Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Selah: Fern Gully

King Ostrich Fern
There is nothing spectacular about the Lawrences' new fern garden except that we did a lot of it ourselves.

It all began with a small, filthy, weedy, moldy, completely shaded back yard that came with the house we purchased last August.  The tiny area was enclosed by a picket fence, and had a small, dirty, rotting deck. There were strange, half-buried rotting wooden things in the back yard, like miniature benches and bridges. There was no grass; just dirt, pine straw, rotting leaves, and a few shriveled shrubs. We called the area "mosquito alley" because we couldn't walk outside without getting bitten.

"How would you make this area better?" I asked our new son-in-law, Jonathan. He replied that he would rip out the deck and re-build it. And that's where the idea for "Fern Gully" began.

We didn't rip it out ourselves, but we paid our next door neighbor, Alan (and friends), to do that, and to rebuild a deck and screen it in. They extended the roof over the deck and added a ceiling fan. Then they hauled away all the rotting stuff in the yard, plus a lot more that was buried, and brought in dirt and leveled everything, added a pebble pathway, and created the beginning of what is now Fern Gully.

I spent all of January researching ferns and making a list of ones that will grow here. It was hard to wait until April to get going. Finally, two weekends ago, Keith had a load of compost delivered and spread it out in the yard. And then last weekend, we went shopping for ferns! I have so many different kinds of ferns! Here are some Autumn Ferns:

While Keith was digging holes to plant ferns, I lined the walkways with rocks scavenged from our own yard. I dug up every one of the smooth river stones (below) from a long-ago landscaped area in our side yard. Who knows what they were used for previously. We also added the big rocks and stepping stones.

Ghost Lady Ferns with added rock
Fern Gully is not yet complete. There is a lot of empty space because plants are so expensive. Just today, I drove out to Niche Gardens in rural Orange County to purchase a few shade-loving non-fern plants. We also got some hostas from a home and garden store.

Now that I look at the photos, it's obvious that the oak trees are dropping pollen in my garden, which is okay. I asked Keith to go to a fishing store and get some worms to add, to enrich the soil. We still need to put mulch on top of it all.

I find gardening to be gentle, hopeful, peaceful, and satisfying (at least until it becomes beastly hot). Planting is almost a theological activity; in fact, I do find God in the garden.

Friday, March 31, 2017

God of Grace and God of Glory

God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power;
crown thine ancient church’s story; bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.

I find it almost impossible to sing "God of Grace and God of Glory" to the tune of “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” for which Harry Emerson Fosdick originally wrote it. I know so well the familiar Welsh tune by which our United Methodist congregations sing it, that I just can’t manage to sing it to any other melody. Fosdick himself apparently hated the tune used in our Hymnal, saying, “You Methodists have always been a bunch of wise guys.”

Fosdick was a Baptist pastor, and he wrote the hymn in 1930 for the dedication of the famous Riverside Church in New York City (where he was pastor), in an unsettled economic time between the World Wars.  It is an urban social gospel hymn; a prayerful petition for passionate people.
Riverside Church

Lo! The hosts of evil round us scorn thy Christ, assail his ways!
Fears and doubts too long have bound us; free our hearts to work and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Fears and doubts continue to bind Christ’s church to this day, and this is why I was never surprised that the Duke Divinity students I have supervised often selected this hymn to go with their sermons. They and I always sang it with such conviction! If only we always could accept the gift of wisdom and courage that God offers.

Here is just a sampling of the passionate Duke Divinity students I have supervised. All of them selected "God of Grace and God of Glory" for congregational singing at one time or another. 

Amy, a Mennonite

Kathy, a Baptist

Ryan, United Methodist 

Scott and Stephen, both Methodist

Wes, a Baptist

Megan, a Nazarene
Savanna, Baptist now serving a Methodist church

Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;
shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal, lest me miss thy kingdom’s goal.

The words still ring true today, don’t they? Our country continues to suffer from “warring madness” and “wanton, selfish gladness.”  “Rich in things and poor in soul” often describes all of us fine Christians – churches, laity, pastors, and students.

Save us from weak resignation the evils we deplore;
let the search for thy salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving thee whom we adore, serving thee whom we adore.

The woman with whom I met last week at Duke Divinity told me I should be journaling all that is going on at Aldersgate; I replied that I was.  Well, not here, exactly.  But I do journal every day, and when I look back on all the private journals I have filled, it strikes me that: “Save me from weak resignation to the evils I deplore” could be my theme song. 

When I ask, God does grant me wisdom and courage in order to serve the God whom I profess to adore.

A typical United Methodist rendition of "God of Grace and God of Glory." Copy and paste --

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Surely the Presence of the Lord

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place;
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

We sang “Surely the Presence of the Lord” last Sunday as an opener. I like to watch the congregation while we’re singing this hymn to see if I really do perceive “glory on each face.” I hope there is glory on my own.

When I read up on the history of this hymn a few moments ago, I got a little shiver. It wasn’t that the author, Lanny Wolfe, was inspired spur-of-the-moment at a dedication service for a new church building to compose the hymn and sing it, although that was impressive.

