|Musings of a Virginia Gentleman|
|The Soundtrack to a Life . . .|
|'How do you document real life when real life's getting more like fiction each day?'(Rent)|
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. --Psalm 1
Rather than apologize for my long silence--without doubt I've missed these posts more than you have--I invite you to rejoice with me in the journey of the past year:
April 3-June 6: While finishing up my master's program in biomedical ethics at UVA, I served as long-term sub for a first grade class at Clark Elementary School. I learned a lot from these kids, who may have more personality than any group of people I've ever met.
July 1-8: I led my fourth and final summer mission trip as youth director at Hinton Avenue UMC in Charlottesville. We spent a busy, fun, holy week working with METRO United Methodist Urban Ministries in the Chollas View neighborhood of San Diego. When we weren't painting METRO's Good Neighbor Center (and one another), we caught some waves at Mission Beach and Coronado Bay, went shopping in the city's historic Gaslamp Quarter, and spent a day at SeaWorld. This is the group at Seaport Village before watching the most incredible fireworks display ever!
July 22: Miraculously, the wedding went off without a hitch (pun definitely intended!). I can't possibly say more than that it was best day of our lives. Sharing it with an amazing group of family and friends was the greatest blessing of all. My grandmother made that cake, by the way!
July 24-August 1: After hanging around Charlottesville for an extra day to spend time with out-of-town guests and folks from the youth group, we left for the honeymoon in Maui. We stayed at the Renaissance Resort in Wailea but managed to explore most of the island while we were there. We drove the famous Hana Highway, visited the Maui Ocean Center, spent a day shopping and lounging in Lahaina, took a helicopter tour over West Maui and Molokai, and attended an authentic Hawaiian luau. We never managed to make the sunrise trek up Haleakala, though, so we still have a great excuse to go back! NOTE: When this picture was taken, I still had my original wedding ring. Unfortunately, it didn't last much longer.
August 12: We moved to Durham, where April's working as a nurse at the Duke Hospital while I'm enrolled as a student in the Divinity School at Duke University.
December 1: I came on board as Director of Youth Ministry at Pittsboro United Methodist Church. It's a wonderful church with a large, active youth program, and we're having a blast getting to know everyone there and growing with them in faith. Already we've participated in Pittsboro's First Sunday celebrations downtown, adopted two local families for our Christmas Shopping Extravaganza, gone caroling at an area assisted-living facility the in homes of shut-in church members, started a local restaurants' small group, taken a Visioning/Ski retreat to Wintergreen, served a Valentine's dinner for the United Methodist Men, cooked pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, held a charity golf tournament, and begun planning for our summer mission trip to Washington, DC!
In no way can these snapshots do justice to the challenges and joys of the year, but perhaps they help explain why the blog has been dormant for awhile.
Although I've been writing plenty of papers, essays, and sermons, I have very much missed the discipline of keeping this journal and the feedback so many of you have offered on my ideas, experiences, and dreams.
By way of recapturing that spirit, I'm embarking on a pilgrimage through the Psalms. Basically, what you'll see are reflections on the state of my life, the Church, and the world, framed and informed by the Hebrew prayer book. There's no logical reason why my musings should mirror the Scriptures in any recognizable way, but I suspect that art and life will, at times, unite to expand, surprise, and bless the project.
The plan is to write as often as possible, and I've even got some stories saved up for those busy or lazy days when I think there's nothing to say. I hope you'll join me for the ride!
Sunday, March 18, 2007
The Great Storm Is Over
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew know sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. --2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands." ' So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe, the best one, and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' " --Luke 15:11b-32
I moved into my freshman dormitory at the University of Virginia on August 25, 2001, as confident and carefree as anyone in the world. There was no pressure--I had four years to figure out what I would do with my life. Everywhere I looked there were new people to meet and new places to see. We had the world before us. New, transforming experiences waited around every corner to surprise and challenge and bless us in that place.
Seventeen days later, on September 11, I found myself considerably less hopeful, huddled around a tiny black and white television set with twelve other first year students whose names and stories I was only beginning to learn. All of us were paralyzed with fear because of the scenes of terror that were unfolding in front of us. We were worried about what would come next and about our classmates who had friends and family in Washington and New York. Young adulthood is inherently a time of exploration and discovery of the world and of ourselves, but college orientation had not prepared us for something this earth-shattering during our first weeks away from home. If something this horrible could happen so suddenly, and our politicians and reporters and teachers couldn't explain why or how, then just who were we as a nation and as a student body? What common identity could we possibly share? How could human beings claim to be connected to one another when they did such terrible things to one another? As you might imagine, it did not take long for our illusions of wisdom and self-sufficiency to fall away. For some of us, I think it was the first time we realized that we didn't have all the answers. Our fear and uncertainty was a revelation that we did not yet possess the intellectual and spiritual resources to make sense of a fallen world.
Later in the day, after several of my classes were canceled by professors who must not have had any better words for the occasion than I did, I found my way to the Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at UVA. And there I found a group of students and ministers who also claimed no quick or easy answers, but were praying and singing and just sitting, together. These folks honored the fact that something frightening had happened and that we'd likely be dealing with the consequences of that for some time, but they also insisted on a greater truth: the radical gospel claim that we as Christians know the end of the story, that death and destruction will not have the day, that in Christ there is a new creation, healed and reconciled long before we can ever see it.
We learned a new song that day called "The Great Storm Is Over" that was written by Bob Francke in the early 1980s and then made somewhat famous a few years later by a local folk singer named John McCutcheon. I don't have the music with me today, and you might not want me to sing it to you even if I did, but it says:
The thunder and lightning gave voice to the night;
The little small child cried aloud in her fright
But hush, little baby, a story I will tell
Of a love that has vanquished the powers of hell
Alleluia! The great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!
Sweetness in the air, and justice on the wind
Laughter in the house where the mourners had been
The deaf shall have music, the blind have new eyes
The standards of death taken down by surprise
Release for the captives, an end to the wars
Streams in the desert, new hope for the poor
The little small children shall dance as they sing
And play with the bears and the lions in spring
Alleluia! The great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!
Hush, little baby, let go of your fear
The Lord loves his own, and your mother is here
The babe fell asleep as the lantern did burn
The mother sang on till her bridegroom's return
Alleluia! The great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!
It's a song that reminds us of who we are and whose we are. You see, on days like September 11, it is tempting to believe that all hope is lost, that abundant life is just out of our reach, that God has abandoned this old, worn out creation. To think those things is perfectly natural at times like that. It's also contrary to the momentum of the whole universe. For the witness of scripture and the testimony of human experience is that love conquered hatred and life overcame death in Jesus Christ our Lord. No matter how high the climb, no matter how rocky the path, God calls us back again and again and again to the fount of grace. It may not look like the deaf have music or the blind, new eyes. We may not be able to see release for the captives or an end to the war. Streams in the desert might seem like an utter impossibility, but in truth they are a present reality in the life of faith. Alleluia! The great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly!
Later that night, we participated in a candlelight vigil on the main lawn of the university, much like those that were held in countless communities across the country. For us, it was a time of reflection and hope led by Christian and Jewish and Muslim students, who offered readings and prayers from each of their traditions. It was an important moment of unity as we anticipated months and even years of division. And it bore witness to this mysterious but ever-present new creation, which is before us and around us and within us all. The new creation which declares the great storm over even before it has begun. The new creation in which God watches constantly for our return, sets aside the work of the kingdom, prepares a feast in our honor, and rushes to meet us at the very beginning of our journey home.
This parable of the prodigal son is among the best known and most often told of Jesus's stories. It's comforting for us to know that we can never stray so far or sin so much that we are outside of God's forgiveness. The father welcomes his younger son home with open arms and outstretched love even though the boy has demanded his inheritance early only to squander it all and more on wild, faithless living. Before the prodigal son can even spit out the repentant speech he has prepared--"Father, I have sinned before heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; please, just treat me like one of your hired hands"--before he can even get the words out, his father stops him, adorning him with his best robe, a ring for his finger, sandals for his feet, and a magnificent feast for all the household to celebrate that "this son of mine who was dead is now alive again, he who was lost has been found."
