Fleshing Out Faith

•January 25, 2013 • Leave a Comment

From January 2-5, a group of 21 folks headed out from Tuscaloosa to go to the College Conference at Montreat, a gathering of over 1000 people, most of whom were college students. The theme for the conference was Fleshed Out, with speakers addressing what the ‘Word made flesh’ might actually mean. We were challenged not to be followers of Jesus through mere spoken words, but to be active disciples who put flesh and meat on the bones of our faith through action. What this looks like is limitless: seeking justice, loving our enemies, washing the feet of the sick, and on and on.

But what I’ll remember about this conference is another way we flesh out our faith: through dance.

One of our students put on quite the display following the annual College Conference talent show. They were playing music over the loud speakers, trying to clue people in that it was time to leave Anderson Auditorium, but this student (along with many others) wasn’t having any of it. So what broke out was a sort of impromptu dance party, with this student at the very center of the show. The energy from that carried over into our nightly group gathering in Assembly Inn, where our students were dancing and playing and having a good time.

I guess the reason I’ll remember that night is because, as I looked around the room, I saw a group of folks who had experienced a number of ups and downs. For some of them, I can imagine that faith in a loving God might be far-fetched considering what they’d been through. Yet, as they danced and played along that night, I sensed something of resurrection, of rising from the ashes to something more hopeful. Which, as it turns out, is what the conference was all about: living into this outrageous, beautiful faith of ours in unexplainable, wonderful ways… even if it means dancing as if no one were watching.

Captain Lunch

•January 10, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I had lunch with a former student of mine today. Just texted me out of the blue yesterday and said, “Hey James. Want to get together?” Which was cool, seeing as though I didn’t even realize this guy was living here after moving away a couple of years ago. Anyway, we had a good time talking about what he’s been up to and why he’s back in Tuscaloosa and so on and so forth.

Then he told me he’d written a song about Batman. Now, for those of you who don’t know me, I’m a huge, huge, huge fan of the Dark Knight. Meganerd here. So I was hooked and was like, “Dude, you’ve got to play me your song.” So we went over to Moody Music Hall on campus, and he played me the song on the piano, with lyrics based upon The Dark Knight Rises. Pretty cool and pretty stinkin’ hilarious.

I asked if he had any other tunes to play. And he did. And they were really good. One was about a prisoner who was out on parole. Another was about a young girl growing up. And another was about Frank Zappa teaching guitar (of course it was). But then there was about Captain Lunch (at least, I think that’s what it was). Captain Lunch: who saves the day by taking people out to lunch who are going through a tough time.

Captain. Lunch. Which isn’t really up there with Batman or anything, but still a noble superhero who hangs out at the local pizza joint. Perhaps this is a portrait of my own narcissism, but I saw a lot of ministry in good ole Captain Lunch. Just there to grab an eggroll with someone who’s down. There to listen to someone’s worries over a burrito at Moe’s.

Captain Lunch: my new favorite superhero… next to Batman.

What’s Next?

•December 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on what’s next for us in our campus ministry. It’s been a transitional year for us, in many respects. We’ve moved to a worship service format (as opposed to Bible study that we had done in years past). We’re changing our name from Westminster Fellowship to the new denominational name, UKirk. We’ve started up a new program of student-led Bible studies. Overall, there’s been a lot of change, but it’s been good for us, I think.

But I also am feeling kind of restless. Maybe it has something to do with the findings of the Pew Forum, which declares that one in three young adults between 18-29 declare themselves religiously unaffiliated… a rising number of whom are college graduates. Or maybe it has something to do with my gut feeling there’s something different we could be doing as an outreach to college students. Maybe it has something to do with thinking there are new ways we could communicate to folks in our area that they’re not alone, that they’re loved, and that being part of a faith community actually is a good thing. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a raging perfectionist looking for ways to enhance our ministry.

I don’t know. In the words of Ron Burgundy, “This is hard. I am in a pickle!”

One place where I’ve found some inspiration is in the work of different New Church Developments. Those places really are like little labs where you can experiment and dabble in different ways of being a church. They’re like that experiment with the volcano we did in middle school. You know what I’m talking about. And if things blow up– for better or for worse– at least they’re trying to be faithful. I think I’m a bit envious of the fearlessness I see in new churches. That whole trying to create a new thing… I admire that.

