Hosanna Hats

Hosanna Hats

In many churches, today is known as “Palm Sunday.”  It marks the Sunday prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

According to Matthew 21:8-10, as Jesus was entering Jerusalem…

 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

“Hosanna” is one of those words that most people don’t use every day.  In fact, outside of Palm Sunday, I can’t think of any other time Christians say it.  I can’t think of any time, ever, a non-Christian would use it.  Hosanna means something like, “save us!”  On Palm Sunday, the crowds recognized Jesus has the one who had come to save Israel (and the world).

I offer this explanation simply as a prelude to a funny story…

As I said, very few people outside of the Church have ever heard or used the word, “hosanna.”  When I was a campus minister at Florida State University, many of the students attending our ministry hadn’t grown up attending church.  One in particular, a gullible young man, asked some of his churched-friends what “hosanna” means.  Seeing an opportunity to have some fun at their friend’s expense, they told him a “hosanna” was a special kind of hat worn in worship, just for special occasions, and that he needed to get one.  If you knew this particular student, you’d understand this better.

He actually believed their explanation of “hosanna,” for some time, and was frequently asked whether or not he had acquired a hosanna hat yet, or not.

I still chuckle every Palm Sunday when I hear “hosanna” in worship.  And, I did, again, today.

I’m not sure what a “hosanna hat” might look like.  A turbin?  A yarmulke?  A beanie?  A miter?  A skull cap?  A fedora?  A bonnet?  A baseball cap?  A bandana?  A top hat?  A sombrero?  A bowler?  A helmet?  A chapeau?

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of “hosanna hats.”  This world is such a mess – I’m generally such a mess! – a hat that somehow communicates “save us!” doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, after all.  Maybe they should be massed produced and distributed, ASAP!

What would your “hosanna hat” look like?

Have a blessed Palm Sunday.  “Hosanna in the highest!”

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

How the Birthday Cake Ruined the Church…

In my half-century of life, a lot has changed (and is constantly changing) in our world.  That’s, of course, a ridiculous understatement.  The world is changing more rapidly and more radically with every passing day.

Though many of those changes involve science and technology, let’s consider something a bit more basic – a birthday cake.

A century ago, or more, if you wanted a birthday cake, you ground the grain you grew and harvested, collected eggs from your own hen-house, milked the cow, and hoped you still had the ingredients you couldn’t produce, purchased on your last trip to the general store.  After mixing the ingredients, yourself, you might have needed to chop some wood to heat the stove to bake the cake.

A half-century ago, to celebrate a birthday, you went to the neighborhood grocer to buy the ingredients you needed – flour, sugar, eggs, milk, baking powder, etc.  You took those ingredients home, mixed the batter with an electric mixer, and baked a cake in your electric or gas oven.  I can still remember a particularly delicious chocolate cake my mom made, with thick, rich frosting.  It wasn’t pretty, but it was sooooooooo good!

Then came a simpler way.  Rather than buying individual ingredients, cake mixes and canned frosting could be purchased.  You still baked the cake yourself, but the process was so much simpler, less time-consuming, and required less knowledge or skill – just dump the mix in a bowl and follow the directions on the package.

Then came the grocery store bakery.  There have always been bakeries, of course.  But, grocery store bakeries were cheaper and move convenient.  Now, instead of baking, you could buy a ready-made, beautifully decorated cake, in the color and flavor of your choice, and even have a custom birthday greeting added for no additional charge.  No time, effort, or skill required.

But, the problem is, everyone doesn’t like the same flavor of cake.  Some people are on diets.  Some are vegan.  Some are lactose intolerant.  Some are avoiding gluten.  Some have food allergies.  Some prefer more basic flavors, while others desire something  more exotic.  And, aesthetics matter.  We don’t want to eat something that looks mass-produced.  We want a nice presentation.  So, we order designer cupcakes, on-line, catering to multiple wants and needs, packaged in special boxes, and have them delivered to our office or home.

We’ve shifted from creators, contributors and cultivators, to consumers (and, sometimes, critics and complainers).

This scenario is replayed over, and over, and over.  We used to make coffee, at home, in a percolator.  Now, we order ahead for a grande soy latte with whipped cream and an extra shot of espresso, hot and ready for pick-up in minutes.  We used to wait in line at movie theaters, hoping tickets were available when you got to the window, knowing you might not get great seats.  Now we order our movie tickets ahead, selecting from a variety of viewing and listening options, choosing our specific reclining, leather seats, with no waiting at the theater door, and with plenty of time to purchase a much wider variety of beverages and snacks than just basic popcorn and soda.