It is customary, then, to frame this story as one of sin and grace, of human pride that is ultimately stripped away and God's love which is unconditional and never ends. And I think that's an appropriate way to engage the text. We read the story like this because it's how Jesus sets it up. But I want to suggest this morning that this isn't the only way for us to read the parable of the prodigal son. I think another dynamic is equally at work in the way we are to wrestle with this gospel lesson. Rather than simply being the tale of a foolish young man who cares only for himself and sees the light of truth only after exhausting his fortune and his options, I think this is also the story of an identity crisis in the life of faith. Like the college freshmen who were unable to make sense of catastrophic events beyond their control, the younger son has lost sight of who he really is. In asking to receive his inheritance early, he subverts the family order and removes himself from the reality of his father's life and death. Selling himself as a hired hand to work the fields and feed the pigs of strangers, he forgets that he is heir to a wealthy and generous landowner.
The situation gets so dire that he longs to feed himself with pods meant for the pigs. And then the scripture says "he came to himself." He remembered who he was, and he resolved to return to his father's home, to beg and hope for mercy. What he finds, of course, is a love that's deeper and more lasting than he could ever have imagined, a love that transforms him into a new creation. It's pure grace that receives him home. We're all children of that grace.
The prodigal son's identity crisis is quite significant, but greater still is the confusion of his older brother, who observes the preparations for the feast and chastises his father. He says, "Look, for all these years I've worked like a slave for you, never disobeying any of your commands, yet you've never given me even a young goat to celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours--not this brother of mine, not this blessed child of God--when this son of yours comes back after devouring your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him." It just isn't fair.
Oh, how often we focus on the slight injustice we think we have suffered but ignore the grace that abounds in our lives. How often we forget that we are sisters and brothers with all those who have lost their way and come stumbling or falling or racing back in hopes of forgiveness. How often we miss opportunities to be the channel through which the new creation flows. And so the father's words to his oldest son is God's word to us: "You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."
This is a special word of hope during the season of shadow and sorrow that is Lent. I hope you will heed the church's call for reflection and repentance during these weeks that precede Good Friday and Easter Sunday on the calendar. I hope you'll take seriously the struggles and the doubt that are part of the life of faith. But in doing all that, remember that as Christians we are in relationship with the One who holds the end of the story. Remember that new creation is not some distant promise that we'll never see; it's the truth that we live into, and out of, through Christ. And remember that, even when all signs point to something else, in God's time the great storm is already over. Alleluia, lift up your wings, lift up your hands, lift up your hearts and rejoice!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The Young and the Restless
Okay . . . it's been forever and I know that. Updates on our wedding and honeymoon, the youth mission trip to San Diego, and the move to Durham are in the works (I promise). In the meantime, below is my belated sermon from our Youth Sunday service on August 6. It was a wild and holy day, featuring communion, the reception of new church members, and an order of commissioning for theological education in addition to the regular unpredictability of youth services. A glimpse of the kingdom, you might say.
He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heart it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He answered, "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Then the Lord said to him, "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him." --1 Kings 11:11-18
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. --Romans 8:31-39
The Reverend Dr. Tex Sample is an ordained United Methodist minister and the professor emeritus of homiletics and church life at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Saint Louis, Missouri. He's also a remarkably gifted preacher and speaker, so he gets invited to lead worship for lots of churches and conferences. I've had the privilege of meeting him a couple times, and one of the refrains Tex always comes back to, in sharing his faith journey with other pilgrims on the way, is that “sometimes a faith in the Gospel requires that we say and do things that make absolutely no sense, aside from a personal relationship with the living Christ.”
