So Much For Being Clever

Last year after Easter, I thought I had a clever idea.

For the last seven years, one day prior to Ash Wednesday, I take a shovel and a post hole digger, and walk out to the front lawn of our church.EA64732F-A7F8-4EF0-BBFE-3A4A3B82D7B3.jpeg

I scout out a spot with good visibility from Forest Avenue. Next, I start the process of digging out a hole for the placement of our wooden cross.

But on this spring morning after Easter, I thought— why should I dig a different hole every year for Lent and this cross?

What might happen if I measured the depth of the hole by marking it on the cross before I tug it out of the ground? Then I could take that measurement, match it to the length needed on another piece of 4×4, and cut a separate piece to put back into the hole. And to finish it off, I could screw on to the top of the 4×4 a zinc coated handle that would allow me to easily pull the timber out of the ground next year.

Sounded like a reasonable idea to me. I found a scrap piece of 4X4, measured twice, made the cut, installed the handle, and dropped it into the hole. It was a good fit. The metal handle sat below the grass mowing line out of the range of a lawn mower blade.

So here we are in 2018, Ash Wednesday is rapidly approaching. I start thinking to myself. I’ve got to get the cross out front. Then my aging brain starts to play games with me. Didn’t you place a special timber into the ground last year? Remember, you were hoping not to keep digging a hole for the cross every year.

That was a year ago. Did I really complete this project?

So on the afternoon of Monday, February 12, I walked out to the front lawn.

I knew the general area where the cross was placed each year. With my eyes glued to the winter colored turf, I paced back and forth multiple times.

I’m thinking to myself that zinc coated handle should be easy to see. I keep walking and scanning. I’m so intent on my search that I stumble over a pumpkin stem leftover from our annual fall pumpkin sale.

I expand the search, and I find an indention in the turf. It gives me hope. I poke around with my fingers expecting to feel that metal handle, but no luck.

Frustrated, I start to think did you really cut a timber and slide it into that hole last year?  Out of annoyance, I stop my search for the afternoon.

On Tuesday, I return. This time, I’m kind of scuffing my feet along the turf. I’m hoping that the soles of my shoes will hit against that metal handle. I search my memory trying to remember where I dug the hole last year.

I’m sure anyone watching from the building or a passerby must be thinking what in the world is that old man doing? He keeps trudging back and forth with his head down— is he ok? Is he doing some type of penance before Lent?

By this time, I too am beginning to wonder about myself as well. Did I really sink that 4×4? Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. Looks like I’m going to be digging a new hole.

On the morning of Ash Wednesday, from 7-8 a.m. our church hosts ashes, blessings, and coffee. A person can drive into our  long driveway receive the sign of the cross and a blessing from one our ministers and get a free cup of coffee. For two years now this has been a successful event with church members, neighbors, and strangers pulling in for this experience. We’ve had over 80 people each year.

In between taking photos of the morning’s activities, I head back to my plot searching again for my hidden handle. Clearly, luck isn’t on my side, the handle isn’t spotted.

Again, I give up. I head inside spending the remainder of the morning working on my to-do list. After midday for some reason, I’m drawn back to that plot of turf.  The southern exposure from the winter sun is casting a brightness on the front lawn.

I start walking again. Head down. Scanning. Then just a couple of feet to my right my old eyes catch the slightest weathered sparkle. I move closer to the spot, and it is the elusive handle.

Quickly, I check below, and it is still connected to the timber. I can’t believe I finally found it. Yes, there is a God! Maybe He had grown weary watching me pace back and forth.

So, now, all I had to do was wiggle the timber, pull on the handle, and slide it out of the wet ground.

I jiggle the timber up a bit, give a few soft tugs, and the timber is cooperating. I pull harder on the handle, and just like that the handle pulls away from the timber.

A minute ago, I was thanking God profusely, and now on the front lawn of His church words only fit for a potty were swirling through my brain.

I wasn’t about to be defeated by a handle malfunction. I used a pry bar to wrestle the timber around a bit more, and then I called in my secret weapon, the afternoon caretaker of our building, Bobby McShaw. Younger and stronger than me, Bobby took a couple of tugs on the timber, and then he pulled it right out of the ground. I thanked Bobby for being my instant hero.

But, my work wasn’t done. I carried the cross out to the lawn from the Eaton Hall mechanical room. Once at our cross site, I gently eased its base into the hole. It fit snuggly. Then I tacked on the purple cloth and walked away.

Upon reflection, I wondered to myself why did it take me three days to find the timber’s handle? Why did I head back out for one more search? Cast with just the right angle of bright sunlight, why did my eyes pick up that handle?

Deep in my heart, I believe the good Lord nudged me back out there.

He was quietly saying to me—ok, Bill, go one more time. Open your old eyes. Use my sunlight. Don’t give up.  Persevere.   

I have not been an avid follower of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games from South Korea, but one headline caught my attention:

Kikkan Randall Wins Her First Medal In Cross-Country — A Gold — After 18 Tries

At age 35, Kikkan Randall is the only mother on Team USA. With her teammate, Jessica Diggins, they won the gold medal in the team sprint free final in cross-country skiing.

By 0.19 seconds Diggins and Randall edged out the Swedish team. They had been battling the Swedes the entire hilly course of 4.66 miles. Until this victory, no American woman athlete had ever won a medal in cross-country skiing.

So what do a zinc covered handle screwed to a 4×4 timber and an Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing have in common?

Probably nothing.

But take another minute, and think about part of verse 25 from the first chapter of James:  “persevere, being not hearers who forget, but doers who act.”

That first time gold medal in cross-country skiing was all about perseverance.

