Sunday, October 10, 2010

The word is Beloved

I just got back from preaching at Alpine Baptist Church. Never heard of it—neither had I. From Birmingham you go south to Childersburg and turn left at the first light and go about ten-fifteen miles. Didn’t know what to expect. I could tell you horror stories of some of the places I preached. Like one church where the Organist and Pianist played different songs at the same time. Now that was hard to sing. That same Church had 5 Organists—none of which could really play—but they thought they could. This is a diversion from where I started.

We drove up to the prettiest white frame church with green shutters. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot. We walked up the steps and looked up at the huge green wooden doors. They must have been fourteen feet high. Inside I learned the church dated back to 1833. It may well be the oldest standing Baptist congregation in Alabama.

From the vestibule we entered a small sanctuary—very clean. Someone showed me the pictures taken through the years. There was a glass case that held their first silver Communion set, a Bible and other objects. There must have been sixty people there. They were sharp, well-dressed sang like they meant it. You could tell they were very proud of their church. You could feel something solid and stable. The Pastor, on vacation, had been there thirteen years. The lady leading the choir told me she had been doing the music for 44 years.

There was a whole printed page insert in the bulletin of prayer-needs. One soldier in Iraq. A nephew in Afghanistan. They spelled out who had cancer and who was recovering from back surgery. The list went on and on. And when somebody during prayer time wanted to know if there were other requests—two or three other names were added to the list.

This was not an over-seventy crowd. There were people of all ages. One fourteen year old told me he was going to China for 17 days next summer with a group from his school. There was a new mother there with her new baby—and the Grandparents sat next her beaming.

I preached on Matthew 3 when Jesus was baptized and I took Henri Nouwen’s idea of beloved and made it my theme. Nouwen said that when God whispered: “This is my beloved” to Jesus this was the anchoring word that carried our Lord through to the finish line. I told them about that other time when God spoke on the Mount of Transfiguration and that second beloved helped move Jesus down the mountain and into a world that grew darker and more difficult.

I told those gathered that Jesus took that beloved and gave it out to everyone. Like the loaves and fishes that fed five thousand—he broke beloved up and gave it to everyone. Is this not the heart of the gospel?

I ended the sermon by telling them about Raymond Carver’s story. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He was mostly a poet but also wrote short stories. His was a hard life. He battled alcoholism most of his days. He lost his wife and his children. He lost everything he had. But his last ten years he put the bottle down and with the help of doctors, groups, AA and a friend he took control of his life. He fell in love with this friend, Tess Gallagher. He went on to dedicate his last book to her. I love the Dedication: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.

She was his lifebuoy. With her help he found meaning and joy those last ten years. Then he discovered lung cancer and she stood with him through those awful days of chemotherapy. He fought hard for ten months until he finally lost the battle. The last book of poetry he ever wrote was called A New Path to the Waterfall. The last poem on the last page of that book could serve as a benediction for his life.

And did you get
what you wanted
from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved of the earth.

It’s what we all want in the end to feel beloved. I’m getting weary of all these new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and even comedian Bill Maher who look down their noses at religious folk. They say we need nothing more than our intellect. Head is all that is necessary, they tell us. What about heart? They pooh-pooh what you can’t prove factually.

But I wish they could visit little churches like Alpine. For almost 200 years they have been opening those huge green doors and taking their places on those pews. Why do they come? They are looking for something they cannot find during the nine-to-five weeks. They read off that long list of names on their prayer list—not because they have to but because they care. Their hearts are warmed by the old songs they learned from their parents as children. They bring their Bibles and know the stories because they have discovered that embedded in that book are their stories too. They bring casseroles by when somebody is sick or dies. They told me their newly renovated kitchen was used almost every week. Around tables, breaking bread with people they know and love they find something that keeps them going that cannot be found in any test tube. Whether they know it or not I think they have discovered—and are discovering that word beloved for themselves and for everyone.

No wonder they have been in business for almost 200 years. They have found a place to stand and in this kind of a world that is no small thing. I’m glad I drove that thirty-mile trip. Maybe, just maybe they gave me more than I could ever, ever give them. For they reminded me that even preachers can be called beloved.

(This photograph was taken of a sunrise on the Sea of Galilee by a friend of mine recently.)

1 comment:

  1. We indeed enjoyed your visit. A great sermon and a gentle reminder that we are definitely beloved by God and each other. Come back again, but choose a Sunday when we feast together. This little white church is filled with superb cooks!