Accompany them with courage

This past Sunday, we remembered All Saints Sunday. We honored our dead by lighting candles. A bagpiper piped Amazing Grace. In the sermon, I reflected on June Dunaphant. We lost June last year. She had been our accompanist at Haygood for more than fifty years. She was known outside of the church too. The entire Atlanta music scene seemed to know her. She played in all sorts of night clubs and in cabarets. She loved to entertain.

One Sunday morning, I arrived early, brewed some coffee and headed into the sanctuary. I wanted to rehearse the sermon. June was there on the piano.

She said, “Go ahead pastor. I’ll listen.”

I started practicing the sermon. June sat on the bench.

I was rehearsing one of the more climactic moments. June starts up on the piano. No one else is in the sanctuary. She plays a courageous tune. I believe it was A Mighty Fortress is our God. With these fortified notes playing underneath, I could feel my emotions stirred like I was Hamlet, on a hushed stage, delivering my “To be or not to be” speech letting loose with all of the might and courage within me. I stopped and looked at June. “June, I wish I could have you follow me around all day and play music.”

She said, “You and I visit different places.”

Then she said, “But that’s why I love accompanying choirs and people. Some of them can’t sing well. I cover the rough places. But most people can sing and the music is in them. When I play I help give them the courage they need.”

June’s words were perfect for All Saints. We all have more courage and capacity than we realize. Those friends and saints who have before us are accompanying us with the courage we need.

No cash for valet

I was already late as I made my way up Piedmont Road. I was heading to the Wesley Woods Clergy Appreciation luncheon. Typically, clergy gatherings are held in church fellowship halls. Wesley Woods hosted theirs at the Buckhead Club on the twenty sixth floor with a panoramic of the Atlanta skyline.

At a stop sign, I glanced down at the instructions for parking. There would be “complimentary valet.” I hardly ever use valet. I hardly ever attend venues with valets. The times I have used valets they have hardly ever been complimentary. But I thought to myself, “It’s clergy appreciation. You deserve valet every now and then. Brush off the crumbs on the floor and roll on in with your mini-van.” But then I remembered. I had no cash! I hardly ever carry cash. I was running late and the Bishop would be there. I didn’t have time to stop at the ATM.

I dug between the seats looking for wadded and forgotten bills. Nothing. And then I remembered. We had gift cards in the console. In fact, they were spilling out of the console. I sorted through them. We still had some from Babie’s R Us. There was Carrabas and Home Depot. But I thought, “Let’s class it up.”

After the luncheon, I huddled with the other pastors as we waited on the attendants to bring our cars. I was filled with appreciation from the luncheon and wanted this exchange with the valet to be behind me. I saw the other ministers folding their bills in their hands. Then my Honda Odyssey, in all of its splendor and soccer odor, turned the corner in the parking garage. The valet seemed all too happy to hop out. He extended his hand and waited for that sometimes smooth, sometimes awkward exchange of keys to cash between us. But there would only be a key.

I said, “Sir, hold on.” I reached in the console. “Do you like Zaxby’s?” “Excuse me.” “Do you like Zaxby’s?” He took the card with its $25 credit and no expiration date. He looked me in the eyes in disbelief. Unsure of his disappointment or delight, he laughed and said, “Thanks. Best tip all day.”

It’s good to be appreciated.

On a leash: My growing appreciation of owning a dog in the city.

Owning a dog in the city is quite a new experience for me but I’m getting used to it. Although leash laws still feel new, I admit that I feel quite boujee walking my golden retriever as she prances in her harnessed leash around our Atlanta neighborhood. And I have been encouraged to select the “premium” dog food. And so I pay the extra five bucks for the “Smoked Trout and Whole Grain Recipe.” When we first got our pup, I put her in the backyard because she wouldn’t quit barking inside. The next day in our mailbox was an anonymous photocopy of a city document with the reminders of the barking ordinance. It was a bit of an injury to my pride, but I got over it. I even started taking her to the local “Dog Village” where she gets to socialize and they send us pictures throughout the day of her and her new friends.

