The Harder Version Is Likely the Original

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It’s a haunting passage that many of us are inclined to rewrite. 

After reacquainting ourselves with the Matthew 15 passage this past Sunday, many of us are still unsure about it. A Gentile, a non-Jew, is in need. Her daughter is possessed with a demon and she has learned that Jesus of Nazareth is nearby. Desperate to get help for her daughter, she cries out to Jesus for help: 

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” 

The Bible tells us that Jesus does not answer her cries. 

Surely, we imagine, Jesus simply didn’t hear her. Jesus wouldn’t willfully ignore someone, would he? But she keeps crying out and the reader grows uneasy. The disciples soon get involved: “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  

Upon hearing the dismissive action of his followers, Jesus springs into action. He condemns the hard-heartedness of his disciples and praises the woman for her faithfulness. The woman’s daughter is healed, and we move on to another healing story.  

Right? 

Wrong. Jesus does no such thing. In the real version found in the Bible, and not in the fantasy that we might be tempted to craft instead, Jesus doubles down in his annoyance with the woman and tries to shoo her away like a dog. And we, 21st century readers, are stunned and perplexed by Jesus’s very un-Christlike response to a woman who is crying out for mercy. 

The most straightforward reading of this story is unpalatable at best, and flat-out offensive at worst. Jesus doesn’t want to help a non-Jew. He tries to ignore her. When she persists, he likens her to a dog that’s nipping at its master’s heels. 

It’s important to note, however, that the story does have a happy ending. The woman is persistent and clever. Jesus concedes that she has great faith. The woman’s daughter is healed, and Jesus begins to reach out to the Gentiles in future accounts. 

But this story! Goodness gracious. It certainly leaves a bitter taste in our mouths and raises questions about what kind of Jesus we follow. 

Not everyone has been dismayed by this story, though. If you scratch beneath the surface of biblical commentary and scholarship, you’ll find that many think that it’s plausible to downplay the offensive nature of this passage. What is their argument? Many scholars believe that Jesus wasn’t being offensive here. He was simply seeking to test the woman’s faith. By ignoring her, and by seeming to agree with his disciples that she should be sent away, Jesus is trying to test the woman to see what lengths she will go to in order to press her case and get mercy for her daughter. Jesus, some scholars will argue, always intended to heal the woman. He was just seeing if she would play the part of the persistent widow and not give up when she encounters resistance.  

Really? Really. 

Perhaps this is how the story played out. Maybe this is what Jesus intended all along. I suppose that it’s possible that this is what this passage means.  

But does that pass the sniff test?  

I know which version I prefer. I want a story where Jesus is kind, gentle, all-powerful, and hospitable to everyone he meets. I desire a Jesus who is quick to hug and is ever-cheery.  

My Jesus would never want to send someone away. My Jesus would never have a reason to change his mind.” 

The problem presents itself when the text does not support my thinking, or the fantasy that I’ve created for Jesus.  

So, we find ourselves at a crossroads as we seek to make meaning of a difficult text. What are we to do? 

None of this is even remotely new. The broad narrative of Jesus’s life and ministry reveal that even when he was alive, Jesus was misunderstood and confusing to those whom he encountered. Jesus defied people’s expectations for who the Son of God was to be. Of course, centuries of thoughtful reflection and study on the accounts of Jesus in the canonical texts have but deepened some of these questions about who Jesus was. The thousands (yes, thousands) of manuscripts that help to make up our New Testament reveal that scribes and scribblers through the ages frequently sought to soften and domesticate hard passages. The practice of Biblical Textual Criticism helps us to deal responsibly with the ‘differences’ and ‘modifications’ that have been made to the message. One of the rules in textual criticism is to acknowledge that when a passage reads differently among ancient manuscripts, the harder version is probably the original. Thus, the more difficult rendering of a text is the one closest to the truth because we have a tendency to soften the tough stuff and to blunt the edges of things. 

The story of the Canaanite woman, then, becomes a good test-study for us. It’s a hard passage where Jesus doesn’t come off looking like the Jesus we’ve crafted in our heads. We may be tempted to reconstruct the story in such a way that removes the tough elements. In fact, and in all truthfulness, this is our default mode. We read scripture the way we want to read it. Even more compelling, we simply may not read the passages of scripture that we don’t want to hear.  

That’s all well and fine, but it won’t yield much fruit in our lives if we choose to worship a God of our own creation. A manicured god doesn’t require faith. It requires careful stage-crafting and management. The more daring, more faithful posture may be to read and experience God in scripture with our biases openly acknowledged and to leave space for us to be personally challenged. 

Remember, y’all. If Jesus can change his mind, then so can we.  

No Shirt, No Shoes, No…

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…No worries. Right?

When I was a child, summer began when I was able to peel off my socks, kick-off my shoes and go barefoot. With the exception of Sunday mornings, my entire summer was lived with bare feet and flip-flops. Summer meant freedom and the permission to do things off-script. Feeling liberated to do things differently, summer felt exhilarating. The worries of the other 9 months were suspended, and the biggest concern was fretting over which flavor of ice cream to choose from at the neighborhood Baskin Robbins.  

For us, however, summer will have to wait a few more weeks. It was 41 F at our house this morning. Few of us want to tiptoe through the dew-lined grass with blue feet.  

And yet, summer approacheth. With the release of our summer calendar this past Sunday, it is our hope that our church family will have multiple opportunities to kick-off our shoes and enjoy one another’s company in our beautiful mountains.  

The first of these opportunities is coming up! We will gather for our annual summer picnic at the Deep Creek Pavilion near Bryson City in the Smokies on the afternoon of June, 2nd. Yes, you can come early and tube the creek. Or, you can simply set-up a lawn chair at the pavilion after dropping off your offering for our potluck dinner. After our time off feasting, and as dusk begins to descend, we’ll gather by the water for an evening worship service.  

This past spring my studies in the Celtic Christian tradition have taught me about the Irish’s deep love and respect for nature. They believed that particular places and features in the natural world were touch-points for experiencing the divine. Sources of water, groves of trees, and high mountain tops were considered holy ground, and people flocked to worship by gurgling fountains and on craggy outposts above the clouds.  

For many of us, our mountains and their diverse forest ecosystems have a similar power. Taking a cue from our Celtic ancestors, we will have three opportunities for worship outdoors this summer. The first, as just mentioned, will be by the water after our potluck picnic at the Deep Creek Pavilion. The second service will be on Sunday afternoon, July 14th up at Waterrock Knob where we’ll gather for a time of worship in the highlands. Our final outdoor worship service will be in the woods at Pinnacle Point Park above Sylva on August 4th. I hope you will choose to join us as we seek to experience God’s presence in a thin place—that is a place where the dividing line between this world and the next is very thin.  

There will also be opportunities this summer for relaxed fellowship so that friendships can be sparked and nourished. In an attempt to identify the best frozen confections in our community, we’ll be meeting up at three different ice cream joints on select Wednesdays at 7:00 PM. Our task will be straightforward: Show up, devour a cold, tasty goody, and then judge the product we just sampled. At the end of the summer, when we have our own annual, homemade ice cream contest, we’ll announce which ice cream establishment serves the best desserts in town. 

In the coming weeks, we’ll be hearing updates and testimonies from our ‘Have Mercy Challenge’ groups. Many of us have already been on mission to do an act of mercy to one of the people groups that Jesus directs us to show compassion to in the Bible. The intergenerational groups that have developed around this challenge are yielding fruit and changing lives. Together, we are proving that we are up to the challenge to provide care for the “‘least of these’ my brothers and sisters.” 

Yes, dozens of our community’s children will be with us for our Summer Explorers Camp throughout the coming months. And yes, our children and youth will both be attending mission camps, as well. Our Being-Active-Living-Longer Club (aka, the B.A.L.L. Club) will be busy, and we’ll be taking in a Tourists Ball Game, also.  

Why such a different slate of activities for these next few months? Summer provides us with unique opportunities to kick-off our shoes and do things a bit differently. Summer in the mountains provides us with different entry points into our faith community and gives us the chance to encounter God in dynamic and creative ways.  

