Monday, September 01, 2014

I Lift Up My Eyes

Our fall worship series calls us to gather around the Psalms.  There’s 150 of them, of all kinds and genres.  We all know all of some and some of many.  We know more verses from Psalms than we probably think we do.  In the introduction to his commentary on The Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says:

When people of faith gather around the Hebrew scriptures, the focus is often the book of Psalms.  This collection of songs has powerfully influenced worship, theology, ethics, and piety for centuries.  The book continues to influence contemporary readers with is eloquent poetic language, which communicates directly to the life circumstances of contemporary readers…This central biblical book continues to capture the imaginations of readers today as they seek to pray and live faithfully.  [Psalms, Brueggemann & Bellenger  NCBC].

                More than a Bible study, per se, what I invite you to is to live the Psalms with us over the course of the series.  The worship moment - from the visuals you’ll find in the sanctuary (thanks to Brian and Kayla Earwood), to the music, the liturgy, the prayers - the choral selections, we are setting the space for us to live with and through these ancient prayers and praises.  Our aim is to set the space where we can connect with these words in the context of our lives here and now.

                There are six Psalms around which we’ll bring our focus.  We are preparing a booklet containing all of them (and a pdf version will be available for download), together with some suggestions for daily prayers(including apps for download on your mobile device).  We ask that you commit to read the Psalm of the week each day. 

                Rather than seek to cover the full range of the Psalms for the series, we sought Psalms that speak to us out of which the homily will emerge.

                Our schedule is as follows:
                                September   7   Psalm 121 “I lift up my eyes to the hills…”
                                September 14   Psalm 130  “Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord…”
                                September 21   Psalm   51  “Have mercy on me, O Lord…”
                                September 28   Psalm   77  “I cry aloud to God…that he may hear me”
                                October       5   Psalm 133 “How very good it is when kindred live in unity together”
                                October      12  Psalm 47   “Clap your hands, all you peoples….”

Of all the things about St. John’s for which we should be most thankful – our servant ministry; our glad welcome of all God’s children not regardless of who we are but precisely because of who we are, who we love, the journey we’re taking; the loving spirit of our fellowship—we all need take time to reflect in whose name we do what we do.  Each time we gather, we should pause and bear witness to the reality of God’s presence in our midst.  How have we, how have you seen the “God moment” at St. John’s, in your daily walk?
             
                Lift up your eyes with us, and together let us know and praise the One from whom our help comes.

Monday, August 04, 2014

In Response to the Current Humanitarian Crisis along the Border

The following ran in the August 4, 2014 edition of "The Commercial Appeal."

In Response to the Current Humanitarian Crisis along the Border

We, leaders of faith communities throughout Memphis and Shelby County, together with agencies specializing in the ongoing care of children, unite to speak to the humanitarian crisis in which over 57,000 unaccompanied children, between the ages of 3 months and 17 years are encamped within the borders of The United States.  Projections of increasing numbers of children to come notwithstanding, in this current moment we hear the cries of these children who are already here.  Believing that silence in the face of what is before us is both morally unacceptable and unfaithful we come together to offer ourselves in partnership with governmental agencies to provide care for these children. 

No matter the cause, no matter our paths to God, we believe there are moral and religious imperatives calling for a compassionate response in keeping with the very faith we claim.  Our holy scriptures compel us to action:

“Don’t mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself. Remember, you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19.33-34

In Matthew’s Gospel – Jesus said that our care for the hungry, the sick, and the stranger is an outward and visible sign of our love for him:  “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” - Matthew 25.40b

The Quran says “Be kind to your parents, relatives, orphans, the destitute, your near and distant neighbors, your companions, wayfarers..” Ch.4 V 36

"By the breath of children God sustains the world." Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 119b

“Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it. Hebrews 13.1

We live and serve in Memphis, “the city of good abode.”  We respond to crisis.  We come together. This is what we do.   As we did with victims of Hurricane Katrina, as we’ve done and continue to do for the sake of quality public education for our children, we summon the best parts of us to find a way out of no way.  It defines our character as a community. 

We recognize this moment requires a partnership between government and faith communities.  We invite leaders at the local and state levels to join us. Such a partnership and the process developed to provide any of a number of services for these children while long term solutions are sought could be a model easily replicated across the country.  We have been blessed with the gifts and graces of compassionate hearts and logistical skill sufficient to make that level of impact on our country.