Again, the leash laws still feel new. And I’m sure they were in place growing up in my hometown of Jackson, but we always had a big yard and the neighbors were fine with our dogs moving about. Or if they did mind, they never said anything. There were times we wouldn’t see our dogs for a week but we knew they would show back up in the garage. My dad bought Old Roy dry food from the 70 pound red bag at Wal-Mart. Our dogs would jump in the lake and roll in the dirt. When we’d go on vacation, we’d set out two pots of dry food that we left in my dad’s shop. They would drink from the lake.

Today, we have a golden retriever named Zoe. My two elementary aged girls gave her the name. For a split second I thought they had chosen the name for the Greek word Zoe which means life and is found throughout the New Testament. They named her for their favorite teen zombie. We have to be careful about saying the word “walk” too loudly. Her ears perk up and she turns into an NFL linebacker.

It’s funny how accustomed Zoe has become to the leash. I’m up in the North Carolina mountains for the weekend. Zoe is with me. I put her on the leash as we walked around Lake Junaluska. As we finished our walk, we headed up to our home. Without her knowing it, I unhooked her leash but pretended like I was still holding it. For the next quarter mile, she stayed the length of the leash next to me. She could have sprinted for the lake or chased the neighbor’s cat. She walked by my side the whole time. As we approached the driveway, I stopped. She kept going. Confused, she looked back at me. Then she looked ahead. I said, “Go. Run. Be a dog.”

She slashed across the paved road and into the yard chasing a squirrel. She wouldn’t stop running. I opened the door to our home and left her outside in the free open range of our half-acre yard with no fence and no leash. Within minutes, she was at the door. I let her in and she climbed onto the couch. I poured some sparkling water and sat next to her. We both fell asleep.

Leashed: My growing acculturating to owning a dog in the city.

Once a flight risk. Now a fall risk.

I was sitting in the hospital chair in the corner suite. Through the metal blinds and milky window I could a see a few miles away where the tower from the local shopping center emerged over the pine trees. My mother had knee surgery. She had needed it for years. The doctor said, “Imagine a chicken wing. Do you know that rubbery shiny stuff between the bone? You don’t have that in your knee. The surgery was good!”

My mother was still on her pain meds sitting up in her chair. Laree, my sister-in-law in law, had driven from Madison that morning and arrived early to be there for my mother’s physical therapy. I met Laree in the room and we spent a few minutes together with my mother before Laree headed back to Madison. My mother looked at me and Laree and said proudly, “Do you see this yellow band they put on me?” She held it up. It says, “Flight risk. I’m a flight risk.” Laree leaned in and looked closer at the band.” Claire, that doesn’t say flight risk. That says fall risk.”

“Oh, that makes more sense,” my mother said.

For some reason, I could not quit laughing. We all laughed. I’m not sure it was the picture of my mother imagining herself dashing and darting her way past nurses and out of the hospital on a knee should be barely lift or the sudden realization we all feel at times that we are not who we thought we were. It’s the awful and funny feeling that in this moment we need more assistance than we do restraint. Thankfully, her knees is getting better. I know my mom and she’s strong and willful. She’s likely not to be a flight risk anytime soon, but she will certainly find her new step.

Clergy, don’t give up.

These past few months have been excruciatingly tough as a pastor. That’s difficult to admit. Last spring, I could see the light. Vaccines were rolling out. We were coming out of COVID and we were back in our beloved sanctuary. The nursery was beginning to fill again. Some Sundays we had twelve babies. Life was returning. But then I got the call, “Someone in the nursery had a case.” This happened on Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day afternoon, our children’s staff had to call new moms and dads and tell them they would need to take off work and quarantine their kids for the next two weeks.

I was angry. Really angry. I felt terrible for these families. I felt terrible for our staff having to make these calls. I knew that the word would get out about our case in the nursery and the parents would stop bringing their babies.

By Wednesday, I mustered enough courage to mandate vaccines for all nursery workers. I reasoned that the kids couldn’t wear masks and that wasn’t fair to them. But I also felt ambivalent about the mandate. Because I knew our nursery workers loved our kids and had been faithful to us throughout the pandemic. I got calls from people thanking me for making the best decision for their children by the decision. I got calls of extreme disappointment. I wanted to agree both sets of calls. Pastors are usually pretty empathetic people. We try our best to understand the viewpoints of all sides.