Besides. Who doesn’t like ice cream? 

Join us this summer as we seek to be God’s people in fresh and authentic ways. But be sure to keep a pair of flip-flops in your car. Some of the establishments in our community have signs on their doors that read: No shirt. No shoes. No service.  

Where to Begin?  

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When I found myself walking across the parking lot at Food Lion this past Saturday evening, I was struck by the absurdity of the moment.  

Earlier that same day, I had taken one last look at the front of Windsor Castle outside of London, England. The sky was a brilliant blue that Saturday morning in England, and the wind chill made it feel like it was in the mid-30s.  

Hours later, I was sauntering jet-lagged into our local grocery store through mid-summer humidity to buy fresh milk. And it occurred to me. You shouldn’t be able to be on two continents on the same day. 

Please, don’t get me wrong. I love to travel and to have the ability to visit far-off places and to experience people and cultures that are unfamiliar to us. The reason that I don’t think you should be able to be on two continents in one day is because it all feels surreal and overwhelming. Our ability to travel so rapidly can easily generate culture shock. When we zip around the globe so quickly, our mode of transportation doesn’t naturally provide a way for our new experiences to sink in. Like a torrential summer storm that pelts the ground, international travel can feel so sweeping in its reach that the experiences don’t sink in and saturate the ground. Instead, they just run off the surface and float away in the flash flood of rapid assimilation back into the life we had left. 

What’s needed when one has an experience of a lifetime is space to absorb all that was felt, sensed, heard, tasted, and explored.  

My great-grandfather’s experience a century ago sounds about right, then. 

My great-grandfather was a circuit-riding Baptist pastor in the northern foothills of North Carolina. He was beloved by the congregations he served, and they made it possible for him to see the Holy Land. So, he and a good friend boarded a boat—an ocean liner, no less—for a two-month voyage to the middle east.  

No, I don’t cotton to the idea of being on a boat for weeks at a time. And no, the practicalities of that kind of extended sabbatical seems unrealistic for me and my family at this time. But I do think there’s something to having space to think about and reflect upon one’s experiences so that they might sink in.  

Our week in England and Scotland was extraordinary and life-changing. I am so very grateful for the rich blessing of being able to travel with my family and to have a pilgrimage experience in an ancient, and faithful setting. Yes, the reason for our particular journey to the United Kingdom centered on my doctoral studies. You’ll remember that my doctoral studies are intended to enrich and deepen my call to congregational ministry.  

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I am eager to tell you the story of my pilgrimage to the island of Iona, and I will do so with pictures and anecdotes beginning Wednesday night, May 15th. But I’m also glad there’s a bit of space between now and then as I’m still processing the power and significance of my journey. There is something deeply moving about being in a place that is widely known and understood as being ‘thin.’ Truly, in doing so it provides space to become ‘thin’ ourselves to the presence of God in our lives.  

Of course, I’ll tell you about seeing the Gutenberg Bible and the spectacularly important Codex Sinaiticus at the British Library. I’ll tell you about worshipping in Westminster Abbey and at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. I’ll tell you about the sleeper train and the complicated travel to the small, spit-of-land off the northwest coast of Scotland.  

And I’ll tell you about my time of pilgrimage to a sacred place and all that it stirs up within me.  

It just may take some time for me to let it all unspool. 

Pilgrimage

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I think, if pressed, I would say that I am most-looking forward to visiting Columba’s Bay.  

Columba’s Bay is 3,745 miles from Sylva. And I will be going there next week. 

The pebble beach is located on the Scottish island of Iona where St. Columba and his followers landed in the year 563. These intrepid Christians had traveled from Ireland to Iona in a leather-bound boat. It is said that after landing there, Columba climbed to the top of a nearby hill—the Hill of the Back to the Ireland—to make sure that he could no longer see Ireland. To do so would have been too much of a temptation to return to his homeland. Since the place from which he had traveled was no longer in view, Columba decided that it would be an appropriate location to establish his missionary work to the rest of Europe. 

