Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Beautiful, Loving, and Discerning Church

North United Methodist Church is absolutely beautiful! I enjoy worshipping in this sacred space every Sunday. Though the church is an architectural masterpiece, I think that the people are the real beauty of the church.  Every Sunday, somebody encourages me to continue to work for God. Several people have even affirmed various gifts in me. Last Sunday, a retired minister came to me after the 11a.m. service and said, “Shelvis I think you have the grace to be a minister.” What a word! Indeed, I am truly blessed by the loving and discerning congregation here at North. Their insight helps me to clearly see more of how God wants to use my gifts for the Church.

Teaching in Vacation Bible School

There have been so many ministry opportunities to do at North this summer. First of all, I got the opportunity to teach Vacation Bible School to children in a variety of age groups. The primary theme of Bible school was learning to trust in God.  The kids learned about how Mary and Martha learned to trust God even though it was clear that Lazarus was dead and would not rise again. I let the children choose someone to mummify with toilet paper in order to represent the death of Lazarus. Also, the kids learned how the disciples learned to trust God to provide fish for them when they could not catch any for themselves. Just when the disciples thought that they were going to go home with no fish, Jesus told them to throw out their net once again. When they threw out their net, they caught 153 fish! I let the kids practice throwing out a real fish net. They really enjoyed throwing out the net—especially when I pretended to be a fish.

Preaching for the First Time

This entire summer, I knew that I would have to preach. Admittedly, I was really concerned about this day. I have never preached in my entire life. I have watched my friends preach, but I have never done it myself. Certainly, I could never do such a thing! However, during the middle of July, I preached. Yes, I did it! Well actually God empowered me to do it! Indeed, God is so faithful.

On the actual day of preaching, I really thought I was not going to make it. The fear began to creep up into my stomach and settle into my throat just before I approached the podium. I just knew that I would break down. Amazingly, when I began to read the scripture that my sermon was based on (Romans 7:13-25), I could feel a peaceful and calming strength rushing through my body. This was the strength of the Holy Spirit. I could feel the Holy Spirit doing something in me that I could not do for myself. The feeling was awesome. It was as if I could feel myself being used by God.

I am so thankful that God showed up during my preaching moment. I have learned that if we take a step of faith, God will show up in a mighty way. Truly, I can say thanks be to God!

There will be food

This summer I have served at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. I have worked with the worship ministries, the education and discipleship ministries, and with a new ministry of the church called reVision. ReVision is a ministry of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church with adolescents in Southwest Houston who are on probation for gang-related activity.

When I arrived in Houston with my fellow Duke Field Education Students, we told that at every reVision event there will be food. If someone is hungry, our supervisor explained, there is no use taking them to do anything. We eat because the ministry strives to meet each person’s most basic needs and in hopes that this will build trust and relationships between youth, staff, and volunteers. As time passed, I realized that I had yet to attend a single church event that didn’t have food. It wasn’t just reVision, but the entire church that lived by the motto, “There will be food.”

There is something deeply scriptural about a ministry of food. God met the most basic needs of the Israelite people in the desert, feeding them manna and quail. Much of Christ’s ministry happened around mealtime tables at the homes of Pharisees and tax collectors. We told of his miraculous multiplication of food to meet the needs of hungry crowds. Christ gave us his body and blood as food to our souls in the form of bread and wine. Threaded throughout scripture is this message that where God is, “there will be food.”

Food is a uniting force, exceeded in necessity only by water and breath. Humanity needs to eat. My time in Houston has taught me in new and refreshing ways that humanity needs to eat together. Eating together feeds the soul and nourishes the body. Eating together at a table puts us on equal grounds with complete strangers with whom we have seemingly little in common. Eating together at the Lord’s Table, we feed on the Bread of Life, receive eternal nourishment and become the body of Christ.

This summer, news of Midwestern drought, predictions of grain shortages and higher food prices have littered the airwaves. Residents of urban city centers suffer from a lack of access to nourishing, healthy and fresh food. The people of Chad, Gambia, Burkina Faso and Mali face the possibilities of food shortages due to poor harvests and unstable political conditions. Over and over, we hear the world telling us, “There will not be food.”

In fear that there will not be food, that there will not be enough, we stockpile, we hoard, we obsessively coupon, we monitor our retirement accounts and we forget to care for others. We forget the church has been feeding on the body of Christ of nearly 2,000 years and we’ve yet to run of out. The church’s response to hunger must be “There will be food. God, through us, will provide.”

