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,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
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
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.
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
For all my adult life, I’ve begun my mornings with a cup of hot, black coffee and a newspaper. I may have to give that up on Sunday mornings. If not, I need to get Donna, my enduring and endearing wife, to pre-read the paper for me and to tell me what articles to skip.
It was a good morning. I was sipping my coffee, just after finishing a deliciously sweet grapefruit—a gift from my mother—and enjoying the Sunday Courier-Journal. The sermon was finished. My sermons are emailed to a group of folks whom I have affectionately named “faithful readers.” All that awaited my attention was the writing of a note which would accompany the emailed sermon for the day.
At 6:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I hardly ever know what I will write to my faithful readers. I just wait until the breakfast routine is over, go up to my study, sit before the computer, and begin to write. I’m sure, under normal circumstances, I would have written something about the sermon series I’ve begun from the Sermon on the Mount. On this particular Sunday, that was not to be the case.
There was an article in the paper about an upcoming debate between “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum, which is located not so very far from where I live in Kentucky. I am so tired of this creation vs. evolution debate. It is not new. It was going on when I was a kid and when my parents were kids and when their parents were kids . . . . Enough already! This love/hate relationship that many Christians have with science baffles me.
We embrace science on so many levels. I’m writing on a laptop computer that amazes my simple brain. Many of you are reading this on a computer or some other electronic device—perhaps your phone. My grandparents weren’t even sure you could talk on a telephone, and you and I carry on business with our phones. We can watch the Olympics live from halfway around the world. With lasers, doctors are now performing surgeries that were unheard of and impossible just a few years ago. Children are living today who, just a few years ago, would never have survived birth. All of this has been made possible by SCIENCE. But when it comes to understanding the beginnings of the universe and our existence as human beings, we don’t want to listen to science. If science speaks truth on one level and we benefit from it, shouldn’t we at least listen to what it has to say about beginnings?
God gave us brains and surely expects us to use them. Finding out the how of our origins and the origins of other things is not a threat to belief and faith in a living Creator God. I am anxious to know what else science can tell us . . . about anything and everything. But I already know what science can neither prove nor disprove: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, KJV). I know this through faith manifested in my walk with Jesus. Oh, I know something else which science can neither prove nor disprove: A “new heaven and new earth is being created, and “behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Revelation 22:1, 3 KJV). It’s enough! Science doesn’t scare me or threaten my faith. Science has made and is making my life better.
Why do we spend so much time focused on science vs. religion? Is it because it is easier to affirm Genesis 1 & 2 as literally true than to embrace the hard teachings of Jesus as we find them in the Sermon on the Mount? Perhaps we think if we make enough noise we will divert attention from the hard sayings of Jesus. It won’t work. We are not Christians because we believe and embrace creationism as the only truth of our origins. We are Christian only to the extent we follow the Christ.
As for that big debate coming to my state, skip it. Use the time to read the Sermon on the Mount. Talk about getting your emotions stirred up. You won’t believe some of the stuff Jesus wants us to swallow as being part of the way—his way. He wants us to love our enemies and do them good . . . he wants us to be merciful and to hunger for righteousness. He even wants us to stop calling the people who disagree with us “fools.” For him, it is not enough that I haven’t committed adultery. He wants me not to think about what it might be like. Well, like I said, skip the creation vs. evolution debate, and read something that will really set you off. Jesus calls us to a surpassing righteousness, as my former teacher and friend, the late W. Clyde Tilley, wrote in his book, The Surpassing Righteousness: Evangelism and Ethics in the Sermon on the Mount. (Published by Smyth & Helwys in 1992.)
Some Christians are sidetracked by others; many others sidetrack themselves. It’s so much easier to sound off against evil science, or some other evil, than to embrace the Jesus way. It is, Jesus said, the way to life. As for that other debate, it will still be going when you and I are gone; and it will not have aided us in living or in preparing for where we were going.
In the time when a corrupt governor ruled like there was no other power in the world, a little boy named Jesus was born in a backwater town. Powerful and important people–the kind who didn’t spend much time with illegitimate children in backwater towns–came looking for him.They went to the big city nearby because they assumed he had to be there and asked the governor where they could find the one who was going to take his place. “We heard that this one is going to be really special,” they said, “and we want to take the time to offer our respects to this one.” When the governor heard that, he was wounded at the thought that he wasn’t important enough and he got scared. “What if it’s true?” he asked himself when nobody was around. So, he asked the men to wait a moment while he talked to his advisers about it.
