Team Blog

The Gospel According to Downton Abbey: Traditional Power

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The Gospel According to Downton Abbey: Traditional Power

For four years, I’ve had phone calls go to voicemail automatically on Sunday evenings — because of a little miniseries called Downton Abbey. There seemed to be as many people watching PBS on Super Bowl Sunday as there were watching the game. Perhaps we’ll have to rename that day Downton Sunday?

For those of you who don’t own televisions or just have no idea what I’m talking about, take this word of advice: it’s pronounced DOWN-ton, not DOWN-TOWN. I made that mistake when talking to a super-fan of the show. Now that I’m a super fan, too, I must warn you not to make the same mistake!

Set in early 20th century England, the show centers around Downton Abbey, the estate of the Crawley family. The Crawleys employ a number of servants whose duties include cooking every single meal, polishing every piece of silver, and dressing every daughter in a new dress for dinner. But this is not a story of revolution or oppression or inequality among classes. Many of the servants love their jobs. The Crawleys seem closer to their employees at times than their own family members. The series begins with the sinking of the Titanic, and we experience World War I through the eyes of this historic estate. While the world around them changes, and homes like Downton seem to be fading into more modern times, patriarch Robert Crawley is determined to keep the house, and its traditions, alive. All the while, Downton Abbey abounds with crackling dialogue and conflicting personalities.

In the first episode of season 3, one of the Crawley daughters is getting married. For those who still want to watch the series for themselves, I will not reveal which daughter! There is a marvelous scene where the girl’s two grandmothers lock heads. Mrs. Levinson, played by Shirley Maclaine, is from America and thinks that the obsession with tradition at Downton is ridiculous. Countess Violet, played by Maggie Smith, is hopelessly devoted to her heritage staying alive by keeping the traditional living of Downton alive.

Martha Levinson: “Nothing ever alters for you people does it. Revolutions erupt and monarchies crash to the ground and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.”

Countess Violet: “You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.”

Martha Levinson: “Yes we do, we just don’t give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”*

This was a “pause and rewind” moment. I heard what they said, and then I wanted to hear it again. Here is where art shed light on life.

In the Church, especially as we near Easter Sunday, tradition is forefront in our congregations. Family members return to the churches of their upbringing and expect certain traditions to still be alive. On any other Sunday, we may have flexibility with hymn choices and flower arrangements. But on the day we celebrate all things made new, there are certain lilies to order and six (or is it seven?) verses of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” to sing.

At St. Luke UMC, the choir will sing a piece called, “Roll The Stone Away,” as a benediction, a longstanding tradition. I will half-jokingly suggest that we change to Mumford & Sons’ song of a similar name. There will be a few chuckles, but most people will say that change won’t work. I will respect that tradition.

At this crucial time in the Church year, tradition can deepen our experience of God. Nothing moves me more than the bare, uncolored altar of Holy Thursday or the hollow bell rung after Christ’s last words on Good Friday. Come Sunday morning, seven words of responsive reading echo as in an empty tomb: “He is risen. He is risen indeed!”

Like Countess Violet, we can find great joy and meaning in a historic way of worshipping God. If we’re not careful, however, we can find ourselves in the danger zone noticed by Mrs. Levinson: being led by a tradition instead of by the God who works through tradition.

We may find ourselves in conflict over the details of worship because “it’s never been done that way” or “we’ve always done it this way.” What if we stopped and asked ourselves about our traditions, both in and out of the Church, in all seasons of the year? Are we clinging to something that has power over us? Or does the tradition reveal Someone whose power knows no boundaries, classes, or mindsets?

May your journey to the cross, be it with or without traditions, abound with all good things, no matter how dark the night or how bright the morn……

Pastor Darian

Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.

*
Downton Abbey: Season 3, Episode 1

P.S. Now, don’t you think that this British band would be a nice complement to Downton Abbey? And this “rolled-away stone” would add to Easter joy?

Insight From Isaac (and Jenn): Sacrifice, Cheeseburgers, and a “Complete” Joy

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Insight From Isaac (and Jenn): Sacrifice, Cheeseburgers, and a “Complete” Joy

“Are you ready to go?”

My college roommate, Jenn, stood in the doorway on one leg, the other bent in a quadricep stretch. Her hair was in a ponytail, her sneakers were on her feet, and her mind already seemed to be on the pavement. Though I was also dressed for exercise, I couldn’t say I was “ready” to run the 3-mile perimeter of Vanderbilt’s campus.

“Can’t we just walk?” I sat on the edge of the bed, not stretching. “It would be easier for us to talk if we walk.”

Jenn planted both feet on the ground and said, “We live together. We talk all the time. It’s time to run!”

I remembered why Jenn was the future law student, and I was the theologian-in-training.

