A Thought from Thomas Kelly

Most of us are reticent about speaking our deepest thoughts, or exposing our inner tenderness to public gaze. And much of this reticence is right. But there ought to be some times when, and there ought to be some people with whom, we open up our hearts on the deep things of the spirit. Normal religious development cannot take place in a vacuum occupied solely by you and God. We need friends of the soul. Fellowship is not an accidental addition to religion. It is the matrix within which we bear one another’s aspirations.

Do you have people with whom you feel it right to open your heart? If you have not, if you are stilted and stiff and embarrassed, and have no one to whom to confess, not your sins, but your joys, you are indeed an unfortunate soul. George Fox has a counsel which I prize very much: “Know one another in that which is eternal.” Churches ought to be places where men may know one another in that which is eternal. But in many a church the gulf between individuals on the deep things of God is an impassable gulf, and souls are starving and dying of inner loneliness. Would that we could break through our crust of stilted, conventional reserve, and make our churches centers of a living communion of the saints.

The last depths of conversation in the fellowship go beyond spoken words. People who know one another in God do not need to talk much. They know one another already. In the last depths of understanding, words cease and we sit in silence together, yet in perfect touch with one another, more bound into the common life by the silence than we
ever were by words.

from Reality of The Spiritual World

by Thomas R. Kelly

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Standing Out in the Crowd

Working in a concession stand in the cavernous underworld of Neyland Stadium, you meet some interesting people. He was wearing blue and white.  His shirt was blue and his hair was white. This was not his first football game.  The University of Kentucky insignia on his shirt made me wonder if he had lost his sense of direction.  Tennessee was getting ready to play Florida, and his Wildcats where 170-odd miles to the north, getting ready to play the Zips of Akron.  His explanation was that Kentucky was not playing an opponent worthy of his time and effort.  He wanted to see a more competitive game, so he came to Knoxville.

Still, he seemed just a little out of place.  I think he sensed that as well.  When I gave him the hot dog and Coca-Cola that he had ordered, he did not pick them up and return to his seat.  Rather, he moved down the counter a foot or two and started to unwrap his hot dog.  I thought he might just be checking to see if his packets of mustard, ketchup and relish were actually inside the wrapper, as I had told him they were. Instead, he turned his corner of the concession stand into a lunch counter, and proceeded to munch on his hot dog and drink his Coke.

His standing there to eat seemed a little strange to me, but then I realized he was most likely sitting in a section of the stadium that was full of Florida fans.  Perhaps that was the source of his reluctance to return to his seat.  Of course, he could well have been sitting next to Tennessee fans and that might not have been much better for someone wearing a University of Kentucky shirt.  Either way, I wondered if he felt a bit lonely and out of place.  He was the only person I saw wearing Kentucky blue.  Now, I doubt that he did feel lonely.  He obviously knew who he was and why he had come to this place.

Knowing who we are, and why we are where we are, is essential for followers of Christ if we are to be faithful to the call of Christ on our lives, while living in a world full of folks whose behavior and values sometimes, if not most of the time, cause us to stick out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.  The way of Christ calls us to humility, concern for the needs of others, honesty about our own shortcomings, and trust in God and God alone. The world in which we live places great value on glitz and celebrity, power and personal gain, winning at all cost, and trusting  in whomever or whatever will get us what we think we want.

When Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” He was not exaggerating. Our culture has a riptide effect that can sweep us along through life, conforming us to its norms and values without our ever giving a second thought to what we believe, why we believe what we believe, or the implications of that belief. When Jesus said, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” He was serious about making a distinction between the behavior and values of His followers and those who were not His followers. More importantly, He was concerned about making it clear to those who would follow Him that doing so would cost them the luxury of fitting snuggly and warmly into the world in which they lived.  Following Christ means intentionally entering into a process that forms us in the image of Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the others. Simply put, as followers of Christ we want to be spiritually formed by Christ and in Christ in order to transform the world, not to conform to it. Jesus does not send us out among wolves so that we will become wolves. So then there will be times if we are obedient to the call of Christ, that we will find ourselves sticking out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.

The Home Place

How does a place hold memories?  How does a house contain the lives of those who have long since stopped living in it?   I was vividly reminded last week of the power a place can have in our lives as I walked through the yard at my grandparents’ house.

Will, my youngest son, was a baby when Mamaw died.  He will be 16 in November.  I was a junior in high school when Papaw passed away. Yet, being there brought back so many memories.  Everywhere I looked there were reminders of moments and happenings.  They were surprisingly fresh after all these years.