His advisers checked their books and said, “Oh! They must mean this little passage. I guess it kind of suggests that it will be in Bethlehem.” “But surely, no ruler can be better than you,” they lied to save their necks. So, the governor called for those dignitaries and pumped them for information before telling them to go and look in Bethlehem.
“And if you find him,” he remarked coyly as if he had just now thought of it, “why don’t you come on back and tell me where he is so I can offer my respects, too.” So, the men left the governor’s mansion and went to the little town without a stoplight. They followed the signs that had led them this far and were glad to see the leading coming to an end and the finding finally starting. They arrived at the little shack and wiped their expensive shoes on the rag that passed for a welcome-mat before entering in to find a teenage girl with her child. Somehow–perhaps it had something to do with the long journey–they knew this was the one and they stood in shocked silence before a little boy. Something amazing had been revealed to them–the birth of God in human flesh–and they could not take it in. So, they offered gifts to express their worship and respect: stock options, a bible with his name embossed on the cover, and–perhaps most shocking to his mother–a cemetery plot near the city. As they were leaving, they felt compelled not to return to the governor and so they caught the early flight out.
As they often do, years passed and things changed. The boy grew into a man and grew into his calling.
Jesus’ cousin John had been spending time out in the woods preaching to anybody who would come near enough to hear his frantic yelling. He preached: “Y’all need to get right cause the kingdom of heaven is right around the corner.” He was forever talking about his cousin and how people should pay more attention to Jesus and less to John. John truly was a voice crying in the wilderness: “Get ready for something new from God! Prepare yourselves for God’s appearance.” Of course, it’s no big surprise that people couldn’t stop looking at John. He wore clothes that he had stitched himself that had been made out of fur. He ate bugs and honey (when he could find it). So, he was an oddity and got lots of attention. With the attentive crowds came some people who were listening and were preparing themselves for God’s big thing–God’s Great Revealing.
But attentive crowds aren’t always attentive because they like you or agree with you. Often, John would see some of the members of the local ministerial council hanging out in the crowd and would greet them in his own special way:
“You sons of snakes! Who gave you a clue and told you about the storm that’s brewing–I know you didn’t see it for yourselves. You came out to hear me? Well, get to changing yourself because your name and your reputation aren’t going to do anything for you. Your titles and influence are worthless here. Even now, the chainsaw is gassed up and waiting to be picked up to cut down the trees that don’t produce good fruit. And what do you do with bad wood? You burn it up because it’s useless. I’m out here baptizing with water because of repentance but there’s one coming after me who can do you a sight better–shoot, I’m not even worthy to shine his shoes–and he’ll baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire. Oh, and don’t kid yourselves…God’s judgment is right around the corner. He’s going to sort out the good from the bad real quick.“
One day, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the creek where John preached. When Jesus took off his shoes and waded in, John shook his head and said, “If anybody should be doing the baptizing it ought to be you and not me.You should baptize me, Jesus.”
But, Jesus smiled and said, “No, John, you’re doing right. This is the way it’s supposed to start. This is the way God’s great revelation begins.” So, John agreed begrudgingly and baptized Jesus in the creek. When Jesus came up out of the water, he looked up and the skies were torn apart before him. The barriers between God and humans had been broken and cast aside and the Spirit of God came down and a voice was heard saying, “This is my boy. I love him and I’m proud of him.”
It was on those two days–the revelation of God to the wise men and at Jesus’ baptism–that we see God choosing to self-reveal to the world. The obstacles have been dismissed and the way has been paved. The paths are being made straight. The Kingdom of God has arrived and is arriving.
My coffee was half-cold the first time Clinton Davis sat down.
I was in the Natchez Coffee Company for a favorite pastime: reading, writing, drinking coffee, listening to that acoustic/Hawaiian version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and hoping that no one interrupted me. For twenty years, I had lived in cities, where I could easily fade into crowds. After two years as a pastor in a small, Mississippi town filled with friendly folks, I began to see that “fading in to the backdrop” wasn’t easy. At the town’s one coffee shop, people would come over to visit.
While I’ve become more open to such interruptions, on that day, I sighed and tensed when a man I barely knew invited himself to the table.
Clinton walked in carrying a stack of catalogs under one arm and a cup of black coffee in the other. I had been introduced to him at a recent party, and we’d had a brief conversation. I don’t remember a lot about that first conversation — except that he talked a lot about being an Episcopalian.
