Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tossing the Tassel

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my graduation from Penn Hills High School.  The ceremony was held in the cool of the evening, under the football stadium lights.   A lot has changed since then.  In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers financed a new $200,000 football field for Penn Hills.  Just last year, an entirely new high school building opened on the same campus where I attended.

My senior class was a large one, with a little more than 1,000 graduates, and yet I never felt lost or like I was a faceless student in the crowd.  Funny thing is, even when I was hustling down the hallways to class, I felt I actually knew everyone! I don’t know which is better, to have graduated from a huge high school or a smaller one. I confess that I often envy those who were a part of a graduation class of 100 or so, where everyone truly knew each other and has stayed connected over the years. Of course, those folks may envy me for the opportunities present in a very large school.

All of this makes me think about “finding” one’s place, whether in school or in church.  Most Presbyterian churches are well under 250 members and shrinking. On the other hand, Sardis is about ten times that size.  Are churches like schools, challenging as they grow larger?  Or are they filled with greater opportunities as they grow larger?

 I remember Dr. Frank Harrington when he was the Senior Pastor of the Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, the largest church in our denomination.  He always believed that when you came to worship in a large church, you needed to recognize at least eleven other worshippers by name. If you did, then you felt right at home!

Maybe I didn’t really know all 999 of my fellow graduates, but I did know at least eleven by name.  Perhaps that is reason I too felt at home. I hope all of us feel at home at Sardis; it is the best feeling in the entire world.  I hope we all will take the time each Sunday to greet and meet at least eleven others as we come to worship. Everyone needs to feel like they belong. I also hope that we will use the many other chances Sardis gives us to be connected with our church family members in personal and profound ways. 

I do not have an answer to the merits of large schools versus small. And I cannot say that large or small churches are to be preferred. The apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:9 (NRSV) “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”  So maybe it is not the new field or the new building (whatever the size) but rather the servants within them that make all the difference.  In churches large or small, we all have a place and a mission.

One more thought as we celebrate this graduation season, let’s remember this special time in the lives of so many of our Sardis youth.  HAPPY GRADUATION TO THE CLASS OF 2014!

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Time to Remember

Though it seems to have grown out of remembrance services for Union and Confederate soldiers who died during the Civil War, no one knows for sure where Memorial Day started. Over two dozen towns have laid claim to be the birthplace of Memorial Day. President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation on May 26, 1966 identifying Waterloo, New York as the town where it all started, but truth is, no one really knows for certain.

One thing is for sure, most Americans see Memorial Day as the kick-off to summer and best of all, a three day weekend.  Nothing wrong with a three day weekend, but I wonder how many of us will actually pause in the midst of picnics and travel to take a moment to remember and honor those who have given their all in service to their country?

In his book, A Goodly Heritage, Dr. Jennings Reid, with the help of John McCaskill, compiled a list all the known war veterans who were Sardis members. The list goes all the way back to the War of 1812 and ends with Vietnam. The list was complete at the time of publishing, but is not exhaustive as several Sardis members not listed also served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There are two young men pictured in Dr. Reid’s book, S/Sgt. Julian Sidney Miller, Jr.  and Lt. Richard Preston Peoples. Both were killed in World War II.  Both were so young.

Friends at Sardis started a class in their honor and called it the Miller-Peoples Class.  It was a popular class where many lifelong friendships were forged. The class continued for decades, but as time moved on, members grew older and soon many passed on to Glory Land. The class eventually dwindled in size to only a handful, but they never lost the love they knew for each other and their remembrance of those two young men. Not long ago the class officially ended as the few remaining faithful migrated to other adult classes. The Miller – Peoples Class now lives only in memory.

I think about those two young men every Memorial Day. I think about all those young men and women who answered the call of duty, served our country, and gave their lives for our freedoms. Regardless of your political leanings, I hope you will pause among the hot dogs, burgers, and potato salad and remember why we have a three day weekend called Memorial Day.  

Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  (John 15:13 NRSV).  Those words seem to echo to me through the years come each Memorial Day.  Is there someone you are especially thinking of this Memorial Day?  

Friday, May 16, 2014

"What's In a Name?"

