A Room Full of Friends: Anne Lamott

A Room Full of Friends: Anne Lamott

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 27, 2021

5th Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 3:21-24

 

Continuing this morning with the summer sermon series, A Room Full of Friends, let us consider the life of American writer, public speaker, teacher, political activist, and Presbyterian: Anne Lamott. She was born in San Francisco in 1954 and is known and loved for her humor and openness, writing on such topics as her own alcoholism and depression as well as motherhood and her deep love for the God who somehow saved her from herself—saved her from the atheistic beliefs of her childhood home. Strangely enough, Lamott’s father was raised by Presbyterian missionaries in Tokyo but for some unknown reason, he turned against Christianity. He particularly despised Presbyterians whom he referred to as “God’s frozen people.” Lamott’s mother wasn’t much different. Even though she attended the Christmas Episcopal midnight mass, she often remarked on how ridiculous it all was!

While Lamott did not inherit faith in God from her father, she did inherit his love for reading and books—not so strange when you consider he was a published author, too. On the topic of books, Lamott writes, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die… Books, for me, are medicine.” Sadly, Lamott’s first book was a novel written in her 20’s about real life circumstances—her beloved father’s diagnosis and death from incurable brain cancer. Later books include Traveling Mercies, Grace Eventually, Plan B, Stitches, Bird by Bird, and numerous others.

Lamott’s parents and their circle of friends lived a wild and crazy lifestyle. Lots of parties. Lots of drinking and drugs. If they worshiped anything it was ideas, the written word, and, perhaps, nature. It wasn’t enough for Lamott—though she tried to be satisfied with what seemed normal to everyone around her. Nevertheless, she had a sense that there was something bigger—Someone Bigger—a higher purpose. In small ways, God came seeking little Anne—through a friend whose family was Catholic, through a philosophy class in college when she had to read Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham and his son, Isaac, through an Episcopal priest she contacted when she had nearly reached the end of her rope and was considering suicide. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

In college Lamott began to believe in God but she didn’t want anyone to know. In fact, all through her 20’s, she tried to find something else to believe in—something not as embarrassing or as awful as being a Christian. But nothing took. Then one day in 1985 she somehow stumbled into a little Presbyterian Church, of all places. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. She was 31 and hung over—still wrestling with the demon of alcoholism. The choir was made up of 5 black women and 1 Amish-looking white man—but what a glorious sound they made together. The congregation consisted of 30 people or so, who radiated kindness and warmth—something that Lamott needed desperately. It was the songs that got to her first—those old spirituals. She loved hearing them, so she stayed, and the people didn’t hassle her. They didn’t try to get her to sign up for something or threaten to pay her a visit. If they had, she would have surely run in the opposite direction. The church folk just let her be there at a time when she didn’t really have much sense of belonging anywhere. She had little sense of being OK at all, since she was pretty hung over most mornings.

Lamott went to church for months and months without staying for the sermon because it was too bizarre to hear Jesus stuff. Then about a year later, she started to feel like Jesus was around her. She writes, “I would feel His presence. It would be like a little stray cat. You know, I would kind of nudge him with my feet and say, ‘No,’ because you can’t let him in, because once you let him in and give him milk, you have a little cat, and I didn’t want it. I lived on this tiny little houseboat at the time, and finally one day I just felt like: ‘Oh, whatever. You can come in.’ And from that day on, I have really felt a relationship or friendship with Jesus, a connection to Him. I got baptized, and I invited some friends from my literary community, and the reaction was kind of like, ‘How very touching — we are seeing Annie’s little blind spot. She was getting so bad before with the mental illness and with being an alcoholic and a person who uses a lot of drugs.’”

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…

Over 20 years ago a very hung-over Anne Lamott stumbled into a small church and started what was to be a long journey towards sobriety and sanity. There were no instant miracles on that road, but many small mercies that for Lamott added up to a growing awareness of God’s grace. She soon came to understand that, to her, religion was a “come as you are” party, with no need to pretend to be anything but your own true self. In her words, “I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot and have no real certainty about anything. I have learned that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”

When asked what grace means to her, Lamott answered, “I’ve heard it said that man is born broken and the grace of God is glue, and I think that’s pretty true, that it’s divine glue. It’s glue that surprises you. Classically, grace is unmerited assistance from God. I know that grace meets you wherever you are and doesn’t leave you where it found you. I experience it as buoyancy, as a very strange sense of calm in the midst of tremendous anxiety and lostness. I often get my sense of humor back, or I just feel safe and in God’s care.”

Lamott has written a beautiful book on the topic of prayer, entitled: Help, Thanks, Wow! The following is an excerpt:

I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow.

