Monday, April 27, 2009

When Worlds Collide

Ever have opportunity to introduce a friend to others who are your friends, too?

We all have different friends from different chapters of our lives.

They are compartmentalized into the varied places we live.
Work friends.
Neighborhood Friends.
Church Friends.
Childhood Friends.
Camp Friends.
Facebook Friends? Hmm. Still working on that one.

There seems a particular symmetry to life when each category of friends stays within the world we know them.

When Kristy and I were married (20 years ago on the 20th of May), each of my groomsmen represented a specific chapter of my life. From my childhood up to the present moment at the time (which was while I was in seminary) these guys collectively comprised as full a story of who I was as could be told. On their own, each held only a piece of my story. And none of them knew each other.

Being an itinerant kid, I had friends from each location upon my Dad's ministry trail. Introducing them to each other was a trip. I felt like my worlds were colliding.

I feel like I'm doing something like that again.

While it's not typically the role of the outgoing pastor to go on and on about the new guy, other than the gratuitous collegial pleasantries - I find that in this case, business as usual doesn't apply. I can't help myself because Brad is my colleague - sure. But he is more than that. He is among that handful of people in my life who I call "friend."

We've known of each other since college days. He almost followed me in an appointment way back in 1988 at Old Hickory. You can ask him about that one.

We've been in a covenant group meeting for two hours every week since 1993. Rebecca and he make up 1/3 of Glad River (be looking for a mini-reunion of the original front line of the band at Annual Conference).

We did our D.Min. together at Wesley. We’ve taught at the seminary level together. This past fall we co-taught a course on “John Wesley and the Poor.”

We comprise 2/3 of a particular “band of brothers" in the clergy. The other guy moved away from us at the first of the year to go to Paris. We have been known as the “unholy trinity,” a title well earned and a badge of honor we share gladly.

We've stood by, with and for each other on many occasions in our lives - some of which could be repeated, and many more that will stay in the vault.

I commented to some of you that my angst in leaving was prompted by some of the usual stuff. I love it here. I love you all. I love the work we have done and what is to be done. Those feelings coupled with the reality of leaving and the natural process we all go through in a transition is always complicated in our line of work because we hope and pray that the one who follows us will take what's been done and move forward far beyond where we are now.

Truth, painful as it is, is that such a thing doesn't always happen. I’ve known that pain before from previous places I’ve served and left. I didn’t want to know it again.

Not here. Not this time.

When Brad told me he was projected to Saint John's, I felt a flood of emotion wash over me and I knew I could leave having passed the mantle to one who will do great things as your pastoral leader.

I don't want to overdo this. And truthfully, it is the role of the Staff Parish Relations Committee to make these introductions.I just want you to meet my friend, and I want him to meet you. My worlds are colliding again and I'm leaving you knowing you will form a new and meaningful relationship with each other.

I'm thrilled about what that will mean for all of you.

And know this.

I'll be watching and cheering you on.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cleared to Talk

As of today's notification, I am free to speak out loud where my next appointment will be. I doubt this will come as a suprise to anyone, but having now been given permission, here we go.

At the end of this Annual Conference, I'll be moving from Saint John's to become the Senior Pastor at Covenant United Methodist Church, in Cordova.

I'll post more soon on what all that may mean to me, to the Church. And I have quite a bit to process about 8 years at Saint John's...but that will come in due course.

Just being able to say outloud, and not play games anymore, is a good thing.

I begin ministry at Covenant with a wonderful partner in ministry at my side - Lora Jean Gowan. I could not be more thrilled about that and feel that together we can facilitate great things wherever we're called to serve.

OK, there it is. I said it. Been living with this propsect since the first week of February, and the reality of it since the first week of March.


Friday, April 17, 2009


There's a lot of change going on in my life right now - as it always seems to do - change comes in two forms - that which creeps day by day, week by week, and on and on so that its presence is as a parasite - feeding off the energy of your life and you're not sure why.

