It almost seems unfair to relegate the season of Advent to four weeks while granting the season of Lent the luxury of forty days. I mean, there is certainly a lot to unpack during the season of Advent. But that would push Christmas into mid-January and while the merchandisers wouldn’t mind having the extra days to remind us that life would be so much better if we just bought what they were offering, we will just have to settle for lesser days.
Every year at this time, Mary comes into the spotlight in a way that she does only one other time, at the foot of the cross. Depending on whether you find her in either Matthew or Luke’s gospel as these are the only two gospel writers who record Jesus’ birth in the traditional way that we think of, Mary is quite the interesting figure. In Matthew’s birth story, Mary never says a word. Even though she is mentioned five times, she is always identified either as the wife of Joseph or the mother of Jesus. It is just not so easy to get to know Mary if we rely only on Matthew’s take. You may assume that Mary was only a submissive and silent wife and a humble mother.
But don’t turn the pages over to Luke’s story if you find some sense of peace in Matthew’s story. Luke isn’t having any of that description. He gives Mary a major role in the birth narrative, naming her name twelve times. While Matthew’s angel comes to Joseph in a dream to announce the birth of the child, Luke’s angel appears directly to Mary in the light of the day. Mary receives and responds to the overwhelming news of her miraculous pregnancy by heading off to the Judean countryside to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary, in Luke’s story, has found her voice, and shares with Elizabeth her thoughts and feelings.
She then breaks out in song. At first, she begins with praise to God. But before long, as eavesdroppers to her music, we realize that this is not some sweet lullaby she is singing in anticipation of the birth of the baby Jesus. This is no quaint confession of a personal relationship with God. This is nothing less than a freedom song, a song that views the world much differently than it appears at the present. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way. This is a song about who God lifts up and who God brings down.
Some might accuse the song’s lyrics as coming from the starry-eyes naïveté of a young peasant girl, but let us keep in mind what God is already doing in this story of her visit to Elizabeth. Elizabeth is no spring chicken. She is an old, barren woman, scorned for her in ability to bear children. And Mary, she is an unmarried, pregnant teenager living in poverty and facing shame. What in the world is God doing here?
And that is why we need more than four weeks to unpack this story of God preparing to birth a revolution. Mary has already begun singing her song! What will our response be? “Sing it, Mary, sing it out loud until your song becomes our song!” Or would we prefer Mary to be quiet as Matthew tells the story?
See you Sunday,
For most of my years in ministry, I have subscribed to the Christian Century, a biweekly publication of religious news articles, commentary, and book recommendations. Rarely do I find the time to read the entire issue, so I set them aside for later reading. Yet the most recent issue had me laughing at page 3 where the publisher Peter W. Marty offered his thoughts. Peter was sharing of a time when he and his wife were listening to a presentation for park visitors at the Grand Teton National Park Visitor Center.
The presenter, a guy named Rick, was explaining how to deal with grizzlies in case of an encounter while hiking. After the standard advice about hiking together and making plenty of noise, Rick turned to the bear spray clipped to his belt, warning his listeners that they would want to use this with care. “Always make sure to take the wind into account.” Peter wrote how, after hearing this warning, he imagined that if he were face to face with a grizzly, he’d be thinking more about his grave than the wind. “But point well taken: it’s bear spray, not self-spray.”
Continuing his safety talk, Rick said, “You’ll want to spray this toward the bear, but not when the bear is too far away. Wait until she is 30 feet away so that the cloud of mist doesn’t dissipate too soon.” Upon this advice, Peter questioned it by writing, “I carry energy bars when I hike, not a tape measure. And who in their right mind would actually wait for a bear to get sufficiently close?” By now I am right there alongside of Peter in his thought processes. But still Peter listened to Rick because he felt Rick knew more than he did about grizzlies.
“In the event that the spray fails you, you’ll want to lie face down in the ground and play dead. Plant your face in the dirt with hands on your neck, legs spread slightly,” Rick further explained. Peter added his thoughts to this suggestion: “…if you don’t know the definition of vulnerable, this is it.” It was at this point that Peter might have had second thoughts on journeying out into the Grand Tetons, preferring to view the landscape from the safety of his car or view pictures of grizzlies from a magazine. If you want to get close to nature, risk is inevitable.
Peter was struck that the same reality holds true for our relationship with God. As he puts it: “If you want to get close to the Lord, there are risks involved. You become part of a people who don’t look exactly like you and whose company may unsettle you. You throw your money behind causes larger than your next Amazon purchase. You take to heart Jesus’ mandate about feeding kids who don’t ask to be hungry.”
