Gardening has much to teach us. Angry? Try jumping on a shovel.

My family gardened with me today and we had a blast. Over the last two years, I have spent many days in our front yard trying to get it into good shape. And it’s a beautiful front yard (IMHO). I love the work. Gardening gives me an escape, a way to process my emotions, dig out my frustrations and ultimately have something to show for it. There’s nothing like jumping on a shovel when you’re mad at someone! (It’s more constructive than getting in a social media thread war). And there’s nothing divisive or political about a garden. It just something beautiful people can enjoy and you feel good about it. The rest of family, however, is not so passionate about it. I was thrilled they got in the dirt with me today.

In fact, it was the last part of their Father’s Day gift to me. On Father’s Day, they gave me new tools. The kicker was they also told me they would devote a whole day to gardening with me. And they did. We took to the back yard. It had started to get away from us. Blair and our two girls tilled roots. I dug out an old spiky knock out rose bush (not a fan of knock-out roses!). Tilling and digging will wear you down. After a two hours, I could feel the dehydration.

If there was one word that sticks out to me about today, it’s the word ‘cultivate.’ Cultivating soil for a garden is real work. You have to dig up those old stubborn roots from plants no longer blossoming and taking up resources and space. You have to mix in compost to replenish the nutrient-deprived soil. We used our own compost from old bananas, coffee grounds and egg shells. It was absolutely disgusting which means it was perfect. (As an aside, my brother-in-law thinks I’m becoming a little too I.T.P. with composting).

For ministers, there’s a lesson in there about ministry. Many times, we allow ministries that are no longer blossoming to consume all the time and energy, nutrients and resources. Sometimes, you got to say thank you to those ministries. Then get in there and start tilling the roots, dig up some dead plants, mix in some smelly compost and plant something new.  ‘Cultivate’ sounds like such a happy, blossoming word, but in reality it’s a smelly, sweaty word. I’m sure that’s the reason new church starts are called “church plants.” Ask a church planter. It sounds glorious until you realize the exhausting work of cultivating a new church.

It’s interesting to me that the first task of Adam and Eve was to tend a garden. That was real work. God asked them to spend their days shaping wild land overgrown with weeds (were there weeds in Eden?) and thorns that prick through gloves. I have a new deep respect for farmers!

I’m a hobbyist at best, but the work is always worth it. Cultivation leads to flourishing. Today, I was certainly happy to have a partner to help me. Blair and our two girls worked for 4 hours today in the dirt. I’m sure Blair would have loved to have watched Hamilton for the third time. Gardening is a lot like painting a room. Seventy percent of the work is preparing. After a quick run to Home Depot, we planted lantana, coneflowers, a hydrangea and begonias. We took a moment to admire the work. It was a good day. We have done the human, earthy part of cultivating and planting. Now we get to watch God do something beautiful.

 

 

Life in Atlanta today

We are finishing up week 12 in the pandemic life. Our family is heading out tomorrow for vacation to St. Augustine. We’ve rented a condo on the beach. We like St. Augustine because it’s not as crowded as other beaches.

Blair and our two girls were dropping off our dog at my brother-in-law’s home. I went for a run and took the longer route where Monroe and Piedmont Park come together at the Beltline. I was about to take a left to make the triangle to Virginia-Highlands. Along the way, however, I heard helicopters. I knew why they were there. Atlanta is under a 9 o’clock curfew. And I knew that Piedmont Park tends to be the gathering space for marches in the midtown area over the killing of George Floyd. I wanted to see what was going on.

Sure enough, there were national guard soldiers lined up along the street standing next to their jeeps. These soldiers were young and I could see my college-age self in them. I saw one group of protesters with their “F—Trump” sign and others that said, “Latinos for Black Lives Matter.” There was a car with “I can’t breathe” written in white shoe polish on the windows.

