The Rock

Feet in athletic shoes standing on a worn rock.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

all other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

I stood with the congregation to sing My Hope Is Built and leaned on the back of the pew in front of me for support.

My problem on this particular morning was not sinking sand, but a bad back.

It happens from time to time. I lean over to put something in a cupboard or tie a shoe and – bam! – out goes my lower back.

I’ve learned there’s not much to be done about it beyond icing, heating, and ibuprofen. It takes its time and eventually heals.

I’ve also learned that those around me generally offer a hand – either literally or figuratively – until I start functioning on all cylinders again.

So there I was, standing (a bit crooked) amidst the congregation of Highland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bellview, West Virginia, belting out the alto line to this classic hymn.

Highland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bellview, West Virginia. Sign board and front door.

This was the last Sunday of the Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.)

Standing solidly to my left and to my right that morning were friends from two other congregations I visited during the 14 week journey. Nestled among friends in a welcoming congregation, nursing a bad back, I sensed I was on solid rock.

This particular Sunday, churches statewide observed a “Day of Hope” for those suffering from addictions and for those who love them, and who worry and care about them.

We asked God to keep us from judging (“There is no hope for you!”); or despairing (“There is no hope for any of us.”); or sliding into indifference (“I’m not all that interested in hope and don’t really care one way or the other.”)

On this “Day of Hope” we challenged ourselves to help those with addictions find solid ground; to help them build hope.

We, the church, are the Body of Christ. We represent the physical presence of the solid rock mentioned in our opening hymn – the rock on which hope is built.

His oath, his covenant, his blood

support me in the whelming flood.

When all around my soul gives way,

he then is all my hope and stay.

Individually we are not the rock.

But as the connected Body of Christ with all its diverse parts, we represent to the world an opportunity to discover solid footing; to find people to lean on when slipping; to join people who have not given up – on themselves, on each other, or on Christ’s church.

Through our connection within the Body of Christ we can offer a hand up to anyone trying to get their footing on the rock; anyone needing hope.

And of course “anyone needing hope” includes us all.

As this worship service ended (and with it, my Summer Itinerancy), I gingerly stood up and joined with the congregation to sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms;

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning,

Safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

I sang out as one firmly standing in the knowledge that I am welcome and belong on the rock; that I have a vast connection of brothers and sisters across the rock who will offer me a hand when I lose my footing; and that my mission as a disciple of Christ is to reach out to anyone slipping off the rock, anyone seeking a way onto the rock, and to anyone struggling in sinking sand, still unaware of the existence of a solid rock nearby – a solid rock with space for them.

My hope is built on nothing less.

My grandfather standing on an outcropping of rock in the mountains.

My grandfather, Russell Dewayne Lowther, standing on solid rock in the Appalachian mountains during the Depression of the 1930s. He was traveling home after participating in training for ministry. Photo by my grandmother, Catherine Bush Lowther.

My grandfather and friends on outcropping of rock in the mountains.

My grandfather – and friends – on the rock. There’s room on the rock. Photo by Catherine Bush Lowther.

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Shoes, Dogs and God’s Grace

A pair of toddler shoes

SHOES

The small boy’s lifeless body lay face down in the surf. His red shirt flagged down the world’s fickle attention span in a way months of reports about thousands of drowned refugees had failed to do. The small sneakers his parents strapped on him that morning remained loyally attached to his tiny feet.

This three-year-old from Syria had shocked me awake. My heart ached for his grieving father, who lost his wife and two sons in the same day.

How could this happen? What could I do to help?

I and the rest of the world have known about this refugee crisis. This didn’t just start last week. Thousands have already died on similar journeys. But the image, this small child, those little shoes…I was seeing the situation with new eyes.

These thoughts and images accompanied me all the way up the mountain and followed me into the pew at Sugar Valley United Methodist Church in Albright, West Virginia, this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.)

Front of sanctuary at Sugar Valley United Methodist Church, Albright, West Virginia

As is often the case, the concerns of my heart found reflection and perspective in a thoughtfully-crafted worship experience. And this worship experience was focused on seeing with new eyes.

Just after we sang “Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me…,” the children gathered around the pastor to hear a message about giving the unknown and the unfamiliar a chance…to see things with new eyes.

She produced a small plastic bag containing some odd-shaped and unfamiliar-looking food items and asked the kids if they knew what they were.

A woman's hands holding two unripe paw paws.

“Spoiled pickles?” guessed one child.

They couldn’t identify the items and none of them appeared overly-eager to taste test.

The food turned out to be not-yet-ripe paw paws. The pastor promised to bring some back when they were ripe, and she promised that they would actually taste really good – sort of like bananas.

Moral of the story, kids: Give the unknown and the unfamiliar a chance…see things with new eyes.

DOGS

In this week’s sermon, the pastor reminded us that we all – even Jesus – sometimes need to see things with new eyes.

She based her sermon on the lectionary reading from Mark 7, the passage in which the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to heal her sick daughter.

To set the scene, Jesus is tired and has headed off to be away from the crowds. He doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. In addition, this woman who has discovered his location and reached out for help is not Jewish.

Jesus responds to her in a way that shocks us today. Frankly, it does not resonate as very “Christ-like.”

It sounds an awful lot like Jesus is telling this woman she is not his priority, he is here to take care of the Jews, she is the equivalent of a dog (not Jewish) and his time and resources should not be wasted on her.

Toddler shoes on a floor mat that says "Dead End"

If you want to read the exact words of the passage, here you go:

“He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”

But this mom would not take “no” or “someday” for an answer.

“‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’”

She was willing to humble herself, go along with his dog analogy, and still beg him to do whatever he could to help her daughter – even if it was just the crumbs of his time and resources.

She had faith that the crumbs would be enough.

With that, Jesus saw her with new eyes and he healed her daughter.

Something tells me if this mom lived today, she would lovingly put shoes on her child’s feet, and a bright red shirt on her back, and would launch out on a dangerous journey if that’s what it took to try and save her child’s life.

If this mom lived today, she and her daughter might very well be among the flood of refugees seeking the safe harbor of Europe via anything-but-safe waters.

GRACE

What would Jesus do? (What should we do?)

Perhaps his/our initial response would be that they are not his/our priority, that his/our time and resources are needed and demanded elsewhere.

But I believe, as in the Mark 7 scripture passage, he would soon see her with new eyes. He would realize that there can be time and resources enough to help her and the other refugees.

Even the crumbs would be enough.

That, after all, is a message of God’s grace.

That, after all, is what we are commanded to show others – even (especially?) to the unknown and unfamiliar others.

As I sat in the pew at Sugar Valley and reflected on the humanitarian crisis represented by a tiny child washed up on a beach, I welcomed the message of the morning’s worship service – that we all (even Jesus) need to be willing to see with new eyes.

New eyes that see the world from a new perspective:

A perspective of plenty, not scarcity;

A perspective of sharing, not hoarding;

A perspective of helping, not fearing the unfamiliar and unknown.

Armed with this new perspective, my thoughts returned to the little boy on the beach; back to the thousands – hundreds of thousands – of refugees who are risking everything to seek safety for themselves and their families.

Will we see them with new eyes – or with the eyes of our ingrained cultural assumptions, our prejudices, our fear?

Will we consider them unworthy “dogs” – or God’s children?

Will we recognize that these children of God have the courage to approach and ask for help – even if all we have in the face of overwhelming need is crumbs?

Seeing with new eyes lets us realize the crumbs will be enough.

The crumbs – when put into the hands and service of the one who fed thousands with a few fish and a little bread – will be enough.

Toddler shoes on a door mat that says "Welcome"


As I write this – the wave of refugees swamping Europe is the crisis du jour.

You may be reading this now and facing a different crisis in your own life or community. (There are so many variations on unknown and unfamiliar people to see with new eyes.)

You may be reading this many months or years hence while in the midst of any number of challenges.

Whatever the crisis or challenge, now or in the future, may you pause and reflect and see with new eyes.

Even Jesus allowed himself to see with new eyes.

New eyes that greet the unknown and the unfamiliar – not with slurs and fear, but with welcome and healing… with crumbs of grace.