“If you want to avoid the risks associated with getting close to the Lord, keep your distance. You can choose to talk about God, which is what a lot of religions and pledges of allegiance do. If you want to get close to the Lord, prepare for some vulnerability, and be open to letting faith splay you wide open. Risky as loving the One may be, it’s our only way of getting near to the grace and mercy we so desperately need.” We are left to decide whether or not we are willing to take the risk.
See you Sunday,
WANDERING WEST WORD
Growing up playing baseball, like many young boys at that time, I idolized number 7, Mickey Mantle, centerfielder for the New York Yankees. Seven times, he and his team were world champions. Considered by many to be the best home run switch hitter to ever play the game, his praise and accolades didn’t follow outside the baseball diamond.
Mantle’s drinking and womanizing did a number on his family, not to mention his own well-being. He disappeared into the darkness of alcoholism during the 1980’s, losing much of his purpose and meaning in life and describing it to friends as his own internal hell. When he finally entered Baylor Medical Center for a liver transplant in 1995, doctors gave him just days to live if he didn’t have the transplant.
A few weeks after his transplant surgery, Mantle walked into the crowded press conference at the hospital and made what would be his last public statement. Sadness and regret marked his words as he described the life he had squandered: “God gave me a great body and an ability to play baseball,” he said. “God gave me everything, and I just…pffft!…I’d like to say to the kids out there, if you’re looking for a role model, this is a role model: don’t be like me.”
When questioned by a reporter if he had signed a donor card, Mantle replied, “Everything I’ve got is worn out…Although I’ve heard people say they’d like to have my heart, it’s never been used.” He spoke also of his selfishness at the same conference: “I want to start giving back because all I’ve ever done is take.” Four weeks after he had spoken those words, Mantle died.
The liturgy at his funeral included a song he had requested, written and sung by country western star Roy Clark. Titled “Yesterday When I Was Young,” the words epitomize the disappointment Mantle held for himself and his sense of an unholy existence from which he saw no escape:
I teased at life as if it were a foolish game, the way the evening breeze may tease a candle flame. The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned, I always built to last on weak and shifting sand….I ran so fast that time and youth at last ran out; I never stopped to think what life was all about….There are so many songs in me that won’t be sung. I feel the bitter taste of tears upon my tongue. The time has come for me to pay for yesterday, when I was young.
When the day comes when you wake-up that there is more to life than baseball, will there be time to move past the regrets? Are you willing to bet that there will be sufficient time? What will it take to arrive at such a point before it’s too late?
See you Sunday,
Zig Ziglar tells this interesting story in his book Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World. The Chinese [gardeners] plant the bamboo seed, water and fertilize it, but the first year nothing happens. The second year they water it and fertilize it and still nothing happens. The third year again they water and fertilize [it] and still nothing happens. The fourth year they water and fertilize [it], and yet nothing happens. But in the fifth year, in a period of roughly six weeks, the Chinese bamboo tree grows roughly 90 feet. The question is obvious: Did it grow 90 feet in six weeks or was it 90 feet over five years? A little reflection will make the answer obvious: It was five years, because had there been any year when they did not water and fertilize it, there would have been no Chinese bamboo tree.
As a society, we are not very good about waiting. Slow traffic lights, delayed service at a restaurant, long lines at the department store, and approvals from insurance companies on a procedure the doctor felt necessary ASAP. These are but a few of the things that we endure day in and day out. On Sunday morning, I awakened to the news that a mass shooting had occurred during the night in Dayton, Ohio. Surely the headline wasn’t correct or was an old one posted. After all, less than twenty-four hours earlier we were grappling with the news out of El Paso, Texas of a mass shooting at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
Somehow the gunman in Dayton didn’t get the memo that you couldn’t have two mass shootings in the same day. And yet, this is becoming too common and there are times that I am afraid that we have simply come to “normalize” such actions. Have we done anything of substance to reduce these violent acts on innocent people? In Florida we now have an armed officer at each school and some counties have given permission for their teachers to also carry guns in school. But when a gunman is able to kill 9 people and injure more than two dozen in twenty-four seconds, what would the response time be for a single armed officer or a teacher?
