Thursday, May 18, 2017

Presence

As we sit on the couch buried in our phones after work looking at our social media accounts, I ask my husband a serious question. Alex always thinks before he responds to my questions, so when I was met with silence I was patient and didn't respond. A half hour (and several scrolls through Facebook and a few rounds of Solitaire) later, I remembered that I had asked a question and never had an answer [or maybe he did answer, and I missed it because I was reading about someone's Pinterest fail]. So I asked, "Hey did you hear me ask a question?" Alex responded, "What? No."

We are sitting a cushion away on the couch but are we present?



*****

I love having our parents come to visit us. I love to share a cup of coffee and blueberry muffins in the morning with my mom. I love to show Alex's parents our favorite dining in Charlotte. I love to show our Grandmas around the Peach Stand and walk with our friends on the Greenway. But I'm also an anxious host.



My mother never leaves a dish in the sink and wipes down strangers' counters. She always empties the coffee grinds into the trash and does a load of towels in the laundry every day. Meanwhile, I will let my sink fill up until I can't fit anything else in, and I wipe the counters down on Fridays. I always forget the coffee grinds until the next morning, and my hubby is the laundry guru on Saturdays and Sundays. We have wonderful silver pitchers and plates in our home, which I know need to be polished, and we have half finished furniture and decorative projects everywhere. When we have guests, I find myself nervously over-cleaning and making sure that everything is prim and pressed and perfect for their arrival and stay with us. My house is clean, but did I hear what my guest just told me? My silver is polished but am I present?

*****

A friend calls me while I'm watching the Penguin game in a crisis about something very difficult in her life. A youth texts me during dinner about something they are struggling with. The store clerk at Target tells me to have a great day, and I stumble along with my bags out the door. Do I have the patience and inner peace to really be present in these moments? Or am I so busy inside my own head I can't be bothered to notice and be in the space of today?

While I soaked up some Sabbath time over the last week of stay-cation, I reflected often on the idea of being fully present, of noticing the world around me, and being non-anxiously aware of the world and my inner self. This appears to be one of the ways God is speaking to and teaching me on my journey right now...


****

Jesus: the example and the teacher


In the world, we often hear of being present as a trendy, hipster, Buddhist notion. You download the Headspace app and practice yoga and go unplugged for a weekend. It doesn't necessarily sound, at least to me, like a fully Jesus-inspired, uniquely Christian concept. What I've been reflecting on is something kind of similar, but wholly different. When I think of being present, I think of two stories of Jesus that show how he taught and lived out the principle of being present in life today.

The Teacher: Mary and Martha

In Luke 10.38-42, we find Jesus at the home of two women. It is here that Jesus teaches us the lesson of presence. Mary and Martha could not be more opposite of one another, nor could they bicker more and be more bitter toward one another. Martha, who might be my kindred spirit, runs around the house like a chicken with her head cut off making sure she is hospitable. She is cleaning, cooking, setting the table, observing all the right societal customs and traditions. No silver would be unpolished, no counter unwiped, and certainly no coffee grounds would be left in her kitchen, if she were around today. Martha exemplifies this perfect, fastidious host, and in spite of the rest of the story, she has my greatest admiration and respect. I feel a touch of exhilaration just thinking about her experience of dinner preparations.

Mary, on the other hand, plops down in front of Jesus to hear him speak, leaving her sister with the weight of all the chores. Sometimes I imagine her like my brother, who loves to sit on the recliner in my parents' house in his robe until the very last second on Christmas Day. It comes to the point where Martha speaks up:

Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!

I think we can all agree this is a reasonable request, given the circumstances of the meal and the household and the society at the time. But Jesus' response is surprising and, well, present:

You are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

Um, seriously Jesus? In Pittsburgh, we would call Mary a "jagoff" (for not helpin' to red up the haaase n'at). What can this lazy bum, this annoying little sister, this freeloader, what can she possibly teach us?!?!?!



Let's look at Mary. Mary recognizes that it's not every day that the Messiah enters your house. She realizes that she may only have a couple of hours to be with Jesus: to hear his teachings first hand, to experience his compassionate eyes and soft voice, to watch him heal and save, to shake his hand and wash his feet, to be present. As Jesus captivates her gaze, the preparation of dinner (and the polishing of the silver, and the wiping of the counters, and the dumping of the coffee grinds) seems inane, unimportant, and irrelevant in comparison to the experience of Jesus in her midst. A perfectly clean home and a perfectly cooked meal and perfectly polished sliver, these things are temporary; the experience of Jesus in your midst is the kind of incarnational experience that lasts a lifetime, an eternity.

Through the example of Mary, Jesus teaches us the importance of presence in our daily lives, that if we are slaves to the things of society and of the world, we will miss our opportunity to do what is right and to be present at the feet of Jesus.

The Life: The Hemorrhaging woman

It's one thing to teach; it's another thing to live the example. Of course, we would expect nothing less from Jesus, but it is telling that the gospel of Luke contains both a teaching of Jesus on the matter of presence (Mary and Martha) and an action of Jesus that demonstrates his presence with other people.