We affirm the mandate to respond to this crisis ever aware of the continual humanitarian crisis at home, for the cries of our own city’s children ring loudly in our ears, too.  We renew our commitment to work together for their sake believing that “love doesn’t divide, it multiplies.”  We invite all faith communities to join us in this work believing it to be a witness of our character as people of faith and as citizens of this place we call home.


Eric Brand, Bellevue Baptist Church
Greg Diaz, Nueva Direccion
Earle Fisher, Abyssinian Baptist Church
Eddie Foster, Second Presbyterian Church
Micah Greenstein, Temple Israel
Johnny Jeffords, St. John’s United Methodist Church
David Jordan, Agape Child and Family Services
Larry Lloyd, Memphis Leadership Foundation
Johnny Long, Hope Church
Steve Montgomery, Idlewild Presbyterian Church
Eli Morris, Hope Church
Scott Morris, Church Health Center
Steve Moses, World Relief
Billy Posey, Hope Church
Kenneth Robinson, St. Andrew AME Church
Josh Ross, Sycamore View Church of Christ
Stacy Spencer, New Direction Christian Church
Sandy Willson, Second Presbyterian Church
Rolando Rostro, Iglesia Nueva Vida Church
Debra Kirkwood, Bethany Christian Services
Michael Allen, Catholic Charities of West Tennessee

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Table Around Which All May Gather


I guess it was the my first Friday night at The Way when it hit me again...a memory, a thought I had shared before when I served here.  Those kinda things happen frequently these days.  I see projects that were first imagined years ago come to fruition.  There's a lot of "oh yeah, I remember when we talked about that."  Kinda cool, really, to see dreams realized.  Hang on...we ain't done dreamin’ yet!

Sitting in the sanctuary on a Friday night is a special thing, if you haven't done it yet, what are you waiting for?  It is among the most wonderful of things to see people come fully aware of how broken they are and finding food for the body and the soul in their gathering.  As I said from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago, this is one of the two services of worship St. John's celebrates each week.  It’s my aim to transplant some of the “soul” of Friday night into the life of our Sunday morning gatherings.  If you're curious about it, "come and see."

Anyway, I'm sitting in the pew as the music begins.  Although I have played The Way three times before, it was through the eyes of one coming in to do a thing, not as one who is pastor of the place where it's being done.  It was through that lens I observed the dissonance between a service being led, a meal being shared, and an open invitation to the reality that, as John says, "We love ya and God loves ya and there ain't nothing you can do about it," and the thing around which the Church gathers to share the Holy Meal, the altar, relegated to the corner because it's in the way.

Didn't need "The Way" to remind me that what we have is "in the way."  I've long felt that as we worship together at St. John's.  There's nothing wrong with an altar...for Cathedrals and Queen Churches it is most important. 

But way back in the late '70's, a St. John's pastor spoke to the reality that on the corner of Peabody and Bellevue, the Queen was dead.  We are heirs of that pronouncement.  The ministries of love, service and justice that exist now and those to be born in our future flow out of that understanding.

St. John's, like most Protestant mainline churches, is an amalgam of theological and liturgical influences in its architecture, none of which have been taught well to the succeeding generations.

A little St. John's architectural history:
What you see now when you look at the chancel is not what's always been.  In fact, the chancel has undergone multiple transitions across the years to adapt to the ministry opportunities of the day.  The original configuration (1907) of the church chancel looked like this, with a center pulpit, exposed organ pipes, and yes, the wood is much darker than what we have now.  That original configuration is consistent with “preaching houses” of the revival era.  The “preached” word was the primary thing.


In 1953, it was renovated moving to a divided chancel, the covering of organ pipes once exposed, and establishment of a pulpit on the east and lectern to the west.  Affixed to the south wall of the sanctuary was the altar.  What you see in the picture is closer to what you know, the biggest difference being the position of the choir.  The establishment of a permanent altar communicated an understanding of the importance of the sacraments….one consistent with the general liturgical leanings of The Methodist Church in those days.  That is, very penitential…”we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under Thy Table.”  Sacrament is a sacrifice in this modality, and the altar is the place wherein it is re-enacted.


In 1978, gone was the red velvet hanging over the altar and commissioned was the wall hanging that remains to this day, even as we use other artistic expressions seasonally that cover it.  The significance of the imagery on the woven piece reflects the totality of the understanding of God and the Holy Sacrament.  It is also on this work that we see enshrined the butterfly as the living symbol of St. John’s, her ministry, her mission, and the power of the resurrection of a church receiving new life through servant ministry.  A symbol so significant for us that it is our church sign on the corner.



    Almost 15 years ago, the configuration of the chancel changed again.  Our ministry of music was making a big impact on our worship life.  Because it was growing, space was needed to accommodate.  So we changed to what you know.  And what of the altar?  It was literally ripped off the south wall with plywood serving as backing and placed where you see it now.  It is heavy, has been patched together more than once.  If you sit in the choir loft, your view of it is particularly unappealing.  Truthfully, it was never meant to be anything more than it was built to be…an altar, a permanent, non-movable structure.

So what do we do now?  We are a people of Table.  We “celebrate” Communion.  Our liturgy bespeaks a “Great Thanksgiving.”  We are a people open and welcoming, and we need visual signs in our worship space confirming that truth.  There’s a practical sensibility to this as well as theological.  You don’t move altars.  You do move tables so that all may come around it.  The Table of welcome needs to be present at every service, including The Way.  It needs to be far more flexible for our Sunday worship than it is.

Last week I shared an idea with the Church Council.  While nothing has been done in any official capacity, I do believe it a proper time to make this symbolic shift serving both a functional and theological need.  Let’s commission a Table be built for our sanctuary.  From the multitude of artisans we know, I believe we could find someone to serve this purpose that is a “Memphis” soul.  Let it be beautiful in its simplicity, yet profound in its message:  here, in this place, around this table, all are welcome – and together we accept our call to bring around the Table with us those longing to know home.

And let us dedicate this Table around which all may gather to the glory of God and in the memory of the leader who set us on the footing for servant ministry…the very thing that gives us life today…from the food pantry to the soup kitchen, to Feast for Friends, to The Way, to the Community Garden, to Empty Bowls, to Bruce School, to so many more that have been as well to those yet to be…. the Rev’d Frank Lewis McRae.

What a celebration is in store!  Let’s make this happen…together. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Catching My Breath

Breathe....

Ask some folks who've worked with me over the years, and you'll find that instruction one I offer frequently when things get tense...when the pressure builds. I believe in breathing. I mean, obviously other than the physiological benefit of breathing deeply.

Wind, breath, spirit...Ruah.

It is here where we find ourselves...where we can come to center and be centered.
It is what a resurrected Christ does to walled up disciples, crippled by fear. 
It is from this place that life comes...Life from above.
It's a word Nicodemus struggled with.

It's a word I know. It's a word I believe. It's a word I can ignore with ease when misdirected into thinking I'm more than I am...when I think whatever is to be, I have to make it so.

I'm not absent ego. I know there are some things I do well. I also know there are things I don't do well. I got over trying to be all things to all people a long time ago. Owning weaknesses is as important as claiming strengths. Wisdom comes in being vulnerable enough, loving your people enough to trust that they love you not because you don't have weaknesses, but precisely because you do.

Too much to do...too many things to fix...too many expectations...whether real, perceived or assumed doesn't matter.  When "too many" and "too much" pervade, breathing deeply stops, and the fragility of the spirit starts to succumb to the pressure like an underwater vessel that's plunged to depths far greater than its capacity to withstand.

Patience is required when breathing deeply. Can't breathe deeply when preoccupied with the next thing that has to be done. That's kinda where I am right now.
And the words of Wendell Berry ring in my ears--
"Well, you've put me in the place I’m always winding up in and…that is to say well we've acknowledged that the problems are big, now where’s the big solution? When you ask the question 'what is the big answer,' then you’re implying that we can impose the answer. But that’s the problem we’re in to start with, we’ve tried to impose the answers. The answers will come not from walking up to your farm and saying 'this is what I want and this is what I expect from you.' You walk up and you say 'what do you need?'  And you commit yourself to say 'all right, I’m not going to do any extensive damage here until I know what it is that you are asking of me.'  And this can’t be hurried. This is the dreadful situation that young people are in. I think of them and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial."
 http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-wendell-berry-poet-prophet/  (Great interview, watch it)

I've been remarkably impatient this past month.  And when impatient, rest assured I'm not breathing deeply either.  That's a dangerous place to be.  God knows we've too many pastoral leaders with "Messiah complexes."  I don't want to be that...I do want to craft a life that lives in the way of the One who is Messiah.

