An Uninvited Guest

I had a meeting downtown yesterday with a couple of fantastic people from the Downtown Raleigh Alliance to discuss possible venues for our church’s upcoming JUST Art event in June.

After a few minutes of chit-chat about the weather and children and the Olympics and work, I had a panic attack.

Having a panic attack is not the best way to start a meeting with people you’ve never met. I had to pause, acknowledge aloud what was happening, take 30 seconds to recompose myself, and then our meeting continued.

When I got home after the meeting, I turned on Pandora radio, and the first song that came on was “Brokenness Aside” by All Sons & Daughters. The opening verse and chorus say:

all sons and daughters - brokenness asideWill your grace run out
If I let you down
‘Cause all I know
Is how to run

‘Cause I am a sinner
If its not one thing its another
Caught up in words
Tangled in lies
You are the Savior
And you take brokenness aside
And make it beautiful
Beautiful

I shared the story of my panic attack and hearing this song with a friend who wrote something beautiful to me in an email, saying:

“Maybe [hearing that song] is an instance of God showing his faithfulness and sovereignty by bringing about beautiful outcomes in situations where your brokenness was an uninvited guest … I wrote a good number of verses in my journal this weekend pertaining to God not despising our weaknesses (Ps 69:33, 22:24, 102:17)–thinking that if God welcomes these weaknesses, maybe I can learn not to despise them in myself so much. But that is still very much a work in progress, especially in a world that tries to dispense with brokenness and weakness as quickly as possible.”

When I received this email, I thought someone else might need to read it too.

 

Songs from Sunday

Songlist from 1/12/2014. 

The brand new song that we sang just before the sermon (the one CJ forbids us from “singing before the sermon ever again”) is, Called me Higher by All Sons & Daughters.

(NOTE: this is my first time using the iTunes widget builder. If it doesn’t work, blame apple, not me. Be patient after clicking play. It may take a few seconds before songs begin to play.)

Tips on being straight/gay in church

Part ONE

We met up for breakfast at the Flying Biscuit in Cameron Village. He and his family had attended a few times, and he wanted to clear the air. “We love the church. We love the teaching. We love the people. But we know that our presence might be hard for some. The last thing we want to do is cause trouble or be a headache for you as the pastor.”

flying biscuitHe and his partner have been together for 15 years, and they have 3 adopted boys, one of whom is special needs.

And if I didn’t know it already back then when we had this conversation, I certainly know it now. They are fantastic.

They are so gracious and kind and giving and considerate. My faith is bigger and better because of them. They serve regularly and faithfully in our community. And they are a great example of how to be gay in church. With limitless grace and understanding.

Part TWO

We decided to meet up at his house. He and his wife graciously had some questions about the growing LGBT community in our church. As they shared, they were not angry. They were not hurt. They were not defensive. Just questioning.

I’ve blogged about this topic before, and I’ve preached a message on it as well. If I had to summarize my “stance” (I hate that word), it might be this. Human sexuality is far more nuanced and complex than I grew up thinking it was. Perhaps the best thing we can do is be in relationship with one another; get to know each other; deeply and sincerely and genuinely. Friendship is a necessary first step.

We talked about this (and more) that night.

The very next Sunday, I saw him and his wife in the lobby laughing and talking and hugging and shaking hands with people within our LGBT community.

And if I didn’t know it already back then when we had this conversation, I certainly know it now. They are fantastic.

They are so gracious and kind and giving and considerate. My faith is bigger and better because of them. They serve regularly and faithfully in our community. And they are a great example of how to be straight in church. With limitless grace and understanding.

Church advice for my London-bound friend

My good friend of 8+ years is moving to London on a great and grand adventure through her work. (Jamie – you will be missed dearly!!)

Shortly after she went public with the news, we had a text conversation about finding a new church. Here’s the gist of our chat.

Jamie Tharp - church advice

I’m not typically one to toot my own horn (unless it’s about my skill at words-with-friends, music theory or bass fishing), but I think this was great advice! And the exact same thing can be said of small churches. If a small church is trying to be a big church, it is missing the point. But if a small church is trying to be a gift to the world, I believe God is smiling!

