Parting Shot


So, it is finally here. If it is not real to you that we are actually moving, join us Sunday and see for yourself. The church is a mess! And further more, I am not apologizing. There are boxes everywhere, as room after room is packed and ready to move next Tuesday. As I look around my study, my home for the past 12 years and see half of my books packed up (thanks to my hero Wendy Vande-Linde), empty bookshelves, pictures stacked on my desk, and liqueur boxes for packing everywhere – I know it is real. Moments like these are natural “hinge points,” endings and new beginnings, so it is natural that we reflect on where we have been and where we are going.

I am not going to miss this renovated warehouse, though I am very thankful for it. We moved into this space to be here for just a short while. We needed more space till we could raise money to build. A few years turned into twelve years. For me personally, many of them were Wasteland Years. But as Tim Keller says, “the desert is the place where the only way you survive is God.”

Here, we saw our church’s growth not only stop, but we also saw many folk leave. This was a first for me. It is only looking back that I realize I was in a very low place. But the good thing about “low places,” “Wasteland Places,” “Desert Places” is that that is where you meet God in a new, real, and fresh way. I can remember a turning point during that bleak period that Brian Henson and I were at a hotel talking about the future of St. Patrick and weeping as we begged God for fresh direction. And you know what – he showed it to us!

In 2013, after a year and a half of soul searching, and our leadership rethinking everything, we did two things. We RE-Visioned, clarified, and simplified our vision to what you now see everywhere, “Loving God, Loving People, Loving Life.” The second thing that followed re-visioning was RE-Engagement with our community of Collierville. We held a huge feast and invited everyone in the neighborhood to come and join us. At this time we basically said, if we are going to reach more people and make more disciples the number one thing we must do is build. So we set a goal to be in a building at the end of 2014 or 2015.

That vision has breathed new life into St. Patrick and I can honestly say, not building when we thought we would in 2008 was a “severe mercy.” I have learned more things in the past five years than I can imagine, and our church will be a deeper, richer place for the painful experience of some of these past years. Do I want to go through them again? Heavens no! But we couldn’t be where we are as a church now, our staff and leadership, without the storms we have weathered.

So we have a new phase of ministry now in a new and beautiful place – right in the heart of Collierville. Talk about great grace – this is a gift from God. Every time I am at the stop light on Byhalia and look up – and from that vantage point it looks like our church is the “light set on a hill” – I am overcome with gratitude.

This is our last Sunday here, so I think the last word spoken here from me has to be the one word that defines each of us and the ministry of St. Patrick – Grace! Join me Sunday amid the glorious mess and chaos of moving and let’s rejoice together one last time over the amazing grace of the gospel!


Space Matters


It is almost here. The future home of St. Patrick is almost built and ready to be occupied. I ought to know; every day I drive by and gander at the latest thing happening on the exterior and, time permitting, go inside the building. The wait is almost over and I am deeply thankful that God has provided us such a place of beauty in which to worship.

Does that matter? Does space matter? Is this a spiritual concern when we talk about beauty or is it just pride or vanity that wants to inhabit a space that is beautiful? It is a legitimate question. And since we are about to be moving into a new space, which will, in a large sense, be a “hallowed” space, I think we should think about it. I still meet and talk to those utilitarian souls who act as if it is not “spiritual” to seek to build or even inhabit beauty. Or they don’t really see it as having a place in restoration, or the care and cure of souls, all of which the kingdom that Jesus came to build is all about. So does space matter?


It was over twenty-five years ago when I realized just how much beauty and space matter to the human soul. Not only that, but I realized how much our view of God, man, and the world affected the kind of space you build. I was on a mission trip to Ukraine with some other folk from Mississippi and, after eight days, we drove from Ukraine across the country of what was then Czechoslovakia, a country formed by the Communistic Soviet Union after World War Two (this is very important). The Communists ruled in Czechoslovakia until the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when the country became independent of Soviet rule. I was in the country one year after the revolution and the country was split into two countries along ethnic lines with the Czech Republic to the north and Slovakia to the south. The capital of Slovakia is the ancient city of Bratislava. Bratislava has been there since medieval times and was where we spent a couple of days. It was also here that, on a particular day when I was out taking in beauty the likes of which I had never witnessed, the lines between time and eternity grew really thin and I understood glory and infamy in a new way.