The other kind is that traumatic change that comes all at once.

You're moving.
You're changing churches.
You're changing jobs.

It's a jolt. It catches your undivided attention and dominates all aspects of life.

The change that comes through death is this way, too.

Five years ago, today. How is that possible?

Did it just hit me that five years ago today my brother died?

Nope. April 17 lurks on the calendar. It finds me even when I don't want it to.

You who have lived with and through such a thing can bear witness, of that I have no doubt.

So, I'm with family today.

Need to call my sister.

Some melancholy? Sure. But surprisingly, not too much.

Living. Being. Remembering.

All seem the right way to honor a life whose impact crosses the barriers of mortality.

When my kid smirks like he did-when a "tall tale" is woven worthy of Jimmy - I smile.

In many ways, dealing with the remnants of his presence in the lives of those I'm charged to raise now helps me come to grips with those lingering parts of sadness and guilt from what I didn't do or didn't say.

I pray I get it right this time.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maundy Thursday 2009 - "No Greater Love: A Life Made Sacred (Sacrum Facere)"

Over the years I've determined that the foundation of this homily is what I always return to for Maundy Thursday. It is the "basic sauce" that when any of a number of contextual ingredients are added suits what I have come to believe about this significant day.

This year there are a few more dramatic changes to the core of this homily than in years' past.

I am indebted to the influences of such voices as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg in framing the central thesis.

Today I am taken by the reality that this is the last Maundy Thursday homily I will preach as the pastor of Saint John's. I feel the weight of that today.

What, then, at the beginning of the Great Triduum and at the triumphant end at Easter, will I want to leave with these folks?

Here it is.

There are moments in life when the actions we take, the engagement of our lives with the world around us reveal something about us, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We can talk all day about who we are and what we believe – but there’s nothing more revealing or indicting than action or inaction.

Conscious awareness of our role, place and motivation in life, and the relationships that ebb and flow in the slipstream of our existence is best defined as “mindfulness.” Taken from wisdom of the Eastern religions, it is that capacity for us to know that wherever we go, there we are - -and thanks to John Kabat Zinn the western world is the beneficiary in our understanding of a spiritual state that belongs to all people of faith.

In times of greatest moment – to act or not to act - - “to be or not to be - that is the question.”

Act with haste, that is, without prayerful discernment seeking guidance from trusted voices, and action becomes an end in itself. Those who yearn to be seen as the hero who sweeps in and saves the day act hastily.

Ask anyone who has been caught up in the aftershock of another’s hasty pursuit of hero worship and they’ll tell you such action may look good on the surface, but there is collateral damage aplenty.

Is there compassion or consideration in the face of collateral damage, or, willingness to put aside being the hero for the common good? No. Inevitably, collateral damage, in whatever form it comes, is considered an acceptable loss, and the price of doing business. The end always justifies the means.

Others live with perpetual inaction.

Able to articulate and argue relevant points of whatever their issue is with passion – they fail to act. They feed so much on the energy generated by the problem itself so that their motivation to enact a remedy, is muted by the fear that if the problem is solved, the “stuff” that feeds their lives is gone.

They know the issue.

They know the problem.

But they are crippled to do anything about it.

A vicious cycle, that.

Those who refuse to forgive a wrong because to do so would extinguish the rage that fuels the hellish fire of their every day – choose perpetual inaction. Like the hostage who begins to side with very one who has held them bondage and would do them harm, we, who choose inaction to make right a wrong, or to forgive, suffer from a Stockholm Syndrome of the soul - - loving our pain and anger because it’s what we know. Being liberated from it scares us to death.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel,” Jesus would say.
Repent. Believe.
Take up your cross and follow.

Action words.

It’s the difference between saying you’re a Christian and actually being a companion of Jesus wherever that leads.

Action and inaction. The transcendent truth of either approach to life is self defining and a prophecy perpetually self-fulfilling.

Maundy Thursday is one of those days when the abstract and absolute, the flesh and the spirit, the universal and the particular collide. It is one of those occasions where “the rubber hits the road.” Here, at the end of Lent and the start of the Triduum, the great three days, it reveals through action the character of the One who draws us into this worship space tonight. It confronts us with the real life, real time implications of what a life made sacred looks like. It makes us look at Jesus’ life and consider what we’re doing with our own.

Is life made sacred because it just is…or is life made sacred by what one does with it?

So, action, these actions give meaning to what Jesus has taught. They give meaning to what we believe. They make all this Jesus business real – incarnate.

On this night we focus on an action of Jesus found only in the 4th gospel. The Synoptics don’t have it. John, historically considered the last of the canonical gospels written, has a particular agenda – the writer has a bias, and his bias is always for Jesus – his life, his teaching, and the nature of the Christ that has always been.

Only John has this text – Jesus, at Passover, after sharing table fellowship, takes upon himself an action that will be self-defining hereon, as it will be for all of us who carry his name.

He, the one called, Rabbi, Teacher, Lord, Messiah, Christ – comes now to assume the role of the menial laborer – literal dirty work is not beneath him – he embraces it.

It defines him. He takes a towel, a basin and a pitcher – and washes his disciples feet.

But why?

Rarely in our observance of Christian liturgy do you find something so profoundly intimate as the washing of feet. Maybe that’s why it’s not a sacrament (which it should be), there’s really no way to observe this liturgy with integrity without literally touching someone. It’s too close, too intimate. It’s not “churchy.” Getting on our knees and taking off shoes, using water, towels and basins, it’s beneath the dignity of our erudite gathering.

To which I say, “right.” It is.

But it is supremely of Christ.

And if we are going to be “of Christ,” with integrity, then tonight, our action or inaction is, guess what? Dare I say it again? Self-Defining.

And maybe that’s what all this dramatic fuss is about this Holy Thursday night and there following into the Great Three Days. If nothing else, we observe integrity at work. That’s an awe inspiring thing. For to live with integrity is joyful, because in it we are complete. We are fully what we’ve been created to become.

Don’t forget, though, that just because we live with integrity, even joyfully, does not mean our work is pleasant, or that we’re giddy about it.

To do so was not a choice absent other options. Think of those presented to Jesus in the wilderness temptations, – No, this was a matter of integrity. He did this thing, both in the upper room with his disciples, as well as walk the Via Dolorosa because that’s who he is.

To have done anything other than to be a servant, than to identify with the suffering of humankind by embracing the cross, would have been to have missed his moment – the moment when his action defined who he was. This is what a life made sacred looks like.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. John 15.12-17

Another way of seeing this night might be this. Jesus did not miss his moment and he’s imploring us not to miss ours. That our lives are gifts, to be sure, but they are only made sacred when we enact self-giving love as the measure of every moment.

Look. Ministry is hard.

Giving yourself away is hard. Following Jesus to where ministry leads you is hard.

It is counterintuitive to everything innately a part of our being.

Placing yourself in the role of servant and not hero is tough. Doing ultimate good without lusting for credit is extraordinarily difficult. If it were easy, wouldn’t more folks be doing it? Instead, too many of us play at Church, play at following Jesus, use our religious pursuits as a contrivance of convenience rather than a covenantal commitment.

Listen, people. To live with integrity or not is far more in our control that we'd care to admit.

It’s in your grasp, sisters and brothers – right here, right now. Jesus gathers with us in this room, as he has done with his companions for millennia and says, “here’s who I am, here’s what I’m prepared to do, here are the depths I’m prepared to plunge – for you.”

How far are you willing to go? Could it be that tonight it is at least to declare that “no greater love have I” than to give myself away because of love?

What we do tonight, through bread and cup, is a liturgy you have repeated many, many times. May it be, however, that tonight you see beyond your own action of getting up and coming down here and partaking Eucharist.

Consider and embrace the life made sacred because of what he did…made his life sacred, for you.