The list could go on and on and on.

Notice how we’ve moved from basic commodities – cake ingredients, coffee beans, general seating – to being served by others, with little-to-no personal effort, and much higher levels of expectation for personalization, specialization and convenience.

I suspect, when we made our own cakes and coffee, we accepted certain imperfections.  I remember sitting on the front rows of movie theaters, just glad to have a ticket, or settling for a different movie because the show I wanted was sold out.  I think, we used to be generally more accepting, and assumed the burden was on us to make things better if we weren’t satisfied.

If the cake didn’t turn out right, bake another one.  If you don’t know how to decorate a cake, ask your neighbor for help.  If you don’t like chocolate cake, hopefully you’ll get vanilla next year.  If you made the coffee too strong, add some milk.  If you want to get a ticket to the show, get in line earlier next time.

We don’t think that way any more.  We want it customized.  We want it perfect.  We want it pretty.  We want it easy.  We want it special.  We want it NOW!

We’ve become spoiled, critical, demanding, and impatient.

We’ve become consumers.

As a pastor, I see numerous ways this shift has negatively impacted the Church.

If you follow the same general timeline I shared about birthday cakes, there was once a time church consisted of the many and varied contributions of the members.  Repairs to the facilities were performed by member craftsmen.  Sanctuaries were cleaned and decorated with home-grown flowers collected and arranged, paraments sewn and embroidered, washed and starched, pews polished, holiday decorations made and displayed, all by the members.  The music was generally the best efforts of the church’s best musicians.  Some member typed the bulletin on a typewriter, usually including a few typos.  Somebody arrived early to turn on the furnace or open the windows.  An usher swept the front steps.  Somebody baked the communion bread.  Parents and grandparents took turns teaching Sunday School, leading and planning Vacation Bible School, and working in the nursery.  Members taught Sunday School classes, and took food to the sick and homebound.  Members gathered regularly for home-cooked, church-wide dinners.  “Elder” members made the decisions, prayed, and dreamed of starting new ministries and building new buildings.

EVERYONE gave what they could, as the Lord provided.  EVERYONE took turns, doing what needed to be done.  EVERYONE did their part.  And, when it was necessary, if a need or problem or deficiency became obvious, someone stepped up to do it.

Church was the gathered service, gifted-ness, creativity, and contributions of the members; sometimes as good as the delicious home-baked bread served at communion, and sometimes as terrible as grandma’s arthritic attempt to play the piano.  Every gift was given and appreciated with love, for what it was – an offering of service to the Lord.

Now, church has become a place to be served.  Though we still depend on volunteers, the message from many is, “Don’t ask or expect to much.”  The even-greater message is, “I come to church to be served.”  I want to sit where I want to sit.  I want to sing songs I know and like.  I want the volume set according to my tastes.  I want to hear messages relevant to my life, that fit neatly into what I already believe.  I want to attend when it’s convenient.  I want the temperature adjusted to my comfort.  I want to drop my children off at the nursery, or Sunday School, or VBS, or the youth group, and have others entertain them.  I want someone to make sure I am safe.  I want lots of programs offered for me and my family, so that I can pick and chose what fits into my schedule.  I want a good parking space.

Even serving often seems self-serving.

Rather than expecting church to be the place to serve and contribute, many expect church to serve them and contribute to their own needs, wants and desires.  If I don’t like something, I’ll complain, or at least grumble.  If I don’t like the current sermon series, I’ll just stay home.  If I don’t like the music, I’ll come late.  If I don’t want to give or volunteer, I’ll let others take up the slack for me.  If I’m not interested, I won’t show up.  If I hear another church has more to offer my family, without asking so much, I’ll just go there instead.

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy cupcakes and lattes.  I appreciate convenience.  I like to be served.  I, too, have high standards and expectations.  Even as the pastor, I want things at church to be done well.

I’m not questioning our appetite for excellence.  I’m challenging our consumeristic expectations and demands.  If you want something to be excellent, then YOU make it excellent.  And, just because the world is willing to cater to your demands for convenience and customization, don’t bring that expectation to church.