So I guess that’s where I kind of am right now… trying to figure what to do next. How can we be faithful in a new way here in Tuscaloosa? That’s the beauty of December: we all dream a little bit, don’t we?

A Sermon On Valentine’s Day, National Signing Day, and What’s Been Happening at Bama

•February 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Preached this one last Wednesday…

On 1 Corinthians 3

In case you’ve forgotten, Monday is Valentine’s Day. How could you forget, right? Every time I turn on the television, I see commercials begging us to go out and buy a Leo Diamond or Godiva Chocolate or a Valentine’s cookie cake for your campus minister.

Valentine’s Day: brought to you by your friends at Hallmark.

It seems everything is a purchasable quantity these days, love by no means being excluded. We sell it, box it up in pink and purple ribbon, and shelve it in our local malls.

And I can’t help but feel that something’s wrong with that picture. It seems biblically counterintuitive to me. I don’t remember Lou Ann preaching last week on a text saying, “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is bought at half price at your local florist.”

Sure, we do things out of love that may affect the weight of our wallets or purses, but I think the Beatles had it right when they said, “You can’t buy me love.”

I get it, though. Sometimes we buy things up because we’re afraid they’re going to run out. We buy concert tickets before they sell out. We buy milk, bread, and candles at the store before an “Alabama blizzard” for fear of empty cabinets and fridges during the snow-pocalypse.

Why not purchase love in a world in which it seems love is declining in stock?

For evidence of that decline, we need not look that far, really. I’ve witnessed—and participated in—some disturbing trends the last couple of weeks.

Take, for instance, the annual fan fest we call National Signing Day. For those of you who don’t know, this is the day when high school senior football players—17 and 18 year old boys—declare formally where they will be spending their collegiate careers as students and football players. It’s a thing to be celebrated, really. Young men deciding that they’re going to college, to pursue an education… maybe a career as a professional ballplayer or something else. Thousands of young men deciding on one day that they’re going to college.

Instead, though, we’ve taken this day and turned it into a bloodbath… and I include myself in this as a college football fan. These days, if a player decides not to attend the school you support, people take to Facebook and write on these players’ walls and say all sorts of terrible things to them, including, “We didn’t want you anyway” and “You can go to hell.”

Grown adults writing these things to teenagers about, of all things, football…

And then there are the events that transpired at UA this past week. A young African-American walking down the street one evening is called an ethnic slur that I will not repeat here, and then is told to “come here, boy.”  All of which has created a firestorm on campus, with somebody even etching that ethnic slur in chalk all over the Quad today.

If that’s not sad enough, in talking with my students about this event at our Monday night Bible study, they, each one of them lamenting what had happened, told me, “Yeah, it’s not really that surprising that it happened on campus,” which only goes to show that racism is alive, well, even thriving among members of the collegiate generation.

The thing is, sometimes you have to stand back and take a look around… just to gain a little perspective. And when you do, you realize that our problems are eerily similar to those of the Corinthians, that not much has changed, that love always seems to be a fleeting commodity (if you can call it a commodity), that we really are just like our sisters and brothers in Corinth… with division wreaking havoc upon us all.

You look at the news and hear about violence in Egypt.

You go to the Ferguson Center around 12 any day of the week and you’re startled at the way so many people segregate themselves into factions.

You listen to one of your students say how frustrated he is with division on campus and he says, if there’s one positive thing that comes out of this devastating event last weekend… it’s that people will finally acknowledge and discuss the fact that diversity and integration don’t always go hand in hand.

And this whole issue of division is extremely important for the Church. I’ve heard many people say this… probably because it’s true… that Church is one of the most segregated hours in our culture.

And I can see how it’d be difficult for many (not all, but many) Presbyterians to remember that the City of God doesn’t only include the White Anglo Saxon Protestant.

But let’s not forget that division goes deeper than the color of our skin. We are absolutely ripping ourselves apart on various issues theological, political, and socioeconomic… to the point that it makes me wonder how we have any energy left over to join together and minister to the least of these with whom Jesus spent so much of his time.