This all happened in May. Then I took a big gulp of air and soldiered on with worship planning for the summer. I knew attendance would be sparse. It always is during June and July. I was pleasantly surprised that attendance was back to pre-covid levels for the summer. When we sang, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, our congregation did “let the amen sound from his people again.” Worship was lively and strong. Our choir was back in the chancel.

Just a few weeks later, I got to be the hero. I sent out the note they had been waiting to read. “Due to the new CDC guidelines, there are no more masks mandates for worship if you have been vaccinated. We look forward to seeing your faces this Sunday.” I received several emails telling me how grateful they were to the church for leadership during these times.

We had a backlog of baptisms for children born during the pandemic. We had baptisms almost every Sunday this summer. It all felt good. I had a vacation planned for the fourth of July. I pulled out of our driveway breathing a sigh of relief. I couldn’t wait to be with our family in the mountains and I knew when I returned we could start stoking the fires for the fall at church.

Sure enough, we began our work as a staff. It was early July. We set a date for early August for two welcome back events. We planned a welcome back Sunday and trivia night for Wednesday night dinners. The worship would included duets, stringed instruments, a full choir, a rousing sermon and a petting zoo with pony rides. Yes, I love Jesus and felt a little bit like a sell out for bribery for bringing the animals to get the families back to worship. But people have been away for a year. When in doubt, bring animals.

As the big worship day was approaching, I watched the COVID numbers ticking up. I’m checked every night and every night I was more disappointed. This was supposed to be our our big return. It’s time to get people reengaged with God. It’s time to get them back on their journey with Jesus. I’ve told me people time and again that the hardest part about being a church during a pandemic is we are a congregation. By nature, we congregate.

As our big day approached, there was no going back. Despite the rising numbers, we went full steam ahead. Yes, I reinstated the masks mandate for worship. We were following the CDC guidelines and the executive orders of our mayor. Let me say this. Living in Atlanta, has only amplified the complexity of matters as our political leaders continue to give different messages. You worry the decisions you make are going to get wrapped up in some larger political narrative that you don’t want to be a part of. You have to make these decisions but all you really want is for your people to be able to worship God and find some joy and hope on a Sunday morning. A good offering would be nice too.

We went full steam ahead with our big Sunday. We had quite the crowd and some glorious music. Our front yard was a zoo as we left worship. It was a beautiful day as we enjoyed ice cream sandwiches on the lawn and watched the kids riding ponies and parents snapping pictures with the cow.

Was I little reluctant to post much about it? A little. I wasn’t sure how some of my clergy friends would react. The last thing I needed was a thread of criticisms. This day gave me life and it gave our neighborhood life too.

As this awful Delta variant rages on, I find myself slipping again towards anger. We were supposed to experience a rebirth this fall. I hopeful we still can. Yes, I want to keep our children safe, but suspending children’s events is not the way to go. Children need church just as much as they need school. Families need dinners with other families. We’re going to give it our best shot.

To all my fellow clergy out there, whatever decision you make for your churches, I support you! I miss seeing you. Congregations, we thank you and continue to ask for your support. It may take a moment to remember some of your names. But we’ll get there. God is with us.

Raccoon in the house

This last Wednesday night I was awoken at 1 a.m. by our dog. She sleeps beside our bed. She usually doesn’t bark at night. Blair and I both woke up. She quit barking and we went back to bed not thinking much about it. About thirty minutes later, she barked again. Blair goes downstairs to check it out. The next thing I hear is Blair running like a sprinter up the stairs. I’m thinking to myself, “There’s someone in our house.” My heart is pumping hard. Blair catches her breath and says to me, “There’s a racoon…on our couch.” 

I walk gingerly down the steps, our dog bravely at the top of the steps behind me. I grab a broom from the closet. Blair whispers, “What are you going to do with that?” I said, “I’ll think of something.”