Oh Lord, help us, your church, to always be looking for ways to pour ourselves out for others. What you have been for us — a good gift — let us become for others. Amen.

Lifting up the Blinds

Quite frequently, Rachel will send me an email with a quote or a link or an attachment and a short message that says, “Read this.”

She did it again this morning … and it is too good not to share. It comes from Eugene Peterson’s book, Christ in Ten Thousand Places. It’s the story of an old woman from his childhood, Sister Lychen. A staunch (and somewhat grumpy) Pentecostal woman who held to a fiery belief that the end was near; and that our most important spiritual task is to hold on until He does.

Rachel wanted CJ and I to read this because “it puts new words to what we want.” Yes. Yes it does. Eugene re-imagines his interactions with her in this way. Oh Lord, help us lift up the blinds!


eugene peterson - Christ in Ten Thousand PlacesI imagine a scenario in which I am again ten years old; it is a month or so before Sister Lychen dies. I go to her house and knock on her door. She opens it and invites me in. I am no stranger there, for my mother occasionally sent me over with a plate of cookies. The usual routine was that after she let me in she would go to the kitchen and bring me a glass of milk. We would sit there in her knickknack-crowded living room with the shades pulled. I would eat my cookie and drink my milk in the darkened, sunless room. But this day, in my fantasized scenario, while she is in the kitchen getting the milk, I let up the blinds from all the windows. As she returns with the milk, I exclaim, “Sister Lychen, look! The world!” Startled, she drops the milk and shatters the glass. In her confusion I take her hand and lead her across the street and down a trail to a swampy place, Lawrence Slough, where I and my friends loved to go. I show her the turtles and the frogs – she had never seen either. I show her a nesting osprey waiting for the next fish, the downy heads of its chicks just visible on the nest. She is amazed. Just then a white-tailed deer leaps from a tangle of cattails. She asks what it is and I tell her it is one of Solomon’s gazelles. She is astonished. I am afraid that she is getting too excited and so lead her back home and help her clean up the spilled milk and broken glass.

The next Sunday in worship, she stands to her feet at the usual time but she doesn’t say the usual words. This time she says, “An angel visited me this week and showed me wonders I’d never seen. He said he’d come back on Thursday and show me more. I’m not sure I want to leave and `be with the Lord’ yet.”

Each succeeding Thursday I go to her house, take her by the hand, lead her down the path into Lawrence Slough, and show her more wonders. One day we stay late in the evening and watch the setting sun throw a kaleidoscope of color over the surface of the water. She is in awe. One afternoon we watch the kingfisher catch minnows and fly off singing his triumphant scratchy imitation of a rusty gate. She is enthralled. Another day I bring sandwiches and half a loaf of stale Wonder Bread; we sit on a log at the edge of the water, eat our lunch, and feed two swans and seven or eight mergansers who are showing off their dashing swept-back hairdos. She loves it. As we walk home, holding hands, she says, “And to think all this has been going on practically in my backyard!” Each Thursday she notices and comments on connections or echoes between the Sunday hymns, psalms, and Scriptures and what she is feeling, seeing, and remembering from her childhood as we meander in Lawrence Slough. Sunday is no longer a rehearsal of escape, an anticipation of the final escape; it is an exposition of the week, or at least the Thursday segment of it. She never gives me credit as the angel, but each Sunday she does give an accounting of that week’s Thursday angel revelation. And each week the congregation remarks on the lessening enthusiasm in Sister Lychen for being raptured from behind her drawn shades. The concluding sentence of her weekly report in the testimony time takes on a Genesis rhythm: “I’m not sure I want to leave quite yet.”

And then, after four weeks of this, Sister Lychen dies.