“I have an idea,” Jenn said. “We can go out for cheeseburgers after the run. That’ll be your reward. But you’ve got to run the whole loop.”

I lept to my feet and started running in place, as if that would “warm me up.” Jenn knew me well. Back then, the promise of a burger and fries would motivate me to exercise, study, or clean the apartment.

So began my tumultuous, off-and-on-again relationship with running. I made it through that first run with frequent yelling of “Cheeseburger!” from Coach Jenn when I’d ask for a break. While I didn’t particularly like running for exercise, I felt like it was good for me. But my friend loved to run, and I enjoyed spending that time with her.

After Jenn and I graduated, the motivation to run waned. Jenn’s relationship with the road blossomed into running a half-marathon. Or was it a full marathon? Running and I would get together for a while, then break up again. I even reached the point of running a 5K without the need to hear “cheeseburger!” at every mile marker. As soon as the 5K was over, I decided to dump running and return to my beloved, fast-paced walking for exercise.

Until I decided to adopt a dog.

Last fall, I started running occasionally to prepare for the energy of a labrador retriever. When Isaac found me, he was ready to run more than the “loop” at Vanderbilt. Unlike Jenn, he did not promise me a reward other than his happiness. Even though I still don’t enjoy running, I enjoy how much he enjoys running. I enjoy what we share. I enjoy watching his four legs become two in a sprint. I enjoy the way that he will walk with me after I run with him. I had to learn to sacrifice my “favorite” form of exercise in order to experience our shared joy.

What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. (1 John 1:3-4)

Joy does not come from getting our first choice all the time. If joy is dependent on getting our own way, we need to rethink our understanding of joy. The writer of 1 John reminds us that the joy of our salvation is “incomplete” when not shared. Sometimes sharing in joy requires us to sacrifice of self.

In the past decade, as I’ve moved from college to graduate school to full-time employment, I often hear people, especially in my age range, express the opposite of joy in their personal and professional lives. Some of this dissatisfaction stems from individual circumstances: a lack of self-care, unexpected losses, changes in relationships, etc. But we also shun joy sometimes because we’re too centered on self. We can’t find that “perfect” job that allows us to do exactly what we want for 40 hours, maximum, each week. Our relationships never seem “good enough” because we don’t get our way as often as we’d like. I’ve been there. You probably have, too. We’re imperfect, we live in an imperfect world, but we all have ideas of what a “perfect” life could be. We go after that pie-in-the-sky, and we’re disappointed when it doesn’t happen. We’d rather walk than run.

Joy for today can be “complete” for each of us, but we might have to run instead of walk. Joy increases in us as we share in what brings our “Jenns” and “Isaacs” joy. Let us go into the future filled with Christ’s love, finding joy in life’s everyday realities.

In the wise words of my college roommate, “Are you ready to run?”

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian

Photo Credit

Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.

A EULOGY (OF SORTS).

Posted by on 2:58 am in Team Blog | 0 comments

A EULOGY (OF SORTS).

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 months ago, my wife and I bought a house.

After living in sometimes-bedroom-less-apartments, with family, and my grandfather’s cavernously empty house for the better part of a year*, we finally took the plunge.

(*NOTE: if you’re into 2-story, 50-year-old, pink brink tudors, let just say I know a guy.)

Now, because we’re a bit short on time, allow me to go ahead and pre-empt some of your inevitable queries regarding my aforementioned home purchase:

“Yes, I did watch AT LEAST 37 episodes of house hunters before starting the process, and WHY CAN’T THEY EVER LOOK PAST PAINT COLOR!!!!??? (I miss you Liz Lemon).”

“No, my wish list did not include granite countertops, something people kept calling “a structurally sound garage”, or a master on the main, and yet, against all odds, we have survived.”

“Yes, I plan on live-tweeting any renovation project we undertake, if only to endlessly complain about the VERY REAL STRUGGLES facing middle-class white people, and the sleepless nights accompanying our decisions about kitchen back-splashes. #stillblessed”

I must say, one of my favorite things about our house is its location BECAUSE YOU CAN LITERALLY WALK TO KRISPY KREME, SONIC, AND CHICK FIL-A, MY LIFE IS A DREAM. Normally, for this kind of position you’d have to live in a camper on the edge of a Hobby Lobby parking lot, but thanks to suburban sprawl, the strip malls now come to us.

#stillblessed

However, no matter which fast-food mecca you find yourself pilgrimaging towards, you must first pass the neighborhood mortuary and its parking lot filled with sensible Buicks ominously guarding the entrance to our street.

