All posts by nicolelock

An Easter (Un)like Any Other

It is an Easter unlike any other, isn’t it?

No sanctuaries filled with people in their Sunday best sitting, not six feet apart, but shoulder to shoulder. No large Easter gatherings with family and friends to feast on honey-baked ham, deviled eggs, and the like. None of our usual traditions to which we look forward every year.

Many have likened this Easter to that very first Easter, noting there wasn’t a huge crowd gathered then either. Depending on the gospel writer’s account, there were no more than two or three present.

The others, like us, were sheltered in place in their homes. They, like some of us, were struggling to feel any Easter joy that morning.

The difference between that first Easter and today is the reason they stayed in their homes.

They sheltered in place out of fear. We are sheltered in place out of love.

Jesus’ first disciples holed up in their homes out of fear for good reasons. Having just seen their master arrested, tortured, and crucified by those in power, they feared for their own lives. Having left family and jobs for three years to follow Jesus, they may have been afraid of how to return back to normal life – or if there even was a normal life to which to return.

Some of us today may be holed up in our homes out of fear for similar good reasons. In the midst of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, we fear for our lives and the lives of those dear to us. Many of us have begun to fear if and when we will ever return to normal life and what that normal life might look like.

Yet the ultimate reason we are called to shelter in place is not fear. It’s not because of a command from those in power.

The ultimate reason we are sheltered in place is because of a command from the One who is ultimately in power.

We are sheltered in place out of love.

We are sheltered in place because Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor. We are sheltered in place to care for the most vulnerable among us. We’re checking in on one another, offering resources to help one another. We’re laying aside our normal routines and lifestyles to ensure life for another.

What better way to celebrate the message of Easter?

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

When we were at our most vulnerable, Jesus laid down His life for us. We are now called to do the same. Not our of fear, but out of love. As those living on the other side of the cross and the other side of the empty tomb, we know that in the end there is no reason to fear. There is every reason to love.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that sickness and death are not the end. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that, though we grieve sickness and death among us today, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). If ever there were a picture of that hope that we need to hear – perhaps especially today – it is John’s vision as recorded in Revelation Chapter 21: “‘Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.'”

I do miss my Easter traditions. I’ve heard many pastors and congregations say that, whenever we are able to gather again as a large group, we will have traditional “Easter” worship, complete with a brass ensemble and the most joyful singing ever of “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”

Rightly so.

While today is the Day of Resurrection, because of today, every Sunday – indeed every day – is a day of resurrection.

I look forward to that day when we get to have our normal Easter traditions again. At the same time, I pray, on this Easter unlike any other, that we claim a new Easter tradition – or rather, reclaim that first Easter tradition: Easter is about the One who laid down His life out of love for us. Today He has given us the great privilege of doing the same for one another, for “greater love has no one than this…”

May every Easter be like it.

A Good Friday to Acknowledge Grief and Death

I’ve had several conversations the past two weeks with pastoral colleagues about how to navigate this unique Holy Week. Typically on Palm Sunday, we encourage our congregations not to rush forward to Easter, but instead to walk through the events of Jesus’ last week – his suffering, crucifixion, death, and burial. Yet in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s tempting to gloss over Good Friday and opt for a spoiler alert: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

Who wants to focus on suffering and death when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death? Who’s ready to move forward to brighter, more hopeful days ahead? Who’s wrestling with how to hope for those brighter days when we’re surrounded by so much suffering and death?

In talking with colleagues, one conversation in particular helped bridge some of these questions. She, her husband, and children had a sabbatical scheduled, beginning next month. A large portion of their sabbatical was to be spent traveling to Europe and South America. While they are still taking a sabbatical, obviously, their travel plans have changed. She said that on Good Friday they planned to bury – literally – their sabbatical plans in their backyard. Then on Easter Monday they will start fresh and design a new sabbatical.

There’s something powerful and deeply theological in that for me.

On that first Good Friday when Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb, the disciples thought all of their plans, their hopes, their dreams were buried right there with him.

But then on Sunday, they discovered all those plans, hopes, and dreams were alive and well again. Not the way they expected. Something far better.

Like my friend and those first disciples, each of us has experienced the death of some of our own plans and aspirations as a result of the pandemic. The loss of a job. A reduction in our retirement savings. A canceled commencement. The loss of a sports season. No end-of-year school activities. A postponed road race. The inability to gather in a hospital room or at a wedding or funeral. The inability to go out to eat or get a haircut. The loss of routine and “normal” life.

Each of us has experienced a loss, and each of us is grieving that loss. As a way of acknowledging that grief, what if today, like my friend, we took time to bury that which we have lost?

What do you need to bury today?

Whether you literally bury something – a vacation itinerary, an unused sports ticket, an invitation, an old business card – or figuratively bury it through journaling, meditation, or prayer, take time today to acknowledge the loss and allow yourself to grieve. Then take time to consider what new thing God might have in store for you in the future…

…for it is Friday, but Sunday is surely coming.

