One of the oddities of this Lent is that many of my peers are beginning the call process with various churches across the country. Even as we face the ashes and dust of Lenten practices, we experience new life in the conversations with pastors and call committees, all full of potential and hope that ministry might blossom.
The dichotomy makes for a Lent that almost bursts out the exclamations of praise reserved for Easter and afterward, but it also reveals the fragility of the process. Some friends have yet to fully engage the process, while others now face second interviews and decisions about how to proceed. Some hopes are dashed before they fully bloom. Excitement quickly turns to anxiety over how to proceed, whether to proceed, and where God is calling in the midst of the process.
For the integrity of the process and the safety of all involved, I can't give details now, but suffice it to say that some things are moving slower than expected, and others much quicker. I know not where God will lead, but especially as we trod this Lenten path, I know it will lead through the cross of Christ. This means that, come what may, whenever God calls me to serve a church, it is precisely that: a call to service. It is not for myself, or a paycheck, or my satisfaction, or my desire, but for the people and our God that I will serve in a particular place.
Until we know for certain, all of us in the call process share only whispered joys, the silent hallelujahs that, though not fully appropriate for Lent, reveal the joy of the resurrection even as we march toward the crucifixion. But as we go along, in the midst of the silence, Lent reminds us that the journeys through the quiet lead to shouts of joy, that the roads basked in darkness will be blessed by light. Soon enough, we will know, both the truth of the resurrection, and the places to which the resurrected God calls us.
Sometimes, fewer words are better than many. Tonight is one of those nights.
I am thankful for this opportunity to write, to reflect, to and begin a discipline that I hope to carry into my time as a pastor. That will not be a daily commitment - more likely a minimum of weekly - but this process of daily attentiveness is reminding me of how much time and energy even simply tasks require. Even more so, it is also encouraging me that it is a valuable witness, especially as I hear from people who have read an entry and have found it to resonate with their own lives.
The blessing of this process is that my own journey is not my own, but part of the church's journey, part of the path upon which our Creator set us. It is part of the road where our Redeemer meets us. Feedback, challenge, and critique help me to see the way more clearly, and writing helps me to walk the road.
So, thanks for your reading, your commentary, and your presence on this road we walk toward the Kingdom of God.
For anyone counting, it looks like I missed yesterday. In light of our travel back from St. Croix and my call to preach tonight at Gamecock Lutherans, I finished my sermon on the plane and took time to debrief our experience with the rest of the mission team. If you'd like to see the product of yesterday's writing, today's sermon is below.
But today, I'm back. and reflecting on coming home to a house full of family after a full week away. I spent today with Michelle's parents, my cousin Ashley, her husband Jon, and their three kids. One of the amazing gifts of family is that, even after years away, those blessed relationships can immediately bloom once again.
That happened today with my seven year old cousin Madisyn (Ashley's daughter). The last time we saw one another was nearly a year and a half ago, but the way she ran through the rain and into my arms made time collapse. For the next ninety minutes, I was part cousin, part jungle gym, part spelling bee assistant, part trampoline, and part chair as we played and talked our way beyond an age difference and years apart.
The Sundays in Lent offer us opportunities for these kind of reunions on an ecclesial scale. We come together as a church from the observances of Lent and have a "Little Easter." Sundays, rather than being a part of Lent, are celebrations of Christ's resurrection even amidst the journey toward the cross. Sundays collapse the time, and we experience the fullness of the Christian story in a little over an hour. We become sinners and saints, the lost and the found, the prodigal and the faithful, the condemned and the redeemed, all at once. In the Eucharist we become one with all the faithful as time and space collapse into the remembrance of Christ's life, death, and resurrection.
As we make our Lenten journeys, let's come to Sundays with the kind of open hearts that expect time to collapse as we meet our sisters and brothers in Jesus' feast. Time, Lenten time, will come, and our devotional practices will help form us into Christ's image. But Sundays are the time when the family comes home, when we catch a glimpse of the journey from the joyous end rather then from the struggles of the center, and where we get food for the road ahead. Let time collapse around us on Sundays, where we get a foretaste of that feast to come.
Today on our beach day, we all got sunburned. Every single one of us. Some to a greater degree (poor Emily) and some to a lesser degree (lucky Caroline), but to the last, we were all burned. But here's the thing: we were all applying, and reapplying, sunscreen. All day. The cottages where we're staying had leftover sunscreens from previous residents, and so we borrowed liberally from that basket.
Apparently sunscreen really does expire.