I was on a run and without a phone or else I would have recorded the sight. Obviously, we’re in a tumultuous time. I was trying to get a good run in before the vacation so I could sweat out the business of the day and take a shower when I got home. But the helicopter was a jarring sound. I know I need vacation. Trying to produce sermons and worship virtually each week for the last 3 months has been taxing on the spirit. I love it, but it’s time for a change of scenery. And yet, I couldn’t help but think about the contrast of my need for vacation and the deep hurts of the people in our country.

I live in a community of mostly white residents. It’s a beautiful place and the people are friendly, but I am no doubt sheltered from the hurts of the black community these days. In some ways I always have been. Although, growing up in Jackson, Georgia I shared the days with many more black friends than today. School and sports helped bring us together and I’m forever grateful for those experiences. But still,  I live only a couple of miles away from one of the hubs of this movement happening in our country. And I live only a couple of miles away from the MLK center where one man’s life and witness changed the entire world.

I don’t know what to do with this flood of emotions. I’m not sure if it’s guilt, or whether my heart was punctured and felt the hurt of the black community and the rise of something new. After asking two young women about any upcoming rallies, they simply said, “You just missed it. They headed out 20 minutes ago, but you can still catch up with them.”

Blair and the girls would be home soon and it was time to pack for vacation so I told these young ladies I would try to catch the next one. I walked and jogged and walked and jogged up Virginia Avenue to Highlands and made my way home. The march is probably over anyway and the curfew is about to go into effect. As I walk in the front door, I still hear the helicopter hover above and see my children return in their innocence, excited about the beach. I suddenly feel heart my jump back into gear and throb with the thoughts of sand and water.

 

Lost in COVID-19? You will be found.

It’s been a while since I posted. When we started this COVID-19 journey, I thought there would be more free time for blogging. It turns out, there was less. Between homeschooling, attempting to work and doing the dishes, there’s little time for much else.

I want this post to reach whoever might be suffering with mental health through all of this. People are on edge. It’s easy to get lost and lose your way, lose your purpose. We began the COVID-19 crisis in a spirit of unity as we all tried to do our part to keep people safe. After weeks of this, we’re starting to unravel. We feel the pressures of work, parenting and increasingly more, politics. I want to encourage everyone to take care of their own mental. Whether you’re a divorced dad, hurting doctor, pressured governmental leader, vulnerable grocery store worker, working parent, business owner trying to ensure the safety of your employees while keeping your business alive, you matter. The pressures are real.

I don’t want people to lose their way. Over the last few weeks, I have come around to this musical Dear Evan Hansen. My wife Blair tried to introduce it to me a couple of years ago. I’m thankful to be married to a Broadway nerd (her words, not mine) to keep me in touch with pop culture. I was especially struck by the song, “Waving through a Window” that captures the loneliness going unnoticed. Check out this rendition of the song. It’s not from the original cast, but I found it to be moving.

It takes me back to some of the dreadful middle school years of trying to fit in. And I’m not ready to think about my daughters finding themselves on the outside looking in. Maybe you feel misunderstood or feel like no one is noticing you and what this crisis has done in your unique circumstances. The reality is that depression and mental health are real issues. Mental health is not a political issue. It’s a human one. You can get help. You can find your way back. And if you need mental health resources, call a pastor. Talk to a counselor. Reach out to a friend. Here’s the website to suicide prevention hotline https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

I’m a pastor, so please know I will pray for you. In our holy scriptures, there’s a story of a shepherd who loses one out of a hundred sheep. He goes on a rescue mission (Luke 15) until he finds that lost sheep. If you’re lost, the God I love and serve, goes on rescue missions. To quote a song from Dear Evan Hansen, “You will be found.” It’s true.

 

What schedule?

We are in week two of homeschooling due to COVID-19. During week one, we began with this highly organized schedule and routine.

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We did a decent job for the first week. On Monday, Blair and I had to recalculate. We both had virtual meetings. As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on American life, we had some important meetings. In fact, I had preached two sermons yesterday that were filmed and to be aired for March 29th and April 5th. We knew it would probably be our last opportunity to film. And we were right. The mayor called for a “shelter in place” last night.

