December 2, 2020

Dream a Little Dream

We are reflecting on dreams this Advent season in worship.   

Why?  Because we need a break from pandemics, politics, and all the posturing thereunto.  Even "dreams" seem tame after this remarkable 2020 year.  But also because the traditional readings for Advent this time around include Psalm 126:

"When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream."

I love that.  Ever felt the rush of imagination and its laughter when you learn you have more time?  Ever pass through a near-miss and feel 10 years younger, crystal-clear about what really matters?  Ever laid awake at night and imagined with fierce-new-energy just what good thing could come to pass with some holy combination of Effort and Grace?   Psalm 126 knows the feeling.  

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the peoples, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

These are not the middle-of-the-night dreams full of bizarre combinations and inverted plots: like dreaming you keep showing up tardy for a class you've not attended in decades, and your grandparents are there, and you are only wearing sweatpants, and you have a pet cheetah in tow.  Weird, those dreams.  It is as though, freed from the chore of seeing us through daily life, at night our brains and hearts have a rummage sale and, well ... everything must go.  This gets mixed with that, plus a little of those and a lot of these ... and before you know it, you've dreamed one heck of a dream. 

Not those dreams.  For those, you might see your therapist.  

Psalm 126, I'm quite sure, is about wide-awake dreams.  Daylight dreams.  Son-bathed dreams.  The dreams you dream in the sunlight as you look down the road still before you and you cannot help but imagine what might yet be.  Holy dreams.  God-dreams.  Dreams in which the Spirit of God teaches us to look beyond the limits of our dimly-lit sight and imagine what this resurrecting, apocalyptic, born-in-a-manger God might still yet do.  This is the stuff of Resurrection: fresh energy for life in the here-and-now after the near-miss of a life without God.  That God made us.  That God saves us.  That God speaks through our daytime dreams.   

So I say Advent is for dreamers.  God-dreamers.  Gospel-dreamers.  Before we get to gather sweetly again around the familiar crèche, the season of Advent says:  Stop!  Wait.  Sweetness is coming, yes.  But first, let me disturb your sleepy religious imagination with the wild possibility that the dead-now-alive, child-now-Lord will in fact advent (appear) again.  "Come, Lord Jesus," the church says every Advent.  And if that coming be so, then all things are possible and nothing God-birth is merely a dream.  

Advent:  Be like those who dream!  Perhaps with all the masking and the distancing and the quarantining these months, we need a little shock in the spirit right about now.  Holy dreams.  Advent dreams.  Dreams (and their Biblical warrants) to remind us — and this is the good news, Saints — that there is still more to life than what we have seen in the embers of this flamed-out 2020.  

Come dream a little dream with me these December Sundays.

September 1, 2020

September marks two years as your Pastor, Northminster.  Two years!  

Since I can only speak for myself, I will gladly insert a modifying adjective and dub them Two Happy Years.  Two is hardly a long enough list to celebrate Northminster's blessings, so to celebrate these double years I leaned on the tutelage of the Drs. Emory & Genny Whitaker, who labored long to teach this mathematical neophyte the necessary formula for conversion.  Alas, such calculus is much too complicated to explain here!  But it turns out that 2 years = 24 months.  Phew.  Who knew?  

Twenty-four:  Now there's a number I can work with to convey what it is I have come to love about the Wonderful Wheat (not chaff!) Who Worship Wonderfully on Wimbish Way.  Ready?  Here we go.  In no particular order. 

#24  I love our stained glass windows in our sanctuary walls.  I love the interesting story of how they came to Macon, but I especially love the way, on clear days, the morning sunlight streams through the left-side panes and spills all over the congregation like we were really Holy Spirit Pentecostals.  Beautiful.

#23  When we worship in the sanctuary (remember that?), I love that it takes 5 minutes to Pass the Peace in the middle of our service.  The aisles fill up like halftime at a Georgia football game, when everyone stampedes for concessions and bathrooms.  Handshaking and hugging and spirited greetings that could go on and on and on if we let it:  What a blessed problem.  It shall return!  

#22  Homemade cheese straws.  God I love being back in the South.