Is Christ’s body a practical and strategic plan to solve world hunger? Certainly not. But the reality of the limitless supply of Christ’s body, Christ’s grace, Christ’s provision demands a reorientation towards questions of hunger. Instead of responding in fear, hostility, and hoarding to news reports, the church, the body of Christ, must open its storehouses and feed God’s people, whether hungry adolescents in Southwest Houston or hungry refugees in Burkina Faso. The church calls to each and every one, “Come, there will be food.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Morning After: Seeing Beauty

Oh, righttt, that happened: my first thoughts as I woke up early Sunday morning. I rolled over in bed and remembered all the interesting details of the evening before…

After dark, on my way home from two of the four churches I am serving this summer, I got caught in a tremendous storm.  The torrential rain prevented any visibility out of my windshield, but out of fear that if I pulled off the road I would get stuck in an unseen ditch, I slowly scooted at less than 5mph to the home I am dwelling in for the summer. I arrived, scared to death, and parked in front of the home where I sat in my car and observed non-stop lightening all around me, especially into the distance over the huge field in front of my home. The thunder roared concurrently with the lightening, shook my car, and indicated to me that I was in the heart of it.  With every bolt of lightening lighting up my entire car through the rain, my nerves tensed.  I had pulled up directly in front of the front porch with the idea in mind that I could just hop out, run as fast as I possibly could up the steps and into my home.  I had done it before when caught in storms but this one was more intense than any I had been stuck in in a while, and the wind around me was drastically picking up and shaking my car. Questioning whether I was safer in my car, parked (under some power lines) or in the house, I called a friend to ask his opinion.  He suggested that I stay in the car for five minutes before doing anything, because it should just blow over quickly. 
So sitting, intending to spend the time in my car praying for those sermonizing, I got distracted by my concern that the swing a few yards in front of my car might blow into my car, breaking through the windshield.  No sooner had I completed that thought I watched the one hundred year old tree barely yards in front of me split and crash down onto the home and branches land right on my car.  Honestly, it happened so fast that I have no idea if I screamed or what, but I was in awe.  When I came to my senses, I contemplated the rest of the tree coming down so I threw that baby in reverse and backed that car up! But, that meant I was parked under the power lines.  Desperately dialing my friend back, panicked in the uncertainty of what the best course of action would be, I asked what he thought I should do.  Of course, he suggested I call 911 immediately and go over to the neighbors to seek shelter. 
I called 911 (barely but luckily remembering the address of the home I was staying) and explained the situation.  The kind and gentle voice comforted me that help was on their way and that I would be safest staying put in my car until they arrived.  So, I waited, all too aware of the trees swaying in the wind, the rain flooding around me, the power lines above me, and the tree’s unfortunate relocation on top of the house I was borrowing for the summer. Soon enough, flashing lights and about six cars and one fire truck pulled up to my home.  Anxious, I got out of my car to greet them and explain my situation.  Shinning their flashlights over the tree now laying on the home, they informed me that it had in fact pulled down the main power line and it was tangled in the branches.  They asked me a series of questions and if I had been the home. I responded no, and they helped me climb the bushes onto the porch in order to get to the door (the tree’s new location covered the stairs and half the porch).  I entered the home followed by six or so firemen, including one of my parishioners- David. Hooray, a familiar face!  They explored the home, brought in a ladder, and ventured into the attic I didn’t know existed. Others were outside inspecting the tree and power lines, calling the power people.
They deemed the house unsafe to stay in and suggested I call my supervisor to stay at the parsonage.  Unable to get a hold of him, and knowing he was exhausted from returning from our youth week-long mission trip, I asked again if they thought it was really unsafe, and they changed their minds, saying I should be fine.  Trusting in their judgments, I called the homeowners who lived part time in Charlotte, to inform them of the state of their home. After much chatting and inspecting, the firemen and I exchanged info and they were on their way. They expected the power guys would be by shortly. 
A number of phone calls and visits from the neighbor later, the power guys pulled up to inspect the damage.  He informed me that the rest of the road had lost power, so he was going to deal with them first then come back and remove the power lines lying on my home. (Somehow I managed to still have power…ironic considering I was the one with the power line lying on the house.)  It had been hours since I first arrived home and I was finally trying to calm down a bit by sharing the exciting events with a friend on the phone, when I began to hear dripping. Yes, in fact, over the course of the next hour, the entire dining room ceiling turned into a shower-head.  Hysterically laughing out of nervousness and at the reality of the entire evening, I grabbed every pot, pan, Mason jar, and container I could find, I moved all of the furniture and created a mosaic of rain collectors on the floor.   Eventually, hours into the morning at this point, deeming the house in some sense of order in which I could finally rest, I attempted to fall asleep to the sounds of water dripping in the dinning room.
Somewhat groggy from a less than ideal amount of sleep, I got myself ready for the morning’s services and explored the home to assess its current status. Grabbing my camera, I ventured outside, to see what it looked like in the daylight.  I must admit it looked even worse than the evening before. But, as I wandered around in the morning fog and stillness, I could not help but think Wow, this is beautiful.  Of course, these are probably not the most appropriate sentiments when looking at the destruction of one’s home, but I could not help it.  I felt like I had climbed a tree, wandering in its branches without the fear of falling.  I studied the beautiful rings of the tree, revealing its age and captivating my attention.  I wondered about how much that tree had withstood in its years and how many lives it had been a part of.  I pondered over the force of the wind, how much power it would take to split this massive portion of the tree apart.  And I couldn’t help but ponder the power of God. For some reason, all I could think of amidst this destruction was its beauty. That tree was absolutely beautiful, and the power of that storm was also majestic. I felt like a cliché only able to see the beauty in the mess, but I also did not care because for some reason, that tree lying on that home was incredibly moving.