During this season of Lent, I need to consider my own perseverance by answering these two questions:

Am I going to be a forgetful hearer or a doer who acts?

Much of my life, I have been a forgetful hearer.

If I take a careful look at my world, there is no way I can continue to be a forgetful hearer.

Just like the good Lord nudged me one more time to look for that handle, he is going to continue to nudge me closer to become a doer who acts.

It is clear He needs my help.  

The real question is— will I respond to His nudges and use my perseverance to assist?


Restorative Wrestling

Depending upon your age, you might remember singer/songwriter, Michael Martin Murphey. His biggest hit song was titled “Wildfire”.  Mr. Murphey had the unique ability to be successful with two audiences of listeners. His crossover capacity was effective in Adult Contemporary and also Country.Bible_Study_Online_Jacob_Wrestles_Angel

In 1990, Mr. Murphey re-invented himself as a singer of cowboy songs. This proved to be a wise gamble. His first album called Cowboy Songs earned gold certification for selling over 500,000 copies.

That album is one of my favorites. It is a mix of classic cowboy tunes, and newer compositions that depict the challenges of being a real cowboy—none of that Hollywood stuff.

One song “What Am I Doing Here?” — captures my feelings about a conference I’m attending.

The chorus states: “So, what am I doing here Lord?  What am I doing here? There’s got be something better out there, so what am I doing here?”

Starting on Friday, January 12 and running through noon on January 13, I’m a participant in the Candidacy Summit put together by the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

There are 33 of us, women and men, all age groups, with diverse backgrounds who are trying to sort out what a ministry path might look like.

For me, I’m focused on learning about the requirements for becoming a Local Licensed Pastor.

The Summit is being held at the Roslyn Retreat Center just off of River Road in western Henrico County, Virginia.

The Roslyn Center is managed by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The beautiful, rolling grounds are framed by majestic trees, the Kanawha Canal and the James River, an active train track, and stunning vistas in every direction.

Check in starts at 10:30, followed by an opening worship service in the Chapel. The first session before lunch is an overview of the candidacy journey.

After lunch, a panel with expertise in each possible ministry path, conducts an informal, but informative discussion about the journey.

Once our questions are answered by the panel presenters, we move forward into three unique sessions.

All of the activities are designed to provide good information about the assorted ministry paths. But, the leadership team has also broken us down into three small groups for an assortment of activities. These are designed for us to get to know each other as candidates, but also for the leadership team to start learning a bit about us.

The first one is the River of Life: A Life Review Activity. This exercise is based upon a book by author, Joyce Ann Mercer. Sent to us before the summit, the exercise contains six reflective categories to ponder. The goal is for me to draw my own River of Life capturing a wide range of life’s experiences. Then in our small groups we share our rivers. Our small group leader, a local Methodist minister, was a patient and wise guide as we shared our stories.

Our next activity brought all of the participants back together for insights related to our StrengthFinders’ survey. Formulated by Don Clifton and now part of the Gallup Organization this survey gives a participant a snapshot of their Signature Themes.

This session was very insightful as the leader had a wealth of knowledge about the survey process. His skills were grounded in helping us understand the practical applications for what we had learned about ourselves. But more importantly, he was able to help us project how our strengths and themes might be woven into a pastoral leadership environment.

After dinner, our small group was back together. This time the focus was on The Call, and the reading and study of Luke 5:1-11.

In this exercise, the scripture reading was read aloud by assorted participants. Our leader directed us to listen carefully during each reading for a word that resonated in our minds. Then we shared our selected word and offered a rationale as to why that word was important to our discernment.

Our day of work was closed with a tranquil worship service in the Chapel. Our leaders gave us a few reminders for Saturday morning, and we dismissed for some sleep.

Before breakfast on Saturday, we were back in the Chapel for a Morning Eucharist. After breakfast, we learned about the Appointment System process followed by a session on Spiritual Growth and Self-Care.

Next, we were back with our small groups, and a very interesting exercise with a table full of photographs. Our instructions had us circling the table and studying the photographs. After several quiet minutes of study, our leader directed us to choose a photograph. Once we had selected a photograph, we were asked to share the significance of our choice in relation to our lives and the candidacy.

The packed morning had moved quickly. We were ready for the closing worship service. Once again, the thought and planning for each chapel service reflected the strength of the leaders for the Summit.

Lunch was optional. The big breakfast was still sticking to my ribs. Goodbyes and thanks were shared, and I headed home.

While I wasn’t overloaded with information, my old brain was swirling a bit. I kept coming back to the River of Life exercise. I was drawn to the stories from the people in my small group.

My attention was captured by their transparency. They held nothing back relating to the hardships of their journeys. Addiction, parents who were addicts, failed marriages, failed relationships, instability with careers, and health issues for children.

Yet, I heard from their hearts, their capacity to survive and endure, despite these extremely challenging circumstances. But without question in the scars and wounds of their living was the light and acceptance of the Lord. Each attributed their progress and fragile stability to the good Lord. Their hearts were grounded in His love.

The passion of these stories will stick with me for a long, long time, and their openness will make me more carefully examine my call and discernment.

So, like that cowboy out on the range, I continue to wonder “what am I doing here Lord?” What am I doing at this Candidacy Summit?

I’m reminded of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis.

My mind keeps returning to the people in my small group.

As individuals they have wrestled with extreme life circumstances. And despite these obstacles, a restorative God has wrestled them away with his grace and love.

I think I will continue to wrestle with God about my interest in becoming a Local Licensed Pastor. That checklist of requirements is intense.

The wrangling required to make that decision will not be easy. I’m sure tangling with God isn’t supposed to be easy. But he is a willing supplier of resources—James 1:5:

 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”

Clearly, I’m going to need that wisdom.