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.
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!
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.
This past Friday, I headed up to the north Georgia mountains to celebrate my good friend Sam Heys turning the big 40. We were roommates in college at UGA and by God’s good grace we have reconnected in Atlanta. We live just a few miles from each other.
We met up in Candler Park and picked up one of his friends. I didn’t know him, but he was pleasant and new and not connected to church life. I love our church and the people in it. But it’s nice to get away from having to be ‘on’ for a day or two.
We were heading up to the Cohutta wilderness near the Tennessee line. On the ride up, I was catching up with Sam. For some reason, I went on and on about my favorite BBQ places in Atlanta.
“Sam, I got to be honest. I’m not a huge fan of Fox Brothers. Their meats are too fatty. Their brisket was full of gristle. And when we did start eating brisket in the south? Give me a slab of pork ribs from DBA any day. They’re the best BBQ in town.”
After 10 minutes of this, Sam gently ask, “So Roger, how long have you been a vegetarian?”
“Oh, about 10 years now.”
I felt like a pig. Roger was gracious and even said, “Oh, I don’t make a big deal of it. I don’t try to make converts of people. My style has always been just to express my beliefs by example without making a big fuss.”
After a few moments I said, “Well, I guess the good thing for me is that if we run out of food on our trip, I won’t have to worry about you eating me.”
“That’s good. I’ll have to use that one,” said Roger.
I’m sure there’s a sermon in Roger’s words about leading morally through one’s example.
We started hiking around 4pm and logged four miles with several river crossings on the Jack’s River Trail before finding camp. The river is usually running fast and high enough to make for tough crossings. But the late summer in Georgia had seen little rain and the river felt more like a creek with knee high water on occasions.
After a meal of Ramon bombs (Ramon noodles with potato flakes added in), we sat around and shared stories. There were six of us in total. Besides the one crank radio to pick up the UGA/Notre Dame game, we had no reason for electronics. One friend made the comment, “You know it’s so good we’re out here talking and there’s not one phone!” It was true. We had no cell coverage for the whole trip.
After the conversation died down along with the fire, I walked down to the river and happened to looked up. For the first time in a while, I noticed the stars and it felt like I was back at my summer camp as a teenager where many nights I would leave the cabin and lay down on the ground and gaze.
There was no light pollution, no car horns. A billion stars shined onto edges of the trees. And the sparkle of moonlight flowed down the river. Awe is a good word. For that’s what I felt. Awe at the handiwork and artistry of God.
Whether I realized it or not, I needed a moment of awe and to be lifted out of screens and emails. I need to realized how incredibly unimportant I felt in the midst of grandeur and how little my problems can seem in the midst of the vastness of God.
The Psalmist once declared, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Psalm 8:3,4).
I think we’ve all known that pleasure of feeling small in the vastness of God. Those moments surprise us and lift us out of ourselves into a new place.
I have good friends from my hometown who often tell me they love to go deer hunting. It’s usually not to kill a deer, but to sit in nature and watch it come alive. My new friend Roger probably wouldn’t like the hunting part, but I think we all get the need to be in nature.
How might we learn nurture awe into our lives? In the midst of the pressure to produce, to parent, to lead, a little awe would do us some good.
Over the years, people have often asked me, “How do I respond to financial request from those in need?” It’s a good question and one that needs discussion. It hit home for me just recently.
Two Sundays ago, towards the end of my sermon, two women, a mother and daughter, entered the back of the sanctuary. They sat down on the last row. I recognized them because they tend to show up every couple of months. I knew they were there to ask our members for money. In God’s funny way, I was ending my sermon on showing hospitality to the stranger. It was a passage from Hebrews 13. This passage says that you might be entertaining angels when you welcome the stranger. As I was trying to stay focused on the sermon, I could feel the energy of the congregation moving to the back of the room towards our guests. The whole point of my sermon is that angels aren’t necessarily people flying around with wings, but regular people with a message for you. I wondered what sort of message our guests had for our faith community?