The memories were of mostly ordinary activities.  I remembered how I used to watch Papaw cut the grass and wish that he would let me push the mower.  (What was I thinking?)  Then when he would let me mow, and I would miss spots, how he would fuss at me and tell me to be more careful next time.  I remembered sitting on the carport with him watching him whittle and trying to do it like he did it.  Mostly, I just remembered being with him and doing whatever it was he was doing, or watching him do whatever it was he was doing.  The memories of Mamaw were similar — picking vegetables from the garden, watching her cook, helping her break beans, and all the times she let me beat her at checkers.

Not all the memories were of Mamaw and Papaw.  There were memories of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and the yard that seemed so incredibly large when I was a boy.  The side yard more specifically could be Yankee Stadium and Shields-Watkins Field all in the same afternoon.  I could almost hear the laughter and cheering even still.

I left the home place with a deep sense of gratitude for the memories that it held for me, and for the visit that had brought so many of those memories back to life, if but for a brief time.  What a gift to have known the people who had lived in that place.

Places have their time.  Children grow up and move away.  Loved ones go to be with the Lord.  The place is still in the same location and it is still special; but it is not the same as it was when the people who lived there were doing the ordinary activities that made it such a special place.  Those children who grew up have gone to other places where they now do those ordinary activities that make up so much of life; and in so doing, they are creating new special places for a new generation.  Like an empty canvas, the places where we live patiently collect the brushstrokes of our lives — the dark tragedies, the bright milestones, and the various shades in between.  They hold the stories of lives in such a way that only we can see what happened there and what it meant to us when it happened.

Places in and of themselves are not special.  What makes them special is what happens there, the lives that get lived, and the love that gets shared.  The stories that unfold and the dreams that are born make a place special.  The people that inhabit those stories and fuel those dreams are what make a place special.

So it is with the places where we are now living.  May our living do something in those places that causes them to be places that remind us of being loved, of dreaming dreams and of sharing our lives with one another.

Not Funeral Food, But Still Good.

Some years ago Kate Campbell graced our sanctuary with her thoughtful lyrics and soulful voice. One of the songs she sang that evening was entitled “Funeral Food.”

Aunt Fidelia brought the rolls
With her green bean casserole
The widow Smith down the street
Dropped by a bowl of butter beans
Plastic cups and silverware
Lime green Tupperware everywhere
Pass the chicken, pass the pie
We sure eat good when someone dies

Funeral food
It’s so good for the soul
Funeral food
Fills you up down to your toes
Funeral food

It is a song that describes the pastoral mystery of food in the face of death, and the sacred necessity that is breaking bread with friends and family in the midst of grief.  In such times, sadness and loss are hanging thick in the air. Words do not come easily, and sometimes there just isn’t anything to be said; but people always need to eat. So the casserole and the fried chicken become icons of God’s love. The food speaks, expressing the love and concern of God’s people, and the never-ending assurance of God’s presence.

Thankfully, I have not been to a funeral this week, but I did go to a surgery last week. My wife, Patti, had surgery on both of her feet last Wednesday. One of you has brought food to the house every day since then.  There has been fried chicken, steak and gravy, meat loaf, salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, baked beans and rib-eyes for grilling on Mother’s Day. Your kindness has been humbling, your thoughtfulness expansive, and your generosity overwhelming.

These meals have been most helpful during this time. They have made our days more manageable, they have nourished our bodies, and they have delightfully satisfied our hunger. Yet, I have tasted something more in your demonstrations of compassion.  I have tasted bread and juice as if we were in the sanctuary together at the Lord’s table.  Your gifts of food have been a real and tangible experience of God’s grace for me.  You have been the presence of Christ to me and my family even as you have brought Christ’s presence to us.

We live in challenging times, and you know that I am not just saying that in some general sort of way. There are personal trials and challenges in my life, and in yours, still to be faced.  Even so, I am more hopeful today as a result of your vivid reminder of the reality of the resurrection. You are the body of Christ sent into the world to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced again of that truth. Your testimony of concern and care have deepened my faith, strengthened my spirit, and touched my soul. Thank you for your faithfulness to the life and words of the One who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

A Prostate Prayer

Not so many years ago I turned forty.  The whole thing was more or less anticlimactic. There were not many noticeable changes in my life, at least not many that I noticed.  One change that I did reluctantly make was to find a doctor so that I could have one to see for regular checkups and such.

I made this change reluctantly for two reasons.  First, I hate needles.  I always have. While I was well aware of advances in medical technology, I suspected that on some occasions needles would still be used.  I was right; they are.

