Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sunday: Remembering Papaw

"For all the saints who from their labors rest..."

This morning as I am preparing for our All Saints worship service at St. Paul, I am remembering a gift I received in 2007 in the midst of a great loss.  That was the year that my Papaw died and went to be with out Lord.  At the time, I was taking a preaching/creative writing course at Duke.  My assignment was to find a connection between Halloween and All Saints and explain it through story.  I wrote this sermon on the evening of October 30th, reflecting on my Papaw's illness and planning to go visit him the following weekend.  He died the morning of October 31.  Below is the sermon, which continues to be a gift for me. Cherish the saints in your life, friends, those who have gone on to be with God and those who are still among you. 

Papaw is like a garden grown vegetable. Sometimes he’s sweet, and he looks like he’s going to be real sweet; and sometimes he looks so sweet that he’s about to be rotten. He’s always worth the first bite. I sat in the yard under the tree with my sister and watched him poke around in the garden that he fought to maintain despite the rode that that receded closer to its border like a balding middle aged man.  He hated that road, and always fussed if we got too close to it.  But he loved that garden.  My sister and I participated in our usual adventures of exploring the yard.  Sometimes I followed him around stepping on things that were meant to be eaten, asking “Papaw why is the sky blue?”, picking up bugs, asking “if I pull this critter’s antennas off will he die?”, making mud pies, asking “Papaw, do you love chocolate more than you love me?”, and poking my fingers into the soft skin of the tender tomatoes.  Mostly I got “mmhhmm,” and “what do you think, say-rah (that's how he said my name)?”  I treated my grandparents like organic toys to be prodded and poked, and they treated me to cocoa puffs, playing in the garden, strange mixtures of foods, and the wisdom of the old people.  It was like living a story, and I always tried to imagine the pasts that they painted of my extended family,  of Cook’s valley, Arkansas, and my Papaw’s mom, Sarah Byra Gray Moody, who died shortly after his birth.  Their world seemed different from my world, so much like that place between waking and dreaming, just barely painted across a mountain backdrop enough that I could see myself inside them, somewhere. 

My Papaw was a strong man with several masks—husband, Father, Papaw, business manager, brother, church elder—and each bore with them a mask to represent a memory that remained fully present in a past sense.  My masks include: student, daughter, preacher, oldest child, friend, girlfriend—some out of necessity and others out of natural progression.  If ever one mask is removed, there is another beneath it.  What will be left when I take them all off? I removed the Sunday school student mask one day to confess that I hadn’t read the whole bible.  That for all fourteen years I had been alive, I never once read it like I did my extensive collection of other books.  I have always been a reader.  He told me that he read the whole bible more times than he could remember, and that when I learned to love the scriptures more than I loved the book world I lived in that I wouldn’t be able to put it down.  He recited God’s Word back to me--which had become his words--and told me that he had been a Sunday School teacher for much longer than I was alive. 

I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  The birds get quiet and the silence of the night becomes overwhelming.  I’m captivated by smells that make me recall dreams, or even actual events in life that only seem like dreams swept up in the dew of the morning dawn.  Who do I see when I look at my Papaw?  Which mask that I place on his face is true?  Can a mask be true?

I remember my first time tasting honeycomb sitting at the cash register at the short stop.  It was like playing store, except that it was a real gas station/convenient store.  I loved running back through the freezer and sifting through the numerous projects Papaw had going on in the corner that was his “shop” for knives and sewing machines.  We played with his cane, the cane with a handle that smells like his hand—harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  In my own organized courtroom, I accused him of making holes in his mouth with the chewing tobacco that bulged out his bottom lip.  I refused to allow him to make holes in his mouth that I saw in a video at school.  I tore the mask away, stole his deadly candy and emptied it on the ground.  I wore my stubborn mask, and I sat crying with the shame of being so forceful with my gentle Papaw.  I was already a failed lawyer.  He never stopped chewing, but on some level, I felt like I stripped him of one of the fairy tale masks that I used to cover his face.  Who told him that was his story? Why did he start?  Those were never questions I asked.