That’s the thing! That’s exactly what Paul was getting at in this 3rd chapter of his letter to the people in Corinth.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? They’re not the ones who are important. They’re not the ones who matter. Sure, they said some things. They may have planted some seeds or laid a foundation. But they’re not the TRUE FOUNDATION here.

And as long as we build whatever it is we’re building upon something else, then, in the end, it’ll just fall apart, and you’ll have a clump here, piece of rock there, everything fragmented and broken, nothing unified whatsoever.

You know, we’ve messed up. We build our lives around belonging, around community: oh I’ll join this group here; I’ll attend that group there; I go to this church or that.

And I’m not knocking that. Community, done well, is important. We were, after all, created to live in community. Heck, I’m a Presbyterian minister—I belong to this particular community– because my beliefs align themselves most closely with those of the PCUSA.

But there is an inherent brokenness with that system. And that brokenness has everything to do with us. We’re just so human we can’t get out of our own way.

We belong to a certain community, meaning sometimes we insult people belonging to other, ‘rival’ clans. We compete against one another, throwing around dangerous words like “us” and “them.”

We say things like, “I would never like this person” or “I could never be a part of them.”

We take credit for things when they go well; we blame others when things go bad. We point fingers and throw our fists in the air and hurl insults at each other and chalk up offenses in University Quads.

We might as well say that we follow Apollos or Paul.

And to that, Paul says, “Enough is enough! Enough boasting! Enough jealousy! Enough quarreling! Can’t you see? You all belong to someone… you’re all worth dying for.”

It’s time for something to change. I don’t know what that looks like… I don’t think I’m smart enough to come up with that. But when I hear some of the things that have happened on campus and when I see the things I see in the news, I realize that we really haven’t progressed that far from the Corinthians… that Paul’s letter still echoes true for us. That we really have become dependent upon factionalism, and that unity… reaching out to someone starkly different than we… might just be too frightening for us.

But if we’re truly followers of Jesus Christ, isn’t more demanded of us? Isn’t that what loving our neighbor is truly about? Can that please be our prophecy to the world?

Because, I know, this whole idea of unity in community may seem a bit utopian to us. Maybe a bit far-fetched… But, folks, utopia has nothing to do with it. Because if we all really do belong to Christ like Paul says… then it’s not other groups or communities or races we’re turning our backs on.

It’s our very flesh and blood.

Just A Theory

•October 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Okay, I write this knowing full well that I could be wrong… which happens a lot. And, given my current time crunch, I’m going to be brief. But I’m about to hit the 3-year mark serving as campus minister here at Bama (which means I’m very much a baby in all of this), and I have a theory. It’s nothing groundbreaking or new. It’s actually something people have bandied about for awhile now. But, I think it’s starting to hit home with me and I’m thinking it may affect how we do things here in T-town. So, I thought I’d write it out, put it on “paper,” not really knowing what this means or how/if I’m going to handle this…

The thing is, the more I listen to my students, the more I really, really believe that they are turned on more so by small, intentional, intimate communities of faith rather than larger, megachurchy sorts of places. And I have to wonder if that’s where the Church is headed… and, in my world, if that’s where our campus ministry needs to look.

Now, let me add this caveat: Westminster Fellowship is a smallish campus ministry. We’re probably about 60 students strong, which is teeny tiny compared to a couple of other campus ministries here in town. So, the students who come here are probably already attracted to smaller communities. But we’re also a growing ministry… our students are psyched about bringing in new faces and the emergence of a vibrant, sizable freshman class.

But the thing they also are incredibly conscious of centers around a question I’ve heard them ask a hundred times: how do we grow while maintaining a sense of intimacy here? Because, for them, that’s the selling point of who we are. It’s kind of our niche… along with the fact that, unlike other campus ministries, our big night is a Bible study (as opposed to a worship service). Discipleship, Community, Energy all go hand in hand with being a group where, for the most part, everybody knows everybody else. Which can make us feel, at our best, like a reeeeeallly welcoming family… and, at our worst, like a clique. Anonymity isn’t something we do here… and our students love that. Which may be why we’re growing…

I’m beginning to wonder if the future of what we do here, then, isn’t expanding our Monday night study and hoping for a night where we pack 100 students in the building. Instead, I wonder if we should look at the possibility of creating other groups that meet at other times and focusing our energy on growth (in its various manifestations) there. We already have our men’s group, Man Time. We have a women’s group, WWF. What if those groups continue to evolve and change and grow… much like their students? What if that’s the future of our community here in Tuscaloosa?