In Luke 8, a man named Jairus comes to Jesus because his daughter is dying. Jesus begins walking to the man's home and the crowds follow. I always imagine Jesus walking at a very slow pace with a smirk on his face because he's proving that God has a plan for this day. [Also the Jesus of my imagination is a little sassy...I hope that's true.]

There are people pressing in all around him and the crowd is reminiscent of an unrelenting, sweaty mosh-pit of over-excited Harry Stiles fans. I can't imagine this was a very fun journey for Jesus.


If it were me, I'd be like, let's just get through this as quickly as possible. Let's go another way to avoid the crowds. Let's use clothes-lining and violence if we have to. But not Jesus. Not only is Jesus intimately surrounded by humans and incidental touch and crowds, but he manages to be so present that he notices and identifies the touch of one person. Luke 8.42-44 tells us that a woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years came to Jesus and touched his cloak for his healing power. Jesus could have ignored this and just said, cool, another anonymous soul healed! He could have concentrated on the family of Jairus, the task at hand, and getting to Jairus' daughter before she died. Jesus was busy. Instead, Jesus turns to find out who touched him, approaches the woman face to face, calls her "daughter," and proclaims that her faith has healed her. 

Jesus shows us that he is never too busy, too hurried, too distracted, or too important to notice us and meet us where we are.

*****

So...presence...today...


It's May. May always seems to whip past me in a blur of graduation parties, cook-outs, field days, and Stanley Cup playoff games. It's sort of the perfect time to watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off and take the message to heart:



I think in the chaos of early summer and the crowds of our lives in May, Jesus is calling us to be present. Jesus is telling us to stop being Martha, to put down the spring cleaning and the dinner plans and the parties and the concerts and to be present in our homes and in our families. Jesus is showing us how to be present in the crowd, to hear the cries of our children and the struggles of our neighbors, to listen with compassion to the hurts of our friends and the life stories of our families.

Because it is in these acts of presence and moments of intimacy, it is there, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that we find ourselves face-to-face with Jesus.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Holy Week: St. Iggy, Suffering, and Honesty

My Homeboy: St. Iggy


Since January, I have found this connection with St. Ignatius of Loyola. In fact, the more I learn about him, the more I subconsciously refer to him as Iggy {Iggy Smalls, Notorius I-G-G, Fo Shizzle Ig Nizzle...}, my homeboy, my pal, my bro. You may have noticed this as I've been quoting him a lot in worship.


Iggy has this great knack of picking out perfect words to express my spiritual thoughts and musings. As someone who is verbose to a fault and who is inundated with emotional complexity, I greatly appreciate when people can put into words what is swirling and bubbling in my soul. 

More than that, Iggy has been the inspiration for my Lenten season. Each day (or as often as I was able), I recited the Suscipe to cultivate humility, generosity, and discipleship.


As Lent is coming to a close this Holy Week, I am extremely grateful for this prayer in my Lenten practice. Yesterday, my husband and I watched 2 hours of History Channel documentaries about Jesus (while loudly critiquing some so-called history, spouting our Church History knowledge with accentuated flourish, and exchanging our best facial expressions of dubiousness and disgust). The documentaries were obsessed with getting a historical look at Jesus and his followers, at proving the divine DNA strands of Jesus, and at creating a digital representation of Jesus physical appearance. There is this manic obsession about getting to the proven facts and exact images of Holy Week, and it is not only reflected in this dude who looks like Henry Winkler with a flock-of-seagulls hair-do.

{I mean, who wouldn't want to watch hours and hours of commentary from this dude? His real name is Ray Downing...}

No, it's not just this guy; we all work really hard to get this Easter thing right, perfect, and accurate. Aside from History Channel documentaries, we have The Passion  from several years ago that famously tried to portray in movie form the most accurate portrayal of the four gospels' version of Jesus death. We have numerous TV programs (including The Bible and Jesus) to edify us, and we have upcoming movies and books like The Case for Christ and The Shack to shed wisdom and knowledge onto our Easter week. And we pastors spend a lot of time exchanging ideas, making sure the paraments and Easter flowers and crosses and palms are all in order and perfectly executed through the week. We count the number of times we've retold the Easter story, and strive to tell it in a new and enticing way each year.

Even if it's not about the theology, Easter does sort of signify some sort of perfection. Growing up, I had this hand-made Easter dress and an Easter hat for church on Easter morning. Sometimes we would get new shoes or sweaters. We would spend hours dying Easter Eggs and preparing for Easter supper. Perhaps you spend time cultivating the perfect Spring Break or going through spring cleaning to spruce up your house. Perhaps you make lovely every inch of your garden or decorate with wreathes and bows and figures.

Easter has this classic association with perfection, with brightness, and with new life. We feel pressure to make sure those things are felt and felt fully.

In actuality, so much of Holy Week and Easter reflect imperfection, suffering, and honesty. The Suscipe has been a wonderful tool for me throughout Lent to check my ego and my expectations at the door and to seek to give over my heart and my will to God. What I love about Iggy Smalls is that he recognized that Easter isn't one and done, well we got it now, moving on; he recognizes that I need to be reminded of my imperfection daily, that I need to rely on the grace and love of God which are more than enough.