“Do what I say” he said, and my Mamaw whispered, “but  not always what he does,” as he instructed me to pour grease into the skillet to make gravy.  The gravy never did get thick enough, probably because he had calloused touch sensations due to years of hard work and diabetes.  As we sat down to eat, discouraged at our ability to make things “just right,” he asked me to pray. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food, Amen.”  We tasted, and everything was sweet.  The meat was sweet, the gravy was… sweet, the potatoes were… sweet, the cornbread was way too sweet.  I was the first to giggle, and then we all laughed at Papaw’s mistake—powdered sugar instead of flour.  The amount was right, but the substance was all wrong and it made our feast taste like a cavity waiting to happen.  He took off the mask of Teacher, and became the student.  

I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  I remember when I told him I was going to seminary, and I knew that he didn’t support woman pastors.  He told me a story.  He told me the story of a capable woman who worked in the church because it was safe.  He forgot to take off the mask of church elder to show his face as grandfather to a scared granddaughter who was a confident adult by paper, but really a child looking for assurance at heart.  My story was his story, the story that he told me of a blessed redeemer that kept him going each day.  The story of a God whose message to the world was one of Gospel to those trapped by sin and death, a message of healing and deeply loving… and of resurrection.  He came to hear me preach one time—the word that he helped teach me to love—and I know he was proud.

Last time I saw my Papaw he sat in his chair watching one of his favorite Westerns.  He muted the sound, but the action played on as though it was depicting the battle within his heart.  I knew he was scared, and I knew he would die, and for the first time I saw him as a man—another child in need of God’s grace—a fellow beggar at the door of mercy. I hugged him and kissed him as I left and said, “I love you rascal, try to behave yourself,” and he said, “I never behave.  I love you too, Say-rah.”  Driving away from their home—I looked into the space that was once the garden—now an overgrown bunch of weeds long past harvest time, its last harvest being several years back and I painfully choked out the words:  “Dear God, I trust you with my Papaw.”  

Sisters and Brothers, what masks do we wear?  How do we tell our stories?  How do we live out our stories?  When we see Jesus standing in the Jordan beckoning us home, will we recognize the songs of the saints?  Our visible communion is incomplete and small compared to the invisible cloud of witnesses that surround our tables.  God made us maskless and said we were good.  My Papaw was a man of true faith, a man that did not live like a Pharisee; he did not live that others might see his good works, but lived so that if others were looking they would see his good God. So that a fellow traveler in this crazy world might see Jesus’ painfully visible fingerprints of blessing on his life.  I will always think of him during the autumn-- when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees.  Merciful God, give him the courage to hear the wooing of your Saints as they sing the Hallelujahs into the depths of all your creation.  Breathe into him eternity.  Amen.

October 30, 2007

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Grace: 6 months

To my darling 6 month old...some things I want to remember.

You would rather play with your feet than hold your bottle, even though we know (and you know) that you are capable of holding your bottle.  I love this because it means you want to spend that time with someone who loves you.

You insist on sitting up all on your own in the bathtub.  We make sure you are just the flash of a hand away from help if needed, but you want to do it yourself.

You love the water.  Cold water, or warm water... no worries, bring it on!  When we went to the beach, you sat in the surf under an umbrella admiring the water and the sand as it swept around you.  We went to the Little Pigeon River over Labor Day and your Dad and I  squirmed as we walked in the cold mountain water, but you couldn't wait to submerge as much of your body as we would let you. And then you splashed with joy.

Your first game was with "monkey" when Jess came to visit and she played "kisses" with you.  It always made you smile, and even lunge in for your own kisses.  You still love playing this game.

You are always trying to make us laugh, and if we do, you will do whatever you were doing over and over again to get a giggle.  We return the favor because your laugh is the best sound in the world.

You peed on Poppy!  Poppy doesn't change diapers, but you made sure to include him in the fun anyway.  Love it.

When you are not ready to wake up and something is disturbing your sleep, you shake your head back and forth (eyes clothes) over and over again.  When you are ready to sleep, you turn on your side, lips pursed shut and those long eyelashes light on your sweet cheeks.

You love to smile.  You smile all of the time, and when you do you draw your nose up so that it has little creases in it.  You smile at strangers and get joy out of their response.  It is delightful.

You are the headband queen.  Thanks to Mimi, you have quite the collection and already the reputation to go with it.  We roll with it.

You are excited about Preschool when we walk into your classroom in the morning, and my day is made at 2:00 when I pick you up.  I walk into the room, usually you are busy picking things up and putting them in your mouth, and when I call your name, you jump and wave your hands and snort with excitement, smiling with your whole face, scrunching that little nose up.  Seriously, girl, it melts this Momma's heart every time.