You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God…

Some of you were taught to pray at bedtime with your parents, and when I spent the night at your houses, I heard all of you saying these terrifying words: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake … ”

Wait, what? What did you say? I could die in my sleep? I’m only seven years old…

“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

That so, so did not work for me, especially in the dark in a strange home. Don’t be taking my soul. You leave my soul right here, in my fifty-pound body. Help.

Sometimes the first time we pray, we cry out in the deepest desperation, “God help me.” This is a great prayer, as we are then at our absolutely most degraded and isolated, which means we are nice and juicy with the consequences of our best thinking and are thus possibly teachable.

Or I might be in one of my dangerously good moods and say casually: “Hey, hi, Person. Me again. The princess. Thank you for my sobriety, my grandson, my flowering pear tree.”

Or you might shout at the top of your lungs or whisper into your sleeve, “I hate you, God.” That is a prayer, too, because it is real, it is truth, and maybe it is the first sincere thought you’ve had in months.

Some of us have cavernous vibrations inside us when we communicate with God. Others are more rational and less messy in our spiritual sense of reality, in our petitions and gratitude and expressions of pain or anger or desolation or praise. Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.

We can pray for things (“Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz”). We can pray for people (“Please heal Martin’s cancer.” “Please help me not be such a jerk”). We may pray for things that would destroy us, as Teresa of Avila said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” We can pray for a shot at having a life in which we are present and awake and paying attention and being kind to ourselves. We can pray, “Hello? Is there anyone there?”

We can pray, “Am I too far gone, or can you help me get out of my isolated self-obsession?” We can say anything to God. It’s all prayer.

Anne Lamott is a renowned writer and a Christian. Faith in God didn’t seem possible when she was a child, living amongst atheists. But in God’s great mercy and grace, a little Presbyterian Church drew her in, gave her spiritual and physical sustenance, created a haven for her. It was a small church that looked homely and impoverished on the outside—a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a little piece of land amidst a few skinny pine trees—not much by the world’s standards. Yet a church choir of 6 and a congregation of 30 were used by God to share the love of Jesus with a young woman who had lost her way.  It’s a familiar story told again and again around the world. God has a habit of using small churches to do extraordinary things. Such is the way of God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Shelf Full of Friends: Ben Carson, M.D.

A Shelf Full of Friends:  Ben Carson, M.D.

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Jane Shelton, CRE

 

Keeping in the theme of Dr. G.’s “Friends on the Shelf” summer series, I must say that I went into a bit of a panic when she mentioned preaching on one of my favorite authors, as I cannot say I have many of the same authors on my bookshelves.  As much as I like to read, I am often drawn in by the titles and even the artwork of the books, and not so much by the authors themselves.

Of course, she did not make this a requirement, and yet I thought it was a fun idea, but who would I choose.  The first author that jumped into my mind is C.S. Lewis, and I know you all know that I like C.S. Lewis because he is often quoted in my sermons, and I have my favorite C.S. Lewis NRSV Bible with many of his thought-provoking quotes next to scripture.  And while I am always fascinated by Lewis’ life journey, and his incredible insights on scripture, I wanted to speak about someone else today.

With the recent newsworthy topic of racism, I have started reading a selection of African American authors, like Shelby Steele, a former Civil Rights Leader and activist, who has written books like, “White Guilt,” and “The Content of Our Character.”

Another young African American author that I have been reading and following her blog is Candice Owens.  She is a little dynamo, full of energy and insight for such a young age, and I enjoy her energy.

Today however, I want to talk to you about my new friend on my bookshelf, Dr. Ben Carson, who has found a warm and encouraging spot in my heart.  I came to know Dr. Carson through the news, and he was one of those persons that seemed to draw me in, someone I wanted to know more about.  Someone I thought spoke with wisdom.

In his book, written in 1990 and titled “Gifted Hands,” Dr. Carson takes us on his life’s journey from an inner-city kid to a renowned neurosurgeon.

While this is Father’s Day, much of this story will be about Dr. Carson’s mother, who was not only the mother in the household, but the father as well.  It is a great story on how sometimes celebrating Father’s Day, is not always about celebrating a biological male figure in your life, but the person in your life that provided you with love, discipline, and encouragement whether male or female.

Dr. Carson’s mother was married at just age 13, admitting she did so probably more to escape a bad family situation than for love.  But by the time her second son, Ben Carson, was age 8, she discovered not only was her husband unfaithful, but he was living a second life with a second family.

At his young age, Ben Carson did not understand why his mother was telling him that his father would not be living with them anymore, or the heartbreak he felt losing his father who had always been loving to him and his brother.  Always taking time with them and often bringing gifts when he came home from work.

Carson said he looks back, and realizes the incredible sacrifice his mother made hiding her own hurt while staying strong for her boys.  He remembers her working three jobs to make ends meet.  He retells the story of when he and his brother would ask for toys, his mother would reply, no, we can’t afford it, and that was the end of the story on getting a toy.