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The beach is not sandy, but rocky. It is littered with round pebbles and flecks of emerald-colored marble. It has been a destination for thousands of pilgrims through the ages who wish to commemorate Columba’s work and to acknowledge the sacred quality of the small island. Once an ancient monastic community, Iona is now the site of an intentional Christian community that seeks to be a people who prizes common worship, justice, and peace.  

For Columba, and for countless travelers to this ‘thin place,’ Iona represents a turning point. It was certainly a turning point for the faithful Christian monks alongside Columba who struck out to spread the Good News to people who had never heard of Jesus. It was not only a turning point in the history of the Church in the British Isles, but also in Christendom during the Dark Ages. And it has been a turning point for those who have found themselves on its sacred and rocky shores some 15 centuries hence.  

Yes, my visit to Iona will serve as a turning point for me, as well.  

My pilgrimage to Iona will serve as the beginning of the final stretch of my Doctorate of Ministry work. When I return, I will be beginning the project phase of my program.  

My walk along the shores and in the grassy fields of Iona will also represent a turning point for me spiritually as I consider how sacred places can be a place of communion and transformation with God.  

And yes, I anticipate that my trip to Iona will be an emotional turning point for me as I begin unencumbered the good but hard work of reflecting on my father’s death.  

So, I will walk, pray, journal, think, consider, study, admire, pause, worship, cry, rest, and meditate while I wander the ruins of an ancient Celtic Christian site. You will be with me. And as such, I ask for your prayers that God might make good work of my time in Scotland next week.  

Unlike Columba, I do not wish for my past—that is, the place from where I’ve come—to be lost from sight. If anything, I would hope that I would be able to see both the past and the future more clearly.   

Thank you for your blessing as I seek to experience God in fresh ways and to learn and to grow. I am already looking forward to returning to you and telling you about what my journey was like. 

Who knows? Perhaps you might want to make a similar pilgrimage yourself.  

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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“It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,  
A beautiful day for a neighbor,  
Would you be mine?  
Could you be mine? 
Won’t you be my neighbor?” 
-Fred Rogers- 

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
-Jesus-  

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The invitation that Fred Rogers offered to us was simple. It was sweet. It was clothed in humility and a bright red sweater. Disarming in his delivery and benevolent in spirit, Fred Rogers came in to our homes and taught us what it looked like to “let the little children come unto me (Matthew 19:14).”  

Beginning this evening, April 17th, in the Mission and Fellowship Center during our Adult Bible Study Hour, we will be watching the documentary about the life and work of Fred Rogers and the neighborhood that he built and pastored. The movie, ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ tells the story of a Presbyterian Minister who sought to create space for children to be loved, and for their curiosity to be sparked. In addition to achieving global notoriety for his award-winning children’s program, ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ Fred Rogers would teach us what Jesus insisted his followers become; namely “meek, merciful and pure in heart (Jesus, in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount).” 

I have very strong memories of Fred Rogers’ show. Each weekday afternoon, as a 4-year old, I would watch Sesame Street followed by ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ while sprawled out on the shag carpet in our living room. My mother would be preparing supper as I tuned in, and my father—as though on cue—would walk in from work and pick up where Mr. Rogers’ had left off. In similar fashion, my father would take off his sportscoat and change his shoes as he transitioned from his workday to being at home. Mr. Rogers sang as he swept across his living room on our television sets. My father, in contrast, seemed weary from the world and rarely in the mood for a song.  

Mr. Rogers’ became for my generation a co-parent and a guide, as it were. Like a good teacher or an effective pastor, Fred Rogers modeled for us civility and friendliness as we came of age.  

Fred Rogers was faithful to Christ’s commandment to love his neighbor as himself. He did so by choosing to be a good neighbor to everyone he could encounter. Mr. Rogers showed us a lifestyle of grace and quiet humility. He invited us in to his home and provided us hospitality each afternoon. His home was a place of welcome for everyone, and he allowed it be a place to ask questions and to consider weighty subjects. When needed, he would tell stories in parables and would speak truth with authenticity and gentleness.  

Fred Rogers didn’t simply “love kindness or have mercy.”  

