A Cup of Change

 

February 25, 2021

It did my heart good to see so many of you at last week’s Ash Wednesday Drive Thru event. The entire day was full of holy moments that I hope stay with me for a long time.

When I impose ashes on people, I use the words that were spoken to me by a pastor on my first Ash Wednesday service: “During this season of Lent, do not forget who you are and whose you are. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Ash Wednesday is meant to remind us that God forms us by breathing into the dust of the earth and to dust we shall return one day.

As I made the sign of the cross on various people, I watched as their eyes filled with tears. Perhaps it was that we were all missing the simple love found in human touch (though I was using a Q-tip) or maybe it was the fact that in a year in which we know that half a million people in our country have died from a pandemic, we have no need to be reminded of our mortality.

When my own family came through the line, it was a strange and holy moment. Making the sign of the cross on my wife and children was equal parts beautiful and terrible. When my four-year-old daughter Charlotte moved her hair back from her forehead and I told my daughter that she is beloved and mortal, my throat tightened and I fought back my own tears.

But the moment that most stays with me was when I heard Amy Gallaher called down to me and asked me to bring some ashes up to where she was collecting the diapers and hot chocolate for our mission partners. I walked up to a sedan with three women inside. Amy explained to me, “Tyler, these are nurses who are on their way to administer the Covid vaccine for Forsyth County and they need to go now. They would really like to receive ashes.” I paused and the holiness of what was about to take place took my breath away. And then I went to these three women and I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads as a sign of life from death as they departed to give life to others.

Sisters and brothers of Ardmore Baptist Church, during this season of Lent: Do not forget who you are and whose you are. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Photography by Walt Unks, Winston-Salem Journal; February 17, 2021

 

February 18, 2021

I did not grow up practicing the season of Lent. The Southern Baptist Church of my childhood did not participate in the rhythms of the liturgical calendar. The only way I knew it was Lent was when I noticed long car lines at the local Catholic church for their Friday night Fish Fry. At my church, we did not prepare for Easter; it just seemed to spring out of nowhere each March or April.

In college I became involved in a campus ministry that offered a more contemplative approach to Christian faith. They offered worship opportunities during the weeks leading up to Easter and we were told that these would help prepare us for Easter. They also offered services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday (terms I had to learn!).

That first year, Lent felt foreign and strange. I kept hearing messages about suffering and pain. But as I leaned more and more into the rhythms of the season, I began to resonate more and more with all that I was experiencing. As strange as it may seem, focusing on the darkness of the road to the cross made the light of that Easter morning all the brighter.

The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister puts it well: “Lent, the liturgical year shows us, is about the holiness that suffering can bring. It is about bringing good where evil has been, about bringing love where hate has been. It is about the transformation of the base to the beautiful. It is about being willing to suffer for something worth suffering for, as Jesus did, without allowing ourselves to be destroyed by it.”1

My hope and prayer for all of us, sisters and brothers, is that we will experience this Lenten season with a newfound commitment to walk the road to the cross with Jesus. On Sunday mornings this season we are going to be focusing on the seven final statements made by Jesus Christ on the cross. We are also providing opportunities for daily devotion, as well as worship opportunities for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

May you prepare your heart to walk alongside Jesus to a hill called Calvary.

1 Joan Chittister. The Liturgical Year, The Ancient Practices Series. (Tyndale, 2009), 125.

February 11, 2021

When Valentine’s Day approaches, Jess and I usually try to find some night to go on a date. Sometimes we’ve gone to a fancier restaurant and other times, we’ve eaten Taco Bell in a parking lot before going to a bookstore together (one of our favorite activities!). We exchange cards with one another, I usually buy her some flowers, and she usually gives me some sort of unique chocolate. It doesn’t matter much to us what we are doing, so long as we are able to carve out some time to simply be together.

The most romantic book in the Bible is the Song of Songs (sometimes also referred to as the “Song of Solomon”). It’s a series of poetic exchanges between a man and woman who are lovers. They go into blushing detail about the depth of their love for one another (it is recommended reading from a pew Bible during especially boring sermons). Interestingly, Song of Songs is one of only two books in the Bible (the other being Esther) where God is never mentioned. That may lead some of us to wonder, “What exactly is this doing in my Bible, then?”