As an example of Mrs. Carson’s wisdom and tenacity, in order to help put food on the table, Mrs. Carson would bargain with farmers for her and her boys to pick four bushels of berries so that she could keep one bushel for them.  This allowed her to put fresh fruit and vegetables on the table, and put up the rest for them to have through the winter.

She was the one that defended her boys in school, and when she found out that the school was going to place her oldest son on a vocational tract of learning, she marched down to the school, and said, “No, you keep my boy in the regular classes because my boys are going to college.  My boys are going to learn reading and math.”

Dr. Carson tells the story of his mother coming home one day from work, and finding him and his brother watching TV.  She walked over and turned off the TV in the middle of their program, and said, “from now on, you boys are only allowed to watch TV three times a week, and the rest of the time, you will be studying.”

“Only three times a week!”  Ben protested as his mind raced through all the shows he would miss, but his mother held firm, and told him he would have to learn his multiplication tables.  Again, he protested, asking her if she knew how many there were to learn, and she simply replied, “I will help you.”

And it didn’t stop there, a couple weeks later, she came home and announced they would start reading two books a week, and when they had finished reading the books they had in their possession, she proceeded to march them down to the public library where they were directed to find more books to read.  It was here that Dr. Carson began his journey into books on nature, especially loving the books on animals and science.

He also became aware that as he gained knowledge, he was no longer referred to as the dummy in his classroom by his classmates, and this encouraged him to learn more.

When his mother could no longer afford the house where they lived in a nicer neighborhood in Detroit, she rented it out and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law in Boston.  Here, Dr. Carson learned about tenement living, complete with rats, roaches and an occasional snake.  He learned about walking through the streets among the broken glass, winos and drunks with sirens blaring in the background.

While it was dark on the outside, his aunt and uncle showered them with light and love on the inside of the home.  It was here that he remembers experiencing his best Christmas ever when he received a chemist set.  He retells of how he played with this set endlessly finding it fascinating and intriguing as he learned to mix things to create things.  With the instructions in hand, he would work one experiment after the other to find he couldn’t wait to see what the next experiment would bring.

His mother eventually got back on her feet, and they moved back to Detroit.  As soon as she could, she regained the ability to move them back into their old home, once again placing them in a modest neighborhood, and for the boys, this meant attending a mostly white school again.  With his experience and knowledge in science from his nature books and his chemist set, Ben soon excelled in his biology class.  His teacher put him in a position to teach other children how to identify bugs and work through their experiments.

Attending a Seventh Day Adventist church as a young boy, Ben listened one Sunday to his pastor tell the story of a mission doctor and his wife, and how God was able to protect them during a time of danger.  He liked hearing the adventure, and more importantly, he liked hearing how the doctor was able to help people, and how God had protected them from harm.

On his walk home, he asked his mother if she thought he could be a doctor, and she said, “Bennie, you can be anything you want to be.”  He replied, “I want to be a doctor.”  And she responded, “Then you will be a doctor, Bennie.”

At age 14, Dr. Carson said, “I fully understood how God can change us” as he overcame his struggle with his temper rooted in bad situations from growing up from losing his Dad at age 8 to being called a dummy in his early school days.

When he would find himself complaining about an unfairness, his mother would quote a poem titled, “Yourself to Blame” by Mayme White Miller or tell him, “You just ask the Lord, and he’ll help you.”  She would say, “Bennie, you can do it.  Don’t stop believing that for one second.”

Eventually, Ben would see exactly how God would move him through the struggles of becoming a doctor, from realizing his divine gift of hand and eye coordination while playing foosball with a friend, to a dream revealing answers to a test he thought he would surely fail in college chemistry.

After studying in his room all day before the test for which he had not properly prepared, he prayed for God’s help before he went to bed.  That night he had a dream, and the next day as he looked at page after page of his chemistry test, the answers came just as he had seen them on the chalkboard in his dream.

He wrote, “After this experience, I had no doubt that I would be a physician.  I also had the sense that God not only wanted me to be a physician, but that He had special things for me to do.  I’m not sure people always understand when I say that, but I had an inner certainty that I was on the right path in my life – the path God had chosen for me.  Great things were going to happen in my life, and I had to do my part by preparing myself and being ready.

Ben was continuously given positions of leadership, not just in his classes, but in college, ROTC, and summer jobs between college classes that he would acquire.  His teachers recognized his hunger to learn, and provided him tutoring and extra books to read.  He excelled on his SAT, and was provided a 90% scholarship to Yale.  Continuing at the medical school at the University of Michigan, in his hometown, he still longed to attend John Hopkins where he would later become a top neurosurgeon sought around the world.  Dr. Carson tells of many of his surgeries in his book, and how he learned from these surgeries, ending with his most famous case in separating a German set of Siamese twins connected at the head.

