Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent 2013

For some weeks Advent has been lurking just below the liturgical horizon.  Unseen; yet, coming with certainty.  It always does this time of the year and as it comes, it brings with it this bag of things that simply do not seem to fit together.  It is the season of square pegs and round holes.  It is the season of Jesus who is coming in the clouds and Jesus who came in the cradle of Bethlehem.  It is the season of John the Baptist hollering, "Repent!" and angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest"  The problem is that few want to do Advent.  Most want to get on to Christmas.  And when the season of Advent simply will not go away, the impatient ones do everything which they can do to push it aside to make room for Christmas things.
It goes without saying that Advent is a season of tension for the church.  The church of this current age is no different than the people who sit in its pews or the preachers who preach from its pulpits.  Like its people, the church has difficulty with waiting and anticipation.  The church of our day is too much about the now.  If people who come to the church are not fed and entertained with what they want, they might leave and not come back so the church acquiesces to the secular clamor for the smackings of Christmas even at the expense of the powerful liturgy and scripture of Advent. 
It is a shame for so much gets lost in shuffling Advent out and Christmas in.  One of the things that Advent does so well is to prepare the church and its believing community for the celebration of the Christ-event in Bethlehem.  The Advent call to wait with anticipation and to prepare with repentance truly puts the heart in a position to receive the blessings of the "God with us" One.   While some divine blessings are poured out upon us simply because God chooses to do so, it is also true that a heart readied is a heart more likely to experience with an overwhelming fullness the joy of true spiritual blessings.  As the heart is readied in Advent, so is it blessed in Christmas.      

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Road Ahead

When Wendell Berry wrote "Jayber Crow,"  he described Jayber as a man with more memory than future.  Retirement has a way of bringing a person to such a place.  The road going to looking back is much longer than the road to looking ahead.  But, being older does not just bring one to the down side of the hill.  Some say there is some wisdom which comes with living longer.  I remember one wise older man who told me when I was still in my middle year, "When you get to be my age and you bend over to tie your shoes, you always check to see if there is anything else which needs doing while you're down there."  I remember his wisdom often now that the middle years are part of my memory.
But, as the years race on by, I have also discovered a deeper awareness of gratitude.  The days seem to be filled with things which have been taken for granted, but are now reasons for thanksgiving.  Simple things like putting two feet on the floor and walking, or sitting down to a table filled with more food than I need, or spending time with people you love are just a few of things which come to mind on this day of thanksgiving.  Many of us know that being thankful is not the spontaneous response we make to all the things going on around us.  The Apostle Paul seemed to have learned how to be thankful in any and all circumstances, but most of us stop a bit short of such a mark.
Yet, it is one of those things worthy of our best effort.  It is one of those things for which we should even pray.  If we are not quite at the point of being able to live with gratitude in all our circumstances, maybe a prayerful plea asking God to bless us with such a gift is a good starting point for change.  Those who live without gratitude end up getting robbed of everything except worry and dissatisfaction with life.  Those who face life with a grateful heart find and experience a peace which brings forth a deep flowing sense of contentment that is not troubled by the whatevers of life.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sycamore Tree Leaves

Here I am a shade past retirement age playing out on the edge of the hayfield with a three year old grandson.  We played a game I have never played, not even in my own childhood.  As the sycamore leaves were blown away from their lofty home in the tree to their resting place on the ground, we tried to catch them before they completed their circling windy journey.  My young grandson thought it was a terrific game.  He ran and laughed and collapsed to the ground with joy as he captured these elusive falling leaves so big he could hide his face behind them.  He might forget that moment, but not me.  It was a moment of wonder and joy and laughter for which I give thanks to the Creator of the boy and the sycamore tree.
As I run into these moments of wonder, I find myself confessing that I have surely missed too many of them as I raced through working years trying to get ahead.  I have accumulated a lot of stuff, but I have learned that most of it borders on being unnecessary.  I wish that I had accumulated more sycamore tree moments in my storehouse of memories.  I am learning that such memories rate as being more precious than the possessions.  Maybe that is why old people have grandchildren.  They help us remember and experience once again some of the important stuff of life.

