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Go Set a Watchman

I have the book!  And I’m going to start reading Go Set a Watchman tonight. 

  
I’ve read the reviews, and I’ve listened to the critics on NPR.  I know that Atticus Finch is portrayed as a racist, and I know that many other readers have been disappointed.  Still, I’m looking forward to reading this book. 

In some ways, I feel a bit like Scout.  I was a child when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird just as Scout was a child during Mockingbird’s action. Having grown up in a small town in the southern United States, I could relate to many of the things that Scout, Jem, and Dill encountered.  I don’t remember a Boo Radley in my hometown, although there were plenty of characters around whom I felt at least a little uneasy.

And, like Scout, I knew racism.  I heard it at school, and I knew the attitudes of many people around town. I saw the different sections in which people with different skin color lived.  There was an invisible but very clear color line dividing our town. 

I am thankful that my parents taught me to respect all people regardless of their racial or ethnic background.  But I still knew and observed racism. 

I read To Kill a Mockingbird again as an adult. I also listened to the audio book, and although I knew the story — although I knew that Tom Robinson would be falsely found guilty — still I cried when the verdict was announced. How could people treat someone else with such dismissive disdain and searing hatred, I wondered. 

To prepare for Watchman’s release this week, my family watched Mockingbird on Monday night. Gregory Peck was just as calm and determined as always as Atticus Finch . I still felt the pit in my stomach during Tom’s trial. 

And, now I have Watchman. Like Scout in Watchman, I’m older now (though I’m considerably older than Jean Louise in Watchman).  I’m sure my perspectives have changed since childhood as Scout’s surely did. 

While other readers have expressed frustration and disappointment with Jean Louise’s portrayal of Atticus, I’m looking forward to it.  Much of the disappointment seems driven by people’s desire for a completely good, upright hero without flaws or blemishes. 

I don’t think life happens that way, and I think it is heroic to do the right thing even if one has mixed motives and undesirable qualities. At this point, I think Atticus still is a hero. 

I wonder what I’ll think after reading Go Set a Watchman. 

Now, it’s time to read!

Whales and Seals in South Africa

Shortly after we arrived in the Western Cape of South Africa, we were told that we may be able to see whales during our stay.  The Southern Right Whale spends summer feeding near Antarctica and migrates north in winter for breeding.  September marks the end of winter in South Africa, and we have seen signs of spring all around.

A couple of days after arriving in Yzerfontein, South Africa (the beautiful seaside town that is our home for the month of September), my wife and daughter were enjoying time on the beach, when they spotted something near the town’s dock.  At first, my wife thought it was a rock, but on closer inspection, they saw that it was a whale.  They sped home to gather my son and me, and the four of us went to the dock.  We spent the next forty-five minutes transfixed by the whales.  There were three whales within fifty meters of the dock, and they appeared to be two large adults and one small young whale.  We could see another whale about three hundred meters away.  They seemed to float effortlessly, rising and falling with the waves.  Their mouths came out of the water, and they occasionally fluttered their fins and tails.  It was a sight to behold!Whale

We have seen whales on two other occasions.  Once was while at the West Coast National Park, a beautiful place set on the coast just north of Yzerforntein.  And the second time was from the beach while walking the dogs. A storm was brewing, the winds were strong, and the seas rough. Just off shore — no more than 200 meters — we spotted a whale easily floating in the water. It seemed to take no mind to the storm that was leaving us damp and windblown. And we didn’t mind the cold and damp conditions as we watched this majestic creature.

SealIn addition to whales, I also hoped to spot some seals while in South Africa. We traveled to Robben Island (more about this experience in another blog post), which is named for the seals in the waters near Cape Town. Robben is the Dutch word for seal. As our boat approached the island, we saw eight or ten seals sunning on rocks. It was a nice sight, but I really was hoping to see seals in a more natural setting.