He embodied it.  

As such, he can walk through our doors anytime. Perhaps by hearing his story in full, we’ll have energy to be the kind of neighbor that he invited us to become.  

 

Fear and Loathing During Holy Week

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When I was nine years old, my family was involved in the annual Passion Play and Easter Cantata at our local church.  

My mother sang in the choir. Dad was Barabbas, the prisoner released in favor of crucifying Jesus (He accepted the role, I think, because Barabbas didn’t have to memorize any lines). My sister had a part as an ‘extra’ in the crowd scenes. My brother may have had a behind-the-scenes role. I honestly can’t recall. 

But this is what I can remember. The Easter program was a very big deal. The production had demanded much rehearsal and investment during the winter months. The purpose of the event was to tell the story of Jesus and to depict the critical scenes of the Last Supper, Good Friday, and the Resurrection.  

The part that I played in the production was also clear. I sat in the audience.  

The production was divided into two parts. The first act was about Jesus’s life and ministry. The second act was the events of Holy Week. Anticipation for the crucifixion scene—which was to incorporate special effects to make Jesus’s death as realistic as possible—was palpable and tickets had to be claimed for each performance.    

I loved the first act. As I sat midway back, on the left side of the auditorium, I marveled at the acting, the singing, the spotlights, and the well-staged storytelling. But there was a growing sense of dread that began to rise within me. Increasingly, as I watched the first act, I felt panicked and claustrophobic by the prospect of what was to come. I knew, you see, how the story would go. I did not want to watch them crucify Jesus.  

I knew, of course, that they were only pretending. And yes, since I was a child of the 1970s and 80s, I had been exposed to a great deal of violence on TV and in the movies that I saw. None of this mattered. I did not want to see Jesus die.  

So, I left.  

At intermission I left the auditorium and elected to ‘help out’ in the nursery. One of my childhood friends even came and invited me to sit with his family. I refused. I did not want to see Jesus bathed in blood. And so, I didn’t.  

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week in the Christian tradition. It is a week that is described in detail in the Gospel stories. We Christians remember Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Sunday, but we also know that the accolades that Jesus receives are fleeting. Jesus becomes angry soon thereafter, stomping and yelling in the Temple. He tells apocalyptic stories to his followers and the crowds. They, in turn, get increasingly nervous. He makes statements that offend Rome. He makes statements that offend the Jews. His followers begin to look at him with suspicion and doubt. There is a discernable sense of dread at this point in the Gospel story, just as we might feel it with the dimming lights and creepy music of a scary movie. Holy Week is like that; it feels like something bad is about to happen. 

Perhaps you remember the study that made headlines some years ago about 6th graders’ first experience with the opera. Many of us were surprised to learn that when 12-year-olds were taken to the opera, the emotion that they experienced wasn’t indifference, or even boredom. It was fear. The children were scared of the opera because of the intensity of the emotions that were on display.  

Holy Week is not something that many of us look forward to each year. We don’t want to give our attention to a story that tells the truth about Jesus’s death. We don’t want to confront the suggestion that our own sinfulness makes us co-conspirators to his murder. Holy Week is a painful slog through betrayal, tear-jerking sacrifice, abandonment, and hopelessness. It is a journey into the worst of human nature. It is a corridor through a horror show where God is strung up and killed. What begins in light earlier in the week, ends in utter darkness. Holy Week finds us on death row accompanying a dead man walking. 

So why can’t we just jump to Easter Sunday morning in all its glory, lilies, and proclamations of Hallelujah? Because the journey to redemption is through the valley of the shadow of death. Whether we’re nine years old or ninety, no one wants to walk that journey. But regardless of whether we want to or not, we will travel that road in life. Darkness, loss, grief, and death are inescapable realities in our world. But, and here’s the Good News, death does not win the day.  

Holy Week and all its disappointments, sorrows, and terrors are the way to God’s victory over darkness. Although we may want to avoid this chapter in the story, the events of Holy Week describe the depths of God’s love for us. And besides, people: we know how the story ends.  