I was standing on the SNP Bride. It is a large and strange bridge. It has something in the middle of the bridge, at the top, that looks like a UFO. This bridge stands over the historic Danube River and, we might say, is a good observation point to consider theology and ideas, and how they manifest themselves in architectural form! As I stood on the bridge and looked to the east side of the river I saw the old city built in the middle ages. Up on a hill was the Bratislava Castle, grand and stately. Spires deck every corner and it stands watch over a village of narrow streets, green spaces, and interesting buildings of all shapes and sizes. At the bottom of the hill stands St. Martin’s Cathedral, a Gothic cathedral that was begun in 1204 and finished and reconsecrated in 1445. In this spot several Hungarians kings held their coronations. All of this was “weighty.” This was “glorious.” This was built to last. In all this space you wanted to linger; in the cathedral, you were awed by the space. This whole space was a place you were drawn to; your soul was drawn in. You wanted to inhabit this place. You felt like that if you were to walk on these streets it might heal your heart a bit. You wished that you lived in some place like this and, if you did, it might make you a better person.

On the other side of the river, as my eye panned north and then to the east, what you see is almost beyond belief. I had never seen anything like it. As far as the eye can see is what the Communist-era imagination built. It is the Petržalka housing estate, the biggest Communist-era concrete block-housing complex in Central Europe. Every building was identical; the material was the same, no variety, endless repeating form. It went on forever – Andy Warhol, in concrete housing. While in the former place you longed to enter it, in this later space, the government that designed it had to build fences to keep people in!

As I pondered these two images it hit me – what you think about God, man, and the world will effect what you think about space. If you believe man is unique, has a soul, will live forever, and is created by a God who made a world that is decked with beauty – then you will build beautiful buildings. If however, you believe man is just a biological accident, is a slave of the state, has no soul, and is totally expendable – then why create a beautiful setting for him to live?

Beauty matters! Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our building and our buildings shape us.” It is so true. This was uppermost in our minds as we designed the first phase of our building at St. Patrick. Space matters; it works on you at a deeper level than rationality. We inhabit space and, even if we aren’t thinking about it, it is forming us. The space we will worship in has two essential things that sacred architecture has always used to give a space a sense of transcendence – space and light. Square windows are much cheaper. Ten foot ceilings are much more efficient. A vaulted ceiling costs a lot more to heat and cool. Concrete exterior would save money. So why twelve foot Gothic windows and a ceiling that, when you walk in, your eye instinctively travels up to the thirty-two foot peak of the vault? Why?


Because beauty matters. A building is not the church, but a building is sacramental. A building witnesses to our view of beauty and of what we think God is like. But more than that, all the great events of a human life will happen here. It is here that we will baptize our babies. It is here, week in and week out, that we will walk the aisle and move toward the cross to give ourselves to Jesus and hear the gospel, welcome to eat and drink his body and blood. It is here that we will give our children to God, and will give our daughters away and marry off our sons. And it is here that we will remember life is short and in death we will celebrate those whose “faithful presence” God has used to form us in Christ.

This is why a building matters. And after years of meeting God in this place, and pondering all of the times God has spoken to us, we will not even need a word spoken, because the very stones will speak. We will inhabit a mystery and it will heal us just a little.


Eating and Drinking with Jesus

When Jesus called a notorious sinner named Levi to follow him, there would have been talk. But what really got the gossip mill running was when Levi called all of his friends together and threw a large feast for Jesus. It was scandalous enough for Levi to suddenly be counted among the friends of Jesus, but to see Jesus with a whole group of people of Levi’s ink was too much. I am sure that if Jesus would have been lecturing them on ethics it would not have caused a stir, but the fact that the charge is made by the religious community that, “Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners…” shows us that in the midst of this less than religious crowd, Jesus actually enjoyed his invitations to dine with a crowd of folk who had a reputation for a highly sinful life-style.

