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Holy Moments

Every Sunday in worship, God gets my attention. There’s always something that touches me or hits me over the head. Or both. It usually happens several times a Sunday. Sometimes it’s the choir anthem. Sometimes it’s the Prayers of the People. Sometimes it’s a phrase of the Scripture that I hadn’t quite noticed before. But always there are unexpected, holy moments in worship.

One of those holy moments came this Sunday when we were starting to pray the Lord’s Prayer together. From where I was sitting up front, I could hear the voice of a child saying the prayer, just a millisecond ahead of all of the grown-ups around her. I don’t know who  she was. In fact, I’m not even sure that it was a little girl because I couldn’t see behind the Advent wreath. But her voice led me in that prayer. Isaiah had just said in the scripture reading that “a little child will lead them,” and it touched me to know that a child that small would know the Lord’s Prayer by heart and recite it with such clarity and confidence.

During the three months of my renewal leave, my family worshiped most Sundays at home. We visited a couple of churches, but most of the time, if we were in town, we practiced “home church.” One of the kids would light a candle. Another child would pick our opening hymn and I’d struggle through it on the piano. The next thing for us to do, of course, was to say the Prayer for Illumination before reading the scripture for the day. Then we’d hear the scriptures and talk about what we thought they meant. We’d pray together and then I’d try to play “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” like Jon Calvin. (Believe me, it just wasn’t the same. I only did it once.)

Several things struck me in those times of “home church.” The first was that our children knew the pattern of worship. They knew by heart the Prayer for Illumination. It felt natural to them and to all of us to pray for others after exploring the scriptures. The pattern of worship has sunk into them and shaped them, not because they have sat in a classroom and learned about them but because they have practiced them, week in and week out. For now those prayers and practices may seem like rote, but one day, I’m sure, one of them will stop and think about what it means to open your heart and mind to what God has to say. One of them might find comfort when the phrase “give to us our daily bread” comes unexpectedly to mind. Practicing “home church” made me realize more deeply how important patterns and practices are in shaping our lives in the faith.

Another thing that I learned was how much we missed being part of a worshiping community. Doing church at home was different and fun and good for us in a lot of ways, but we realized how much we love and need the church. After visiting another church in  the area, one of the kids said, “Can we go back to our church, where we know people?” Yes, it seems, it is about relationships.

As a parent, it was a gift to see how our practice of coming to church every Sunday (and Wednesday) has really formed our children. How coming together with other believers every week to worship God and love one another has shaped them. Wow! Revelation! Going to church matters! Of course, going to church every week doesn’t make you holy. We know that. But, maybe there’s more to it than we thought.

 

Thoughts from Carol

As we gathered in the Fellowship Hall Sunday morning for the Welcome Home reception, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude and love. In fact, I was almost speechless, and I’m afraid the few words I spoke were disjointed and inadequate. My gratitude to the staff, my happiness in reconnecting with all of you, my nervousness in playing the banjo, my excitement over what God has done and is doing among us—no words seemed sufficient. Still, I hope you all could feel my joy in returning home to Christ UMC.

I’m afraid words will continue to fail me as I try to share with you what my time away this fall was like. Over the next weeks and months, I’ll be finding ways to tell you about it, but it won’t all come out at once. I don’t think I could write a cohesive essay on “What I Did over My Renewal Leave.” There were many experiences, many moods, many revelations, many ordinary days, many derailed plans, many prayers and many emotions that I’m still unpacking. There was peace and serenity, joy and laughter, pain and grief; but the gift was that I had time to walk through it all at an unhurried pace.

If you remember, one of the first things I did on my renewal leave was travel to the Isle of Iona off the coast of Scotland. It was a time of solitude, prayer, rest and reflection in one of Christianity’s most sacred sites. Believe it or not, the first day that I was there, my watch stopped. Just stopped. I took it as a sign and decided to leave the watch off for the entirety of the fall.

So much of my life is governed by the clock. You could even say “dictated” or “tyrannized.” It’s not the clock’s fault. It’s just a mechanical thing, after all. It was my attitude toward it that was the problem. Being on time is a good thing. It’s a way of being considerate to others, whom you don’t want to keep waiting. Even John Wesley instructed new pastors to “be punctual.” But too often that punctuality becomes hurry, which becomes anxiety and stress. When I’m in a hurry, I don’t notice the people or the world around me. I’m not present.