After the service, they did as I expected. They asked church members in the parking lot for money to fund their stay at a local hotel. I had an administrative council meeting right after church so I couldn’t really address the situation. The situation escalated. This mother and daughter wanted to speak with me. I was in the middle of addressing our our administrative council, which made it hard as our volunteers tried to balance interrupting the meeting with trying to find a faithful way to respond to our guests.
Thankfully one of our staff members spoke with them and explained we were in a meeting. These two visitors were not satisfied with our church’s response. They wanted to speak with me. When told to wait, they wound up calling our staff member some slanderous names and had some colorful things to say about our church.
Eventually, these guests left the premises. Church members have struggled with how one should respond as a Christian. If we were talking about radical hospitality, should we not open our doors and our wallets (or pocketbooks) more generously to guests in need? But how does one ensure they are not taken advantage of? Herein lies the heart of the dilemma.
To my Haygood family, I would simply offer these words: If you gave to these women, good for you. You were showing radical hospitality, the kind we had heard about in the scriptures. My encouragement in the future is to not give cash, but instead to find a staff member and we’ll work to find a faithful way to give. We have given to this mother and daughter before by paying for hotel rooms for the week. We make our payment directly to the hotel as we know by experience that cash be spent on other goods.
We do our best to be generous. But please hear me. If you feel in the moment, you must give and that it’s the right thing to do, who am I to prevent your good deed? Do as you feel led by the Holy Spirit. I’m simply here to tell you my experience is to inform the staff in order to ensure we are doing the most good as a church.
Several years ago, at a different church, we had another situation. We had visitors, two ladies, at our 8 a.m. service. We were so excited because normally you don’t have many visitors at the early service. Afterwards, I showed them around our church, including our offices. The next week, during the 11a.m. worship service, they stole our offering out of our business manager’s office. They had preyed upon our hospitality and scouted out where we put the money. We bought a safe the next week!
Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That’s good advice, but it’s still hard. Our gospel is about Jesus who was so often moved with compassion to help the most vulnerable people of his day. We are called to follow his example. It’s my prayer that we will not allow our hearts to turn to stone. Helping people is rarely easy or convenient.
One of my favorite stories is the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. It’s not an easy story for the pastor types as we are the ones who pass by the person in need. Instead, it’s the Samaritan who notices. I always like to point out that this Samaritan decides to help as he comes near the hurt of the man in the ditch. He is moved in his inward being once he gets close enough to feel the hurt. That’s my prayer for us. Let’s continue to move close enough to the hurts of this world to care enough to help.
We are still committed as a church to help this mother and daughter. Indeed, I do think they were angels with a message. Our missions and outreach staff member, Wally Rice, has met with them. He has addressed that it’s unacceptable to slander our staff members who were simply trying to help.
I pray our church will continue to be one with a big heart. I’d much rather us error on the side of showing compassion and mercy.
I’ll leave you with this story of redemption. I hosted a “Dinner with the Pastor” gathering at our parsonage on Sunday night. We like to bring together Haygood newcomers and church members in our home. We had a good group. We also had plenty of leftovers. Given there were cookies involved, we thought about keeping them in our home. Instead, we brought the leftovers back to the church. The next day our custodial worker, Larry Williams, knocks on my office door.
“Pastor, I noticed all those leftovers in the refrigerator. I don’t want us to throw those out at the end of the week. That happens a lot. I know some people who might want them. Do you think I could take them if no else eats them today?”
I said, “Sure.”
Later that afternoon, Larry had spread out all these to-go boxes and was filling them up with chips, tacos and salad. He took more than 30 of them to places throughout Atlanta where the homeless tend to gather.
Larry told me later, “I just drove around and when I saw someone who looked like they could use a meal, I said, ‘here you go. This meal is from you from our Haygood family.’ That’s all I did.”
In truth, the meal was really from a good-hearted person like Larry who takes seriously the call of Jesus to provide for the stranger.