This is all fantasy, of course, casting my ten-year-old self in the role of ministering angel. But my fantasy has a factual base in those childhood years of listening to Sister Lychen’s rhythm-obliterating end time liturgy each Sunday. And for me now, the fantasy has turned into a way of life: the lived quality of Genesis i fuels my efforts in trying to raise the blinds in the living quarters of so many people I know and have known; to raise the blinds and get them out of the house between Sundays to enter into this vast, rhythmic extravaganza, seeing and hearing, tasting and touching and smelling what God has created and is creating by his word: sky and earth, plants and trees, stars and planets, fish and birds, Jersey cows and basset hounds, and the crowning touch, man and woman – look at them! – wonder of wonders, male and female!

So here is what I want to say: the way in which this Genesis i text on the creation gift of time gets inside us is through the act of worship, believingly listening, obediently receiving the Word of God, but if the blinds are down all week, we cut ourselves off from the textures and rhythms of ordinary time that is the context of that worship. Worship is the primary means for forming us as participants in God’s work, but if the blinds are drawn while we wait for Sunday, we aren’t in touch with the work that God is actually doing. These Genesis work-rhythms are reproduced in our lives and brought to focus in the Sabbath-rest command that enables our participation. When we walk out of the place of worship, we walk with fresh, recognizing eyes and a re-created obedient heart into the world in which we are God’s image participating in God’s creation work. Everything we see, touch, feel, and taste carries within it the rhythms of “And God said … and it was so … and it was good….” We are more deeply in and at home in the creation than ever.

Eugene H. Peterson. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology

JFK and MLK

Today, I had lunch with Gerard, a new friend I’ve gotten to know through church.

We met at Fox and Hound at North Hills. Like many restaurants today, it’s walls are lined with flat-screens. I arrived first and enjoyed a few surprise minutes of the NHL Network. (Not many Raleigh restaurants keep a TV tuned into the NHL network. It was a treat!)

In walked Gerard. On Sundays, he always wears a suit-and-tie because he heads straight to work afterwards to a furniture store here in Raleigh. Seeing him in “civilian clothes” always catches me off guard. Shortly after Gerard sat down, one of the large screens started showing footage from fifty years ago in Dallas, TX. The assasination of John F. Kennedy.

“How old are you, Gerard?”, I asked him.

“Fifty-seven.”

“So you were seven years old when that happened. You probably have memories of that day.”

“Oh yes.”

jfk and mlkAnd he proceeded to tell me his memories. It happened during school, in the afternoon. All the kids and teachers were dismissed. Everyone was crying. For the next several days, it was as though life was still happening, but nobody was really present. Everyone was one or two degrees removed from reality … in a fog or haze of some kind. Vacant.

“I also remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated.”

I don’t have a ton of black friends, but Gerard is one of them. “Forgive my ignorance, I’m Canadian.” (I start a lot of conversations like this!) “Did you grow up here in North Carolina?”

“Yes. Johnston County.”

“Was your school experience segregated?”

“Oh yes. It definitely was.”

I’ve read books and watched movies that talked about the racial tensions and civil rights movements of the late 50s and 60s, but sitting across the table from someone who lived through it … wow.

He told me how the one main restaurant in town forced black patrons to use the back door, and wouldn’t allow them to sit and eat, only to order take-out. A large billboard sat just outside town with a painting of a Grand Dragon of the KKK sitting on a horse above the words “Smithfield, NC. This is Ku Klux Klan Country.”

Gerard’s older sister was one of 5 black students selected to be part of an early desegregation experiment at one local white school. It was incredibly hard on the family. Especially her. They received frequent threats from the KKK with promises to burn crosses on their front lawn. Thanks be to God, none of those threats were ever carried out. She stayed enrolled. Desegregation began in earnest the following year.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Our lunch conversation reminded me a Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) reading I had recently read (I’ll be sharing the full reading this Sunday). The last lines say this:

There are days when we act as if we cared nothing for the rights of others. On the Sabbath we are reminded that justice is our duty, and a better world, our goal.

Therefore we welcome Shabbat. Day of rest, day of wonder, day of peace.

I’m glad that our world has changed a lot in the last 50 years. A lot! But there is still injustice. There are still people without a voice who need an advocate. There are still dark corners that need light. Justice is still our duty, and a better world, still our goal.

Thank you, Gerard, for sharing your life and your story with me.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your Kingdom in our midst. Amen.

