appreciated her story and what I had done that Easter morning with her experience. Kay wrote me back and said, “That’s not the end of my story. I moved on to another place and have two churches where I am now Pastor. And since I have moved here I have met someone. We are getting ready to get married. He understands me and I love him and I have never been happier.” She ended the letter by saying, “There really is life after death. I ought to know.” 

Every Easter I keep remembering Pastor Kay and her story. I also remember my church and that mound of Easter eggs. I remember the last words of her letter: there really is life after death. Easter says it doesn’t matter how difficult things may be. We can start over again. We can all begin again. Life really does come after death. That's Easter! 


photo by KentarOh / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com