July 31, 2006

The Story of Emily and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

3:53am – Alarm goes off. Emily grumbles and rolls out of bed.

4:45am – Church member picks Emily up and drives her to Pinebelt Regional Airport.

5:15am – Emily arrives at Pinebelt and discovers ticket agent at the only ticket counter has not arrived for work yet.

5:30am – Emily checks in.

5:45am – Emily proceeds through security. She sets off the alarm and must remove the chapstick from her pocket as well as her watch. This satisfies the machine and Emily continues to the only gate at the airport.

6:00am – Passengers load puddle-jumper airplane. Ticket counter agent has now become baggage and loading assistant.

6:20am – Plane scheduled to depart at 6:17am seems to be having “battery trouble.” Pilot announces they will “look into this.”

7:45am – Still on the ground. Plane drives around the runway some, but is unable to gain much speed. Plane is hot and stuffy.

7:55am – Announcement made that plane will not be departing and mechanics must be called in to fix the problem.

8:00am – Emily joins the line of people who are trying to get on the next and only other flight out of Pinebelt Airport this day. Flight is full.

8:05am – At the ticket counter, Emily is able to get a flight out of the next closest airport – Jackson International. Emily calls supervising pastor to request he find a church member to immediately pick her up and drive her to new airport – please!

8:55am – Church member willing to drive Emily to Jackson pulls up to airport as if out for a Sunday drive. Emily jumps in and emphasizes that her flight leaves Jackson at 11:10am. They take off. Driver tells Emily to just relax.

10:30am – Church member takes the wrong road in Jackson and realizes he doesn’t know how to get to the airport. They stop at a gas station and get directions.

10:40am – Emily runs into Jackson International Airport only to find out that the airline has given away her seat. Nice. Next flight they can get her on doesn’t leave for another 4 hours. Emily is directed to mysterious black phone. Man on other end of the line is no better. He suggests racing to another ticket counter to try and get on one of their flights. Cool.

10:50am – Emily secures a standby ticket for a flight leaving at 11:30am. Security line is long. It’ll be close. So of course, she is flagged for a thorough pat down and inspection of all luggage. She passes security check and takes off for gate.

11:20am – Emily makes it to the gate to try and get on flight before door to plane closes. After much finagling, she boards.

11:30am – Flight begins to depart for Memphis. Plane stops at end of runway. “Air traffic jam.” Ten minutes later, plane takes off.

12:35pm – Flight lands in Memphis. Emily grabs some expensive lunch – over $10 for a sandwich and drink – and makes her way to the new gate for her connecting flight.

*** Commercial Break: While eating lunch on the go, Emily gets chocolate on her capris. Oh no! But wait! Emily has a Tide-to-go pen in her purse. Nanananaa nanananaa hey hey heeey goodbye. Stain gone! ***

1:15pm – Emily boards connecting flight to Detroit.

1:35pm – Scheduled departure time. Pilot announces that controls were a little slow on the last flight and need to be checked out by maintenance. Passengers are told to “sit tight.”

1:50pm – Pilot announces that controls must be replaced. Spare controls are at the airport and will take 15-20 minutes to secure and then time to install.

2:05pm – Emily is still sitting on the plane and has begun to document her day for her blog. Emily wonders if she will ever make it to Michigan to meet with her church session at 7pm. If original flight had worked out, she would have been home for 2 hours by now.

2:15pm – As she types, Emily can hear drill replacing controls. Pilot announces that new controls are now installed and have been tested. They are good to go, except mechanics must complete paperwork. This will take 10 minutes. Great. Then flight should depart.

2:35pm – Flight departs. Pilot even announces that he should be able to make up for some of the lost time.

5:15pm – Emily, finally, lands in Detroit Metro Airport. She is exhausted.

July 29, 2006

11 months later

Last weekend I went to New Orleans with my parents who were visiting. Today I traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast with two women from the church.

I am overwhelmed.

Cement slabs mark where homes used to sit.
Mattresses and sheets are still littered in some of the trees.
Entire apartment complexes and shopping centers are gutted and abandoned.
Some areas look like a ghost town.
Debris still litters the beaches and waters.
Rebuilding will be a long process.