To Love Is To Stay And Listen

Like many of us, my husband James and I celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper tonight at home while worshipping via Zoom. Before worship, we read today’s Daily Lectionary Gospel text Mark 14:12-25. We then read John’s account of that fateful night. I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because his way of recounting Jesus’ offering his body and blood was by recounting Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. Second, because that’s when Jesus gave us a new command: “Love one another.”

I love John’s account for two reasons. First, because he reminds us that to lay down one’s life for another often takes the form of humbly serving another. Second, because he reminds us that this “new” command is one we need to hear anew: “Love one another.”

In reading these words from John that I’ve read hundreds of times, what struck me anew tonight was what took place between his washing the disciples’ feet and his giving the disciples this new commandment: He spoke to one disciple in particular. He spoke to Judas.

Jesus spoke of one who would betray him. In identifying who it was by dipping a piece of bread into the dish and offering it to Judas, Jesus said to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas left, and the other disciples immediately began speculating as to why. Maybe Judas left to be practical and tend to their practical needs. (What do we need for our Passover/Easter celebration?) Maybe Judas left to be charitable and tend to their charitable needs. (What can I do to tend to the needs of others?)

Whatever the reason, Judas left.

To those who were left, to those who stayed, Jesus gave his new command: “Love one another.”

When I think about Jesus’ words to Judas and the disciples’ speculations as to why he left, I realize I’m a lot like Judas. I tend to think of what’s the practical thing (even when it’s not the most practical thing to do in the moment), and I tend to think of what’s the charitable thing (even when it’s not the most charitable thing to do in the moment.)

Like Judas, I, too, am tempted to run off and do what I want to do rather than sticking around to hear what God calls me to do.

What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen to Jesus’ command: “Love one another”? What if the most practical and charitable thing to do right now is to sit and stay and listen anew to Jesus’ new command: “Love one another”?

And for those of us Judases who don’t always make the right choice when it comes to those questions, remember anew: Jesus spoke to Judas, and Jesus gave him a choice: “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Jesus gives us the same choice tonight: What are we going to do? Will we get up and leave this night to do whatever it is we planned to do? Or will we sit up and stay and listen this night to God’s call to love one another?

Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, there’s a lot at stake in our choosing to obey that command. Indeed, there always has been. As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35.) May it be so.

In our Presbyterian tradition, we offer a prayer of confession before partaking of communion. One of my favorite prayers of confession is the following from the Book of Common Worship. Join me in this prayer prayed by thousands tonight across centuries of years:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Sisters and brothers, hear the good news! Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Know that you are forgiven, and be at peace. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

God’s story – and our story – continues tomorrow.

Fear and Anxiety

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening volunteering at Atlanta Track Club‘s America’s Marathon Weekend Experience, greeting some of the 15,000 athletes who will be running and walking the streets of Atlanta this weekend and handing out T-shirts. When I signed up for this particular shift, I didn’t take note of the media stage schedule for that day. I didn’t know who would be on the stage – or what I would hear from the stage.

During our dinner break, as I was munching on the pizza provided for us, I overheard the press conference already in progress hosted by Jay Holder. When Jay welcomed to the stage some of the top women and men contenders for the Olympic Team Trials – Marathon, I quickly ditched the rest of my pizza. I could eat later; I could only hear from these amazing athletes now.

The top five women contenders and top five men contenders, based on their qualifying times, were invited to a press conference, where they would be asked questions by high school journalists. (Whoever thought of the idea of having high school students interview these Olympic hopefuls was genius. Their questions were equally as insightful as the answers – and what an amazing gift for these high school students, filled with dreams and aspirations, to hear from those who are toeing the line tomorrow to pursue their own dreams and aspirations.)

There are so many great quotes from the press conference. Desi Linden’s mantra “Keep showing up,” as quoted by her teammate Jake Riley. When asked how he deals with pressure, in speaking as a father of a 13-year-old and 10-year-old to a panel of teenagers, Bernard Lagat said, “Put in the work. Just keep working and doing your work.” (Did I mention what a gift these interviews were to high school students – and to the rest of us?)

The statement that has stuck with me most came from Jared Ward, who placed 6th in the 2016 Olympic Marathon. When asked, “Do you get nervous, and, if so, how do you control those nerves?” Ward answered, “The key to managing anxiety is not to get too far ahead of yourself in what you’re thinking about.” He then quoted Brigham Young University sports psychologist Craig Manning: “Fear and anxiety live in the future. Those emotions don’t exist in the present.” Ward responded, “When I start feeling fear and anxiety, I think to myself, ‘I’ve got to get my mind back to the present and focus on what I’m doing right now that will help the future, instead of focusing on what might or might not happen in the future.'”

I’ve been there – not just on race day, but in the everyday. I can get too far ahead of myself in thinking about things. Everything. Our family. Our vocations. Our finances. Healthcare. The stock market. The upcoming election. The list goes on. I can get so focused on the future that I lose sight of the present. When I do, I start feeling fear and anxiety.

When I start feeling fear and anxiety, am I able to recognize those are emotions of the future, not of the present? When I get too far ahead of myself, what can I do to get back to the present? I can ask: What am I doing right now that will help the future?