The verbs in the Song of Songs are written in active-subject tense (as opposed to the passive-subject tense). In other words, these two lovers are the ones making the choice to love one another. At one point the woman says: My beloved is mine and I am his (Song of Songs 2:16). They are each making the conscious choice to intentionally enter into caring for and loving one another. Maybe that is where God can be found in this book. In their choosing to love each other each and every day.

In her commentary on the Song of Songs, the biblical theologian Ellen Davis puts it this way: “Genuine love does not just happen to us. The woman’s repeated phrase – ‘the one whom my soul loves’ – alerts us to the truth: love is soul-work, of the most demanding kind. Cultivating a true love relationship, with a person or with God, calls forth sustained effort from the core of our being. Therefore, the soul must be prepared, even trained, to love well, just as the body must be trained for rigorous physical action. Romantic love, like the love of God, requires that we learn habits of self-examination and repentance, that we acquire a capacity for self-sacrifice and forgiveness.”1

This Valentine’s Day, whether we are focused on the romantic love of a spouse, the platonic love of a friend, the life-giving love within our families, the affirming love of self, or the divine love of God, may we all be willing to do the work necessary to actively choose to love well.

In other words, let us remember that love is not just a noun; it is a verb.

1 Ellen F. Davis. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion. (WJK Press, 2000), 259.

 

February 4, 2021

Many of my friends who were born, raised, and continue to live in Kansas City have had their hearts broken year after year. The Kansas City Chiefs had not won a Super Bowl for fifty years. All of that changed last year. And now, the Chiefs are headed for their second consecutive year in the Super Bowl.

Much of the team’s success is attributed to a partnership between Coach Andy Reid (nicknamed “Big Red”) and the quarterback, 25-year-old Patrick Mahomes. Raised in Tyler, Texas, Mahomes took to sports early (his father, Pat Mahomes, was a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins). Surely growing up in such an athletic household helped to hone his later skills and abilities.

But Mahomes carries more than just natural talent with him onto the field; he also brings with him something even more fundamental: faith. In a recent interview, Mahomes said, “Obviously I want to win every game, but I’m glorifying God every single time I’m out there.” For Mahomes, playing football is an opportunity to use his God-given talents and abilities to bring glory to God. He further said, “As long as I’m doing everything the right way and the way that He would want me to do it, then I can walk off the field with my head held high and be able to be the man that I am.”

Brother Lawrence was a French, Carmelite friar who lived in the 17th century. When he arrived at his abbey, he was at first offended that he was asked to perform such menial tasks as cleaning chamber pots, scrubbing floors, and peeling potatoes. However, eventually, he began to see everything that he does as an opportunity to glorify God. He later said that he wanted to do his very best peeling potatoes as an act of worship. His teachings were later translated into a book called The Practice of the Presence of God.

Whether we are a monk, a pastor, a doctor, a custodian, a real estate agent, retired, a dentist, a teacher, a Super-Bowl-winning quarterback, or anything else we might imagine, we all have the opportunity to glorify God in all that we do. We all are called to practice the presence of God.

 

January 26, 2021

One of Jess’s and my favorite songs is “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. It’s actually the song that was playing when I proposed to her. The song speaks of a new day dawning as a sign of hope and reassurance.

For me, news of the Covid vaccine becoming more and more available and administered to people I know causes me to feel the warm light of a hopeful new day dawning in my soul. It gives me a sense that perhaps we are beginning the long exit out of this lonely winter and entering into something brand new.

The Bible speaks of God’s love and mercy like the warmth of a sunrise, bathing us in new possibilities:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-23)

Many of you know that a group of us have been journeying through a time of visioning for our congregation called Dawnings. Our Dawnings team is comprised of our Pastoral Staff and our Vision-Navigation Team at Ardmore Baptist Church. We began our time together with a retreat in late February 2020, led by Harry Rowland from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We had every intention of beginning to meet together weekly after that retreat to discern what God may be calling our church to do and who God may be calling our church to be.