Honestly, very few things invite existential crises and contemplations on human mortality quite like traversing the yard in front of a funeral home on the way to eating a fried chicken sandwich combo meal. WILL THERE BE POLYNESIAN SAUCE IN THE GREAT BEYOND, AND IF SO, CAN WE TAKE AN EXTRA SAUCE PACK FOR LATER? THIS IS WHY I BECAME A PASTOR, ANSWER ME GOD!

So, when my great aunt died last weekend, I discovered I’m quite practiced at assuaging the ballooning pain in my chest with the typical psychological remedies employed in situations such as these:

she didn’t suffer.

it was her time.

she’s in a better place, with family and friends she missed dearly.

I get this.

Her death wasn’t unordinary, unexpected, or outside the normal rhythm of what it means to be human.

People die.

Especially when they’re 90, and struggling to recover from a stroke. She wasn’t a child, or a mother, or a soldier. She wasn’t involved in a sudden catastrophe or car accident. She was attempting to relearn things like brushing her teeth and refusing the salt in her oatmeal-all the while “living” in a place where an alarm sounds every time she attempted to exit her bed, solo.

Her death didn’t rend sackcloths, incite wailing in the streets, or erect crosses under freeway overpasses. It was quiet, unassuming, and produced that odd cocktail of relief, sadness, and guilt for those she left behind.

Still, for all intents and purposes, she was my grandmother. She picked me up from school. She didn’t ask questions when, at the sight of a couple of girls from my 6th grade class, I pretended not to be “with her” at the mall.

Oh, and she got a fresh permanent every Thursday.

Until last year she lived alone, drove her mint-condition Chevy Lumina to the grocery store, and un-ironically referred to wasps (the bugs not the Protestants) as “waspers”. She never wrote a book, ran for office, attended college, nor googled anything, ever.

But, that never mattered too awful much to a lonely, acne-prone, and mostly self-unassured middle schooler, and it matters even less, now.

I loved her, but in some ways only because I learned it from her, first.

And, even though I cognitively understand why she’s no longer discreetly slipping me fifteen dollars cash to cover gas, her death-much like that hearse I pass on the way to Sonic happy hour-still gives me pause about my own.

In short, I know why we die, why things quit working, why stuff wears out, but, in all honesty I’m still trying to figure out why we live, why some of us are still breathing, why others aren’t, and what we’re supposed to do with it until it’s finally taken away.

In the meantime, I hope that whenever I find myself on the other side of existence, someone will remember me and my endless quirks fondly over tear-stained spinach-queso

like I did for her.

Photo Credit: Eric Minton

To read more from Eric Minton at his blog.

Patrick of Ireland, Slave, Bishop, Missionary

Posted by on 10:27 pm in Team Blog | 0 comments

Patrick of Ireland, Slave, Bishop, Missionary

Patrick’s father was a leader in his community and was named Calpornius. He was a deacon in the congregation they attended in Wales. Calpornius’ father–Patrick’s grandfather–was named Potitus and he was a priest in the area where they grew up. He offered the sacraments and mysteries of the Church to those who had ears to hear and eyes to see. Patrick had roots within the Church and found himself drawn to the ministry that his father and grandfather had likewise felt themselves called to. He was receiving an education that would likely end up with him becoming yet another member of his family in service to the Church when one day he was kidnapped by Celtic bandits and slavers on the Western coast of Wales. They forced him into chains and carried him back aboard their ship so that they might force young Patrick–only sixteen years old–to work for the highest bidder. In this case, he was bought by a man who made him a shepherd by trade. Patrick ended up on some lonely hillside–a stranger in a strange land–watching over sheep that were not his own.

For his six years as a slave to Celtic leaders he was mostly in isolation on some verdant Irish hillside. Since he was alone as he worked he began praying to himself. He began with the prayers he had learned as a child and these expanded into his own spontaneous prayers. He sang songs and hymns to sustain himself as he spent many lonely night with only sheep and goats for company. Finally, he began to hear God speak of liberation and escape. He heard a voice saying he would soon be free. A few days later a voice told him his ship was waiting for him and so he fled from his master that very day. He traveled for some time and through harsh conditions until he arrived at a port in eastern Ireland (200 miles from the place of his captivity). He boarded the ship and finally returned to his home in Wales. They greeted him with joy and gladness and toasted his return but after the parties had faded Patrick came to the stunning realization that he had missed six years of his life. All of his peers were well into their professions and careers and he had fallen woefully far behind in his education. His dreams of becoming a minister like all of the others had been shattered aboard the slaver ship that had stolen him away.Patrick ended up in the home of family–a stranger in a familiar land–watching his friends go on without him.

