In hot pursuit
2010-04-23 by Roger Gustafson

What a glorious juxtaposition of shepherd imagery in John 22:27 and Ps 23:6.  In the gospel, Jesus states that “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”  They follow, because they know the voice, trust the voice; they’re secure in the Shepherd’s knowledge of them.  In the psalm, we see another kind of “following” – that of goodness and mercy following the one who claims allegiance to the Shepherd. 

Safe to say that most people can cough up at least a few phrases of Psalm 23.  They might not be able to recite the whole thing, but “the Lord in my shepherd” and “lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” come easily to mind.  It’s one of those pieces of Scripture that travels well; return to it at different times in your life, and it carries added significance based on the contours of your journey.  It’s indeed a living Word. 

So it’s worth knowing that the word “follow” in v 6 is sometimes translated as “pursue.”  Usually, I’m on the run because I think I’m in trouble for something I’ve done when I’m being pursued.  But not here.  What kind of God chases after me with goodness and mercy?  Most journeys are accompanied by unexpected detours and surprise side trips that take us off the beaten path.  Even then, and maybe especially then, it’s good to know that the One we’re at least trying to follow is at the same time pursuing us with a blessing.   

And “no one will snatch them out of my hand.”  Life-giving, indeed.

Rosanna's Darkest Valley (Psalm 23:4)
2010-04-22 by David Howell

We've shared with you the exciting lineup of preachers at the Festival of Homiletics this year and some of the musicians (New York City concert organist Gail Archer, jazz saxophone sensation Grace Kelly, and many others).

We want to share with you the story of Marcus Hummon who will be performing at the Festival this year. In Nashville, he is called the "renaissance man". Four of his musicals were selected for three highly regarded theatres: The New York Musical Theatre Festival, The Eugene O’Neill Cabaret and Performance Conference, and The New York International Fringe Festival. Plus he has written a number of top hits: Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly,” The Dixie Chicks’ “Cowboy, Take Me Away,” and Tim McGraw’s “One of These Days” to name a few. He attended Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Reverend Becca Stevens, his wife and an Episcopal priest, serves the St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt, and she is the founder and director of the Magdalene Project, an organization dedicated to helping prostitutes rebuild their lives.

Even though it is very sad, listen to
Rosanna (a song written and performed by Marcus) on MySpace.

Marcus shares: "it is the story of a young Honduran woman who came into our lives, out of the prison system and off the streets via my wife's MAGDALENE and THISTLE FARMS. Rosanna was brought into the sex market against her will at the age of 14, and years later, after climbing the mountain of addiction and life on the streets, was deported (after sitting in a new Orleans prison for 6 months) as an 'illegal'. She has a 9 year old daughter here in Nashville, and so she headed back over the border, with the 'help' (relative term) of the Honduran and then Mexican mafia...she survived the ordeal of the crossing, though her friend Karla died from a farmer's poisoned well (they poison them to kill off illegals). She ended up back on the streets, tricking and using...
The song asks the question of God's children...who is 'illegal'? What does it mean to be a child of God and what does it mean to be a nationalist. As a songwriter, I do not have all the answers to immigration issues, but feel that more compassion is needed...and certainly as a Christian...the questions and considerations run even deeper. To whom do we belong?"