Suffering

The thing I love most about Lent and about Holy Week is that is raw and painful. When we think of holidays, in the church or otherwise, it is rarely a solemn depressing occasion. Imagine if we spent all of Independence Day fasting and mourning the loss of soldiers, or Christmas feeling sad for Mary without her midwives or aid. It isn't often that we get to sit in the suffering parts of the story. And yet in Holy Week, we need the betrayal of Maundy Thursday and the vicious pain of Good Friday to bring sweetness to Easter morning. Without the suffering of the week, we cannot fully comprehend the extent of joy and excitement that Easter morning brings. Without bloody, gruesome, gritty death, we cannot hope to experience resurrection.

I really love this because my life is not always charming or happy. At times, I have gone through loss, grief, depression, anxiety, or very challenging circumstances, and well-meaning folks have advised me to look on the bright side or count my blessings. While certainly those are nice sentiments, I'm not sure if God always wants us to feel happy, joyful, and content. Several years ago, one of my cousins had a baby who died during labor. I heard many phrases like, "Heaven has another angel!" and "God has a plan!" and later, "Had that not happened, we might not have the two beautiful girls she has now!" and while those might be nice or even true, they don't eliminate the grief and suffering of losing Devon. And in fact, it seems wrong and unfair to place a time limit on the grief and mourning one can experience at the untimely loss of this precious child. Holy Week reminds me that God honors our grief and our pain; God participates in our suffering and heartache.


On Maundy Thursday, we will read Scripture that reminds us that Jesus prayed and was grieved to the point of tears and sweating droplets of blood as he prepared for the impending crucifixion (Luke 22.39-46). We will be reminded that Jesus said, "Not my will but yours be done" in prayer to the Father. The gospel of John will help us to relive moments when Jesus washes the feet that will flee from him in his darkest hour and breaks bread with the man who will betray him for a small fee. In Scripture, we will find that Jesus didn't feel all warm and fuzzy about the crucifixion, nor did he face death with a super-human joyfulness.

On Good Friday, we will hear Jesus cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" a phrase from the Psalms that reverberates in our hearts, a phrase we confess we have wondered in our darkest time of need. We will encounter a Jesus who cries out, who thirsts, who is beaten and shamed, who is in genuine suffering and pain. We will imagine God the Father, who covers the earth with darkness, whose heart is broken with loss, even with the foreknowledge that Easter is coming.


So...honesty...


So, we come upon Holy Week with unbridled honesty. With this sense that life is both painful and wonderful, challenging and rewarding, we approach Holy Week with a raw and vulnerable emotion etched on our hearts. We experience Jesus, exposed and unfettered, in the stories that lead up to Easter, and we are both excited and confused, attracted and repulsed, comforted and discomforted by this Jesus that we meet. Holy Week is when Jesus shows us the truth of who He is; it is also the week when we come before Jesus with the truth of who we are.

We are...doubters, betrayers, sinners; egocentric yet self-loathing beings; people who are barely treading water, yet who are addicted to stress, productivity, and anxiety; people who didn't really feel like giving up a Thursday evening for church or a half hour for prayer; people who would rather curl up in comfort and security rather than face the ugliness, brutality, and bitterness of the Holy Week story.

Whether we are lounging on some beach somewhere, yanking weeds from our garden, exploring a fabulous city, camping in the mountains, or traveling to see family, I challenge us (myself included) to spend some time in the raw, honest suffering of Holy Week this week. I challenge us not to turn away from Jesus' vulnerable position on the cross, and to expose to God our own honest hurts, sufferings, and doubts. I challenge us to see Holy Week as an invitation to an intimacy only God can confirm.

If you're in town, we have the Maundy Thursday service at 7:00 on Thursday in the Sanctuary with communion, and a time of prayer and reflection on Good Friday from 12:00-1:00 pm (you can come on your lunch hour; self-guided prayer stations!) in the Columbarium. If you're not in town, stay tuned for a blog by me on the two services on Friday, and check out the daily scripture readings in the lectionary: Daily Lectionary Readings

Whatever you do, I pray that you know the truth of St. Iggy's words:


Take and receive, oh Lord,
My liberty, my memory, my understanding,  and my whole will.
All that I have and all that I am you have given to me.
I surrender it all to you, to be disposed of according to your will.
Grant that I may have only your love and your grace,
For with these I am rich enough.
Amen.


Because Nadia Bolz-Weber is awesome: Not Sure About Holy Week

Monday, April 3, 2017

Hope: Sports, Resurrection, and Allergies

Yesterday, Dan gave a great sermon about Ezekiel 37, the dry bones becoming flesh, the power of hope in the Holy Spirit. If you missed it, you can watch it here:


This topic and Scripture are very timely for April 3, and I have been reflecting on hope for many weeks now. In many ways, April feels like a time of hope, and in many ways it does not.