I’ve recently begun reading Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck. In his insightful writing about habits, Dyck states, “Ultimately, it’s the habits that are built into our lives that shape (for better or for worse) who we end up becoming. Habits help us translate what we believe into how we behave.” He goes on to quote C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

What we do today impacts what will happen a few months from now. It sounds like a cry to think about the future when really it’s a call to think about today. What am I doing right now that will help the future? What’s a small act I can do today that might lead to victory a few months from now? Will I give way to a trivial indulgence in lust or anger – or will I make way for something better?

I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions, but here are a few thoughts – or rather, more questions – that come to mind for me: How do my everyday habits today affect what will happen tomorrow? Especially those habits I can choose – or neglect – when life gets busy or hard. Those habits I do – or don’t do – when no one’s watching. What I eat or drink. What I read or watch. How I exercise – or not. How I rest – or not. How I treat my neighbor – or mistreat my neighbor. In this political season, when we’re all focused on what might happen a few months from now (and rightly so!), how do my choices today – what I say, what I do, the news sources I read or to which I listen, what I post on social media, for whom I do or do not advocate – how do they shape who I am becoming? More importantly, how do these habits shape who God wants me to become?

As I wrestle with these questions, it strikes me as no coincidence that today’s “Daily Practice” in the Lenten devotional Pauses for Lent: 40 Words for 40 Days is: “Make two lists today: ‘What brings me life?’ and ‘What takes life from me?’ Add to the lists throughout the day. At the end of the day, reflect on these two columns and ask God for guidance.”

So I’m making my lists, asking myself questions, and asking God for guidance.

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” – Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Casting Calls

Actors in the film industry often talk about the idea of being type-casted, that is, being cast repeatedly in the same type of role. For some, this notion is exciting. In watching the Academy Awards tonight, I’m reminded that many have won Oscars for playing the same role over and over again until they have perfected it. For others, this notion is unsettling. If they keep playing the same role over and over again, will anyone ever be able to picture them in a different role?

Pastors can also be type-casted in a certain role. Take, for example, the roles of an installed pastor and an interim pastor. Some pastors feel called to be in an installed position for an extended period of time. They’re the “cradle-to-grave” types, a term I first heard when I did a Clinical Pastoral Education internship as a chaplain in a hospital one summer in seminary. Others prefer interim positions. Whether they need or want a contract for a set period of time, or whether they have particular gifts in helping a congregation work through any conflicts and prepare the way for their next installed pastor, there are those who feel called to interim ministry.

Then there’s another type: those of us who have been serving as an interim pastor when we feel called to be an installed pastor.

I have recently been serving in interim roles due to the geographic restrictions of my husband’s career: he needs to live in or near a city with a medium-large hub airport. In order to accommodate both of our vocations, I’ve been serving as an interim pastor in the greater Atlanta area for the past five years.

But my heart longs to be an installed pastor. Moreover, I know Christ has called me to be an installed pastor.

Don’t get me wrong. I have loved experiencing different congregations, seeing different ways of being church, and getting to know the amazing people that make us the Church. And, yes, I do have gifts in conflict management and in preparing the way for the next generation of leadership. At the same time, I know I am one of those cradle-to-grave types. I love getting to know and being in relationship with people for the long haul. The kind of relationship where we discover and grow in Christ together. Where we learn to trust each other. Where we begin to see and cast a vision that is bigger than ourselves – a God-sized vision that is only possible because God is with and for us.

So I’m doubling down. I’m doubling down on Jesus’ call on my life. I’m seeking an installed position with a congregation that sees the Kingdom life of a disciple as an adventure. In running language, I’m seeking a congregation that sees ministry together, not as a 5K sprint, but as a marathon. And I’m trusting the One who’s coaching us every step of the way.

Jesus Christ is in it for the long haul with us. Are we willing to be in it for the long haul with Jesus Christ and His Church?

9/11: The Light Shines in the Darkness

This photo was taken in December 2011. Every year on this date, I remember visiting the 9/11 Memorial in December 2011. While there, we saw this faint rainbow shining up from the middle of the North Tower Memorial Pool. A powerful reminder of the Light that shines in the darkness…

Like many or all of us, I’ve been asked on this date, “Where were you?” Like many or all of us, I remember exactly where I was on that day and at that time.

It was a Tuesday morning. Roughly two months prior, I’d begun serving as the Director of Youth Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Norfolk, Virginia. My first time living in a naval community. That Tuesday morning I arrived at my office shortly before 9:00 am. Instinctively, I checked my email, where I read an email from our Director of Music Ministries that he was resigning to take a position with our local orchestra. A second later a colleague walked by my office. He said, “Did you hear the news?” I said, referring to our Director of Music Ministries’ email, “Yes, I’m excited for him, sad for us.” My colleague said, “No, the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center North Tower.” He walked away as I clicked on Internet Explorer and searched the Internet. I thought, “How could a plane get that far off course?” Then a darker thought came: “Or…what if it was right on course?” At 9:03 am, when a second plane struck the South Tower, I knew which was the answer. 

It was my first time living in a naval community. I naively thought, “Well, we’re totally safe in a naval community.” I quickly learned how unsafe that made us. We were a major target. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. 