Some will say that this is the age we are living in, but such mass shootings don’t happen to this degree in any other country in the world. I know that gun violence is not the only issue confronting us and that mass shootings are only a part of the gun violence story. But I am not ready to accept this as something that we will just have to get used to. Jesus didn’t accept the status quo when He set foot on earth. The establishment of a new kingdom was a part of His “to do” list. It didn’t happen overnight but there were hints of it along the way.
So I will set my thoughts on peacemaking and water and fertilize until that day when my efforts and others will bear fruit. Persistence, patience, and the promises of God!
See you Sunday,
It started with a visit to Haines City Health Care last week. A resident, an older gentleman, and his son, were sitting outside near the front door. As they were both sporting a beard, I asked if they had the same barber. We laughed and I thought how special to be able to spend time with your Dad. Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of my Dad’s passing. I miss him.
Our time together was limited unless I joined him at work, which I often did. I don’t recall us ever throwing a baseball or football together but I knew that he supported me and loved me. I came across a story recently that was shared by a minister who spoke of a fishing trip he and his father took one day. He writes: “We left before daylight on our way to fish the Rio Grande River just north of Embudo, New Mexico. My father has fished in that area for forty years. This would be my first visit. There is a stretch along the river where the water is almost inaccessible. The river lies some seven hundred feet below the canyon rim. The descent is steep and treacherous. They call it, Box Canyon. My father loves to fish there because few folks are willing to expend the effort to get to the fishing. We did not see another soul all day. During the drive I asked, ‘Is there a trail?’ My father replied, ‘It’s a semi-controlled fall going in and a bear of a climb coming out. We will be fishing in about 20 minutes but it will take us an hour and a half to make it back to the vehicle.’ Rock slides and runoff washes point you to the river but there is no discernible trail. The fishing made up for the treachery of our out of control fall into the canyon. When the river is clear the rainbow and the brown trout will hit nearly anything that moves. These are river bred and born fish. They are not stocker fish. My father has pestered several generations of these fish up and down this beautiful river.”
“I stood there, surrounded by jagged, black basalt rock watching my father cast and reel in. The rhythm of his motion was soothing and peaceful. The smell of sage hung heavy in the air. Pale driftwood was jammed into awkward positions, driven to them by the raging water during the Spring runoff. Delicate wildflowers rocked in the breeze. Tiny yellow butterflies danced in the air on the edge of the river. The sky was a brilliant blue. Wispy white clouds set sail across the sky’s blue canvas. The water raged by. Walled in by the canyon, the sound crescendos so that you cannot talk to someone without shouting. What a paradox I thought. The water rages by and yet the butterflies are unaffected. God’s creative genius comforts us in the midst of a raging river.”
Indeed, life can be loud and chaotic. The world around us can be turbulent. But that is never the only storyline. Memories can surface and remind us of the beauty once shared and I can add my voice to those who have sung, “It is Well with My Soul!”
See you Sunday!
WANDERING WEST WORD
In the blink of an eye, things change pretty fast, don’t they? For years now, the property just north of the church has sat empty with the retention pond in the middle and a mound of dirt overgrown with grass and a tree here and there. I come back from vacation in early May and there are two large banner signs promoting new home sales on the property. A couple of weeks later, a sales trailer has been moved to the property, fronting 14th Street and signs posted on each of the lots. Scattered among the lots are portable potties. What is going on?
A couple of weeks ago, while driving by, I noticed that several lots had been cleared by a bulldozer, leaving nothing but exposed dirt. And then yesterday, crews were out trenching for the foundation and plumbing for three houses. At this rate, it won’t be long for the houses to be framed and occupied. Suddenly we are going to have new neighbors! Add the additional dozen or so unsold lots being sold over the next few months and families moving in and the complexion of our neighborhood has changed dramatically.
We sometimes forget that we are within walking distance to be Haines City High School, Boone Middle School, and Lake Eva Park and so location makes these homes desirable. Although I would not want a retention pond to be the first thing I see out my front window, maybe the location is the drawing card. Granted, we are no longer a neighborhood church, if we ever were one in our one hundred year history. But the opportunities for ministry and witness as we welcome these new families is limited only by our imagination. In “Our Future Story” we envisioned a time in the near future when we would welcome a second Disciples congregation that would offer a bi-lingual service. Little did we know that the future is upon us!