#21  I love the fact that one of our elders can announce that we want to raise $3000 to support a staff member we care about, only to have $6000 come in within days.   And when the call goes out to send cards to another staff person we love, hospitalized, he winds up with a stack too big for one hand.  Those moments tell me everything worth knowing about a congregation's heart. 

#20  I love that our Organist (a fellow Hawkins, no less!) not only has the musical skills necessary to coax each note right off the page of the hymnal, bringing them all to life with such color and texture ... but also that she actually believes, as many used to, that music in worship is prayer more than performance, an offering more than an ornament.  Wonderful talent cradled in a living faith: That's a combination in a Music Director no congregation should take for granted.  I love that you don't.   

#19  Dessert auctions.   (Ahem ... Yes ... Of course ... Money raised for our youth to go Montreat.  Yes yes ... wonderful. Thank for that.)  But did I mention:  Dessert auctions.

#18  I love that you are the kind of church that stuck with missionaries in Bangladesh for 30 years.  Loving them, paying them, praying for them, writing to them, welcoming them to Macon again and again.  I love that you put your mission money where your mission mouth was.  So much mission is flash-in-the-pan.  Thanks for going the distance with your friends.  I'm excited to see who will be our next partner overseas.

#17  I love our sanctuary.  The first time I walked in, during a visit with your Pastor Nominating Committee, the room took my breath away.   I was caught off guard, not because it is a Notre Dame Cathedral or a Divine Downtown Dinosaur, but because there is so much room to breath and light to behold.  The brightness, the tallness, the spaciousness and simple dignity of it all: It is neither ornamental nor pedestrian, not gaudy but also not everyday.  It is clearly a room built to house the people of God, doing what they do best:  bathing in sacraments and feasting on scripture and singing their prayer.   I love it.  Also, there's plenty of room at the pulpit for my flailing arm movements.  A plus!

#16  I love that 15 minutes after worship is over, there is still a group of persons standing around chewing the fat.  I have visited too many congregations where the fellowship is bone-dry.  Not fun.  Seems to me it is harder for followers of Jesus to "love thy neighbor" when they don't even really like the person at the other end of the pew.   Hearing friends love on one another, one week at a time?  Fun.  Does a pastor's heart good.  Think about all those neighbors out there who know not that gift, on Sunday or any day.

#15  Trumpets.  Trombones.  Saxophone.  Flute.  Handbells.  Violin.  I love that so many among us bring their talents to help us worship and pray well.  I like to imagine all those notes, like incense, wafting up into the peak of our ceiling, and on up to a grateful God.  Thanks to all of you who bring your fragrant offerings on such a regular basis.  We are better for your music.  God loves it, too. 

#14  I love that at Northminster there is no wall of Pastor Pictures ... which is really a way of saying how much I love the fact that we have a wall of People Pictures, members and friends of this flock.  I love what I do and have no need to deprecate the importance of pastoral ministry, but it is my experience that we Protestants map too much of our congregations' history around the tenure of our pastors.  Preachers come and preachers go; each one of us has our season.  Better, I think, as children of the Reformation, to celebrate the "Priesthood of All Believers."  Several dozen little smiling directory photos hanging neatly on a wall near the main entrance of a building devoted to the "shelter and nurture of the people of God" says to me, and hopefully to our guests:  "Here we are.  We are not perfect.  But we are Christ's body.  Real.  Not fake.  In the flesh; not Slick and Stock.  We are we.  We are church.  Welcome."

#13  I like that our Sexton sometimes sits in on Bible studies; contributes updates on the saints during Prayer Meetings; and will help you unload your canned donations from your car on a Sunday morning, always with a smile.   He also knows your name and will ask about your grandchildren.  If a church gets lucky every now and then, they wind up with partners in ministry who also happen to be employees. 

#12  Not that there is any such competition, but if there was: I would put our Northminster teenagers up against those of any church of any time and any stripe and any place.  We have in this flock right now some of the kindest, funniest, glad-to-help, smartest, lowest drama, most all-around-talented kids I have ever known.  They rock.  I love being their pastor.  I miss them!  Stupid COVID.