I slipped my white ear buds out to make small talk with him. I thought that when I put the ear buds back in that he would leave. He didn’t. I went on reading and writing and listening to that guy named Israel who sang the Wizard of Oz song. Clinton went on perusing.
For the next few months, Clinton either began following me or developed an excellent taste in food & drink. I chose to believe the latter. I would run into him at my favorite restaurants, and both of us became regulars at the coffee shop. We always conversed, some days more than others, and I discovered that he was well-versed in theology. Truth be told, though, I don’t remember much about those initial conversations with Clinton. I was too preoccupied with something else.
When I met Clinton, I was in my final year of preparation to be ordained as a United Methodist minister. There were forms to complete, essays to write, and deadlines to meet. I had completed the first round of paperwork, and the second round was due at year’s end. I had been excited, focused, and inspired to finish the work into which God led me.
But then, some events happened that caused me to question my calling. I wondered if I really did want to serve as a minister in the Church. I asked myself if I could continue living in the pain and heartache that I was experiencing. While I confided in family and a few close friends my sadnesses, I initially shared with no one the depth of the doubt. I simply held on to the paperwork and wondered if I would mail it after all.
Doubt is a funny thing. I wrote a post about it earlier this year, a reflection on this same, hazy time period in my life. It’s hard to put into words the way that doubt can overpower the mind, the way that it can paralyze you, the way that it can cause you to forget the good because you’re so consumed with the possibility of bad. That’s where I was regarding my call as a minister — when the doorbell rang.
A white, styrofoam “ice chest” was under the mailbox, and the UPS guy yelled “Happy Thanksgiving!” as he drove away (did I mention it was a small town?). The return address was Paula Dean’s then-famous food company. I tore the tape off to reveal a frozen, fully cooked, well-spiced turkey breast. I grabbed the top of the chest to find a note that simply said:
“Blessings on you and your ministry. Happy Thanksgiving from Mr. Clinton Davis.”
Clinton? The theological guy with the catalogs? Sending me a turkey? I guess the turkey was for sale in one of his catalogs…..
I took the turkey inside and showed the card to my parents. We all said variations of “Wow” and “How kind” before I spoke the truth: “He has perfect timing.”
It was on the day of Clinton’s unexpected gift that the fog of doubt slowly began to lift. I held on to the Paula Dean card for a long time with the incentive, “Well, if this person I barely know has faith in my ministry, perhaps I can do this after all.” Before long, though the pain was still present, my vision became clearer. I mailed the last of the ordination paperwork. I threw away the turkey card because I finally believed what it said: God had blessed my ministry, and God had blessed me to do the work of ministry.
With time, Clinton became a dear friend. We began meeting for lunch regularly, instead of just running into each other frequently, with the turn of a few heads. Clinton was almost 80, I was not yet 30, and he had lunch frequently with various female friends. It was a perfect scenario for puzzled, overly-curious onlookers! A bright attorney and academic, he helped me with my sermon research, telling stories about all the places he’d visited in the Holy Land. In return, I tried to help him figure out his cell phone. He eventually learned to send a text message.
Two weeks after I was ordained in 2010, Clinton underwent surgery for a cancer recurrence. Though he recovered from that procedure, the cancer returned earlier this year. He gradually grew weaker, and the treatments no longer worked. He was placed under the care of hospice. I went to see him. I thanked him, again, for the turkey, the card, and his friendship. We talked on the phone after I returned home. He asked what my sermon was going to be, and I told him, “Paradise.” We talked about Jesus’ final conversation with the man crucified next to him, the passage for that upcoming Sunday, and he told me about visiting Calvary. A few minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve, I received word that “light perpetual” had shone on Clinton, and his days on earth were done.
God offers us gifts all the time.
Sometimes we don’t see them. In the two years that passed before I met Clinton, we were likely in the same restaurants often, but I had never noticed him.
Sometimes we don’t expect them. A turkey from an acquaintance was the last thing I would’ve predicted to pierce the darkness of doubt.