Travel with a friend. Sit with a companion. Journey with Christ along the way. It’s the way to Easter Sunday morning. 

Join us as we commemorate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday evening, April 18, in the Gathering Place room at 5:30 PM. We will hear the old, old story of Jesus and his love, and will share communion with our family of faith. Choose to gather with us for this intimate experience as we remember Jesus’ life, ministry, and commandments. Childcare will be provided. 

The Annual (and Obligatory) Ode to Baseball 

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“No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.” -Tommy Lasorda 

Our Atlanta Braves began the season in glorious fashion this past weekend. After breaking camp from spring training, the Braves unceremoniously opened their 2019 campaign 0-3. They were swept by the Fightin’ Phillies of Philadelphia with their high-octane offense and surprisingly good defense. The Braves didn’t make it too difficult for them as they walked 20 batters in their three-game series (yes, you read that correctly). People, that’s a lot of baserunners. And as we know, when you put them on for free, they frequently cross the plate.  

It’s a good thing the Major League Baseball season is 162 games.  

Here’s the good news, Braves fans: When you consider the number of games that they’ll play over the next 6 months, a three-game series is the equivalent of roughly the first quarter of an NFL game at the beginning of the first game of their 16-game season.  

One of the reasons that baseball resonates with me is the parallels that it has with life.  The baseball season, like life, is greater than any one particular moment, regardless of whether that moment is spectacular or dismal.  

Just as it is true in life, we sometimes strike out. At other times, we drop the ball.  

We get injured.  

Sometimes, we go 0-26 at the plate and the balls we put in play always find someone’s glove. 

We experience long winning streaks where we feel unstoppable, while at other times our stretches of losses feel interminable. We get caught stealing. We miss the tag. Our pitching gives up a 5-run lead in the bottom of the ninth.  

We get traded. We win the MVP. We are sent down to AAA. We get DFA-ed, or “Designated for Assignment” (It’s not good, y’all). We get fired.  

But just as it is true in life, it rarely stays that way.  

We find a way to draw the walk. The call goes our way. The ball bounces over the fence. The grass is cut high and the slow-roller enables you to leg it out to first. The first pitch you see finds the sweet part of the bat and you watch the outfielder turn and watch it fly.  

“No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games. No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.” 

He’s right, you know. Tommy Lasorda, the longtime manager for the Dodgers, knew baseball. Everyone will win 54 games (well, except for the 2018 Orioles). Everyone will lose 54 games (well, except for the 2001 Mariners). The question is what you do with the other 54 games. 

The other 54 games are toss-ups. They are the games where it can go either way. They are the games that have to be grinded out.  

We know these games in life.  

They are the moments when we are ‘called on the carpet.’ They are the ones when we experience a sudden loss. They are the ones when the flight gets canceled, and when the teacher doesn’t like you, and when you don’t get that job you were promised. They are the moments where she tells you that she doesn’t loves you, and when your new love admits they favor your sister, and when your retirement dies with the stock market plunge.  

You know these moments because they are the ones where circumstances make it reasonable for you to give up.  

Colossians 3:23 reads, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”  

Both the game of baseball and the slog of life require grit. A spirit of determination and relentless hope in God’s redemptive power is necessary. We are dependent on God’s grace, yes. But as a team, we have to play ourselves out of slumps. We pick one another up. We challenge, affirm, and celebrate one another. We admonish our teammates to never give up.  

Remember those woe begotten Braves? In their fourth game of the season, they would go on to beat the Chicago Cubs 8-0 to open their season in their home park in Atlanta. The Cubs would commit 6 errors.  

It’s good to be back in the win-column, though there’s no telling how long we’ll remain there. 

The comical baseball player, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh from the movie, “Bull Durham” says it well: “‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball. You hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.’” 

Learning About God by Watching You

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“For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah 4:2 

How did I learn that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing? Yes, I read it in the Bible. But that’s not how I learned it. I learned about God by watching you.  

This past week, when I was tidying up in my office, I glanced up at my certificate of Ordination that hangs on my wall. The date on the framed document made me stop and do some math. 

March 14, 1999.