Crumbs that will turn out to be enough.


 

Grounded

“You’re grounded!”

When you hear those words, do you automatically think you have messed up and are in big trouble?

Or do you assume the person who said it is congratulating you on your maturity and ability to maintain focus?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since church on Sunday.

Sanctuary at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Grafton, West Virginia

The sermon at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Grafton, West Virginia (this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015, which you can read about here) focused on the lectionary reading from Mark 7.

In this passage, Jesus chides religious leaders for worrying too much about outward appearances and their own traditions and not enough about honoring God with their hearts.

The pastor at Good Shepherd shared a strong message about turning our hearts toward God; letting go of legalism; showing grace and forgiveness; and letting our hearts follow God’s direction.

From beginning to end, the worship service provided opportunity to think about whether our hearts are grounded in God’s grace.

In our opening responsive reading we confessed that we break the circle of love through alienation, misunderstanding and insensitivity when we “harden” our hearts. Together we asked God to forgive us our sins, as we forgive all who have sinned against us.

In our closing hymn we sang, “Change my heart oh God; make it ever true; change my heart oh God; may I be like you.”

On my way home from church, as I rounded the bends in the country road, my mind kept circling back to the concept of being “grounded.”

Am I striving to be grounded IN God’s grace? Or am I more worried about being grounded BY God’s wrath?

There is a big difference.

If I am worried an angry God will “ground me” for failing to follow the letter of the law, my heart is focused on me and is “far from” God.

If I soften my heart and forgive others for not being perfect, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

If I soften my heart and forgive myself for not being perfect, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

If I can boldly follow God in service to others without worrying about being punished for messing up, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

This week’s worship service felt grounded.

Welcoming. Warm. Calm. Unrushed. Thoughtful.

Having participated, I felt grounded.

It gave me lots to think about.

Do I listen to others? Do I take time for others? Do I offer others grace? Do I turn my heart toward God?

Do I act from a well-grounded heart rather than from fear of being grounded for flubbing the rules?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then I’m grounded.

In a good way.

Collage of images - "Leviticus" and "The Gospel According to Mark" pages from Bible - overlaid on a Bible cover with a small cross and a wire heart growing out of the Gospel page.

Lost and Found

Screenshot of map showing location of Rymer UMC - far from any main road.

I always leave a little extra time to get lost.

When I head out to a place I’ve never been, even when I have researched the directions and have a good idea of which roads and turn offs to take, experience has taught me to leave time to get lost.

Because…well…I often do.

This past week was one of those times. Almost to my destination and near the end of a 45 minute drive along country roads, I missed a turn off and had to search for a place to turn around and double back.

Rymer United Methodist Church, nestled in a beautiful but remote part of Marion County, West Virginia, was this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.) The congregation held a special combined worship service with the other church on its charge, hosted some talented and spiritually-grounded guest musicians, and topped it all off with a covered-dish-lunch-spread worthy of its own write-up. (Homemade chicken and noodles and peanut butter cake anyone?)

Church sign for Rymer United Methodist Church - stating Sunday August 23 Music Worship Service 11:00. Small country church in background.

So, this week’s adventure included a lost and found.

I was temporarily lost, but then found what I was looking for.

That’ll preach.

That. Will. Preach.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, aren’t we always on a journey; now and then temporarily lost; now and then finding what we are looking for; confident in our faith that we will get where we need to go?

Just as when we physically travel, the keys to a successful spiritual journey include willingness to start down the path; tolerance for losing our way; and tenacity to turn around and double back when we miss a turn or take the wrong one.

This week I studied the route, willingly started out into new territory, didn’t worry when I got temporarily lost, and found myself at a beautifully quaint church with warm and welcoming people, Spirit-filled music, and comforting country cooking.

It was all worth the risk of temporarily losing my way; it was worth the journey.

I found what I was looking for: authentic and heartfelt worship, praise and fellowship.

I found it 45 minutes out a country road and past a missed turn off.