Sports


In our home, we organize our lives around sporting events. We often call the month of February and the first two weeks of March "The Sports Desert" because it's the most depressing time of the year. When we lived in Pittsburgh, you're pretty much guaranteed that 6 weeks will have 1 maybe 2 days of full sunlight, and there will more than likely be one more big snow to cap off the season. The Super Bowl ends the weekly football gatherings for the year. Professional Hockey and Basketball are in that middle part of the marathon season when it almost gets a little boring. College basketball is happening but doesn't really get exciting until March. And of course, Major League Baseball hasn't begun yet. 


The drought begins to let up in the beginning of March when the pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, when the trade deadline hits for the NHL, and the college basketball teams (both men and women) start to heat up. There is something electric that begins inside me the first time the Pittsburgh Pirates update their Facebook page and as ESPN starts to spend some time on Bracketology. That electricity builds through March Madness, the opening series of baseball season, Stanley Cup playoffs, the NFL Draft, all the way to midsummer with the Home Run Derby (arguably the best all-star sports moment of the year. And by then it's just a few more weeks until we have college football and the NFL starting back up, and we Yinzers (from Pittsburgh) begin to calculate the possibilities of a weekend when the Pirates, the Penguins, the Steelers, and the Pitt Panthers all play at home. 



There's something more too it of course. Today, being opening day for the Pirates, the possibilities are endless and there are 160 games left to win. On the first day of March Madness, there's the possibility of reliving the one time ever when I picked the champion. Every team has a chance, and every year there's a surprise. There is this bubble of hope that begins to grow in the spring for sports; we believe in the underdog and commit ourselves afresh to the team that we believe will not let us down. There's a new passion and excitement in our daily routine: we look forward to discussing our brackets, congratulating our Gamecock fan friends, and mercilessly debating our rival pals. Watching folks running around in the sunshine inspires us to get out into the beautiful weather and enjoy it...perhaps in a lawn chair, but outside nonetheless.

Spring sports bring me hope, energy, and excitement.

Jesus

Of course, we also participate in Lent, the Passion, and the celebration of Easter Sunday. In Lent, we commit ourselves to the hope that tomorrow we will be greater servants than we were today. We believe that the more we confess our sin and our faith, the more we will grow in our discipleship of Jesus. And we patiently wait for that beautiful morning when Jesus leaps from the grave in victory.

There is lots of hope to be found in the beautiful Easter lilies, brightly colored Easter bonnets, Spring Break vacations, and the adorable decorations of eggs, chicks, and bunnies that surround us. While the secular version of Easter may have nothing to do with Jesus, the colors and images do give us that same spirit of hope and excitement for the season.



Dry Bones and Congestion

Sometimes it's easy to see all of these bright colors, exciting events, and joyful celebrations as an easy time of hope for our lives. But other times it doesn't feel that way. For me, the beginning of spring means extra allergy medications, a tablespoon of local honey every morning, and lathering Vicks all over my neck and face before bed. It means lilies, hyacinths, and pine straw, which make my nose itch, my eyes water, and my sinuses swell. It means an almost certain sinus infection in late April, and multiple trips to the car wash per week to get that pollen drop off my car and away from my nostrils.

Spring means another holiday without a loved one who has died. It means there are soccer games to get to or varsity teams to not make. It means the inevitable aggravation of taxes and the exhaustion of lawn work, social events, musicals, sports, picnics, and graduations. It means sometimes feeling guilty for not getting more done; it means one less hour of sleep for Daylight savings.

Sometimes, Spring still feels like dry bones, like the idea of this field of dry bones taking on flesh seems utterly impossible. Sometimes, I think the sunshine will make me feel a little better, but instead it feels sharp, piercing, and glaring. Sometimes, Spring feels more like the desperation of Good Friday than the celebration of Easter Sunday. We are caught in the grim reality of death found in Ash Wednesday, and the confession of guilt and self-discipline associated with Lent. 

Sometimes the process of hope isn't something that can be fixed in a day, or even 3 days, or even perhaps the whole season. Hope isn't always an instantaneous gratification, but a slow march toward summer. It becomes celebrating the little victories (including getting out of bed in the morning!) and forgiving ourselves for the challenges.



Confessions

I must confess that this Spring for me has been a season of dry bones. I've spent time caring for my mother after surgery and my husband during a particularly terrible batch of strep throat. The Pasta Night and Pine Straw fundraisers have been full of unexpected challenges and additional burdens I wasn't expecting, leaving me one step behind. I feel unprepared almost every day; I leave my extremely messy office with a feeling of being unfinished every day. As those around me have been suffering from loss, stress, illness, and injury, I have felt at times that my well is too dry to give good comfort and care to others.

As one person said to me, sometimes I feel so behind I think I'm in first.


It's the first day of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball season, and it's also Day 1 of Spring Cleaning for Pastor Lindsay. I am beginning the slow arduous process of physically going through, cleaning, and organizing the piles of *stuff* that overtaken my office and my home. Every inch will be a battleground that will require me to fight for it, but I will fight for every inch. (If you think that sounds melodramatic, you should take a gander at the pig sty in my office, and your mind will be changed). Through this physical process, I am working to emotionally and spiritually prepare myself for the next months of ministry in this church. Summer is coming, and with it transformative, beautiful experiences emerge with youth at Montreat, mission trips, and summer after-church lunches. I am gleaning from the stuff and the memories both the wonderful ways the Holy Spirit has shown up here in this place and the ways that we need to change to get back onto the right path.