I’ll confess. Yesterday, we (by we, I mean Blair) made time for the kid’s school work, but also let Apple TV do some parenting. Katie and Bethany have gotten into the Star Wars and they are watching each episode. I’m quite proud, but Blair is frustrated they are watching them out of order.

In the midst of this, I’m trying to keep my spiritual life strong. I’m currently reading Adam Hamilton’s, “The Walk” and reading through Luke’s gospel for devotions. We have a small group that meets virtually on Tuesday mornings. I’m trying my best to keep up with the news without being consumed. It makes for a challenge.

If any of you are feeling overwhelmed, you’re in good company. We’ll make it through this. One of my favorite scriptures that has helped me throughout hard parts of my life is, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This verse is like a good, trusted friend.

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This picture is from last night’s attempt to find balance! We’re doing our best.

To those with questions about Jesus.

Not long ago, I was speaking to a friend who said to me, “I love going to church. It’s good for me to hear about how to live morally. I’m glad my children can learn these teachings about loving your neighbor and stuff. But that’s about as far as I can go.” 

I asked, “What do you mean?” 

He said, “Jesus. I think he was one of the greatest teachers ever to live. I try to learn from his teachings. But it’s hard to believe he was the Son of God. I admire people who can believe that. It’s just hard for me. I have questions about it.” 

In previous years of my ministry, I may have backed away or changed the subject and said something like, “Yes, it’s a big claim. I’m glad your kids are enjoying church.” 

But the truth is many people struggle with this question. As Christians, it can be hard to address peoples’ doubts about our most cherished belief because we’ve staked our life on it. We can become defensive or seek to avoid the hard questions altogether. 

I used to have a little joke I’d tell in gatherings.

“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t believe in organized religion.’ And I always tell them, ‘then you’ll love our church. We’re not organized at all.’”

Not only was it a cheap laugh, it was a way to deflect the reality that many people feel like the church isn’t big enough for their questions. 

What I love about Jesus is that he could handle the hard questions. Such was the case when Jesus met with a man named Nicodemus in chapter 3:1-17 of John’s gospel. Nicodemus was a religious man, a Pharisee in fact. He understood the ins and outs of the Jewish law. He had the answers, until Jesus’ claim came along. He came to Jesus at night to learn more from him about his claim to be the savior of the world. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he’s not going to be able to understand unless he’s been born again. 

Nicodemus can’t quite get there. Taking Jesus’ statement about rebirth literally, he questions how a person can be born again. Nicodemus’ question sets the stage for Jesus to deliver John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” You would think you’d then read about Nicodemus falling to his knees and shouting out for the world to hear, “I believe.” But we don’t. Nicodemus slips back into the recesses of the night. Even though  he was talking to the light of the world, Nicodemus remained in the dark when it came to spiritual rebirth. 

We hear from Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel. The next time we hear from him, the Pharisees are strategizing about a way to kill Jesus because of his claim that he’s the Son of God (it trips a lot of people up). As one well versed in the law, Nicodemus advocates for Jesus by reminding the other Pharisees that the law permits everyone to have a fair trial. He hasn’t been able to get Jesus off his mind. Then Nicodemus goes silent again, fading into the background.

The final time we hear of Nicodemus is after the crucifixion. No longer hiding, Nicodemus is lugging around a hundred pounds worth of spices to anoint Jesus’ body. John’s a good writer because he tells us that Nicodemus acts in the day, out in the open. No longer in the dark, he has seen the light. Something has come over Nicodemus. He’s moved from questioner to advocate to believer. As he made his way to the tomb, he would discover for himself that Jesus is alive.

God knows we need Nicodemus. There are lot of people today like Nicodemus who are set in their ways about what they believe. And yet, for some reason, Jesus keeps tugging at their hearts to keep asking these questions. One of the many miracles about John 3 is the way Jesus invites this dialogue. He doesn’t shut down Nicodemus or scold him. He invites his questions. I’m thankful Nicodemus doesn’t come to faith in that moment because he might have shut out a lot of future believers.