Tax collectors were viewed by the Jewish people as collaborators with a hostile oppressive government. Tax collectors made their living collecting taxes from their own people and then whatever was extra they got to keep for themselves. Because of their life-style and reputation for being thieves, their testimony would never be accepted in court. They simply could not be trusted to tell the truth. Yet, in the gospel of St. Luke we see a tax collector named Levi hear the call of God, leave everything, and follow Jesus. This is too much for the people who viewed Jesus with suspicion anyway. This was the final straw. This act of eating and laughing with the scum of earth was more than their religious respectability could stand.

However, let’s look at this from Levi’s perspective for a moment. He really can’t be blamed for inviting all of his thieving friends over to meet Jesus. When Jesus called him, he was a thief, maybe even a drunkard, but he certainly wasn’t religious. You would never have found him at the times of worship; he would have never been allowed to enter the synagogue or the temple. And yet, as dirty as he was, Jesus called him to himself. He must have reasoned something like this. In fact he would not have reasoned at all, it would have been assumed, “Jesus called me when I was a tax collecting thief, this must be what he does, so I want all my friends to come meet him. If he accepts people just as they are, there is no need to invite all my nice friends over, I will just call all the people in my circle of friends.” This crowd that assembles to feast at Levi’s house would not have been like those people you see at Sunday School. They wouldn’t know that anything had happened in Levi’s life. He may have experienced immediate moral reform, but they didn’t know that, they just showed up for the party. Levi, because he wasn’t religious and had not been in a religious community would have not had time to warn his friends like we do today, “Watch what you say, we have a preacher coming for dinner.” No, he was called as a sinner, bad habits and all, and if Jesus accepted him “just as he was,” then why warn his friends that they should somehow be on their best behavior?

Nothing got Jesus into more trouble than the people he ate with. For all the controversy of his teaching that he was the Messiah of Israel, it was his eating companions that stirred the ire of the religious community. You can’t say he was soft on sin, because people who heard Jesus’ call on their life, changed; they left their former life-style and became like Jesus. In fact, Jesus was harder on sin than the legalist. The legalistic religious people taught that if you were really good and tried really hard, you would find acceptance with God. Jesus, on the other hand, said that one little sin would damn your soul forever. What was it that caused the religious community to get so upset with the way Jesus seemed to accept and be accepted by sinners? It was simply this: Jesus’ acceptance of sinners, his mercy and grace to them, brought to light their repressed sins and the absolute lack of grace and charity that is part of the gospel story. It was like they were all patting themselves on the back for their external righteousness and when the real righteousness showed up, it showed their righteousness for what it really is, a counterfeit. It would be like a bunch of people decking themselves in fake Rolex watches, Oakley sunglasses, wearing fake jewelry and fake designer clothing like you buy from a street vender in New York, and suddenly someone walks in and has the real thing. It shows how fake you really are. If everyone is a fake it is no problem, but if someone walks in with the real thing, then you are exposed as a fraud.

On the other hand, the sinners had no fake righteousness; they knew what they were. It was much easier for them to admit just how bad they were. But for the religious crowd, it was not so easy. They had to take off all their outward show of respectability, all the things they were using to gain God’s favor and admit that they were just as corrupt as the tax collectors. They had to admit that, for all their outward performance, they had missed the weightier matters of the law, which is to be drenched in the divine charity. It is not until you know how bad you are and admit a real need for a savior, that you can really love anyone, certainly not the kind of people Jesus constantly found himself among and eating with. The one thing I never hear said in criticism of the church in our age is the main criticism that was leveled at Jesus and the company he kept, “They are drunkards, gluttons, and friends of sinners.” The thing that is even worse than that is that the lack of this criticism doesn’t even bother us. If, as Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than the master,” what does this mean for us? It is a question that haunts me. So, this summer at the church I pastor, I am doing a series of sermons addressing this issue called, “Eating and Drinking with Jesus.”

From Darkness…..To Light!


My yard is a mirror of my soul during this season of Lent-Easter. Indeed, that is the essential rhythm of this season, is it not? But more than that, is it not true that the life of a Christian is always in this rhythm? You think, as you get older, that you can outgrow this, but alas, you cannot. That is why this season, which comes around once a year, is such a great teacher. Once a year we have a two month reminder of “the way things really are” in terms of how we progress in the Christian life.