         As I wandered back towards the direction of the porch I also thought about how Jimmy and Betty’s (the homeowners) cars were usually parked right under where that massive branch landed. And, as I walked to where I was parked, I noticed I had just been two feet forward, it would have smashed the car, with me inside.  (I should note, I didn’t park two feet forward because Jimmy had told me all summer not to park on the sidewalk because the oil may leak and would never come out of the concrete. But, if I had not listened to him, I might have been squashed. Thank God for his request.) I praised God for how blessed we were in the situation. It could have been so much worse. There could have been so much more damage done to the house and if the whole tree had fallen, the entire house would have been demolished.  I thanked God for my safety, and that no one else was home or hurt.  And I thought about how scared I had been the night before in contrast with the beauty I was overwhelmed wandering amongst the tree’s branches.  
Thank you God for the blessing of seeing beauty and the life experiences I have been granted. And, praise God for beauty in destruction!
The poor swing I was so scared of blowing into my car....squashed.

 The view from the front porch.

Another day in the life in Lilesville.

Friday, July 27, 2012

try a little tenderness

My time at The Next Door has been the highlight of my experience at Duke Divinity School thus far.  I feel so incredibly blessed to be working here and I can definitely see myself working at a similar non-profit when I “grow up”. The Next Door has sequined my heart.  My time here has been wonderful; however, “wonderful” should not necessarily connote sugar and sweets all the time.

The hardest day I have experienced here thus far was July 16th, 2012.  This particular Monday brought about many things: a fresh start to the work week, beautiful, sunny weather, a client’s first relapse, and my first summer shower of tears.  I'll use the name "Sarah" in place of the client's real name out of respect for my my client's privacy.

So, Sarah just got a job at a restaurant in The Arcade, a quirky shopping arcade built in 1902.  It was only a part-time job, but it was her job and a step in the right direction.  That Monday morning she and I met bright and early at 8 am and then again at 9:30 am.  We talked about her plans for the day: she was going to go to work at her new job from 10 am until 1 pm and then come back to The Next Door to job search with me for the rest of the day.  Everything seemed well and Sarah left with a smile on her face; however, a relapse can happen in a split second.

As she was walking from The Next Door to The Arcade, Sarah relapsed; she stopped somewhere on her way to work and drank alcohol.  Thankfully, she immediately came back to The Next Door; however, if someone uses while she’s in the program, then she is immediately released from The Next Door.  Personally, I enjoy drinking a beer or two at Fullsteam Brewery after I go for a run every Wednesday with the Bull City Running Club; however, one beer--even just a sip--for an addict is completely different--especially in the morning!   

She came back in tears, crying rivers of pain, guilt, and hurt.  I hated seeing her like that and wanted to just make it all better.  I started thinking about what I could have done differently that morning and those “what if”-sort-of-thoughts started racing through my mind.  I took my lunch break and tears started flowing down my face once I walked away from The Next Door.  