So often, we make discipleship and preaching more grand than it needs to be. Sometimes we don’t have to start the non-profit to follow Jesus (sometimes we do). Sometimes it’s packing to-go boxes of tacos and heading out to the streets.
In June, our family traveled to Italy. Our last stop was in Rome. I wrote some reflections about our visit to the Roman Colosseum. To be honest, I was a bit spooked out as I walked through the door where the gladiators entered. Our tour guide (who was excellent) told us about the floor.
They filled it with sand because of how much blood was spilled. The morning was for hunting. They would have archers hunt down exotic animals. In the early afternoon were public executions. Hungry, starved and disoriented lions were released to kill the helpless criminals. In the afternoon were the gladiators.
The Colosseum was given by the Emperor Octavian to the people of Rome a gift. No admission fees were necessary. It was his way to rule. As our guide reminded us, “Powerful people have learned to give food and spectacle to the people to prevent uprising.” Blair leaned over to me and said, “That’s what the Hunger Games are all about.” I haven’t read them.
The Colosseum is the #1 tourist attraction in Rome. As we walked the grounds, I kept asking myself why. Do people flock to this site because of its architecture? As crazy as it sounds, as I walked around, it had the feel and atmosphere of a football stadium. But I felt strangely drawn to imagine what the gladiator must have felt and a bit guilty for imagining his doom. Many of them were captured soldiers from Roman wars.
I thought about the common Roman citizen who made plans all month for the event, cheered at the sight of blood and death and then went home to say goodnight to his children.
There’s something awful and evil about our fallen human nature drawn to violence and spectacle. It’s why we love murder mysteries and why we feel the need for conflict to make life interesting. It’s one of those curious mysteries of human nature.
As we neared the end of our tour, our guide asked if we wanted to get a picture. We gathered with the full view of the Colosseum behind us. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in it. I felt a bit awkward about smiling for a picture in such a place.
One of the more redemptive moments was to witness a Christian cross in the middle of the stadium. It stood as a monument to Christian martyrs. It’s likely there were no Christians killed in the Colosseum. During the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero, the Colosseum had not yet been built. The sign of the cross was to be a sign that the Christian message is one of peace. During the same century the Colosseum was built, this same Roman government crucified Jesus in Jerusalem.
Jesus called us Christians to a different life. As we walked out of the wide entry doors of the gladiators, I kept thinking about Jesus’ words, “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13, 14)
This past week, I was reading about a 400 year old Mexican Christmas tradition called, “Las Posadas.” This is a nine day event that remembers the hardships of Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem. It begins on December 15 and concludes on December 24 and is a reminder of Mary’s 9 months of pregnancy. On the first eight nights, the community gathers and walks together to a different house. The members of these houses have been notified in advance. The leaders of the pilgrimage are church members dressed as Mary and Joseph. And when they arrive, they knock on the door and ask for a place to stay given that Mary is pregnant. For eight nights in a row each house owner turns Mary and Joseph away. And then on the final night, the community gathers around Mary and Joseph one more time as they knock on the door.
This time, the owners welcome Mary and Joseph. The rest of the pilgrims are invited inside for a party. They celebrate with a piñata in the shape of the star that guided the wisemen. This final evening is this community’s way of celebrating the gift of hospitality. Mary and Joseph, in their hard circumstances, receive welcome.
I’ve never witnessed “Las Posadas”but I’m drawn to its message. The name means ‘the inn’ in Spanish. For one, I love the idea of the shared pilgrimage with all the characters getting to play a part. It helps us feel the drama. I’m also drawn to the way it helps pilgrims experience the rejection out of fear for their otherness.
More often that not, we neglect to show hospitality out of fear. We fear the stranger. We have word for that sort of fear. It’s xenophobia. We fear the people we don’t know or understand. Mary and Joseph experienced this rejection. This tradition seems to me an important one to embrace given the state of our world. We fear the stranger. We fear people who speak different languages, practice different faiths, ascribe to different political parties, identify with different sexual orientations, label themselves conservative and liberal. “Las Posadas” invites us to look beyond the fear and to experience the divine healing work of hospitality, the openness towards the stranger. The embrace of Mary and Joseph is the welcoming of Christ into one’s home and life.