This weekend the fellowship and worship life of our faith community is something of an exploration of this idea. Our time together is centered around the idea of Christian vocation, of the unique callings we receive as women and men of faith, whose very beings are grounded and nourished and sometimes violently uprooted by our relationship with Christ. Last night, many of you joined us for our Youth Missions Celebration Dinner, where we had the joy of remembering and lifting up the pictures and stories and reflections from our recent journey to San Diego. Inevitably on mission trips like this, we find that we somehow have everything we need to succeed, that the gifts and graces of our team members complement one another perfectly, almost as though we didn't put the whole thing together at all. When some of us begin to lose faith in the project or in our teammates or in ourselves, others are there to pick us up—to love us and to carry us to a better place. Hopefully that's also what we were doing for the community in San Diego—by painting and redesigning and redecorating their emergency food and clothing shelter, hopefully we helped our sisters and brothers in the Chollas View neighborhood recognize the new and abundant life that was already there.
And while the 14 youth and 4 adults who were a part of this team may have thought they were coming because the weather's a whole better this time of year in southern California than it is here in Virginia, or because they'd surely have more fun hanging out with this whole group than staying at home alone for the week, or because they needed a break from the routine and pressure of everyday life, or because if they didn't go no one else would sign up to spend an entire week with this large a group of teenagers, the truth of the matter is that we all found ourselves there in response to a call. A call that we heard while worshiping and studying together here in this place. A call that we heard through our families and friends who invited us to consider the possibilities that first youth ministry in general and later youth mission trips in particular might hold for us. A call that we heard through the familiarity and grace of our regular youth group meetings and dinners.
The Celebration Dinner is something that makes absolutely no sense unless God is doing something extraordinary in our midst. Because you see, last night was the culmination of a nine-month fundraising campaign that netted nearly ten thousand dollars to pay for this trip. With your help and with the support of countless others, this team of young people raised all the money necessary to get themselves to California, to arrange their transportation on the ground there, to cover the food they would need, the field trips they would take, and the supplies that would make their work possible. The sacrifices they made and the energy they invested in yard sales and bake sales and car washes and in selling tickets to this dinner made no sense outside of a conviction that God's work of creation and redemption of humankind is not yet complete, and that we are called to be a part of that work. Furthermore, it wouldn't make a lot of sense for people to show up to hear our stories and share our excitement if we were not called together to this work of mission and ministry.
In just a few moments we will welcome Andrew Marshall into the membership of this congregation. If you don't know Andrew, you should and I trust that you will. He and I have been the best of friends for a long time—we went to high school together, we were both part of the Wesley Foundation at UVA. We've lived together for several years now, we've been on mission trips together, served on the same administrative boards and task forces. And I'm excited and honored to be a part of that service laster this morning.
But this isn't the beginning of Andrew's relationship with this church by any means. Already he is a vital part of our ministry. He's been present and active at Project Transformation since it began, he's a great chaperone and driver and cook and friend to the youth group, and he's been a faithful participant in our worship for a long time. And I'm convinced both that his decision to unite in membership with this congregation is a response to the call of God on his life and that the words of welcome and hospitality we will say as part of that service reflect our mutual calling to be God's people in this place. These words will call us to remember our baptismal covenant, to recall that we have been initiated into Christ's holy church, incorporated into God's mighty acts of salvation, given new birth through water and the Spirit. They will ask us to join our voices in an ancient affirmation of our common faith and to participate together in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Friends, this is a commitment that can only be made by a group of people who are persuaded that their faith can and should transform the world around them.
And then at the end of our service this morning we'll take part in a brief order of commissioning for folks who will be leaving soon to pursue theological education in preparation for lives of full-time ministry in the United Methodist Church. I think I speak for both Haden and myself in saying that your support and encouragement, the ways you have challenged us and taught us and held us accountable, have served as invaluable tools of discernment along the way. And when our energy or patience or, yes, even our knowledge proves insufficient over the next three years, the calling that we have discovered and explored here will not fail.
If the words of our Prayer of Illumination a few minutes ago seemed a little strange to you or a bit out of the ordinary, it's because they're lifted straight from Saint Augustine, the fifth century Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the church whose teachings continue to shape the lives of Christians throughout the world. Although Augustine was a prolific writer (penning thousands of letters, commentaries and books) and one could spend a lifetime delving into the complexities and brilliance of his thought, perhaps his best known and most enduring work, at least for we American Protestants today, are his Confessions, a series of 13 books chronicling his turbulent, disobedient youth and his fierce struggle to overcome his failings and adequately respond to his experience of God's grace.