Or would that all feel a bit disjointed, like we have a bunch of different groups but not one BIG group that feeds the smaller ones? I don’t know… I’m just spitballin’ here.

Like I said, I don’t what this means… but it may mean somethin’. Sooooo…. yeah.

The Problem With Forgiveness

•September 7, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Just preached this one on Philemon… yes, the book. 21 out of 25 verses of it:

If you don’t think popular culture has an effect upon the mind, I can tell you that I’m living, breathing evidence to the contrary. Because when I was a mere tyke, 5 years old or so, I was completely fascinated by running away.

Now, lest you think that there might have been a reason for this, like family issues or anything like that, I can assure you that wasn’t the case. Granted I had three older sisters, which constituted grounds for insanity, but I really do think my fascination with running away had everything to do with cartoons.

Because have you ever noticed? Cartoons romanticize running away! They always have you sitting there with your buddy and you’ve got one of those sticks with a little knapsack at the end of it. And the knapsack has whatever you need in it, like steak or something, so you’ve got all you need right there. And you and your friends get to camp out underneath the stars by the fire.

Oh, and let’s not forget that your primary mode of transportation, aside from walking, is a train. And what kid doesn’t like a train?

You get to leap into one of those empty boxcars as it’s moving and it’ll take you all over the place, and, if you’re lucky, you might meet some new friends in one of those boxcars who play guitar or harmonica or something.

I mean, running away was practically sponsored by Looney Tunes.

So, at the ripe old age of five, I decided running away was the life for me. I convinced a friend of mine who lived down the street that it was also in his best interest, so we packed up—what we packed, I have no idea… I don’t really know what a 5 year old packs on his own—and we made out for the open road.

I don’t remember if I checked with my mom first to make sure it was okay.

Regardless, we left. And we walked and we walked and we walked some more. We made it about one block before we decided it was time to set up camp.

We found a nice little patch of open grass that seemed the perfect place for us to sleep. So we got our stuff out and made ourselves at home.

A little while after that, she received a phone call.

“Mrs. Goodlet?”

“Yes?

“Hi, we live in your neighborhood, and your son and one of his friends are camping in our yard and just asked us what’s for breakfast.”

I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I remember my mom showing up, much to my surprise, and I know she wasn’t too thrilled. I imagine the rest of that day wasn’t too easy.

But, then again, facing those you’ve run away from rarely is…

Philemon is an easy book to pass over in the Bible. Has 25 verses, barely a page long. You might stumble upon it if you’re looking for Hebrews or Titus or one of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

It is undisputedly a letter from Paul, meaning scholarship holds this letter up as something definitely written by Paul’s own hand.

And, as we just read, it centers around the relationship between Philemon–presumably a wealthy slave owner within the early Christian community (and someone who, as verse 19 suggests, was one of Paul’s own converts)– and Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to Philemon who, as verse 10 implies, is also a recent convert to the faith under Paul.

The letter hinges around the fact that Onesimus has done something wrong to his master, and that Onesimus should be punished for whatever he did. We don’t know what he did.

Maybe he stole something.

Maybe he hurt someone.

Or maybe Onesimus was running away from something in his own life.

Whatever the case, Onesimus is a runaway slave and Paul takes up Onesimus’ cause, pleading to Philemon on the slave’s behalf.

“Let him come back to you,” Paul says. “Whatever the cost, let me repay it for him. Charge it to my account. Just don’t hurt the boy.”

I wonder how Philemon felt when he got this letter.

I wonder if he thought, “Okay Paul! Whatever you say. I’ll be glad to take him back, no strings attached.”

I think it’s far more likely that he thought, “What?! Take him back?  Welcome him? A slave? As a brother? Since when do you tell me what to do with my property? Who are you to tell me how to deal with my people? And you… you just want me to forgive him? For running away? For wronging me?  For stabbing me in the back? You ask a lot, Paul.”

Of course, I could just be projecting upon Philemon how I would react.

But isn’t it human for us to hold grudges when somebody runs away?

