On Friday I did something different...I led the worship and preached (as we recorded our first video) in our newly renovated sanctuary on Linden Place. It felt different, it looks different, it sounded different than our former home at ‘the Barn’. I thought about those differences as Lynette and I traveled to the coast later that day. Not so much on how the new place has been transformed, although that could best be described as a miracle of hard work and creativity, but more about how we will be ‘transformed’ and be different in this new place. Taking current Covid restrictions aside, I wondered if we would continue to be a place that was ‘open’, full of the joy of fellowship, focusing on ministry outside of our selves. My day dreaming about this brought me to the conclusion that...’Yes, we will be in a different space, with different sights and sounds...but the same Spirit’. Thanks be to God for all of the different gifts he brings into our life!
Lent is the season of forty days (minus the Sundays!) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. It is a season of preparation in advance of our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a formal time set aside for us to rid our lives of the burden of sin that we accumulate as we go through life. Small sins of unkindness. Large sins of unfaithfulness. Sins of dishonesty. Sins of inaction. All of these sins attach themselves to us through the simple business of living—often going without our notice. What we seek to do during Lent is look at them—notice them –and seek to rid ourselves of them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:4-10, Paul instructs us to use whatever life throws at us (and between the pandemic, political turmoil and economic struggles the past year has thrown a lot our way) as a means of ridding our lives of sin and becoming true servants of God— “great endurance, afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” All our life experiences, even those that leave us feeling “beaten up” can be transformed into means by which we deepen our relationship with God. We usually think of “giving up” something for Lent. But we can also take things on. We can challenge ourselves to do acts of service or extraordinary exercises in patience and forbearance. Any situation in which we find ourselves can be used to our spiritual benefit if we will tune our minds in that direction. So during this Lent let us use everything in our lives, positive and negative, to sharpen our attention upon God and to replace our shortcomings with the potential for faithful life that God has put within each of us...
PS...If you have a copy I encourage you to use “Lent in Plain Sight: A Devotion Through Ten Objects” by Jill Duffield, as a very helpful resource during Lent 2021!
It is a time of transitions..winter gives way to spring (Although it appears that winter is making a strong comeback early next week!) Baseball games at Dudy Noble overlap basketball games at the Hump. (Looking forward to that!). Even with Covid there is a seeming transition from news of another case or death to when we are scheduled to get our ‘shots’. (My fervent prayer is that this transition will be permanent!) Here at FPCUSA, Starkville, soon to officially be STARKVILLE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, there is a transition from ‘the Barn’ to our new, and beautifully renovated church property on Linden Place. (And when we will transition back into ‘face to face’ worship!) On our church calendar we transition from the miracles, the power and glory of Christ during Epiphany to the steady journey with Jesus to the Cross.
One of my most consistent thoughts of how God relates to us is in the term ‘with us’.
Just as I am certain of God being with us as we make our eternal transition from life to death, as so many of our friends have done over the last few months...So I am certain that God is with us as we make all of the transitions of life...
In the early 1990s, I served a United Methodist church on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It was a fairly new congregation, and unlike every other church I had served, it was full of people who had never been Methodists, and a strong minority of people who had not grown up in church. It was different, looking back, in a very good way! One member was a school teacher, who in her spare time went floundering and cast netting. (Both are fishing activities.) The floundering I picked up pretty quickly. “Know where your feet are” was a valuable rule! But the cast net; I guess I lacked the patience, manual dexterity, or experience to really make it work. It seemed effortless for her, as if her body and arms were one with the net. The main rules for cast netting seemed to be: 1) Don worry too much about the catch (“Fish are fickle”, she said), and 2)Practice a lot—alone—until it becomes natural, a part of who you are.
What if this were our approach to fishing for people?
In the early 1960ʼs our family would take vacations to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and usually, because we were coming via my grandparents’ home in North Carolina, we would go by South of the Border. Here is the current Wikipedia description: “South of the Border is an attraction on Interstate 95 and US Highway 301/501 in Dillon, South Carolina, just south of Rowland, North Carolina. It is so named because it is just south of the border between North Carolina and South Carolina and is themed in tongue-in-cheek, faux Mexican style. The rest area contains restaurants, gas stations, a video arcade, and a motel, and truck stop and a small dilapidated amusement park with no operating rides but a mini golf course still in commission, shopping and fireworks stores. Its mascot is Pedro, a caricature of a Mexican Bandido”.
It didn’t have all the amenities described in the Wikipedia article in 1963, but it was certainly an attraction to a nine-year-old! Beginning a few miles away there would be those little road signs that would say things like “It’s coming”, “Just ahead”, “Pedro’s waiting”. We usually stopped for gas, or a quick snack. Just as you pulled back on the highway headed to the beach, there was the 25 foot high statute of Pedro holding a humongous South of the Border billboard. And then the road signs began again, ”You Missed It”!
It makes me think about the spiritual road signs that are staked down for us, so we don’t miss what God wants us to experience of life. I remember, more clearly, the times we didn’t stop at South of the Border. Sometimes it was because we were in a hurry to get to the beach, or we took a different (in my mind, the wrong) highway and did not pass Pedro. One time, late at night, I awoke from my slumber just in time to see the “You Missed It” sign. The wonderful thing about God’s grace is that if we keep our spiritual eyes open, and watch the signs to make sure we are on the path God would have us to travel, we won’t awake from our spiritual slumber to see “You Missed It”.