Adults mark time as pre- and post-Katrina.
Contractors continue to work on storm damaged homes.
Children look to the skies scared of dark clouds and any sign of rain.
People share stories of going in to sort through what was left.
A man tells me about how he headed in to help and found bodies floating in the waters.
Remembering is still a daily occurrence.

Yet, remembering and rebuilding have led to regrowth.
Some areas are cleaned up.
Some people have moved back.
Groups continue to travel and lend a helping hand.
Slowly life is put back together.

July 23, 2006

God's Abundant Feast

Sunday, July 23, 2006
First-Trinity Presbyterian Church (USA)

Mark 6:30-46

“Give them something to eat.”

“Excuse me, Jesus, what did you just say?”

“You give them something to eat.”

“Okay … we thought that’s what you said … umm, Jesus … how exactly should we do that … I mean, is there a plan … did you appoint a fellowship committee to organize the food for today … because there’s a ton of people here … and well … we just don’t see how it’s going to be possible to feed all of them this late at night.”

The disciples, you’ve got to love them. They are a ragtag group of people, bumbling and stumbling their way along with Jesus, most of the time trying to figure him and his sayings out right along with the rest of the crowd.

But they have been commissioned recently and they have just returned from their latest mission, a mission that took them to villages in pairs. They took nothing with them, yet found food and shelter along the way. They have returned to Jesus excited about the fruits of their labor, excited about telling their leader all that they had been able to do that they didn’t think was possible. They had cast out demons; they had anointed the sick with oil; they had cured the lame; and they had told all to repent and believe the good news. Their hard work had multiplied the believers and many had been touched by God. The transformations they had seen were nothing short of miraculous.

And then they are faced with the challenge of feeding thousands of people who have come to hear Jesus and it’s like they have forgotten all that they have just done over the past few weeks in the name of the Lord. And Jesus gently prods them along and asks, “What do we have available to us? How many loaves of bread do you have?” And the disciples come back, reporting that they have only five loaves. But they also find two fish they can add to that. Still, together it’s not even close to being enough for the throng of hungry people gathered.

But Christ takes the offering and the whole scene is transformed before the disciples’ very eyes.
• The setting has changed. It’s no longer a deserted place on the other side of the lake overflowing with pesky individuals; it’s the place of a grand picnic with groups of people gathering together on the green grass, preparing for supper from their shepherd.
• The nourishment has changed. Five loaves of bread and two fish in the hands of Jesus become God’s abundant feast for all of the thousands gathered. And there’s even leftovers at this early church picnic – twelve baskets full of pieces of bread and fish to be exact.
• The disciples have changed, too. They have gone from being exhausted and doubting to witnessing Jesus perform a creative miracle and feed the multitudes.

And any trace of scarcity in the picture is denied – the setting is lush, the food is present in abundance with leftovers to spare, the people have been nourished by bread and word and are satisfied, and the disciples are amazed. It is a miracle and God is indeed generous.

But the disciples didn’t immediately think of God’s generous and abundant nature when confronted with the task of pulling together a last minute church picnic for thousands. They had doubted that anything could be done. They had bought into the myth of scarcity; they had believed that there would never be enough, not even with Jesus – the one they had seen calm the storm and heal the sick and lame; the very Son of God is right there and the disciples don’t believe there is enough.

While most of us have not been challenged with feeding thousands at a moment’s notice with just a few loaves of bread and some fish, we are yet disciples, bumbling and stumbling our way along with Jesus, still buying into the myth of scarcity, not believing that there is enough. Though the thing that seems to be so scarce in our society today is time. Even with all of the modern inventions and advancements in technology, we still cannot travel backward or forward in time or stop time or control time at all and so we often battle the clock. We learn to multi-task and we buy gadgets guaranteed to speed up the job. We continue to work and work hard – at our jobs and in our homes, at good and even great tasks – and we don’t give up or let in, because there just isn’t enough energy and time to get it all done and slowing down or stopping would just hinder the progress.