#11  I love that three-quarters of the congregation stands up when the occasional call comes for ordained elders to rise.  Some may see it as a negative, that perhaps the sanctity of ordination has been diluted in the concoction of such liberality.  But knowing you now, I rather see such a majority as a positive.  Ever been in a church -- or any organization, really -- where only a handful of persons always call the shots, whether they are in charge or not?  Not fun.  I love that as far back as the beginning, Rev. Hasty wired into the DNA of Northminster an ethic of shared leadership, involvement, and open decision-making.  No record is ever perfect, I know; but the trajectory has been clear.  At Northminster, persons take their turn in leadership and then they take a break and make room for others.   We already have a Lord in our teacher Jesus; we don't need any other little lords hanging around too long in meetings.  That is the Presbyterian way.  Thanks for making it your way, too. 

#10  I like that our building doesn't smell like 1978.   I'm not kidding.  In my presbytery work days, I would often step into the door of Presbyterian churches and be confronted with the sights (and smells) of a church trapped in the past, welded to the "good old days."  Maybe there was once good air in the room, but the mission ever since has been to make the church a museum.  But not at 565 Wimbish.  Okay, maybe our long cinder block hallways can sometimes feel a little bit like a public school building of yore, but thanks for not worshipping the bygone years.   I like that many of you may know that our better days may be behind us (numerically speaking) but that there is no reason why our best days may not still lie ahead (missionally speaking).  Thanks for not being chained to your past, even while I am grateful that you know from where you've come.

#9  I love that when we dream up a fresh way to connect with our actual neighborhood here on Wimbish -- for example, last October -- our folks step up with such enthusiasm: youth decorate their family cars, adults pass out pounds of candy, Boyd dresses up like Dracula, and Virginia a witch.  "Is that YOU, Mrs. Cowsert?" asked a little girl half her height.  Why yes it is!  I love that no one seems to mind that all those kids trample over all that green grass.  For what else is Jesus' front lawn for if not for them?

#8  No one in the Greater Middle Georgia Region of Ecclesiastical Entities makes better Protestant Party Punch than the Lovely Liquid Ladies of Northminster Presbyterian Church.   That stuff is an elixir for the soul.  I vote that we not wait for funerals to mix up another batch.  Pour me another!

#7  I love that so many of you know my daughter's name, which is really to say: I love that so many of you know so many of our young adult's names.  Thanks for being the kind of congregation that pokes your head in the door on Sunday morning and asks a kid how her week at school went down.  For her, and for many, that kind of community makes all the difference in the relevance of a Jesus-faith.  Thanks for including kids in the church we are today, not trying to clone them for the church we once were, after we are gone.

#6  I have never served a congregation with so many card sharks.  Thanks for not making a winning knowledge of Bridge a stipulation for my annual Terms of Call.  I'd be out on the street!   But I do love how so many of you make so much Community out of your card groups and gatherings.  

#5  I love that we have a church secretary whose manifold gifts are so well-rounded, the session thought it appropriate and helpful to change her title to "Ministry Assistant" ... "secretary" being too limiting a term for such a blessed combination of people and technical and practical gifts.  Indeed she does: assist us all in our ministry in and through this congregation.  And every week, without fail, she helps me find the stapler, again.  Thanks be to God. 

#4  Thanks for hanging plenty of white boards on the wall so I can do my crazy Dry Erase Marker Bible Graffiti.   I say a Bible study hasn't really happened if it doesn't look like some thugs came through and spray-painted chaos all over the board.  I love to teach scripture and theology; it is the labor I most missed during five years of presbytery work.  And I love that so many of you love to learn, to engage, to listen to one another and to scripture.  Join me this fall as we try some online learning together.  Heck, we might even get a camera focussed on a white board or two!  Or three.  Four.  I need at least four.  

#3  Have I mentioned the Key Lime Pie from the dessert auction?   You people are not helping my A1C.  

#2  Thank you for the wonderful Pastor Study space at the church.  I love it.  You don't have to wait until life returns to "normal" to stop by and sit a spell.  Bring a mask and let's talk life, faith, your grandchildren, blessings, burdens, Macon weather, train travel, or moderate Reformed theology in the vein of Karl Barth.  You pick!  Shoot me a text and we'll "gather together to ask the Lord's blessing."