With who or with what did you identify this week? (It is a rhetorical question.
For those of us who were tasked with preparing a sermon, and follow the Christian calendar, our focus was on Jesus’ Baptism, which is all about ‘identity’. The ultimate statement of that comes in God’s voice proclaiming: “This is my Beloved Son”. I had a church member many years ago who had been a rancher out west before coming to Mississippi and being called a cattle farmer. (Same thing!). We were discussing baptism in a bible study one Wednesday night and he shared a story he had heard while living in Arizona.
In the early days, out on the cattle ranches of the West, the unbranded calves that roamed at large were known as “mavericks”. They were claimed by the first person to get their brand on them at the annual round up. A little girl, who had been baptized one Sunday at the Methodist church in her town, was trying to explain to her schoolmates the meaning of the ceremony. “Well”, she said, “I will just tell you. I was a little maverick out on the prairie and Jesus and that preacher put the Jesus mark on my forehead so that when He sees me He will know that I am one of His children.”
It is in times like these that we need to remember that we are all ‘little mavericks’.
I re-use this parable every few years because it will fly!
Almost every year during this season, I will see a sight, a V-formation of birds, that brings back a memory. It was of lying on the banks of the Pee Dee River near Everettʼs Lake just north of the South Carolina line watching the high-flying geese as they migrated along the Atlantic flyway. My father and Uncle Zeb tried to explain all of my questions: “How far do they fly?”, “A long way”; “Where are they going?”, “Up to Canada”; “Why?”, “Enough questions, just watch!” Years later I came across a little book by seminary professor and pastor Browne Barr about churches and the people who are part of them. It was called High Flying Geese, Unexpected Reflections on the Church and Its Ministry. I still think it is one of the best parables about how we might live our lives together through the church.
So much about this Covid Christmas is different: our church is not meeting for worship so that those old familiar carols can be sung, the lights of the Christmas Eve candles will not be lit, the ways we celebrate with family or friends have been diminished, or will not happen at all. Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and writer, offered these thoughts many years ago, perhaps not in the midst of a world wide pandemic, but certainly moved by a sense that many find after fulfilling all of the traditions of Christmas, he wrote: “Somehow I realized that songs, music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to something beyond all emotions and feeling. Christmas is saying ‘yes’ to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work and not mine. Things will never look just right or feel just right. If they did someone would be lying… But it is into this broken world that a child is born who is called the Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, Savior.”
The words of one of those old familiar, comforting Christmas songs comes to mind here: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
There was a popular TV show back in the early 90’s called ‘Evening Shade’. Burt Reynolds played a football coach in small town Arkansas, but the stories were mainly about his daily personal life with his wife and kids. One night his two school-aged children were ready for bed. The little boy said, “Do you ever feel lonely and scared?” His sister replied, “Well, sometimes; but then I remember what they say in Sunday School, about how God is always with us and I feel better.” The boy thought a few minutes—then he said, “Yeah, well that praying stuff is all right I guess; but sometimes you just need somebody with skin on them.”
In his book ‘God is Closer Than You Think’, Presbyterian pastor John Ortberg makes the case that the central promise of the Bible is not “I will forgive you”, and it is not the promise of life after death, though both are powerfully offered. The most frequent promise (usually in the context of lonely or afraid) is “I will be with you”! The name Emmanuel (God with Us) is more than a nice name for sweet baby Jesus, but is the reality of God “with skin on”—the Incarnation! In this we can experience God’s saving grace, God’s tender mercies, God’s healing love. And so even in the midst of an Advent with restrictions due to Covid, draw as close as you can, using all the means you can, as often as you can to remind the lonely and scared that Emmanuel has come, and is still with us!
I had forgotten this part of my childhood until I saw it posted on Facebook this week. It comes from the 1965 “A Charlie Brown Christmas”. Charlie Brown is best known for his uniquely striped shirt, and Linus is most associated with his ever-present security blanket. Throughout the story of Peanuts, Lucy, Snoopy, Sally and others all work to no avail to separate Linus from his blanket. And even though his security blanket remains a major source of ridicule for the otherwise mature and thoughtful Linus, he simply refuses to give it up. Until, while reciting the Christmas story from Luke 2, Linus says the words “fear not”, and he drops his security blanket! Watching it again I think what Linus did was on purpose!
It is pretty clear what Charles Schultz was saying, and it's so simple it's brilliant. The birth of Jesus separates us from our fears. The birth of Jesus frees us from the habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves. The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead. The world of 2020 can be a scary place, and most of us find ourselves grasping to something temporal for security, whatever that thing may be. Essentially, 2020 is a world in which it is very difficult for us to "fear not." But in the midst of fear and insecurity, this simple cartoon image from 1965 continues to live on as an inspiration for us to seek true peace and true security in the one place it has always been and can always still be found. As the hymn for this week says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”.
“Fear not, for we bring you good news of a great joy.”
|Starkville Presbyterian Church PC(USA) Starkville, MS||