It was a Tuesday morning. Every Tuesday we had a worship service for staff in the Chapel, followed by our staff meeting. On that particular Tuesday morning, we all lingered in the hallway leading down to the Chapel. We discussed what we needed to do, whom we needed to contact in light of the attack. We never made it down the hallway to the Chapel to worship. And yet, we worshipped. Not in the Chapel, but in our community.

Not sure exactly what to do, I went to our local high school, Maury High School. I went to the administrative office, introduced myself, and asked, “How can I help?” I was directed to the guidance counselor’s office, where there were maybe two dozen students present. Most of their parents had been called to their ships right after the attacks in case they needed to be deployed immediately. One such student asked me, “Will I ever see my parents again?” I opened my mouth to say the usual default, “It’ll be ok.” But on that day, it wasn’t so easy to say those words. On that day, there were no words.

Flash forward a few hours, and our church staff and other religious staff organized an amazing ecumenical service that night. I remember calling a local secular radio station that afternoon and asking them to promote the service. The DJ said, “Yes, we’ll advertise it. Because, right now, it doesn’t matter your religious or ethnic group. Right now, we all are one.”

I went home after that worship service and after a great impromptu gathering of our staff at our senior pastor’s home. In my move to Norfolk, it was the first time I lived alone without a roommate. Until that night, I’d loved the sense of independence. 

But that night I went home alone. 

But that night I wasn’t the only one who went home alone. 

The following week our church was scheduled to launch our church-wide small-group initiative. On that following Tuesday night, exactly one week after 9/11, I hosted an initial small group for young singles. When I asked in my living room the typical icebreaker question, “Why did you come tonight?”, the answers were quite atypical: “Because on 9/11 I realized how alone I was.” “Because on 9/11 I realized there was something missing in my life.” “Because on 9/11 I realized I needed God and other people to be in my life.”

And so began an amazing ministry.

There have been many people who have asked me how we launched such an amazing Young Singles’ Ministry. There have been many a Facebook meme that have wished we could go back to September 12, 2001.

The answers to both are one and the same.

I would never wish to go back to September 12, 2001, or to that week later, September 18, 2001…because I know that means going back to September 11, 2001. And yet I would wish to go back to that sense of spirit on September 12, 2001, and to that sense of community in that living room on September 18, 2001. In the words of that DJ 18 years ago: “Right now, it doesn’t matter what your religious or ethnic group is. Right now, we all are one.”

May it be so. Amen. 

You’re Not One Of His Disciples, Are You?

On Sunday mornings during this season of Lent, we’ve been considering questions of Jesus’ last week. Up ‘til now, we’ve looked at questions asked of Jesus either by the disciples or Pilate. Tonight we turn to a question asked of one of the disciples when Jesus wasn’t with them – or, more to the point, when they weren’t with him.          

Hours before this scene we’ll read in a moment, Peter, along with James and John, had been with Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when suddenly Judas appeared and betrayed Jesus, just as Jesus had predicted. And just as he also predicted, he was arrested, and all of the disciples deserted him. In our text tonight, Peter will be reminded of yet another one of Jesus’ predictions. Listen for God’s Word from the Gospel of John Chapter 18, beginning with verse 15. Read John 18:15-18, 25-27.

Each of the gospels records Peter’s denial. What is unique about the way John recalls the scene is that the denial comes in response to a question. The other gospel writers describe Peter’s denial in response to a statement – “This man was with Jesus.” “Certainly, you are one of his followers.” 

When we overhear statements made about us or to us, we sometimes are quick to respond in kind. Lord knows Peter was known for kneejerk responses, like when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter immediately replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Or when at supper that fateful night when Jesus told Peter, “This very night you will deny me three times,” Peter immediately replied, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you.”

When we hear statements made about us, we can choose to respond. Or we can choose to ignore them as just one person’s opinion.

But a question demands a response: “You’re not one of his disciples, are you?” Yes or no?

 We all have those times when we’re eager to say we’re one of his disciples, and we all have those times when we’re a little less eager. Back in the day when it was the popular thing to put a fish symbol on the back of your car, I admittedly didn’t because, well, let’s be honest, when I’m sitting in traffic on I-75, and my foot gets a little heavy, and my patience gets a little light, I might not want people to know, yes, I’m one of his disciples.

Psychologists say we should especially be mindful of our actions and reactions when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. H-A-L-T. When we are feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, we need to halt and take a second to think before we speak, lest we say something we might regret. 

Peter was likely feeling all four. He was likely hungry. It was around midnight or later by this time. Even a big meal like the Passover feast they’d just enjoyed would have been long gone by now. He was likely angry. Angry at the soldiers who arrested Jesus. Angry at Judas who betrayed him, thinking, “You mess with my mentor, you mess with me.” He was likely lonely. His friends had all scattered. The one friend who had been with him had since gone into the courtyard with Jesus, leaving Peter standing alone by the fire. And he was most definitely tired. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. 

Beyond these basic human emotions, the times when the question of discipleship becomes the most telling are those times when there is risk involved. Those times when, like Peter, to answer yes might make us an outcast or the butt of a joke. Those times when to answer yes might bring us unwanted attention, higher expectations, undue scrutiny, or worse. Those times when, to answer yes, we might have to be willing to die to something in us, or, in Peter’s case, to die for someone close to us. If the guards knew that, not only had Peter been in the garden with Jesus, but that he’d cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s slaves, then Jesus might have had some company on that cross.