Certainly, the Scripture does not call us to forsake work and pursue play.  Actually, it speaks strong words about the value of work and caring for family.  It tells us, too, to live as those who are making the most of the time.  (Ephesians 5:16)  Making the most of the time is not just about the hours spent in work.  It also directs us to investing hours in being in the presence of God, making sure there is time for worship, and even being open to the joy and wonder of a three year old chasing falling sycamore leaves.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Tattoo Man

When he handed me my change from across the counter, dark bold ink from his left forearm shouted out, "John 3:16."   It got my attention.  Then I saw the cross etched in ink just above it.  Without really searching for it, I also saw on his other arm another Biblical reference.  The right arm read, "Psalms 23."   I wondered what was under his shirt.  The Beatitudes?  I Corinthians 13?    Maybe a picture of Jesus?  Had the convenience store not been so  busy and I had not been in a hurry to make a dentist appointment, I would have spent some time talking to the Tattoo Man.  As it was, I left with my questions and thinking about "Parker's Back."

"Parker's Back"  is a short story by Flannery O'Connor.  I used her stories so much in preaching while in Vidalia that a couple gave me a volume collection of her stories.   The Tattoo Man encounter caused me to dig Flannery out of the box of stored books and read about Parker once again.  O.E. Parker had tattoos over every part of his body except for the middle of his back.  The story begins with him courting a self-righteous sin sniffing woman whom he should not have married and ends with her chasing him out of the house with a broom.  Between those two moments, he runs his tractor into a single tree in the middle of the field.  He is thrown from the tractor and looks up to see the tree ablaze and his shoes off his feet and on the ground.  It is a life changing religious experience for Parker who then walks barefoot to town to get a tattoo of Christ on the middle of his back.  While Obadiah Elihue Parker is sure this tattoo will please his wife, Sarah Ruth, instead she screams, "Idolatry!" beats the picture of Jesus until it is battered and bleeding, and drives her husband out of the house.

Some folks just don't fit inside our narrow believer stereotypes.  As I saw The Tattoo Man, I realized this about myself.  Parker and Sarah Ruth reminded me as well.  Just as not everyone comes to faith in Christ the same way, not everyone expresses and lives out that faith in the same way.  Having or not having a John 3:16 tattoo does not make me, or someone else, more or less a believer.  Like the Word says, it is always a matter of the heart. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

For All the Saints

Some songs find their way to the forefront only once a year.  On Easter it is "Christ the Lord is Risen Today."  On Christmas it is "O Come, All Ye Faithful."  Today is All Saints Sunday in many churches and who can imagine such a worship service without the singing of "For All the Saints?"   It is one of those powerful, stirring, soul touching  pieces of music that simply turns an ordinary moment into something extraordinary.  There is nothing like a great crowd of earthly witnesses to Jesus Christ gathered to sing this great hymn of faith which cracks open the door of heaven giving us a glimpse of the eternal. 
It is amazing that the lyrics to the hymn are almost 150 years old.  An Anglican Bishop named William W. How wrote them in 1864 as a processional hymn.  In 1906 Ralph Vaughan Williams put the words to a new tune and since then "For All the Saints" has been sung by his music.  It is hardly likely that anything you and I might write will be remembered 150 years after we write it, but this particular piece of music was given life by the Holy Spirit and has been a blessing to the church for all that time.  Amazing.

For the first time in years I missed singing it with the people of resurrection faith on this day.  I was a guest preacher on a special event Sunday at a local church and the theme of the day carried us in another direction.  But, I sang it anyway.  I sang it in my spirit early this morning in the quietness of our home.  I have sung it loudly as I moved midst the outdoor places of this day.  And whenever I sang it, I remembered by name some of those saints who are now a part of that great cloud of heavenly witnesses.