This month, I conclude 20 years of service as a minister, set-apart and ordained to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

I remember that Sunday evening service well. It had snowed that afternoon and I was worried about people driving to the service at the First Baptist Church in Asheville. The domed church on Oak Street in Asheville had been my home church while I was a teenager, and in college, and during my years in seminary. The people who gathered around me and placed their hands on my head and shoulders knew me and loved me, and I still feel their touch and their prayers to this day.  

The community of faith that gathered to ordain me to the Gospel Ministry gave me a warning, however, as I began my career as a vocational minister. They told me to remember and to cling to God’s love and grace in the midst of hardship and difficulty.  

This proved to be sound advice for I found that congregational ministry can be hard. Now, in full disclosure, I must confess that my early days in church leadership were rocky. I was more reactive to circumstances and challenges than I should have been, and I was frequently immature in my responses to the demands of full-time ministry. What kept me afloat in those early years of ministry were individuals in the churches that I served who were Godly, and who practiced Christ in their daily lives. 

By Godly, I mean that these church members were gracious and merciful to me when I took the wrong tact in my ministry, or when I bumbled or neglected important tasks. These colleagues, mentors, friends and broader members of the faith supported me with a steadfast love that I neither earned nor deserved. Without this Christ-like love, I would have left the ministry many years before. 

Without question, the First Baptist Church of Sylva has shown me what God’s steadfast love looks like. I have seen God’s grace and mercy in our church’s commitment and care for members of our community. I have felt God’s love in our church’s desire to provide hospitality to those who are hurting, grieving, and in need. I have seen God’s face in our church’s willingness to give second and third chances. I have been humbled by our church’s practice of caring for others when most others wouldn’t. I have been warmed by the loyal friendships at our church that have been nurtured through the years. First Baptist is gracious to a fault, as generous as my stately grandmother, Mabel Priester, and as Christ-like as any congregation I’ve ever been privileged to serve. 

Thank you, First Baptist Church, for teaching me—and our community--about God’s steadfast love. I feel strong in Christ because of you.  

And I’m certain that others do, too.  

“I’ll Be Praying for You.”

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Question: Do we know what we’re agreeing to when we say, “I’ll be praying for you?”  

I will confess that this well-intentioned statement often remains just that—‘well-intentioned.’ That is, I have been guilty of not always following through with my promise of praying like I had intended. However, as my faith has deepened over the years, I’ve been convicted that my promise of prayers needs to be more than simply a good sentiment. 

Prayer for one another is critical to our being the Church. James tells us to, “pray for one another, so that (we) may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (James 5:25).”  

Consider these good practices, then, of praying for one another: 

1.) Don’t say that you will pray for someone if you’re not going to pray for them. 

Quite simply, if you commit to praying for someone then pray for them. The prayer can be spoken aloud, journaled about, voiced internally, or even texted! Regardless of the way in which the prayer is prayed, pray! 

2.) Repeat back the prayer that someone is requesting. 

In doing so, the person will feel heard and you will remember the prayer concern more effectively. Here’s an example of what this could look like:  

Suzy: “Pastor, please pray for my mother who broke her hip. She has surgery coming up and the doctors are worried that there may be complications from the procedure.”  

Pastor: “Wow, Suzy. I’m sorry to hear about your mom. I pray that she will not be in pain as she prepares for her surgery. I pray that the doctors and nurses will feel confident in their abilities, and that there will not be any complications. I pray that her recovery will be swift and quick.”  

3.) Identify a discipline of praying for others at the same time each day. 

Consider praying for others as a family. Begin your mornings with prayer for others. Keep the church’s weekly prayer sheet on your kitchen table. Schedule time for daily intercessory prayer on your phone. Make it a habit of praying for others as you brush your teeth, or walk your dog, or fold clothes. 

4.) Ultimately, our prayers are a chance for God to change us. 

C.S. Lewis famously confessed: “I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me.” 

5.) As such, our prayers should generate empathy, and concern for others. 

Prayer enables us to see through the eyes of those who may be hurting. Prayer makes it possible for us to see beyond ourselves. Prayer brings awareness and enables us to sit with the world differently.  