About five clients that I have worked with throughout this summer have left the program.  Despite having invested myself into all of my clients’ lives, I understood that The Next Door was a hard program to complete and that not everyone was going to finish.  Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely sad to learn that clients were no longer in the program; however, I had not yet seen with my own eyes a client relapse and then have to leave.

Sarah wanted so badly to finish this program, to maintain a steady job, and to support her two children.  I was sad to see her hurting; I felt like I could not do anything else for her; I still wanted to help her achieve her dreams after that happened.  As I tears began to roll down my face, I immediately called my mom for support.  My mom listened to my pain and my struggles.  When I told her how much I wanted to be able to help Sarah through her relapse even though she’d no longer be at The Next Door, my mom reminded me that I could still help -- I could pray for Sarah.

It’s hard when someone you care about relapses -- especially when you are there for that moment of relapse.  However, I took this time of my hurting for Sarah to practice my self-care.  My supervisor reminded me of the importance of this!  So, after going for a run to clear my thoughts and a good conversation with my dad, I was able to reflect.  Sarah’s relapse was surely a painful event for her; however, any relapse can be an opportunity to begin again.  It can be a time to acknowledge one’s shortcomings and look at what caused the relapse.  God is a God of new beginnings and God is a God of love.  I have asked God to wrap God’s arms of mercy and comfort around Sarah because I know that God has a plan for her -- even if it does not involve her being at The Next Door.


Two Small Stones.

The day is slowly ending, sun sinking behind the tops of the trees to the west, and I’m crouched over a fire-pit ringed by slabs of stone. A crude pyramid of dryer lint, twisted paper towels, dry sticks, and cut wood takes hold of the flame that I place in its center, smoke and fire swiftly twisting upward. It crackles, thrumming and popping as a dry heat amidst the already thick humidity. Sweat slicks my cheekbones and forehead and my t-shirt clings to me as I shift place, inserting new twigs here and there. My small blaze tries its best to echo the streaming globe of fire descending behind the trees, and as I watch eight counselors move into place around the lake, I can’t help but be aware of the different sources of light that dapple us all. 
Without fail, Thursday night’s lakeside service at Camp Chestnut Ridge makes me nervous. It’s what every week builds toward, history, song, story, and Mystery fusing together in a crucible ringed by wooden benches, old trees, and lake water. When I’m the chaplain who leads this service, I’m acutely aware that although we’ve sought to share the love of Jesus throughout the rest of the week, this is the night when the Gospel and campers meet. Firelight moves across their faces as we explore Incarnation, sacrifice, the cross, and resurrection, and even though I know that any heart-work is truly being done by the Holy Spirit, I can’t help but feel pressure. It’s entirely self-formed and self-sustaining, this underlying anxiety, internal worries about ensuring all-age accessibility for the message while trying desperately to avoid both heresy and saccharine. I only hear encouragement from other staff members, but this small ball of concern always roils in my gut: “Don’t screw this up, Baker… this could be the first time these kids are actually hearing the Gospel as available to them. Seriously… that’s what you’re going to talk about? That’s your analogy for salvation and forgiveness?  Sheesh.”
Thankfully, a still, small voice perpetually hushes this internal thrashing. A cascading movement of frog-song overwhelms any voices of worry within me. I watch campers walk around the lake in small groups, stopping at each of the costumed counselors as their stories are shared – Francis of Assisi, the Apostle Paul, Adam and Eve, and two unnamed Israelites offer tales of trusting the Lord, knowing Jesus, encouraging the Church, and the Lord at work in Creation. Silence falls as campers settle onto the wooden benches, their eyes drawn to the flames of the fire. 
There’s a “Please, dear Jesus” and I’m in, mouth burbling with story like a river whose source was never me to begin with. The campers each hold two small stones, hands tracing the curves as I share about story and memory bound up in dusty Ebenezers in the desert, places of Presence and communal Israelite thanksgiving. They are reminded of God’s story as primary, their own stories eddies in His waves even as the Lord delights over each of them, knowing their names and faces and families and pain and hope and questions and sorrows. The campers file by the cross at the lake’s edge, one hand resting on its sun-warmed wood as the other casts one of the stones (a symbol of that which saddens, burdens, or overwhelms them) into the depths of the lake (a symbol of the love of God which flows from the cross). The other stone is placed into pockets or packs, with the hope being that it might serve as a small Ebenezer of memory in the days, weeks, and months to come.  Counselors and campers cluster, praying for one another as the fire dies down, embers snapping periodically in the night.
This was never about me, whether or not my preaching was up to par with some self-imposed standard, or whether or not I could “make” something happen through my message. Instead, as Richard Rohr has said, “God is already present. God's Spirit is dwelling within you. You cannot search what you already have. You cannot talk God into 'coming' into you by longer and more urgent prayers. All you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.” Somehow, through the ripple of water, the buzz of insects, and the glow of the fire, the Lord moves. Jesus is known. The Presence of God is here, and worship spontaneously streams forth, songs on the lips of children.
And, in the darkness, I cannot help but grin at the goodness of the Lord.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Late Night Confession