We love you and cherish your little life, more than words can adequately convey.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Theology Thursday: My friend, the Millennial

Apparently, I am odd.  For many reasons, to be sure, but for one reason in particular.  
I am 30, a millennial (on the upper end, since my 12 year old baby sister is ALSO a millennial), and an ordained pastor in a mainline denomination. My close proximity to generation X might make my cultural context and vocational choice even more unusual.  
Also, I have a lot of odd friends--Hello, young adult clergy friends!

Often, as if my age gives me expert status, I am asked questions about an anxiety in the church over a missing generation in the pews: 
"where are the young people?" 
"why do they leave the church?"
"what can we do to get them to come back?"

I give my best Rachel Held Evans answer (she is right on target, go Rachel!)... but a part of me feels like a medical student diagnosing a real illness that I have only studied in books. 

This does not mean I have never doubted.  This does not mean I am especially holy.  This does not mean I have deep theological insight.  This does not mean that I have not experienced pain. This does not mean that I am ignorant or naive.

Now, I find myself a clergy-person on a denominational ship that is threatening to be pulled apart in the same young waters that led to its earliest adventures.  We are left with every meeting and every book to frantically scoop out water while we continue to sink.

What I really want to say to all the searching or annoyed or apathetic or hurting millennials out there is simple...
Don't give up. Please, come back. 

The church is not good at a lot of things, and unfortunately we are still trying to figure out the difference between an "issue" and a person whom God calls us to love and accept.  We are not always kind, and we don't love our neighbor, much less our enemy. 
Lord, have mercy.
We often try to neatly box up our faith and we have yet to figure out that being a disciple of Jesus does not mean we have to align with one political party over the other.   
Christ, have mercy.
We fight over silly stuff like parlor decorations and windows and flowers and preaching styles, and in doing so we ignore the really important conversations at the expense of those we should be serving.
Lord, have mercy.

And yet, like a well-meaning relative that usually says the wrong thing, or an over-grown house that used to be a well-used home, I love the church because I have known the capacity into which she is capable of beautifully being and living.   I hope that is true about me, too.  That God loves me even as I am so painfully broken.

Millennial friend...find a church near you, and give it a real try... a more than 2 clicks on a website sort of try.  You will find a community that will surprise you, make you angry, inspire you, defend you, walk with you, love you, and if you stick around long enough, there will be moments when the Kingdom of God is near enough to see.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wildcard Wednesday: Naming

I'm a traditionalist, I can't help it.  Maybe its part of being the oldest and wanting everything to be fair, everyone to have the same experiences, and to cross the same milestones.  Maybe its just in my DNA. 

When Daniel (also a traditionalist) and I found out we were expecting, naming felt like such an important task.  Everyone has their own process and qualifications for doing this, but for us it was an opportunity to bestow a special blessing.  We made lists of names with special meanings or that represented special people.  We called our parents and learned of funny family names, like one of Daniel's relatives called "Allie," short for: Alabama Georgia.  Bless her southern heart.  

When we got news that our little bundle would be a girl, the list was cut in half and we spent weeks deliberating.  For some reason, this felt like the most important thing-- our girl needed a name!  Pregnancy hormones have a way of assigning urgency to pretty much all things, you know, like dusting baseboards or organizing rarely used cabinets. 

We finally settled on two names.  It went down something like this...
Sarah: "Ok, which of your names is the most important to you?"
Daniel: "Forced to choose: Grace, I really like Grace. Its in both of our families, my twin sister is Mary Grace, and one of your sisters is Haley Grace.  Its a beautiful name.  Grace was my Grandmother's name. What about you?"
Sarah: "I always wanted to name a daughter after my Great Grandmother, Margaret, but I don't really want to call her Margaret."
Daniel:  "Ok, what about Margaret Grace?  We can call her Grace."
Sarah: "Sounds good... Grace Margaret it is."
Daniel: "Or, Grace Margaret sounds good too."

My husband is a good sport, but if you know me at all, that goes without saying.  That sweet, patient, handsome, man of mine deserves a metal...or a ring (check).   :)

For a long time we kept her name a secret, whispering it to each other, and calling her by the secret name in our prayers.  Finally we decided to share with our family and closest friends just weeks before her arrival.  One night about a week before she was born, it dawned on me that her name was perfect, because she is Grace to us. For more reasons than I am willing to share, everything about this miracle of pregnancy felt like Grace. Literally. 

On the day of her birth we named her "Grace Margaret" in memory and honor of people whom we cherish, and as a blessing for the future that she might receive portions of their spirit as they trickle down our family tree.

As tradition would have it, in my family there is a special right of passage for baby girls.  Many years ago now, 60 or so, my Mamaw had someone make an Easter dress for my Aunt Donna.  Since then, all of the baby girls have all worn it.  We have all had our picture made in it, and this morning was my girl's special day.

She remains Grace in our lives.  Such a blessing.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Theology Thursday: Preparation

Preparing space.  Space in my heart.  Space in my relationships.  Space in our house.  Space in my work.  All for a baby girl. 

Never in my life, have I prepared so much for what is about to happen. Probably because it so profoundly affects this little person that has been very steadily growing below my heart these last 9 months.  And I want to do it right.  I do.  I want to plan.  And before you laugh at me or tell me that planning goes out the window with a baby… resist the urge.  This is all I know to do. 
By the way, 9 months is a long time.  It is a marathon.  

After I get home from meetings I spend my evening organizing things, like that drawer in our bathroom that collects junk.  Then I worry about labor.  Quickly I realize that my greatest worry is about the greater task of parenting: what if I screw this up??  I will. I know I will.  What if I give her a complex?  Oh, I will.  I know I will.  

Next, I go in her room and organize her lotions and bows and toys because it is something I can control, something I can get right.  Then another question comes to me, what if I can't answer her questions?  I won't be able to all of the time.  I know I won't.  OR worse what if I can't protect her?  I won't be able to all of the time.  I know I won't.  

On the brink of being someone's Momma (any day, really), I am both in awe of my body and this little life that grows so rapidly and in fear of my ability to actually do this.  Because its for a lifetime, and that is a really long time.  Its a million marathons that keep coming, and I want them to… I want to cherish her.  I want to show her things.  I want her to ask questions I have never thought to ask. I want her to love living her life! 

The best thing I can do now is prepare, organize, obsess, worry...knowing that God so lovingly prepares for our place in the world and then so fearfully allows us to live in it with very little control of what we might grab a hold of… even if it is clean, organized, and child proofed.  

Which leaves me full of an anxious joy and brimming over with anticipation as we prepare to meet our little one. Come soon, sweet girl, we already love you more than life itself. 
Loving you is something I know we can do. We already do…so much.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wildcard Wednesday: Lenten Homily

"I'm Sorry: Easy to Say, Harder to Be"
Church Street UMC
February 20, 2013

Psalm 51:1-10

I'm the oldest of 5 children.  Some would say this makes me "bossy," I like to think I am "directive" and "helpful." The youngest, Haley, who is 11 is absolutely the baby and all that means.  She is delightful, full of life and wonder, and spunk… but, being the baby to 4 older siblings means that she cannot, under most any circumstance say the words, "I'm sorry."  We have wondered-- is this a pride thing? Is this a youngest thing?  Is this a stubborn thing since she is at the end of a long line of stubborn women? 

Several years ago now, I was home from seminary and visiting with my family when Haley got into trouble.  I have absolutely no memory of what she did to be in trouble, but I will never forget the aftermath, which is funny and pitiful all at the same time.  Haley was about 5 years old at the time, and whatever she did my Dad was not going to back down until she simply said two words, "I'm sorry." He carefully explained why she was in the wrong and owed an apology, she glared at him, frowned, and turned her face toward her shoulder. No remorse.  Finally he attempted a positive spin on the expectation of an apology, "if you would just say I'm sorry, then you can go back to playing and we can move on." She refused.  Red in the face, eyes turned from his gaze.  So, he picked up one doll from her baby collection and said that baby would be exiled to the garage until Haley could do what she needed to do… as soon as the baby doll left her room she cried out with a primal scream, as I would imagine any real mother would do at the sight of her baby being taken away--wait, scratch that--she screamed as if the baby was ripped from her tender lovin' arms.  it was a tense moment for the entire house as we hid in our respective corners. Ten minutes later, he went back and calmly said, "Are you ready?" Still refusing, Dad gently carried a second baby doll through the house to the garage, now turned dungeon, and an even louder cry erupted from her little 5 year old body…baby doll 3…4...5…approx. 14 baby dolls later…and everyone else's nerves completely fried she climbed into my Dad's lap, hugged his neck, and mumbled "I'm sorry."  

