Tuesday, June 10, 2014


“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Matthew 11:4-5

“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”  Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

There is a Hasidic tale of the Rabbi of Gur who escaped Nazi Germany and was called to meet with Churchill about his experience.  When Churchill asked him how he thought the Nazis could be stopped, the Rabbi answered, “There are two possible ways, one involving natural means, the other supernatural.  The natural means would be if a million angels with flaming swords descend on Germany and destroy it.  The supernatural would be if a million Englishmen parachuted down on Germany and destroyed it.”*
Last week was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.  That story sometimes comes to mind when I think about WWII.  But it came to mind recently for another reason entirely.  This weekend I went to visit two friends in the hospital recovering from surgery – one the recipient of a life-saving kidney transplant, the other the donor.  So I got to thinking about miracles.
Questions surrounding miracles have perplexed people for a long time.  For many, they are a sign of direct divine intervention.  For others, they are an outdated answer to what science can explain.  But I suspect for many more people miracles are still a mystery that cannot be so easily pinned down.  I don’t know the particulars of Jonah's encounter with that whale, or what made an impression on the Shroud of Turin, or how the small child given no chance of beating cancer is now walking around as an adult. 
But I have been to the hospital twice in the last 18 months to visit two sets of donors and recipients of kidney transplants.  I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I’ve seen miracles happen.  Like the Rabbi probably meant it, something supernatural took place in the hearts and lives of some amazing people. 

I will never understand the intricacies of taking an organ from one person and making it work in another person, but I know the doctors understand it.  It is a wondrous and natural phenomenon that can be scientifically explained. 
But how about those two donors?  Or how about the twenty or so other people who also got tested to see if they could be donors in those two situations?  Ordinary people living ordinary lives, who out of some mysterious combination of love, grace, friendship and courage, defy the natural rhythms of life and the deeply ingrained instinct to keep all their organs inside themselves.  It was without a doubt a “calling,” and they answered.  They endured something heroically hard, and they selflessly gave.  Two answered calls and two recipients with supernatural resilience - and what was near death was brought back to life.  I can think of nothing more fitting to call that than “miracle.” 

Think on it, and maybe you’ll see little miracles around you.  People every day are selflessly giving their lives to each other in big and small ways – cooking a meal, sitting and crying and holding a hand, standing with the oppressed, running into a fire, giving when they see a need, staying up all night with a sick child, doing medical missions, being a foster parent, forgiving a wrong, helping a stranger, picking up the phone, loving the unlovable, being a friend. 
To the one reaching out, defying self-interest, it may not seem so heroic; it’s just what any parent or friend or good person would do.  But you know way deep down, don’t you, that you are answering some mysterious call.  You know the same way you know way deep down when you’ve ignored that mysterious call and missed your chance to help. 

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an answered call and been helped along in a deeply trying time, you’re much more likely to see the miracle in it.  It’s how God works sometimes.  Maybe God does cure disease and despair and deadness of every kind all on his own.  But sometimes he uses donors and caregivers and friends and ordinary everyday people – you know, sometimes he uses miracles. 

"if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle.”

*Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach, pg. 79, and Peter Rollins who also expounds on that story. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Emmaus Fellowship Hall

(Shared at First United Methodist Church, Union Springs, AL, May 4,2014)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:13-16, 28-35