No, it was the Internet story that said, “This song is especially important because it helps us to get the emphasis right.  We often talk about ‘the church on the corner,’ by which we mean a particular building.  However, the building is not the church.  The people are the church.  The building is just the place where the church meets.”
I shivered because only an hour earlier, I had written almost exactly the same words in a document I’m using to help facilitate an upcoming church retreat.  
I shivered because things keep falling into place in a cosmic sort of way, and I’ve been here before. I shouldn’t be frightened, but I am. How often have I known that surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, in these people, in this situation, in my prayers, in my life, and in the life of the church I serve – even when I cannot discern the presence of the Lord, even when I do not hear the brush of angels’ wings nor see glory on faces. The Lord was still there, even when I only perceived it in retrospect.

However, when the Lord is in this place, the Lord often seems to enjoy bringing creative inspiration and surprises, like the composition of “Surely the Presence of the Lord.”

In the author’s words from the 1977 event:

“Before our trio got up to sing, the Lord dropped a tune and some lyrics in my mind. What was really strange about the situation is that the music went in a certain progression that I would not ordinarily go to. But when it was time for us to sing, I stepped to the piano and sang through the chorus, just as the Lord gave it. I taught it to the audience.” The author sang the song through completely, and it has never been changed.

I’ve been creatively inspired and surprised myself a few times lately, including surprised twice today. Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.

Cut and paste:

Friday, March 10, 2017

O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread

O thou who this mysterious bread didst in Emmaus break,
return, herewith our souls to feed, and to thy followers speak.

Charles Wesley was a mystic, I’m convinced.  “O Thou Who This Mysterious Bread” was inspired by Luke 24:13-25, the Journey to Emmaus, and the hymn has a mystical feel to me. By that I do not mean some esoteric experience that ordinary Christians don’t have, but rather, the soul-feeding and communing with God that is possible for all Christians who yearn for it.  Only someone who regularly communed with God could have written this hymn; it exudes authenticity. Can you hear the yearning to know God in it?

Unseal the volume of thy grace, apply the gospel word;
open our eyes to see thy face, our hearts to know the Lord.

I selected this hymn for congregational singing during Communion on the first Sunday in Lent. I laughed to myself when I realized during worship that it is sung to the same tune as “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” the traditional hymn I had forgotten to select for the first Sunday in Lent! 

Of thee communing still, we mourn till thou the veil remove;
talk with us, and our hearts shall burn with flames of fervent love.

A verse that mourns our inability to fully commune with God until God removes the veil and words beseeching God to speak with us, could only have been written by a Christian who knows that God does, in fact, speak with us, and that our response (like those walking to Emmaus) is hearts burning with fervent love.

I remember feeling a combination of relief and joy when I read at the beginning of the book The Practice of Spiritual Direction by Williams A. Barry and William J. Connolly: “We define Christian spiritual direction as help given by one believer to another that enables the latter to pay attention to God’s personal communication to him or her, to respond to this personally communicating God, to grow in intimacy with this God, and to live out the consequences of the relationship” (p.8). The authors just assumed God communicates in a personal way with us!  I don’t know why I found this so surprising.  

I think Charles Wesley would have agreed that God communicates in a personal way with believers who want to know God.

Enkindle now the heavenly zeal, and make thy mercy known,
and give our pardoned souls to feel that God and love are one.

“God and love are one” is an ever-expanding knowing born of prayer and service. It has been such a gradual, sweet, and deepening knowing for me. I also realize that when I neglect the means of grace, particularly prayer and Eucharist, the knowing seems to fade. I’m with Wesley -- yes, Lord, keep me close and give my pardoned soul to know always that God and love are one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days

Lord, who throughout these forty days for us didst fast and pray,
teach us with thee to mourn our sins and close by thee to stay.

This is the first year since I’ve been a pastor that I forgot to select “Lord Who Throughout These Forty Days” as the opening hymn for the first Sunday in Lent. I didn’t realize it until the congregation sang the hymn at the joint Aldersgate-Amity-University Ash Wednesday worship service at University UMC in Chapel Hill.

As I sang it, I had a wild thought that I could still change the music for this coming Sunday, but I don’t want to distress our student musician, who probably is already practicing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” as the opener.

“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” was written by Claudia Hernaman (the wife of a minister) in 1873, and by tradition is sung on Ash Wednesday, according to the United Methodist Discipleship website, even though its lyrics more closely match the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent, the temptation in the wilderness.

As thou with Satan didst contend, and didst the victory win,
O give us strength in thee to fight, in thee to conquer sin.

Aldersgate traditionally does a morning Ash Wednesday service for preschoolers and their parents, which doesn’t have any space for a congregational hymn. No, just the children sing, the parents smile, and I place ash crosses on the foreheads of very young children and adults who tend not to attend church and therefore do not “get” Ash Wednesday at all.
The preschool director (who also places ash crosses), told me we should say, “Remember that Jesus loves you” instead of the traditional, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." All that business about dust and dying -- how depressing!

As thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,
so teach us, gracious Lord,
to die to self, and chiefly live by thy most holy word.

I decided this year that Ash Wednesday at Aldersgate misses the mark, particularly for church members who also attend the preschool service. This year, our members had an opportunity to attend the evening service at University, but few did.

The Ash Wednesday evening service at University UMC was both solemn and uplifting. Despite a thunderstorm, the sanctuary was stuffed full, and I placed ash crosses on the foreheads of dozens of children and young people, all the while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." The music was heavenly, the message good, and the congregants and pastors were friendly and welcoming.

And through these days of penitence, and through thy passion-tide,
yea, evermore in life and death, Jesus, with us abide.

Piano accompaniment from the UM Hymnal; you'll need to copy and paste: