Christ Is Risen!

May 2017

Column for May, 2017

Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Each year, we greet each other enthusiastically with that traditional reminder of Easter.  We begin in our worship for the Great Festival of Easter on Easter Sunday.  This year, it was during the children’s time that I taught the call-and-response.  When I said the first phrase, “Christ is risen!” many of the children just looked at me blankly.  I was heartened, though, when I heard many of you in the congregation respond enthusiastically, “Christ is risen, indeed!”  I said it again at the end of the sermon, and by the end of the service, when I said it as part of the benediction, everyone in the room seemed to get it.


The greeting is traditional in Eastern Orthodox churches.  Often in those traditions, it is spoken in Greek; you can see it in the Greek letters above, although I couldn’t figure out how to get the right accent marks to work on my computer.  It is called the Paschal greeting; the word “Paschal” just means “Easter.”  There is even an article on Wikipedia which lists how it is printed (and, if you can pronounce the letters, how it is spoken!) in scores of other languages.  That article notes that in Russian traditions, you follow the Paschal greeting with three kisses on alternating cheeks.  We Presbyterians don’t tend to be that familiar with each other, so we don’t usually practice that part of the tradition.


The greeting is not just exchanged for the one day, though, because Easter lasts for an entire season.  The season of Easter will carry us all the way through May this year.  It goes for a total of seven weeks, beginning with Easter Sunday and ending the week before Pentecost.  I usually try to integrate the Paschal greeting into the Call to Worship, the sermon, or some other part of the service throughout the whole season.  I will be honest:  it gets a little tough by the end of the season.  By then, it feels like we are so far away from Easter Sunday that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  The fact is that the whole rest of the world has moved on.  By the end of May, the stores have long ago put away their chocolate bunnies, pastel baskets, and those Cadbury eggs filled with gooey, rich, sugary filling that is supposed to look like the egg yolks and whites.  They have replaced Easter with the beach-themed decorations for summer, or even their red, white, and blue tchotchkes out for the Fourth of July.  But not the church.  In the church, the good news of Easter is at the center of our faith, so we keep the white and gold cloths on the pulpit and communion table through the whole season.  It is the best news the world has ever heard, so we take our time with it:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!


This year, I am going to make an effort to keep the Paschal greeting in worship all the way through the seven Sundays of Easter, no matter how far it seems like we are stretching the season.  I will do that because we have some wonderful celebrations coming up to help us understand the meaning of Easter for our lives.  May will be a full month in our worship life!  You will see more information about what is going on in the rest of this newsletter, but a couple of highlights:

  • Sunday, May 7, we will have our Graduation Sunday, the Church Picnic, and Communion
  • Sunday, May 14, we will recognize all of the women who provide, protect, nurture, and otherwise “mother” in our church, whether they have children or not
  • Sunday, May 21, we will have a special presentation from Thornwell about Building Families
  • Sunday, May 28, we will celebrate Ascension Sunday (if you don’t know what that is, see Acts 1:1-11)

All of these special days will help us understand the meaning of that phrase:  Christ is risen!  They will help us to celebrate and feel festive.  They will help us to know what it means to be a part of the community of people who come together around our faith in Christ’s resurrection.  They will help us to perceive God’s call to us, too, to love and to serve our neighbors with the same love God has shown us.


I hope you will join us for all of these special celebrations!  And mostly, I hope you will join us in celebrating the best news the world has ever heard:  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!

The First Fire

April 2017

Column for April, 2017

Last year about this time, we started cleaning out the office.  We had papers and files which were important to keep at one time, but which had piled up over the years.  We found offering counting tallies from the mid-1980s.  We found letters from brides requesting the use of the sanctuary for their weddings who now have children graduating from college.  We found extra copies of minutes, bulletins, and newsletters reporting events and incidents long since forgotten.  There was a lot of paper, and while we knew we had to keep the really important stuff, much of it needed to be removed from the office.


We recycled most of the everyday stuff, but some of the papers needed to be shredded, just to make sure we were not spreading any information around that people would not want spread.  About the same time, we were celebrating Easter.  And so, I had an idea.


One of the ancient traditions of the church is to kindle a new fire at the first service of the Great Festival of Easter.  The new fire is symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection.  At the end of the Maundy Thursday service, the Christ candle, which represents the light of Christ in the world, exits the darkened sanctuary last.  On Good Friday, there is no candle in the sanctuary.  These moves communicate the painful truth of those days:  when Jesus died on the cross, it is as if the Light of the World had left the world.


But on Easter, everything begins fresh again.  The tomb was empty.  The angels declared, “he is not here; he is risen!”  Jesus was raised to a new kind of life: an abundant and eternal life-after-death.  And so we kindle a new fire, and from that fire, we light the Christ candle anew and carry it back into the sanctuary to illuminate our highest celebration of the year.  Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!