If I think back really hard, I can try to remember the first time I had a meal in our fellowship hall.  I would’ve soon been engaged to Vaughan and here on a weekend visit.  This was certainly during the period of time that Terri Meinhardt would smile so sweetly at me and say, “Hi Ethan!” every time she saw me. Sam or Robin probably gave the sermon, and during the benediction they also did the blessing.  As I made my way through the potluck line that first time, I would’ve thought what I think every time I go through that line still: “what love.”  None of that meal just came together.  Some of it was made the day or night before, and some people got up a couple hours early on Sunday to cook their casseroles.  And each dish, warmed up and taken together, blessed, broken and given amongst this group, makes a holy meal every time. 
This Emmaus Road story from Luke reminds me so much of our fellowship hall – especially, as the story says, how Jesus "had been made known to them in the breaking of bread.”  You see this theme throughout Jesus’ life – take, bless, break, give, the theme of the Eucharist.  We see it first at the feeding of the 5,000.  With just five loaves and two fish, Jesus tells his disciples – "don’t send them away, you give them something to eat."  So he does the Eucharist there for the first time.  He takes the food, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it.  And there’s more than enough to go around. 
And my mind wonders to the early Fall here, to our Stop Hunger Now event in our fellowship hall – taking sacks of rice and beans, blessing them, breaking them, and giving them – here we are, this little community, doing the Eucharist, packing 20,000 meals.  Jesus is made known in a meal to those who will receive the meals, and he’s also made known to those who package them.  Blessings are always a two-way street, especially when we come together in fellowship with each other to do them. 
I then think about Friday afternoons in the Fall with the football players from Bullock County and Conecuh Springs coming together in this fellowship hall, having the love of Jesus and the love of this church made known to them in the Eucharist – the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of a pregame meal, and in the shared fellowship with each other and with the people of our church who come to take part.  Phillip Bland, at some point every Friday, will get the boys’ attention and say, “Why are we here?  Why do we do this?”  And they all know the response, which they speak out – “Because you love us.”  And after talking to them more about God’s love and our love for each other, he goes on to ask how many of them had told their mommas they loved them that week, and by the end of the season, every hand in the room is up.
And then I also think about the kids and the galley disciples on Wednesday nights.  It’s seldom easy, and the holiness of it is not always apparent, but each week in our fellowship hall, we do the Eucharist: we take a meal, bless it, break it, and give it, and the love of God and the love of our church is made known to each and every child who comes. 
And then my mind wonders forward in the gospel story to the last supper, how on the night of Jesus’ greatest trial and suffering, he did the Eucharist – he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it, and told his disciples, in this time of deep pain to do this in remembrance of him. I think back to this fellowship hall and the lunches it has hosted after funerals – the Williamsons, the Austins, the Lazaruses, the McDaniels, the Paulks, the saints of this church and community.  In this time of loss and sadness, the love of Christ and the love of this church is made known in the Eucharist – when we take, bless, break and give that meal.  It’s an outward sign, in remembrance of him, in honor of the departed, and out of love for those in our church family who are grieving. 
Of course, it’s not just this kitchen, but every kitchen represented here (and the kitchens of many who have gone on before) where this love, this Eucharist is prepared.  And in all of human history, lord knows we’ve tried, we really haven’t been able to do better at showing God’s love in a time of pain than going to visit and taking a meal.
And then we come back full circle to the Emmaus road, the risen Christ doing the Eucharist with his followers and them finally realizing it’s Jesus with them.  I think again of the fellowship hall and those fifth Sunday dinners, and those bridal teas, and baby showers, those snack times at vacation bible school and after the children’s Christmas program, those receptions after special music is performed, and all those special meals of hospitality we share with one another and with others to show the love of the risen Jesus by taking, blessing, breaking and giving of a meal. 
I think of how fully alive to the glory of God we are when we do this, how we are using all five senses in the process – touching the food as we prepare it, tasting and smelling it as we eat, seeing each other’s smiles and hearing each other’s joy and hurts when we gather around this table together.  I think of how in this sharing of a meal we are fed, filled, nourished, softened, loved. 
So I think about how it’s been, how it is now, and how I suspect it will continue to be with our little fellowship hall - how we each go out from that place proclaiming just like the two on the road to Emmaus how Jesus has been made known to us here at First United Methodist Church in the breaking of bread.

Praise God for that.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Dust We Go

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;* the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  Matthew 26: 40-41

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“Nathan… Dust you came, dust you go.” 

When anything needed tending to in our little church, Johnny Williamson tended to it.  He wore every hat there was to wear at our church, and he was the consummate good sport about it.  He was a giant of a man in my life and in the life of my church and community. 
Several years ago on Ash Wednesday, the preacher was out, and Johnny naturally volunteered to do the service. 

The formal liturgy for imposing ashes was, “Out of dust you came, and to dust you shall return.”  But as Johnny rubbed my forehead with ash, he said in his distinctly easy way, “Nathan… Dust you came, dust you go.”    
My wondering into Lent every year starts with that memory – dust you came, dust you go.  As someone who has struggled to understand the meaning of this season, I trust that’s probably enough for me to know about it. 