Whether it’s the border crisis in our own country or that new neighbor who moved in across the street, we need the message of “Los Posadas” more than ever. Because the real tragedy is that we’re missing out on the sacredness and healing we find in welcoming people. The writer of Hebrews suggest that we get to entertain angels when we assume the risk of welcoming the stranger. Whoever welcomed Mary and Joseph those many years ago into their stable welcomed two peasants in a hard situation with little in the way of monetary gifts to repay them. But in that welcome, they entertained God without even knowing it.
When we embrace the other, the presence of God is ignited within our walls. As we hear the new stories and are opened to the new gifts the stranger will bring, both parties may find the healing they need as God works in and through them.
In our church, we’re on a kick to talk about hospitality. When we talk about hospitality, we’re not meaning Martha Stewart, although Martha could teach us a thing or two. It boils to a word that has come to have great power and meaning for our faith community. The word in the Greek language is “Philoxenia”. Philo means love and “xenia” means stranger. Philoxenia literally means to love the stranger. We find this word used six times in the New Testament. One of the more famous usages of this word is from Hebrews 13:3 when the writer encourages the people with these words:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
This morning was Katie’s open house and she is heading into first grade. And there’s little need to make the case for getting out the door on time. She’s up. Shoes on. Breakfast eaten. The Zant crew packs in the mini-van and off we go. Blair says to me, “You think we should walk? It’s not far and there’s probably no parking.”
“Nah. We’re fine,” I say.
We do two loops around the parking lot and Blair says, “This is why I was thinking we might want to walk.”
The last 24 hours social media has been a buzz with with parents posting about what teacher their child has, except me. I can’t figure out the Parent Portal. As we finish the half-mile walk to the school I try to play it off. “Katie, isn’t this cool? All your friends already know who their teachers are. You are the only one who will get to be surprised today. They won’t.”
We climb the steps with the other children and are thankful for the man with the clip board. For whatever reason, if you have a clip board in your hand, you have gained half my trust. He says, “Do you know her teacher?”
I didn’t want to admit my failures out loud for other parents to hear. (I’m a 3 on the Enneagram). So I silently shook my head no.
He said, “What your daughter’s last name?”
“Oh, that’s easy. You Z’s make my life easy.”
I regained some confidence.
He says, “She’s got miss Clifton. She’s the best.”
He directs us to the room. I said, “Alright, Katie. Ms. Clifton.”
She said, “That’s not who I wanted.”
“Have you ever heard of her?”
We walk down the hall with our Target bag loaded with school supplies. We meet Ms. Clifton. Katie is hiding behind my right leg. She is scanning for other kids she knows. There are none.
“Well, Katie, I’ve been so excited to meet you. In fact, I have your name on one of the cubbies in the back.” I can tell her brain is spinning. Blair and I share filling out the forms. I have to mark my interest in whether I’m to be a room parent. For all the reasons, I’m glad they don’t designate it ‘room mom’ but I’m not sure I’m up for it as dad. I see all the parents above me on the sheet and what they have checked. So I check, “Mystery reader. Field trip chaperone.” Feels good.
Like Katie does with the other kids, I’m looking around at the other parents wondering whether we’ll make acquaintances, wondering whether their kid might the bully. I look at Katie coloring at this point with a student she doesn’t know. And somehow it reminds me why all the butterflies.
You care for your kid. You’ve seen them smile and cry and discover they can do math and read. You hope they’ll be able to keep up and excel. But more than anything, you hope they make a friend in this new room, receive a few invitations to birthday parties at lunch and that Ms. Clifton will see a new gift we parents are too close to see in her. C.S. Lewis once wrote that between infancy and old age, “the most dominant element is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside it” (The Weight of Glory). Maybe that’s the big hope and fear of this day for my precious 6 year old girl I have helped raise and watch grow. I tremble at the thought of her being left outside the ring. My prayer is that she and all her classmates will find their inner ring, their little gang. Lewis is right. From infancy to adulthood, we all want to be inside the local ring.