Yesterday, while my daughter and I were walking the dog on the beach, we looked behind us, and we saw a seal on the shore. We stood still for several minutes watching the seal. With Pella the dog securely on the leash, we walked closer to get a better view. As we approached slowly, the seal looked at us for a while before walking into the surf. It started swimming in the water just a few feet offshore. As we walked back home, the seal swam parallel to the shore in the same direction we walked. What a gift in this wonderful town! Seal 2

Tears

Just a few weeks ago, my wife and I concluded our time as Pastor of Fernwood Baptist Church, Spartanburg, South Carolina.  We served in this position for five years, and our time was wonderful.  We left because we have sensed a desire to live closer to our family, and we are moving to Florida where we will live close to both sets of our parents and my wife’s brother and his family.  

Unlike many departures, ours was not motivated by frustration, burnout, or anything negative.  We left a place and setting we loved to move to a place and setting where we sense we are supposed to be.

The congregation provided many wonderful occasions to say good-bye.  We shared meals, read cards, enjoyed conversations, and had the great pleasure to say and hear many good words.  On our final Sunday, the congregation hosted a wonderful lunch for us.  When the lunch was over, it finally came time to say good-bye to a group of dear people that we loved very much.

I had thought about so many details related to our departure, but I had not thought about how to finally say good-bye to people.  As the lunch ended, people gathered to extend their good wishes, and I found that I was unable to share words with them.  Instead, I shed tears — lots of tears.  Tears flowed down my cheeks, and many times, I would simply stand with a parishioner — and cry.

Rather than being embarrassed about tears I could not control, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for the tears,  They seemed to express what my words could not.

It was a new experience for me, and just one more reason to be grateful for my time with these wonderful people.

God’s Loving Paths

I am deeply grateful to be married to a preacher. A while ago, my wife, Lisa, preached from Psalm 25, which includes the beautiful promise: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.” She called on the congregation to remember that God’s paths are good (notice the plural: paths).

There can be more than one path in your life on which you may please God and live according to God’s ways. There can be more than one path on which you can serve God, do good with your fellow humans, and find deep meaning in life.

Lisa’s sermon reminded me of a story from Kirk Byron Jones. Kirk is a longtime, faithful Baptist minister. I had the pleasure of serving as Kirk’s colleague at Andover Newton Theological School where we taught Christian Social Ethics. In his book, Holy Play: The Joyful Adventure of Unleashing Your Divine Purpose, Kirk describes an episode in which he sensed God’s promise of presence with him as he faced a crucial decision.

At the time, Kirk was serving as pastor of a vibrant congregation, which he loved. He also had another opportunity presented to him that would move him in a different direction. While deciding between the options, Kirk sought God’s guidance in prayer as he walked along a river. He said:

I walked to a spot and began to silently voice my confusion and consternation. I remember, in the words of the gospel song of total surrender, laying it “all on the altar.” After a while, I stopped speaking, bowed my head, closed my eyes, and just stood still. My prayer became a posture of quite waiting. Having talked myself empty, I just stood there.
Some moments passed, and I finally opened my eyes. For the first time since coming to the riverbank, I noticed my surroundings; that’s when I saw them: two paths, just below where I was standing. I held them in view for as long as it took these words to sound in my soul: “Know this: Whichever path you choose, I will be with you.”

May you find the good life on various paths where you sense you are being led.

Endings

On July 15, my wife, Lisa, and I will conclude our time as pastors at our church. As the date approaches, I have been thinking about endings. How can you have a good ending? Is there such a thing as a perfect ending? How can we have the best ending possible with the good folks at our church?
Katherine Anne Porter was a twentieth-century writer who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966. In reflecting on her writing, Porter said, “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, first. And then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”
Porter sums it up well. Knowing the ending can guide our actions and open us to God’s grace along the way.
I do not know exactly the ending we will experience at our church, but I suspect it will be filled with gratitude for the wonderful years we have shared, tears in remembering that we have been deeply blessed, some fears as we all move into an unknown future, and deep hope that we will continue to journey with God.
This week, Lisa and I will have our portrait taken, which will join the portraits of other former ministers in the church’s concourse. This act reminds me that our time together is fleeting, but the congregation will continue its ministry, with God’s grace, for many years to come.

