Scrub a Dub

Today Le Tour de France ended in a part of France in which I traveled when I visited my sister while she taught there. (Sis, you can keep going to cool places, and I’ll keep visiting you there.) It was cool to see parts of the country, the cobblestones I had walked on where now the competitors were racing. The thing about the stage today: it was raining. And so at the end of the stage, every single biker was covered in the mud kicked up from the road from their tyres and the tyres of all the men racing with them. The announcers said that they were showering or at least getting a “thorough toweling off” before they had any interviews.

I’ve not often been that dirty. I have a pretty clean job, where I do a lot of writing, and I might sweat, but it is only because I might be preaching outside or if the heat is turned higher than I find comfortable. On vacations, I take a shower after a day at the beach, but that’s to get salt and sand out of my hair. I don’t play sports very often in the rain, though I do enjoy a stroll in a summer downpour every so often.

I remember once, though, that I got pretty dirty.

While I was volunteering with Peace Corps in Kenya, a group of us wanted to go over the border to Uganda to white water raft the headwaters of the Nile. There is probably a flight that goes from Nairobi to Kampala and a quick cab or charter flight that would take at most an hour or two to get the journey done. But, being volunteers and with limited spending money (I almost said we were poor, but that would be lying) we all took the local mass transit available. That means we all took Matatus. A Matatu is a unique vehicle, designed for fifteen passengers, with the diesel engine block directly under the driver and front passengers. They are everywhere in Kenya, probably in most of Africa. We saw a couple of the same vehicle bodies when were in Tokyo, but they were not the same, they were way too clean and didn’t have nearly enough people in them. Remember how I said they were designed for fifteen passengers? Sometimes, especially in the western side of Kenya, the conductors can fit in an extra five, ten, or fifteen people in, as well as live chickens, goats, children who sit in laps, and any assorted collected luggage. It can get a little cramped.

Our group came together, and managed to fill most of a Matatu, but not all of it, there were locals riding with us. I managed to sit in the very back, alongside a window that I cracked open to get some good air circulating through. There is no air conditioning in Matatus. You learn to make the best of imperfect circumstances. I was sitting pretty for the final leg of our trip. Window seat, got a seat nearly to myself, friends around me, doing pretty good, actually.

When we got to the base camp of the rafting company, I gave myself more than a once-over. My arm, where the sleeve met the skin, looked like I’d gotten a farmers tan. Not too bad, just a bit red and dark. On closer inspection, I realized it was dirt. That’s right, the dust of the road had layered on thickly enough so that I thought I had a tan. It was time for a bath.

Mom's feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.
Mom’s feet, after a normal day of walking around in the dust of my village.

I went on to take the most amazing shower of my life. Showers are not all that common in Kenya. I didn’t live with running water in my home and took bucket baths to get clean most of the time. The base camp had showers set up along the ridge looking out over the river, one wall made of forest and river in the distance. As I soaped up my hair I could see rivers of dirt streaming down my body. I don’t always rinse and repeat, but this time it was incredibly necessary. It felt so good to be clean.

I wonder when else that is the case. Do you have to get really dirty to appreciate getting clean? The contrast makes the positive so much stronger.

I struggle with thinking sin is the same way. And in some ways it might be. When a woman comes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host at the table complains at her effusive display of gratefulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man whose debts as big as a mountain being forgiven who is more thankful than a man with a mole’s hill worth of debt forgiven (Luke 7).

Paul asks: so should we sin more, to make the forgiveness that much sweeter? Absolutely not (Romans 6).

The thing about God’s grace: it is sweet regardless of the journey we have taken to receive it. Whether we have raced through the cobblestones of Northern France in the pouring rain, ridden in the back of a Matatu down a pot-holed dusty road, or done what seems to be nothing of consequence, God offers us grace to cleanse us of all that has hindered us.