6.) Our prayers should move us to action. 

Prayer should bear fruit in us. When we pray for those who are hurting, our prayers should come alive in expressions of concern through communication, check-ins, and visits. When we pray for family and friends, it changes the culture of our relationship and helps us to make better decisions. When we pray for our community, our region, and our world, it challenges us to turn our prayers into deeds, our hopes into actions. 

7.) Consider the powerful prayer of petition from the centurion. 

In Matthew 8:15, a centurion is bold enough to share his concern with someone far more powerful than himself. He literally brings his loved one’s reality to the attention of Jesus. He said: “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” What better way for us to pray for those around us than to bring their concerns to Christ?  

Our church knows well the power of prayer. With this foundation of faith as our legacy, let us choose to actively pray for one another and the work to which God has called us. 

Try a Morsel of Mercy-Infused Ministry, Won’t You?

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When I was a child, I loathed shopping trips to the grocery store with my mother. She would linger too long at the produce. She would read each label in the canned food aisle. She would hem and haw, and I would do gymnastics on the grocery cart.  

The one redeeming quality of these grocery trips, however, was the promise of getting samples from vendors set up at the end of the aisles. It was there that my mother and I were introduced to more exotic food items than we were accustomed to consuming. From fancy mustard to pasta salad, and from linguine with pesto sauce to fruit roll-ups, I lived for the moment when someone in an apron in front of the bread aisle would offer me a bite-sized morsel of tasty, goodness.  

What’s more, the samples frequently succeeded in getting my mother to place a new product in the cart and to add a new meal to her repertoire.  

The science behind samples is sound. When given the chance to try something new, the likelihood that someone will have a good experience with it goes up ten-fold than if a consumer simply relied on its attractive marketing. The basic premise of offering samples goes something like this: 

“Our product is so rich and so extraordinary that if people just try it they will be hooked!” 

Thus, free samples continue to reign supreme in our grocery stores. There are risk-free trials for cosmetics and health gadgets. There are 7-day free periods for apps on our devices and the first few chapters of the New York Times bestseller are available for free on a digital platform. Samples, put simply, work.  

Giving people the chance to experience something new firsthand is a much better proposition than trying to convince them of the superiority of one’s product with words. 

The ‘Have Mercy Challenge’ that we introduced in worship this past Sunday is trying to tap in to this phenomenon. That is, we want you to experience a morsel of mercy-infused ministry to whet your appetite for bigger mission projects in the future. 

As you may recall, the ‘Have Mercy Challenge’ offers the chance for you to participate with others to provide mercy or loving kindness to the people groups mentioned in the Bible and explicitly referenced by Jesus.  

In the Old Testament, Zechariah 7:8 states that God’s people should show mercy and kindness to one another, and to not harm the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, or the poor. In other words, the prophet of ancient Israel wanted God’s Holy Nation to care for the most vulnerable among them.  

In the New Testament, Jesus states that when others provide care for the hungry and thirsty, those who are poorly clothed, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned, they are actually doing it for him. Care for the ‘least of these’ becomes the qualification for entering the Kingdom of Heaven. 

The ‘Have Mercy Challenge,’ therefore, invites you and your family to identify but one of these people groups to which you would be willing to provide one act of mercy in the coming weeks and months. In response to this invitation, the vast majority of our congregation identified one of the people groups on the bulletin insert we provided and placed it on the communion table as an offering to God. In the weeks to come, teams will emerge from your willingness to serve, and each team will be directed to imagine a specific way that you can show mercy to that group of people, whether you selected the orphan, the prisoner, the sick, or the others that God specifically identifies.  

We are providing this ministry opportunity as a sample blessing that we will experience when we seek to be obedient to God’s command that we love kindness. And we are so confident that this experience will change your life, and the lives of those you serve, that we are offering this opportunity free of charge! 

Supplies are limited and time is running out, so act now! 

No, this mercy-infused ministry is not a product on aisle 4, and it is certainly no gimmick. Just the same, feel the urgency that God’s words elicit and sign up to serve sooner rather than later.