Creeds and Cancer

On September 14, I had the sad privilege of conducting the funeral for Karen Eng — my friend, Scott Luce’s, mom. It was only 4 months earlier when he sent me the text with the cancer diagnosis. “MRI scan shows large mass in her brain, and CAT scan shows two masses in each lung.” I drove over to the hospital to see them. She was in an incredible amount of pain. And Scott was in an incredible amount of hurt.

Karen EngThe standard question, “how are you?”, is so hollow in moments like that. The only right thing to say is nothing. Scott was standing outside the room when I arrived. We hugged and walked inside. Karen was in the reclining chair beside her hospital bed. I sat on the edge of the bed and put my hand on her knee. I don’t remember who spoke the first words, or what they were. But shortly after the silence was broken, Karen asked for me to pray the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” with her.

Coming from a protestant background, the “Our Father” was pretty easy, but the “Hail Mary” was more troublesome. It required some quick help from Scott’s smartphone to look it up. Which we did. And we spoke them together … in a beautiful but fumbling unison. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name … Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee …

Suddenly, it wasn’t just room 518 of the Oncology Building. The room was holy and sacred. We were in a sanctuary.

In the days since that moment, I’ve come to appreciate more fully what a remarkable thing was happening in that hospital room as we spoke those sacred words — and what a remarkable thing happens on Sunday mornings when churches do the same — reciting ancient prayers and creeds. Listen to how Luke Timothy Johnson describes those moments in his book, The Creed.

luke timothy johnson - creedIn a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a countercultural act.

In that little room, we were being incredibly countercultural. We joined our voices with a chorus of 100 million others that transcend time and space. We were connected to something larger; truer. Our Father who art in heavenHail Mary, full of grace — speaking those words gave us a living encounter with The Holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints.

I suspect Karen wanted to say those words because she didn’t want to be alone.

And she wasn’t. And we are not.

Guatemala (by Megan Mulder)

Megan Mulder
11-6-13
Nay, 7th Period

Guatemala

Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you see what others don’t have. Walking into La Limonada, Guatemala was one of those moments. The scariest part – I was going alone. There were others from my church, but neither of my parents. La Limonada is the largest slum in Central America. Its violence rate is higher than that of Pakistan right now. Gangs have such rivalry with each other, that you can’t even go to another neighborhood without the fear of being shot.

At first, I was more freaked out than I was excited. Dad had talked about it for a while, but I never thought that he and Mom would actually let me go!

“I know it’s a lot to take in, but I want you to have the opportunity to go,” Dad had said to me. “It is only for a week, anyway.”

“I guess, but I don’t want to go without one of you!”

“Meg, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I know you will regret it if you don’t go!”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I replied.

It went on like this for a while, with dad soothing my doubts. Finally, we had come to a decision. I would go!

I through my nerves were gone, but they all came back on the plane. The whole flight I was worried about not speaking Spanish, and how the trip would go. I got off the plane so nervous, that I almost regretted going. I crossed my fingers and walked into the warm air of Guatemala.

“Hola! I’m Rebecca! You must be with Ekklesia Church.” A young woman with curly golden hair walked up to us smiling. “I will be translating for you guys this week!”

team guatemala 2013We all squeezed into a tiny van and drove through the curvy roads of Guatemala. Once we got there, we went to one of the schools. They are much different than the schools here. First off, it’s small! It is one small building for all grades, up to 8th or 9th. The supplies were limited, and nothing was new or nice. The biggest difference: the kids were genuinely happy to be there! We would walk into a room full of kids and they would immediately trust us and let us color with them, and sit with them. I was amazed to see that the language barrier wasn’t even a problem. They just sat with us and laughed and colored.

I think that visiting the homes and where they worked was the hardest part, at least emotionally. Their homes were made of tin, and for a few of the more fortunate, they were cement. One whole house of 6 would be the size of a school classroom or smaller. They were all so close together, in terrible condition. And despite the conditions, they were so happy, generous and full of hope. They would get us all a place to sit, even if it meant them standing outside. Lots of them worked in their homes, making tortillas, shoes, or reselling small snack items. Another less desirable place of work was the dump.