I invite each of you to join me on this spiritual journey of spring cleaning: what can we get rid of in order to make space for what really matters? How can we emerge from the clutter with greater spiritual energy for the days to come?

Monday, February 27, 2017

My bad, just kidding...

As many of you know, my husband and I are big movie buffs. We see at least one movie every weekend, and we read and write and talk about the Oscar buzz for months before the Academy Awards air on TV. (For some reason the Academy still doesn't consult us when selecting the winners or nominees, but we're working on it). As you can imagine, we went all out for the Oscars last night: a red-carpet of napkins across the table, finally using some beautiful gold embellished china for our snacks, popcorn in crystal glasses, and of course, a homemade ice cream sundae bar.

We stayed up way past our bedtime to watch all the awards being given out. Unlike apparently the rest of the world, I absolutely despised La La Land, finding it flashy, superficial, cynical, and somewhat sexist. So when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, after a confused exchange during which I assumed they had trouble reading the tiny font because I sure would, announced that the winner of the most coveted award of Best Picture was La La Land, I threw my ballot on the floor and stomped to the dining room to begin eating Thin Mints.



As you probably know, this wasn't the end of the story. A gracious producer of La La Land was handed the correct envelope which indicated that in fact Moonlight had won for Best Picture. He displayed that goodness of humanity as he walked to the microphone and cleared the situation.





Um.. Oops. My bad. Just kidding.




I mean, seriously, how do you recover from that? You just gave the biggest award of the night to a group of people who thought their wildest dreams had come true, and then passed a card to them revealing it was all a sick joke...ahem, mistake...and they were forced to hand over their dream-come-true award to another group of folks.

Not only that, but movies mean more than just good acting and neat shots. We care about movies because they dig deeply into our emotions, they portray things on the screen we can't always express in our everyday life. It's hard for me to imagine two more diametrically opposed films from 2016 than La La Land and Moonlight. La La Land is about the American dream from the perspective of "if you work hard enough, you can achieve your dreams." It features two privileged white folks who have a zillion opportunities for success thrown their way. It displays the glitz and the glamour of accomplishment and success, of sugar-sweet romance and dreams coming true. Moonlight, on the other hand, is a story about a black boy growing up in Miami, son of a drug addict mom, neglected, skinny, runty, and coming to a new understanding of his sexual orientation (he's gay). He doesn't rise above the poverty stricken area in a conventional way; he becomes a drug pusher himself in his adult life and makes a fine living doing so. He never seems to find perfect happiness or contentment in a romantic relationship; rather the film is about the struggle and the moments of hope that blip on the radar. For the Academy to choose a movie about struggle and challenge, a movie about minorities and stigma, over a movie about the white American dream and romance makes an enormous statement about our society. Moonlight was an important movie of 2016 because it showed a story that hasn't yet been told, a story that many of us are unaware exists. It transports us to someone else's shoes and allows us to see a part of the world we don't understand and wouldn't necessarily voluntarily seek. When the Academy followed through to take the Oscar away from La La Land and give it to Moonlight, it made a statement that the Academy is looking for more movies about real life, movies about the gritty, real, day-to-day challenges of real people, rather than movies about fantasy and dreams.

My bad...Did I do that???


I think about this #OscarsFail and I just have this palpable compassion for those involved in making this error. I think of the anger and frustration on the part of the La La Land team who was swept up to the stage to be yanked off again. I think of the humiliation of the presenters, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway who aren't often in the spotlight these days, who will have weeks of social media torture. I think of the team behind Moonlight who had a belated and subdued celebration of their victory and who did not have sufficient time to say thank you. I even think of Steve Harvey, who had to relive his humiliation of reading the wrong Miss Universe winner (the internet immediately speculated a conspiracy theory about him being involved). In our society, we do not handle mistakes well. We hold them against individuals and companies for years or decades. We rarely take responsibility for our mistakes publicly, and when we do, we offer an explanation or an excuse.

Immediately amidst the craziness, Warren Beatty began to grab for the microphone in order to explain and excuse himself. He told the story that he had the wrong envelope that had the Lead Actress winner rather than Best Picture and that he and Faye were confused as to what had occurred. He provided an explanation, an excuse.

We are a culture that simultaneously expects perfection and is burdened by errors; a society that buries mistakes and assigns mountains of blame. When we personally make mistakes, it is hard for us to acknowledge them without shifting the blame elsewhere. Sometimes, myself included, we are so embarrassed about a mistake that it consumes us with anxiety, regret, and fear. I think of one of my personal heroes as a child: Steve Urkel on Family Matters:


Steve was hopelessly uncoordinated and socially awkward. He threw bowling balls out the window and knocked over dentistry equipment and blew a fuse in the living room and would always say, with a sheepish look on his face, "Did I do thaaaat?!?!"

Part of what made this so amusing was the fact that it was a shameless and odd thing to say. If you accidentally threw Carl Winslow's bowling ball out the window, the options for action might include: 1. profuse apology and self-shaming; 2. running with intense speed to get away; 3. crying; 4. coming up with some other excuse. We rarely ask someone, "Did I do that?" or "Was that my fault?" because we really don't want the answer to be "Yes, Steve, you did do that!" because then we are truly at fault. Then we've done something wrong and we are at the mercy of someone else to give us forgiveness.