Like I've done for so many others...grabbing a hand, or placing mine on a shoulder to look into the eyes of the distressed and speaking the word, "Breathe,"  I feel the presence of those I trust holding mine and telling me the same.

And for today, at least---
I am.  Thank God, I am.  
  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"Am I Stepping Into the Twilight Zone?"

I guess it was last Wednesday afternoon when it happened.

After moving back into an office I moved out of five years prior, and after two days of unpacking, placing, and positioning all the artwork, mementos and talismans marking and claiming whatever space I work in as sanctuary--I found myself swept up in some sort of "Twilight Zone" temporal vortex.

The space felt like I left it.  I felt like I did when I last occupied it.

"What happened?"  I thought.   "Did I ever leave?"
Is this the Bobby Ewing/Dallas return come true? (YouTube it if you don't remember)  As if all that's been before didn't happen?

For the months I've known this possibility was going to become a reality, I've done much inner work to figure out what all this means.  I'm not sure that a direct return to a previous appointment has never happened, but I know it's extremely rare.  Truth is, it probably should be.

But here we are.  In conversation with our Bishop and Superintendent, who have been diligent about seeking to match gifts and graces of clergy with needs of congregations in seeking to live out the gospel in their mission field, I'm reappointed to serve St. John's. And my response to that is "Yay!"

I've tried to figure out how to speak to this.

I am coming back to St. John's...but I'm not.  I'm also coming to St. John's.

For everything that's familiar about St. John's, it's not the same place.  You're not the same church any more than I'm the same man.  Five years on...we've both lived, been changed by encounters with those we walked with along the way.

You've walked with a different pastoral leader. You've grown in so many ways.  Done so much good.  The absence of those present when I once served you is as palpable as is the presence of those who've come since I was here last.  And I'm so eager to get to know those new to me.

My last five years have been spent among a wonderful, loving congregation.  I am a better pastor...a better man having served Covenant.  There were challenges aplenty in my appointment, but I learned so much.  I've observed through them how a congregation lives out care for one another.  I watched them coalesce around a singular goal to address once and for all a burden that when lifted will position them to be free to respond to the ways God needs them for the future.  I'm as honored to be a part of Covenant's legacy of pastoral leadership as I've always been of St. John's---as I've been of all the places I've been appointed to serve. They have been praying for St. John's and for me as I took leave from them to serve here again.  I ask you to join with me in praying for Covenant and David Weatherly, their new pastor, for the journey they will take together.

Here's what I want you to know--although I know many of you already do.  I love St. John's.  I've lived, worked and served in many different settings. St. John's is home.  It always has been.  I come home to this place a bit older, hopefully wiser, and ever more ready to lead us through the challenges ahead.  I see the uniqueness of the opportunity as a gift, a challenge, a blessing.

Time is short.  We need to get to it.  And we will.
In coming weeks you'll hear from me about how we speak to our "why?"
What is our mission?  And what do we need to do to fulfill it?
What is our overarching strategic plan around which we coalesce our energy, our resources?

I want to hear from all of you.  Email me--jjeffords@stjohnsmidtown.org (By the way, when they turned my email back on, all of my emails from years ago were still there.  Now that's Twilight Zone stuff!).

We'll be having conversations about getting clarity on our mission.
This is an all hands on deck time.
Ready?  Let's go.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Water Life, or Sarah Palin is an Idiot

Haven't written "so and so is an idiot" post in a long, long time. 

That's not because there's been a lack of idiocy. Lord knows, we're neck deep in it.

Not since Glen Beck suggested that any Church that preaches "social gospel," should be avoided because such churches don't reflect Christianity have I written one.

Until now.

Admittedly, I've never been a fan of the former Governor of Alaska. Not a political fan. Not a fan of the world view. Not a fan of really much anything she purports.

And I don't have to be. That's part of freedom, right? I don't have to be a fan any more than she has to be of mine (although she surely doesn't know what she's missing, right? ;) 

But when you come wading into the language of my world, and so violently pervert the language of new life in the Realm of God through Jesus by equating it with tortur.....oops, sorry "enhanced interrogation techniques," I'm done.  

In her recent speech to the NRA she's quoted as saying:

"Come on. Enemies, who would utterly annihilate America, they who'd obviously have information on plots, to carry out Jihad. Oh, but you can't offend them, can't make them feel uncomfortable, not even a smidgen," she said. "Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we'd baptize terrorists."

Sarah Palin, you're an idiot. And here's the thing - I'm not convinced you even believe half of what you say. Like a carnival barker who seeks to stir the crowd into a frenzy, you throw one liners out like chum for the sharks and the feeding frenzy that ensues taps into the lesser angels of our natures. Chum the waters, collect a check...and move on down the road.

As one who lives under the waters of my baptism and the vows taken, vows I only days ago spoke to my youngest son as he claimed faith for himself, I'm reminded of the ancient questions asked of all who come before the font -

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

“Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

And I'm reminded of something I often preach and today need to live as I think about Mrs. Palin and her quote:

Jesus doesn't need us to defend him. Jesus is just fine. He just needs us to live as if our lives in Him makes any difference.

Today I'm challenged and convicted by that.

Monday, April 21, 2014

GDaddy

I knew I'd  have to figure it out one day…what I'd be called by my grandchildren. 

As it is with anything and everything that lives in the mist of “one day,” when the day comes it seems to catch us by surprise. 

My household had one helluva Holy Week. 

Going into it I was filled with the usual sense of finality that comes with any of us who itinerate and know that “last things” are on the horizon. I knew this was my last Holy Week at Covenant. So there's the appropriate amount of grief in leaving folks I've loved and served. But there's also the season of the “valedictory” address—the last things that one wants to be sure to impart knowing that our life together is changing.   How one takes leave from community is as significant (and possibly more so) than how one comes to be a part of it in the first place. 

So since news of my appointment back to St. John’s has come to light, my last words have been germinating…preoccupying me, really…not so much as to distract from the sanctity that Holy Week merits, but I felt a gravity to it, that, when coupled with the painful anniversary this week brings my family, the whole week felt “heavy” already. 

I guess the first clue that this week was going to be a bit different was when I got home from church Monday night. It was about 8:30 p.m.  Nightly routine. Changed. Got comfy, came into the den to find my oldest and girlfriend of almost 5 years in the den. 

“Kinda late for them to drop by,” I thought. 
That plus the deer in headlights look communicated much before mouths began to speak. 

They shared news of a “surprise,” that really wasn't, neither to them or us. Maybe there was surprise in the “oh, shit….this really happened” sorta way. I get that. Shoot, I've said that. 

I was taken with how both of them were, while shaken at reality getting, well, “real,” that there was a peace brought by the conviction that this moment was in front of them and that they’re going to meet it together. 

Plans to be married have been in the conversation for some time. This new reality prompted the need to actualize those, too. 

Lest anyone wonder how I did…I was calm. They’re adults. My job is to counsel and advise, not direct. The only mandate I gave was that neither was quitting school. Figure out how to manage it, and keep going. 

And, Laura said how awful the prenatal vitamins were, and I said, “Doesn’t matter, take them anyway.”  That’s my grandchild we’re talking about, right?

That was Monday. 

By Easter Sunday, with house full of family in town to celebrate Jack’s confirmation, came the actual engagement. When’s the wedding?  The Friday before my first Sunday at St. John’s.   

Of course it is. 

And, Christopher bought the truck of his dreams….because we loaned him the money to do it and he’s paying us back though his new start up business with his pal Austin cutting yards.  Holler if you need lawn service….please, I'm begging you. Seriously. :)

Sounds brilliant. I think I've lost my ever loving mind.   

But what of the matter at hand?  What to be called?  Truth is, I'll be whatever the child decides to call me. My father is Grandaddy, as was my grandfather.   I have no aversion to that in the slightest, but it's a well used name in our family now. 

My father in-law is Papa, and that suits him quite well. 

My son, who's soon to be a father himself, calls me Daddy, still, and I suspect always. 

So, GDaddy makes a lot of sense to me. I've heard it used before by people I love, and it always seemed to ring true to me. 

So I think that's where I'm headed with this. 

Funny thing about life’s transitions, however they come, whether of your choosing or not. In each instance there's a new name, label or designation associated with it.   Sometimes those names are embraced. Sometimes they are placed on you. Sometimes we live our lives trying to outrun or undo those names because of pain associated with them. 

For me, there's a host of names I carry. And there are many more I'm called that I don’t know, and that's probably for the best. It just so happened that two such names I knew I would have “one day” came much more sharply into focus in the compressed time of a few days. 

I'm very OK with this. But more than any name I bear, I pray I live in a way that does honor to it. Hmm, sounds biblical, doesn't it?  Lil bit?