Faced with that choice, Peter chose to save his own skin rather than profess his allegiance to Christ. It was something he imagined he’d never do, something he even insisted he’d never do. When the cock crowed just as Jesus predicted, I imagine Peter winced, as he realized Jesus knew him better than he knew himself. Now he’d turned his back on the one who knew him best.

It was his darkest night of the soul.

Yet sometimes healing begins during the darkest part of the night. The rooster crowed, Peter wept, and the road to healing began.

A few weeks later, and a few chapters later, in John Chapter 21, John tells us about another healing step in Peter’s journey when Peter found himself once again standing around a charcoal fire. 

As many of us know and have experienced, the sense of smell has great power to awaken memories. The aroma of a certain cologne or perfume. The smell of a favorite family dish. And suddenly are these memories flood our minds. 

Charcoal fires have a particular smell to them. Much like probably any rooster crow he’d heard since that night, the smell of charcoal likely called up for Peter the memory of that awful, awful night. He’d tried to forget his denial. He’d hoped Jesus had forgotten it also. 

But try as he might, the memory came back – and as it turned out, that was a good thing – because around that second fire, Peter learned that healing comes, not from trying to bury our past, but by exposing it to the light – and allowing Jesus to redeem it.

Peter hadn’t forgotten that painful night, and neither had Jesus – and as it turned out, that also was a good thing. Jesus knew exactly what question Peter needed to be asked this time around to help him heal and move past the way he responded to that earlier question. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked. 

He asked the question three times, once for each time Peter had denied him. Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me? 

In our English translation, it’s the same question every time. In the original language, the third time is actually a different question. The word translated “love” in the first two questions is agape. Agape is that perfect, unconditional love, the way God loves us. The word translated “love” in the third question is philia. Philia is that brotherly or sisterly love, the love shared between friends, the way we humans love…genuinely…yet imperfectly and conditionally. 

Twice Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me perfectly all the time, in all circumstances and all conditions?” Twice Peter gave his trademark kneejerk reaction, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” The third time Jesus asked, “Peter, do you love me, even if not perfectly? Peter, do you love me as best you know how right now?” Peter responded, “Lord, you know everything.”

Jesus does know everything. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows us. He gets us. He gets that there will be those moments when we like Peter will confess with bold confidence, “You are the Messiah. Am I one of your disciples? Yes. Absolutely.” He also knows there will be those times when we betray him, desert him, and deny him. “You’re not one of his disciples, are you? No, I am not.”

Jesus knows everything about us. And the good news? He still loves us. 

But there’s more good news. Not only does Jesus still love us, but he gives us a purpose.  Each time Peter responded to Jesus’ question, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” Jesus responded, “Feed my sheep.” If Peter’s words of denial “I don’t know him” were unimaginable words to Peter, Jesus’ words “feed my sheep” were equally unimaginable – the one portraying the depth of our sin, the other the depth of God’s mercy. 

We may think all of our failures are permanent. Jesus says, “No, they’re not. Your present situation is not your permanent destination. I have a greater purpose for you: Go feed my sheep.”

If ever there were a sign of God’s love and purpose for us, it’s this meal we remember tonight. Even though he knew how the disciples would fail him, Jesus set a place for them at the table. Even though he knew they would never be able to love him as fully in return, Jesus showed them the fullness of his love: “This is my body given for you and my blood shed for you.”

Even to the one who would betray him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to those who would desert him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to the one who would deny him, Jesus said, “Come to the table.” Even to you and to me, Jesus says, “Come to the table.”

Tonight as you come to the table, as you tear off a piece of the bread and dip it in the cup, remember his love for you. Remember also what Peter discovered: that God can use you, despite your past…maybe even because of it…if you offer your past to him and trust in his redemption.

May we come to the table, may we remember, and may we discover that grace.

God Knows We Are Dust. Do We?

Our Scripture text this evening is not your typical Ash Wednesday text. We normally hear the words from Genesis Chapter 3 when, after Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and God told them the consequences of their and all of humanity’s sin, God concluded by saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Or we read from Ecclesiastes, where the author reminds us of that same truth: “All are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

But there is a third time in Scripture when we hear these words, and that’s in our text tonight. 

To set the stage for our reading, three men have come to visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them the great future and heritage God has planned for them as a family. Before they left, God decided to speak again through the men and to share with Abraham God’s plan to destroy Abraham’s neighboring communities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their sinful ways.  Listen for God’s Word. Read Genesis 18:22-33. This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

What strikes me about this text and the reason I chose it for our service tonight is that so often on Ash Wednesday, when we talk about our dustiness, we hear the words said in the second person. But we don’t hear them said in the first person. On Ash Wednesday, whether through God’s poet in Ecclesiastes or God’s own voice in Genesis, we hear God say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But we never have to say the words ourselves – about ourselves – “I am dust” – which begs the question: 

God knows we are dust. Do we?