He didn’t know what to do with his life but he couldn’t shake the strong calling he felt upon his life. As he was adrift in his life and uncertain how he should continue he had a vision. In the vision a man named Victoricus came striding across the Irish Sea toward Patrick. In Victoricus’ hands were many scrolls. Each scrolls was a letter–written to a certain person–and he was handing them out to those God had called to serve. Patrick waited eagerly in his vision and received a scroll titled “The Voice of the Irish.” In it he heard the laments of the Irish people who begged the former slave to come back and bring the Gospel that taught love for enemies and forgiveness from all sins. He must have wondered if this wasn’t a mistake to be sent back to the people who had enslaved him as a missionary. Yet, as he reflected upon the vision he became more and more certain that God was calling him to be a missionary to the Irish. So, he went–one of the first Christian missionaries to leave the Roman Empire. Patrick ended up in some foreign boat on his way back to Ireland–a stranger crossing the Irish Sea–following after a calling that God had given him.

Patrick baptized thousands of people in Ireland as he brought his own particular style of preaching and teaching to them. He did not have the same education as his many peers and colleagues but he knew well the people he had been called to serve. He confronted Celtic warlords with bravery and courage knowing that they would respect him for it and want to know what faith he held that gave him such courage. He brought the faith to the Irish in a way that mediated the sacraments and mysteries of the Church to a people unfamiliar with the history and symbols of the Body of Christ. Patrick became the vehicle by which the grace of God was translated into Irish hearts. He ordained thousands and became a bishop missionary welcome in countless homes throughout the hills of Ireland. Patrick ended up in the land of his enslavement–a hero in a beloved land–watching over sheep that had become his own.

Photo Credit

Read more from Joshua Hearne at his personal website and the website of Grace and Main Fellowship, the non-traditional community he ministers with.

The High Priest’s Garments

Posted by on 3:35 am in Team Blog | 0 comments

The High Priest’s Garments

The High Priest’s garments, a robe of purest blue,
Golden bells along the hem,
Graven lapis with the symbols of the tribes,
How pure the priest
How fine.

A fringed tunic of purest linen,
The finest yarns of many colors,
Twisted gold chains,
A frontlet to say “Holy the LORD”
How righteous the priest
How good.

But cannot a garment hide the truth?
Cannot a fine covering hide a rotten core?
Are there not masks that people wear that conceal what is real?
Is this not the preparation for hypocrisy?

This cannot be the lesson we are to learn,
To look good
To look splendid
To appear righteous and magnificent
Merely as a seeming,
An image
An idol of an unattainable ideal,
Or worse,
A mask to hide behind while one fulfills whatever one’s desire may be.

No.
Rather say that the garments of the High priest are a sign.
A sign to the High Priest of who and what he is.
At each step, the bells ring.
He feels the weight of his heavy robes
His headdress
And feels
The heavy weight of his responsibility
His charge.
He will strive to live up to his appearance.
He will seek to be truly Holy to the LORD
He will struggle to be what he looks to be.

And so let it be with me.
Let me wear my costume,
Fix on me my mask.
Drape me in the cloth of kindness
Place a robe of righteousness over my shoulders
Let jewels of charity hang around my neck and dangle from my ears.
Oh! May I dazzle the world with the brightness of my charade of goodness!
But only if the seeming becomes reality.
Only if the part I play is played even when I leave the stage.

Creator of Light,
Help me perfect my act of goodness,
Make my mask of kindness seamless
So that,
In the end,
That is all there is.

Photo Credit

Cupcake Theology

Posted by on 9:52 am in Team Blog | 0 comments

Cupcake Theology

Warning: If you ever converse with me in a coffee shop, there is a strong possibility that something you say will become a “musing.” Here is yet another reflection on a coffee shop conversation. Yes, I love coffee, but what I love more are the insights that arise from people gathered around the coffee, even when I don’t like what people say. What I love is how God speaks to us, and teaches us, in the everyday world of lattes — and cupcakes.

I had spent two hours in front of the computer screen in my office, typing then deleting four different ideas for blog posts. It was time for a change of scenery and caffeine, so I packed my computer and headed to a local spot well-known for its cupcakes. If anything could cure an occasional bout of writer’s block, I had great faith in their coffee and sweets. I ordered a cupcake with cinnamon and cream cheese and pecans and all kinds of sugar sure to inspire.

After eating half of the cupcake, my fingers were flying, and the words were flowing. The blog post was done in less than an hour, and I wanted to hug the baker. I was proofreading the post when an acquaintance walked in. After casual greetings, he pointed to the cupcake.

“Be careful now. That’ll go straight to your hips.”

My face grew hot as he walked away. My urge to hug the baker was quickly becoming one to slap the customer. With that one statement, I felt a brief but distinct rush of emotions around food, body image, self worth, exercise, and health. I folded my arms across my chest and sank into the chair. The more I mulled over his words, the I angrier I became. The more I replayed the conversation, the more questions I asked myself.