In all likelihood, those moving into the new homes being constructed will be Hispanic, as the Haines City area continues to see an influx of families from Puerto Rico. But we are also seeing a number of families moving in from Central and South America. In keeping with “Our Future Story” we will need to start offering “English as a Second Language” for our neighbors and “Conversational Spanish” for ourselves within the next year. Instead of fearing the change that is happening before us, we can embrace it and offer the same spirit of hospitality that one would expect from the Body of Christ. I know the Table of God’s grace is large enough for all of us. And all means all!
See you Sunday!
I suppose it is a continuation of a thought I had a year ago or so. I had met someone locally who was working in the service industry and she told me of the difficulties she was having and how rarely she could take days off, much less a vacation without the real threat of losing her job. She was not connected to any church, using Sunday to play catch-up to the work at home that went undone during the six days she was working. She spoke of how she would like to take a trip with her Mom and her two kids to Gatlinburg but didn’t see any way possible.
Why not raise money for her and with her boss’ consent, provide her funds for the trip and to cover the cost of lost wages, ensuring that she would have a job to come back to? The gift would come from the church as part of our Centennial Celebration and we would offer it simply as a gift of grace and an acknowledgement of her service to the community. Although I shared the idea with others, I didn’t pursue it any further. I was thinking that maybe once a year we could select someone from the community and make their life better with such a gift of grace.
The thought surfaced again a couple of weeks ago when I noticed a server at a fast-food restaurant displaying some incredible people skills. Part-time, minimum-wage job, after school, not looking to get rich and yet, what if, one night while at work, he/she was handed an envelope with a small cash amount or a gift card from the church, expressing our thanks for him/her being a difference maker in people’s lives? And what if, we asked the church to nominate someone they have observed with such qualities, and that each month, we draw a name and surprise that individual with a gift of grace?
Well, a little while ago, in a search for inspiration for this column, I picked up an older issue of The Christian Century and there was a story about Pathway Church in Wichita, Kansas who opted this past Easter to forego the money they usually would have spent promoting its Easter Sunday Service through mailings and TV ads and instead spend the $22,000 to help families pay off medical debts. Each of the 1,600 families who had their debt liquidated received this note: “We’re Pathway Church, we may never meet you. But as an act of kindness in the name of Jesus Christ your debt has been forgiven.” Using RIP Medical, an organization that abolishes debt by buying it at pennies on the dollar, the church’s investment of $22,000 alleviated $2.2 million in debt.
Can you imagine receiving a card with that note enclosed? Some may question that this is simply the Church trying to buy goodwill and hoping to attract some of those 1,600 families. Pathway Church would beg to differ. Granted, hearing positive news about a church is a rare thing these days. But I am proud of this church and its outreach not only out into the community but also out into the world. Who would you nominate?
See you Sunday!
As we draw closer to our year-long Centennial Celebration, we will have time to reflect upon our past. A lot has transpired to enable this congregation to reach this milestone. And if we are bold enough in our faith, there is little reason why we would not be able to witness God’s love in this community for another hundred years. Within our timeframe, there has been a number of churches in our community that have come and gone. Only a handful of churches can lay claim to being about as old or older than the city of Haines City. But I am convinced that one of the secrets to such longevity is that these congrega- tions have been missional-minded or have returned to that mindset upon realizing their mistake.
Years ago, Henry Joel Cadbury, a devout Quaker and Professor of Divinity at Harvard, rose in a Friends Meeting for Worship and said, “There are two kinds of Friends in our Society, and two kinds of people in the world: there are therefore people, and there are however people. Therefore people say, ‘There are children going to bed hungry in our community. Therefore….’ and they proceed to devise and define the ways in which they meet the need in their community. However people make the same beginning statement – ‘There are children going to bed hungry in our community’ – but they follow it with, ‘However….’ and they explain why nothing can be done about it.
Cadbury exhorted his Quaker community, especially its leadership, to try the “therefore- however” exercise by continually coming up with need statements derived both from their faith community and the wider community in which they lived. “We must improve race relations in the city of Boston,” he said, and then asked what their response would be – a therefore response, or a however response. “There are elderly people in our parish who can’t get to church on their own…” What response would they give, a however or a there- fore? Cadbury, who was also serving as Chairman of the American Friends Service Com- mittee, went on to say that the world – and the Quakers – needed fewer however people and more therefore people for God’s work to be done on earth as in heaven.
Nevertheless, just because we ought to be therefore people doesn’t mean we have the em- powerment to live thereforely. The however always lies close at hand. To be therefore people, we have to abide in Jesus. This intimate relationship with Jesus will form the foundation of all ministry. Instead of looking for loopholes or excuses as to why we can- not serve one another, we will be too busy looking for opportunities God gives us to serve. I am indeed blessed to serve as your minister in a therefore congregation!