For any number of reasons, really: relationships die, people get betrayed, feelings are hurt, fallings out happen. Distance grows between people, and the natural thing is to run away from the situation… or, on the flip side, to let the person who’s doing the running to just keep on going. They hurt me, so I don’t need them. Just go!

Yet Paul’s telling us to do something completely different. He’s telling us to stop. Go back. Turn towards each other. Listen. Love one other. Welcome each other. Forgive each other…

Recently, I was watching the film Invictus. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a great story about how President Nelson Mandela used the sport of rugby to rebuild and unify South Africa in the wake of years of racial segregation there. Mandela himself had spent 27 years serving in prison, principally as a result of his fighting injustice in South Africa and its racially driven apartheid policy.

In that movie, Mandela, who is played by none other than our nation’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, says, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” Forgiveness liberates the soul…

Mandela himself, not the Hollywood version, once said as he was trying to rebuild that divided country, that “if there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Yet, the problem with forgiveness is that we’re not conditioned to run those roads: We’re trained to run roads named Bitterness and Resentment. We want to run away from our guilt. We want to run away from being like Philemon and having to welcome people back because we’re human and we can do it on our own and you did me wrong so I’m going to hold it against you.

We want to run away, run away, run away… yet we’re supposed to do something completely unnatural and ignore all of that conditioning and run towards one another… and we’re supposed to say,  “You’re no longer just my brother, my sister, my classmate, my Mom, my Dad, my son, my daughter, my friend, my enemy, my ex, my addict, my betrayer, my person who I know talked behind my back, my person who stole from me or cheated me or whatever the case may be.

You. Are. Loved.”

If you were wondering, my mom did take me home. She probably didn’t want to at that point, but she did. And I quickly had to get over my fascination with running away. My parents eventually wallpapered my room with train décor, so maybe that tempered the severe lackage of boxcars in my life.

But my mom did forgive me, though she still tells that story. “What’s for breakfast?”

I know, though, that forgiving others and maybe yourself isn’t always that easy. I know running towards something or someone may be asking too much. I get that.

Just thank the good Lord for grace, right? We all need it, because it’s with difficult issues like these when we remember what a gift it really is.

To think… for all of the wrongs we’ve committed against one another and against God… God still loves us.

God is always running towards us.

Now what if we followed the lead?

Small Child

•August 4, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Hospitals are strange places…

Just got back to Tuscaloosa after spending a couple of days in Atlanta. My youngest-older sister had her kid, a 7 pound, 3.5 oz. little boy by the name of James ‘MacRae’ English. Not even gonna lie… it was pretty cool.

When I got there, I was told to go straight to the hospital, as my sis had been in labor for a good long while. So I did what I was told, because that’s what you do in situations like these. And, without divulging too many details, I guess you could say things were moving along as they should. Never a big fan of seeing people I love in immense amounts of pain, but I guess it was a means…

So we waited. World kept turnin’. And we waited some more. World kept turnin’. And we waited even longer. World kept turnin’.

It was one of those surreal nights, even for me, the brother. Normally, my body has about a 3:00 am threshold, when I just can’t keep my eyes open anymore. But at that time on the morning of August 3rd, I was making phone calls, chatting with the “epiduraled” sis and “ready to be a Dad” brother-in-law, waiting wide awake for this thing to happen.

And it did… at a little after 5:00 in the morning, we were summoned to the room to meet the newest member of the fam. Relief. Happiness. Sleep deprivation. A beautiful combo.

It was all very strange, maybe because we had run the gambit. Which, in all reality, is a microcosm of the hospital experience. Hope. Dread. Joy. Fear. Worry. Tears. And, you know, hospitals are just weird places. One of those places where everyone is fighting to stay alive. A bittersweet mixture of holy ground and “last place I want to be.” Babies born. People dying. Thin spaces between this world and someplace else.

Hospitals are one of those places where you know the world keeps turnin’. Sure, it’s also somewhere that time stands still (which makes it even stranger), but there’s no doubting that, within those walls, life happens. In all of its various shapes and sizes.

It even happens in the form of a small child named MacRae, another one of life’s ‘howdidyadoits,’ something else happening within those world-spinnin’ walls.

 
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