I was allowing two sentences from someone I barely knew to control my emotions.

Until that point, I’d been enjoying three of God’s greatest blessings: coffee, sugar, and writing. I had been smiling, laughing, eating, talking, typing, and sipping. I’d been sitting up with good posture. Then, words changed everything.

I’ve written in the past about the power of words (“When It’s None of Your Business,” “What Not to Say to a Single Clergywoman,” and “A Time To Shut Up”). I believe it’s one of the most important topics we can discuss. Words, especially those that directly speak to body image, can cause great help or harm. We should be very intentional and sensitive in our interactions with each other. We also may need to speak up at times for change to become a reality. For more on that topic, I encourage you to read those past posts.

When it came to the cupcake commentary, though, I also made a mistake. I wouldn’t let go of the words. I held on to them. I meditated on them. I sat with them and brooded on them for a few minutes. I was allowing someone’s words define who I was instead of resting in my confidence as a child of God. We’ve all been victims of people’s words. We’ve also, hopefully, been blessed recipients of people’s words. We may not be able to choose what is said to us, but we all have the free will to choose how to respond.

In the Bible, we read of God’s people being bombarded with negative words far worse than what I experienced. Noah was called crazy for building an ark. Moses, whom God used to save the Israelites, was constantly the target of the people’s complaints. Jesus was falsely accused of blasphemy and demon possession. Yet, they persevered. Though the words must have stung, they responded in grace. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can face the world’s words with the same grace that Christ has given us.

Eventually, I sat up and resumed proofreading the piece I’d written. My smile returned. I sat up straight again. I focused my attention on what was right in front of me instead of dwelling on what was in the past. I picked up my fork and finished the cupcake.

all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian

Photo Credit

Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.

A Kiss of Solidarity (When A Picture is Worth Far More Than Thousands and Thousands of Words)

Posted by on 9:36 am in Team Blog | 0 comments

A Kiss of Solidarity (When A Picture is Worth Far More Than Thousands and Thousands of Words)

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. This week, I learned just how true that is.

I’ve written thousands of words over the past several years about how the Church has failed our gay and lesbian family members, friends, and neighbors, and why I, as a minister of the Gospel, seek to welcome and affirm, and fully include, everyone both in the Church and in civic life. Not only are my words written for all to see, but I have spoken such messages to groups, on panels, and from pulpits. Thousands and thousands of words.

But when I recently asked a friend not to publicly post a picture of a Christian brother and me goofing off in which he puckered up and I leaned in and kissed him on his cheek, I had no idea how hurtful my request would be.

In the context of a fun evening at a church fellowship, when people were posing for pictures, the picture in question was taken. Later, I asked the photographer to please not post the photo of “the kiss”; my reasoning was that while it was quite funny to us, it may not be good for public viewing (me being the pastor and all). I figured that people outside of the evening who didn’t know the context would criticize not just me as a pastor, but the church, and people in the church. My motive was to protect everyone – after all, it was just silly fun anyway.

Though I didn’t know it, the picture, however, had already been posted. After my friend received my request, she immediately deleted it. A few days later I learned how important that picture was to some friends of mine. What was done in the spirit of fun on the spur of the moment, it seems, had very significant meaning to others. My credibility increased as a minister among my friends in the LGBTQ community because, to quote one of the comments I received, “it was awesome that a straight pastor would be cool enough to jokingly have kissed another guy.”

When the photo disappeared, and inquiring minds discovered that I requested it not be posted, my credibility sunk. The impression my action gave was that I was afraid of “looking gay.”

One friend wrote to me: “It feels like someone thought there was something inherently wrong with the photo …” Meaning, that it is one thing to say it’s okay to be gay, but that doesn’t mean much if I’m not secure enough to not worry about people thinking I am gay.

Another friend wrote to me: “I think it would be good for people to know how these things can harm. I know it’s something that most people in the Church wouldn’t understand, but the fact is most people in the Church have never felt physically unsafe because of the way they look. Most people in the Church have never been harassed in a bathroom. Most people in the Church have never spent more time on a date looking over their shoulder than enjoying their date. And I think it is important for straight people to understand that what they might think is a bad thing can actually make others feel safe, even if it’s something small like a silly photo.”

That last sentence is the one the hit me the hardest. “It is important for straight people to understand that what they might think is a bad thing can actually make others feel safe, even if it’s something small like a silly photo.”

I’ve always liked to think of myself as an advocate for and an ally of those on the margins; as a person willing to stand in solidarity with anyone feeling left out, and especially with those being forced out and treated unequally and unjustly. It’s at the core of my faith – that as Jesus identified himself with the outcasts, so should we as Jesus’ followers.