At one point in his journey, he was so sought after that he had a neighboring hospital to John Hopkins vying for his talents at their hospital.  The Director said to him, “Here you can help black people,” and being taken aback by this statement, Dr. Carson replied, “But I want to help ALL people.”

While it is easy to see how God moved him through life with the gifts and tools needed to become a neurosurgeon, leading and directing him each step of the way, as he explains in his book, it was also inspiring to see the strength and courage of a mother, that was obviously also gifted with strength, wisdom and love to be able to provide her children with the love and encouragement they needed to not only succeed with both graduating college, but to be able to understand and help people in return.

God never leaves us.  The more we lean toward him, the more we seek him out for direction and purpose, the more he continues to provide blessings on our journey in life.  This allows us to carry on in faith knowing that God is not only present in our daily lives, but that he cares about us and our outcomes.

Dr. Carson looks for opportunities to speak to young children, and when he does, he emphasizes the point, “There isn’t anybody in the world who isn’t worth something.  If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you.  The same people you meet on the way up are the same kind of people you meet on the way down.  Besides that, every person you meet is one of God’s children.” And he writes, “I truly believe that being a successful neurosurgeon doesn’t mean I’m better than anybody else.  It means that I’m fortunate because God gave me the talent to do this job well.  I also believe that what talents I have I need to be willing to share with others.

When I finished this book, I immediately started reading it again, because it is so encouraging, inspiring, and heart-warming.  As we look around us in a world driven by greed and power, it is an incredible reminder that while we may be caught up in circumstances beyond our control, and we are faced with challenge after challenge, all the while, God is in the midst of the turmoil bringing greatness from the most unexpected places.

God’s grace and gifts are truly a miracle in our lives.  It is up to us to have the wisdom and courage to develop those gifts to the glory of God, and if we don’t, we only have ourselves to blame.

A Room Full of Friends: Barbara Brown Taylor

A Room Full of Friends: Barbara Brown Taylor

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 13, 2021

3rd Sunday after Pentecost

2 Corinthians 5:1-10; Mark 4:26-34

 

Today, for the summer sermon series: A Room Full of Friends, I want to introduce you to a dear friend who has resided on my bookshelf for years. For many of you it will be a re-introduction since you have heard me refer to her numerous times as my favorite instructor during my doctoral work at Columbia Theological Seminary. In addition to being an outstanding teacher, Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and renowned writer. She has published such books as Leaving Church, An Altar in the World, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Holy Envy. She has also published numerous books of sermons and since she was named by Baylor University as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, I thought it best for you to hear a word directly from her this morning through a sermon entitled, “The Automatic Earth.”

At my house there is a gardener and there is a worrier. The gardener is a pretty easy-going fellow. Every May or June he comes through the door with a brown paper sack full of seed packets and a couple of evenings later he can be found puttering around the yard, emptying the packages into furrows, heaping the dirt into little mounds and curling pieces of fence around them to keep the dogs out. Several weeks later, plants appear in the strangest places. He has been known to plant green peppers between the azalea bushes and broccoli by the mailbox. For the second year in a row a stand of asparagus is pushing up through the roots of the crepe myrtle tree and sweet pea vines are winding through the branches of the weeping cherry. In a few weeks, string beans will overtake the back deck of the house, covering everything in sight like kudzu.

All of this drives the worrier crazy. She knows how gardens are supposed to be and this is not it. You are supposed to begin by buying a book, for one thing, with illustrations on how to arrange plants according to size, heights, and drainage requirements. Everything goes in straight rows. First you must test the soil, then you must fertilize, mulch, weed, and water; above all you must worry, or else how will your garden grow?

To her eternal dismay and amazement, there comes one day every summer when the gardener proclaims that the vegetables are ready. He goes out to collect them from all over the burgeoning yard and a little while later the worrier sits down to a table heaped with manna. Against her will and better judgment she has to admit that he has done alright, in spite of his refusal to worry. This year there are even two dill plants that appeared out of nowhere, gifts from the earth itself.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, according to Mark. A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his business, trusting the seed to sprout without his further interference, because the ground produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. The Greek here is wonderful: the ground is, literally, automatic. It produces of itself; it has within itself the power to make a seed become a plant, and so the kingdom of God is likened to automatic earth, earth that can be trusted to yield its fruit without any cheerleading, without any manure, any worry on our part. The seed sprouts and grows, we know not how. Call it agricultural grace.

All right then, I will not worry any more about my string beans and squash—the automatic earth can be trusted—but what about my life? There is nothing automatic about that. If I do not attend to it, manage it, and yes, worry about it, I will fail at what I want to do, be found wanting at the end, die unsatisfied and unnoticed. Help! Saint Paul is right; in this earthly tent I do groan, do sigh with anxiety, but not exactly for the reasons he says.