#1  I love how so many of you in your retirement years look upon that season as a time for more ministry in the community rather than only a time for more creature comforts, more "me" time.   I would love to know a total weekly count of community volunteer hours from Northminster members.  It would be a big number.  God be praised.  During my interview two years ago, a member of the PNC apologized for needing to run an errand on our way to the next gathering.  When that errand turned out to be picking up fresh bread to drop off at a downtown homeless ministry, I knew I had found my next church. 

And found it I have.  Happy two years, Northminster.  God willing, I will get to walk with you in this Presbyterian pilgrimage for many more.  You. Are. Loved.  Cheese straws and all.   RWH

July 17, 2020

Golden Rules

Although the "Golden Rule" sounds to me like a friend's advice not to eat at a certain Chinese Restaurant, in truth the Rule is probably Jesus' best known teaching from the four gospels in your New Testament.  "Do to others as you would have them do to you."  

I confess I like this more nuanced interpretation of the Greek from Donald Hagner, a scholar on the gospel of Matthew:  "Therefore everything you would like others to do to you, you yourselves do to them."  That version brings out a sense of going first, of stepping up, leaning in to relationships first instead of always leaning out and waiting for others to take a chance.  Any time a teacher looks at the group you are in and uses a reflexive pronoun, pay attention.  "You yourselves!"

In other words, if you want love, then love.  If you want respect, then respect.  If you want healing from a past wrong, then get busy following Jesus and liberally work his healing balm into the wounds of the world around you.  I hear this subtext of the Golden Rule as Jesus saying this disciples, "If you want to follow me, then love others first and you will learn to let go of the need for them to love you back as a second."  Perhaps the fruit of Jesus-Golden-Rule living is, perhaps, not the sacrifice of letting go of things we want for ourselves ... but the freedom not to need them so much in the first place.  

July 1, 2020

Pearls of Great Price

Paradoxically, I believe, the more Divine an encounter, the less able you are to talk about it.  The degree to which one finds it difficult to describe with any comprehensiveness a spiritual moment — much less to explain it or defend its veracity — that inertia in reporting it is often the very measure of its holiness. 

Several conversations of late have me thinking again about remarkable divine encounters.  

The small ones that cross our paths any given day, yes; but also the occasional, unprecedented, even once-in-a-lifetime disruptions that so alter our experience of living that we are left without enough words to make any sense of it to those around us.  "Go and tell what you've seen and heard," Jesus tells his disciples.  But that reporting of the remarkable is often the riskiest part.  One is reluctant to share what can so easily be misunderstood; yet one also comes to realize that one cannot keep quiet about never going back to the way things were.  

The pricked conscience.  The course-altering summons.  The voice in the ear or across the room.  The timely but illusive stranger.  The inexplicable peace right in the middle of calamity.   When your breath has been taken away, spiritually speaking, you'll likely later find it hard to make words in your windpipe that anyone can really understand.  They will try to comprehend, because they love you.  But they will also softly suggest a dozen other explanations for the round peg of your beatific vision in this world of endless square holes. 

So be it.  If you are the steward of such a moment, simply choose to carry it forward in your life and — for God's sake (truly) — don't overthink it.  Trust it first, verify it later.  In fact, the verification will only come as you step out into the unknown, knowing only what you now know in your bones.  Our educated brains are hard-wired to analyze and analyze until a moment is dismantled and you've talked yourself out of just about everything, even your own existence.  

"Don't cast your pearls before swine," Jesus teaches us.  That seems harsh, perhaps, when talking about others.  It is not so much that he is calling all the persons in your life pigs; rather, it is his exaggerating reminder that often the custom necklace of a divine visitation simply doesn't fit as well around someone else's neck. Not everyone has the ears to hear what you yourself would not have heard before you heard it.  Maybe the moment was just for you; probably it was just what you needed, when you needed it.  It is a pearl of great price.  It is very likely irredeemable for the currency of widespread understanding.  Carry it forward in your life the way of mother carries a child, the way a boy clutches a coin.  Honor it, protect it, cherish it.  It will go with you for the balance of your days. 