It's at the very beginning of Book One of the Confessions that Augustine exclaims, in a slightly more modern translation than the one you heard earlier, “Can any praise be worthy of the Lord's majesty? How magnificent is his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
For Augustine the momentum of the entire universe is leading us to realize and delight in God's love for each of us and for all of us. Restlessness is an inherent part of that spiritual journey. All that is in us rebels at the complacency of our own will because we can never truly know who we are until we see ourselves as children of God. Outside of God our lives are uncertainty and chaos, destruction and death. In God alone can we rest secure. “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces . . . but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” And in the silence alone did Elijah witness the Lord pass by.
Let us not misread the text: restlessness is not the problem. Restlessness is the symptom, and perhaps the antidote, for what ails our spiritual lives. In a world where Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of countless other faiths are persecuted because of their experience of the sacred, in a culture that defines people by their wealth and beauty at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable among us, in a day when the kingdom of God too often seems out of reach and out of mind, there is much cause for restlessness. Resting in God, putting our full trust in the One who gave his life so that we might know true life, calls us to action in Jesus' name.
Resting in God calls some of us to travel to San Diego—not only to paint a building and share God's love with underprivileged people, but to experience more of God's world and to see the movement of the Holy Spirit in the values and cultures of that community—to come to love people there as Christ loves all people. Resting in God calls us to work together as a community of faith to make the good news real through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. And sometimes resting in God calls us to leave home for new communities of education and discovery.
We are by nature—by design—restless people. Trust the restlessness. Find in it a call to ministry that is all your own. Allow it to take you to unexpected places. Dare to make decisions that can only be explained by the real, abiding presence of God in your life. And know that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Hallelujah and Amen.
Saturday, May 27, 2006
Musings of a Carolina Couple?
Dear Friends, Family, and People whose email addresses we bought off of a spammer,
Our months of recommendation letters, admissions essays, campus visits, praying, worrying and crying are finally over, and April and I can announce with certainty where we're headed this fall!
A couple weeks ago, I accepted an offer of a Divinity Fellowship from Duke University, so in mid-August we'll be moving to Durham, North Carolina. We've alredy picked out an apartment in the Duke Forest close to both the divinity school and the hospital, and April's begun looking for nursing jobs in the area. Best of all, we'll have a great guest bedroom waiting for you all to join us for UVA-Duke football games, long weekends, and surprise visits!
We also want to let you know that you can follow the last bits of wedding planning on the new website Brian set up for us at www.aprilanddavid.net. Right now it's basically just info about the service, reception, etc., but later it will have pictures from the wedding and honeymoon, our Durham contact information, and other goodies! While you're there, you can also sign the guestbook and let us know about all the amazing things going on in your life this summer!
We're very much looking forward to seeing all of you in July (if you see this and don't mind taking a moment to reply with your summer address, you'll help save our time and sanity as invitations go out next week), and we pray that you have a safe and blessed Memorial Day!
Blessings upon blessings,
April and David
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Lessons from Second Base
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away--and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father." --John 10:11-18
As I was preparing during the week for this morning's children's message, I looked through hundreds of pictures that we've taken over the past few years at Sunday night dinners, at weekend lock-ins, on youth retreats and summer mission trips. They say a picture's worth a thousand words, and these photos have become an important part of how we understand youth ministry here, just as they're important parts of the lives of many families. As I was looking through these photos, I saw some really interesting things. Many of them capture moments that I could never forget, even without pictures to remind me. Others capture moments I wish I could forget but haven't been able to. And some of them are pictures I should probably burn now so that no one can use them as blackmail later, but I'll save the sermon on not humiliating your youth director for another, more captive audience.