As we meandered through the hallway, I asked, “Katie, what did you think about Ms. Clifton?”
“Well, I didn’t know her, but I think she’s the best one.”
As I prepare to wrap up here today, I thought I’d send a quick note out. The church I serve, Haygood Memorial United Methodist, lost a dear person, the Rev. Dr. Sheila Bookout. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Sheila well. Our paths did not cross a whole lot in churches, but her passion and love for God’s church at Haygood is evident.
Dr. Bookout served as the senior pastor of Haygood from 2011-2016. Sheila suffered from chronic health issues beyond her control. This past week she died at an early age from those issues. I honor her today for the many sacrifices she made for this church. We have a newly renovated fellowship hall, office suite and outdoor plaza. Years ago, the downstairs facilities had become filled with mold. Apparently, it was not an inviting place.
She preached to the church that if they wanted a future, they needed to make a choice to raise the money to renovate. This big-hearted church responded to her leadership. Todd Stanton, a Haygood member, ran the campaign. He shared with me that Sheila approached him about running the fundraising efforts for the renovation. Todd responded, “Sheila, I’m not sure I can make that sort of commitment.” Sheila quipped, “I gave a kidney. What’s your excuse?” Sheila gave a lot to this church, in body and spirit. In the renovation process she even made sure to put in televisions with access to Netflix which has saved me on many Sunday mornings when I have the kids here before service.
It’s often said that we all drink from wells we did not dig. That’s certainly the case here. She dug a lot of wells. A more Biblical way to look at it is from I Corinthians 3:6 in which Paul writes about the way God worked through him and another minister named Apollos. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Sheila did a lot of planting and we’re seeing God growing and doing some new things. I think it would have pleased her that on Wednesday, at our summer church picnic, we had more than a hundred kids and adults eating together outside on the plaza she dreamed about long ago.
As for my part, I’ll keep watering and planting on my seeds for this wonderful church. May God give the growth.
I could hear him tapping on the computer keys at the library. He glared at his screen. We were supposed to be studying for our New Testament exam in seminary. But he couldn’t study. Why? His girlfriend just broke up with him. I was trying to be a good friend and get his mind off of her. I said, “What are you doing?”
“I’m emailing her. It’s my third draft.”
I said, “That’s a bad idea.”
He said, “Would you mind reading it?”
I did. He said, “What do you think?”
I said, “Imagine how good your grades would be if you put this much thought into your school work.”
“Seriously, Will. Should I hit send?”
Should I hit send?
We all have been there. Stuck. Unable to make a decision. Trying to make a wise decision. You want to make the right choice, but you’re not sure what the right choice is. There may be a lot on the line. Choices about our future. Choices about someone else’s job. Choices about whether to hit send on the email that you’ve typed and retyped all day long. Or it may be simple. If you’re like me, it’s helping my 4 year old decide which dress to wear to church even though you agreed on one the night before and you’re running late already and it’s raining and the AC is out in the sanctuary.
I had a friend once give me advice. He said, “Every day you have choices to make. The secret to life is just to choose to do the next right thing.”
On the surface, that sounded like good advice. Just make the next right choice, except for one thing. What is the right thing to do? It would be so easy if you could put on a pair of glasses that would show you what’s the right choice and what’s the wrong choice. It would come like a present wrapped in a red bow. But as you and I know, rarely does such clarity come on its own.
I’m reminded of a passage from I Kings 3:3-15 in which we learn about true wisdom. To give a little background, King David’s son Solomon is about to become Israel’s new king. King David was a man after God’s own heart and had served the Lord faithfully. He was given a vision to build the Temple for the Lord, but he the Lord would not let David build the Temple because he had too much blood on his hands.
