Tag Archives: church

The Sky’s the Limit

20478813_400498847013419_4964910068790198272_n(1)Few states are known for a single thing more than Utah. Okay, maybe none are. The Mormon Church is Utah, or so it seemed before I made my first trip there last week. And sure, there were lots of LDS church structures — the unique temple architecture was even utilized to design local high school buildings.  And there were lots of families with the stereotypical brood of children. But there was far more than the Mormon Church in my brief hibernation-style visit to Utah. “Pioneer Days” in Ogden had just ended but the town and the festival aftermath displayed a fondness for cowboys, rodeos, railroads, and all things western. And a quick walk down Historic 25th Street in Ogden did not feel very Utah-like with its quirky shops and colorful artwork alongside historical descriptions of the street’s seedy beginnings. 

[Note: Not sure where to file this one, but the state troopers had electronic signage on the interstate that read, “If yer eyes are saggin’ pull over yer wagon.” That’s a new one for me, but you know, safety first.]

And although I was not on a nature vacation (and far from what I understand to be the most breathtaking scenery in Utah), I saw enough to know that Utah is majestic.  The huge sky, puffy white clouds, and towering mountains were unavoidable, and although I spent the majority of my time alone and in a library, I did dedicate enough time for a run along a river trail and a hike to the “big fill” near the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Out in the open spaces, the quiet was practically deafening.  And the great expanse of the never-ending sky found me impersonating Tom Petty: Into the great wide open / Under the skies so blue. 

It is hard to describe the magical sensation that comes with that combination of shocking silence and wide open vistas, but if forced to choose a word, the one that comes to mind is “possibilities.” With the bright sun shining down and the wind in your face and that great big sky, it seemed like anything was possible.

If you ever feel trapped in this old world, I suggest a trip to Utah.  Heh, come to think of it, maybe old Brigham Young had that very idea.  

The Secrets of a Sacred Space

Stauffer“Let the site tell you its secrets.” — Christopher Alexander

I joke that my propensity to arrive early for absolutely everything is a sickness, but in reality it is a treasured quality since it reminds me of mom and dad.  Being early is my heritage.  With age, it seems that I am less impressed with my unique qualities and particularly value those characteristics that connect me to a larger story.

I arrive very early for work on Sunday mornings to prepare for our church’s collective time together, a couple of hours early in fact—and love it.  We decided to meet in stunning Stauffer Chapel this summer thanks to a brilliant suggestion from my friend, Sara, and the setting has made the early morning solitude particularly delightful.

I like the strange sensation of opening the door to discover that no one else is there and being the first to step inside.  I like turning on the lights and straightening the hymnals and removing the leftover trash from the pew racks.  I like arranging the podium and communion table just right and reviewing the sermon, imagining the congregation at breakfast preparing to join with me and with others.  I like propping open the doors and hearing the gurgling fountain outside and then returning to the deafening quiet inside and the intense feeling of anticipation. I like to notice the sun pierce through the massive stained glass spraying psychedelic graffiti all over the quiet sanctuary.

Famed architect, Christopher Alexander, argued that users of a space know more about their needs than the architect and wrote, “Let the site tell you its secrets.”  In my sacred Sunday solitude, I don’t seem to be able to articulate my needs, but it sure seems that the space has secrets to tell.  I listen each week and can almost hear them.  Maybe if I listen long enough?

In reality, I’m not sure that sacred spaces have actual secrets to tell.  But maybe the wonder that is found in showing up early to listen is secret enough.

Hold on to Joy

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Loving Joan was not optional. She was eminently lovable. I preached in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a decade and could count on Joan and Joel (or, “Joe,” as she called him) to be sitting up front cheering me on every time the doors opened. Joan cheered everybody on.

It was sad to hear that Joan died last week at eighty years young after a heck of a fight with cancer. But it would be a discredit to her memory to linger in sadness.

Joan was no stranger to challenges. Before my time in Mississippi, she lost her son in a tragic car accident. During my time in Mississippi, she encountered the American law of eminent domain when the government decided to put a highway through the house she and Joel intended to inhabit for the rest of their retirement years. After my time in Mississippi, her “Joe” contracted Parkinson’s Disease. And then there was the cancer.

But Joan never let a challenge dampen her positive attitude. She often quoted a line from an old sermon that she accepted as a life approach: Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Joan spent her life giving to others, but she jealously guarded her joy like she was Ebenezer Scrooge.

It has been years since I saw her in person, but Facebook worked its magic to keep us in distant contact. Joan “liked” lots of things on Facebook. That fit her well. Joan was a really good liker of things. She would have made it just fine without the frowny-face option.

One of my favorite memories came as a result of one of Joan’s worst days. Joan had two children, the son whose life was tragically cut short, and a daughter who was her pride and joy. Joan’s daughter pursued a successful career and chose to marry later in life. Joan was ecstatic about the wedding and could not wait to travel to the ceremony. But one afternoon, while shooing blackbirds away from the back porch, Joan fell and broke both ankles, landing her in a rehabilitation hospital and threatening her ability to make it to the wedding.

True to form, Joan kept her joy and started to work. She soon knew everyone in the hospital and worked hard at physical therapy with that beautiful wedding ceremony as her inspiration. The fateful day came when the doctors would decide whether she was fit to travel, and despite her very best efforts, Joan was not cleared for takeoff. I’m not exactly sure how devastated she was, but the rest of us were heartbroken.