While I was on renewal leave, I didn’t have to hurry to do anything. And as I reflected    on that, I remembered that Jesus was never in a hurry. Then I remembered something my mom used to say. When she passed away in October, I took some time to write down some of her old sayings: “Sally Sayings,” I like to call them. As I shared at her funeral, about half of those sayings were just different ways of saying, “Kiss my foot,” but another thing she said often was, “What’s your hurry?” When she interviewed for her first job, she told the interviewer: “There are two things you need to know: I have to have a week off for Camp meeting every year, and you can’t hurry me. I’ll get all my work done, but don’t hurry me.”

In the days since my mother’s death, I’ve been repeating her words to my soul: “What’s the hurry?” Most things in the spiritual life don’t happen in a hurry. Grieving certainly takes a long time. Healing takes time. Forgiveness, reconciliation, discernment, mindfulness–they all take time. We live in a world of instant gratification: I want it done now! I want to be healed now! I want to finish grieving now! I want God to answer my prayers now!

I want to understand where God is in my life right now!

But what’s the hurry? There’s so much to learn along the way.

I have a new battery in my watch and it’s back on my wrist, but I am asking God to help me guard against hurry in my life. Don’t worry. I won’t be thirty minutes late to the Trustees meeting, but I will, I hope, be more patient, more open, more at peace and more present. Mom would like that, I think.

 

Sabbath Part 2

Several years ago an article came out in Time magazine about the importance of siblings and birth order in shaping our personalities. Of course, the article could only deal with generalities, and there are always exceptions to every rule, but many of their assertions rang true for me. In general, the article said, the eldest child (or in some cases the only child) grows up to be a high achiever. Middle children are often peacemakers, and youngest children are often laid back, easy going and creative.

In my own family I am the youngest of four children. My siblings and I don’t fit into all the neat categories that the Time article predicted, but I do think the birth order in our family shaped each of us. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into the psychological  inner workings of my nuclear family, but I do want to reflect on one aspect of my growing up years that has shaped me because it has to do with Sabbath-keeping.

As the youngest in a big family, I arrived in the middle of a story that had been going on for a long time. I was born into a crowd that already had its patterns, its schedule and its dynamics. To put it another way, I was born into a noisy family. I don’t mean that everyone was yelling or that the noisiness was a bad thing, but with five people already established in the home there was just a lot going on. My job, at least early on, was to adapt and roll with it.Somewhere along the way in my growing up years, as crazy as it may sound, I actually made a conscious decision to be a good listener. And that one decision has shaped me my whole life. In fact, I remember writing one of my college essays on listening. (I’d give anything to find that old essay, written by my 18-year-old self, but it was typed on an Olivetti typewriter before the days of hard drives and The Cloud.)

All of this is to just to share with you how important to me the practice of listening has always been. Listening deeply to someone is the best way I know how to show love.  As I shared in the benediction on Sunday morning, “Truly listening to someone is so close to love that most people can’t tell the difference” (Dr. Jan Love).

If you were here on Sunday, you know that listening was the focus of our worship together. What I didn’t address in the sermon were some tools that we can use to help us listen to God and to each other. One of the best ways I know to listen for God is to read scripture. Do what Bishop Pennel suggested when he was with us this fall: pick a passage and read it slowly. (Psalms or parables of Jesus are good places to start.) When a word or   a phrase jumps out at you, stop. Ponder it. Ask God what that word or phrase has to teach you. Try going to the scriptures without an agenda, without expectation, and see what speaks to you.

Another practice is to try carefully to listen to other people in your daily life. When you are in conversation, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Do you feel yourself thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next? Notice that, but then let it go. Take a deep breath and let the other person speak, even if you react to or disagree with them.

Listening is not a gift that some people have and others don’t. I really believe it’s a skill that we can all learn and practice. The world needs more people who know how to listen. May that be just one more way that we show God’s love to a hurting world.

 

Sabbath

This past Sunday I began a sermon series on the topic of Sabbath. In preparation for my renewal leave, which begins on September 1, I want to invite all of us to be thinking about ways that we can find rest and renewal in our daily lives. If you were in worship on Sunday, you heard me say that the word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew verb “to cease, to stop, to rest.” What are some ways that we can regularly stop working, stop producing, stop looking ahead and simply rest in the present moment with God and with others?

I’ve put together a selection of books that might help you ponder the meaning of Sabbath and think about these questions. A book table will be set up throughout the month of August, and I hope you’ll find some time to read at least one of the selections over the next few weeks. (Unfortunately, the ones on the book table are just for display, but you can go to Cokesbury.com or another book seller and find any of the titles there.)