Last night, the Academy chose the Steve Urkel route: they didn't rip up the card and pretend La La Land won and move on. They owned up to it: Yes, yes, we did do that, but we care enough about who we are as an organization and the movie that we wanted to reward that we will own up to our mistakes.

So...Lent...

Wednesday, of course, is Ash Wednesday, which begins the liturgical season of Lent. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and Lent is the responsive 40 days of fasting and penitence that follow, days in which we confess both that we are sinful and that Christ is our salvation. Growing up surrounded by Roman Catholics, I had always taken this to mean that we give up those tempting candy bars and four-letter-words we all love. Sometimes, Lent has been a chance to start something new, to take on a new spiritual discipline, to focus on the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.

I think the Oscars last night show us that we are hungry for Lent to mean something more than tulips and colored eggs. We are challenged in Lent to own up to our failures and shortcomings, to the ways that we are not perfect and that we are not God. We are challenged in Lent to hand over the dream trophy to someone else. We are challenged to return to the truth about who we are and whose we are. We are challenged to celebrate the Moonlight moments of real, gritty, uncomfortable life, instead of just the La La Land moments of glitz and glamour. 


As Lent comes upon us this Wednesday, I invite each of you to walk with me on this spiritual journey of letting go of the things that aren't fully us, even when they appear glamorous and opulent. The things that keep us from a real, substantial relationship with Jesus Christ. The places where we might long to build up our own ego at the expense of Jesus in our lives. On this journey, we will embrace fully the gritty, earthy, truth of life, of who we are, and of the earthy, humble messiah we worship. Let us walk with the human Jesus on the agonizing walk of love through Lent, from ashes to cross, and let us learn together more about who we are, and who Jesus is.


Some Lent Resources




Monday, February 20, 2017

When you pray to love your enemies, be prepared...

Yesterday, the lectionary was kind enough to provide us with the challenging text of Jesus commanding us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you. You can see the sermon here:


I began praying over this text at least a month ago. I can't think of a more terrifying scripture from which to preach at this time. My social media accounts are saturated with the current political issues of the day, often from news sources that mock the character and credibility of our president, that speculate about possible policies, that turn careless phrases into prejudicial slurs. By no means is this a statement about politics: I'm not sure when the last time I had a conversation about politics and social/cultural issues in our country that did not take a turn into a personal attack from one side to the other. In fact, I confess that sometimes I find myself hearing the political opinion of a person in a way that alters my personal opinion of that person.

"If that person supports that political candidate, they obviously hate women...or they don't care about my moral values...or they are oblivious to racism in our culture...or, wait, why do I even associate with them at all?"

As I began to pray over this text, I found myself inundated with opportunities to pray for my "enemies." Simply, I began to pray for those who annoyed me on any given day. On Facebook and Twitter, it wasn't hard to find people for whom I was suddenly compelled to pray. But God began to sneak this into a lot of areas of my life. I began to pray for the show-off woman next to me at yoga.


I began to pray for the people we Pittsburghers call "jag-offs" who fail to use the turn signals in their car.


I began to pray for completely unhelpful grocery store clerks.




And the more I began to pray for these simple things, the more opportunities to pray for more challenging situations presented themselves.


Friends wanted to talk some trash about what some other friends were wearing or who was responsible for so and so's relationship failure. I prayed for friends, both who wanted to talk smack and those whose lives were out of whack.

***

I watched a documentary about white supremacists who commit hate crimes in our country, and I was overwhelmed with outrage: how on earth do people justify that kind of baseless hatred in their lives? How can they live from day to day so miserable? So I prayed for them, and I prayed for those who are hurt by their hurtful thoughts and actions.

***

The list continues, but some of these stories are too personal to post. The more I began to gain an awareness of those who filled me with anger or frustration, the more I began to lift them over to God, the more I realized how many people this included. The more I realized that the very things that anger me about others are the same things that anger me about myself. The more I began to love, and care and consider my own self.

********


Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19.18




I began my sermon with the story of Michael Donald, a young black man in Mobile, AL who was murdered by members of the Klan in 1981. His mama, Beulah Mae Donald, won a civil suit against the Klan that effectively bankrupted and liquidated the official Klan at that time. I have read countless articles this week and watched a documentary that accounts for her great faithfulness and strength. I am so incredibly inspired by Miss Beulah Mae. Most of us, thankfully, will not have to live through the horrible nightmare that Miss Beulah Mae lived through, but she gives us an example to strive for.

When someone does or says something particularly hurtful, when my enemy slaps my cheek or sues me, the love I am commanded to hold in my heart does not exempt that person from consequences. Loving my enemies doesn't mean that they get away with abuse and violence, but it does mean that their hurtful actions and thoughts have less power over me.

Far from being an expert at loving enemies, the preparation for this sermon has been a spiritual journey for me, and I hope that you'll join me in this challenging walk alongside Jesus.