These past two days I have been in a physical time of Lent. Saturday afternoon, Teri and I got home from a whirlwind trip to Knoxville to see our oldest son graduate from “Brewing School.” Teri, being the planner that she is, reminded me on the journey home that Easter was a week away and we had not done one thing in our yard and that if we were going to have a huge feast on Easter Sunday, we had best make a plan on getting the yard in shape – fast! So Saturday night we walked the “ruins” of our yard.

Winter has been hard and long this year. It was strange actually. For months it was cold and bleak and then, suddenly, it was spring and I looked out the window to see that my yard was nothing but weeds. After such a long hard winter, you get kind of used to weeds in the yard, beds that are ugly, and the feral nature of the garden spot. But upon inventory, as Teri and I surveyed the mess in the asparagus bed, the vineyard that was wild and needed pruning, the flowerbeds that lacked any color, and the yard where the only green to be seen was weeds, several things happened. I began to remember that only nine months ago, the bombed out looking land we walked had looked the like the Garden of Eden and was a place where you wanted to linger. The other thing that came upon me was something like longing. I wanted this again. I could see in my mind’s eye the potential for beauty and fruitfulness. The last thing that came to me was the tremendous cost it would take to see this renewal take place.

Sunday afternoon and from sun up until sun down on Monday, we were deep into death. After hours of raking, pruning, weeding, mulching, and taking away load after load of refuse, I could see what might be a glimpse of glory, just a glimpse, but nonetheless I could see it. There was, however, one eyesore that assaulted my senses. It was late and Teri, Gavin, and Ronald went into the house, and yet as badly as I hurt and as much as I want thinking, “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere!” I couldn’t go inside until one last thing was tended – the asparagus bed.

Every year, the highlight of all my beds, gardens, bushes, and vines is my asparagus bed. As I pondered it, the thought of tackling it made me want to vomit. It was a sorry sight, the worst in the yard. It was a study in ugliness. It was twenty five feet by three feet of old brown dead canes laying in no particular order over a greenery of weeds. Usually, I burn this off, but since I almost burned down Fayette County last year, showing off for my grandsons, and also burned up my flame thrower to boot, it had to be tackled the old fashion way, by hand, one by one, beating back the weeds in Eden. It was almost dark when I finished pulling the last dead cane and the last of the spring weeds. Teri had long since announced supper and I was alone as I ran my fingers, one last time, deeply in the rich black soil and then slowly pulled myself up and stood back to gaze upon a totally different sight than when I had started.

I gazed upon a mystery. One gardens in hope. One enters a garden as a participant in a drama. I know, as I gaze upon my beds where the soil now looks lush and full of promise, that I am only a participant. The resources I really need so that my garden and yard are fruitful and beautiful are things beyond my control, things I can only pray for and hope for. God must provide rain and sunshine. Only God can put fruit in my asparagus bed and tomatoes on my vines. In utter humility and dependence I offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving and made my way into supper.

So, here we are in Holy Week. Condensed into one week of the year, we see the whole drama of redemption! On Maundy Thursday, when we walk into worship, all is black and bleak. We leave the service feeling the horror of God’s forsakenness and abandonment and the weightiness of redemption. But, wonder of wonder, on Easter Morning we hear the glorious announcement, “He is risen!” We hear the “Hallelujahs” sung once again and beauty once again adorns the sacred space where we meet in God’s presence as his people.

Yes, we do this every year and the reason is, we need to! We are fickle creatures and we are always looking for shortcuts in our life with God. I know I am. I want something other the sequence of Holy Week. I don’t want to daily have to die to self to know resurrection joy. I want instant holiness and effortless joy. I want to be remade in a weekend seminar. I want to recite all the Christian slogans and imagine that, because I say them, they are true in my soul.

Then Lent-Easter rolls around and springtime in my yard rolls around. Here is what they scream at me, and you too for that matter, and for all humanity—“This is the way things are! To life you have to die, death before resurrection. This is what discipleship looks like!” When I once again wake up to that reality, I wake up to something like joy. I have to run again to the cross, and at the cross I always find the thing that really changes me -God’s smile and favor for me!

The Story of St. Patrick from Ireland and the name of a church in Collierville

Years ago I moved to Collierville to plant a church. I had no idea when I moved here what it would be called or what structure it would take. I knew that it would take time and only happen as I got to know the people and the place where we would worship. After being in Collierville and getting to know the people and place, a name and a vision started to form. It was unconventional, but I was jazzed. When I told the staff from the church sponsoring us that we were going to call our new church St. Patrick Presbyterian Church, the room of staff members grew deadly silent and looked at me like I had two heads. I can understand why; there had never been a Presbyterian Church named St. Patrick. A Catholic church for sure, but not a Presbyterian Church.

When someone in the meeting got enough nerve to ask, “Why St. Patrick?” I first said, “Well, I have come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church doesn’t have a monopoly on the Saints.” And then I essentially told them the story written below. It is essentially the mythos of our church which I wrote when it began and it still represents what our ministry is all about….

People ask me, “Why did you name a Protestant Church St. Patrick?” Here is the answer to that question.

When you look at Scripture from creation to new creation, naming is foremost and immense. To name anything is to describe it, control it and articulate its purpose. In naming, we reflect our creator, showing we are creatures unique to God reflecting His image in a particular way. Naming is power; power which can be used to glorify or to manipulate. In naming a church we can, likewise, reflect these intentions – good or ill. For instance, we could mimic culture by choosing a name that draws people by its trendiness or we could name in such a way as to draw attention to our aspirations as a congregation and the people we hope to reach with the Gospel. We have chosen to name our church something that reflects our particular mission in this time in history. St. Patrick connects us with a story hundreds of years old and reflects the kind of legacy we desire to project into the future with God’s help. It also reflects our goal, our purpose and our dream.

St. Patrick of Ireland was born in Roman-occupied Britain in the fifth century. At the age of sixteen, Celtic warriors who raided his parent’s home kidnapped Patrick to serve as a slave. After six years in the wilds of Ireland, Patrick felt like God was saying, “Return home”. Immediately, he walked across the land and, by miracle, found his way home to Britain. There he studied for the priesthood. Sometime later in a dream he saw his former captors – the people of Ireland – begging him to come back and walk among them once again.

Patrick felt that this was a call from God. Obedient to His call, he went to his superiors and told them of his call to be a missionary to Ireland. At first, they were shocked and refused to allow him to go. After all, no one at this point in history had considered preaching to uncivilized barbarians. Even the Apostle Paul who we consider a cross-cultural missionary did not preach to barbarians. They were Greeks and Romans to be sure, but they all shared a similar language and cultural heritage across the Roman landscape. At that moment, the barbarians were sacking Rome, and everyone watched as Christian culture all over the civilized European world crumbled. To minister the Gospel to the barbarians was actually a novel idea. The Celts of Ireland represented the worst of the barbarian hoards feared by all. They were fierce, polytheist people loyal to their numerous gods. They fought naked with their bodies painted in blue woad. They offered human sacrifices and were led by Druid priests hostile to any encroachment on their power. That anybody would go to them at all was insane or foolish. Why would a single monk dare to tread where trained soldiers were more than happy to avoid? However, Christ’s power could reign even over them. Patrick’s superiors finally relented and with a cross, a chalice and faith, Patrick sailed for Ireland to preach as the first cross-cultural missionary.

When the Gospel was preached, amazingly the Irish nation was converted without bloodshed to Christianity. These unwashed hoards began to read the stories of Christ and the martyrs and longed to suffer for Christ and serve Him beyond the comforts of the “Emerald Isle.” At this moment in history, Europe was all but destroyed by fierce barbarians including Huns, Goths, Visigoths; and Christians were fleeing for their lives. All the advances of classical and Christian civilization were burned, looted or lost, the people being propelled into the Dark Ages. However, many fled to this new haven of Ireland, where they found a newly converted nation who worshiped God, copied Scripture and continued Patrick’s work. At this point, the Irish church began to send missionaries back to Europe and, in time, literally reconnected Europe with her ancient roots in Christianity. They also brought with them a love for beauty and nature that is our heritage to this day.

An unlikely story to be sure, but not for the God who uses obscure, small, and out-of-the way places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Sinai to change the history of the world. God works best where and when we least expect it. While the world looks to seats of power – Washington, Moscow or London, God works in the obscure and ordinary. He did that with St. Patrick and Ireland. He always does it that way. He can do it in Collierville.

Our church bears Patrick’s name because our moment in history is similar. We are enjoying the last rewards of Christianity’s fruits in our country. We are post-Christian. Like Europe, before Patrick’s mission, the Christian consensus has been all but lost. We have a memory of it, but it lacks persuasion and power. Our task, like St. Patrick, is to reconnect the culture in Collierville, Memphis and the United States with its roots in classical and Christian culture. Thus, St. Patrick Presbyterian Church expresses our past and projects our mission to the future. It shapes our vision of who we are and who we will be. It puts us in complete dependence upon the power of the Gospel. In the end, it is only the power of the Gospel that can create, recreate, change and bring blessings to our community, our friends and us. That is why the cross is our symbol and our hope. The Gospel is not the basic primer of Christianity but the finished Masterpiece of Christianity. It is the reigning power that guides both believers and non-believers in who they are what they accomplish and what they will become.

Christ be with you, Christ within you,
Christ behind you, Christ before you,
Christ beside you, Christ to win you,
Christ to comfort and restore you,
Christ beneath you, Christ above you,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in the hearts of those that love you,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.

Adapted from the Prayer of St. Patrick

So here we are, years later and in just a few months St. Patrick will be worshipping here….


Faithful Presence

Joyce Moore Holland

March 3, 1935 ~ February 2, 2015

(My mom died a few weeks ago. She was a grand lady. When I think of her, I am reminded of something from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. It is a novel about a lady named Dorothea who lives a quiet life in a small place where she touches the lives of those around her. This is what Eliot says of her, “Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”  

My mother was the incarnation of what James Hunter Davidson called Faithful Presence (in his book To Change the World). It is the highest tribute I can give my mother! I wrote about my mom in our church newsletter called Strands, but I want to share her life with a larger audience. Words, of course, are too cheap to gather this up, but alas, that is sometimes all we have and it will have to be enough.)

We don’t get to choose our parents. It is this simple fact that should keep any of us from pride in our achievements and help us see that the world has to be built on grace and not merit. It is routine to hear litanies of what people have accomplished by their hands. And yet, the simple fact remains, since we didn’t get to chose our parents, it is true that if the most successful among us had been born to a crack mother in an urban jungle without the advantages of a stable home, we would not have pulled ourselves up by our own boot straps.

No, the real reason that things have gone so well for many of us is we had parents who laid down their lives to teach us habits of grace, manners, work ethic, thankfulness, and the necessity of grace. I am acutely aware of this as I just finished writing a homily about my own mom for the funeral I will preach tomorrow. I sure hope she is looking down from heaven, because while Jesus is the hero of her story, I sure want to let her know again that my life is one of “indebtedness.” Without my parents I shudder to think what I, by my own wits and passions, would have made of myself.

My mom was far from perfect. She could lay into us with the best of them; and a beating was far more merciful! She could be hard on people, and worry too much. My goodness, the one thing I never convinced my mom of was that is was not spiritual to worry. My mom could worry with the best of them and it drove me crazy. I tried in deep theological terms to reason her out of this habit, but alas, I failed. But at the end of the day, she taught and modeled for my two siblings and me, what it means to be human. She loved us with a passion, and she expressed it too. Till the day she died, I loved to see my mom, because when she saw me, she would light up. The world might think I was not much, but not my mom; we knew and experienced love—both the giving and receiving of love. And we learned that we didn’t have to be good to earn that love. I am “indebted” to my mom for this. I’m older now and have learned what a gift that was. Many folk in “good” homes never get that.