Each week during August we’ll be considering “Sabbath” as a verb and we’ll look at ways we can practice “Sabbathing.” This past week we explored what it means to CEASE, to REST. This next Sunday, we’ll talk about how Sabbath calls us to LISTEN. (If you want a preview of the rest of the month, we’ll also be considering how Sabbath inspires us to GIVE and to PLAY.)

As I’ve mulled over the idea of Sabbath in my own life, I’ve realized how children seem naturally to understand Sabbath. Children know how to rest. And they certainly know how to play. Hurry and busy-ness do not come naturally to them. They can be present to the world around them in ways that we adults sometimes forget to be.

Last Friday afternoon I was at home working on my sermon for Sunday. The kids were at home, too, but our sitter was still in the house keeping an eye on them so that I could work. After I’d been working at it for about two hours, I was lying on the bed going through the sermon in my head. I’d been struggling with how to conclude (you know, “big finish!”) and was feeling sort of stuck. Then suddenly I heard the sound of my bedroom door quietly opening, followed by the sound of little feet padding toward me. I opened my eyes and saw my daughter Martha. She flopped on the bed next to me and said, “It’s nice and quiet in here. What are you doing? I think I’ll stay in here with you.”

At first I was flustered. I need to work! I needed to finish this sermon! But then I remembered what the sermon was about and felt the pang of conviction. “Okay,” I said to God. “I get it. I’ll stop already and trust you to provide the rest of the sermon later.” So, Martha and I laid on the bed and talked. And sat in silence. She noticed a bird outside of the window and pointed it out to me. “Look at that beautiful bird, Mommy.” Actually, it was an awkward looking juvenile robin that seemed to be molting. Not that pretty at first glance. But then I tried looking as she was looking, and began to see the wonder and beauty of this little, growing bird.

What a gift children are. Martha especially is my little walking Sabbath. No matter whether we live with children right now or not, finding ways to spend time with children and learn from them is one of the best Sabbath practices that I know.

Isn’t summer supposed to be slow?

Isn’t summer supposed to be slow? Aren’t things supposed to move at a more relaxed pace in June and July? Apparently not. I came back from the beach two weeks ago to find life moving at a rapid clip, and I’ve had a little trouble catching up. But now that I’m finally breathing normally, I thought I’d share with you some of the things that have happened in recent days as well as what’s coming up. At least on my calendar.

Just a few days after returning home, we plunged into Annual Conference, our annual United Methodist gathering here in Middle Tennessee. The United Methodist churches in middle Tennessee sent 648 lay people and 648 pastors to this gathering, and I must say it was the most inspiring Annual Conference I’ve attended in years. Next week’s newsletter article, written by one of our delegates, will tell you in more detail about what we experienced there, but I came away feeling excited about what God is doing and will do through The United Methodist Church!

The next big event on my calendar is the mission trip to Uganda. (Normally, it would be Vacation Bible School, which starts on Sunday night, but our mission team leaves on Wednesday and we’ll miss the last half of VBS.) As you know, we are taking a large group from both Christ UMC and Blakemore UMC, but many of you have been asking, “What exactly are y’all going to be doing while you’re there?” Well, I’ll tell you…

We’ll be going to two rural villages outside of Kampala. Raise the Roof has a school in one village, and we’ll spend much of our time at that site in four different groups. One group will set up a medical clinic while another group will work on construction of classrooms at the school. A third group will run a Vacation Bible School for children (we’re expecting over 1,000 kids!), and a fourth group will meet with adults (pastors, teachers, politicians, community leaders) for conversation, training and empowerment.

One of the things I’m excited about is a youth rally that some of us will be hosting on Friday, June 28. While most members of the team will be resting and adjusting to the time-change, a few of us will gather with a large group of teens and young adults in Kampala. Chip Higgins is going to do some teaching around leadership, and I’m going to remind them that they are loved, they matter and they can make a difference. I have no idea how many youth will show up to this rally, but David Ssebulime has told us to be prepared for a crowd.

During our stay in Uganda we will be tending and building and teaching, but above all we will be building relationships. We go in the love of Christ to meet Christ in the people of Uganda. We go to love and be loved. To serve and be served. To share our stories and to hear their stories. We will worship in ways we’ve never experienced before. We will eat good food and get lots of hugs. And we will let our brothers and sisters know that we love them and we care about them.

Our team departs on Wednesday morning, June 26. We ask you to pray for us and for the people whom we’ll meet in Uganda. May we all experience the love and power of God in this holy encounter. And may we come home ready to love and serve in deeper ways than ever before.

 

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