In a culture where we do not apologize for who we are, or what opinions we hold, or how we behave, I wonder if we turn toward our shoulders avoiding God's gaze as God tries to soften our hearts with the humble reality: God is God, and not we ourselves.  And so, Lent is a peculiar thing to do… we willingly give up comforts or take on habits, as we meditate on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness and the incredible sacrifice of the cross.  And yet, more than ever, what we are really in need of, as individuals and a people, is to see that we are punishing ourselves with self-made dungeons, and in need of a good old fashioned "I'm Sorry" as we begin with Almighty God and go from there. 
 In Psalm 51, we are invited to join in with an ancient confession, that still rings true to our lives so many generations later.  We are all sinners, begging at the door of God's mercy.  We believe in God's steadfast love, and yet we are convinced that the door is closed shut when it comes to redeeming our situation, forgiving us of our sin… because we know what we have done or not done.  
We know that our marriage is broken beyond repair--or our friendship or our relationship with our child or our coworker.  
We know that the words we said will always hang like a cartoon "bubble" in mid-air without the humor and only the shame.  
We know what we did in secret, when we thought that no one was looking.  
We know that God could never love us, not really, not fully.  

Except, that if we would just open our stubborn eyes, we would see the door open and God beckoning us take the hand of Jesus out of the wilderness we banish ourselves to, beyond the heavy load of the cross, to the new life that no one ever thought possible except for God.  

So maybe my baby sister's problem is not that the words "I'm sorry" are hard for her to utter… maybe she's the only one that gets just how weighty those words are when they are meant from a broken spirit and a contrite heart.  Maybe the challenge for us this Lent is to say "I'm sorry" so that we can mean it, and allow ourselves to move on with the dawn of Easter morning.  

Take a moment… examine deep down… what do you know is too much to ask of God?  Go ahead, be honest, as God is already the searcher of our hearts, and in silence let's prepare ourselves to begin this journey of Lent with confession. 

Remember: In the Name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Amen.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Theology Thursday: Ash Wednesday

Some reflections in preparation for Ash Wednesday... 

On Ash Wednesday, February 13, Christians across the world will go to their respective sacred spaces and have ashes mixed with oil imposed on their foreheads.  There is an unspoken rule that you don’t “wipe” the ashes off, so those same Christians will leave worship and enter into the world believing that they bear the mark of sin and mortality while everyone else wonders, “what’s the smudge on my banker’s head?” or “doesn’t that lady know her mascara got a little high?” 

Honestly, this is a strange thing to do.  Yet, it is not the only strange thing that Christians do to live out our faith.  Think about how strange it is that we share in communion which represents God’s grace, and Jesus’ body and blood.  How strange it must seem that we baptize with water... a glorified form of bathing in one’s clothes, or a baby in a fluffy white garment.  How strange it must be for outsiders to walk into our practice of reading from a really old book, and listening to the words of a preacher that claims to have an unseen connection to God.

So, why do this strange thing on Ash Wednesday?  And what can I say or do when I notice the awkward glances of the rest of the population? 

The ashes are to remember: like a locket worn around a neck with a picture of one’s beloved.
The ashes are to confess: like a scarlet letter that each of us wear everyday but usually only bear in the deep recesses of our hearts. 
The ashes are to proclaim: because being weird for the sake of teaching one’s soul a lesson from time to time is not the worst thing that could happen to us.  

I hope you will go, do this strange thing of having the ashes imposed on your forehead. 
I hope it makes you feel uncomfortable, like all you want to do is accidentally wipe it off.  
I also hope at some point you forget that its there so that you can remember when a cashier tries to give you a hand wipe to take away the mystery smudge.
I hope you know it is not a badge of Christian honor to make you feel better than anyone who has a clean forehead, but that you will recognize it is a sign of God’s sorrow.
I hope these things for me, too.  

May we spend the day reflecting on death and sin and the fragile reality of our bodies, so that our hearts might overflow with a strange sense of gratitude for God’s surprising gift of grace.  

If you are looking for a place to go and you're in the Knoxville area, Church Street UMC will have a "drop-in" opportunity to receive the ashes for commuters from 7:00-8:00am, a 45 minute service at 12:00pm, and again at 6:30pm, each opportunity is in our main sanctuary.  All are welcome.