She was smuggled into the "land of the free"
With a gag on her mouth, roped hands and feet
"Please don't hurt me," she said to the strange man
"I'm fourteen years old," she said, trying to stand
"I come from Honduras, my name is Rosanna."
Well, we taught her how to get good and high
How to satisfy a man who was willing to buy
Or put a gun to her head and have his own way
With a sister, daughter maybe mother someday
Somebody's sister, daughter, a mother someday...
And she brought a little baby into the world,
A brown-skinned, black-eyed American girl.
She prayed to God a prayer of thanks,
"It's me again Lord, your daughter Rosanna,
Hola! Hallelujah..." Rosanna
Would I feed Jesus with my own hand?
Would I let Jesus step on my land,
Or poison my well, sick a dog on a child of God
Like Rosanna
She had two years clean, a job and a car
A roof over her head and a mended heart
Her little girl in school, she was headed home
The police pulled her over said her tires were low,
"Let me see your green card, and I'll let you go."
Oh, we put her in a prison in Louisiana,
Six months behind bars for poor Rosanna.
Her daughter cried, "Ah, set my Momma free."
"Well, no damn way," says the I.C.E.
"It's back to Honduras, she's a deportee."
Would I feed Jesus with my own hand?
Would I let Jesus step on my land,
Or poison my well, sick a dog on a child of God
Like Rosanna
(Rosanna came right back to the "land of the free," to find her daughter)
And she made it as far as the Rio Grande
Naked as a baby, clothes in her hands.
Waitin on the helicopter to pass,
She's kneeling down in the tall, dry grass
Silent as a prayer on Easter Mass
And when the dogs are gone they race for the river
Cold and afraid, it made Rosanna shiver
On the other side, everybody keeps runnin'
Like a white-ass deer when you fire a gun
They run to where the trucks are gonna come.
It's three days of poisoned wells and it's hot as hell
And her friend Karla, she don't look so well.
Karla dies in the shade of an old foreign tree
Well don't cry, Rosanna, just let her be
She's another free meal for the coyote.
Would I feed Jesus with my own hand?
Would I let Jesus step on my land,
Or poison my well, sick a dog on a child of God
Like Rosanna
Money for the Mafia, American green
A truck ride to Houston, packed in like sardines.
Back to the street to find her way home,
Same old tricks, sell sex and get stoned
Hand shakin, talkin to her daughter on the pay phone.
One day we all have to cross the waters
With our brothers, our sisters, sons and daughters
But just as sure as the moon swims the Rio Grande
One day she'll walk through our door, Hallelujah Hosanna
Welcome home...Rosanna.

2010-04-22 by Stephen Schuette

I appreciate these threads of information vs. experience and the sharing on these posts.  Thanks guys…

Along a similar line, I’m continuing to think about Revelation and this vision.  John certainly couldn’t sustain this by sheer willpower, this realization of creation centered and reordered in constant praise.  It’s a kind of forever-moment, a sign of what is enduring. But realistically that’s not the way we experience so much of daily life.  There’s trash to take out and dishes to clean and grass to mow and in addition all kinds of relationships that take work.  And let’s be honest, even the relationship with God can take work.

To praise God continually?  Nice thought.  But in spite of the realities and our lack of verity can it be more than a nice thought?  Can it truly be the moment out of which we live, a moment that supersedes the mundane and puts us in touch with glory?  John was certainly relating an experience.  The key may be, however, that it was not just an experience.  It was The Experience, unforgettable and so capturing the imagination that it would be a sustaining vision through the oppressions of a difficult age in Christianity’s early days.

It’s impossible to love anyone perfectly, always.  But I suspect that part of a successful marriage is claiming and remembering which experiences are defining for us.  I shared such a moment recently with a couple following choir rehearsal as we casually chatted.  They are going through a time of great stress - new job for her, work pressures for him, three children, her mother with a diagnosis of breast CA just learned about that day and how her various siblings were now reacting to that adding to the confusion. I saw the tired, worn expression on her face.  I said, “Spiritual hug.”  As she began to cry her husband embraced her with the real hug she needed and I stood there in the glow of this bright and shining moment amid all the challenges.

May we be graced with the ability to live out of such defining moments/experiences even as John chose to hold to this vision.  So it is that we dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Information vs. Experience (con't)
2010-04-22 by Roger Gustafson

Our pastoral intern this year is from Ethiopia, and I’m learning a lot from him.  His nation’s experience of the Christian movement is very different from North America’s; Christianity survived – and thrived – during Ethiopia’s oppressive communist regime, while the faith has enjoyed privileged status here in the United States. 

We were talking about church leadership the other day, and he was asking about the qualifications of those serving on church councils.  We are a predominantly white, middle-class congregation in America’s heartland; many of our members cast their livelihood nets in the seas of mid-level management.  Our church council reflects that demographic. 