I forget this. I forget that grace can come to me and those around me, whether we have a squeaky clean past or a hundred different skeletons in our closet. Shouldn’t we get a little dirtier just to make the cleansing that much better? Not necessarily. And in the same vein, it doesn’t matter how dirty you get, whatever past you think you have that is going to make God cringe. The waters of God’s grace shower down in a never ending fountain that cleanses us of everything. Every doubt, every fear, every anger, every moment of jealousy, every single thing. Now. We still live in this world, even as we are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Grace is not a one time thing. We still need grace to work in us every day. Just like you need a regular shower, you need a regular encounter with God, with the grace and Spirit of God to stay in the right direction.

God is not done with you yet. God is waiting to cleanse you with grace again. And guess what? It feels so good to be clean.

Difficult to Receive

My signoff in my emails, phone messages, and benedictions is a general variation on peace be with you. I seek to grant peace to others as I go throughout my day and my ministry. I pray peace over church members in hospitals, with those who are grieving or caring for the ill, upon those who have difficult decisions to make. I want others to be more at peace because of an encounter with me. I want to be used as an instrument of God so that God’s peace and comfort will rest on others. I can work pretty hard at sending peace. It doesn’t always work.

Sometimes the hardship continues, the stubbornness remains, and the isolation sinks deeper. Sometimes peace is not to be had. Sometimes the situation is without a sense of peace. It’s not anyone’s fault, just that peace is too elusive in certain times in our lives.

See, with all this peace that I am trying to grant when I am with others, the peace that I seek is away from others. I want a porch at a cabin on the beach or in the mountains: no telephones, no cell phones, no clocks, and no computers. Just me, a cup of coffee or tea, a loved one, and nature. I want a space where no one will disturb my peace, where no one will come to disrupt and add their own agitation into my environment.

I think that partly I want that kind of peace because I have a environment where I work where at any moment I can be entered into someone else’s crisis. I can be called up on at a moment’s notice to go and try to bring solace and care and even perhaps peace to a unstable situation. These calls don’t happen very often, but the possibility hovers over me six days a week.

If I’m honest, seven days a week. Even though I keep Sabbath, it doesn’t mean that I will not get called—especially in a dire emergency—during my Sabbath.

I have realized, finally, that if I cannot let go of the need to extend peace to all people at all times in all places, regardless of the circumstance, then I will rarely find time to extend peace to myself. I’ll wear out. There will be nothing left of me. I realize that. But it is so terribly hard to listen to the dual call of God, to extend peace to others, and then also to receive it for myself.

The receiving is the hardest. I don’t really consider how hard it might be for others to receive peace in their spaces from me. But if it is this hard for me to receive it, as I know that I need it and that it will work to help me as I always continue to grow more whole, then I suspect it is equally as hard or more so for those around me.

Peace Be With You

On Sunday mornings, I offer this phrase as a token of reconciliation, quiet assurance of solidarity, and celebration of joy with the young. The offer of peace is essential to our worship; I write it in each week, not as filler, but as an intentional space for those of us gathered for worship, to celebrate that peace may yet come.

The way that I learned the sharing of peace was as a direct response to a congregational time of confession. We corporately confess and share and name our sins, our wrongdoings, our times when we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and have failed to hear the cry of the needy. We ask for forgiveness, and we declare forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ.

And we share the peace. We speak peace to those around us, we speak peace to those in our community, and we speak peace to our guides. The peace that we speak to each other may feel rote, but as we practice sharing peace with each other, I pray it speaks a truth about us that spreads beyond our walls, into our homes, into our wider community, and into our lives.

Only with the peace of God will we be able to live in the way that leads to life.

Oh how I want that peace. I yearn for peace in a way that a parched tree yearns for water. I stand, listless, fixed to the soil that has grown thin, thirsty for free flowing, refreshing peace that rushes over my soul.

The current news of wars and rumors of war parches the land where I balance. This is not the land where I can thrive, I thirst for a land of peace where compassion and justice roll down like waters.

I want peace, not just the absence of war. Peace.

Grace in Weakness

Christ says: “My grace is enough for you, because [my] power is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Corinthians 12:9 CEB

Recently, I have been more weak than I would like. I suffer from migraines, which means I am a Migraineur. About a year ago they began hitting me. I have more help now and medications that can quell the pain for a while. However, with all the help, it seems that they are not letting go so easily.

I don’t want to take on this identity. I don’t want one of my identifying characteristics to be that pastor with the migraines. I am praying that this is only a season in my life, and that soon we will be able to find something that breaks the cycle of pain and brings me relief. In the meantime, life goes on.

I spent a wonderful day with the children in my church this past Tuesday, it was a day outside with rides and sunshine and laughter. And then next day I paid the price with my head. It is like I had a “fun hangover.” I’ve had days where I pushed my body physically, in running and other strength and endurance training, but I wasn’t sore the next day, I just hurt.

I’d rather be sore. When I am sore I can feel in my body that I did good work. When I am sore I can feel how hard I pushed myself and know that I came out the other side.

When I am migraining, my world shrinks. It becomes an effort to get dressed. Food becomes optional, even when I can feel my stomach growl. It hurts to move, to walk, sometimes to merely open my eyes. Sometimes it hurts to lay on my back in bed. It feels like the world is more cruel when I have a migraine.

But the world isn’t more cruel. I am still a pastor in those times. Sometimes I am called up and out and into the world, even when my perspective is clouded in pain.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians, he mentions a thorn in his body that he begged God to take away from him. I think there is grace in that. I think there is grace that we don’t know what the thorn was. We don’t know why Paul claims weakness, and so we can claim weakness along with him.

I have always had something wrong with my body. Growing up it was my foot. Last year I had that fixed with surgery; I had to heal from that. Now that my foot is healed, resplendent in scars, I’ve got headaches to deal with. I’m still weak.

Paul says that his weakness is so that his message remains strong, and he doesn’t get conceited. Like Paul, I prayed that I would be healed, that my foot would miraculous become not bent. Now I pray that I wouldn’t succumb to my Migraines. My prayer has changed, slightly. I don’t always pray that my migraines would be taken away, but I pray that they would lessen, and that I would be able to continue ministry in the midst of them. I pray that my ministry would continue in spite of them. I pray that the ministry that I have undertaken because of God’s call on my life would be made stronger, even though I am weak. I pray that Christ would shine through my weakness. I pray that Christ’s strength would be displayed, possibly even because of my weakness.

I haven’t gotten to the point of bragging about my migraines yet. I would like to not be stuck in a hurricane of pain every week. But I am blessed that grace is sufficient in this place for my weakness. I am grateful that grace has been extended to me, and that I am able to extend grace to others, even when I am in pain. That’s only because of Christ.

Any grace I extend is because of Christ’s work in my life. Especially the grace that I give out on days when my world is clouded in pain, that is grace working through me. My immediate instinct might be to snap, to jab, to strike, but Christ works in me, in the midst of my pain, to allow me to offer grace to those around me.

That is why I continue in ministry, and why I feel called to continue. The pain of this world may never end, but I look forward to the time when I will no longer hunger, thirst, or be in pain. I look forward to singing with all the saints, and celebrating that God’s grace was enough for me.

Doxology

This past Sunday was like most Sundays. I got up early, showered, centered, breakfasted, and left to go begin my circuit. I arrived to prepare for my first worship service of the day.

Because of a couple of funny scheduling bits, I realized that I hadn’t led worship at this church in the past month or so, with Annual Conference, a fifth Sunday breakfast bible study, and a vacation all stacked up together, and so I felt a little out of practice, as I was readjusting back to my routine.

This church is a faithful few, and I am the primary worship leader for the entirety of the service. I lead the prayers and the hymns as well as preach at this church. I allow my voice to carry through the sanctuary during singing so that others may also be able to sing out with confidence.