In life, we will get lost at times, despite planning and researching and trying to always be in control of our situation. We can’t always rush things and we definitely can’t plan out each moment down to the finest detail. We need to leave a little extra time to lose and find our way.

It’s going to happen.

The losing and finding.

We’ll get there.

And when we do, it will have been worth the journey.

Musicians warm up at the front of the sanctuary before worship at Rymer United Methodist Church.

Shawna Weikle, Beverly Richards, Dave Yanero and Rodney Richards warm-up before leading worship at Rymer United Methodist Church on August 23, 2015.

Do As I Say

Front of sanctuary at Crim Memorial United Methodist Church in Philippi, West Virginia

I’ve been saying for a while that I wanted to visit a certain church – mainly because good friends of mine worship there. We first met about a year and a half ago, but they have quickly become two very encouraging and supportive people in my life.

I’ve been saying I wanted to go there, but this past weekend I actually did it.

As it turns out, the tension between “saying” and “doing” was the focus of Sunday’s worship service at Crim Memorial United Methodist Church in Philippi, West Virginia – this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.)

To give you an idea of this tension between “saying” and “doing” – the opening hymn was “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” but the theme of the sermon boiled down to “actions speak louder than words.”

So should we wish for more tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise or should we wish for more hands helping out at the food pantry?

WWJD?

Jesus employed words and actions during his ministry. He shared parables to teach important concepts, but he also laid healing hands on the sick and served up bread and fish to the hungry.

If we are to follow his example, it would seem both “saying” and “doing” are important work for a Christian disciple.

I think where we run into trouble is when what we do fails to match up with what we say.

I don’t believe it’s a matter of “actions speak louder than words” so much as it’s a problem when either our words or our actions loudly betray our calling as disciples.

Both words and actions can speak loudly.

Both have the power to inspire, heal, and energize, but both also have the power to discourage, harm and deflate.

I recommend using our words and our hands – but guarding against either of them being hurtful.

I suggest using our words and our hands – and making every effort to have our hands do what our words say we think is right.

The pastor put it this way: “Are we living what we profess?”

As disciples we are called upon to be a light in the world.

Of course a light can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the circumstances.

Bright sunlight directly in your eyes while you attempt to steer your car along a curvy road?

– Not so good.

Bright sunlight streaming through a beautiful stained glass window?

– Priceless and inspirational.

We are called to be a light in the world with what we say and what we do.

May we, through what we say and what we do, be a light that encourages and inspires and not one that blinds and distracts.

Lord, let me do as I say.

Morning sunlight streams through a stained glass window, creating bright patches of light on a red carpet.

No Question

Question marks on a notecard - placed across passage in Job 23

There’s no question about it.

Sometimes life’s not fair. And when we think life’s not fair, we question God.

We question whether he cares…even whether he exists.

We question.

Is that OK?

The message at Avery United Methodist Church near Morgantown, West Virginia – this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here) – met this “question about questioning” head on.

I traveled to a mountaintop to hear a sermon about living in the valley. View out the front doors of Avery UMC near Morgantown, WV - past parking lot and then out over the mountains.

We heard two passages of scripture – one New Testament and one Old Testament – highlighting times when people questioned God.

In Mark 10:17-31, we witness the rich young ruler questioning Jesus about what he must do to inherit eternal life.

In Job 23:1-9, 16-17, we listen in as Job looks everywhere for God, preparing to state his case about his unfair treatment.

I’ll cut to the chase of the message.

Yes, it’s OK to ask your questions, voice your doubts, and share your hurts and anger with God.

It’s more than OK.

When we find ourselves in these valleys of doubt, hurt or anger, it feels like we are alone. We’re often afraid to tell people we feel this way, worrying that they will question our faith.

But true freedom is finding the courage to acknowledge what we are experiencing and voice our questions.

Keep talking to God.

He won’t hold it against you.

Even Jesus on the cross did this.

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The rich young ruler asked his questions – although he could not accept the answers.

Job asked his questions – and ultimately rediscovered his place in God’s care.

Jesus asked his questions – and was raised from the dead to take his place with God.

Knowing all this… should we confidently voice our questions, our doubts, our hurts, and our anger to God?