I turn my head towards the living room. There is a racoon lounging on our couch. He’s looking at me sure in the eyes. He is twice the size of most lap dogs. I want to open the door and sweep him out. I make my way towards him. He lightly jumps onto the floor and ambles his way to the dog’s door and leaves. That was it! I quickly lock the dog’s door. Blair and I head back to bed. Thirty minutes later I hear a big “thump” downstairs. This racoon is trying to get back in. Then it struck me.

When he was in our house, he was not disoriented. He knew right where he was. Then I thought back. On several mornings the dog food had been scattered on the floor. This was not the racoon’s first time in our house. This raccoon has been sneaking in our house during the night through the dog door. He’s been eating our dog’s food, kicking back on our couch and watching Ted Lasso.

High on the Holy Spirit

On a recent youth mission trip to Hazard, Kentucky I had the opportunity to visit with the homeowner. His name was Randy. We were working on his trailer. We were tearing down his back porch and building a ramp. He walked with a cane and wore a blue tooth.

He was a kind man and he lived in a poor trailer park. He offered us Pepsi’s each day. During a light rain, he invited our youth on the porch to tell us about his life. He told us about his days as a coal miner. “I was twelve years old on my back half a mile into the mountain mining coal. Mama made us sandwiches and we ate inside. We worked nine hour shifts. The coal company made it so our family wouldn’t leave. They helped us with housing. They had a store. But when they left they tore down the store. We were as poor as they come but didn’t know it.”

After the youth left, he told me about speaking in tongues. “I’m part of the holiness church. I don’t know what church you’re apart of. It don’t matter. We all got our own journey. When I was a kid, I could never get the holy ghost. All my friends got the holy ghost. They could speak in tongues. I was always so mad because I knew what they did on Friday nights. But when I got older, my mom got sick. She was here in this trailer. All I could do was pray. I prayed all day. Then the Holy Spirit put me in a trance. I’m telling you. It got me higher than any drug. I felt like was floating. It was like I was hovering off the ground in this trailer. And if there wasn’t a roof on this trailer, I would have floated on up and out of this trailer park. I would floated real high and looked out over all the holler as free as a man can be. That’s the way that spirit got hold of me. I never had it like that again.”

Put in the work

Put in the work. There is no shortcut. If you want to achieve something worth achieving, you’ve got to put in the work. Whether it’s studying for an exam, writing a book or starting a business, there’s no replacement.

When I first got into ministry, I thought I understood what it meant to write a sermon. The first few months were fine. I studied. I wrote. I rehearsed. The sermons went ok. Sundays, however, kept showing up. It dawned on me that first year. People were going to be staring at me every Sunday of my life. They would sit in the pews needing a word from God from me every week. I was God’s messenger for them. Gulp.

Early on I thought, “God understands how busy it’s been. Maybe God will just give me the words on Saturday night.” I thought maybe the words would fall from the sky onto paper like dust. It would be a dusting of the holy spirit. (I imagine choirs directors feel the same about preparing anthems each week.)

When I tried to write sermons at the last minute, the sermon suffered. The people on the way out would say, “Well, weren’t the hymns just wonderful today!” And I realized that to write a sermon requires preparation, heart, prayer and soul every week. God would not allow for shortcuts.

When I was twenty three, a church welcomed me as their intern. They blessed me with the opportunity to preach. There was this one man named Wayne . Wayne was a bit critical of sermons. Each week, I watched as he rifled through the Bible double checking the pastor’s scriptural references. For my first sermon with this church, I did not put in the work. I got busy and hosted friends. After the sermon Waynes says to me, “Well, I don’t know what the seminaries are teaching our young people these days.” I was discouraged. But I also knew I didn’t work as hard as I should on that sermon.

Several years later, I was invited back to this church for their homecoming. I did not want the same experience. So I busted it. I poured blood, sweat and tears into this sermon. I prayed over it. There was Wayne in the congregation.

I preached and I felt really good about the sermon. Wayne finds me after the service. I braced. He said, “Will, that was the best sermon I have ever heard…you preach.” I was pleased. I was reminded that there are no shortcuts to success. But more importantly it was when I prayed and put the most work in that I witnessed how God’s word could comfort, convict and inspire. 

