Light_in_the_Darkness

Inside and Out

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I was leaving a meeting with several clergy members. Just behind me, close enough that I could overhear their conversation, was the long-time pastor of the leading Baptist church in town and walking alongside him was the moderator of our local ministerial alliance, who happened to be the pastor of the local Unity congregation, fifteen members strong.

My own experience with ministerial alliances, especially in other cities, was that they were ecumenical, even interfaith, so I never thought twice about whether our moderator was Unity or Baptist or Muslim. Apparently, not everyone agreed. Since the Unity minister’s election, most clergy in town had quit coming to the ministerial alliance and my own suspicion was that they were boycotting the alliance, (a suspicion later proven true).

The Unity pastor was inviting the tall steeple Baptist pastor to the alliance meetings, “We’d love to have you join us the second Tuesday of each month at noon.” The Baptist said, “Well, we have staff meetings on Tuesdays and I’m usually tied up.”

So the Unity guy replied, “I bet we could re-schedule our meetings to accommodate you. We’d love for you to come.”

The Baptist stopped, turned to the Unity pastor and said, “Children of Light have nothing to do with Children of Darkness. I won’t be there.” The Unity pastor was stunned, shocked into silence while the Baptist walked away without another word. Read more

A_Longhorn_cow_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1520802

Large Things in Small Parishes

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4:26-34

The Texas historian of a generation ago, Walter Prescott Webb, has a wonderful paragraph in his classic book, The Great Plains. He contrasts the West with the East in the raising of cattle and notices that even though the West raised fewer cattle than the farms of the East, it was the West that defines for us what cattle raising is all about.

Webb writes, “A thousand farms in the East will each have six or seven cows, with as many more calves and yearlings – ten thousand head. But they will attract no attention … In the West a ranch will cover perhaps the same area as the thousand farms, and will have perhaps ten thousand head, roundups, rodeos, men on horseback, and all that goes with ranching. … The East did a large business on a small scale; the West did a small business magnificently” (p. 227).

I like Webb and I like what he says. The romantic notion of ranches, big cattle drives, cowboys, horses, spurs jingling, dust blowing, with perhaps some rousing Elmer Bernstein music in the background is magnificent. Nevertheless, I am more taken with his line, “The East did a large business on a small scale.” It was the small farms that did the large business of raising cattle.

Webb’s line reminds me of one from the Welsh poet and Anglican priest R.S. Thomas who wrote, “I was vicar of large things in a small parish.” It is a line, along with Webb’s, that keeps telling me of my vocation and the vocation of the church. Read more

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Two Christianities

Seventh Sunday of Easter

John 17:6-19

During a haircut my barber asked me, “Do you believe that zombies are real?”

I said, “What?” not sure if I had heard her correctly. She asked again, “Do you believe that zombies are real?”

Realizing that it was a serious question, I said, “No. Zombies are in movies, books, TV shows, and games. But they’re not real.”

She said, “My preacher says that zombies are real. He preaches that the Devil reinvigorates dead bodies and that’s where zombies come from.”

Trying to avoid public criticism of another preacher I said, “Where in the Bible does he get this?” She shot back, “Well, I don’t know where he gets it. All I know is that he says we’d better get our guns ready because zombies are real.”

“Where do you go to church?” I asked.

“I go to the Cowboy Church outside the loop. You know, you can see the rodeo arena out back.”

“How many people attend on Sunday mornings to hear that zombies are real?”

She said, “Oh, we usually have somewhere around 400 on Sunday mornings, with most staying around Sunday afternoon for pot-luck dinner. We have roping, barrel-racing and other rodeo events after that.”

I didn’t know whether to cry, cuss, or pray for mercy. Every Sunday I preach well-prepared, biblical sermons to a congregation of 80 to 100 people, while across town 400 people dress up as cowboys and pack into a church to hear that zombies are real and go rodeo afterwards. Read more

planet earth

Loving the World

Fourth Sunday of Lent

John 3:14-21

Likely the most well known verse in the entire Bible is John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever should believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life (which is the way I memorized it in the King James version).

In the Texas Baptist life in which I grew up this was the essence of the gospel or as old Luther said a few centuries earlier, it’s the gospel in miniature. Along with the entire story of Nicodemus secretly coming to Jesus during the night and being told earlier in the conversation that he must be born again, this was our canon within the canon and it interpreted everything else. To this day in most Baptist churches in my part of the world I can stand up in the pulpit and say, “For God so loved” and the entire congregation will respond reciting the rest of the verse from memory.

Unfortunately, for most of us so formed by this understanding of the gospel, it has reinforced our Gnosticism. Read more

Squint

Learning to Squint

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

When I was a boy I knew an old rancher whose face was permanently sunburned and lined from decades of living outside. People said he had a “perpetual squint.” Daylight or dark, indoors or out, he always looked like he was squinting, looking across some pasture for a stray cow in the face of glaring sun and blowing wind. Squinting, looking into the distance for so many years had shaped his face; it had shaped the way he looked at everything.

Walker Percy, tells in his novel Love in the Ruins and its sequel novel The Thanatos Syndrome about a small, remnant church out in the woods of Louisiana. They are fragile and exiled from the mainstream, conventional and successful American church. They have a small AIDS clinic where they care for the sick and dying and care for each other.

Their priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, is eccentric and helps pay the bills by hiring out as a fire-watcher. It is his job to climb the fire-tower by night and watch for forest fires below while he also looks “for signs and portents in the skies.” Throughout the two novels he’s always watching, squinting into the distance, looking for portents, looking for something.

Our readings are for the First Sunday of Advent. Advent, which means “coming,” is about the coming of Christ. It is about Christ coming in Bethlehem 2000 years ago but more, Advent is about Christ coming again sometime in the future. At the same time, it is about Christ coming again in renewal in our lives now, and coming into this present status-quo world.

We are called to hold these three tenses of Christ’s coming in mind all the time. The testimony of the church for thousands of years has been, “Christ has come, Christ is come, Christ will come again.” Therefore, we’re to be getting ready, preparing, watching and waiting for the coming. Get the house ready, the master is coming. Get the house ready Christ is coming. Get your life together, Christ is coming. Watch. Squint. Read more