When I was preparing for our first service of Easter, which is our SonRise service in our cemetery on Easter morning at 8 a.m., I thought, “What would make better fuel to start a new fire than 30-year-old papers which need to be destroyed anyway?”  So that is what I used.  I was a bit nervous.  The morning was a bit damp from rain the night before.  I found some dry kindling under the eaves of the buildings, but still:  what if the fire refused to light?  If the “special effects” didn’t work, then we would not be able to complete the service as planned!  Whose silly idea was this?!?


Isn’t that the truth of Easter, though?  For those women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning, things certainly did not come off as planned.  They had everything prepared, but when they arrived at the tomb, there were some tense moments of worry and waiting.  Then, slowly, they uncovered the story, and they came to understand what happened.  Jesus’ body, which was 30 years old and lifeless, had been kindled into new life for himself and for the whole world!


The fire ignited by the 30-year-old offering tally sheets worked.  After we gathered on the walkway between the Education Building and the Sanctuary, I read a bit of scripture, we sang our opening chant, and then I stepped out into the drizzle to our makeshift fire pit with the lighter.  And by the grace of God, the papers lit well.  The fire started right on cue.  We read some more, we prayed some more, we sang some more as we processed, and the Alleluias of Easter rang again.


I hope you will join us as we reenact that drama in our worship once again this year.  The schedule for our Holy Week and Easter Sunday services is later in this newsletter.  Mark your calendars to join us for as many of those services as you can.  If you need a ride, call us in the church office and we will help you make arrangements.  Do whatever is necessary, because it is the greatest story we can tell and share and use to praise God together:  the Light of the World shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.


Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.

An Invitation

March 2017

Column for March, 2017

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,

to observe a holy Lent

by self-examination and penitence,

by prayer and fasting,

by works of love,

and by reading and meditating on the Word of God.”

Every year, we begin the church’s season of Lent when I offer you those words.  They are from our liturgy for Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent.  They lay out the theme of the season and the disciplines of the spirit to which believers have traditionally paid special attention during Lent.


On the one hand, any talk about Lent, with all of its traditions, darkness, and especially discipline, sounds like a drag.  At best, Lent seems a bit dour; at worst, it seems like a time when pious people seek to become more self-righteous.  Give up chocolate or coffee or meat or whatever else tastes and feels really good.  Spend time examining your sins.  Read more, study more, pray more, or do something else more.  And in the process, make up for all of the things you do wrong, and all the things you fail to do right, for the rest of the year.  It doesn’t sound like any fun.


Of course, Lent is not supposed to be dour, pious, and especially not self-righteous.  The word “Lent” comes from the old English word “lencten,” which simply means “spring.”  Lent at its best corresponds to the season of nature we are in now (and, inexplicably, we seem to have been in since our one and only freeze in January!).  Think about this season a bit:  there is more light, as the days get longer.  The air is warmer, though without that stifling humidity which makes us all want to slow down and take it easy during the summer.  The trees bud out; the flowers come up, and life unfurls again.  This season is a part of the annual pattern, but every time it comes around, it feels like a new gift again.


And that is what Lent is.  It is a time of darkness which gradually dawns to light.  It is a time of building warmth, but the kind of warmth that gives us energy to do new work, not the kind which stifles us and makes us lazy.  It is a time for growth, when new life emerges and our lives unfurl to become more open, more receptive, more vigorous, and more ready to broadcast beauty.


Throughout the rest of this newsletter, I hope you will see some ways you can observe a holy Lent at White Bluff Presbyterian Church.  There are opportunities for us to learn something about ourselves and our neighbors; we hope you will join us for the Evening with Robert Lupton on March 30.  There are opportunities for fasting and giving alms through our Lent Food Drive.  There are chances for us to contemplate works of love, especially as we continue to develop our Building Families program.  There are opportunities for us to pray, lifting up our sisters and brothers on the prayer list and giving thanks to God for the many ways that all of us work to build up the church and community.  And there are chances for us to read and meditate on the Word, through the studies of the Presbyterian Women’s circles and through the work of the Sunday School.


I hope you will hear these words of invitation again to join together in the light, the warmth, and the growth which are the gifts of Lent:

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ,

to observe a holy Lent…

Let us bow before God our Creator and Redeemer.”


Loving Our Neighbors

January 2017

Column for January, 2017

On the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, I was shocked and saddened to see a report on the local news.  Someone sent a hateful letter to the Islamic Center of Savannah, laced with insults to Muslims and threatening, “your day of reckoning has arrived.”  The letter writer claimed that the President-elect would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”


Unfortunately, such threatening letters against Muslims and other minority groups in our country are not new.  Many news sources have reported that threats have increased in recent weeks.  However, I like to think that such things would not happen in our own community.  Don’t we have decent people living here who would not single out anyone just because of their religious identity, their ethnic background, their race, or some other trait?  Aren’t we kinder than that, or smarter than that, here in Savannah?


After seeing the report, I heard that some people were going to take flowers and notes of support to the Islamic Center later that morning.  I quickly wrote a letter to the Islamic Center. In the letter, I said that I valued the commitment to peace which the Muslim and Christian religions share.  I emphasized that the Islamic Center is an important part of this community, and I said that any assault on them is an assault on all of us.  I promised to pray for our Muslim neighbors and to ask our congregation to pray for them, too.  Based on conversations about similar incidents with the Session just one year ago, I did not hesitate to print the letter on church stationery and put it in a church envelope.