My second reason for being reluctant was the pattern that I had observed among the members of the churches that I served — that being that once people start going to the doctor they always seem to need to go back to the doctor, or to go to another doctor and then go back to the first doctor, so that it seems that there is always a visit to the doctor looming in their future.  Turns out I was right again.

I have several friends, and more acquaintances, that have completed degrees in ministry and theology.  Discussing theology with them is something that I enjoy. My newest and best friend is Dr. Chris Ramsey.  His degree is not in theology.  His degree is in urology.  He is a great guy, though our conversations are not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as those that I have with other friends.  Yet he has pastoral sense about him.  I felt his gentleness and his concern when he told me that my prostate is cancerous.  He is thoughtful as well.  Yesterday he promised to see me regularly until he retires.  You see what I mean?  That was exactly why I was reluctant to go the doctor in the first place.  Once you start, they always find a reason for you to come back for another visit.

So now I am thankful.  I am thankful that there is something that can be done.  In fact, I have options.  I have to make a choice about which treatment I want.  How different that is from being in a situation where there are no options, no treatment, nothing that can be done.

I am thankful for all the people I have known who have faced disease, sickness and surgery and live to tell the tale.  I am especially grateful for those men that I know who have had prostate cancer and continue to live life to its fullest.  There have been many occasions in my life when I sought to give comfort to those who were facing medical challenges.  Little did I realize that they were teaching me and preparing me to face my own challenges.

I am thankful for Patti, Josh and Will for who they are to me and what they mean to me. While my condition is a long way from being life threatening, nonetheless it does give me pause to consider those people who are most important to me.  In a similar way, I think of others in my family who mean much to me.  Likewise, I am blessed with dear friends who freely share their love with me and lift prayers for me.

I am also thankful for church people.  Even before I told you about my condition, I was already drawing strength from you.  You are a gift.  You bring the presence of Christ to whomever you meet, even me.  Thank you.

I am also a little scared.  I still do not like needles, nor am I sure how I feel about a robot being turned loose inside of me.  If I knew more, I would most likely be more afraid.  But I do know that God is with me and that God will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you again for your thoughts and prayers.

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Pigs don’t ask questions

I am not sure what it was about hearing that scientists had mapped the genome of a domestic pig that so captured my attention.  Perhaps it was all the other stuff that I would have thought needed to be done before we got around to a genetic map of pig DNA. Once again I was not consulted, go figure.

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Lawrence Schook is a University of Illinois professor of biomedical science and the leader of the research team that mapped the pig genome.  When asked, he said that the biggest surprise that resulted from the project was the similarity in sequence and structure between the pig’s DNA and that of human DNA.  As I look at the clutter on my desk, I am thinking that Dr. Schook should not be surprised.

The truth of the matter is that I already knew there were similarities between humans and pigs, positive similarities.  I had a young man in my first youth group out of seminary who had a heart defect.  The surgeons at Duke went in and replaced his bad valve with — you guessed it — a valve that they took from a pig.  At the time, I had never heard of such a  thing, but it worked out quite well for that young man.  After recovering from his surgery, he led our church youth league basketball team in points, steals and heart.  You probably always thought that the best thing that could come from a pig was bacon; now you know that there is more to a pig than you might have thought.

It may seem obvious, but if we share genetic similarities with pigs, how much more similar are we to other human beings.  Granted there are different kinds of people in the world.  To be honest, some of those differences are more than I can understand or be comfortable with at times.  Yet, I have to believe that a father in China wants what I want for my children — good health, meaningful work and a happy life.

Why are there so many religions in the world?  I believe that there are so many because we as human beings have a desire inside of us to be connected with something larger than ourselves.  A Buddhist in Taiwan, a Muslim in Detroit, and a Presbyterian in Knoxville all seek to find meaning that is greater than their day-to-day experience of life.  What holds it all together?  What gives meaning to life?  Some would suggest that the work of scientists like Dr. Schook lessen the need for these kinds of questions; that somehow the answers to life most pressing question are to be found by looking at a test tube or through a microscope.

While I marvel at the information and knowledge that continues to emerge from laboratories around the world, I do not feel any less of a need to know God and to be known by God.  The pressing questions of life do not reside in a laboratory or a classroom, though there is much good to be learned and discovered in both places.  The questions that each of us must find answers to reside in that thin place between ourselves and the holy.  Who am I?  Who am I to be in this world?  What am I to do?  What should my neighbor expect of me?  What does God expect of me?

I am pretty sure that pigs don’t ask these sorts of questions and so they miss the joy of discovering meaning and joy in living life.  Likewise, when we don’t ask these sorts of questions, we too miss the meaning and joy that God intended to be ours.