Yet, the opposite is true. Appearance not withstanding, there is enough to go around, for God is a god of abundance, not a god of scarcity. Jesus reveals to us God’s abundance when he offers to the crowd so much bread that there are twelve large baskets with leftover scraps, and when he makes his disciples catch so many fish that their boat nearly sinks.

God reveals God’s abundant nature in creation. Where once there was nothing except darkness and a formless void, there appears the earth and light and waters, and the sun and moon and stars. And then there’s trees bearing fruit of every kind and swarms of creatures in the waters and flocks of birds in the air and animals of every kind roaming the land and at the end, humanity is created in the very image of God. And the creative abundance is good; it is very good. God’s force of life is set loose in the world and the world flourishes.

And then God pauses, takes a step back and admires all of the new creation; and then God decides it’s time for a day to rest from all the work that has been done. And God Almighty, the Creator of the Universe, takes a break; and it’s more than just a ten-minute coffee break or a hurried 30 minute nap – it’s an entire day. And God blesses this seventh day and makes it holy, set apart from the other six. And in doing so God continues God’s liturgy of abundance. For it’s not just all of the visible world that was created good and in abundance, but also time.

So, time is not the enemy. God has given us enough time. Six whole days to work and labor and be productive, and then just one day set aside as different. Yes, God has given us an abundance of time to rest in that single day. But that’s not the way we view it. We look at time through the eyes of the world and see another day to do things and run errands and just generally remain busy with all the tasks of life because we are racing the clock at the start of another week. But time is not the enemy; we are the enemy, for we who were formed in the image of God do not follow the pattern of God, working six days and resting on the seventh; we are the ones who do not pause to sit down and notice God’s abundant feast for our souls offered in the practice of Sabbath.

And so we treat this day like any other day and miss out on this good gift of God. When we don’t make an effort to remember the Sabbath, we miss out on holy rest, holy restoration, and holy redemption. For the Sabbath is not just about rules of do’s and don’ts. Do spend lots of time with God. Don’t cook or clean. Do sit still and reflect on life. Don’t go anywhere. At its center, the Sabbath is not about such things. It’s about being loved by God without doing anything. It’s about trusting God to hold up one’s life and the world without our contribution of work. It’s about being okay with taking a break because it’s commanded by God. At its center, Sabbath is about building a sanctuary of time and then freeing ourselves to honor that time.

But building that sanctuary of time is difficult. We live in the midst of a McDonald’s, gadget-producing, high speed internet, fast-paced society that doesn’t leave time for all the needs to be accomplished each day, let alone additional time for rest. But we are commanded to be in and not of the world; so the world cannot dictate the rhythm of our lives. We must set that rhythm ourselves according to God’s plan and that is difficult. Sabbath is a counter-cultural practice, but we cannot let that detour us. For the benefits of rest and renewal offered in Sabbath are something that all God’s people need, that even God needed.

So, how do we recover and practice Sabbath? We begin small and keep it simple. We make a conscious decision to steal some moments or carve out a few hours for Sabbath rest, for time will not lend itself to us. We must stake our claim on that time. Then we think and pray and consider what would be meaningful and life giving for us.

Maybe you begin by taking a Sabbath hour every week – one hour in which nothing is ever scheduled and you are freed from obligations of “should,” “ought,” and “must” to enjoy God and creation, relationships and hobbies. Maybe it means that you try taking a Sabbath walk every now and again – walking slowly and silently for 30 minutes without trying to get anywhere, following your own timing and curiosity. Maybe it means that you commit to a slow sit-down-and-chat dinner with family or friends every week. And maybe it’s not something specific, and it’s just sauntering through this one day, enjoying the spaciousness of time.

I began my own Sabbath practices when I was in college. In the midst of my junior year, I felt that my life was being run by academics and I hated that. And so I began the discipline of not doing any homework or studying on Sundays. And for one day a week, I tried to free myself from the work that dominated the other six days. And it was so difficult at first. I would sneak in an hour of paper writing here or 30 minutes of reading there. And some Sundays I totally abandoned it because I was overwhelmed by the schoolwork that needed to be done. But the Sundays that I did honor were great times of being renewed and refreshed, ready for the week to come. Over the past four years, I have come to look forward to Sundays and now relish that sanctuary of time.