For the full story of Michael Donald and Beulah Mae:

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Pasta Night: It's more than spaghetti and money

Every year, our high school youth put on the Pasta Night as a fundraiser to raise money for both the High School Mission Trip and Montreat Youth Conference. This money is absolutely crucial for our summer programming here at Unity.

Dollar Bills, y'all

Here are a few ways that money is needed for our summer trips:

High School Mission Trip

Budget:
$2,000

Transportation:

To transport our youth to and from the trips, we need to rent vehicles, usually vehicles with a capacity to hold 8-12 kids. To rent a van for one week costs around $1,000. To fuel that van for one week, costs around $400. 

Food

To feed kids, we are able to do it relatively inexpensively, aiming for about $8 per day per kid ($64 per kid for the week). This is not including foods for food allergies, meals out, or any emergency food situations.

Lodging

To stay at a church or facility, the charge is usually around $20 per kid per night ($140 per kid per week).

Materials

While some thing we ask youth to bring with them, we often find ourselves purchasing hammers and nails, safety goggles, water bottles, gloves, handkerchiefs, etc.

Chaperones

While we charge each youth $250 to attend the Mission Trip, we are so grateful of chaperones giving of their valuable time, that we do not charge them for their week. This means we have to account for transportation, food, lodging, and materials for chaperones as well.

If we take, for example, 15 youth and 5 chaperones (a likely estimate), the cost per student would be $525 per person (a total cost of $7,880). Pasta Night helps us to bring that total cost down.

Montreat Youth Conference

Budget:
$3,000

Transportation:

To transport youth to and from, we need to either rent vehicles or ask adults to drive their vehicles, in which case we would need to reimburse for gas and mileage. We also need to ensure that enough seats exist in our vehicles throughout the week for all of our youth in case of an emergency and for our trip down the mountain. This costs between $1,400 and $2,800.

Camp Fees

The registration fee for Montreat is $325 per person; the housing and meals cost $300 per person. This means that Montreat actually charges us $625 per person.

Chaperones:

We do have a chaperone budget of $1400. As our numbers increase for this event, we need more and more chaperones to help out. Our lowest possible cost for chaperones is $2,150.



If we take for example 25 youth and 5 chaperones (a reasonable estimate), the total cost would be $18, 425, cost per student: $561. Again, Pasta Night helps us to bring that total cost down.

***

So yeah, we won't sugar coat it, we need money to make these ministries possible. But is that the only reason we do Pasta Night? By no means...

Showing up

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another...
Hebrews 10.24-25

I'm not sure anyone who has spent any length of time in our congregation would deny that a crucial part of the DNA of our congregation is meeting together and enjoying one another's company. Just a few weeks ago, as we ordained Deacons and Elders, the greeting and fellowship that followed delayed worship for several minutes. This, my friends, is a gift and a call from God. When we gather for Congregational Breakfasts, when we meet for Sunday Night Live dinners, when we attend the Lunch Bunch or the Men's Breakfast, or the Mother-Daughter-Sister-Friend Luncheon (or many other things), we participate in the love of God through the communion of the Holy Spirit. We are a part of God's family; we rejoice in God's presence in our community.

Our high school youth want to provide an opportunity for this joy and fellowship through Pasta Night. Pasta Night is for all of us, young and old, men and women, members and non-members, all. of. us. to come together and enjoy each other and enjoy God.

Servers

Of course, we always have the youth serve our guests by bringing them food and beverages, by showing them to their tables, by preparing the meal, but it is more than that. This church has stretched itself in a variety of ways to provide for the upbringing of its teenagers. We are not unaware of the many dollars donated, hours sacrificed, prayers offered, rooms cleaned, and work done so that we can meet on Sundays and bond as a youth group. We are extremely grateful for your love, and we want to remind you that Youth Ministry is not a ministry that hides from the congregation who loves it so dearly; rather Youth Ministry stands boldly and humbly as members of the congregation who love this church and want to know more its people and its history. This is a chance for us to give back to you.

Showing Off

As a highly competitive person, the youth pastor wouldn't be satisfied without bragging on her teenagers. It is far too often that we see teenagers on TV as addicts, criminals, lewd, angry, rebellious, and selfish. I am sure that any adult who help with youth group can attest for you that our teenagers exemplify excellent moral character, unfailing kindness, and loving selflessness. Pasta Night is a chance for us to show off how absolutely wonderful our youth are here at Unity Presbyterian Church. It's a chance for you to be blessed by getting to know them in a new and perhaps unexpected way.




So...is it too late?


The deadline has passed for Pasta Night, but we do have about 50 spots left for reservations. Pasta Night is Saturday, February 11 (THIS SATURDAY), seatings at 5:00 and 6:30 pm or TO-GO; menu options: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Chicken Alfredo, and Pasta Primavera. The cost is $12 for adults/youth and $6 for kids. Please email Lindsay before Thursday at 5:00 to make your reservation (lwhite@unityfortmill.org).

Remember! There will be a Silent Auction and fantastic entertainment along with scrumptious Italian food. Don't miss it!

Monday, January 30, 2017

This is the song that never ends...