The only time these words appear in Scripture in the first person is in Genesis Chapter 18.

It’s a fascinating scene. Theologians who like to talk about God’s providence or that favorite topic among Presbyterians, predestination, will often cite this text, asking: Can God change God’s mind? Or can humans change God’s mind?

What’s more striking to me in this text is not God’s mind, but God’s heart – and Abraham’s heart.

Abraham lived in close proximity to Sodom and Gomorrah. He’d likely heard about their questionable behavior. (“Did you hear what those people down the street are doing?”) He may have even witnessed their questionable behavior. So when God told him God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham might have been tempted to point a finger and say to them, “Yep, you are dust and ashes, and you deserve judgment.” 

God knows we are dust. Those living in close proximity to us know we are dust. As Jesus says, we’re a lot quicker to notice our neighbor’s dustiness than our own (Matthew 7:3-5). There’s always a great reluctance to say, “I am dust.” There’s always a greater temptation to say, “You are dust.”

But that’s not what Abraham said. Instead of condemning his neighbors, Abraham chose to intercede for them. Instead of judgment, Abraham begged God to show compassion.

It’s often been asked if it’s ok to question God, even to hold God accountable to God’s promises. This text tells us yes– when done with the right heart.

This story is a wonderful exchange of hearts. Out of God’s love and trust in Abraham, God shared what was on his heart with Abraham by disclosing God’s plan. Out of Abraham’s love and trust in God, Abraham shared what was on his heart with God, even going so far as to question God’s plan and to remind God of his character: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:24-25)

Then Abraham asked God, not once, but six times to have mercy and change course. And each time God agreed.

Why?

Because Abraham asked with the right heart. 

We see Abraham’s heart throughout the conversation, but especially in v. 27: “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” 

In response to his neighbors’ sin, Abraham could have looked at his neighbors and said, “You are but dust and ashes,” and asked God for judgment. Instead, he said, “I am but dust and ashes,” and asked God for compassion

Likewise, in response to Abraham’s request, God could have said, “You’re right – you are but dust and ashes,” and, with the zap of a lightning bolt, returned Abraham again to dust and ashes. Instead, God showed compassion – both to Abraham and to however many righteous people there were in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Of course, if we continue reading, we know how the story ended. There weren’t 50 righteous people. Or 45. Or 40. Or 30. Or 20. Or even 10. In the end, the number didn’t matter. 

But there was one number that did matter. 

That number was one.

One person who was willing to stand in the gap, no matter the outcome, no matter the cost. 

Because in the end what mattered most to Abraham wasn’t being successful; it was being faithful.

No matter what the outcome was, whether he was successful in saving the people of Sodom and Gomorrah or not, whether or not he was successful, Abraham was faithful. He faithfully stood in the gap, boldly crying out to God on behalf of his neighbor. 

What gave him the courage to do that? He remembered he was dust.

Not many of us like to remember that we are dust. Maybe that’s why it’s much easier to hear the words, “You are dust,” than it is to say the words, “I am dust.” Let me encourage us to do both tonight. When you come forward to receive the mark of the ashes and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust,” as the Spirit leads, let me encourage us to respond, whether out loud or silently, “I am dust” – for that is a first step in transformation.  

And then let me encourage us to quickly add, “Thanks be to God” – for that is also a first step in transformation.

To admit we are dust, while it may not feel good at first, it can bring the biggest sigh of relief and the loudest cry of joy there ever was – because only in humility and vulnerability can transformation occur.

When Abraham admitted he was but dust and ashes, he discovered a deeper intimacy with God. He discovered a greater compassion for his neighbor. 

God promises the same can be true for us. 

When we like Abraham have a right understanding of who we are in relation to God and who we are in relation to our neighbor, the result can only be transformation – transformation in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

God does God’s greatest work through humility and vulnerability. If you want proof, look at the cross. 

Scripture tells us, “You are dust.” Scripture also tells us, while we were yet dust, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

So as we come forward in penance, let us also come forward in hope, eager to submit to the amazing work God wants to do in and through us this Lent – if only we will remember, “I am dust. Thanks be to God.” 

Glory in the Highest, Glory in the Lowest

Every year we pastors can sometimes find ourselves asking, “What am I going to say this year on Christmas Eve? Is there some new, creative spin I can put on the same ol’ same ol’ story?” The best answer I’ve heard to that question is: “Just tell the story. That’s why we’re all here.” 

That’s why we’re all here: to hear the story again, to receive and dare to believe once again the good news.

The Christmas story in Luke 2:1-20 is one act in three scenes. Tonight we’re going to focus on scenes 2 and 3. The first scene tells of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem and of Mary giving birth to Jesus. The second scene asks: Jesus is born – now what? 

The answer in first-century Middle Eastern culture was: you had to go and tell someone. A royal birth required a royal birth announcement by a herald in the palace. That’s why, when the wise men came looking for Jesus, they instinctively went to Herod’s palace. That’s where his birth was expected to be announced. That’s where they’d find all the high-society people to whom the announcement was expected to be made. 

But the herald didn’t go to the palace. He went to a place no one expected, a place no one cared to look, because no one cared about who was there.