One of Shakespeare’s most famous lines is spoken by Juliet to Romeo in the play bearing their names, “What’s in a name?  that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Names have always been important to us. Have you noticed how parents today seem to be more innovative when naming their children? Many seem to be skipping over the tradition of passing on long held family names in favor of blending names and using various spellings for common names. Of course, some old names are being dusted off and are rising in popularity.
Each year a new list of the top baby names is published. Noah has now replaced Jacob as the top name for boys. It is the first new boy’s name at number one other than Jacob or Michael since 1960. 
Sophia remains the top name for girls. The fastest name on the rise and growing in popularity for girls is Daleyza. Tom, Jared, and Mark did not make the top ten lists and neither did Jane, Alice, or Renda.
 All this makes me think about that little verse in Acts 11:26 (NRSV) that reads, “It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.”   Imagine that, Peter, Andrew, James, and John and all the others were given a new name. They were called Christians.
 Some scholars believe that at first the name Christian was less than desirable. Even the footnote in my RSV Bible says, “A Latin word meaning partisans of Christ, perhaps at first a term of reproach." Interestingly, instead of the name Christian being a passing phase or short lived trend, it stuck like glue.  
You can’t put your finger on why it stuck, but I wonder if it was because the people in Antioch started to notice something strange and wonderful about those believers called Christians. What do you think it was?   Was it because Christians walked to different beat? Was it the way they treated others and cared about those who were cast outside the social circle? Was it the way they showed simple acts of kindness and love?  Was it because they believed and took Jesus at his word and tried to live it out in their daily lives?   
Was it because they had a joy and a peace from above? What do you think?
I wonder what would happen the next time I am handed a magic marker and an adhesive name tag that reads, ‘Hello, My Name is………” and I wrote “Christian”?  It might get some attention, but then again, the more I think about it, I hope anyone would know that about me without me having to tell them on a name tag!  

What do you think?  How will they know we are Christians?

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Muckraker in Me…..

Most of us are familiar with John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of Christian, an everyman (and everywoman) character who journeys from his hometown to the Celestial City.   Along the way he meets many fascinating individuals, including Muckraker.

Once in a speech, President Theodore Roosevelt likened the muckrakers (certain types of journalists) of his day with the man with the Muck-rake in Bunyan’s story.  He described him as, “the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” 

It all seems so silly. Who in their right mind would spend their lives with a muck-rake when they could exchange it for a celestial crown?     Why would anyone want to spend all of their time looking down when if they simply looked up, they could see they were being offered something far more precious and wonderful?    Why do we often settle for muck-rakes when there is a free give-away of celestial crowns!  
I wonder if it has something to do with habits.   Habits are life forming.  And that’s what is so sad about the Muckraker.  Looking down became such a habit with him that he missed the best of what life can offer by never looking up.
Have you ever met folks who habitually see the worse, while others you meet in life always see the good?    Do we do the same?  Do we see the mess on the ground and miss the rainbow in the sky?  Why is this so?  Do our habits create our destiny? 
Perhaps Paul understood this when he wrote,  “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4) 
His advice for us is sound.  We should cultivate the discipline of focusing on better things.  In other words, we should look up.  We should form the habit of looking for the good.   Because if we start thinking and looking for the good, there is a sure chance we will find it.
 Is there anyone out there who wants to join me and cash in their muck-rake for a crown?



Friday, May 2, 2014

When I Joined the Church

I have just returned from the Confirmation Class retreat at Valle Crucis, a great place tucked away in the beautiful North Carolina mountains, where we have been taking our Confirmation students for as long as I can remember. The retreat never comes up short.  It is always a meaningful experience for our youth and for all of us adults who have the privilege of being along for the ride. If you have ever had a child experience confirmation at Sardis, then you know firsthand how this retreat is a memorable part of their faith journey and spiritual development.  

All of these things made me think back to my own confirmation experience. Truth is my parents made me attend, even against my objections and arguing. I never told them, but once I got into the flow, I actually found myself looking forward to the Bible study each week.  
To this day, however, I cannot remember one single lesson. I don’t remember which Bible verses we had to memorize, just that we had to stand and recite them to the minister, a terrible fate for an eighth grader! I do remember that at the end of the year, we had a test on the Bible. Now that will send shivers down the spine of any middle school young person. I don’t remember my grade, but I must have passed. They let me join the church.
 I don’t remember any of my confirmation teacher’s names. It seems like I don’t remember much at all about that time, but that is not the case.
Even though I can’t tick off the names of the adults who taught the class, I do remember their kindness and goodness. I remember how they seemed to have so much faith, while also being honest about their doubts and questions. I remember how they took the time to know me by name, talk with me, and make me feel like I belonged. They made me feel like I was important to God and that God loved me specifically. They helped me understand that the most important gift I could ever give back to God was my own love. When you come to think about it, isn’t that the point of confirmation?   
Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What do you remember about your confirmation classes? How did the leaders make you feel?  What impact did they have on your faith development as a young person? Does that experience still have an impact on your life today?