So, lay claim to a sanctuary of time. It will be hard because, though it is necessary and even mandated in the Ten Commandments, it does not feel necessary. There are plenty of other things in our lives to lure us away, but we must not let them. For there will never be enough time to get everything done. Remember the disciples did not get their time of rest initially because a crowd of people met them at the other side of the lake. And Jesus taught those people and then fed them. But immediately after that, Jesus sent the disciples away again for a time of rest. And Jesus himself paused for rest by going up on the mountain to pray. Jesus was determined to get in that time of rest. And we must also be that determined.

When we set aide Sabbath time, God doesn’t give us just enough. God gives us more than enough: more bread and fish than we can eat, more love than we dared to ask for, more rest than we thought was possible. But we have to bring ourselves to sit down at the table first and pay attention, because you won’t want to miss the miracles that abound at God’s abundant feast.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

July 20, 2006

Mississippi in July

Some fun on a hot day:

You know you are in Mississippi in July when ...
  • The best parking place is determined by shade instead of distance.
  • You learn that a seat belt buckle makes a pretty good branding iron.
  • You discover that in July it only takes two fingers to steer your car.
  • You actually burn your hand opening the car door.
  • You break into a sweat the instant you step outside at 7:30 in the morning.
  • The temperature drops below 95 and you feel a little chilly.
  • Hot water now comes out of both taps.
  • You can make sun tea instantly.
  • The birds have to use potholders to pull worms out of the ground.
  • The trees are whistling for the dogs.
I now realize why Southerners move at a slower pace - it's required by the temperature.

July 17, 2006

Did I witness Fort Sumter?

I attended a presbytery meeting last week and I'm scared that I witnessed Fort Sumter. I'm hurting because I realized that for a group of people division and schism seem to be the only solution and the only way forward. And so they aren't afraid to start a war.

They were well prepared for the battle at presbytery and railroaded their overtures about constitutional crisis and ownership of property straight through. And at the end of the three hour meeting, I couldn't believe how much we could fight with our own sisters (what few there are in this area) and brothers in Christ.

I was reminded that the church is a human and therefore broken institution. Yet I still continue to love her and want to work in her.

July 11, 2006

Things NOT to do as the pastor

Over the past few days, I've heard some interesting stories of area pastors and their mistakes. Thus I've learned that I should NOT:
  • steal cattle ... and invite other congregation members to help me
  • double book the church for weddings
  • do major spring cleaning around the church and throw out church records ... this may cause proper Southern women to go dumpster diving at night to salvage valuable items

July 09, 2006

Dear Paul

Sunday, July 9, 2006
First-Trinity Presbyterian Church (USA)

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

An open letter to Paul, fellow apostle and author of several letters to the churches of God, including the church at Corinth.

From Emily, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God through the Holy Spirit, in conversation with the church of God in Laurel.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you, Paul, because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened in you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now I appeal to you, my dear brother, regarding a portion of one of the letters you sent to the church at Corinth. I know that I have not been in your shoes – founding the church at Corinth and then praying for them daily; writing them as frequently as your travel and work would allow; sending them Timothy to remind them of the true message of Jesus Christ when you were concerned about them; and continuing to be in relationship with these brothers and sisters in Christ at Corinth.

I’ll acknowledge all of that upfront, but let me ask you – what were you thinking when you wrote this stuff about a vision and boasting and weakness?! Is this really how you were planning on convincing people to stick with this whole “following Jesus” thing? Where’s the logic and strategy in your rhetoric? Where’s the appeal for the people? Now maybe you haven’t had any marketing or sales experience, but I’m pretty sure your message is not going to sell very well. Let me point out some things here.

First, do you know how annoying it is to begin a story, to really build it up for your audience, to tell us the story is exceptional and the character of the revelations amazing, and then say “sorry, can’t tell you the details” and “then there were things that can’t be repeated or told in words,” or “I’m sorry I can’t tell you the rest, but you would love the story if I could tell it to you.” I mean, why even bring it up, just to dangle it in front of people and then not be able to finish it.