When I first read today’s passage from 2 Corinthians out loud, I began by nodding my head a lot. “We know,” Paul says, “that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed we have a building from God.” Well, yes, we hope that. Can’t be too presumptuous, after all, can’t really know, but yes, a building to replace this tent sounds heavenly. “Here indeed we groan.” Do we ever groan…what a mind reader; that is exactly what we do. “So that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” What a beautiful phrase, swallowed up by life. “So we are always of good courage.” Well, we try. We may not always be courageous, but we are brave from time to time…“and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” What was that? Actually, we sort of like it here in the body, all things considered. There is no particular hurry to leave, is there? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Oh groan, here comes the anxiety again.

Paul names the big worries, death and judgment, but fill in your own variations: nuclear war, cancer, poverty, divorce, addiction, pollution. What is it that makes your heart chatter in your chest? What feeds your ulcer, makes your shoulders cramp, keeps you awake at night? Where are you busiest protecting yourself and those you love? Where does it seem as if there is ultimately no hope, and where is it in particular that you do not quite trust God to be God? Someone says, “Have faith!” and you want to break something, want to shout, “Faith is not enough!”

We live in an age of anxiety. To go back to the agricultural metaphor, we live between the time of planting and the harvest, and it is a time of great uncertainty. We want to trust the automatic earth. We want to believe that what God has begun he will bring to fruition, but just in case he doesn’t we hedge our bets, doing everything we can think of to keep the anxiety at bay. Sometimes we call what we are doing “helping God out.” Sure, we can trust him with our lives, but just to help him along we frequent the health food store, the investment broker, the insurance agent, maybe even duck into the astrologer’s storefront to have our palms read—just for fun—to see what is ahead. Anything to batten down the hatches, to make the future look a little more secure.

But that is only one symptom of anxiety. There are lots more. Like perfectionism, the need to do everything exactly right, exactly to the book. Or drivenness, that compulsion that turns all our “want to’s” into “have to’s,” that raises our demands on ourselves and others to a fever pitch. There is moral outrage, our insistence that we who have worked so hard have earned the right to be protected from all harm, because bad things should not happen to good people. Or how about restlessness: the swinging foot, the tapping finger, the vague unease that says we should never be where we are but somewhere else instead. We cannot sleep, cannot sit still for long, got to keep moving, got to stay busy. Then there is the dread of being alone.

Faced with the prospect of a night at home by ourselves, we get on the telephone and see what we can rustle up or, failing that, settle into five or six hours of fellowship with the television set or [social media of some sort]. Along with that estrangement from self comes estrangement from God, where we buy books on spirituality but read mysteries instead. Or we mean to pray but it is hard to find the time and when we do, we’re so tired, we fall asleep. Sometimes it seems as if there is nobody there.

The word is anxiety, angst in German: a straight or narrow passage that restricts breathing; uneasiness or trouble of mind about some uncertain event, such as my life, my death, my relationship with God. Anxiety is so much a part of modern life that it seems automatic, an occupational hazard of being a finite creature in a universe of infinite possibilities. But anxiety is more than that, more than just a quirk of creatureliness to be taken for granted.

Insofar as my anxiety separates me from God, from other human beings, and from my own soul, I am prepared to call anxiety a sin, one that calls for my repentance because it keeps me in limbo, telling me on one hand that I must work out my own salvation and on the other that I am doomed to fail. In short, what is absent when anxiety is present is faith—faith that God will be God, that the automatic earth will yield its fruit, that life can be trusted.

I am not, of course, advocating that we all lie down under the nearest fig tree and watch the clouds go by, although that might not be a bad idea for most of us. Giving up anxiety does not mean giving up responsibility, or concern, or the wish to live a productive life. But it does mean giving up our incessant, sterile worrying about what will become of us and our poisonous illusion that if we do stop worrying our lives will collapse. This is sin, and the remedy for it is twofold: first confession and then amendment of life. Do you desire to be saved from the sin of anxiety? Then get on your knees and confess it. Confess everything you have tried to control, all the ways you have tried to manufacture your own security, all the times you have turned away from God in order to seek your own solutions. Confess what it has cost you, and how poorly it has worked to bring you peace. Then ask for forgiveness, the forgiveness that is yours before you ask, and within the freedom of that forgiveness amend your life. Make a different choice, a choice against anxiety, and live out of that choice for a change.

Saint Paul’s word is as good as any: choose courage, which is not the absence of fear but the willingness to go on in spite of it. Choose to face your life, your death, your God, the dangerous unknown. Choose to face it without resorting to the old perfectionism, the old drivenness, the old restlessness and outrage.

Choose courage, even knowing as you do that you cannot choose it once and for all, that if courage is what you want you must choose it over and over again, every day that you live, if real life is what you are after. That is what it takes. Confession and choice, forgiveness and courage, over and over, a new way of life.