This has been a hard Lent for many people I know.  The tragic deaths of a pastor, husband and father in a church close by and the death of an 8 year old child in my own little community weigh heavy.  I think about them, and then I think about a pastor called by parents to the hospital on Ash Wednesday to administer ashes not only to them, but to their newborn, perfectly healthy child, only hours old.  What courage.   
Two thoughts in tension have been with me lately (though I have no idea who said them):  The first is, “The meaning of life is that it ends,” and the second, “The meaning of life is that it goes on.”  When we think about it, both are true.  Each life comes to an earthly end, and yet there are always those left behind to grieve and learn how to go on. 

Somewhere between these two meanings is another that maybe Lent invites us to – the meaning of life is that it is happening now.  As Ferris Bueller reminds us, “Life moves pretty fast.  If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

Halfway through Lent is a good time to reflect on this.  If you’ve given up or taken on something for Lent, the newness of the task has worn off and now it’s just hard work grinding to the end (if you haven't abandoned it already).  Of course, it’s not just a Lenten vow most of us are grinding through right now – careers, relationships, commitments, church, spirituality, life.    
But take a look outside.  Spring is springing.  Grass is growing, animals are moving (heck, people are moving), the sun is thawing out the grind of winter.  Life is happening.  Maybe spring is also telling us to “Stay awake…The spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Thank God that Jesus chose disciples just like us, grinding their way through life and ministry, half awake and missing the point.  Jesus is in agony, wrestling with soon laying down his life, and his friends keep dozing off on him. 
“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  This is us to, isn’t it?

“I’ll watch you do a flip son, just let me send this one last email…I should really call her and check on her, I’ll do it first thing tomorrow…I ought to…One day I’m going to…I would love to, but I’ve got a million things to do…I'll take off and spend a few days with them as soon as ...Someday, when I don’t have deadlines and stress, I’m going to…”
Zig Ziglar says motivation is like bathing:  sure it works the first time, but you’ve got to do it again and again to keep its effectiveness.  Births and death, love and loss, these force us to reflect on the wonder and frailty of life.  Yet it’s in the mundane existence of the everyday that the big and holy work of living a life is accomplished.  So here’s one more little reminder for today, and a challenge to keep looking for reminders of it tomorrow and on and on:

Life moves pretty fast. 

Stay awake. 

Miracles and heartache are all around you. 

Attend your own life.  

Enjoy the ride. 

Dust you came, dust you go. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014


“I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they will be extinguished when I am. Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

 “Come ride with me.”  That’s how he’d always put it.  It often meant work, but it mostly meant spending time together.  “Come ride with me.  We need to help somebody move a few things.  It won’t take long.”  It was a Saturday morning, and I was a teenage kid not thinking about much. 

The Sunday before I had surely been paying attention, to see if I could understand what was being whispered, to see if certain people came, to hear if there was any more news from the pulpit.  Our church’s minister had just resigned because of an affair.  The church was in shock, hurt, and fuming over the deep breach of trust.  It was probably my first time to feel scandalized.

That Saturday morning my dad drove us to an apartment building I didn’t recognize.  Standing on the balcony of an upstairs apartment was the last person I would have ever thought I’d see: our former minister.  It was so surprising but happened so matter-of-factly that all I could do was follow along.  And pay attention. We got out and shook his hand.  It’s amazing how instantly you can move from scandal to compassion when you’ve got the right teacher.  And then our truck and us in it carried furniture from a storage unit to that apartment for the rest of the morning. 

And then we went home.  We didn’t talk about it, or if we did, I don’t remember.  “That’s just what we do,” was the message either way.  “Come ride with me,” was how a lot of my practical theology lessons started.

My dad would be 66 years old this week, and he is never far from my mind.  When I think about him, I often think about “eternal life.”  And I try to think about all the things that phrase is, its surplus of meaning. 
I think of a beautiful soul that has died back into the God he so faithfully loved.  I think of the life he lived, a life lived so much in the eternal truths of the faith he practiced.  Here was a man of such tender spirit who did what he could while he could to brighten the lives of so many people.  And I think of how living that way, a life eternal, still matters, how that spirit still permeates the space and people around where he lived.  It’s sappy cliché, but it’s true: the measure and reach of a life goes on long after we are gone.  Each life has changed the world for eternity, for better or worse.