They Ran Like Mad

We are in Holy Week, the special days between Palm Sunday and Easter, when we focus once more on those final events of Jesus’ life. These are days filled with meaning and memory that unite us with our forebears in the faith and our siblings the world over. And also, they can be deeply personal days when individually – you and I – reflect on these events and their meaning in your life and my life.
This year, I am preparing to preach at two services on Resurrection Sunday. The first one will begin at sunrise in our town’s cemetery. I have gathered in this cemetery on many occasions to bury loved ones and commit them to God’s safe keeping. Easter will begin in the cemetery, and that is fitting because that is where the first Easter morning happened. Then, the second service will take place in our church’s sanctuary where people will gather with children in bright clothes, other members in pretty hats, and everyone appreciating beautiful music. This also is fitting because, while Easter began in the cemetery, it did not end there.

Mary Magdalene on Easter, Jesus Mafa

Mary Magdalene on Easter, Jesus Mafa

Our focal Scriptures for Easter Sunday will come from Matthew, chapter 28, and in these verses, Mary Magdalene and another disciple named Mary came to the cemetery, learned of Jesus’ resurrection, and then ran to tell Jesus’ other disciples the news.
In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch translation of Matthew’s gospel, he says that the women “ran like mad” to tell Jesus’ followers of his resurrection. Their running was mad in many senses of the word. I imagine them running as quickly as they could, but also I suspect they were confused, disoriented, and fearful. Still, they ran!
On Easter, we gather in the cemetery – where death is close and present – and then, like the earliest disciples, we will run like mad to other places of life and hope.

St. Patrick’s Prayer

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, the day of Patrick’s death in 461 CE. It is believed that St. Patrick was born around 385 CE and was taken to Ireland as a young man. In 432 CE, he returned to Ireland to serve as Bishop for almost thirty years.

ShamrockAccording to tradition, Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to teach the Irish about the Trinity.

The “Breast Plate Prayer” is attributed to St. Patrick. Its reminder that Christ is ever present is helpful on this day and all others.

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord. Amen.

Frail Children of Dust, and Feeble as Frail

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, said, “There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality.”

Perhaps the greatest unreality we face is the denial of our mortality. Often, we act to prolong life at all costs, to seek security in things that prop up this life, and to eschew reminders of our death.

AshAsh Wednesday is one of the church’s great reminders of reality. At our church, we gather for Ash Wednesday worship, and participants receive on their foreheads ashes in the form of a cross. They hear the words, “From dust you have come, and to dust you will return.” There is no unreality here.

On Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent with a reminder of the reality of our mortality. In remembering that we will die, we also are called to remember God who is the source of our life.

There are two important lessons taught in bearing the ashes on our foreheads.

First, you are to remember that you are dust. You will die. You are frail, you have limits, you are sinful, and there are things that you cannot fix. Remembering that you are frail calls you to seek the mercy of God. You are dust!

Second, you are to remember that you are dust – dust that is beloved by God, enlivened by God, forgiven and redeemed by God. So, live into the places and ways that you sense God calling you. The ashes we receive on our foreheads are not simply a smudge; they are in the shape of the cross, which reminds us of God’s love and creative power. Remember, you are dust that is beloved by God!

This lesson of our dustiness was lived well by Sir Robert Grant, a British man born in India in 1779 as the son of the director of the East India Company. After graduating from Oxford, Grant was admitted to the bar at age 28 and elected to Parliament at 29. His life was shaped by his Christian faith, and despite his impressive pedigree and credentials, Grant always remembered the plight of those less fortunate. In Parliament, he worked to protect Jews in England. He returned to India to work with the East India Company and eventually became governor. As governor, he implemented social reforms to ease the effects of crushing poverty for many people. Following his death, Grant’s name was given to one of the oldest medical colleges in India.