But as I looked through these pictures, I saw Christmas carolers at the homes of Gaynelle Kidd and Myrtle Marks. I saw lunches on the Downtown Mall, in the Florida Everglades, and in uptown Toronto. I saw Lin Walton scaling a pole in the fellowship hall and then explaining it away with some hard rock story about a stairway to heaven that he was climbing. I saw JC Koehn sliding down a hill on a trash bag during last year's Pentecost Retreat in northeast Tennessee. Interestingly, I also saw two girls from our group fall out of their boat while white water rafting on that same trip.
I saw a whole group of youth re-creating the George Rogers Clark statue and other Charlottesville landmarks during a photo scavenger hunt last fall. I saw Daiquan Harris power-washing a community center in Buffalo so that another group could come along and paint a mural there to make it a more beautiful and inviting space. I saw people carrying desks and sofas and tables and chairs around the downstairs here to make our own youth room a cleaner, more inviting space. I saw Lina Schneider displaying her artwork during a summer Governor's School program, and I saw Emma Clements and Lee Bibb on the day of their graduation from Walton Middle School. I saw Kyra Kaster, the fiercest Spoons player in all of Montreal; Rose Dubuque, the fiercest floor hockey player in the history of Charlottesville; and Jeremy Hopkins, the most dangerous potato chopper in south Florida. I saw people working together to build a human pyramid on the beach, to put up sheet rock in a burnt-out home in Pennsylvania, to pull off a yard sale on hours of labor and no sleep, and to plan and lead an entire Vacation Bible School for a poor mission church in western New York.
In all these pictures, and in all our time together, the one common thread of youth ministry at Hinton Avenue is relationships. In a very real way, the best thing we have going are the relationships young people here have forged with one another, with the chaperones and other adults who are a part of our programs, and with people around the country whom we've met in our travels. They're what bind us together as a community of people of faith, willing and able to love and support one another during times of joy and times of sorrow, to hold one another accountable to the promises we've made and the values we've shared in this place, to call one another to task and to action in the world on behalf of Jesus Christ.
You see, the model for our relationships with one another is the relationship God has established with us through the love and sacrifice and example of Christ, and sometimes our relationships are mirrors in which we can see our faith journey for what it really is, in all of its miscommunication and frustration and brokenness. That's true in youth ministry, and whether we like it or not, whether we even recognize it or not, it's also true in the life of a congregation. We're never going to agree on everything; that wouldn't be true of our relationship with God either. But the way we agree or disagree with one another, the frequency and sincerity of our decisions to love or not to love one another, the relationships we share with other people, are reflections of our relationship with God.
It's clear to me that we can't have effective youth ministry if our youth aren't getting along with one another. We've experienced that firsthand from time to time, and we do everything we can to develop healthy relationships, establishing appropriate boundaries that allow space for questioning and exploring how we are to live together as sisters and brothers in Christ.
It's also clear to me that our administrative board, our council on ministries, our prayer and hospitality and outreach ministries cannot function properly if our relationships with one another are less than whole. A faith community is no community at all if we can't talk to one another in ways that promote peace and justice and love. One of the first steps of our journey to live into and out of our Christian calling is to reconcile ourselves to God and to one another.
I don't know much about how that reconciliation happens, but what I do know (or at least some of it), I learned on the baseball field. You see, as a very young man (5,6,7 years old), I knew I was going to be the next Ken Griffey, Jr. It didn't matter that I was a little bit slower than him or that I didn't quite have the upper body strength to get around on the ball the way he did, or that my father hadn't been a famous major leaguer like his, I was going to be the next Ken Griffey, Jr. I was gonna play center field in the big leagues, make amazing diving catches in the outfield, scale the wall to steal home runs from the other team, do backflips on my way to the dugout after winning the game with my heroics. I'd make millions of dollars, be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and on the Wheaties box. Kids around the country would actually shave my number in the sides of their head to tell all their friends that I was their favorite player.
So I decided that I would go out for the baseball team and make my mark on the sport forever. I signed up, I bought a glove and a bat, I showed up for the first practice, and I told the other kids I was gonna be the center fielder. It all seemed to be going exactly according to plan, except for one minor detail: even though he had never been a famous baseball player, my dad was the coach of our little league team. And as some of you probably know, when your dad's the coach you don't always get to do what you want to do. When someone gets sick or hurt, when someone just doesn't show up one day, you can bet that the coach's son will end up wherever he's supposed to be. At least, that's how it worked in our family.