This is usually a good thing.

This Sunday, however, it had been a few weeks or so, and I was a bit out of practice. (How quickly we can slip out of practice.) During the offertory, I opened my hymnal to the next hymn, and prepared to stand up for when the accompanist would signal the beginning of the Doxology. I stood up to lead the Doxology, and the piano played the few bars of signal, and I burst out into the family table blessing of the Wesleys.

If the church was bigger, or the music louder, or there were more strong singers, then it would not have been as obvious. As it was, it was clear that I was singing an entirely different song.

Where was the Doxology? I don’t know, but it was not on my lips. I sang through the rest of the blessing. And because my people follow me so closely, and try so hard, they really tried to sing. And I’m not sure what they were singing. I think some of them may have tried the Doxology, but we all got messed up because I had sung the wrong words.

One of the things that I love about this close knit church is that they abound in grace. They were so caught up that if they had known the words that I was singing, they would have joined in. Yes, they looked a little confused, but that was the extent of the negative response that I received.

When we stopped singing, at the end of the song, folks looked askance at me, and instead of ignoring my obvious mistake, I honored their confusion. I explained that I was ready for the table, I was standing next to the communion elements, ready for the bread and the cup and the celebration of the holy meal. And so the words that I had in my head were not the words of the Doxology, but the family blessing that I sang growing up.

And, because even though I knew I was going to have a tight span of time between my two worship services, I offered for us to sing it again, together, so that the congregation could actually sing and praise God with one of the songs that they are the most comfortable with.

I couldn’t even think of how the Doxology was supposed to begin. Occasionally I flip the middle two phrases, it is as if sometimes I don’t listen to what I am singing. But this time all I could sing was Be present at our table Lord. It is a valid prayer, but it is not the one we are prepared to sing when we are solely focused on praise.

The word: Doxology, for those who are not church liturgy nerds, is a Greek compound meaning glory and word. It is when we speak and sing the glory of God. It is essentially a hymn of praise. It is a common practice in most of the churches I have attended to sing it as part of the celebration of the offering. I have heard it both before and after the time when the collection plates go around the sanctuary. I imagine that for many who attend church regularly it could be merely the song that goes with the offering.

There is more to it than that.

It is a call for all of creation to praise God. It is a celebration of blessings and rejoicing. It is a song in which the sole point is to praise God. And I could not remember the words of the song.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

My congregation is used to me singing with the adjustment of inclusive language, and I’m sure that they have caught me flipping the middle two lines here and there. This was the first time that I sang an entirely different song.

It made an interesting counterpoint to the usual Doxology. There are a few different Doxologies which commonly appear in our worship: one that we commonly call the Gloria Patri, the ending of the Lord’s Prayer, as well as the “Praise God.” Even though my congregations have a custom of a relaxed liturgical tradition, they still have these elements in worship that recall the more austere traditions. We sing and say these words because we know they are important.

Sometimes, like I did this past Sunday, we forget the purpose of these words. The practice has a chance of becoming rote. The ritual can slip into ritual for ritual’s sake. We are singing about praising God, and sometimes it sounds more like a dirge than a praise song.

Love is better than that.

The glory of God is greater than that.

Sing with excitement. Sing with conviction. Sing with praise resounding through the air. Sing about the glory of God.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
Praise God, all creatures here below,
Praise God above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here and everywhere adored.
Thy creatures bless and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee. Amen.

Truly, as we prepare for the table celebration of Communion, this is an appropriate song to sing. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the great banquet where no one will hunger or thirst anymore. And so what better way to prepare to celebrate this feast than to bless God in our preparations.

My mistake this past Sunday may have been a whispering of the Spirit, a reminder of the grace that fills the space. I just kinda wish that when the Spirit did her whispering, that it didn’t interfere with worship. But maybe that was the point this time. A holy interruption, a Spirit disturbance, and a grace-filled reminder that worship is not about us.

I’ll praise about that. Amen.