Plus the details that you do tell us, that you are allowed to share and we are privileged enough to hear, you aren’t even sure about those details. Maybe you should leave out whether or not the experience was in or out of the body. If the experience happened fourteen years ago and it was really that exceptional, wouldn’t you remember the details?

Oh, and one last thing about the story itself – was it really about you? Were you pulling the whole “now hypothetically speaking, I have a situation about a person, let’s call this person ‘Paula,’ and her story is …” or the “I have this friend who had this experience.” So was it you or not? If it was, just tell us. Personal testimony often carries more weight than the testimony of some abstract person. You founded this church and have been writing to these people; you even went to visit them once. Tell them the story is about you. It’ll give them a personal connection and interest in the story.

Second, the whole selling point of your paragraph is pretty ridiculous. Listen to what you wrote: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses … for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (12:9-10). Weak as the new strong – I really hope you weren’t counting on that point convincing people to stick with being a Jesus follower. Weak – the new strong; don’t think that slogan would sell in my context, in today’s world or even in yours.

It’s utter foolishness. Who really wants to be weak? To acknowledge their weaknesses in front of everyone? To list on their job application the things that they aren’t very good at instead of their greatest strengths and assets? I think people would much rather hear about the strong and the mighty. Why not insert one of those such stories? But one of those stories might make people too confident in their own abilities and you are trying to guard against that, right?

Well, now that I think about it, I remember a story of my own experience with a thorn in my flesh. It was three years ago – the summer between my junior and senior year in college. I was a junior high girls camp counselor at Spring Hill Camps in Michigan. It’s the same job that I had held the summer before.

That first summer, I was stretched out of my comfort zone as I ministered to junior high girls at camp. It wasn’t the job I had applied for, but it was the job I received and I learned to love it. I had an amazing experience and was asked back for a second summer. And I went; I arrived at camp for counselor training with much more confidence and excitement than the first year. This year I knew what I was doing. I would be great; it would be a fantastic summer.

And then it happened. My second week of campers, I was given a thorn in my flesh to keep me from becoming too elated. I had seven campers who either didn’t want to be at camp or hated me from day one for an unknown reason. Thoughts and plans of great Bible study discussions and campfire sessions soon went flying out the door. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get them to have a good time or talk to me. Instead I was more concerned with making sure they didn’t run away, which one girl did manage to do one day.

So, it was only the second day, and I was at the end of my rope. I was exhausted. I had no power in me to make it through five more days like that. I learned I couldn’t find any hope in my own abilities or experience. I appealed to the Lord about these girls, that things would turn around, that we could have just one great campfire talk. But that’s not the way the Lord moved.

Instead, the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for this day and for this week. My power is made perfect in weakness. It is in me that you will find your strength and be renewed.” And, in God’s grace and strength I made it through.

So, perhaps you didn’t get it all wrong Paul. I may have been too quick to criticize your work. Maybe there are words of hope in your letter and I just need to slow down enough in my reading to grasp them. I need to remember that the good news of the gospel can sound foolish if I listen with ears that are used to this world; in fact, it can all sound down right ridiculous.

But you don’t deny the world and that ridiculousness. You don’t deny the reality of the insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities that your readers may be facing. And I can’t deny to my sisters and brothers in Christ that there is suffering and pain in the world; that children go to bed hungry every day; that adults work long hours at multiple jobs and ends still don’t meet; that disasters happen and we are left wondering why. Those are the realities of this broken world.

So I guess if you are courageous enough to admit those realities to your readers, it’s smart to not deny your weakness as well, because it’s also a real part of life. We all have weaknesses, even though we don’t often advertise them to one another or even admit them to ourselves at times. But we each have days or even weeks when we don’t know how we will make it one more breath or one more step.

But you don’t dwell on the weaknesses and hardships forever, Paul. You open your readers’ eyes to the reality and truth that we are already reconciled to God in Jesus Christ. And so God is with us. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect, complete in your weakness.” You don’t depict these things as future realities that we will eventually receive or what might happen some of the time with God. You force your readers to see the present reality that God’s grace and power are always there and then you encourage them to live into it.