And it didn't really matter that you were one of the smallest guys on the team, or that the catcher's equipment weighed as much as you did, or that your mother protested furiously on your behalf, when there was a hole in the lineup, that's where you went. Thankfully, catching wasn't really our problem; our problem was second base. After a few practices and a couple games, it became clear that our second baseman was a very good artist: he could write his name in the dirt and draw pictures with his shoe, he could spin himself around in perfect circles in the middle of a game, and he could even carry on a full conversation with his mother from his position on the field. Unfortunately, none of these are things you look for in a second baseman, so Ken Griffey, Jr. dreams or not, my dad moved me to second base.
And before I started there, I studied up on a lot of things: I knew that when a ground ball came, I had to get my glove on the ground and my body in front of it; if I had to I could knock it down with my chest and still throw the batter out. I knew when I needed to throw the ball overhand to the first baseman and when I was close enough to just toss it underhand. I knew that you always check the runner at third before throwing to first. I knew everything about playing second base—except, apparently, what to do when someone hit the ball in the air to me.
And that's exactly what happened in my first game as an infielder. A boy on the other team hit a popup right to my position at second base. I got excited and a little bit nervous, and I charged in, ready to make a spectacular catch. After all, maybe I could be the Ken Griffey, Jr. of the infield. About halfway through my sprint to the ball, however, I realized that it had somehow flown several feet behind me. I did an awkward sort of dance and tried to get back to catch it, but the ball bounced off the tip of my glove and into the outfield. The runner was safe, my team was embarrassed, and I was certainly no Ken Griffey, Jr. When I got back in the dugout after that inning, my dad took me aside and told me that I'd learned something important that day: when you play second base, your first step is always back, so that you can see the field better and judge where you really need to go. It's easy then to run in and make the play, but it's near impossible to do what I had tried and catch up with a ball that's already behind you. So at second base, and really at most positions on the baseball field, your first reaction is to take a step back so that you can survey the landscape and then make your move.
Now I know it's cheesy and it won't do as either a catchy bumper sticker or a profound church mission statement, but I think that oftentimes in our relationships with one another our fist step ought to be back. Not to the point that we're not able to embrace or even challenge one another, but just so that we don't collide all the time. When we go to a PTA meeting to decide on a school fundraiser, when we gather here to debate important issues of church policy and practice, when we meet new people and want to share our faith with them, jumping towards them and on them immediately is often a recipe for disaster. When we take a step back, on the other hand, we're better able to see the whole picture, to meet others where they are, and to walk with them to a new place of wisdom and hope and grace.
We told the children earlier that you can never know everything about a person. Whenever you think you've got someone completely figured out, he goes and says or does something that completely shatters your understanding. I actually want to go a step further than that this morning and suggest to you that it is sinful to take another human being, one fashioned in the image of the living God, and conform her to your image, to put her into a box that is comfortable or familiar for you. That's a model of human relationships that has dominated for generations and that is not ultimately sustainable. Relationships that judge you based on your occupation or your income, based on the number of children you have or the amount of power you've accumulated, break down in the light of the new life we know through Christ.
The One who is the good shepherd, who lays down his life for each of us equally and for all of us together, overturns the standards whereby we would judge one another and makes us participants jointly in the new kingdom. You and I and all of God's children are in this together, and so the way we treat one another is a sacred matter.
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” The writer of 1 John picks up on this reasoning and says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How can God's love even abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
Brothers and sisters, John says, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Let us take a step back, for if we cannot give our neighbors, and our enemies, the space to be who they are and to share their experience of the world and what God has laid on their hearts, how can we ever imagine sacrificing our goods for them or laying down our lives on their behalf?
Youth ministry—Youth Sunday worship services, Pentecost Retreats in Virginia Beach, mission trips to San Diego—are all about the relationships. I hope you sense, like I do, that week to week those relationships are growing to more closely resemble God's love for God's people. Everything we do, from the silly photographs we take to the converting conversations we share, aims to develop in a new generation the ability to see our sisters and brothers who are in need (that's not always easy, you know) and to help in the name of Christ, even when it means stepping back, laying our own lives aside, to seek something new.