To all of you like Nicodemus out there, keep asking your questions. We religious leaders need not get defensive over Jesus. Jesus loves a good dialogue and he certainly loves the people who engage him. The more we are sensitive and willing to receive people’s questions, the more we build a bridge for God to work in their hearts. Jesus is alive which is why we can handle the questions. To believe is a miracle. It’s a work of God. It takes being born again, born from above. As we see with Nicodemus, being born again doesn’t happen overnight for everyone. For some, it takes time. In God’s good time, the light does come and questioners find themselves unexpectedly visiting the tomb to find it empty and their hearts full. 

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The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry

It happens every morning like clock work. “Hurry! Eat your breakfast. We have to be in the car in 3 minutes. We’re going to be late for school.”  It’s like I forget school starts every morning at 8a.m. My poor children! Part of the problem is the distraction.

In his book, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, John Mark Comer cites a study that says the average I-phone user touches their phone 2,617 times a day. It’s on the verge of addiction. He continues,

“There’s a Silicon Valley insider named Tristan Harris doing some really interesting work right now. Labeled by the Atlantic as ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” he points out that slot machines make more money than the film industry and baseball combined, even though they take only a few quarters at a time. Because the slot machine is addictive. And those small amounts of money feel inconsequential in the moment. It’s just a few quarters, right? Or give bucks, or twenty. But over time they add up. In the same way, the phone is addictive. And small moments–a text here, the phone is addictive. And small moments–a text here, a scroll through Instagram there, a quick email scan, drinking around online–it all adds up to an extraordinary amount of time.”

It was a gut punch for me as I started to do the math of how often I touch my phone each minute. Therefore, I’m going to keep my blog short and sweet. It’s getting late in the afternoon and the weather is unseasonable warm and I have two kids to pick up from school.

A scripture that comes to mind is from John 11. Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died. They send for Jesus to help. John points out that Jesus waits around two extra days before he makes his journey to Lazarus. Why was Jesus not in a hurry? Martha points out to Jesus that had he been there on time, Lazarus may have lived. In savior-like fashion, Jesus calls into the tombs and says, “Lazaraus, come out.” And Lazarus comes out of the tombs and lives again.

Jesus teaches us that he’s on God’s time. He is not rushed by death or our deadlines. He is the resurrection and life. In a world of constant hurry, efficiency and distraction, perhaps the great challenge is to get on God’s time. How might we all work to eliminate hurry in our households? In fact, I think it would be a good experiment to rid ourselves of that word for one day and see what happens.

The sacred in the ordinary

Alfred Hitchcock said the movies are “life with the dull bits cut out.” Most of the content of our lives could make for a good cinematic drama. With the right director, those awkward first dances, betrayals in the family, the wedding that went wrong and the redemption of a career choice could all make for a good Netflix Series. The problem is that covers only 300 minutes of our lives. What about the rest of our lives the drama doesn’t include like washing dishes, taking walks, hunting?

This is the subject of a new book I’m reading, “liturgy of the ordinary.” The author, Tish Warren, seeks to help us see the sacredness God gives us each day. The psalmist once sang, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). God counts each day blessed and each day unfolds with grace. There will be reasons to rejoice if we learn to pay attention to what God is up to during the more mundane duties of daily life. Annie Dillard once wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

This morning, I rose for my ritual cup of coffee downstairs in the quiet of the house. I’m sure it was providential that I was reading this chapter on finding sacredness in the ordinary. I heard footsteps and to my surprise my daughter was dressed for school 45 minutes early. She looked at the book cover with a picture of a sandwich. She said, “Dad, you’re reading about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?”

I said, “Well, no. Ok. Sure.”

“Well, let me tell you how to jelly is made.”

For the next 45 seconds, I learned everything my 7 year old could teach me about making jelly. For the next 30 minutes, we simply talked without the hurry of morning routines.

Indeed, the ordinary is sacred. Jesus taught his disciples in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” May we all see today the sacredness of the ordinary.