Yes.

Should we despair when we don’t hear or understand his answers or can’t sense him nearby?

No.

Should the church – the Body of Christ in the physical world – tolerate and patiently listen to our questions, our doubts, our hurts, and our anger?

Yes.

God is bigger than our questions, our doubts, our hurts, and our anger.

The church – if it truly represents the Body of Christ in the world – should be, too.

No question.

Front of sanctuary at Avery UMC, Morgantown, WV

Prime the Pump

Front of sanctuary at Sabra United Methodist Church in Sabraton, WV

The pastor shared a story about priming the pump.

A weary, thirsty traveler comes upon a water pump in the middle of the desert. A note attached to the pump states that in order to get any water out of the pump, it has to be primed first – which involves pouring water into the pump. Luckily for the traveler, there is a bottle of water buried in the sand just for this purpose.

The deal is that the whole bottle of water must be poured into the pump, or it won’t be primed.

The question, of course, is whether the thirsty traveler will decide to drink some (or all) of the bottle of water to slake the immediate thirst. Or will they risk pouring the precious water into the pump on the promise that – if they do – there will be plenty of water for them and to refill the prime-the-pump bottle for the next thirsty traveler.

This week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here) was Sabra United Methodist Church in Sabraton, West Virginia.

I picked this church because a high school student I know was going to deliver the message.

As it turned out, his message was rescheduled for another time. I didn’t hear a sermon by a teenager, but I did experience worship with a congregation that is full out priming the pump.

I found a congregation that welcomed and included and nurtured the children and youth in its midst.

I found a small but engaged congregation of multi-generational believers where young and old were actively involved in worship and in the life of the church.

My friend didn’t give the sermon but he did lead the congregation through the order of worship.

A four-year-old respectfully and reverently carried the offering forward to the altar during the doxology.

A baby, sometimes asleep and sometimes awake, reminded everyone of the joy of new life.

Older members prepared and brought forward prayer blankets.

Members and visitors of all ages came forward to tie some of the knots on the blankets.

Voices of all ages rang out to share prayer requests and sing hymns.

This congregation was priming the pump of Christian witness.

Everyone, regardless of age or ability, was included and invited to actively participate in the worship service.

This congregation poured the full bottle, so to speak, into the worship pump.

Young people were empowered and also saw that their parents and grandparents continued to play active roles in worship.

Visitors were welcomed and engaged.

Nobody was there to casually observe or be entertained.


When we come to worship just to slake our own immediate spiritual thirst – we fail to prime the pump.

When we aren’t willing to actively participate – or if we stand in the way of others being able to actively participate – we fail to prime the pump.

Only when we pour in our whole self – and allow others to do the same – will we, as the church, prime the pump for God’s living water to pour out into our lives.

It’s how the children and youth know they are already part of the church – now – not the “future of the church” hustled off to some other place during worship.

It’s how the parents – or adults with no children – know they are part of the church – now – for themselves – not just because they are bringing kids to church.

It’s how the elderly know they are part of the church – now – still – not in the past, not pushed aside, not forgotten.


As I worked on writing this post, I considered possible photos to include.

A park near our home has a small water pump next to one of the picnic shelters, so I decided to pop down there and take a picture of it.

I took a couple photos of the pump, but they were not all that good.

Water pump

Meh.

Then, the children came.

A group of small children – about the age of the little girl who carried the offering to the altar on Sunday – ventured over to me. They told me all about the pump.

They told me water comes out of it to drink – and you can attach a hose to it.

One little boy said he’d show me – and with a hands-on demonstration he pumped the handle and water gushed out.

Then all the kids jumped in the puddles of water.

Turns out, it’s not about the pump.

In a way, it’s not even about the water – the physical water, anyway.

It’s about the people who will gather around the pump…looking for water.

Looking for conversation and relationship.

Looking for a chance to be hands-on.

Looking for God.

It’s not about the pump.

It’s about priming the pump.

It’s about priming the pump by pouring everything in and trusting in the promise that – when we do – the living water will appear.

Water pump with several children holding their hands under the spout

Photo by Sarah Lowther Hensley