Then scatter your seeds. Anxiety would have you keep them in your pocket, or plant them in small pots, or dig them up every day to see if they are growing. Courage allows you to open your hand and let them fly. They land where they land, and a few feed the birds, but many more fall into the ground. There in the dark, where you cannot see and do not know how, the automatic earth turns their death into life, pushing up through the layers of dirt, through asphalt, through concrete if necessary, through whatever is in their way—first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Then it is your turn, you who have watched and waited faithfully, knowing you cannot make the seed grow, knowing who can. It is your turn to harvest the crop, and let your table be heaped with good things, and sit down at it, and eat.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A Room Full of Friends: Eugene Peterson

A Room Full of Friends: Eugene Peterson

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 6, 2021

2nd Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 13:34-35; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

If you read the June letter, “From the Pastor’s Desk,” you know that some time ago, I decided to read several books written by one of my favorite Presbyterian pastors, scholars, writers, poets: Eugene Peterson. I re-read The Contemplative Pastor. I read Run with the Horses, A Long Obedience, and several others. Along the way, I happened upon an old, used copy of Take & Read. It is an annotated list of some of Eugene Peterson’s favorite authors. While the book and its list were of some interest to me, what really caught my attention was some advice he offered in the introduction: “Not all of my books will become your books…Start with my list, but then gradually remake it your own. You have to start somewhere. Develop your own list, which over the years will become not a “list” at all, but a room full of friends with whom you have sweet converse.”

A room full of friends! My bookshelves are home to a host of writers. Eugene Peterson is there, of course. Then there’s Anne Lamott, Barbara Brown Taylor, Wendell Berry, Howard Thurman, Fred Craddock, and many others. Over the years, as Peterson suggests, they have become my friends. And they are friends I want to introduce to you over the summer, via a sermon series entitled, “A Room Full of Friends.” And since it was Peterson who inspired the series, it is only fitting to start with him.

Eugene Peterson grew up in Montana. He attended Seattle Pacific University and New York Theological Seminary, and acquired a Master’s Degree in Semitic languages from Johns Hopkins University. In 1962, Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991.  But it was never Peterson’s intent to become a pastor. He planned to work in the academic world as a seminary professor.

Peterson grew up in a Christian home and was familiar from an early age with the Bible. Although he read it, memorized it, and argued it with his adolescent friends, he wasn’t fond of it. He knew it was important, but he had seen it used badly too many times. But after just three of four weeks in seminary, under the teaching of one professor, things began to change. What was once a holy book to be used as a textbook with information about God, as a handbook to lead people to salvation, as a weapon to defeat the devil and all his angels, as an antidepressant—became instead, a place for holy conversation. Peterson found himself listening carefully to skilled writers, poets, and storytellers who were artists of language. Isaiah and David were poets. Matthew and Luke were masters of the art of the narrative. Words were not just words. Words were holy.

When Peterson learned that students were required to do field work, he was thrilled to get the opportunity to coach the basketball team at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. He was thrilled because it gave him a chance to work in church without going to church. However, he decided to go to worship the first week of his employment just to get a lay of the land. Growing up in the Pentecostal movement, Peterson didn’t know any Presbyterians. But the preacher, Dr. George Buttrick, had a reputation for being one of the great preachers in America. Almost from the start, Peterson was captivated by something he had never seen in the pulpit—a storyteller and a poet.

Every Sunday evening Dr. Buttrick invited the seminarians to his penthouse manse on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park for conversation about vocation, theology, and the church. The more Peterson saw of his mentor, the more he appreciated his way of being a pastor to his flock. Soon, Peterson began to have second thoughts about his vocation. It dawned on him that there’s little ambiguity to Greek and Hebrew. It’s just right or wrong. But the church was much more interesting. There life was happening all the time—death, birth, divorces, children gone astray. Soon Peterson left his dissertation behind to become a storyteller, a poet, a shepherd to God’s people.

It is to another shepherd that we now turn through the story of David. The Bible is a book of stories. Oh, there are other literary forms—sermons, genealogies, prayers, letters, poems, and proverbs—but story carries them all and holds them together. Moses tells stories. Jesus tells stories. The four gospel writers present their good news in the form of stories. And when it comes to stories of the Bible, David’s story is the most extensively narrated. In truth, we know more about David than any other individual in Scripture. In Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall (from which I am liberally sharing to give you a sense of his writing style), he takes up the story of David, particularly how David prefigures Jesus the Christ and how David’s life serves as a map for spirituality for every person for all time.