The stench was unbearable. Stretching for miles, the wasteland was filled with vultures, trash, and people. They would earn a living by digging through trash, desperately trying to find anything that they can sell. Hundreds of people would be digging at a time. Some of them were as young as 14. In fact, it became such a common thing that you needed a permit to do it.

I am so happy that I got the opportunity to go. Some of it was hard to see, but I never once regretted it. Seeing how they live compared to how I live was a stark contrast. I can walk my dog without having to be afraid of getting shot at or threatened. I have a family on a steady income that cares for me. There are so many things that we in the United States take for granted. Families in La Limonada lived with the bare minimum, if that. Visiting La Limonada has changed me.

Ed Kennedy and Us.

I read a great novel recently called I Am The Messenger by Markus Zusak, author of the widely popular The Book Thief.

The story is told in the first person from Ed Kennedy, an underage cabdriver who doesn’t have much of a life. He’s 19. No formal education. A lousy card-player. Hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. And overly-devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, affectionately named, the Doorman. His life is marked by routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first of four aces (playing cards) arrive in the mail.

IAmTheMessengerbyMarkusZusakFirst, it’s diamonds. Then clubs. Followed by spades. And finally, hearts. Each card contains clues which lead him to three different families / households / individuals. They all need something. Help; kindness; rebuke; rescue; correction; saving; something.

Ed becomes the messenger.

Initially, at each address, he just observes. Quietly. In the shadows. Trying to discern what is needed. At the first house, it takes a few repeat visits before he puts all the pieces together; before he knows what he’s supposed to do. But finally, it becomes clear. He can hear it. Abuse of the worst kind. Ed’s thoughts narrates the book.

“… he throws her down … the bed cries out in pain. It creaks and wails and only I can hear it. Christ, it’s deafening. Why can’t the world hear? I ask myself. Within a few moments I ask it many times. Because it doesn’t care, I finally answer, and I know I’m right. It’s like I’ve been chosen. But chosen for what? I ask.

The answer’s quite simple:

To care.”

In ten thousand ways all around us, the world cries out in pain and creaks and wails. The life God always intended — one of justice and peace where God is good and He is King and we are not — is absent. The world is broken.

But in the brokenness, we are reminded how we have been chosen. Chosen to help those who are suffering — and in doing so, to anticipate God’s future kingdom where there will be no more sorrow or pain or hunger or fear. Chosen to show hospitality to the stranger and the outcast — and in doing so, to anticipate God’s future kingdom where there will one day be no more strangers.

We, too, have been chosen.

Chosen to care.

First Question of the Day

Not sure if you’re a Donald Miller fan or not. I am. He’s a great story teller, and he challenges my faith to be bigger. He’s doing something a little different these days. Rather than tell stories, he’s ventured into the world of self-help … sort of.

The way he tells it, he was stuck. Unable to write. A helpless victim of his own lack of focus and procrastination. He describes his days like this:

Morning: Instead of writing my book, I’d return emails, write blogs, go for walks and wait for creative inspiration to strike. It never did.

Afternoon: I’d eat lunch and get nappy, then cancel my evening appointments to write. But by then I was too distracted and tired.

Evening: I’d get a little writing done, but it wasn’t focussed, and the process was a chore. I’d tell myself I could try again tomorrow.

So he decided to do something about it. He ordered every book he could find on “the creative process, procrastination, positive work habits and willpower” and did his best to synthesize them into a new system — an effectiveness tool. It’s called the Storyline Productivity Schedule. I like it! I think it’s kind of brilliant. You can read more about it here.

Storyline Productivity Schedule

My favorite part of the productivity schedule is step one.

At the start of the day, after entering your name and today’s date, you are to ask yourself this question: If I could live today over again, I’d …

Might sound silly to start a day with this question, but it’s kind of awesome! Imagining that you’re living your day over again offers a unique clarity into what’s important. And what isn’t.

Sometimes I think I'm certain. Other times I am certain I'm not.

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