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Church is like a birthday cake, baked from scratch, from pure, fresh ingredients.  We are the ingredients – the flour, the sugar, the milk, the eggs – lovingly mixed together and baked by our heavenly maker.  The final product might not be everyone’s favorite flavor.  It might be a little lopsided.  The icing might be a little un-even.  “Hapy Birtday” written in frosting, might not be spelled exactly right. But all in all, the ingredients can potentially combine to create a delicious offering for the world.  An offering for the world – not us!

Church is a place to serve, not to be served.

Maybe we need to learn how to bake cakes, from scratch, again.

Preparing for Easter

Preparing for Easter

Though I’d already chosen the text and title for my Easter 2018 sermon, I really started working on the content of the message earlier today.

If you don’t preach, you might be surprised to learn that writing sermons for Easter and Christmas Eve are very difficult.  Why?  Everybody already knows the stories.  Even if you’ve never walked into a church before, Easter and Christmas are still likely to be stories you have some degree of familiarity with.  And, for many, attending an Easter service is little more than a holiday tradition.

Undeniably, it’s a great story!  In fact, it’s the greatest story we have to tell!  But, it’s so familiar.

I’ve preached at least 20 different Easter messages, and never the same one twice.  Each time, I’ve tried to find a new way to tell the same story of Jesus beating death, or to find a new meaning or a new application.  I’ve often looked for a new and novel angle – some years more successfully than others.

But, this Easter is different.  No novelty needed this year.  This Easter follows a Lent that began with a horrific Ash Wednesday tragedy – the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Though I sense all of us, in this community, are finding ways to return to “normal,” the tragedy is still in the daily news, and in some conversation, everyday.  You see “MSD Strong” t-shirts everywhere.  This Saturday, March 24th, many will be marching in this community and others, seeking change in our gun laws.  My point?  The tragedy is still on our minds, and the shadow of this tragedy still looms large over this community, and beyond.

As I am preparing this Easter sermon, I’m wondering…

  • What does this very old story have to say to this very current event?
  • What does the resurrection of Christ mean, not just theologically, but pastorally and practically, for those still struggling?
  • In the face of so much death and suffering, how do I speak of Christ defeating death?
  • How do we balance the sorrow we still feel, with the joyful celebration of Easter?
  • How do we find Easter hope, when it still feels like Good Friday?
  • What does it mean for Christians, who live in Coral Springs and Parkland, to be Easter people?
  • What do I have to say about Christ’s resurrection, to these people, at this moment, that I KNOW is true.

In last year’s Easter sermon, Pope Francis said, “The Lord is alive! He is living and he wants to rise again in all those faces that have buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity.”  Undoubtedly, many who hear my Easter message will have “buried hope, buried dreams, buried dignity,” because of this specific tragedy, not to mention all of the other challenges and difficulties we all face every day.

I’m not quite sure how I will say it, yet.  But, Pope Francis’ statement captures the message I want to convey.  Yes, our hopes and dreams may feel buried right now.  In some cases, literally.  For many, it may feel like Good Friday for a long time.  But, Easter always follows Good Friday, and it always will.

Easter always has the final word.  There’s hope in that.

Now, back to sermon writing.

Do this…

Do this…

Today is Maundy Thursday – the day we annually remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.  The word “maundy” simply means command.  We “do this in remembrance” of Jesus – sharing bread and juice/wine with each other, representing his body and blood – because he commanded us to.

Today is the annual observance of that command.

Of course, many churches obey this command more frequently than once a year.  Depending on your denomination and tradition, some do it quarterly; some monthly; some weekly; and some, even, daily.  My tradition, United Methodism, typically celebrates Holy Communion monthly, though in recent years we have been encouraged to move to weekly communion.   For this season of Lent, my own church has celebrated communion weekly, instead of our regular practice of the first Sunday of the month.

We call this ritual by several names – Eucharist (which means “thanksgiving”), The Lord’s Supper, and Holy Communion.  Recently, I’ve been pondering the word communion.

There are a number of words that are related to the word communion…

  • Common – as in, ordinary, and the things we share with “in common” each other.
  • Community – as in, the people we share our lives with.
  • Commune – as in, where some people live together as a family or community.
  • Communicate – as in, the sharing of thoughts, ideas, concepts, or concerns.
  • Union – as in, the gathering or joining together of things or people.
  • Unity – as in, the one-ness shared between people.
  • Unite – as in, the coming together of people for a common purpose or cause.