Some in the baskets were good, and others were, well, worthless for their intended purpose. There's a part of my left arm with a clear delineation where I used the last of the good sunscreen and then began to apply the old stuff. Others weren't so lucky, and are burned all over, or in much more sensitive places. In all, it was a ridiculously fun rest day before we return home, but we are all returning with sunburn.
There's something to be said here about preparation and it's importance - you know, not using expired lotions - but I think there is something that sunburn can teach us. It is a silent enemy, one that works as we pay no attention to the initial effects and even bask in it's source, the sun. But sunburn leaves a lasting impression, one that affects the very way we move our bodies. Though aloe may briefly soothe it, nothing but the course of time truly removes a sunburn. But even then, we want to return to the sun.
What if our Lenten disciplines stuck to us like sunburn? What if our practices actually had physical results, ones that motivate us to move and act differently? Of course, there is a pain with sunburn, and that is not the goal with Lent, but the constant physical reminder that we have encountered something beautiful and powerful, that something has warmed us and brought us joy, and that we are no longer the way we were because of that encounter. These are the kind of results I am hoping for from my Lenten disciplines, and I'm praying that for each of you as well.
Giving up delicacies or taking up devotional readings is good, but how much better if those practices worked like a sunburn, making us change the way that we live and move and have our being, and then drew us back to the source, not for pain, but for the powerful beauty of the light that we find in the encounter. For us all, then, I hope we are touched this Lent by the Son whose light breaks even the deepest darkness, and whose love burns away all impurity. That's what our Lenten practices should do: make us bask in the Son.
Mission trips, like church camps, establish a wonderful rhythm of life apart from the normal modes of life, a sort of suspended experience of time that allows experiences of God uncommon to our common lives. Having this kind of experience on a tropical island heightens that sense of separation from the norm.
It feels a whole lot like Sabbath. Of course there is work on a mission trip, but work that fosters a holistic rest and rejuvenation for the sake of the world's wholeness.
But this led me to another, more fundamental question: Which is the real world? Oceanside cottages are no less real than my North Main apartment in Columbia. My routine at the seminary and at work is no less real than the schedule we've established here. So, perhaps the question is, which real world is real? Which is the real real world?
Many of you who have attended church camps or Christian conferences know the sort of liveliness that comes from these times away. Sometimes we say, "I wish real life could be like camp," and other times we say, "that conference was what real life is really about."
But what if both are absolutely necessary? After all, God created seven days, but only one Sabbath. As we begin the all too quick transition out of here (less than 42 hours left on the island at the time of writing), what we need is not a combative sense about which is the real world, which is really a question about which is the better world.
In truth, all life ought to reflect the wholeness of the Sabbath, but that takes six days of work, preparation, and reconciliation. The week is incomplete without the Sabbath, but at least on this side of eternity, the week is also incomplete without Thursdays like today. We worked hard and long - completed three additional projects because we got done sooner than expected - and then cooked a communal meal before a long devotional on the beach. But we also sniped at one another, made mistakes, got lazy, ignored problems, and, well, lived in the midst of the dirt of life. In the same way, sabbatical times like this, the ones that ground us in hope for the coming Kingdom of God, are vital parts of life, but they cannot be the only parts of life, lest we ignore the dirt of life that needs tilled, seeded, weeded, cared for, harvested, and tilled once again. Of course, the dirt needs rest in between crops, and for that, Sabbath was made.
We are the dirt of life. We need those things - tilling and planting and seeding and harvesting - just as we need rest. If we lie unworked, we become wild and fallow, unfit and unable to produce good fruit. But if we work without rest, our soil loses all its nutrients, and once again fails to produce good fruit.
Which is the real real world?
Both are the real real world, and today, I am thankful for both of them.
One of the unexpected pieces of beginning this Lenten discipline of blogging prior to leaving for St. Croix is that each night I write under the stars, listening to the rhythmic roll of the waves upon the beach. There is a soothing rhythm to the waves, and a comfort in the consistency of the stars.
Such things offer life rafts in the midst of a mission week because, at this midpoint, personalities start to chafe one another. No serious conflicts (fortunately), but idiosyncrasies quickly become points of contention when you live, work, play, and worship in such close quarters.
The beauty of this is that, like waves and stars, part of the development of a relationship is in the crash. Waves offer their music only as they crash upon a beach. Stars offer their light only as particles crash into one another. But these collisions offer solace and light, bring us sea stars and sun tans, wash over us to clean us and to invigorate us.
Crashing is not always a bad thing.
In fact, conflict can lead to personal and communal development, if we deal with it healthfully. For our group, my prayer is that we face it head on, not fearing the potential conflicts but instead embracing the hope that, if we do well by our crashes, we might burn brighter than ever as we point to the Son, and offer the consistent waves of mercy to a world in constant need of grace.