When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. Matthew 2:9-10 (Common English Bible)
How grateful I am that God’s light, shining through the unexpected gift of Clinton, led me to where I needed to be. Where might God’s light be leading you? Through whom might God be leading you? Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to the person sitting right in front of you. I’m glad that I eventually did. And I’m especially grateful that he sat down that day.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
Preached December 29 at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship — Matthew 2:13-23
Merry Christmas! It is good to gather together in worship with all of you this Christmas morning. Perhaps it seems odd to speak of Christmas, as our Scripture passage today is in sharp contrast to the celebrations of the past week. On this fifth day of Christmas, we continue to sing of a Silent Night and the stillness in Bethlehem. As we wish for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, we imagine Joseph and Mary and Jesus settling in. New parents, far from home, sleep-deprived, and doing everything within their power to care for this incredibly tiny new person entrusted to their care.
But our text today reminds us that all was not silent. And while Mary might have had a moment to sigh and breathe in the scent of her newborn as she gathered him to her chest . . . that moment did not last long. After all, Mary and Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem because the Roman Emperor wished to register everyone in order to tax them.
The roads are filled with travelers, the guest rooms are packed . . . but no one wants to be there. For many this is unpaid time off combined with costly travel . . . all for the purpose of another tax padding the coffers of a foreign empire.
There is a reason that the people have been waiting and praying for a Messiah to free them from Roman occupation. The New Testament is filled with quiet stories of centurions and legions—indications that the Roman military presence is commonplace, that violent acts of power are ways of life. The hope of a Messiah was couched in what seemed a hopeless situation.
Finally Jesus—God enfleshed—is born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger . . . While Matthew gives us no angels or shepherds, we find a group of astrologers who follow a star and read the signs that a King has been born. At some point during Jesus’s early years these strangers arrive, bearing expensive gifts. Of course, their very journey has stirred political trouble.
And as soon as the astrologers leave, the nightmare begins. Joseph has a dream, and the family runs. Some, likely in an effort to make this passage palatable, talk about this passage as a story of Herod’s fear and the family’s faith. I don’t think there is any level of faith that allows you to wake up from a dream about brutalized babies, pack up your belongings and two-year-old son for a three hundred mile walk and not experience sheer terror. The holy family has become political refugees, leaving everything they know in order to survive. They are making a difficult journey into an unfamiliar place with different customs and different language. They run picturing the sword at every turn.
Herod is certainly acting out of fear—he has a long history of brutal actions used to gain and defend his crown. But while Jesus is protected from slaughter, children back in Bethlehem are not. In Bethlehem, babies are ripped from their mothers and murdered. New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper estimates that somewhere around twenty children were killed that day.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
The Christmas story contains a pain so intense that even those beyond the grave cannot be comforted, because there is simply nothing—nothing—that makes this okay. It is a story of absolute hell thriving on earth. And this is a story that we cannot ignore—that we cannot skip over—because the hope of God is always, always mixed up with the desperate cries of a hurting people.
Rachel is still weeping today. She weeps in Nairobi, where poor parents dress their children as beautifully as they can, and place them in the street, hoping that someone with more resources will want them and take them in.
She weeps across the world as children are taken into slavery, stripped of their innocence, and used in the most vile ways imaginable.
She weeps as families are promised an education and dowry for their girls by factory owners who have no intention of keeping their promises, but merely want cheap labor for clothing sold to us here.
She weeps in Sudan and Gaza and Iraq and Jerusalem, in Myanmar, Thailand, and Guatemala. She weeps in St. Louis as a man named Richard sleeps outside in an alley on Christmas Eve.
She weeps as laws make it harder for the most vulnerable families to meet their basic needs. As guns and bombs and hate tear families and communities apart.
She weeps and cannot be consoled—and neither should we. Our voices should be joining with those experiencing pain and injustice in the world. We are surrounded by darkness—but today we lit the Christ candle, a symbol of God’s presence with us in full faith that the darkness did not and cannot overcome the light. We continue to speak the hope of the Gospel—that God broke into a hurting world and continues to break into the world of our hurt; that Christ came to announce freedom to the captive, release to the prisoner, sight to the blind, life to the lifeless.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of this day, we shared this light with one another. In doing so, we proclaimed our role—to carry Christ’s light and illuminate the darkness, to join with God in the work of bringing the Kingdom of God here and now.
On this Christmas morning, we are invited to join with the pains of the world, to listen to the stories of anguish, to add our weeping.
At the same time, we are invited to sing—and I’ll admit that I wrestle with this tension. Because it IS tension, and who really wants that at any time of year, much less Christmas? But this is a passage without easy answers, without anything that lets us sigh too deeply with relief.
