LATEST PODCAST. Preachers are like manure. When you spread us out, we can do a lot of good. But when you pile us up all together it can be almost unbearable. On a preachers tour to Israel I found out why.
Wobbling On the High Wire
Holy Week has always been special for me as a Christian and pastor. Frankly, in the church year it always meant more to me than Christmas, though I adore Christmas for the deep cultural sense of family, baby Jesus and joy.
Holy Week is not the same tone. It is juxtaposed with an equally perilous spiritual history, Passover, when the Hebrew people were delivered by God from slavery and oppression, but not without great anxiety and fear. For Christians, it is a somber week that strips away, day after day, one human pretension of pride after another until all that is left is Jesus, alone in prayer while his closest companions slump wearily into sleep nearby. I don’t fault them—I identify with them. They are most like me. They are overwrought, afraid, wary, unsure of themselves.
The week ends in death and tragedy, the annihilation of every hope they had entertained. They were enveloped by a tidal wave of despair washing three years of growing excitement away with the words, “It is finished.” But it is ever so real to human experience. Not all of life, of course, but there are moments when everything is dashed to pieces and you wobble on the high wire. Most Christian kitschy art and movies rush to the resurrection, much like our tendency at a funeral to skip the empty space in our souls and offer glib denial and quick tours of heaven. There is little real drama, because you already know everyone will dance around and be excited shortly.
So that is my special week. But it is personal. Fifty years ago, liturgically (it was a week later than this year), I sat in the choir loft on Sunday night at Crestview Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio during a communion service. That evening we observed it in complete silence, an odd prelude to an important reality for me in years to come, and in that stillness, I had an experience of such forceful clarity that altered my life. I went before the church the next Sunday to announce that I believed God had called me into ministry.
Every year, when I walk this week with Jesus, I revisit that strange moment. I have agonized through the years to keep peeling it back to understand it better. I have, like the disciples, slumbered too much and been thickheaded about what is going on at important moments. You cannot do this work without a sense of genuine calling. And you cannot do this work faithfully without a real sense of self-questioning along the way. It is a window through which I have looked out at everything all these years.
Now, in retirement for a month, I find myself there again, asking, “What is my calling now?” It feels as new and uncertain as age sixteen again, a reminder to me that life is never “set.” There is a simple call for us who are Christians, “Follow me,” and a vast web of reflection that asks, “What does that mean? For me? For now? For this time?” And I am grateful that a mysterious Benevolence seems to dwell among us, not seeming to give up on us, and offering something extraordinary around the next corner, even when it is utterly unmarked and full of uncertainty.
The Invitation to Serve
Sermon preached on Sunday, March 29, 2020 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. You can view the recorded version here.
NRS Luke 9: 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. 46 An argument arose among them as to which one of them was the greatest. 47 But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side, 48 and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”
This is the final message in my series on “Better Reasons to Believe” and it is this: “because we are invited to serve.” That sounds strange, I admit. “The chance to sacrifice what I want so someone else can have it” doesn’t top most people’s lists of what matters the most.
The poor lieutenant governor of Texas this past week, in a moment of bravery, said, “We grandparents need to risk sacrificing our lives for the economic futures of our grandchildren, even if we die.” The firestorm was predictable. Whatever his intentions, a lot of people said, “After you, sir.”
But how do we sacrifice in this moment of global pandemic? And will that be enough? It’s a real question. But not a new one.
This Bible story happened in the aftermath of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when
Peter acknowledged that Jesus is the Messiah, and then followed the Transfiguration, when three of the disciples went with Jesus to the top of the mountain and saw a vision of Jesus radiant with the glory of God and a mysterious voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved son”
After this astounding spiritual experience, though, they went back down the mountain and the next day everything started to go wrong. First, the disciples, giddy with their calling to go forth try to help, try to help a poor child who suffered from convulsions and the father came to Jesus, saying in essence, “Your disciples tried, but they couldn’t help.” Continue reading The Invitation to Serve
The Grief Among Us
My daughter is an executive coach and a counselor and sent me an article this week in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. It is well worth reading because it connects to something around the edges of this pandemic that we bypass in the adrenaline rush to survive and find answers. Meanwhile, fear and panic, the threats of economic ruin and the very real terror of possibly passing a disease on unwittingly to others has weighed on us all.
Business owners who were riding a wave of prosperity a short time ago now sit at a social distance, wondering how long they can hold on to see things going again. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers live under the constant strain of a new “abnormal.” The public at large is being asked not to touch, to hug, to embrace their newborns and grandchildren and one another. Rationally, we know we’ll get through this particular iteration, but something deep and irreversible has come one us. I think of my own grandchildren, wrenched away from classmates and the love of a teacher and suddenly, inexplicably, sent of spring break without end.
Berinato interviewed David Kessler, a colleague of the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who created the Stages of Grief framework for understanding what people go through as they’re dying. She and others extrapolated the five stages—denial, anger, depression Continue reading The Grief Among Us
Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker
Those of us who are pastors consider ourselves called into ministry, but sometimes you realize what a wonderful privilege it is to do it. You meet remarkable people, and I count Iva Jewel Tucker among them. Yesterday we had her funeral. I was her pastor for many years, and she was the light of Christ among us. Not in an ethereal, hyper spiritualized piety, but in an honest, human, incarnation of the gospel. Funny, always sharp in her observations and humor. And yet when she filled in with our office once as a temp while we were hiring, she came to work with a serious face on every day. I saw an entirely other side to her—no nonsense. That’s how she was with anything to do with words or faith.
Yet as a part of this church, she attracted everyone to her—children loved her, and she adored them. If you were privileged to be one of her 23,000 closest Facebook friends, she loved your pictures and talked about what was going on in your life. She was interested in everything.
Her obituary listed a life that tires the reader to think about. By the time she died at age 93, she listed the following activities (I’ve summarized):
She graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) where she studied journalism and spent much of her life as a writer, editor, and artist working for the Baptist Sunday School Board and on the staff of the national Woman’s Missionary Union, where she was editor of Girls’ Auxiliary (Girls in Action) magazines and materials. She was an editorial assistant and later Director of the Editorial Department for The Alabama Baptist, the state Baptist newspaper. Continue reading Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker