Friday, December 21, 2007

A Christmas Card

I love Christmas decorations; I love to drive around and see how people have decorated their homes, or steal a glance in the living room when I am in someone’s home during this season. For one, I think the season is worthy of such preparation, decoration, and celebration. The other reason is that when it comes to decoration, arranging lights or furniture, and other such things, I am a real clod. Between being color blind and having no artistic abilities, it’s simply not my gift.

In this season, may those of us who don’t decorate enjoy the décor of those who do. May those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket listen joyfully to those who can. And may all of us prepare the way for the Christ child, every day of our lives.

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us – everyone.


Monday, December 10, 2007

True Community

I have been a United Methodist pastor for 20 years, and lived in various communities: the foothills of Georgia, metro Atlanta, and in various towns and cities in Western Tennessee and Kentucky. However, last Saturday evening I witnessed community like I've never seen it before.

Every year at this time, Marshall County (KY) High School sponsors the annual "Hoopfest" - a high school basketball tournament that USA Today identified at one of the Top Ten places to see high school hoops. It is a VERY big deal: over the years it has attracted teams like Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Mater Dei (Los Angeles). Six of USA TODAY's Top 25 boys teams played in the event in 2003. Notable players who have played at Hoopfest include Carmelo Anthony, Dan Langhi, Barry Goheen, Mary Taylor Cowles. Marshall County's own Howard Beth, the girls basketball coach, has a 647-104 record. This year, Oak Hill Academy was there once again, along with Chicago Hales Franciscan, DeMatha (Maryland), Chicago Simeon, and Chicago Whitney Young H.S. (where a young man named Marcus Jordan plays... son of Michael Jordan). Over the years, coaches like Tubby Smith and Roy Williams have come to scout teams.

The final game is on ESPN on December 13th - the #1 and #2 ranked high school teams in the nation: Oak Hill Academy vs. St. Benedict's (New Jersey). The Hoopfest website is here.

It's great basketball. And I was honored to be selected to officiate a game there Saturday night. But that wasn't the real blessing of the evening.

There is a young man who is on everyone's prayer list in the Jackson Purchase Area of Kentucky: Gunner Gillespie. Gunner has an inoperable tumor on his brain stem. He's a handsome 7-year old boy who has been fighting all of his life, being born premature and enduring the struggles that premature babies often have. And now Gunner is fighting for his life, undergoing treatments at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Gunner is the son of Gus and Janna, both teachers at Marshall County H.S. Gus is also the boys basketball coach. Here begins the real blessing.

Anyone who has even been to Reed Conder Gymnasium knows that the primary color there is orange, and on a game night the gym is all orange (which is actually comforting, having grown up in Tennessee myself). But at Hoopfest this year, the usual orange was subdued by yellow - yellow shirts that had been screened with a picture Gunner had drawn of the Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can."

I'm not talking about a few shirts. Reed Conder seats 6,000, and they are at capacity for Hoopfest. Now I know I'm a preacher, and preacher estimates can be highly inaccurate, but I'm guessing there were over 1,500 "Gunning for Gunner" t-shirts.

Not just Marshall County folks were wearing them. Teams from around the nation came out of their locker rooms to warm up wearing them. Fans all over the gym were wearing then. Marshall County boys played Rose Hill Christian on Saturday, and Rose Hill's coaching staff all wore Gunner t-shirts the whole game. Bruce Pearl, men's coach at the University of Tennessee, was wearing a Gunner T-shirt.

People bought T-shirts. Officials signed over checks. That money will certainly go a long way to help Gunner and the Gillespies. But I'm thinking about all of the people wearing those shirts: one of the most competitive atmospheres in all of high school basketball, yet showing that even in this tough, win-at-all-costs sports community, there are things that transcend sports and winning. Seeing all of those t-shirts won't just raise some money - it will raise Gunner's spirit and the spirit of his family.

I am frequently told that I don't smile very much - that I seem stoic and seem to wear a frown a lot. As you can tell in this picture, I was having a great time (I'm holding the ball, standing next to one of my partners, Mike Wooten - click on the pic and you can see more of those Gunner T-shirts). I think seeing all those yellow shirts out there reminded me that life is very, very precious - and to be celebrated for its joys.

Many of you who know me know that I usually conclude worship services with the following benediction. It continues to mean more and more to me:

My brothers and sisters: life is short,
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be quick to love, and make haste to be kind,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

True community lifts each other up: when things are at their worst, Christians are at their best. Such is the Body of Christ.

God bless you Gunner. I think you can, too.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Enduring the Preparation

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

For those of you who have been in the Church for a while, you know that Advent is the season of preparation – and you probably know the story well enough to preach it yourself. Advent and Lent have a lot in common: preparation, examination, discipline, patience. I would add to this list endurance.

One of the trips I made in England was to Epworth, where John Wesley’s father Samuel was parish rector at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and the town where the Wesley’s children grew up. Everyone knows that Wesley started the Methodist movement, but some forget that it was not without cost. Wesley’s work was frowned upon by the Anglican Church, because Wesley was ministering to the poor and commoners and preached “to the masses” (something considered “vile”), and he was banned from every pulpit in England – including his home parish. So when Wesley did preach at his home church, it was while outside, standing upon his father’s tomb – where he couldn’t be banished since it was family property. (You can click on the picture to see a larger view)

Two things: (1) We are not "just ourselves" – we stand upon someone’s shoulders. Wesley preached standing on top of his father’s tomb – the man who literally gave him life and whose legacy propped him up to stand tall for the faith. (2) God does not promise to spare us suffering, but He does promise to be ever-present in our lives and our faith.

Preparation is sometimes arduous and frustrating – some things will get in our way, some people will try to trip us up, and it is very easy to grow weary and wonder if Jesus will ever come! The tension – and the miracle – of the Advent season is that we prepare not just for the Christ who is coming, but the Christ who has already come. He came to save us – and comes to save us still.