 

The Light Shines in the Darkness

I’m coaching basketball this year for Haygood Hoops. I’m coaching my five year old daughter’s team. I was walking back to the car with her after practice. As we were crossing over Sussex, she asks me, “Dad, is it time for bed?” I said, “No sweetie, it’s only 6:00.” She said, “But it’s so dark out here.” I said, “That’s because it’s winter and the nights are longer.” Then she asked, “When is the darkness going away?”  

When is the darkness going away? Maybe some of you resonate with her question. It’s really dark outside and we’re ready for longer days. But maybe more keenly, we know what it’s like to have darkness and hardships in our lives. We wish it would go away. 

When is the darkness going away? 

There is good news. 

 “The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it!” (John 1:5). That’s God’s message for us at Christmas. That’s what John says in his gospel to describe the coming of Jesus. If you sit in darkness, the Lord will shine His light. If there is pain and struggle in our world, violence and heartache, it cannot overcome the light. 

Luke’s gospel also gives an account of seemingly dark circumstances that God used to birth the savior of the world.  

In Luke’s gospel, we learn about Mary. She and Joseph had her whole life ahead of them. She was about to be married. She could almost hear the wedding bells. She could envision settling down in Nazareth and could see Joseph helping run the local wood shop. And then an angel appears to tell Mary she is pregnant. And her joy turns to fear. Have you been in Mary’s situation where joy turns to fear? 

Or maybe you can relate to Joseph. Joseph is a faithful servant of the Lord but is thrown into confusion and is hurt tremendously by the news of Mary’s pregnancy. The person he loves most has seemingly hurt him. Maybe some of you can relate to Joseph’s confusion and hurt. Have people you loved most hurt you? 

For a moment, both Mary and Joseph sit in the darkness. They are unsure about their future. That’s what happens in life sometimes. Our plan unravels. But the good news for Mary and Joseph are the words spoken by the angel to them both. “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:30). The Lord found favor with them.

The angels tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife. They return to Nazareth. Even though the circumstances continue to change, God is there to guide them. Six months into Mary’s pregnancy, Roman soldiers appear and announce that all families must return to their hometown. For Mary and Joseph, that was Bethlehem, 90 miles away. Mary and Joseph did not choose this path. I’m sure some of us can relate to that story too. When have we found ourselves on a path we did not choose? Because of circumstances beyond our control or decisions we did not make, we find ourselves heading on a path we never anticipated. 

When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, there’s no place for them to stay. Finally, they find a stable where the animals live. You can imagine the look on their faces at every turn. These circumstances seem to get worse and worse, disappointment around each corner.

But in that simple stable, Mary gives birth to her first born son. In the most humble and unexpected of circumstances, Jesus, the light of the world, was born. God can take the hardest of circumstances and give birth to hope. That’s what Mary did. She gave birth to the hope of the world. 

Mary gave birth to Jesus in order that Jesus might give birth to us. Because this baby Jesus would become an adult. He once taught a man named Nicodemus in John chapter 3 that you can be born again. We can be born from above. Jesus gives birth to new and eternal life for all of us. 

Maybe tonight, you’re in the darkness. Like Mary gave birth to Christ, Christ can give rebirth to you. 

Jesus came to forgive our sins. Jesus came so that you might have life and have it abundantly. The second century theologian Iranaeus once wrote,  “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” You are meant to be fully alive. God will birth something new in us. I think about people who have experienced rebirth in the hardest of circumstances. 

Susy was part of our youth choir at a previous church. Susy’s parents were going through a divorce. Susy’s mother came to me and said, “Will, my husband has all sorts of addiction problems. Susy has seen her dad passed out on many occasions on the living room floor because of his drinking. She has had to help him to bed. She is feeling lost in all of this. She’s angry. To add to the heartache at home, she’s being picked on at school. And it gets worse. She has been eagerly looking forward to the homecoming dance and was hoping that a certain young man would invite her. Instead, he invited one of her other friends. She told me she feels like no one cares. No one gets her!” 