WANDERING WEST WORD
Last fall, I received word as Moderator for the Florida Disciples Regional Church that a grant had been approved to fund a collaboration event among leaders of the Southeast Regional Fellowship (SERF) of which our region is a part. It would be held at Christmount Christian Assembly at Black Mountain, North Carolina on March 1-3, 2018 with the Rev. Rebecca Hale (former interim Regional Minister for Florida prior to the calling of the Rev. Juan Rodriguez) serving as facilitator.
As Moderator, I would also serve on the planning team for the historical event. SERF is one of five fellowship areas in the United States and Canada created by the College of Regional Ministers in an effort to strengthen not only regional ministries but also to help lead adaptive change for the church’s witness. It is made up of eight regions – Alabama/Northwest Florida, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Up to this point in my ministry, outside of work being done by the Hispanic Convencion with these eight regions and the hiring of a Reconciliation Director for a year or two, SERF has pretty much been under the radar for most local congregations.
Having returned from Black Mountain late Saturday night, I can honestly say that the time was well-spent. I headed to North Carolina wondering how much good could be accomplished in such a short period of time. Meeting with close to fifty leaders from the eight regions along with their regional ministers, we unpacked the pressing issues and needs faced in each region as well as the gifts each of these regions can offer to the body of Christ.
Too often we can get caught up with what is happening in our own region without thinking of our brothers and sisters who live elsewhere. Our region has come a long way over the past four years and we have met challenges in the past two years that many of these regions are now facing. We have gifts we can share! But there are also areas where we now can call upon our other regions in SERF and draw from their gifts. The three-day event opened the door for us to establish relationships that will carry us into future discussions as we begin to now focus on four broad areas of collaborative work that we identified: leadership development, communication, pro-reconciliation/anti-racism work, and re-framing structures to meet the needs of the church.
Collaboration, not competition, is a difference-maker. In this face-to-face gathering, we were able to witness passionate Disciples who are ready to face the challenges before us so that we may be an effective and faithful instrument for God’s work. Thanks be to God!
Thanks for affording me the opportunity to serve!
WANDERING WEST WORD
If anyone should know the power of words, it should be preachers, those who are called to offer the Word. It seems as if my “Wandering West Word” in the last newsletter offended some of the readers as being too political. The statement in question was the sentence that I had written, saying “A President who threatens to annihilate 25 million people and a President who promises to destroy the United States first.”
To clarify my statement, I was not talking about the same person. In review, I could see how a person could misinterpret what I wrote since I said “President” twice. North Korea does not call Kim Jong Un their President, but ruler or leader. Instead of using the term “President,” I should have used the word “Dictator” and even stated North Korea as the person who has promised to destroy the United States first. I was speaking of President Trump as threatening to annihilate 25 million people because that is what he has said. This wasn’t a dig at President Trump.
I started the paragraph in which this sentence was used by writing, “The world is a mess.” And then I went on to highlight some of the major headlines and news stories that left me feeling overwhelmed. I wrote of hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires, protests of all sorts, and then the “President” sentence. This was even before the Las Vegas shooting. The sentence in question was simply one line in a litany of dark, storm clouds that has made life uneasy when it would be nice to have some still calm waters.
A colleague, a better writer than myself, picked up on what I had shared and what others had been dealing with when he posted these opening words to his blog, Interrupting the Silence. Michael K. Marsh wrote: “There’s a part of me that just wants to scream, ‘Enough is enough! Make it stop. How much more can we take?’ I am talking about Las Vegas, Maria, Irma, Harvey, Charlottesville, the ongoing wars and violence in the Middle East, terrorism, and the multiple genocides currently taking place in our world. I am talking about the many loved ones of this parish who died this year. We had five deaths in a two-week period, twelve or thirteen for the year. I am talking about the history of violence in our country and throughout the world. The list is long, painful, and bloody. What is going on in our world today?”
That is the very angst that I was feeling when I wrote the column several weeks ago. It was not my intention to “politicize” the words exchanged between two country’s leaders, and to those whom I may have offended, “I am sorry.” The answer I offered then I offer again. Where can we find shelter from the onslaught of the storm? We can turn to the One who can see us through the storms of life, who can still the waters of turmoil, and who can strengthen us for the journey ahead.