Every night since we arrived in St. Croix, members of our group, along with others staying at the same group of cottages, have vigiled to meet the Green Flash. No, this is not a superhero, but a phenomenon of light that flashes green just as the sun sets over the horizon. At the point of the sun's descent, a green flash may occur because of the light's refraction and separation into different colors on the spectrum.
Then, darkness sets in, and we await the deliverance from our sightless captivity until the sun rises once again.
This seems like a silly thing to do, especially with modern technology that dispels the darkness, but I think it signals something deeper within us. We know that times of darkness must come. We know we must walk through Lent. We know that night follows the day. But in each situation, we desire a totem of remembrance that fosters a beautiful hope that light will come, either with the rising of the sun or with the rising of the Son.
The Green Flash is something of a natural Mardi Gras. One taste of celebration prior to the ascetic devotions of Lent, knowing that the celebration will return in an even fuller meaning when Easter breaks the Lenten fast.
For our mission team, this week has been a fitting way to take hold of that promise of light's return because we see green flashes in the eyes of the people we work alongside each day. Big Felix's constant guidance, Little Felix's shy joy, and Paris's blessed smile give us reminders that our work comes not only with a purgation of sin, but with the (re)development of holistic relationships.
The people of St. Croix are teaching us that even in darkness, the Light has more power than we can see on our own. We need others to help contextualize our work, to recast the meaning of Lent, to encourage us along the journey, to mourn in the sorrows, and to celebrate the joys.
With all the clouds passing over the horizon in the evening, we have not yet seen the Green Flash, at least not at dusk. But in our Lenten journey, where we talk toward the Cross, the image of God comes at us as green beams of life through these people that God has placed in our lives. I pray that our conversation, our work, our presence - our friendship - shines the same testament of God's faithfulness into their hearts.
Even if I never see the Green Flash over the ocean, I am thankful I have seen the green flashes of God's children that remind me darkness never wins.
One of the difficulties about doing mission work in a place like St. Croix is that many people immediately assume the trip is a vacation couched in the language of Christian service. I understand that, in large part because my first reaction when I heard the group chose St. Croix as a destination was quite similar. What does a trip to paradise have to do with the spread of the Gospel?
I quickly learned that wildernesses are everywhere, not just in the places we expect to find them.
Yesterday's Scripture reading reveals Christ being led into the desert, into the wilderness, to be tested. On a side note, Pastor Gerald Wallace made a magnificent distinction in his sermon at Lord God of Sabaoth in Christiansted. "To tempt someone is to lead a person toward a poor decision, while to test someone is to provide them with the opportunity to make the right choice...God will not tempt us, but from time to time, God may test us." That is a good word, but rumination upon that is for another day.
Here and now, the reality is that the wilderness Jesus entered was not only one that lacked potable water or adequate food, but one where the Devil sought to tempt him. In places like St. Croix, there is beauty and wonder, but make no mistake: there is poverty in paradise, not only financial, but relational, spiritual, and societal. This place can be a wilderness.
Today we painted at the PINNACLE Building. PINNACLE (Program Institution where Nature and Nurture Attend and Children Learn Effectively) provides opportunities for parents and children that help to support healthy family dynamics and work to avoid the removal of children from their homes and the causes for such removal. Elements include free counseling, job training, home management skills, home health practices, anger management, conflict resolution, and parent effectiveness training. PINNACLE is one of the ministries of Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands (LSSVI), and one way that they help to bring living water to a wilderness that desperately needs something to drink. We came alongside some of the LSSVI staff - Paris, Big Felix, and Little Felix are good supervisors and great new friends - who guided us in their needs and helped to show us how our work helped to further their mission by making the space more welcoming to parents and children, as well as improving the visible image of PINNACLE in the community, where the ministry already has a solid reputation.
In this way, we not only helped to support the continued success of the PINNACLE mission, but we began to understand the complexities of the struggles faced by people on St. Croix. We all face wildernesses, and we all have a role to play in bringing water to the thirsty. For us, today, it was to honor the great work of an organization that works diligently to foster healthier families and keep those families together, and to provide them with the help they needed to continue the ministry.
Wildernesses are everywhere, and not just in those places we expect to find them. But good workers are there to, and our trip to St. Croix is about helping to support that good work done by Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands.
What does a trip to paradise have to do with the spread of the Gospel? Even in paradise, families need support. Families need a witness to the wholeness Christ brings. LSSVI offers that support and witness, and we are gladly along for the Gospel ride.