Qualifications?  Well, they have to be willing to ask the question, “What is God up to, and how can we help?” and then be able to follow through with some long-range planning based on the answers that we discern.  Specifically, they have to promise to “work together with other members to see that the worship and work of Christ are done in this congregation, and that God’s will is done in this community and in the whole world; to be diligent in your specific area of serving … ; and to be examples of faith active in love, to help maintain the life and harmony of this congregation.” 

“Oh,” he said.  “It’s different in Africa.”   

“How so?  What’s the qualification for congregational leadership there?”   

“There’s only one main criterion: ‘Can you preach God’s word?’” 

Forget about those agonizing discussions about the budget or about the appropriate age for first Communion or what color to paint the sanctuary.  “Can you preach God’s word?” 

How different would our church governing bodies be – in makeup and function – if that question was the qualifier for who leads?  The question addresses, of course, primarily an experience of faith, not knowledge about faith. 

What will we communicate this Sunday?

Shepherds I Have Known
2010-04-21 by Guy Kent

Acts 9: 36-43, Psalm 23, John 10: 22-30

There’s a pastor I know who has a reputation for preaching. He has a way with words. He has the ability to coin a phrase and reshape a familiar thought, to demand the listener’s attention. Every Sunday his church is full. Every year his church superiors get letters stating how important he is to the life of that congregation. He’s known among his colleagues, respected by those in authority.  When he walks into a room of preachers everyone knows who just entered.

There’s a second pastor I know who has not a reputation for preaching. He fumbles over his words. He tends to become academic in the pulpit and rare is the listener who follows his sermon to a logical end. Every Sunday the faithful attend as they have attended no matter who was the preacher for all the years of their membership. This preacher is barely known by any of his colleagues though he and the first pastor have served the same number of years, and, indeed, graduated from seminary in the same class. Those in authority are always on the lookout for where they can send him next. And when he walks into a room filled with preachers hardly anyone knows who just entered.

One Friday night I was being rolled down the hallway of Emory University Hospital on a gurney. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m in a movie.” Because the lights overhead were passing by as they did in so many films I’d seen. I was conscious of the panic in the doctors who had been performing a procedure on me that had gone badly wrong. And now we were headed to surgery, open heart surgery. Suddenly the passing lights in the ceiling were obstructed by the face of that second preacher. “Hold on,” he said, “everything’s going to be okay. Let’s pray.” And he prayed in a huffing voice as he tried to keep up with the speeding gurney. I remember thinking, “Where the hell did he come from?” And then I was in surgery and everything was black.

When I awoke from that surgery my wife was holding my left hand and that first preacher was holding my right hand. My wife was crying; the first preacher was saying, “’Bout time you woke up.” And he smiled a reassuring prayer. I went back to sleep. When I awoke my wife was in the chair on my right and he was in the chair on my left.

A week later, at home, I got ready to go for a walk as part of my recovery. I headed down the driveway just in time to meet an unfamiliar car coming up. Inside was that second preacher. He went to walk with me and when we got back to the house he prayed, again, with me. When he left that day I remember thinking he couldn’t preach his way out of a wet paper bag, but boy could he show Jesus in his life.

That night the first preacher showed up at my house. He brought some Chinese food with him. We sat in the dining room laughing and remembering the past while looking forward to the future. He left about eight, and I remember thinking he wouldn’t be getting home until after eleven.

Years later I sat again in a hospital. This time I sat in a “family room” next to the room where my wife’s dead body lay. The first preacher showed up within hours of her death and he stayed there until he drove me home. And when I got home that second preacher was on the front porch waiting. Both had driven halfway across the state to be where they were. They directed the visitors to me. They talked to the family. They handled all those horrible details. And when my children arrived they gathered them into the warmth of their care.

Today’s Psalm is about that Shepherd. It carries me back to those days when a really polished orator and a somewhat fumbling preacher gathered me into their care.

Whenever I’m at a meeting of preachers and either one walks into the room, I know who they are for as surely as Peter, through Christ, raised Tabitha I was raised from the depths of my suffering. And in that raising I knew the living Christ.

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