Throughout his life, Grant wrote poetry and hymns. His best known hymn still is sung in many churches, and it is included in our church’s hymnal. It is “O Worship the King,” which begins,
O Worship the King all glorious above
and gratefully sing His power and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
Pavilioned in splendor, and girded with praise.

Grant’s words in the hymn also speak to our condition as dusty creatures, which we remember on Ash Wednesday:

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail:
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

Grant recognized and lived the promise of Ash Wednesday. We are dust – and to dust we will return. But, we are dust that is beloved of God – invited to receive God’s love and called to share that love with others.

Amen.

Follow Me

"Jesus Calling Disciples," Fernwood Baptist Church

“Jesus Calling Disciples,” Fernwood Baptist Church

In worship at our church on Sunday, we focused on Jesus’ call to the first disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. In Matthew, chapter 4, Jesus called fishers who were hard at work along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. I imagine their hands were calloused from hard work and their skin toughened by years in the sun and wind. Isn’t it ironic that we would consider this same call of Jesus – to us in addition to the first disciples – while sitting in climate-controlled comfort on cushioned pews in front of beautiful windows?
Please don’t get me wrong, I deeply appreciate our worship space, and I am deeply grateful for the gifts of many people that have made it possible. Often during worship, I gaze at the windows, see new images in them, and learn new lessons from them.
Yet, in such a setting, it is easy to imagine Jesus’ call as far removed from the realities of life and having little to do with the struggles people face outside the walls of the church building. Yet, if we continue with the details offered in Matthew chapter 4, we see that Jesus and the first disciples went precisely into the midst of life’s realities and struggles. Matthew says that Jesus went throughout communities offering healing and curing diseases. When Jesus called the first disciples, he did not take them to a resort and a life of luxury. Instead, Jesus took them deeper into life’s challenges, and when they went there – together with Jesus and one another – they found true purpose, deep meaning, and the abiding presence of God’s Spirit.
And, so it is with us. When we respond to Jesus’ call, we may lose our lives and their security, their safety, and their outward appeal to many people. But, it is in losing such things that we find our deepest, truest, and longest lasting peace and meaning. It was true for the first disciples, it was true for our forebears in the faith through the centuries, and it is true for us!

Emmanuel — God with us

During the season of Advent, our church has focused Sunday worship and Wednesday studies on Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth. Each of these people responded in faith, and their openness to unexpected possibilities helped bring about the arrival of John the Baptizer and Jesus. As my wife, Lisa, said during her sermon on Sunday, we know the end of the story – that everything turned out beautifully – but these people did not know the ending. And yet, they responded in faithfulness.

St. Joseph's Dream.   Gaetano Gandolfi, 1790

St. Joseph’s Dream.
Gaetano Gandolfi, 1790

Certainly, Joseph’s faithful response was incredible. After learning that Mary was pregnant, Joseph had a dream. Joseph was told that the child was to be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Joseph likely knew the origin of the term, which came from Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz many, many years before. Originally, the word was spoken to Judah’s King at a time of great upheaval. War had been declared on Judah, the Southern Kingdom, by the Northern Kingdom and Syria. King Ahaz wondered how he should proceed and was given a word of the Lord through the prophet Isaiah reminding him to put his trust in God rather than military force. Emmanuel was a word spoken to the people reminding them of God’s presence with them and God’s provision for them even in uncertain times.
For Joseph, however, it became a deeply personal word – God is with us – in the midst of tremendous uncertainty and personal turmoil. The great word of the Lord became the promise for Joseph.
There are times when the great words and convictions of the faith may become personal for us. Perhaps, you find yourself needing reassurance that God is with you as you face a variety of challenges during these days. May you sense God’s presence in real and powerful ways during the remaining days of Advent. And, may you know that God is with you.