A simple request to not post a photo showed me how so far I am from reflecting the Good News of Christ in my actions. All my thousands of words don’t mean a thing if my actions keep me distanced from others; if my actions show my solidarity with the status quo rather than with those striving for equality.

So, here’s the photo. Nothing special, nothing serious, nothing but simple light-hearted fun. But for my LGBTQ friends, neighbors, and members of my congregation, it’s worth far, far more than even ten-thousand words of support. It represents solidarity.

Besides, Scott and I were just doing what the Apostle Paul frequently instructed us all to do anyway … greeting each other with a holy kiss.

Learn more about Bert Montgomery at his website.

PHOTO CREDIT:  Melissa Grimes, photographer

Recovery

Posted by on 12:16 pm in Team Blog | 0 comments

Recovery

A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church on Matthew 3: 1-6, 13- 4:1

The first part of our story today is made interesting by the presence of John the Baptist, particularly his wardrobe and food selection. In a children’s Bible of my daughter Annie’s, this scene illustrates John as disheveled—messy hair, with bees and locusts flying around—and he has kind of a wild look in his eye. One evening, while looking at this page, Annie commented, “John the Baptist is looking at me.”

Can you imagine the scene? John’s clothing must have made him look a little wild, but he is keeping with the tradition of other prophets. If you don’t know what Ezekiel ate and what he used as fire kindling, you should visit his book sometime! And after you read the book, you should direct all questions to our pastor, Reverend Lott, please.

Picture John, standing somewhere in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair and yelling out the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” You can almost see those wild eyes looking at you, can’t you? You can almost smell him, can’t you?

John, in all his wildness, brings the wilderness with him to the river Jordan—he dresses in nature and consumes wildness, untamed-ness. He is a man of nature, proclaiming for the God of nature: “Make his paths straight!”

Instead of going the other way or just being casual observers of a wild man, people go towards John, coming from Jerusalem and all Judea to the river where they confess their sins and are baptized.

What are we to make of John in the wilderness? What does it represent? It is untamed. The wilderness is a place of disconnect. It can be a cluttered place or a barren place. It is a place that masks direction and hides things from clear view. It is a place of wandering though it can also be a place of contemplation.

In looking at my previous sermons given to this church, I have found that “wilderness” or a wilderness theme comes up a good bit. As some of you know, my husband Jesse’s dissertation is largely based in the wilderness themes of the book of Hebrews. Being the introspective, former chaplaincy student that I am, I had to take pause with that revelation. After nine years of marriage, celebrated this past week, I know better than to speak for both of us, so I will only speak to what my reflection is and let Jesse do his own contemplation.

It is true that I identify with the metaphor of being in the wilderness. I equate the clutter of the wilderness to living in the confines of married housing, but the larger identification for me is the wandering. Life is happening, but the future is unclear in both location and ministry setting.

Consider your own wilderness experiences. Were you young and misguided? Were you older and disenchanted? Has grief driven you into the wilderness? Or, how about this: Has the wilderness ever offered you any refuge?

Take pause and consider.

Now move with me to the next part of the text from Matthew, picking up in verse 13:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Today, just as we have considered our own wilderness, I want us to consider our own baptisms. As Bill Leonard says, “baptism should be a significant moment for the participant and observer alike.” As we observe the baptism of Jesus and consider our own, I want to offer a theme for our consideration—I want us to think about the word recovery.

Recovery. It’s a “full” word, isn’t it? We think of recovery when we think of sickness and surgery—”He is in the recovery process.” We think of recovery when we think entering into a program for an addiction. We think of recovery when we think of an item’s return to its owner—”The police recovered the stolen vehicle.” In this town, we think of recovery after a football slips the grasp of a player and one of our players, who subsequently moves quickly into sainthood, picks up or falls on the ball—”The home team has recovered the ball!” It’s a word that when used as a noun involves a process and when used as a verb, involves an ending. “We are in recovery. We have recovered.”

For now, I want to focus on the process, the scramble. What are we to do in recovery? How is baptism a recovery?

What of our baptisms? Let me consider my own with you:

I was 15-years old. For a few years, I watched friend after friend be baptized and I heard about how baptism was important and how it was a huge commitment—you were to be committed to a relationship with Jesus Christ. I watched friend after friend and bucked a little about following the trend. I was sure that I loved the church and that I loved Jesus, but I had to be clear that this decision was my own, that I was not influenced by my friends or anyone else. I wanted to be sure and when the time came, I wanted it to be a holy experience.

So at 15-years old, I decided that it was time. I met with my pastor and we talked and he walked me through what the baptism procedure itself would be like, including how to hold onto his arm and what words would be said and so forth.