However, less than three weeks after that retreat, the coronavirus pandemic swept across our land and put an end to in-person gatherings. After taking a few months waiting to see if the threat would wane, we made the decision to begin meeting via Zoom in the Fall. We asked Rick Jordan to serve as our Dawnings facilitator. Rick has led us every-other Thursday as we journeyed through the rhythms of visioning, forming, and engaging.

You’ll be hearing more from the Dawnings team in the following weeks, but I just wanted to express a word of gratitude for them. They are thoughtful, kind, and wise people who are truly seeking God’s will for our beloved community.

Spending time with them fills me with something that my soul desperately needs: hope.

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun do, do, do Here comes the sun And I say it’s all right

 

January 21, 2021

He was the strongest man I knew, yet now, I was hiding his car keys from him. For my entire life, my Grandpa Simmons had been a person of great strength, good humor, endless skills, and wise counsel. However, his mind had begun to deteriorate to the point where we could no longer tell whether he was fully cognizant of his surroundings or not.

My Grandma Simmons’ body was riddled with painful skin cancer. She was sleeping more and more of the day. Their wish was to spend their last days in their beautiful ranch style home (that Grandpa had built), yet it was becoming more and more clear that was not going to be able to happen.

I was spending the evening at my grandparents’ home on the night before my grandmother would be moving to a nursing home where she would spend her final days. My grandparents and I were sitting on their screened in back porch, my grandmother in her life chair recliner and my Grandpa and I were next to her on their porch swing (that Grandpa had built).

My Grandpa suddenly turned to my Grandma and began frantically speaking to her. He held her hand and said, “Mother, I just want you to know that you did such a good job. I am sorry that I could not have been a better son. You loved us kids so much and you overcame so much in your life. Thank you for being my mother.”

My first reaction was to turn to my Grandpa and correct him. I wanted to say, “Grandpa, this is not your mother. This is your wife.” As I started to speak to him, my Grandma whispered to me, “It’s okay. He needs to say this. He never got to say goodbye to his mother.” I sat back and watched as my Grandma pastorally and patiently received the words my Grandpa desperately needed to say.

It is hard to know how to care for those we love who suffer from dementia. In her book On Vanishing: Mortality, Dementia, and What It Means to Disappear, Rev. Lynn Casteel Harper has helped me to understand how to have more compassion, solidarity, and empathy for persons who have dementia and for the often-overlooked loved ones at their sides. She uses her own family’s story, scriptural narratives, and her experience as a retirement center chaplain as she weaves a book that is both haunting and beautiful.

On Monday, January 25 at 7:00 PM, I will be speaking to Lynn about her book for our first Conversations that Matter. I hope you will be able to join us by registering on Realm here for the Zoom Webinar link or by watching on our church’s YouTube channel.

 

January 14, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I went hiking at Pilot Mountain State Park with Ryan Packett and Lorian Landreth. We drove up to the parking lot and set off on the Jomeokee Trail that encircles the pinnacle of Pilot Mountain.

The Saura tribe that originally dwelt in the Piedmont region named the mountain “Jomeokee” which in their language means “Great Guide.” The mountain summit served as a locating guidepost for early European Settlers, which is why they gave it the name “Pilot” as in the definition: “to act as a guide.”

In my own life, there have been seasons in which I have felt directionless and lost. And there are other seasons where it seems like the state of the world is so chaotic and choppy. We are surely living in such days. The pandemic continues to ravage people in our communities. And as we all watched harrowing footage of thugs and rioters ransacking the House and Senate chambers, I heard many on the news and online express a sense of confusion and lostness.

But for people of faith we know our jomeokee. We know our guide through uncharted waters. As the people of Israel were living in the midst of their own uncertain days, the prophet Isaiah reminded them: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21).

In my own spiritual life, worship has always served at an opportunity for me to look up and be reminded to always make Jesus Christ my guide. There are temptations to constantly make worldly prestige, social accolades, or political ideologies be what direct my path in life. Worship is the time when I am able to quiet the other voices whispering to my soul and to be reminded to walk the trail of the Gospel.

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