Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Take Our Lives and Let Them Be...

Two Sundays ago, on October 9, we had our drivers license covenant service to lift up and celebrate those youth who had gotten their license in the past year. This service grew up out of tragedy. Years ago, two young men in our church were involved in a very bad car accident and lost their lives. Since that time, we have conducted this service to celebrate a milestone but also to make clear the responsibility of joining the community of drivers.

Since July, I’ve been starting my third year in this pastorate. The first year, all young pastors are admonished to change nothing, so the service flowed as it had been designed in previous years. Then last year, I was out on maternity leave during the fall. But this year, with ordination around my shoulders, an intern on my staff, and a passion to do more and better, we revamped this service.

The first thing was to set the table. With the help of a congregant who owns a local salvage yard, I was able to get a tire, a steering column, and a dash from various cars. Then I put the cross in the center (where it should always be, right?) and three candles in front representing our triune God. I borrowed the licenses of all the adults present and placed them around the altar. A small bowl with the items our new drivers would be receiving – an ichthus keychain and a “dnt txt n drv” thumb ring – was put on top of the tire. One of our offering plates was placed front and center for use during the service.

Following a prayer for admission to the community of drivers, these newly licensed folks came and put their licenses in the offering plate. Then a youth read this scripture:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:4-9
Then I gave a message which sounded something like this: This could easily be a time of admonishment – don’t speed, don’t be distracted while driving, etc. etc. But that’s what you’ve probably been hearing from everyone else. So tonight, I invite us to rejoice! You were one thing and now you are another and in the church, we rejoice when that happens. We see it in baptism – you were outside the church and now you have been washed and united to the Body of Christ. We see it in baptism – you were two separate people and now you have been united together. We see it in a funeral – you were here among us where we could see you and now you have gone on to glory in God. So, tonight, we have come to another one of those points – you were one thing, and now you’re another.

You are a driver. You are the wielder/director of massively engineered pieces of metal. Your status has changed to be a blessing to the community. Now you can be the one who asks another, “Do you need a ride to church?” Or maybe later in your life, “Let me drive you home.” You have the capability to move people and things from one place to another with speed and care. It’s amazing.

I never thought much about my own driving until I became a seminary student and put the sticker on my rear windshield “SMU: Perkins School of Theology.” I was so proud, so excited to be a seminary student. But then I realized that everyone knew exactly who I was, and whose I was, every time I drove. The person I pulled in front of, the person I sped past, the person I gave a dirty look – they all knew I wasn’t living up to who I said I was and who had claimed my life.

You’ve put your drivers licenses in the offering plate because you are offering that part of your life to God. No part of your life is out of God’s sight or reach or care. So, with that in mind, I would simply lift up a piece of our scripture reading – “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen, and the God of peace will be with you.”

I invited them to stand before the altar, to receive back their licenses, and to receive the keychains and rings with the words, “Remember who you are and whose you are.”

For those of us whose days and lives are so fragmented – a lot of work here, a little time for family there, a little time for self shoved off to the side – it’s hard to see our lives as whole offerings to God. But that’s what I’ve finally concluded is true.
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of they love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for thee.
- UMH 399
Which makes this video funny to me, because it’s true, too: Wrong Worship. Or at least in our selfish, normal mindset it is. But God is always asking more of us – whole lives offered as living sacrifices on the altar – hands motivated by holy love – feet (and cars) quick to serve.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More Questions than Answers

I was baptized at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Central Arkansas in November 1999. I joined a church for the first time, First United Methodist Church of Denton, Texas, on February 23, 2003. I felt a call to ministry and was recommended by our charge conference on December 17, 2004. I started seminary at Perkins School of Theology in the fall of 2005 and graduated in May 2009. I was commissioned as a provisional elder in The United Methodist Church in June 2009 and was appointed back to First United Methodist Church of Denton. This past summer, I was ordained as an elder in full connection.

I list my credentials only to say that I feel like I should have solid answers. So, to my surprise/chagrin, I’m sitting in church this past Sunday morning, singing a hymn and I find I’m having trouble with the theology.
Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you.
Chorus: God will take care of you, through every day, o’er all the way;
he will take care of you, God will take care of you.
Through days of toil when heart doth fail, God will take care of you;
when dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.
All you may need he will provide, God will take care of you;
nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.
- UMH #130 “God Will Take Care of You”
At the late service, I actually leaned over to my fellow associate pastor and said, “I’m having trouble with this one.” Sure, I believe that God takes care of us. In fact, I believe that God is creatively breathing into each and every moment, sustaining us like a mother holding her toddler’s hand each step of the way. But I don’t know where I stand on “all you may need, he will provide.” I know for a fact that there are many of God’s beloved children who do not have all provision for all their needs. So I find myself questioning this doctrine of providence. Of course, this is a perfectly comforting sentiment to sing, but what does it mean that God provides?

There wasn’t time to linger on these questions in the moment. But as I started my day today, I thought about how very much I don’t know when it feels like I’m supposed to know. Even as, or maybe especially as, a newly ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, I’ve filled reams of paper with my “answers” on doctrinal matters. I have acted like I’ve known.

There’s really a lot I don’t know. During a difficult time for dear friends who are also clergy, this is a portion of the prayer I was able to find words to offer:
Dear God,
I’m a pastor but that doesn’t mean I know how this prayer thing works. Sometimes I wish it was Christmas lists or vending machines, but somehow I know it’s more and better than that. Thanks for listening to us. Thank you for your presence with us. Thank you for your love that never lets us go, no matter how we cry out and struggle. Lord, do what you do when we pray. You are our God, we are your people. Amen.
I love language, so I know I could have been fancier, more eloquent, but in the rocky, real parts of life, I think you can just be yourself with God. I believe it’s better to just be yourself with God.

So, with more questions than pat answers, I know I’m at home. I don’t belong to a church that claims to have all the answers, we don’t ask you to sign a doctrinal piece before you join, and often we readily admit that there’s a lot to the mystery of our God.

What I do know, and what has made all the difference, is that I know God loves me, loves all persons, loves all creation. And God will bear with me, with all of us, while we ask our questions and toddle along the way that leads to life eternal.