Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Sunrise with Special Effects

It was my first Easter as a pastor. I was a 20 year old sophomore at William Jewell College with a tenure of three months as pastor of Nettleton Baptist Church, a country church about 60 miles from campus. We had planned to have a sunrise service on Easter morning and we were serious about the word "sunrise." We decided to begin at 5:45 am, just to make sure we didn't miss the first hint of daylight. Bob Shaney, our senior deacon, owned a little lake, actually an old railroad pond beside the tracks, just down the road from the church. Bob had cleared a path to a nice little clearing by the water where we always gathered for sunrise services, bonfires, and baptisms.

After three months of Sundays I was already running out of much to say, but even I knew what to preach about on Easter, so I had my best effort all typed up and ready for the 11:00 worship service. My problem was, I had no idea what to do or talk about at the sunrise service. If I had ever attended such a service as a kid, I must have been half asleep or too focused on the donuts to notice what was going on. All I knew was I couldn't come up with another sermon and nobody played the guitar.

In the dorm the night before, my buddy Rusty and I sat up late trying to make a plan. Today, we would just Google it and come up with all kinds of ideas, but we were lost and left to our own devices back then. It was too late at night to call my dad. I should have realized my problem sooner, but that would have been wise and responsible of me, two traits I had not yet developed.

About 2:00 am we gave up and went to bed, getting up at 3:30 so that we could leave by 4:30 for the drive to Nettleton. To make matters worse, it was raining, cold and steady, all night and all the way. Do we give up and go to the church? Do we skip the whole thing? Who decides? No umbrella. No raincoat. Nothing.

When we pulled up along the gravel road by the little lake, the rain had let up to a sprinkle and a couple of pickups and a car were already there, still running as people kept warm and waited for the others to arrive. Bob and Bill had laid some old lumber along the path to keep us out of the mud. No one said a word about cancelling, so off we trudged through the gloomy early dawn for our worship time. By the time we made it to the clearing, the rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to brighten to the east.

About fifteen of us were gathered there, from the baby, Zach, to Grandma Perryman who couldn't hear a word I said anyway, though she always had a sweet smile. We struggled through a couple of hymns acapella. "He Lives" is way too high for 5:45 in the morning. Bill led us in a prayer and then I did the only thing I knew to do. I read the Easter story from Matthew's Gospel. That's when God decided to show up and cover for His rookie preacher.

As I read the resurrection story, the sun poked through the dark clouds just above the horizon. I heard a gasp from someone and looked up to see what had happened. High in the sky against the gray clouds was a spectacular rainbow stretching over the lake with vivid color from end to end. We stood there speechless for a long, lingering moment. I began to read again concluding the story just as our rainbow was overshadowed by a second full rainbow, two brilliant bands stretching across a stormy sky.

We did better with our closing song, as you might imagine. By the time we made it back to the cars, the sky was gray and the rain had begun to fall again. We all headed over to Sylvia's house for breakfast. It rained all day, but nobody cared. We had seen such beauty and wonder and promise on that Easter morning. Unforgettable.

And, just between me and God, what I learned on that Easter morning was a lesson I will never forget. God said, "It's not about you. It's not up to you. It doesn't depend on you. Just give it your best shot, kid. Go ahead. I'll cover you." Thank you, Lord. He is risen indeed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Once Upon a Tree

Ernest Hemingway wrote a book of short stories called Men Without Women. One of the stories included in that book is call "Today Is Friday." It is written in the form of a trilogy and deals with three Roman soldiers who had just crucified a Nazarene Carpenter. After they had crucified this Carpenter who had claimed to be the Son of God, they stopped by a tavern in ancient Jerusalem on the way back to the barracks.

One of the soldiers has been unaffected by the whole incident and drinks his ale as lustily as ever. Another of the soldiers just cannot forget this Carpenter - He seemed like such a good fellow - but he orders himself a cup of ale and begins to drink it. The third soldier is slapped on the back and told to order his ale and drink it. But he cannot. His heart and mind are still back there at the scene of the cross, and on the Man who was dying there.

While his raucous buddies "chug-a-lug" their ale, he keeps staring with that faraway look in his eyes and he says, "He sure looked good in there today." Then there is more laughter and more table talk in the tavern. But even in the midst of the ale and the gaiety, the thunderstruck soldier says again, "He sure looked good in there today."

Hemingway's story is not historical, but the reactions of these soldiers are the typical responses of all who ponder the cross.The great mass of people go through life untouched by its importance. Only a few have the sense and sobriety of that soldier who said, "He sure looked good in there today."

- Calvin Miller, "Once Upon a Tree"

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Celtic Blessing for St. Patrick's Day

May the blessing of light be on you - light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,
like a candle set in the window of a house,
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you,
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.
And may the blessing of the earth be on you,
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads,
soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day;
and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it.
May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God.
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly. Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Climbing the Family Tree

Sounds downright biblical. . . . and James begat Joseph who begat Samuel who begat another Joseph who begat William who begat Peter who begat Peter #2 who begat Theodore who begat Melvin who begat Oscar who begat another Melvin who begat Andrew - ME! - who begat Samuel, Jacob, and Rebecca. That's a lot of begating, don't you think?

This week my brother Jim has been staying with us while he has meetings in the DC area. Jim is the family historian in our generation of the Hill family. The rest of us are grateful that all of the boxes and files and memorabilia are in his basement instead of ours. I am also thankful that Jim has taken the time to work on our family history, using all the amazing online tools available today, and verifying and filling in our large and diverse family tree.

The last few evenings we have been going over Jim's findings as indicated above, and it's pretty amazing stuff, at least amazing to me. From James Hill, born in Yorkshire, England in 1638, our family makes the long, twelve generation journey across the Atlantic to Amwell, New Jersey, cross country to St. Clair County, Illinois, then on to Nevada, Missouri, and finally north to Kansas City. And of course there were lots of stops in between and many other places called home by one generation or another.

And of course, every generation intersects with other family lines and so we need to climb more family trees with the Barnes and the Holcombs and the Campbells and the Applebys and many more. Jim even found an old Hill family cemetery in St. Clair County, Illinois, where many of our family, three to five "greats" removed, are buried. Here's a picture of my great, great, great grandfather's gravestone.

One of these days I may head up to Amwell, New Jersey to see what I can find up there. Maybe I can at least pay my respects to some of my ancestors and find some family I didn't know I had. Who knows?

Why does it matter, who came before us? I know not everyone shares my interest in all things historical. Yet, even if you hated your Social Studies class, you will still find yourself from time to time pausing to ponder the ultimate questions about life. Who am I?  What is my story? Where did I come from and where am I going?

No matter how narrow our focus, no matter how preoccupied we may be with here and now, no matter how driven we may be to make our own mark on this world, we must admit that we are all part of a much larger story. And our little moment in time is but a few heartbeats of history in the grand scheme of things, just a tiny dash between the dates carved in stone.

So how do we handle such a sobering reality? Perhaps the best response is to recognize how precious are the days. Every golden moment of our lives is a gift of God's grace, bright with possibilities, brimming with untapped potential.

On this day, we are here, we are alive. This is our day to live, really live, because soon enough will come our time to be remembered. Today we can determine to make history before we become history. With each new day we are writing our own story, carving our own epitaph for the generations that follow. Somebody, somewhere, someday, is going to read it. Make your story worth remembering.