We were civilized at the table. Mom cooked great food even when she said to us in apology, “Oh hon, I’m just going to have to serve you fried biscuits this morning, I’m so sorry.” The food was good! On an off day of cooking we ate better than most people. I just assumed everyone in the world ate like we did. Then I got older and realized, I was deeply “indebted” to my mom for this grace. She laid her life down to delight us with good food and trained our sensibilities to appreciate the love and effort it took. We also learned that if you feed people good food, you would always have a party at your house (especially when you have kids who could choose to be elsewhere). Mom never got so spiritual she forgot growing boys were always hungry. She delighted to feed us and delighted to hear how much we appreciated her efforts and her craft. We would go on and on to her about the gravy and she would say, “Oh hon, it was nothing.” But you could see her beam at our words of thanksgiving for her craft. I appreciate her for that more than I can tell you.

We saw in our mother someone who took care of the neighborhood. One of the bad theological habits we didn’t have to undo when we got older was the idea that you did your spiritual thing on Sunday and then just lived like everyone else the rest of the time. We saw this in the world she inhabited. Mother naturally, intuitively, and routinely took care of all the elderly on our street. I never heard mom say she needed to go on a mission trip; she just saw a need and knew that Jesus said, “take care of your neighbor.” We were part of that too and we didn’t like it; cutting yards, going just to sit and talk with some older people, cleaning out their gutters, and so on. Mom demonstrated costly grace. She showed us that the gospel was about “laying your life down for others.” She showed us that we were not the center of the universe and that while grace was free, holiness was “death to self to get to deep joy.”

And she did have joy. Serving people was never out of duty or dread, or to get anything from God or other people. Serving was a way to deep joy. She knew that by reading the bible and from experience. I don’t know how many times she worked on me as a teenager on this very point. Mom seemed to grasp that behavior modification was not what the gospel was about, that God wanted our heart. So when I got a little too cocky and full of myself, she would tell me, “A proud heart is not a happy heart.” Or when she noticed I was getting a little to good to serve others, she would gently remind me, “You never demean yourself when you serve others.” I shudder to think what my life might have been if, behind the scenes, through good times and bad, there was not a person who visibly delighted in me and thought I was better than sliced bread and at the same time would say true and hard things to me all the time. The Apostle Paul was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him humble; I was given a mother who would not abide a proud heart and a haughty eye!

I thank God for my mother. I thank God for the resurrection and that she is in the presence of Jesus. And I thank God that one day we will feast again, hold hands and tell stories about Jesus!

5 Questions About Lent

(Last year a friend of mine who is a Presbyterian Minister asked me to write about Lent for a publication in his church. His church did not really subscribe to the Liturgical Calendar and I was his token “sacramentalist” within the Presbyterian community so he sent me these five questions to answer to help show his good folk that Lent was a good thing, rooted deeply within the history of the church. When I sent the article in, they wanted only 500 words and essentially “defanged the passion” of my original article and the original article lay dormant on my computer for the past year. Until now.)

Isn’t Lent a Roman Catholic holiday, why are Presbyterians talking about it?

Well I suppose that Lent does come from the Catholic tradition, but so do Christmas and Easter and I don’t hear any Presbyterians talking about forgoing them. (Well check that, I know some who see no reason to set aside a day to celebrate anything, much less the greatest events in history.) I think the reason more Presbyterians are talking about it these days is because we have realized there is much in the “Catholic Traditions” of the church we just ignored or threw out without reflection. We have to be sure to keep in mind we are under no obligation to undertake the discipline of Lent, but a lot of folk who think deeply about the gospel have found that the rhythm of Lent-Resurrection makes sense. It is the embodiment of the great truths the gospel teaches us—“we are more lost than we imagine and more loved than we ever dreamed.”

Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means “springtime,” a time of preparation. The forty days comes from Jesus’ forty days in the dessert leading up to his public ministry. The emphasis here is on preparation; Lent is never an end in and of itself. I am a gardener and about the time of Lent every year I walk outside and survey my yard. It is not a pretty picture. The garden is a mess. The asparagus bed needs to be burned off. The raspberry bed needs lots of dead and useless canes cut away to make room for new growth his spring. The spot where I grow tomatoes, squash and peppers still has the stakes in the ground from last year and needs a fresh load of manure. It will be backbreaking work. Seen in isolation from the delicious fruit I will enjoy it makes no sense. I mean, why inflict my boys with backbreaking labor of weeding, pruning, hoeing and hours on my knees in the dirt? Why the blisters and aching feet? Because in the heart of every gardener is the longing to make the earth paradise again—for beauty, delicious fruit and joy!