The prophet Samuel is out looking for a replacement for King Saul. Having located Jesse and his sons, Samuel proceeds to interview and examine each of them. Jesse brings his sons before Samuel one at a time, like prize farm animals. The grandstand is packed with spectators. Eliab, the eldest is first. His mountainous size and rough-hewn looks command attention. Samuel is impressed. Clearly here is a man who can get things done. Samuel, like everyone else in the community is taken in by his appearance. But God whispers in Samuel’s ear, “Don’t be fooled by outward appearance. Down deep, there’s not much to write home about.” Next comes Abinadab. Then Shammah. After the third son, the Bible quits naming. As each in turn is rejected, tension builds up. Yet none are chosen. The show is over. Jesse is disappointed. The seven sons are humiliated.

The grandstand and bleacher crowds are starting to get restless, some of them feel gypped and want their money back. Samuel is confused. “This is Bethlehem? I am in the right town? You are Jesse?” Well, there must be another son. And as it turns out, as the whole world now knows, there is another son—David. The baby brother, the youngest, the runt of the family. Because David is out of the way, tending the sheep, nobody has thought to invite him to the party. Yet it is David who is chosen. Chosen and anointed. Chosen not for what anybody sees in him—not his father, his brothers, not even Samuel—but because of what God sees in him.

The story of David is the story of a person who is chosen by God and who, over time, comes alive before God. In truth, every event in David’s life is a confrontation with God. He becomes aware of God. He responds to God. We are never more alive than when we’re dealing with God, and David certainly deals with God. When we look at the whole narrative of David’s life—from his anointing to his dying breath—as a specimen of humanity, David isn’t much. He has little wisdom to pass on to us on how to live successfully. He is an unsuccessful parent and an unfaithful husband. From a purely historical point of view, he is a barbaric chieftain with a talent for poetry. But David’s importance isn’t in his morality or military expertise—it’s in his experience as a human being and a witness of God.

The truth of the matter is we can’t be human without God. That’s what Christians believe. All of us are aware of something we need or lack most of the time. We’re not complete. This sense of being unfinished is pervasive and accounts for a lot of the trouble we get ourselves into. Feeling inadequate, we attempt to bolster ourselves by getting more education, more money, traveling to another place, buying different clothes, searching out new experiences. The Christian gospel tells us that in and under and around all of these incompletions is God: God is who we need; the God-hunger, the God-thirst is the most powerful drive in us. It’s far stronger than all the drives of sex, power, security, and fame put together. And David displays the most complete rendering of the common life that God can use and shape into his glory—into the likeness of his Son, Jesus.

Oh, David is far from perfect. David fighting, praying, loving, sinning. David with his eight wives. David angry. David devious. David generous. David dancing. If the life of David that comprises prayer and adultery and murder can be written and told as a gospel story, no one should be written off. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing that God can’t and doesn’t use to work God’s salvation and holiness into our lives. If we examine the story of David’s life carefully, we see blemishes and imperfections aplenty, and yet, we witness the love of God that will not let us go.

God’s love is greater than any obstacle we might face in life—David’s Goliath is no match for God. And God is partial to making the impossible possible—for transforming that which we have long abandoned. God makes blessing out of brokenness. God turns shattered dreams into visions of a new tomorrow. Through his Son, Jesus, God comes to us in the simplest of things—bread and wine. Through the Holy Spirit, God comes to us as our Comforter and Guide. And God comes to us through witnesses like Eugene Peterson, who by their preaching, teaching, and writing, inspire us in our faith-walk. The world is filled with people who need inspiration, who need encouragement, guidance, and hope, who need to hear the story of God’s great love.  Each day, in new and creative ways, may we be both willing and eager to tell it!

A Gentle Invitation

A Gentle Invitation

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 30, 2021

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29; John 16:12-15

 

Joe is searching—searching for answers, searching for hope, searching for something.  Over the past couple of years, Joe has begun to realize that his life hasn’t turned out like he thought it would—and now Joe is afloat in the world like a ship without a sail.  He always thought he was one of the lucky ones.  He graduated from college, got a good job, and began building a life.  But even with so much success, life felt empty.  Joe had a hunger that he could not name—a deep hunger for hope, for truth, for something.  Joe grew up in church but when he went off to college, well church didn’t seem to be important anymore.  Religion—he thought—that’s for old folk—religion—well, it just wasn’t for him.  But lately, Joe had begun to have second thoughts. Maybe there was something to his mother and father’s faith. All these things had been weighing on his mind and then one morning he woke up with a hymn playing in his head, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound…” Yeah, a little grace—that would be a good thing right now—Joe thought—that would be a very good thing.

 

So Joe began to look for a church home. He started with the church just down the road—The Church of Only the Father—it was called.  Joe visited for a few weeks.  He sat in the back, hoping no one would notice him, and sure enough, no one did. The preacher was loud, and he yelled a lot about hell and damnation. He preached about God as a Judge who would one day burn wicked sinners in a Lake of Fire because they had not heeded the Law. Amazing Grace—they sang the song, but Joe didn’t sense much grace. Something was missing. What about Jesus? The One who gave his life for sinners? What about the Holy Spirit that can transform lives—even the lives of people who have somehow lost their way? No, this wasn’t what Joe had in mind. So, Joe stopped going. No one noticed his absence. No surprise since they had hardly noticed his presence.