 I asked, “Well, is there any bright spot for her?”  

The mother looked puzzled for a moment and then said, “She loves youth choir. The choir director told her that she has a gorgeous voice.” 

Susy attended our youth choir tour that year to Florida. They were at the local homeless shelter singing to homeless men and women there. The choir started singing and then midway through the song came Susy’s solo. She stepped to the front and belted out, “No matter what the world says, I’m a child of God.” You could see the hearts moved in that audience. At the end of their performance, this homeless woman yelled out to Susy, “Girl, you can sing. You need to try out for The Voice.” A huge smile broke out on Susy’s face. 

That night, Susy, who is usually quiet, said in tears, “Today I believed those words I sang. I’m a child of God.”  

God can birth something new in the most unfavorable of circumstances. And I don’t mean to cast Susy’s father as the bad guy in this story. God is working in his life too. He has problems like we all do. Sin is like a wound. Wounds need healing. Our world is full of wounds. The Lord is full of mercy for our wounded world. 

And when God does birth new life, I think about our shepherds in today’s story. The angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy. Unto you is born in the city of David, a savior.” They traveled in haste to the manger. They placed their eyes on their messiah Jesus. They were fully alive. And having experienced this good news, they couldn’t keep quiet. They told everyone. All who heard it were amazed. The Lord is full of mercy. On this Christmas night, there is good news for all people. There is good news for you. 

 We have a saying at Haygood. There’s a place for you. Each of you has a place in sharing this good news. I think of Alice Gepp. Alice is a church member. She had an idea this past year.  She said, “We usually decorate the inside of the church, but a lot of people won’t ever see all the pretty lights and tree. Let’s decorate the plaza outside.” So she took to decorating the plaza with a tree and lights for people to enjoy. She knew this good news was not just for people who worshiped into our sanctuary, but for all people. People outside the church walls. She literally helped shine light into the darkness. 

Or I think about Owen Daum. Owen is a 4th grader. One Sunday, I saw him sitting in the balcony with the sound team. After worship, he stops me and says, “I learned a lot in church today.” I said, “Well, I’m glad you were listening to the sermon.” He pulls out this big old book and says, “No. I was reading this manual about the sound system. It’s interesting stuff. I wanted to see if I could take it home and study it.”  

Owen took home this manual and read it backwards and forwards. He said, “Pastor Will, I want to make sure you sound good. Your words are important.” In fact, his dad was telling me the other day that they were running  a little late for church. Owen was pacing at the front door and saying, “Come on dad. God needs me at church.” God does need Owen. 

And God needs you too. Whether it’s lighting lights for our community to see, serving on a volunteer sound team, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, showing kindness to that awkward family member, we each can shine light into the darkness in our own way. 

 Adam Hamilton tells the story about Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. It is said that he was a man who never enjoyed good health. He spent a lot of time in his room as a child. He was always looking out the window. One night he looked out. These were the days of gas streetlights and there, at the street, was the town lamplighter. He was carefully putting his ladder up against the lamppost, climbing up the ladder, and lighting the lantern. He would take it down, move down the street, and light the next one. 

 His nurse asked him on this night, “Robert, what are you doing?” He said, “I’m watching that old man knock holes in the darkness.”

Knocking holes in the darkness. The light has come to us in Jesus Christ. He has come to forgive your sins and save you. God has given us this light to share with others this Christmas. Bring out your ladders this Christmas. Lean them against those dark places in our world. Climb up and knock holes in the darkness. 

Merry  Christmas!

 

Spend money on the words

I was at a funeral recently. I ran across a colleague who has always been a trusted resource for evangelism in the local church. I shared with him that our church had put a lot of extra time and energy into our inviting and hospitality ministry. In fact, I was even a little proud that we over-spent in our evangelism line item in the budget. (not too much). He said, “Well, I celebrate your church spending so much in evangelism. Typically what I see is churches spending most of their money on missions, but hardly any on evangelism.”