So forty days of examination, of repentance, of “weeding” your soul in preparation for the “good news” of the resurrection—that sounds about right.

What is the difference between penance and repentance?

I think we usually associate “penance” with a punishment we inflict upon ourselves to atone for our sin. The problem with that is obvious, it is about the self. It is sort of an aggravated form of self-pity. Repentance on the other hand is realizing that our sin, any sin is first of all against God. To repent is to stop looking at yourself and feeling sorry for yourself and looking at who the offense is against—God. Penance will only lead you inward and to a hatred of the self. Repentance will lead you to the possibility of joy because the grace and mercy of God to sinners is objective and real, because Jesus was punished for our sins there is real forgiveness.

Lent is never about “penance.” Lent is not, “Oh, I will give up something and therefore God will love me.” Lent is about repentance! It is a period of time set-aside in the life of the church where as a community we say, “Search me oh God and see if there is any wicked way in me.”

Should I give up something for Lent?

 If you understand this rhythm of death and resurrection that happens tangibly in the spring time of the year, then the extended period of Lent will make sense to you. Prayer, fasting and repentance always precede joy, renewal and thriving. The wisdom of Lent is that it is a forty-day discipline leading up the celebration of the joy of Easter when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. One of the things I have learned in gardening is it is not something you just rush into and expect all the weeds to be gone with one chop of the hoe. Our spiritual lives are like that as well, we rarely can just snap off the weeds in our lives and expect them not to come back. “Like the deep rooted thistle weed, some of our worst habits withstand all but the most persistent, persevering and strenuous exercise. A quick pull of the root, however, will not do the trick, nor will an aggressive chop of the hoe. Patience is needed, and the humble willingness to drop down on one’s knees and work carefully with the hand fork and trowel. The Christian gardener patiently picks sin from the soul’s soil and cultivates it with care and attention to the tender new growth of faith.” (Inheriting Paradise, Vigen Guroian)

So appropriately Lent is a forty-day discipline! If we are serious about joy, which is the same thing as a life of gratitude and obedience to God, we will take seriously the call to examine our lives periodically to weed out the clutter and idols that keep us from deep joy and contentment and to purposefully cultivate new habits of grace! This is why during Lent you often hear people say they are “giving up something for Lent.” When you give up something you really love, even if it is a good and legitimate pleasure it is a reminder to ponder what Jesus has given up for you and thus a spur to greater joy in the gospel, but also, when we give up something we are making room for good things to take root and grow in our lives.

Does celebrating Lent make me more spiritual than people who don’t?

 Of course not, any more than reading the bible everyday makes you more spiritual. If Lent does not lead to greater humility and great wonder over what Jesus did for you on cross, you have simply missed the whole point of the Lent and any spiritual discipline for that matter.

What is your personal practice of celebrating Lent?

As I said, I think it is good to give up tangible things, yes good things because all good things have the potential to be an idol of some kind, something we love too much. Lent is a time to realize anew Jesus really is enough. So I have tangible pleasures I forsake for a season. I usually give up something I really love like coffee, alcohol or bread. Sometimes it is other food as well. Why? Because I love food and sometimes I wonder if I just live to eat! My daughter and I even gave up books for Lent one year. I still remember her calling me from Ole Miss and saying, “Daddy, what is one of the things we love the most.” I knew where she was going and dreaded it. But, how can you deny your daughter when she calls you out?

I also typically have a devotional that I make a pilgrimage through that focuses on the work and passion of Christ. Lent-resurrection is the gospel embodied! Since I am not merely a “spirit” it is helpful to have tangible things that remind me that though I am giving up this small thing, Jesus went all in for me. He gave up everything so he could spend eternity singing over me. I need to move deeper into the gospel of Jesus and Lent helps me see the cross more clearly. That is why Lent is important to me.