The Sunday came and I was ready, but nervous. Still, I repeated my promise correctly in the baptistery, I came up out of the water without a problem and I walked up the stairs without slipping or falling down. It was all neat and orderly and what I wanted. I was baptized.

I took off my white robe and put back on one of my best Sunday dresses and returned to the service, my red hair still wet, waiting to be presented to the congregation at the end. After the benediction, I stood at the front of the sanctuary and people passed by, one after one, hugging my neck and telling me how proud they were of my decision. And about halfway through, I realized that I stunk. That’s right, a mixture of teenage hormones and nervousness combined to ruin my day and my memory. It’s still raw, nearly 20 years later.

Those “cleansing waters” didn’t even wash away my smell. Out of the waters I came, still human.

And so I read verses of Jesus’ baptism and I think of my own, “There were no doves. It was not perfect.” What’s to be recovered in that?

Well, there was joy.

My beloved minister, with his comforting eyes and his strong and tender presence—he was there. My congregation was there and they were happy for me. My parents were there and they were proud of me. And somewhere, though I could not audibly hear the voice, I know and do believe it today that God called me by name, passed through the waters with me and claimed me as a beloved child.

And I know and do believe it today that God is still working actively, making a way through the wilderness for me and bringing me back to a river that renews and does not overwhelm.

Baptismal waters do not elevate us to perfection, but they aid in the recovery process. We cleanse our wounds that they may heal. In baptism, we are reminded of our birth into this precious life, and in remembering our baptism, we are reminded of our birth into the covenantal relationship with Jesus.

What have we promised? Let’s recover it! Listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.” We have chosen to follow the servant Christ and enter into mission and ministry with him. Along with Christ we are to be a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners. Who has followed Jesus and who will follow Jesus into these waters? These waters are daunting! But in recovering our commitment, we also recover ourselves. We go into the water and we come out of the water, not as perfect beings but as imperfect humans—disheveled, smelly, addicted, materialistic, fatigued, wandering, sinning and re-sinning human beings.

The Good News is this: We can be reconciled without being fully recovered in the sense that we are not blameless or sinless. God still delights in us!

I know and do believe these words for you today—hear again the words from Isaiah from a voice crying from admitted wilderness:

“Thus says the Lord, the Lord who created you, the Lord who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious in my sight.” (Isaiah 43)

Oh Church, when we enter into covenant with the Lord and when we remember that covenant, I am convinced that joy is recovered. But just as much, I am convicted that this covenant implies action.

It is in the recovery of the covenant and of the mission that we invite our own selves to action. So, we look to Jesus. And we see Jesus move:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.

Whoa! Didn’t we just have a peaceful scene and didn’t we just get cleaned? Who wants to get dirty again? Who will follow Jesus into this new wilderness? Baptism is not an escape from the wilderness; rather, it is an invitation back into the wild.

But this wilderness is new, isn’t it? This is wilderness that offers clarity of mission. This wilderness is no longer a land of exile but a new land; unfamiliar, sure, but it is a new land prepared for us. We can prepare ourselves here, we can live here, we can be here. And we have a Savior willing to be here with us and accompany us on the journey. Grace is astounding.

This is not a time or the day to figure out what the wilderness may hold. This is a day when we remember that we do have the courage to follow, to take a step into the unknown, and to follow our Savior.

This is a new year, a time for new beginnings, a time for renewal. Remember the wilderness, remember the waters, look to new lands and be recovered.

Photo Credit

Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.

A Gay Christian Resident of Starkville, MS Responds to the Historic LGBTQ Resolution from Starkville’s Board of Alderman

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A Gay Christian Resident of Starkville, MS Responds to the Historic LGBTQ Resolution from Starkville’s Board of Alderman

On Jan. 21, 2014, the Starkville Board of Aldermen took a historic step making our city the first municipality in Mississippi to pass a resolution showing support for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

The passage of this resolution brings hope to the LGBT community of Starkville, as we struggle daily with claiming our basic civil rights. I’m not talking about the currently sought-after right of marriage. That is an important topic, but at the very core of the issue there is an even more basic right that has been stolen from our community: the right to be treated as human.

Mississippi is one of 29 states in which I could be legally fired for being gay. Just give that a second to soak in … I could legally be fired for being gay. My employer would need no other reason than my sexual orientation to terminate my employment. It doesn’t matter what the quality of my work is, what skills I bring to the table or how strong my work ethic is. I could still be fired just because my partner happens to have the same genitalia as me.

Fortunately, my employer has taken steps to prevent this. A few years ago, Mississippi State University chose to protect and support its LGBT students, faculty and staff by including sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination policy. Many of my friends are not so lucky. They go to work every day, fearing their livelihoods would be taken away if someone discovered, or even suspected, their sexual orientation.