This late post is perhaps ill-advised and hastily written, but I feel it is a necessary act of catharsis and confession. Earlier this evening I joined the Emerge College Ministry in their weekly trip to serve Houston’s homeless. As is our custom, we broke into teams and distributed hygiene kits and offered prayer.

I enjoy this ministry. It is a chance to offer a little assistance to those in need. It is also a great chance for me to see downtown Houston and to deepen relations with our college crew. Yet while I enjoy this weekly excursion, I also find it very challenging.

Those who are homeless are often dirty. They tend to smell like bodily fluids or other substances. And they like to touch you. Over time I’ve grown accustomed to making physical contact because I recognize that touch expresses solidarity and Christian love. But that doesn’t mean I like doing it.

This evening during one of our final conversations with three homeless men I remember thinking that our team of five needed to leave. It was time to rendezvous with the buses. Yet we couldn’t leave just yet. One of our team was in a conversation with Stan, a homeless gentleman I had met three times this summer, and it seemed like their conversation would never end. Can you tell I was getting a little impatient? More than just wanting to make our departure site on time, I felt incredibly skeptical about Stan’s words. He was making all sorts of grandiose statements about Christian faith. He was lamenting his life on the streets. Unfortunately I found myself not only impatient but also very cynical. Do you really feel remorseful about being on the streets? Do you really feel the urge to pray every time a Christian ministry is present? Are your tears genuine? I was not in a particularly charitable frame of mind.

While I was being skeptical, one of the girls in our group was engaging Stan in very compassionate, yet direct, conversation. She took the time to ask him about his drinking and to direct him to professional help downtown. Kirsten was asking the appropriate questions. She was really expressing firm love. And, she was holding his hand.

My group finally departed this street corner and we made our way back to the bus. I got onto the bus and realized that all the good seats were taken. I stood there for a minute in the aisle wondering where I could sit comfortably. Yet before I could begin to find a place to squeeze in, a guy named Trevor jumped up and sat in a tight spot. I didn’t even have time to debate; Trevor had quickly taken the least desirable seat on the bus to make room for me. I was humbled, but grateful. Then I looked down at his feet. His shoes were gone. He told me that he had given them to a man who was homeless with blistered feet.

I was dumbstruck. Here I am in seminary, studying for ministry, and I miss what it is to serve. All around me were such beautiful and simple expressions of love. Tonight I failed to have a servant’s heart. I failed to be concerned with the big picture. I was busy determining a man’s sincerity when I should have been focused on his welfare and on offering grace and compassion. I was busy “keeping myself clean” rather than expressing love through simple touch. I was on a bus occupying my thoughts with my own comfort while others were embracing simple humility.

All of this I could easily brush off, but not after I saw those sock-clad feet. This moment suddenly compounded in my mind the whole of my selfishness that evening. I felt terrible. How can I preach and teach God’s grace when I am so slow to live it myself? I have to confess that tonight I was focused on Erik. I was not on mission, even though I walked Houston’s streets with backpacks full of supplies. I confess that my heart was not right this evening. I certainly believe that tonight I experienced conviction of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately sometimes we are corrected in uncomfortable ways. This is my confession. Perhaps it will encourage you in some helpful way. At the very least, you now have some insight into my own journey.

A final and perhaps more uplifting thought to end on would be the positive example of ministry tonight. This evening I found a few new role models in the faith. They aren’t the oft-discussed saints of Christian antiquity or the renowned Christian speakers of the present-day. They are the faithful who hold hands with the homeless, who offer up their shoes to blistered feet, and who give up their own comfort for selfish interns. They are young men and women who have a passion for Jesus, a love for people, and a zeal for serving. I am humbled by their expressions of love and faithfulness.