Isn’t that what Holy Communion is all about?  We gather as a community, sharing common pieces of bread and juice/wine with each other, which unites each person with God, and results in a unity among the people gathered?  This is more than a ritual observance, practiced obediently, because we were told to.  This ritual is communion – connecting me more deeply with God and with the community of Christ, through common symbols representing his sacrificial flesh and blood.

It strikes me that all of us need a lot more communion in our lives – ritual, and otherwise.  So much seems to drive us apart, distract us from God, and even divide our individual attention and intentions.  This world – and all who live in it – is so disjointed, disconnected, and discombobulated (sorry, I needed another “d” word, for alliteration sake).  It seems to me that obeying Jesus’ command to commune with him and with each other is much needed medicine – for all of us.

So, today is Maundy Thursday.  You are commanded – by Jesus, himself –  to find a church, to receive Holy Communion, and to enjoy the communing benefits.

Do it.  Today.  That’s a command.

Pre-Easter Pondering

Pre-Easter Pondering

I know it’s not Easter yet.  Easter is still a few days away.  Before Easter, we still have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  We can’t just skip to Easter, bypassing all that led to Easter.

But, Easter is on my mind – probably because it’s the biggest day of the Christian year and I have a sermon to prepare.

Here’s what I’m pondering…

I don’t have any problem believing in Jesus’ resurrection.  As unexpected as it was, and as impossible as it may seem, I do actually believe that Jesus died a human death, that his corpse lay in a tomb from Friday evening through early Sunday morning, and then his dead body came back to life – resurrected life!

Undeniably, that is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

I also don’t have a problem believing that because Jesus was resurrected, that he has made that possible for me.  I mean, because Jesus died and came back to life – in a new, resurrected way – I will be raised after I die, too.  I believe that.  When I die – whenever that may be – and breathe my last breath, I believe I that I will awake to a new, resurrected life on the other side of death.

Undeniably, that, too, is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

But, here’s what’s on my mind this Holy Week about the Resurrection.  The Bible doesn’t only say that Jesus rose from the dead (past tense), or that we will be resurrected after we die (future tense).  The Bible says that we ARE resurrected (present tense).  Now.  Today.

“Therefore, if anyone IS in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new IS here!”  (2 Corinthians 2:17)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST LIVES IN ME. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

“Since, then, YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life IS NOW hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

I HAVE been raised with Christ.  I AM a new creation.  My life IS NOW hidden Christ.  CHRIST LIVES IN ME!

Present tense.  Not just past tense.  Not just future tense.  Present tense.  Resurrection is a present reality.  I AM resurrected!

Is that really true (I know that it is)?  I don’t always feel resurrected.  I don’t look resurrected.  The Lord knows, and everyone I know will confirm, I certainly don’t act resurrected.  What does it mean for Vance Clifton Rains to be a resurrected human being, alive in Christ, today, in Coral Springs, Florida, at work, in my house, etc., etc.?

I certainly couldn’t ask such a question without Christ’s resurrection.  And, this life is short, so my future resurrection from the dead is pretty exciting.  But, increasingly, it seems to me that my current state of resurrection may be what’s most important.

If my future resurrection means that, on the other side of death, I will be completely free from this life of sin and selfishness, and that I will have perfect communion with God and God’s family, and that I will be a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me, does my current state of resurrected-ness mean that I am to be those things now…

  • free from sin and selfishness?
  • in perfect communion with God and God’s family?
  • a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me?

Today?  Is that what being resurrected, in the present tense, means?  If not, what else?

This week, as I ponder Easter, I just keep coming back to wondering if we are missing the point.  We (Church-going Christians) do our programs and rituals.  We read our Bibles.  We believe what we we’ve been taught to believe.  We have our stances regarding what is right or wrong.

But, are we resurrected people?  Do we worship as resurrected people?  Do we serve as resurrected people?  Do we work as resurrected people?  Do give as resurrected people?  Do we love as resurrected people?

If I AM resurrected, why am I still so enamored with this world?  If I AM resurrected, why isn’t my life, my attitude, my worship, my heart a better reflection of the world and the life to come?  If I AM resurrected, why aren’t I more like Jesus?  Now?  Today?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not questioning the present reality of my resurrection.  I AM raised with Christ!  I know that it is Truth.

I’m wondering what it would look like for me, for you, for the Church, for the Body of Christ to look a bit more resurrected – TODAY.  And, every other day, until Christ comes again.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Happy Pre-Easter.  Now, go be resurrected.

Refreshing

Refreshing

I had the privilege of teaching my church’s confirmation class about the Sacraments this morning.