I drove to the Islamic Center on Dutchtown Road and met a handful of other people.  No one from the Muslim community was there, so we attached our supportive letters and flowers to the front gate.  A few hours later, when I returned to the office after lunch, I retrieved a message from the church voice mail from a reporter from another local news station.  The reporter had seen our church stationery among the notes of support and wondered if I would be willing to be interviewed about why I left the letter.  The reporter interviewed me in our sanctuary, standing in front of the Chrismon tree, and gave me a chance to talk about my disappointment about the threatening letter and my expression of support.  I told the reporter that the real reason I wrote the letter is simple:  I take my commitment to my faith in Jesus seriously, and Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors.  The final story broadcast on the news did not include that part of the interview, but the message came across nonetheless.


I felt good:  our Muslim neighbors heard loud and clear that they are just as important in our community as anyone else.  I believed that I had acted as Jesus wanted me to.  The church got a little free publicity in the process.  Love had overwhelmed hate, and I could feel good about living in our community again.


Unfortunately, though, that was not the end of the story.  The next day, I checked the church e-mail, and there was a message from someone I don’t know but who clearly lives in Savannah.  In it, the writer said that Muslims are not welcome in our community or our nation, and he was offended that I would say otherwise.


I was discouraged all over again.  The e-mail reminded me that there are, in fact, people in our own community who will say and do hateful things to our neighbors.  There are people who live on our own streets who are so filled with fear that they cannot see our common humanity with other people.  There are people here in Savannah who think that the Christian religion teaches them to exclude others and to hate others.


The whole incident reminded me that, as people who are called by Christ to love our neighbors and to reach out especially to those who are most vulnerable, we have work to do.  Our work is to strengthen our own understanding of and commitment to Christ’s consistent and clear command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Our work is to teach each other and our fellow Christians about what it means to follow that command in our modern world.  And our work is to speak out again and again against any power of fear and hatred which threatens our neighbors.


So, please, I am asking you to join me in praying for our Muslim neighbors, and for all of our neighbors, and to listen to God speaking about how else we can show love in this time and place.

About to Turn

December 2016

Column for December, 2016

One of my very favorite new hymns is called “Canticle of the Turning.”  I first encountered it about 12 years ago in a resource of music for youth ministry.  The words were written in 1990 by a Roman Catholic hymn and liturgy writer from Illinois, Rory Cooney.  The melody is a traditional Irish ballad called “Star of the County Down.”  It is hymn number 100 in the new Presbyterian hymnal, released in 2013, which our choir uses for some of our music.  We will sing the refrain from the song at the end of our service each week in Advent (those words are in the box on this page), and we will sing the entire hymn in worship on December 11.

“My heart shall sing of the day you bring.

Let the first of your justice burn.

Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,

and the world is about to turn.”

– Rory Cooney, “Canticle of the Turning”

Rory Cooney’s words are simply a setting of the Magnificat, which is Mary’s song which she sang when she visited her older cousin, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, when she was pregnant with Jesus.  That story and song are in Luke 1:39-56.  Cooney’s lyrics offer praise to God.  They look to the present, when God brings a whole new order to the world, using a humble peasant girl as the means by which God is born into the world.  The words also look to the future, when God will upend the way things are to make them the way God wants them to be. “Not a stone will be left on stone;” “The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn;” “Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.”  These are all visions not only of pleasant new life for each of us as individuals, but also for a whole new order for all of society, characterized by equality, abundance, and grace.  These visions come straight out of Mary’s song in scripture, they are repeated throughout the Gospels, and they encapsulate some of the central aspects of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and promised return.


The season of Advent also balances this view of the present with the view of the future.  Advent is our time to remember Christ’s promises that he will come again in the fullness of time to finally, fully re-make the world.  There are glimmers of that promise in the present in all of the ways that the world moves toward being more just, showing more mercy, and lifting up whatever is humble.  But the final fulfillment of Christ’s promises are still in the future.  During Advent, we remember that we are waiting, hoping, and watching for that final fulfillment.


Hoping, waiting, and watching are all skills I need to practice.  There is so much bad news in the world, and it doesn’t seem like things are going to get any better.  I am easily swept up in the world’s desire for immediate gratification; order now, and everything you have ever wanted will be delivered to your doorstep.  And while I am discouraged and impatient, I would rather just sit back on my couch and let things happen rather than engage, bear witness, and act to help others know they are safe and loved.


This season, encompassing the four Sundays before Christmas, I pray that you will join us to practice hoping, waiting, and watching.  We will gather for festivities.  We will hear and sing good music.  We will share some cheer.  But we will also talk about the promises of Jesus Christ to turn the world around.  And those promises are a gift because hope contradicts the bad news, and waiting is a salve for desire, and watching is an alternative to apathy.