In those days before Skype and FaceTime, we tried to invent things like Skype and FaceTime just for Joan, but alas, we were in over our heads. Joel traveled to the wedding alone, and the family had the clever idea to use a cell phone during the ceremony so that Joan could listen in. A group of us from church went to her hospital room that day to share the occasion with a corsage, wedding cake, and being good Southern church folk, sparkling cider. It was a party, but it was no pity party. I will never forget Joan trying to hand the cell phone to the rest of us during the ceremony so that we could listen and our laughing and frustrated refusals — This is for you, Joan!

It remains one of my best days. A terrible day somehow turned into joy.

That was Joan. And today, in her honor, and while mourning her loss, I will hold on even tighter to my joy.

DCF 1.0

Tell Them the Truth

17075864_1838189199788768_4657554125959987200_n1I’m hoping that preaching every Sunday is like riding a bicycle because it has been nine years since I broke the habit.  We’ll find out soon.  Come see for yourself if you are near Malibu starting this weekend (10:15am, Elkins Auditorium, Pepperdine University).

I have known several impressive teachers and scholars who regularly communicate complicated material to large groups of people and yet are totally freaked out by the prospect of delivering a twenty-five minute sermon.  At first I thought they were crazy, but it actually does make some sense.  Preaching is its own animal.

When I moved to Malibu for law school in 2008 after a decade of preaching, I had the pleasure of listening to Ken Durham preach each Sunday.  After my first year here, Ken asked me to fill in for him one Sunday.  I accepted and on that Sunday in the summer of 2009 read a classic selection from Frederick Buechner that is my all-time favorite description of the preaching moment.  As I mentally prepare to climb back on the proverbial horse, here it is once again:

“So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down.  Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick runthrough of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand.  He hikes his black robe up at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up.  His mouth is a little dry.  He has cut himself shaving.  He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor.  If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else.  In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker.  A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand.  The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack.  A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her.  A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee . . . . The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler.  The stakes have never been higher.  Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand.  The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it.  Everybody is listening including even himself.  Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?  Let him tell them the truth.”

A Personal Update

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Those who know me well might want to sit down for this one.

The co-chairs of the preacher search committee at our church announced this morning that my name has been proposed as the church’s new full-time preaching minister.  This is most definitely not a done deal since I (and the rest of the elders) insisted on feedback from the congregation this week.  If the proposal proceeds, however, I am willing to transition into that full-time role in March.

(Pause for friends and family who didn’t listen to the suggestion to sit down.)

Both my current work (law school administration) and my church find themselves in important times of transition, and I have struggled for the past several years with serving in effectively pastoral roles in both places and the accompanying feeling that I am unable to do justice to either one.  And I care a lot about doing justice.  At one point during the past year I tried to step back from church leadership but circumstances simply would not allow that to occur.  Maybe that was a sign.  Now, through lots of late-night talks and prayers with my sweet wife, it seems right that I focus full attention on church.

Those who don’t know me well may not know that I served as full-time preaching minister for a wonderful group of people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly a decade (early 1999 to late 2008).  Some preachers take a sabbatical after such a run.  Apparently, I went to law school for nine years instead.

This is a big week for me and for us.  My law school years have been fantastic, but this may be a time for transition.  I do hope that the congregation will share their thoughts with the church leadership so that the proper decision is clear.  If the time isn’t right, then, well, who would want that?  But if it is, I am ready to dive in.

My blog is titled, Starting to Look Up.  Looking up is surely how I will spend this week.

A False Sense of Security

Rolling Stone did a great piece on why the NFL sacked Roman numerals for Super Bowl 50, and if your team ended up with the L yesterday, you can just think of it as a big old Roman numeral instead. (Too soon?)

Super Bowl 50 mostly made me feel old since I remember most of them. I was a football fan and a churchgoing kid in the 1970s-1980s, which was a terrible combination on Super Bowl Sunday.¹ Our church had Bible classes at 5:15 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, followed by a 6:00 p.m. worship assembly, and it was clear that we would go straight to hell for missing either. I lived in a house directly across the street from the church building, so my friend Jamey and I would run across the street² in between class/worship to get a Super Bowl update from my non-churchgoing dad. It was torture at the time, but it makes me smile to remember me/Jamey/Dad and the breathless fun of being a kid.

My dad played football in the 1930s when players wore leather helmets with no facemask. Crazy, right? Recently, I heard some lawyers discussing football’s concussion scandal and someone suggested returning to those days. Super crazy, right? This deranged lawyer tossed in some actual facts (sneaky!) that contact sports like rugby (sans helmets) have a much lower incidence of brain injuries, which if not concussed, takes about half a second to understand: A false sense of security is a dangerous thing.

Well, going helmet-less should never happen to American football, but that’s not where my brain is at today.³ I’m thinking about the other equipment we wear to protect our minds and our hearts that unconsciously liberates us to act in ways that damage us even more.

Like, I won’t let anyone know my weaknesses, so I drive myself harder and harder (you can’t hurt me!) until, well, my weaknesses are pretty undeniable.

And, I won’t let anyone know my failures, so I set out to prove how successful I can be at everything (you can’t beat me!) until, well, I fail in spectacular fashion.

And, I won’t let anyone know my loneliness, so I endear myself to so many people (you can’t ignore me!) that I end up not connecting to anyone.

Among others.

Maybe I should take off the old football helmet. That may force me to consider how my daily actions truly impact my tender mind and heart.

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¹ Arguably a terrible combination period, although I have stubbornly held on to both.

² I never was clear on the state of our eternal souls if we were hit by a car while crossing the street running away from the church on Super Bowl Sunday. Post-law school, I think our mens rea would have protected us, but then again, who would have been out driving on Super Bowl Sunday anyway?

³ Pun? Irony? Terrible writing? All three?