When I teach about Baptism, which is one of our two Sacraments in the United Methodist Church, I often ask, “What is water used for?”  I’m looking for three answers, each that help us understand the meaning of Baptism, knowing I will usually only get two.

Everyone knows that we use water to wash.  Similarly, Baptism washes away our sins.

Everyone knows that we need water to live.  Similarly, in Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, who is the source of never-ending life.

The third, that know one ever thinks of, is that water can kill a person – you can drown in it.  Similarly, the waters of Baptism drown us, killing the old sinful person, and then we rise from the water, born again.

But, today, one of the confirmands thought of one that I had never considered.  Water refreshes.

I like that image of Baptism.  Baptism refreshes.  In Baptism, I enter into life in the Spirit, which is refreshing.

I was reminded of Acts 3:19, where Peter says, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.”

I love that image – times of refreshing from the Lord – that begins with Baptism.

Though there are certainly times for seriousness, and even lament, it seems to me that spiritual refreshment ought to be the defining characteristic of life as Jesus followers.

Yes, there are times for reflection and discernment.  Yes, we are called to obedience.  Yes, there are times for broken-hearted repentance and confession.  Yes, there are times for rolling up our sleeves and doing what needs to be done.  Yes, there are times for prophets to speak out, and to fight for justice.  Yes, there are times for weeping and wailing.  But, refreshment is a gift that is perpetually available, and too often ignored.

Jesus said that all we have to do is ask…

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for[f] a fish, will give him a snake instead?12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  (Luke 11:9-13)

Refreshment.  I like that.  I want that.  I need that.

Thin Places

Thin Places

As I was reading this morning, I came across this statement in James K. A. Smith’s, You Are What You Love

“We might say the sacramental power of Christian worship “enchants” our everyday lives, reminding us that the world we inhabit is not flattened “nature” but rather a creation charged with the presence and power of the living Spirit… Creation is always more than we see.  What might appear “natural” is suffused with God’s grandeur.  It is in worship that we learn to inhabit the world in this way, as an environment charged by the presence and activity of God.”

Worship “enchants” our everyday lives… I like that.

Reading that reminded me of an ancient Celtic belief that heaven and earth are only about three feet apart.  Thus, heaven is always within reach – always, everywhere.  But, there are also times and places where the separation is much thinner.  Celts called those “thin places.”

Could we also call them “enchanted places?”

Though I know, theologically, that God is always with me, those thin, enchanted spaces and moments, reveal God’s presence more intimately, more obviously, more clearly.  I find rest and peace there.  Some of my thin spaces include…

My back porch, especially on those rare cool mornings, surrounded by my bonsai trees, some in bloom.

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In deep conversation, over cups of coffee, with intimate friends (you know who you are).

An ancient church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, early in the morning, when the Mayan incense is rolling in from the front doors.

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On top of Volcan Pacaya, in Guatemala, with beloved friends, as the lava flowed a few feet away, and we shared in Holy Communion.

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On top of Mount Nebo, in Jordan.

Riding my motorcycle on canopy roads or along the coast.

Laying side-by-side with my wife, holding hands, completely relaxed in each others’ presence.

Duke Chapel, where I went to seminary.

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Holding someone in my arms as they weep.

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, where I have gone for many, many silent retreats.

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The birth of my children.

Standing in the surf, at sunset, baptizing students when I was a campus minister.

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The sanctuary at First United Methodist Church of Orlando, where I discovered a spiritual home for the first time – where I was married, heard my call to ministry, preached my first sermons, and performed my first wedding.

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Fall Creek Falls, where I went to camp as a teen, and played and worshipped at the base of the falls.

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Corpse pose, after a good hour of yoga.

Time on the beach, early in the morning, listening to Bob Marley.

Occasionally, while I’m preaching.

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Sometimes, when I cry.

Sometimes, when I write.

And, oddly, a few unspeakable moments of unbearable tragedy, when I was called upon to be a pastoral presence.

As Smith writes, these, and others, have been thin, enchanted places, “charged by the presence and activity of God.”

It was good to be reminded of those places this morning.  It was good to be reminded that those places exist.  It was good to be reminded that I need those places.

So, this morning, I took my cup of coffee, and walked out to my porch.  I walked from bonsai tree to bonsai tree, to look at each blossom and to look for new growth.  I enjoyed the moment.  And, I felt God’s enchanting presence.  And, it was good.

Where are your thin places?