Oh, God’s grace and power doesn’t always feel like a lot. It’s certainly far from the miraculous that is within God’s capabilities. But it’s enough … it’s adequate … it’s sufficient … it sustains us as we continue to take one step at a time and live with the thorn in our flesh, whatever that may be. God’s sustaining grace is exactly what we need but don’t always realize is there.

If these things were your true intention, I might have to give you more credit Paul. You done good. But I still have one more suggestion for you. If you really want the Corinthians, and us, to embrace our weakness and God’s grace, lift up the ultimate example of power in weakness – Jesus Christ.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, experiencing weakness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). And in the power of that death, when it looked like Jesus was at his weakest and in the hands of the enemy, there the grace and strength of God was present and salvation was made possible.

Paul, continue the good work you do as an apostle for the Lord Jesus Christ. You lead people to the Savior by taking people to the extremes – even in your letters – first talking about the loftiest of experiences and then turning around and talking about utter weakness. In so doing, you tell the story of Jesus Christ, who was truly God in heaven, yet came to earth and died on the cross, so he could reign in power over sin and death and every weakness, accompanying his people through their difficult times, and ultimately redeeming his people even though and because they are weak.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

July 08, 2006

A Statement of Faith

Here it is: the third draft of my statement of faith. I've wrestled with what to write, struggled with my words, and refused to give in to the "mandatory list" of beliefs from my presbytery. This is what I believe; Lord, help my unbelief.

I believe in one triune God
who is mysteriously one-in-three and three-in-one:
three persons uniquely distinguished as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
though not limited to those roles,
yet also one being uniquely united through the relationship of Father, Son, Spirit;
who is sovereign, just, gracious, and pursues humanity to the ends of the earth;
who alone I worship and serve.

I believe in God
who spoke into being all that is seen and unseen and created it good;
who freely and lovingly formed humanity in God’s own image;
who longs to be in covenant relationship with humanity,
but humanity is utterly sinful and all God’s creation is utterly broken;
who could not ignore humanity’s sinfulness,
yet longed for a restored relationship;
who would not abandon God’s own creation,
but unexpectedly broke into it as God-with-us.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
who came down from heaven and entered this world as a baby,
fully human, yet redefining humanity, fully divine, yet redefining divinity;
who hung out with the poor, the outcasts, and the sinners;
who taught in parables, performed miracles, and healed the sick and lame;
who came to bridge the gap between humanity and God;
who through his perfect life, unjust death, and glorious resurrection
atoned for the sins of the world and reconciled the world to God.

I believe in the Holy Spirit
who is everywhere the giver and renewer of life;
who, in Christ, justifies us by God’s grace through faith
and continues to sanctify us;
who gives us courage to pray without ceasing
and intercedes for us when we have no words;
who engages our hearts and minds through the Holy Scriptures,
which are our authority;
who claims us in the waters of baptism as children of God
and nourishes us in the meal of bread and wine as members of the family of God;
who unites us as the one holy catholic apostolic church;
who calls us to participate in God’s mission in the world
with those of every time and place,
by reaching out to the least of these and proclaiming the good news of the gospel;
who gives us strength as we watch and wait for God’s new heaven and new earth.

I believe that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of this triune God.

(unfortunately the poetic structure and indentations have been lost ... ah well)

July 06, 2006

the real reason

"There are things you do because they feel right and they may make no sense and they may make no money and it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other and to eat each other's cooking and say it was good." - Brian Andreas

This may be the real reason I am in Laurel this summer.

It didn't make a whole lot of sense to some people when I announced I was choosing to do my summer internship in a small town in Mississippi, but it felt right to me.

And I have been shown true Southern hospitality and been loved by this congregation. And I have eaten tons of food, including lots of stuff for the first time: crayfish, fried catfish, cajun boiled crab legs, crayfish and cheese grits.

This may have also taught me a real part of being a pastor: to love people and eat their cooking and say it was good.

July 04, 2006

Preparation for Ministry in the PC(USA)

... aka hoop jumping.

Filling out annual consultation forms on top of applying to become a candidate is slowly and painfully destroying me. Help!