I’ve heard life on earth described as a social gathering (a party of sorts), one that started before we got to it.  And the conversations are well underway by the time we arrive.  But we come, and we mingle, meet, and begin to pick up on the conversation.  We gradually start to engage and become fully involved in it for a  good long time, and then it comes our time to retire for the evening, and as we leave, we look back to see the gathering and the conversation still going on. 

Like anyone invited to such a gathering, I have hopes for the evening. 

I hope my conversation partners are gracious listeners.  I often open my mouth before I should; it’s an insecurity response that’s not hard to see. 

I hope I can be quiet and listen.  I get the feeling I’ve happened upon some wise, wonderful and funny people. 

I hope I can ask the right questions to the wallflowers and the overbearing ones.  I sense that a few just need somebody to show some genuine interest.

I hope I can find a circle where I can really be me.  I hope I can find at least one person I can be totally honest with about the hard parts of my life.  It’s going to be entirely too stuffy of an evening if I can’t find a few people to relax around and who really seem to like my weirdness.

I hope I can talk with some people very different from me.  It’ll be a much more relaxed time if I just smile and meet the people who look and think differently rather than occupy my mind with thoughts of “those people over there…”

I hope I remember to thank the host for a wonderful evening every time I see him.  I’m not entirely sure I’ll get a chance to when it’s time to say goodbye. 

I hope I can remember often the people I met when I got there who were so welcoming to me and taught me so much.  I hope I can show the later arrivers the same hospitality. 

I hope that at the end of the night, when I’m in bed asleep and the party is still going, that there’s a story or two to tell about me like the one I get to tell about love and a teenage kid and his dad on a Saturday morning.  Or maybe the people I was talking to will raise a glass and say to each other that their time at the party was a little brighter because I was there.    

I hope I can live into that eternal life.  And I hope each of us can stop, remember, and raise a glass for someone we knew who lived an eternal life around us. 


“Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Changing Lenses

”The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  Matthew 6:22-23

“How you see is what you see.”  Richard Rohr

A few days ago, I found a pair of old glasses in a drawer while looking for a place to put a new flashlight I got for Christmas.  They are still my favorite glasses, the ones without any frames, but my optometrist wouldn’t change the prescription on them, so I had to get new ones.  Feeling nostalgic, I put them on.  It’s amazing the difference a couple of clicks on the prescription wheel can make.  I got dizzy, everything was distorted and blurry, but only for a few minutes.  After that, my eyes adjusted, and I ended up wearing them the rest of the day. 
A new year is as good a time as any to think about the lenses we see the world through. 

We’ve all heard someone described as seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses,” meaning that person is seeing the situation as better than it actually is.  But those Pollyannas, as strange as they are to us, force us to realize that our experience is never objective and that we always have a choice in how we interpret what happens in our lives.  The problem, I think, is that we too often let that choice be made for us.   

Like those old glasses I put on, it doesn’t take long for emotions like aggravation and victimization to move from a heightened emotional state that dizzies me with anger to something I internalize.  They are the lens I adjust to and start seeing my whole life through (and certainly, the lens I start seeing certain people through). 
William James summed up much of much of psychology when he said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”  Everything else in the room you are in right now other than what you are choosing to focus on do not become part of your experience.  They exist, but just not to your experience.  This insight has become the focus of volumes of study on “mindfulness.”  The results are proving that, to a large extent, we can consciously decide what we want to focus on, and choose a more meaningful experience in doing so. 

Jesus is telling us some similar, isn't he?  “If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.”  As Rohr says, how we see ends up determining what we see.  And Jesus tells us this matters deeply for our spiritual health.  
We’ve all witnessed it, haven’t we:  two poor women – one bitter and one with joy in her heart; two rich men – one with quiet humility and one an entitled jerk; the dying man – who, if he’s been awake even a part of his life, has “thank you” in his heart even when his prognosis is bleak.  Life is going to come; it’s up to us to mind our lamps, as Jesus would say, and put on the right lenses to make sure we see the joy and meaning in it.   

So here’s to picking up those old, cracked, gratitude-and-grace-filled lenses and looking out on life and the people in it this new year.  And here's to our faith that in doing so, we'll all be filled with light.