Finally, do not fret if, unlike John Wesley, your heart has never been "strangely warmed."  God's bumps go bump in the nights of those who need them.  Nothing out of the ordinary may just mean that no bumps are yet needed in your "long obedience in the same direction."  Carry on.  Follow Jesus.  Love the Lord.  Love those around you.  Those are often all the encounters any of us need, until we need something more.  

Besides, there is a real sense that, as his Church, we are, all of us, stewards of the strangest of stories, that biggest of bumps, that glow of history.  Jesus himself is the strange and sacred story we steward as his society.  We likely know we are on the right path when, more often not, we get deferential but strange looks from our neighbors.  After all, he has a funny way of casting his singing swine before the pearls of hungry hearts.  

April 8, 2020

Shelter in Place





















You are
missed

Alone for now
Quiet these weeks
The sunlight still beams
through my morning panes
purples and blues and browns and greens
but your faces are not here now
to beam back illumination
I've seen that shine
all these years
I miss it

I miss your voices
your singing great or glad
I miss bells and brass and bulletins
I miss Riley's entrance
and Rex's handshakes
Rhonda's good mornings
Ryden's amens from his back corner
I miss the sound of water
The silence of your remembering
And the chatter of your bustling peace
I miss you hugging
and happy

I miss your
blessing
each other
and me
in that song I like

'May He guide you
through the wilderness
Protect you through the storm'

I hope you are well
I hope your own four walls
are as glad to hear your praises
as I have become every seventh day

Make sure your living room has some sunlight
Turn up your speaker so the organ sounds like mine
Pour some water and pass some bread and shake your hands
Like you do when you are here with me
Like you do when you do what you do

In that way
I am willing to share you
with your own houses
as I wait for you to
come back here
to God's

my
Presbyterians
You are missed
You are loved

'May He bring you home rejoicing
once again
into my
doors'

— your Sanctuary on Wimbish Road

March 6, 2020

By Day and By Night

Our journey with Jesus through our Lenten wilderness continues this second Sunday of Lent with a reading from John 3:1-17.  The central character of this episode is a prominent Jewish leader named Nicodemus.   His prominence in the community is noted, inversely, by the fact that he must come to see Jesus "at night."  Indeed, strange and unsettling events often happen under the cover of night.  Cars are stolen and fences are crossed and windows are busted out.  The sun's departure invites all manner of tomfoolery in this broken world.

But sometimes the Holy happens upon us at night, too.  In John 3, the darkness provides a prominent religious leader the careful cover he needs to have the kind of open, searching, curious, and even agnostic conversation he cannot have in the daytime.  Persons of some prominence often lead fairly settled lives because of their settled roles and the settled expectations placed upon them by those among whom they are protuberant.  But Jesus's ministry, particularly his healings, has prompted lots of unsettling questions for Mr. Nick, who seeks out the young, potent Preacher at great risk to his settled religious reputation.  Thanks to the gospel of John, we get to listen in on their conversation.

What questions are you carrying through this Lenten season, ones perhaps you can only reveal under the cover of Jesus' patient and listening grace?

February 6, 2020

Weaknesses

Our weekly saunter through the first few chapters of Paul's voluminous words to the followers of Jesus in ancient Corinth continues this week with a reading from 2:1-16.  "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom."  This, following Paul's earlier rebuke of all the self-important "wisdom" and philosophical posturing of every age, in light of the 'embarrassing' way God has come to us in a helpless child.

The Apostle Paul rejecting the value of lofty words is like Miss Universe downplaying the importance if outward beauty.  Paul was a smart man, an educated man, a public figure accustomed to public speech.  For him to come to a place in his life where lofty words have lost their luster is a sign, not only of some newfound humility, but of a major movement of God in his life.  It is not hyperbole to say that the death of Jesus, and the life lived by his first followers, changed everything for Paul.  And so he can say to the Corinthians Christians, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."  The weakness of the cross is, for New Paul, the key to everything.

Paul has learned what we all must learn before God: The end of our ability to manage this life on our own is the beginning of God's way forward in and for us.  Our weaknesses, when we admit them, have the nice side benefit of accentuating God's strength.  Paul:  I tried not to dress the faith up in too much finery. They way you know your faith has been built on manifestations of God's presence as a savior, not on my cleverness as a communicator.  Only Jesus saves; never his people.