Two weeks ago, 20+ students from our youth group spent two hours and considerable elbow grease dusting the both the new and old sanctuaries of our church.






We went over each surface at least twice. We stuck the corners of our rags into every crack and crevice. We worked hard. At the end of our time together, David (one of our sextons) came and thanked us for our work telling us we had done a great job. Before I could even reply, I heard a chorus of students behind me say, "Thank YOU David for all the hard work that you do so that we can have our programs."

You see, two people are in charge of the cleaning and care of our entire property, with all of its buildings and light bulbs and bathrooms and lawn work and dust and carpets and trash....and on and on and on. Our youth reflected about how many lightbulbs would need to be changed and how many surfaces collect dust each day. They reflected on all the things that need to happen in order for them to have youth group each week, all the trash that is taken out from their snacks, all the waste that is cleaned up behind them -- a lot of work, a lot of behind the scenes, thankless work. Spending two hours hard scrubbing might not be the most enjoyable afternoon, but it enabled our youth to reflect on the many things that are necessary for the church to function as it does, especially a church our size.

Happily Ever After...Ish?

Often, this is where we end out testimony. I am perhaps the most guilty of this: I like to tell you all the successes and the blessings and the joys of youth ministry in our congregation. I like you to know that your youth are learning and making a difference in their community. Even in times that aren't as great, I like to spin it around to sound good or talk about what we've learned or how we are going to do better in the future or frankly, I just leave out some of the mess. Everyone doesn't need to know all the sordid details of youth ministry.

We really like to tell stories of faith and mission that end with shiny pews and smiling sextons. But discipleship is not a fairy tale that ends with perfection and happily ever after.

On Wednesday of last week, a crew came into the new sanctuary to climb a considerable height to change some of those light bulbs. (As a side note, I should have sat and watched, as the sheer cavernous quality of our sanctuary is mind-blowing to me.) As they worked, a sprinkle of debris turned into a blizzard of dust particles cascading in earnest onto the freshly polished chairs, pews, and and wood surfaces below. Many observers came to me and expressed their dismay about the dust:

Oh no, the work the youth did was completely negated.

Oh dear, the youth will feel so bad.

Even after all that help, now the sextons will still have to do the work of dusting once again.

When I first heard these statements, I confess it was much the same feeling I have each week when I put on my freshly cleaned white Saturday sweatshirt, last week's coffee stain carefully and diligently removed, only to immediately spill my first cup of coffee down my front.


Total frustration. Overwhelming exasperation. Admit it: you know the feeling I'm talking about. When you've just cleaned the kitchen sink and someone puts in a dirty plate caked with dried food. When you've just cleaned the litter box and your cat chooses that moment for his morning constitution. When you've just cleaned and organized your desk and a pile of papers comes into your inbox. 

Sometimes it's like the chores of life never end; we just cycle back through them over and over again. Sometimes we put all of our effort into something that goes unrewarded and unnoticed. Sometimes no matter how hard we work, it's like we can't get ahead. Sometimes, if we are really honest with ourselves, we wonder why we even try, if our efforts really made a difference, if there was a point to any of this.

The total monotony of discipleship

The reality is that discipleship can often be like dusting our sanctuary: by the time you finish, the other side has already gotten dusty again. Whether it was workers changing light bulbs or just simply time, the dust returns and must be scrubbed away. We can avoid it, sure, but in a few weeks, as we pull out our hymnals, feeling the grit of their dirtiness and sneezing as the dust assaults our noses, we know it simply can't be avoided any longer.

When I think of the monotony of discipleship, I think about the Israelites in the desert. After weeks of wandering and eating nothing but manna, the Israelites cry out, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing but this manna to look at!" (Numbers 11.4-6).

We long for the cucumbers and the fish, the melons and the leeks, the onions and the garlic, the wild, flavorful, vibrant pieces of discipleship. We long to be doing exciting and adventurous things, things that make a big difference, things that make us feel good and like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We signed up for this Christian journey for the excitement of the Promised Land and the hipster Jesus bracelets. We didn't sign up for manna...day in and day out...manna...bland, bland manna.

God responds that humankind does not live on bread alone but on the word of the Lord. We do not do this whole Christianity thing for the glory, and the warm fuzzy feelings and the total ecstasy we feel. We do this whole Christianity thing because we are following God, because we are committed to God's will and God's journey, because we want to give the glory and honor, praise and majesty to God. That means a lot of discipleship is eating boring manna. A lot of discipleship is endless dusting of the sanctuary and shredding documents and sitting in meetings and cleaning up the kitchen after we're done and stuff that's not sexy or glamorous but contributes to the real experience of worshiping Jesus. 


Just keep swimming...

So today, I want to encourage us to do a couple of things:

1. Let's celebrate the monotony as well as the excitement. When we tell stories of discipleship, let's tell about dusting as well as about worship at Montreat; let's tell of digging post holes as well as the beach trip; let's tell of service as well as games. Let's not complain that the manna is getting bland and boring; rather let us give thanks that we have manna at all.

2. Let's look not for entertainment but for Jesus, not for fulfillment but for Jesus, not for self-satisfaction but for Jesus. For Jesus.