When we tell the Christmas story today, shepherds hold a place of honor. At our children’s stable service two weeks ago, we had a dozen or so kids eager to put on shepherds’ costumes. In the first century, no one was eager to be a shepherd. There was no glory in being a shepherd. It was an undesirable job for undesirable people. They were the lowest-ranked class of citizens. The only people who ranked lower than shepherds were shepherds on the night shift. That’s when predators were on the prowl, and the risk of death was highest. The only people you’d put on duty at night were those whose lives didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. 

In studying this text with a small group once, I asked: who are the shepherds of our day? Some said fast-food workers, janitors, sanitation workers, restaurant dishwashers, gas station clerks. One person said police officers on the night watch. An interesting thought. While we appreciate our first responders, we sometimes take for granted those who put themselves in harm’s way so that we can sleep in peace. 

There’s no glory in being a shepherd on the night shift. It was an undesirable job for even more undesirable people…

…which is why it’s so remarkable that the royal birth announcement began here. Not in the palace. Not in the temple among the religious types. But in a dark field among a bunch of shepherds. 

The good news isn’t just that a child is born; the good news is also to whomthe child is born. The good news of God’s love always shows up in placeswe least expect and to people we least expect. Jesus is constantly going to the least likely, redrawing lines, rewriting guest lists, redeeming lost sheep – and lost shepherds.

Why is that good news for us tonight? Because I imagine some of us feel like those shepherds. You’re in a dead-end job or dead-end relationship. You feel unnoticed, unloved, like no one cares or your life doesn’t make a difference. You don’t fit in. Whether it’s because of how someone else has judged you or how you’ve judged yourself, you feel unworthy. 

Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve walked through the doors of a church. Maybe this is the first time you’ve ever walked through the doors. You’re wondering what those around you are thinking of you, what’s Godthinking of you.

And yet….you still showed up. That’s always a good first step.

Let me suggest it’s not so much that you and I choseto show up today. God wantedyou to show up. That little nudge or family tradition or sense of obligation, whatever it was that resulted in your being here, ultimately, it’s Godwho brought each of us here for a reason. God led each of us to show up – because God has shown up, and God wants to show forth his glory for us just like he did for those shepherds.

When God showed up in the fields that night, it didn’t seem like a welcome thing at first. Scripture says the shepherds were terrified– and understandably so. Fear is an entirely normal reaction. If any of us were to see something that extraordinary, we might be a little freaked out, too. 

Beyond the emotional reaction, there’s the spiritualreaction. All throughout Scripture, whenever people encountered the holy or divine, they often were afraid. Those experiences of fear in the presence of God go all the way back to that originalexperience of fear in Genesis 3, when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they did, they saw that they were naked, and they hid from God – because they were afraid (Genesis 3:10).

Ever since then, we humans have been wrestling with a desireto know and be known by God in a deep and personal way – and yet, at the same time, we’re terrified: if God saw who we truly are, what might God think of us?

Perhaps you’re feeling some of those mixed emotions tonight, wondering: Do I dare risk believing once again – or for the very first time? Do I dare to believe that there is good news – and that it is truly good?

In Scripture whenever people encountered the holy or divine and were afraid, they were immediately told, “Do not be afraid.” Those were the angel’s first words to Zechariah and to Mary and now to the shepherds. We’ve been talking about this command “Do not be afraid” in Sunday worship the past few weeks. What we haven’t said yet is that the command “Do not be afraid” is, of course, more easily saidthan done

So what dowe do?

The answer comes, not in doing, but in seeing. The angels’ opening line to the shepherds didn’t stop with, “Do not be afraid.” The angel continued, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See what Godsees. The shepherds looked up and saw a multitude of the heavenly host shining God’s glory in the highest. God, on the other hand, looked down and saw God’s glory in the lowest. 

While we’re looking up to the heavens and marveling at God’s light tonight, God’s looking at and marveling at us, saying, “I do see who you truly are: you are my child. You are loved. You belong. You are precious and valuable beyond anything you can imagine – because you are mine.” 

What is this good news of great joy the angels call us to see? A child has been born for us, a Savior given to us. Jesus left the glory of the highest heaven to come and show his glory to the lowest on earth – including you and me. If we want to overcome our fear of rejection and failure and be filled with his love, if we want to experience forgiveness and the freedom of no longer having to be our own savior, then look to the manger. See the God who loved you so much that he sent his Son – for you. 

See his love for you, and then let what you see compel you to do. 

That’s what the shepherds did. When they heard the angels and saw God’s glory shining all around them, they didn’t form a committee in good Presbyterian fashion and say, “OK, you be in charge of navigation, you be in charge of food – the goodstuff, don’t go cheap this time – and we’ll meet back here next week and come up with a plan.” No, they said, “Let’s go now!” Just like when we hear some good news, we can’t wait to pick up our phone and text someone, they couldn’t wait to get to Bethlehem, to see what was in the manger, and to make known what God had told them. But they didn’t stop there. They turned right back around, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard.

And there ends scene 2. 

But the storydoesn’t end there. The shepherds have done their part. Now it’s our turn to take the stage. What will the world see in the next scene?

It all depends on what we see tonight.