*The names of those who are homeless are altered for privacy's sake. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Homegrown tomatoes

In Few Chapel at Croasdaile Village Retirement Community, there was a recent Thursday evening Vepsers service in which the theme was homegrown tomatoes.  Our preacher for the evening was Mel Williams, retired pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church, Durham who now works with a non-profit addressing issues of poverty in Durham.  His message was one of living in the present moment, and the way he showed that was by describing a homegrown tomato sandwich.  We had tomatoes on hand after the service so that residents could make their own tomato sandwich!  Below is a picture of the chapel with the tomatoes.

I had never heard of a homegrown tomato sandwich in the way that is familiar to many who grew up in the South.  So, for others who don't know, here's the recipe:
2 pieces of WHITE bread (not whole wheat or some other "healthy" bread)
1 tomato (the size of the palm of your hand, hopefully big enough to cover the bread with a single slice)
Mayonaise (there has been much discussion about what brand - Dukes, Kraft, Miracle Whip, etc. and I've heard that some people use peanut butter instead of mayonaise...)
Salt & Pepper to taste
[Note: apparently additional items such as bacon and basil are considered contraband!]

Spread mayonaise on both pieces of bread, cut a thick slice of tomato and place it on the bottom piece of bread with mayo, add salt and pepper, carefully place top piece of bread on top with mayo facing tomato.  Move over to the kitchen sink, take a bite, let the tomato juice run down you hands and arms and elbows, enjoy being in God's presence!

Monday, July 16, 2012

brighter than sunshine

It has been far too long since my last post.  So, here is a brief recap of all that I've encountered since I last posted.  Country Music Awards happened to roll up into Downtown Nashville.  Here is a picture of a group of girls getting interviewed.

A few of my coworkers walking downtown as we went to a rose garden to eat our lunches.

This is the actual building I work at!

So, my roommate Meera from back home in Durham has a few good friends that live in Nashville.  Because I didn't really know anyone when I first arrived, Meera connected me to her good friends that live here.  This is Mary Kate and her roommate's dog, Luna:

I attended a coupon workshop that was given by a few local women who do their own coupon-ing when they shop.  This notebook belongs to one of those women.

Honestly, my concern with that is that some coupon-ing can turn into an addiction.  Furthermore, some of our women don't know how to do basic math.  While this could help out with basic mathematical skills, this could also hinder those who become frustrated easily with seemingly simple math problems.

AND I went to prison!  Missionary Sarah Young donated many copies of her book Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence to The Next Door.  So, we are donating them to organizations that are willing and able to place the devotional in the hands of women and men currently incarcerated around the country.  Of the thousands of devotionals we already had, I had the opportunity to hand deliver them with some of my colleagues to TPW, the Tennessee Prison for Women.

This is my supervisor, Rachel LeNeave.

April Ban, Rachel LeNeave, and Linda Leathers posing for a glamour shot in front of the super heavy cart of books.  Don't worry, y'all.  I had the chance to help push these devotionals all the way into maximum security.

When I interviewed for my summer field placement at Duke, I knew that I would definitely need a week off mid-summer to be in the wedding of one of my dear friends, Saja.  So, The Next Door was totally cool with this and I flew back to NC for a few days!  Here is a picture of me with my beautiful friend, Alison Harman, before Saja's dinner party that her mother hosted a few days prior to her wedding:

Here is the beautiful bride and her groom:

After a short stay in North Carolina, I flew back to Tennessee and was immediately entrusted to care for my host family's plants and dog, Bo.  Here, you can see that I'm killing two birds with one stone, metaphorically speaking:

Well, I've caught you all up to this week at The Next Door.  Check back soon for some fresh thoughts and happenings in Nashville, TN!

Until later,


Monday, July 9, 2012

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Megachurch Worship

*This entry originally composed for the congregation ofThe Woodlands UMC, a megachurch located outside of Houston, Texas.