 

And Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

 

Yes, Joe needed truth in his life. He still had a void in his heart so, he got up the courage to attend another church, The Church of Only the Son, it was called. He watched and he listened. The focus of the church was doing—doing things for Jesus. But after a while, Joe realized that the teaching wasn’t just about being the hands and feet of Jesus. The teaching and preaching was more like, it is in the doing that people find favor with God—that people earn God’s love. Joe listened carefully.  In the church of his youth, he had been taught that salvation is found through grace—not through works righteousness. No, Joe didn’t believe he could earn his salvation. He didn’t believe that at all. And he didn’t believe that living faithfully was only about doing, doing, doing. Something was missing. What about God the Father who created humanity and loves humanity still? What about the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—stories that demonstrate God’s love and grace throughout history? What about the Spirit who convicts us, prods us, and prompts us to walk into light and truth? No, this wasn’t what Joe hungered for—being faithful is about more than “doing” so Joe stopped going.

 

And Jesus said, “The Spirit will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

 

A few months later, still searching for a church home, Joe heard about a church on the other side of town that had been creating quite a stir—The Church of Only the Spirit, it was called. Now, to be honest, Joe walked in and wanted to walk right back out. He could not believe he was putting himself out there again. But no—he wanted to be fair—he wanted to give this church a try, so he did, for several weeks. He mustered up the courage and showed up—sat in his favorite place—the back pew—just in case he felt the urge to leave. He watched and he listened. And there was a lot to see and hear—this was a rowdy bunch—there was shouting and dancing in the aisles—speaking in tongues. Joe had never seen anything like this before. Prayers were prayed to the Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit is about all the preacher preached about—the Spirit was about all the church sang about. And if there was any glory and honor being given—it was to the Spirit. What about the God of the Old Testament and the New? What about living life as Jesus did—showing compassion to the least of these? What about sacrificial love—costly love? Something was missing. Surely religion is about more than spiritual highs and spiritual “feelings.” So, Joe stopped going—or so the story goes.

 

And Jesus said, “All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

 

The story of Joe’s search for a church—well, I am sure you noticed that it includes huge generalizations. Most churches are not so obviously aligned with ONLY the Father, ONLY the Son or ONLY the Holy Spirit. And let’s face it—most seekers are not like Joe—quickly observing on the front end the inner teachings of a church’s theology or doctrine—that takes some time. Still, the story may provide us a way to reflect on the challenges of being a church that embraces the Triune God and lives out a balanced faith.

 

Today is Trinity Sunday and let me be honest. Preaching about the Trinity is a tough task. Why? Because on Trinity Sunday we are challenged to preach a teaching of the church rather than a specific teaching in Scripture. The word is not in the Bible. It is a term coined in the 3rd Century to explain our experience of God as the Creator of the world, God as the Son who entered the world as a baby, and God as the Holy Spirit, ever-empowering and present. The doctrine of the Trinity was meant to help give words to our faith, and, over time, it became a natural way to speak about what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises to accomplish. We worship a Creator who is still creating among us. We worship a Savior who redeemed us and works among us, sometimes in spite of us. We worship the Holy Spirit who is in our midst—moving and working. Our Holy God is still powerful, still working, now and forevermore.

 

The bulletin cover image created by Andrei Rublev, is the artist’s attempt to explain the Trinity through the story of the hospitality of Abraham found in Genesis chapter 18. You may recall that Abraham is sitting by the oaks of Mamre at the entrance of his tent when he looks up and sees three men standing by—three men who turn out to be Angels of the Lord—Angels who proclaim that in one year Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a child. Abraham welcomes the strangers—water is brought, food is served—it is hospitality at its finest. In portraying this act of hospitality, earlier artists included Abraham and Sarah, a servant killing the fatted calf, and a tree of Mamre, but Rublev eliminated all those narrative elements. He made a conscious decision to illustrate the story of the hospitality of Abraham—but to convey through his image the idea of the unity and indivisibility of the three persons of the Trinity. Rublev’s “Trinity” beckons us to dig deeper into our own understanding of God and it offers a gentle invitation to enter that sacred space to love, to be loved, and to go forth to live faithfully in the world.

 

One day, God may put it on Joe’s heart to visit First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta—either in person or online. What will he find? Will he find a church that teaches one way of knowing God at the exclusion of other ways? Or will he find a church that seeks to understand God as fully and wholly as we can in our thinking, in our feeling, and in our doing? Will Joe find a home with us?  I pray that he will. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.