Typically, people won’t see that work you put in. It’s kind of like an iceberg. People see the tip. They don’t see the rest of the preparatory work below. But it’s that preparation for success that makes the difference. Put in the work.

Make sure the fire’s out

We camped in the woods behind our house. Our house was on a lake and behind the house were woods. We weren’t sure whose woods they were but they backed up to the highway. I was in the eight grade and some of my friends were in high school. Bobby started the fire and we stayed up drinking Cokes my dad had packed with ice in our blue cooler beside our tents. In the evening while the fire was still hot, we got the urge to swim in the lake. We traded turns tending the fire while the others left the woods for the lake and we jumped off the dock. I remember looking into the water with just enough moonlight to ensure I wasn’t about to jump on a snake which hung around our docks in June. The water was like a bathtub. As the evening deepened, we shook the rest of the Cokes and sprayed each other and then jumped off the dock again.

The next morning, my muscles were sore. We packed up our equipment and looked at the fire. It was dead, but to make sure we took turns urinating on it. It smelled awful and the ashes sizzled. My friends’ parents picked them up after breakfast. I took a shower and washed out the campfire smoke. I dressed in pressed clothes and we headed to church. After church, we pulled back into the driveway and the fire department was leaving our house. I could see the char of the underbrush. The fire we had put out burned two acres.

My dad looked at me. “I thought you put out the fire.”

“We did.”

“You might need to go back to church.”

But what’s this?

The forecast had rain all day and we were still on edge of this pandemic. We were stuck in the house. We did chores, played board games and the kids sat on the couch with screens in their hand. And though they had helped with folding blankets and cleaning their rooms, their attention to work hadn’t lasted long.

We had thought about venturing out to Ponce City Market, but we knew with kids we’d simply use that time to eat and pay $50 for a sack of Atlanta’s best hamburgers and a milkshake we’d share and feel awful the rest of the afternoon.

Around noon, the rain cleared and the sun popped out. It was spring in Atlanta. Spring is why you live in Atlanta if you can deal with the pollen. But the rain had calmed it, the sun was warm on your face and the damp yards were drying.

I told my eight year old, “Let’s go play basketball.” It was a game she was learning to enjoy like I had at her age.

“No, I want to stay here,” she said.

“We must go. You like basketball and we’ve been inside all day.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

There’s a goal near our house that belongs to the neighbor who leaves it on the road because it’s one of the few not heavily traveled in Atlanta.

We shot basketball for a good twenty minutes. She loves the game knock out that she plays with her friends during the week and I didn’t let her win for the first 5 games until she beat me for real and was thankful and perturbed.

I said, “All right, let’s play my game. You have to pretend there’s 5 seconds left. I have the ball and am down by a point. You’re guarding me.”

It took some nudging but she came around and tried to steal the ball. I counted down the clock and scored an easy lay up to show her the thrill of a last minute triumph. And then she took the ball and said, “But what’s this? The time was actually wrong. There were three extra seconds.” She missed the shot. And we repeated the countdown.

The grey clouds had moved back in and the wind had picked up blowing the fallen azaleas blooms on the sidewalks. It didn’t faze Katie too much. She wanted to play the countdown game again and I certainly would rather walk home in wet clothes than hurry home to sit more on the couch. I let her have the ball. The goal was regulation height which took some effort from an eight year old. I began the countdown. Each time she missed, she repeated that line with all the life of a determined, pesky and happy 8 year old, “But what’s this?” And she’d use that line until she finally made the shot. It was her way of refusing to admit defeat to me.

“Where did you learn that line, ‘but what’s this?’ I have never heard you use it.”

“It’s all mine.”

Although I believed she picked it up at school, I didn’t argue the point. We walked home in the rain until we got close and we started racing towards the front door. As she was getting close, she zips past me with her famous, “But what’s this?” and runs inside.

And though, of course, she meant nothing theological with those words, I find them to be true to Christian faith. It’s a fine way to look at faith. When defeat swamps our dreams, when we shrink before the mystery of death, when guilt collapses in on us and sadness wanders in like an old friend, God’s story of cross and resurrection calls out to us with a hopeful and pesky refrain, “But what’s this?”