Let’s face it, being a church intern has its perks. I get to see a lot of things most churchgoers don’t even know about. For instance, would you guess that Andy Nixon has a team of highly trained fashion consultants? Or would you believe that Rob Renfroe has a private room for his hairdresser? I’ve heard of stranger things. But what if I were to tell you about a few minutes every week where pastors gather in a secret chamber, donned in all black, and stand waiting for a voice?
Okay, so I don’t work at Hogwarts. Nonetheless, the moments preceding the traditional worship service are quite unique. At T-minus ten minutes before worship, the pastoral staff gathers in what’s called the Kalas Robing Chamber. This is a discreet room located off of the back of the administration suite, but for the sake of intrigue I won’t tell you exactly what’s inside. What you should know is that this is the place where the robes are put on, the stoles straightened, mics are wired, and last minute preparations are made. Some pastors find this a time for joking around and cutting up. Others have a solemn expression. Still others have the proverbial “eye of the tiger” look. I challenge you to guess how each of our pastoral staff acts during this time.
At T-minus five minutes, half of the staff departs the robing chamber to head to another room on the opposite side of the sanctuary. Where or what this room looks like I don’t know, but it’s at this time that the remaining crew (myself included) moves toward the rear door of the chamber. We’re waiting for a phone call. As we wait we hear the loud boom of the orchestra as it begins to play. At about T-minus one minute a phone rings in the back corner. The other team is ready and in position. We hang up the phone and begin a countdown ….five…four…three…two…one. And it begins.
We open the chamber doors and proceed to the side sanctuary entrance where we pause for just a moment. The lone greeter at the door shakes our hand. I always feel weird getting this hand shake, as if it’s some good luck pep talk before entering the lion’s den. On some level I suppose this is the case. The sanctuary has a remarkable grandeur and a tremendous sea of faces populating its two levels, all about to see us. But I can’t look long, our processional line is off. We file into the sanctuary three-deep, turning sharply to the right to walk behind the altar rail. In my mind our entrance is very dramatic, particularly with the pastors in their robes, synchronized on both sides of the room, walking in file, and with the orchestra playing. It’s a very loud, though beautiful, lion’s den.
As we turn past the altar rail and are halfway towards the table, someone gestures discreetly with their hand and all six members of the team, in unison, turn and climb the chancel steps. We walk slowly and deliberately to our chairs. We turn, face the congregation, and again in unison, sit down. I made it to my chair without tripping, a successful start to any worship service.
A final little caveat from this behind-the-scenes moment: the view from the pastor’s chair. From these seats you get to see that sea of faces, but you also notice multiple large screens everywhere you look, the orchestra within arm’s length behind you, and several high-definition cameras staring you down. It’s a humbling feeling to be in this chair. You begin to realize that you have to be an adult. No more picking your nose in church, fidgeting with the bulletin, or slouching. No, you have to be even more than an adult. The view from the pastor’s chair reminds you of why you’re here, to minister to God’s people. What an exciting reminder in the midst of a terrifying and energizing experience. It is truly amazing to be included in this special moment.
Thanks for sharing this little behind-the-scenes moment with me.
Erik Grayson

Destination: Texas

Recently I packed up my car and traveled almost a thousand miles to spend the summer working for a church in The Woodlands, Texas. Prepared to see boots, belt buckles, and good ‘ole country boys, I was quite surprised to be in an upscale version of what feels a lot like home. Don’t get me wrong, boots, buckles, and a lot of the expected “Texas trimmings” can be found all over the place, but at its core the church is still the church, and people are still people, no matter how they say “yes ma’am” or cook their barbecue. Yet it’s in these differences, some subtle, others more pronounced, that I am invited to consider more deeply the character of the church and my vocational calling.

People told me upon traveling westward that I was heading to God’s special country, or to the land that God’s own hands had made. While I hesitate to call Texas a modern Zion (they’ve obviously never seen SC beaches), I am eager to see God at work. The church I’m serving as an intern, The Woodlands UMC, has approximately nine thousand members and is the fourth largest UMC in the country. Not only is this a large church, its actively growing. The confirmation class a few months ago included over two hundred confirmands. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, but “big” isn’t the sole factor for increased worship attendance, lay committment to outreach and mission, and continued professions of faith. If God’s hands are at work in what I’ve seen of Texas, I believe I’ll be looking at the church.

My summer sojourn in The Lone Star State and at The Woodlands UMC is already in full swing. I’ve already attended several worship services, made connections with ministry groups, and even had a hazing threat from the music leader (bring it!). Yet in the midst of going from place to place, it’s important to stop and reflect. What imbues our work with meaning is not so much the act of doing, but the conviction and commitments that drive us. Without an understanding of who we are and who we serve, the work of ministry can become tired and tedious. My desire this summer is to see everything and to meet everyone. Yet this needs to be balanced with personal time to find meaning in the many expressions of ministry. My goal for this blog is to spend time in reflection with those of you I’ve just met this summer, as well as those of you I’ve known for a while. I invite you to share this journey with me.

Erik Grayson

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Noticing the Unnoticed.