It can be tempting tonight to listen to the music, look all the pretty lights, be reminded of God’s glory in the highest, and leave, simply thinking, “Wasn’t that beautiful?”

God’s glory isn’t just something to admire. It’s not the end itself, but a means to an end.

Much like when you walk into a room and turn on a lamp, you don’t stand there staring at the lamp, thinking, “My, what a nice lamp.” The lights in the choir loft? When we walk in, we don’t notice the lights. We notice the choir because of the light. Or later, when we’re singing by candlelight, yes, notice the pretty candles. But also notice what the candles do: they allow us to see the faces of all our sisters and brothers that surround us.

The purpose of a lamp is not to call attention to itself. The purpose of a lamp is to shine light on everything around it: to expose dark corners, to give warmth, and to help others to see more clearly. That’s a light’s purpose. 

Tonight, we celebrate that God has given us his Son Jesus, the Light of the World. But a gift is only a gift if it is received and used, and a light is only a light if it’s used for its purpose. We’re not just supposed to stay here looking up at the light; we’re called to look out at the world and shine that light for others. Just as God’s glory in the highest gave glory to the lowest some two thousand years ago, we’re now called to share the good news of God’s love by doing those same things a lamp does: exposing the darkness of this world, displaying Jesus’ love and truth, providing warmth and comfort to those in need, and helping others to see more clearly the way home.

What are those circumstances and relationships God has given you to glorify him? Don’t settle for the obvious or easy ones. Look for good news where you least expect it. If you don’t see the good news, then maybe that’s where God is calling you to bethe good news.

….and if you’re still struggling to believe there is good news to see – and that it really is good – then get up anyway. Go and see and tell, for sometimes in going and seeing and telling the good news to others we discover the good news for ourselves.

The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see.” See the manger. Behold what God has done and is doing. To the degree that we behold it, grasp it, and treasure and ponder it in our hearts, to that degree all fears will start to diminish, and only Jesus’ light will remain. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Sweet Victory of Suffering on Top of Suffering

After a recent Saturday training run, a few of us were talking with our coach Amy Begley from Atlanta Track Club about the unexpected women’s results in the 2018 Boston Marathon. She said she believed what helped the top two women was that, unlike their competitors, they were used to suffering. When we stared at her for a second with looks like, “Really? Isn’t any marathon training a form of suffering?”, she added, “I mean, they’re not just used to suffering; they’re used to suffering on top of suffering.”

She went on to explain that many of the elite runners who were favorites to win came from fair-weather states with more favorable training conditions. The top two women did not. The first woman to cross the finish line, Desiree (Desi) Linden, lives in Michigan. (If you think our winter in Atlanta has been cold, talk to a Michigander.) The second woman to cross, Sarah Sellers (who basically was a no name in the running world until April 16), is a nurse anesthetist in Tucson, Arizona. Given her schedule, she had to begin her double-digit-mileage training runs at 4 am before work or at 7 pm after a 10-hour shift at the hospital.

Marathon training in ideal conditions involves suffering. But when having to train in snow and frigid temperatures in the dead of winter, or when having to train well before sunrise or well after sunset, before or after being on your feet all day for work? That’s suffering on top of suffering.

Yet what better preparation for race day – and ultimately for victory?

When the forecast on the day of the Boston Marathon called for gale-force winds and freezing rain, they were ready – because they’d been there. They knew what it was to suffer. As a result, when the real test came, they could handle whatever the race required.

There’s a reason Scripture often compares our life with Christ to a race – and I would add that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Like many of us, I’m good at staying the course when conditions are favorable. When life becomes a tough climb, I may whine or complain some. Add a little rain to that uphill battle, and I might begin sending out invitations to a pity party.

Some of us have said that April has been a hard month for our congregation. We’ve experienced several deaths and cancer diagnoses. Others have said it’s not just the past month. The past year has been hard. Two pastoral transitions, financial challenges, and more. Nevertheless, we’ve stayed the course. We’ve endured. We’ve persevered. We’ve trusted that, in the words of Romans 8:38-39 that our youth shared with us on Youth Sunday, nothing can separate us from the love of God. If God is for us, who or what can be against us?

And I intentionally use the pronoun “we” – because there’s another factor that gave Linden the edge.

Race commentators were surprised when favorite Shalane Flanagan stopped at a porta potty. They were even more surprised when Linden stopped to wait for her. Linden could have seen Flanagan’s pit stop as a chance to get ahead of her competitor. Instead, she saw it as a chance to help her teammate.

According to sports psychologists, Linden’s willingness to support Flanagan and other American runners and get them back on pace allowed her to take her focus off her own pain and suffering and re-direct her energy toward the goal. In Linden’s words, “when you work together, you never know what’s going to happen.”

When going through a difficult season, it might be tempting to do whatever is needed to take care of myself and make sure I come through it ok. Especially in those times, Scripture calls us to a larger vision. When we look beyond ourselves and focus on those around us, when we remember who we are and whose we are, what amazing victory might Jesus accomplish through us together?

….and no offense to Desi, but I’m pretty sure that victory far exceeds the one she received in Boston.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

-Romans 5:1-5