I then shared with him about our church’s efforts in doing a neighborhood Christmas mailer that that invited them to our Advent/Christmas events and shared a message about the gospel. I told him I struggled a little internally with spending so much money on words. That same money could be helping the hungry during this season.

He said, “It’s ok to spend money on the words if they are the right words. Remember John’s gospel begins with, ‘In the beginning was the word.'”

That’s the truth. Sometimes, words are worth the money. Words are important. They can bring life and destroy it. Our words we chose to share, “Light shines in the darkness.” Jesus came to light our world. I hope that’s a good word for you.

My hymnal was lost but now is found.

Before I attended seminary at Duke Divinity School, I took a year to serve at my home church as an intern. I worked with our children and youth groups. The congregation was kind enough to give me opportunities to preach. In fact, I returned to preach a homecoming there a couple of years ago. One church member said, “I remember when you were an intern. You’ve gotten so much better.” (I’m not sure that was a complement). 

On my last Sunday before I headed off to Duke, my youth director called me in front of the congregation. He presented me with a leather United Methodist hymnal with my name printed in gold. On the inside of the hymnal, he wrote me the most encouraging note of support and thanks for my service. My home church gave me a personalized hymnal. I took it off with me to seminary. During days of doubting myself if I could really handle the workload of seminary, I would turn to that front page of the hymnal and read those words of encouragement. I have taken that hymnal to every church service. 

If you turn to the communion liturgy in my hymnal, you will find grape juice stains on the pages and bread crumbs. If you turn to the baptismal liturgy, you will find water marks from baptisms I have officiated. If you turn to the hymn “Silent Night,” you will find candle wax that has dripped onto the page from Christmas Eve services gone by. My hymnal has become a tangible sign of God’s work in my life and ministry. I treasure it. 

Which is why it pained me two years ago, when I headed into worship and reached for my hymnal on the corner of the desk and it wasn’t there. I felt off kilter the whole service. For the next week, I dug through every box. I scoured the sanctuary. I looked in Blair’s office to see if she borrowed it.

I put a notice in our weekly email. Nothing! No leads. Every time I saw a colleague with their leather bound hymnal, I’d run over to check for my name. I had hoped during our move to Haygood, the hymnal would pop up somewhere as we packed. Nothing.

We all know what it’s like to lose something. God does too.

In chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells these two parable about losing something.

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The truth is that these parables are not about sheep or coins. They are about God’s greatest treasure: you.

Just recently, I wasn’t having the best start to the week. I was upset about the Falcons’ game. I was in my office and saw my phone was blinking with a message. It was a 205 area code so I thought it might be a sales call. Later that afternoon, I finally listened to the message. “This message is for Rev. Zant. I’m the administrator at Trinity United Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa.  We found a hymnal with your name on it.” 

(I didn’t know they went to church in Tuscaloosa).

It occurred to me that I left it there on a youth choir tour two years ago. I gave them a call as quickly as I could. She said, “I’m the new administrator here at this church. I’m cleaning up this office. There’s junk everywhere. I came across this hymnal. And my co-worker and I were looking at it. She said we could probably trash it. Looks like someone spilled juice all over it. But I saw your name and I looked inside and saw that nice note. I said, ‘I bet he’s been looking for it. I’m sure it means the world to him. I think it’s worth saving.’ So I looked you up and gave you a call. If you still want it, I can mail it to you.” 

And today, it’s in my hands!

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As I have reflected back on it, I didn’t once feel, “Wow. You guys have had that hymnal for two years and you’re just getting back to me? That’s awful.” Nor did I feel guilt and say, “Will, you’re such a clutz.” All I felt was joy. I found what was lost. That’s how God feels about us when we are found. If you are looking to be found, God is ready to celebrate you too.

I think about those words on the other end of that phone. “I’m sure it means the world to him. I think it’s worth saving.” Because I hear God’s words loud and clear for each one of us. You mean the world to God. You are worth saving.