For this and for all that God is doing to make all things new in this place and in every place, thanks be to God! Amen.
Tuesday, May 02, 2006
DV: Hey, let's check out our fortunes.
BV: I don't usually get one.
DV: You get empty cookies?
BV: No, it's usually like commands or something.
DV: Well, what does it say?
BV: "It's not the best who are always the happiest, but the happiest who are always the best." What about you?
DV: "The mood is right for a friendly chat to lead to romance."
BV: Let's switch.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Lost But Holding Hands
Right now I am boldly, blindly, blissfully doing the very last thing in the world that I should be: sitting in a carrol on the first floor of Clemons Library, with 25 pages waiting to be written by Friday on the theological controversies of Bush v. Schiavo, drafting this post. But when I ran home this afternoon for a quick bite to eat between classes and saw Matt's lament about his recent lack of writing, my brain started shouting "ME TOO, ME TOO!" and I haven't convinced it to shut up all day. Plus if I don't write something now, I'll lose another month, which throws the Archives all out of whack. As you can see, I've really got no choice.
Actually, I share Matt's experience of having found (the time for) writing easier in college than afterward, although I can't point to the pressures (or productivity) of research to account for the change. I'm only a few months out of college, living in the same town and taking classes that look very much like the ones I had as an undergraduate. But somehow the words come less freely nowadays. My language is bulkier and more elusive.
One might think that this absence of creative, unassigned writing projects would mean that I'm more on top of my schoolwork. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the opposite is happening--I'm further behind than ever at this point in the semester and in need of several small miracles (in addition to a few more all-nighters) just to make it through. I am substitute teaching quite a bit more than last year, and the budget crisis at church has made job security a little rocky through the fall--I suppose that may account for some of this.
Just getting older and softer and lazier may account for more of the problem. But I think the biggest struggle this semester has been that I'm (finally) ready to be out of Charlottesville. Over the past couple years I've had all kinds of trouble trying to understand all my friends who've felt trapped here and wanted desperately to get away. I'm not quite to that point yet (I still have a great job that I'll miss dearly and wonderful friends and housemates who make the journey light), but I've learned so much during my time in Charlottesville--about the world, about relationships, and about myself and my faith--and now that that learning seems to be slowing down somewhat, heading off to discover a new world is increasingly attractive.
Given the crazy changes that are coming soon whether or not I'm ready for them, this is probably the healthiest mindset I could have right now. Unfortunately, it hasn't done enough to expedite seminary application or wedding planning, and it certainly isn't helping with the academic tasks presently at hand. Some good things are happening, though. Two weeks ago my aunt, uncle, and cousins came up for the football game against Virginia Tech. Although the game was one of the larger disasters of the new century, the whole weekend was a wonderful opportunity for Brian and me to share hospitality, fellowship and love with some dear folks we don't get to see as often as we'd like. I managed to score additional tickets for April and her dad at the last minute (without getting mugged!), my folks came up for the day, and the lot of us had a jolly time during dinner at the Wild Wing Cafe on W. Main Street.
Thanksgiving was also a gluttonous good time. April and I canvassed most of the commonwealth, sampled the finest turkey and sweet potatoes this side of Plymouth, and learned a lot about the pressure and joy of becoming one. I also held a puking baby, talked church politics with a wise saint, and oversaw the demise of my fantasy football team, but those are stories for another day.
The best development of all is that it's Advent. This means beautiful greens in church, our youth group's seasonal retreat to Washington, DC, and the return of egg nog and holiday candy. While we don't yet have a Christmas tree like the ladies in Atlanta, the Hinton House too is starting to look and feel a little more festive each day, with wreath, candles, and music already in place. And all the work that's still got to be done? Advent's a time when you're supposed to wait expectantly for shouts of good news to pierce the darkness. This year, I'll just have to wait quickly.
Pilgrims on the Way
Snapshots of a Life
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