The Lord visits Solomon in a dream. In an Aladin-like moment God allows Solomon to ask God for anything he wishes, which is an interesting moment. What would I ask for?
In his conversation, Solomon says to the Lord that’s he just a little boy and he’s not sure how to lead. In fact, he says, “I do not know how to go out or come in.” Maybe that’s one of the most important parts about leadership is understanding our limitations. The first thing Solomon does is admit his limitations. As we think about the choices we have to make, we can be lulled into thinking we are capable of making wise decisions, when in fact we need help. I’m sure I was that way my first few years of ministry. I lacked experience and needed wise counsel from seasoned ministers. But often I was self-assured and fresh out of seminary. There’s an old saying circled among pastors that you can tell a pastor who just finished seminary. You just can’t tell them much.
Most famously, Solomon tells his wish. He says, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” By no means was Solomon a perfect leader. In fact, in one of his first acts Solomon makes an alliance with Egypt’s pharaoh and marries his daughter, which would invite all sorts of problems later. And he would have concubines and build his own palace before the Temple. He had some issues. But in this moment, Solomon gets it right. The Lord gives Solomon a wise and discerning mind. This wisdom would be the hallmark of Solomon’s leadership.
Wisdom is a gift from God to Solomon. God gives wisdom to us. Sometimes, I fool myself into thinking I can make wise choices on my own. If I just think hard enough, write down the pros and cons on a sheet of paper, I can come up with the right answer. But true wisdom comes to us as a gift.
But the Lord also asks of Solomon to walk in his ways and to be steadfast in his devotion. In order to maintain this discerning mind, Solomon will also need to tend to his relationship and devotion to God. Wisdom and devotion walk together. Which means that our ability to discern between good and evil flows out of our relationship with God.
If you’re like me, oftentimes I get into a place of efficiency. I want to make quick decisions. Get the job done. Or I get into a place of reaction. I’m trying my best to respond to what my job or our world is throwing at me. If you’ve been on Facebook for 30 seconds, you’ll see the way our world nurtures reactionary postures. Even in our most passionate convictions, what would it mean to slow down and discern with God how best to respond? I like the words of the great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen when he writes,
Christians cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice, and guidance.
I’m working on find ways to slow my mind down. One good way is baseball. I love baseball and it’s about slowest game you can watch! We took our two girls to the Braves game recently. I was thinking the game would be too slow for them. Oddly enough they were as relaxed as could be. I was too. Maybe in this midst of our frazzled, efficient life, we need more baseball to slow us down and let our minds escape and think and let God speak to us in God’s timing and not our own.
God gives us wisdom. In fact, the Hebrew word used in this passage for Solomon is that he asked for a discerning heart. Wisdom flows out of our hearts that seek communion with God.
Here’s the good news for us. Jesus, our savior, is alive and incarnate in our world. This Jesus will give to us the wisdom we need to discern between good and evil. Our relationship with Christ helps give us the glasses we need to see the world rightly.
Our decisions impact people. In the church I serve, our congregation is grieving the loss of Rev. Dr. Sheila Bookout who served as the senior pastor of Haygood from 2011-2016. Sheila suffered from chronic health issues beyond her control. Last week she died at an early age. Although I did not know Sheila well, I feel like I do.
She embodied wisdom. During her early years at Haygood, three teenagers broke into the church. While in the building, the police report says they smoked pot, knocked over Christmas trees, broke ornaments, wrote obscenities on the walls, ripped out pages from a Bible, unwrapped presents meant for underprivileged kids in our neighborhood.
Our congregation was rightly angered and ready to call down fire from heaven on these kids. In fact, Elizabeth McGlamry, a church members, wrote an article in her high school paper, “I wanted to punch the little punks in the face.”
I gotta say, that’s how I would have felt. Stealing presents from kids. That’s probably how most of us would feel. Who wouldn’t feel that way? Get even with these teenagers. Teach them a lesson. Let’s lock up these church doors! But that’s responding out of emotions, out of anger.