I believe we are called to sing, not in ignorance of a hurting world, but because the light of God, the love of God, is bursting forth. God wasn’t just in Egypt, but God was also in Bethlehem, holding mother and father and baby—and even soldier—in all of their brokenness. God is here today, entering into our world and our lives in new ways. God with us . . . God. Is. With. Us.
Read more from Jennifer Harris Dault at her blog.
I used to have a really clean house.
On Saturday mornings, I would put my podcast-filled MP3 player on the speakers and set to work vacuuming, dusting, mopping, wiping, and spinning the washing machine. It was hard to get the whole place spotless, but it usually did shine by Saturday night.
Then, Hurricane Isaac blew through town, along with a labrador-Eskimo-collie. My house will rarely be as clean as it used to be–especially the red couch.
The red couch is my favorite piece of furniture that I got as a graduate student. It survived theological studies, a move to the Mississippi River, and this recent trek to the delta. When I once talked about parting with it, some of my friends looked at me as if I were giving away one of their right arms. Its seats are well-worn, but the brightness has not faded.
Now, it has become a white-speckled couch.
My two-legged friends are not the only protectors of the red couch. Isaac has made himself chief protector, and his love for it is obvious to the eye. When he sheds, his short white hairs stick all over the fabric. At first, I had it all under control. Of course I would keep my house as clean as it was pre-Isaac. I would keep the red couch hair-free by covering it with blankets and sheets. The sheets would catch his hair and keep it from sticking in the cushions.
I was right for 12 hours–the time that it took for Isaac to figure out how to remove the sheets, throw them on the floor, and snuggle into the red cushion.
Of course, I still had it under control with a plan B. I would clean the couch every night with a lint brush. Twenty sheets of sticky paper later, the couch seemed to have no less white than before. My arms were sore from rolling the lint brush back and forth and back and forth.
But I still had it under control! Wal-Mart had a sale on handheld vacuums with a rechargeable battery. After one cushion, I was leaping for joy. It was hair free and bright red again! Then, halfway through the second cushion, it puttered to silence. There had been so much hair on the first cushion that the battery power was already out.
Did I really have the white hair under control? Well, yes, and how could anyone think otherwise? I bought a special comb, made especially for getting pet hair off of furniture. I would comb and comb and the white hair into piles, then run the handheld vacuum quickly, before the battery ran out.
Then, the comb fell apart.
Okay. Maybe, just maybe, I admitted that I was powerless over the shedding of Isaac’s white hair on the red couch, and my life had become unmanageable.
Insights from Isaac, and all of God’s creatures, usually arise when I finally practice acceptance. That’s when I can finally hear God saying what He was probably trying to say back when I put the sheets on the couch.
A broken “couch comb” in my hand and a dead vacuum in my lap, I sunk into the familiar red cushion and sighed. Isaac jumped next to me and shook his whole body in joy before lying next to me. Hair spun like snow off of him and settled on me, the couch, the vacuum, and the comb. And for the first time, it was okay with me.
Pet hair on a piece of furniture or a corner of the room tells us that our furry friends have been present. Even when I don’t see Isaac lying on the red couch, his white hairs are a sign that he had been there. Even when he is absent from the cushions, he is present in the snowy trail he left behind.
During Advent, we wait for God to be with us. We do not see with our eyes the face that Mary saw in the manger. We do not hear the same angel’s voice that the shepherds heard. We do not smell the honey-coated locusts of John the Baptist (unless you’re whipping up some unusual recipes for Christmas gifts). Yet, we are surrounded by signs of God’s presence — indicators that he has come and is coming again. Think of the songs we sing each Advent and Christmas. Think of the faces of children when the lights on a tree are turned on. Think of the brush of your arm against another’s as you hand them a gift, perhaps the only one they will receive this Christmas. God is with us in the trail of white-haired love, joy, and peace that we find in each other–and in worshipping him.
In John 14:9, Jesus says to his confused friend, Phillip, “Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.” When we see signs of Jesus in one another, we see Emmanuel. When we see Emmanuel, we see our Heavenly Father with us. When we stop to see the white hairs, we see that they are signs of love that come from God. May the remaining week of Advent bring us such signs, and may we stop to see and hear and taste and feel and smell those signs. May we savor them. May we be covered in them.
all good things to each of you,
Pastor Darian & and Paw-stor Isaac
Addendum: I received a remarkable vacuum cleaner for my birthday that actually does make the red couch red again with little effort. I use it weekly. Otherwise, I take time to enjoy the white hairs.
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.