Tonight, students from South Carolina engaged in deep conversation about the complexities of race, economics, and culture that collide in the context of Christian mission.
At heart of the conversation was a concern about misperception. Many don't want to be perceived as college party kids or the snooty 1st worlders who came to make themselves feel good about, well, themselves. Our group hopes to live life with the people of St. Croix because we know these people don't need a group of twelve saviors with white guilt, chiefly because the people of the Virgin Islands, like all of us, have one Savior (and by the by, he was neither white, nor guilty).
But to do this - to learn to undertake a mission that witnesses in the image of God - we must do the hard work of introspection. We all carry aspects of latent racism, sexism, economic prejudice, or cultural superiority, and all of these get in the way of living and loving like Christ. Self awareness is a powerful tool in the process of reconciliation, because it should lead to confession.
So tonight, I heard a few confessions. Of fears and assumptions, of hopes and concerns, all built toward helping us embrace this week as a God-given gift to learn from our sisters and brothers in St. Croix, most of whom are black. Some of whom live with disabilities. Many of whom live in poverty. But our goal is not to fix St. Croix. Our goal is to live, for a week, alongside these Virgin Islanders as Jesus might have done.
Yes, to work alongside them, but only in ways that uplift their dignity and foster mutual growth. But even more, to be with them. Today we spent two hours at church with many native Lutherans, and let me tell you, it felt like the shortest service I have ever attended. Not because it was, but because the joy they brought in worship ushered us all into God's presence in a way that nobody wanted to leave. Tomorrow we will begin working alongside the maintenance crew of Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands, not taking away work, but rather working under their tutelage in tasks that will help them achieve the mission they set as God's emissaries here in St. Croix. We will eat together daily.
We know that the complex reality of Christian mission as it relates to race, economics, and culture cannot be fixed overnight. Christ is continuing to work and reconcile all things to Himself, which include reconciling us all beyond our prejudices and sins that prevent us from faithfully living together in common mission. But for us, this week, these tasks provide us with an invaluable opportunity: to witness from a place of submission rather than a place of power. Rather than directing, we are taking directions. Rather than dictating, we are listening.
We will also fail, but that too is a process in the process of reconciliation. The reality is that, reconciliation is a messy process. But we must try, and we must have friends who don't look like us, who don't think like us, from different places in life who will correct us when we step out of line. We need others to act as authorities in our lives. We need witnesses just as much as we need to witness. And we need to work together, in submission to Christ and to one another, toward that kingdom where all are welcomed, all are loved, and all have an equal dignity because all live in the righteousness of Christ.
Of course, our mission trip can't do all that in a few days of work. But it can help these few days look a little more like the Kingdom. And, I hope, that is progress well worth the trip.
Cacophony. What a good word. What a good word to describe the constant barrage of noise that seeks our attention in our culture. It describes the harsh noise created by a mixture of sounds that, for one reason or another, do not blend well.
Cacophony is a good word because, left alone, many of the individual sounds offer beauty and wisdom. These sounds, on their own, may inspire joy and reflection. But when those sounds become competitors for attention, such goodness is often obscured in the voluminous marketplace of ideas.
How can we listen in the midst of such noise pollution? And to what, or to whom, do we listen?
Often, I forget how easy it is to unplug from at least some of the noise. Our TVs, computers, phones, tablets, radios, magazines, newspapers, books, and anything else we consume with our minds can be turned off. Can be ignored. We can turn away.
But we don't. Why?
Because, I think, we are looking for something, or someone, worth listening to, but we get lost in the cacophony, and follow the shiniest objects or the path of least resistance. Or at least, I know I do all to often.
Lent offers us an incredible opportunity to listen by encouraging us to fast from certain things. I have the wonderful opportunity to spend this week of Lent with students from the University of South Carolina in ministry alongside Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands. In particular, we have the opportunity to work hard with the people of St. Croix, and to embrace time away from the noise that so often gets in the way of us truly listening, and truly finding someone with something worthwhile to say.
Throughout Lent, God is speaking, and in those most precious moments, God's voice cuts the cacophony that we might hear the words that we truly need to hear, that we might listen to the one thing that makes sense of the cacophony, for in the midst of the cacophony, God has something to say: "It is finished." The cacophony's power is no more, for instead, the one Word that makes any sense is speaking life into all of creation.
I hope that, somewhere in the midst of this Lent, we may all find ways to unplug, to get away from the cacophony, and to hear the Word that cuts through through the cacophony. Tonight, I am thankful for the opportunity to listen here, with a group of students who speak this word to me, and for a God who speaks to us beyond the noise.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.