But Sheila had a discerning heart. She had the wisdom to see beyond the moment and the emotion. And Sheila responded by saying, “It’s awful what those kids did. But we’re not going to let them deter us. We’re going to keep opening our doors to the community.”
Wisdom is seeing beyond the moment. Wisdom is thinking slow in a culture of fast. It’s making choices rooted in our devotional life. Solomon prayed for wisdom. Wisdom teaches us not just to react with our passions and emotions or fool ourselves into believing we can think our way out of our problems. Instead, we discern with our hearts, out of our devotional life with God.
Blair and I took time for a night out alone, a rarity for parents. We decided to walk along the Atlanta Beltline. We parked on a side road and could see Ponce City Market ahead. It was a cool night for July, somewhere in the 60’s. We even joked that the pumpkin spice lattes would soon be rolling out.
We love the Beltline if for no other reason than to people watch. I also love the outdoor art, the color and the city skyline. It’s not perfect. The Beltline has gentrified out a lot of persons of color. That’s something to work on. But the human spirit is alive in this place. The creativity of aspiring artist, the entrepreneurial types risking business ventures, the millennials playing flag football on the field near the Old Fourth Ward, the drummer banging away under the Freedom Parkway Bridge, the teenagers coming close to hitting us as they whiz by on electric scooters.
We did a progressive dinner, eating appetizers along the way. We ate our way down the Beltline and justified 3 scoops of Jenni’s ice-cream at Krogs Street Market because we had walked there.
We ate on outdoor plazas to enjoy the crisp weather and it reminded us of those piazzas in Italy in the hub of the city life. A young couple in their twenties next to us looked like they were on a date. No wedding rings. And the young man awkwardly reached for the bill on the table and she too seemed unsure if she should help with it. I told Blair, “I’m so glad we’re done with that stage of life. Dating is painful.” But we also secretly wished we could go back a day or two to our 20’s. We wondered how I was getting so close to 40 and where did our 30’s go?
I guess what stuck with me was walking among the people knowing that every emotion imaginable was alive…the excitement of teenagers who were visiting from out of town and snapping pictures under the bridge with the graffiti, the exhaustion of parents in workout clothes strolling their infants, the warmth of a homeless man on a bike who smiled at us and kept singing, the hurt of the couple who didn’t seem to mind arguing in public. I thought, “These are God’s people. Every shape and size.”
I could not recall the number, but I knew that statistically the majority of the people would not have a church home or an active relationship with God. I kept reminding myself that God has something more grand in store for this creation. I was struck by the signs throughout the Beltline that said, “Common Ground.” That seems to be a good phrase for today’s people. With all of the hurt and wounds of our world, people seek a common place, a safe space for sharing life. As simple as it seems, there’s something comforting about people from all walks of life sharing common pavement, as a means not just of transport, but life.
As a pastor, I realize that for many people religion has become just another means for division and hurt. I want the people to be able to see fullest expression of God’s design for the world. God designed us for each other. God’s son, Jesus, came to heal and express a love that unites us in a common faith. So many people have seen the church show its judgmental side which can leave can an impression that God’s nature is such. But in truth, our God is one of love and mercy. I’ve even thought about putting in big letters on the side of our church, “God is love.”
I’m reminded of Pope Francis’ words in his recent book when he writes,
“Sometimes, even from the Church, we hear, ‘too much mercy! The Church must condemn sin.”
He would go on to remind Christians that the church does not exist to condemn sin, but to show mercy. The church names sin and calls people to change, but the primary nature of God is mercy. As I looked upon all the people on the Beltline, I kept thinking about how much life was in this place. But I also know that these lives have hidden wounds and scars. Everyone of them. I want them to know that God’s nature is one of mercy for a wounded world and that mercy is wide-open to them.
Time was running short. We had to be home to relieve our babysitter by 9. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t wait for 6 months to do this again.