It’s not easy being gay in the Deep South. Like many in the Bible Belt, I was raised in a very conservative church. It wasn’t unusual to hear a sermon on the “evils” of “the homosexual agenda” and how it would undermine Christian family values. Bigotry and hatred wrapped in the guise of religion was, and still is, the language of oppression in my hometown.
After two years of community college, I transferred to MSU. In Starkville I found a safe haven. I found friends. I found community. To my surprise, I even found a church.

I started attending University Baptist Church during my senior year. It was a refreshing change of pace from the typical churches I had experienced over the years. For a girl with a mohawk and an affinity for wearing ties, walking into any church can be slightly terrifying. However, at UBC I have found a family of believers who accept and love me unconditionally.
Even with that love and acceptance, it is still not easy to be gay in Mississippi. Unfortunately, the Mississippi stereotype of prejudice and intolerance is all too often true. My job requires quite a bit of travel, and there have been times when I have feared for my safety. This danger is ever-present in my mind, because I know there are those who would choose to physically harm me merely because I “look gay.”

Most of us have longed for a place where we are loved and respected regardless of who we are or what we look like. Being gay does not define me, but it is a part of me. I am thankful I can be a Christian and be gay. I am thankful for a community of believers who don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.

There are those who have reacted to the Aldermen’s actions by questioning what effect this resolution will actually have for Starkville. Perhaps it is not the perfect solution to the problem, but it’s a start. No government can legislate tolerance and acceptance, let alone the love we should be showing for one another as Christians.

In a world full of darkness, though, even the dimmest shimmer of light can be a beacon of hope for the wounded and oppressed, the exiled and hated. Last Tuesday, the Starkville Board of Aldermen became that beacon for the LGBT community, not only within Starkville, but to the entire state. I would even argue they became a beacon to the entire country. After all, if it can happen in Mississippi, a state plagued by a history of bigotry and hatred, the rest of the country has no excuse.

Photo Credit

Melissa Grimes is a graduate (and now employee) of Mississippi State University, and a resident of Starkville, MS. She is involved with Spectrum, the LGBTQ group on campus, and an active member of University Baptist Church. You can reach her by email at mdgrimes01@gmail.com.

Valentine, Martyr, Enemy of the State, Priest

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Valentine, Martyr, Enemy of the State, Priest

Claudius Gothicus was emperor for only two years before dying of smallpox. But in those two years he unleashed wrath upon Christians and those would dare to defy the emperor and his empire by aiding and comforting Christians. His particularly favorite punishment was death for those who opposed him or for those who felt an inclination to lessen his wrath. He also had the opportunity to kill one of the world’s best known martyrs: Valentine. Valentine was twice condemned by Claudius’ decree: he was a Christian and he gave aid and succor to Christians. Furthermore, he was a prized victim for the empire because he was a Christian priest. As a priest, it was his duty and privilege to administer the sacrament of marriage. Those Christians who wanted to undergo this sacrament would come to him and he would hear their vows and call them to become one flesh and not simply two people living together for mutual benefit. This was a special and unique ceremony and for these ceremonies, he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. For hoping to cultivate love among those who were murdered and oppressed, he was required to die.

Luckily–or perhaps unluckily–Claudius took a liking to Valentine. Perhaps it was because of Valentine’s association with marriages or perhaps it was because Claudius felt that Valentine was associated with love. Surely, Claudius felt he understood love–he was the emperor, a divine being according to the senate–but he did not truly understand what Valentine had been doing and preaching. Instead, he knew a love that took, demanded, coerced, and manipulated. Yet, he conversed regularly with his prisoner and found it enjoyable. At least, he found it enjoyable until Valentine tried to preach to him. He was outraged that anybody would try to preach to the emperor as if the emperor didn’t already know everything. He ordered Valentine to be beheaded for this offense.

As Valentine was bound in chains and retrieved from his cell, the jailer seemed to want to ask something. Finally, the jailer could withhold himself no longer and told Valentine about his deaf and blind daughter. Though the jailer was the emperor’s man he recognized true power and true love in Valentine and felt that he might be his daughter’s last chance. With a smile that denied he was headed for death, he pronounced a prayer of healing for the jailer’s daughter. When he would return home later, he would find her cured of her blindness and deafness. In that moment, he would feel the beginnings of his own conversion away from the empire and toward the God who had called Valentine. Before he would find out, though, he would take Valentine to the place where the emperor demanded. There, Valentine was beheaded for swearing allegiance first to a God who is love after he refused to deny his God in favor of the emperor.

Photo Credit

Read more from Joshua Hearne at his personal website and the website of Grace and Main Fellowship, the non-traditional community he ministers with.