Noticing the Unnoticed 

During my second week in Lilesville, I was blessed to experience a visit to the local prison. Knowing that I was interested in exploring the prison ministry arena, my supervisor arranged for me to meet with the head chaplain and tour the Lanesboro Correctional Institution, which I learned is right off Highway 74, tucked back hidden in the woods away from sight.  I entered on Prison Camp Road, where I began to see the fences topped with barbed wire that enclosed the specific area of land designated for those judged to have done the unmentionable. I pulled up, a little nervous and took a deep prayerful breath.  I was welcomed to the security hut by the clank of the door being unlocked by someone who could see me on the outside, from the inside.   

After being cleared to enter, Chaplain Bird directed me into this massive cement building.  Directly in front of me was this intimidating elevated room with tinted windows, so that those on the inside could see out, but no one on the outside could see in. This, I was informed, was the central control center. Chaplain Bird explained they were currently on lock down so my visit would be altered, but I would be able to see more of the facility.  We went on a tour, ate dinner and observed the staff line up, and he sat and answered my unending list of questions.   
Throughout my visit, I saw the offices, empty halls, cells were prisoners were locked in, the kitchen where inmates cooked and cleaned, and so on.  I observed that the prisoners were not only being confined to the prison, but that they had lost things like simple privacy in the bathroom. They were watched 24/7.  I also observed that in this facility hidden away from the majority of society, I was being watched. Cameras, both visible and invisible, were everywhere.  We stopped at every door and those watching us from the command center unlocked and opened the door for us.  Also, I deemed the most human place in the whole building was the chapel, where there was an ounce of color in the chairs and the I am the Vine banners on the wall.  I found my dining experience significantly memorable.  
In hopes of embracing a full experience in the prison, I had requested to eat the dinner the inmates were eating. Entering the kitchen, all eyes were on me.  Granted Chaplain Bird had reminded me before entering that these men were in a men’s prison and were not accustomed to seeing women, so their reactions may appear crude, but they were not. It was more like they had forgotten that women existed outside those thick cement walls, ironic considering I had no understanding of their existence either.  We ate in a small conference room, and I will admit, from the looks of the meat concoction to what I am pretty positive was a beard hair in the green beans, it was a meal to remember, one we joked certainly needed a blessing upon.
            At the conclusion of my visit, I was commenting on how thankful I was for the opportunity to see inside a prison, since I figured not many could say the same, which I suspected was why it is easy for us on the outside to dehumanize those on the inside.  He responded that was very true and said, “In a prison, its easy to separate the murder from the officer. The inmates’ clothes and living space clearly defines and separates their identity. But when you are standing in a line at a grocery store, the person behind you may have committed a heinous crime and you have no idea, because from your eyes, they look just like everyone else.”
            I spent hours meditating over my experience and even wrote my first sermon around it. After only two weeks, I was beginning to understand that as members of a small town, everyone is aware of the happenings of the town and sees everything going on. But, recognizing how easy it is to be aware of each other’s business, I wondered who were the unseen people in Lilesville, other than those inmates hidden back in the woods. In my pondering, I wondered who the unseen are in our society.
In my sermon, I discussed what it would look like if we all took on a ministry of noticing. Basing my comments on a passage in 2nd Corinthians, I reflected on how Paul talks about the earthly tent we live in, and how if it is destroyed we have an eternal home in heaven. I talked about how in my visit, I saw firsthand how the cement prison, home to many, did not compare to a tent nor would it be easily destroyed. I discussed how I didn’t think this was the point of the text and that Paul was actually pointing out a distinction between the earthly and the eternal. I went on to talk about how these two natures also apply to our existence, we have an inner and outer natures, “seen” and “unseen.” I continued to ponder how we could use this distinction in terms of people, wondering who those are that are actually unseen in our society.  I went on to talk about how it was important to notice the unnoticed, and see the unseen so that grace may extend to more and more people, which may increase thanksgiving and bring more glory to God. As an incarnation people, we embody grace, and by merely seeing those accustomed to remaining unnoticed, we have the opportunity to be grace and love to others.
This whole experience, visiting the prison and my time of reflection, opened my mind to endless possibilities for future opportunities in ministry and to numerous other theological reflections.  My conversations with the chaplain about his experiences with inter-faith dialogue, seeing how his job is to provide a space for all faith backgrounds to practice while incarcerated, and about the relationship between churches and prisons illuminated some great opportunities to extend love to others.