Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007 about an experience during my first year as a full-time associate pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time). By means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year and the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine). So of course I wasn't bitter or anything . . 

It was 6:10 p.m. before the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with my husband, Kevin racing back to the church for the service. In the course of our conversation, I remembered I had forgotten the most important thing. The ASHES.

Hearing the panic in my voice, Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. "Go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. I bet you can get it done before anyone gets there . . ."

While I saw the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. Did I have time to find a metal trash can? And who really listens to their husband?

Instead, I thought I had a brilliant idea, better than his. Our fellowship hall had a fireplace in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right? That's what fireplaces are for, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Yes, the very important flue.

So before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck (sigh) that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke. And more smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

But in a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off!  Lonnie, my pastoral colleague meanwhile called the security company and told them all was well. The pastor was just burning something for a service. But, the VERY loud noise kept going! And going. And going.

The first person I saw was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom (God rest his soul!). He was out of breath. I could tell that he'd been sprinting throughout the church like a crazy person. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I was glad Tom didn't yell at me. Together we got water in bowls from the kitchen and kept pouring them over the smoked filled fireplace.

And by the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Yes, the local fire department!

Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them and the crowd of early attendees standing outside wondering what was going on. I was so embarrassed! And I locked myself my office. (Yes, not a shining moment but the true story!)

Blessed Kevin, though talked me off the Ash Wednesday smoke filled church ledge and I found my way to the service.

I began the night talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening (for the late comers who hadn't heard the noise) and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

The Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.”

For our alarm really did sound!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of 2007's Ash Wednesday birthday.

I never have tried to burn my own ashes again, nor will I. And you all should say amen.

Back by popular demand is a blog post that I wrote in February of 2007- an experience that was my first year as a full-time pastor. Please laugh along with me (though it wasn’t funny at the time).

As a means of background, Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday this year: a day which should be a joyous celebration of life but instead I was in charge of the prayer meeting service about this occasion – a day to remember our mortality. This was troubling to begin with, but whatever. Secondly, the senior pastor of our congregation was in Hawaii celebrating his birthday (the same day as mine) during Ash Wednesday; thus, leaving me in charge of the service (totally not fair, right?).

It was 6:10 p.m. before prayer meeting/ the Ash Wednesday service began at 6:30. I was on the phone with Kevin on my way back to church. I knew I was running late and trying to get back to church as fast as I could. Yet, in the course of our conversation I remembered I had forgotten one important element for the service: the ashes!

Kevin offered a suggestion. He reminded me that it wouldn’t take very long to burn some more ashes. All I would need to do is go outside with a metal trash can and burn some paper in it for a few minutes. While I could see the logic in this activity, Kevin’s idea sounded a little risky to me. (My vision of what could happen is much like the picture to the left!) I thought I had a brilliant idea. Our fellowship hall has a fire place in it. I decided I’d just burn some paper in there. No big deal, right?

Wrong, because I forgot to open up the flue. Before I knew it, smoke began to fill the fellowship hall. It was just my luck that the smoke sensor was right beside the fireplace– so the church fire alarm began to immediately sound. That awful loud noise began to fill the walls of the church along with the smoke.

I quickly began to pour water on the paper burning I had begun (not thinking that I was in that moment totally defeating the point of exercises as I was soon to have soggy ashes). I thought if I could get the smoke to leave the fellowship hall, then all would be well and the fire alarm would go off.

In a few minutes, the fire alarm did indeed go off thanks to my fabulous pastoral colleague, Lonnie. He had just walked in the building when the alarm sounded and soon thereafter began calling the security company telling them that everything was ok as well as doing crowd control for me upstairs. But the first person I saw after the event was one of our most faithful deacons, Tom.

Tom, an older gentleman who came bursting down the stairs trying to see what was wrong. With panic in my voice, I admitted that I was the one who had started the fire. Yet, everything was ok; the fire was out. I felt bad for making Tom run through the church with such a sense of panic.

By the time that I cleaned everything up and make my way upstairs, I found that the fire department had already made its way to our church. Thank goodness Lonnie was there to deal with them– taking them to the fireplace downstairs, letting them know that all was well because by this time I had lost it. I was so embarrassed. I didn’t think I had it in me to go and lead the service. I wanted to go home and find some joy of this 27th birthday of mine.

But, I knew I was a professional and professionals must act as they must, not as they feel. By some grace, I wiped my tears and headed for the conference room to begin talking about the symbols of Lent, including the wet ashes. I told everyone the story of what had occurred earlier that evening and a roar of laughter came from those present (If you don’t cry, you laugh, right?).

Somehow the Joel 2 lectionary passage for the day had a whole new meeting for our group that evening: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.” For our alarm really did sound! What a day!

Kevin did treat me to a nice dinner afterwards. It was the best part of this crazy birthday.

Promise in the Night Lenten Series: I am the Lord

Isaiah 43:1-7 with Mark 14:43-46, 53-62

This morning as we begin our conversation together about this week's promise in the night-- Jesus saying to us, "I am Lord." I think it might be good if you are willing to work with me here for us to take a time out and talk to each other before I get into the main ideas of what I would like to share with you. So this is what I need you to do. Make sure you are sitting next to somebody. No one is allowed to sit in a pew by themselves. If you are a guest visiting with us, know that our church is quite informal and friendly (like I hope you've experienced already today), so we welcome you to participate in this discussion with us too.

And this is what I want you to share as you feel comfortable with one another: "Who is Jesus? And what does Jesus mean to you?" Share your answer to this question in a small group of 2 or 3 sitting close beside you. If there is anything I know about Washington Plaza, it is that you don't have trouble being honest with one another, especially when it comes to matters of faith. So, in this spirit of "there is no wrong answer" I invite you to share with one another right now, "Who is Jesus? And what does Jesus mean to you?" (SHARING)

I hope that as you shared with your neighbors, you learned something about them that maybe you didn't know before. . .  The question of "Who is Jesus?" is central to the gospel passage we find ourselves in this morning. For, just as we have been preparing for the past two Sundays as we read of the plot Judas set into motion to turn Jesus over to the chief priests, at this juncture of Mark 14 starting with verse 53, it is all happening.

 The elders of the religious councils have come to Jesus with swords and cubs and have taken Jesus into custody. And though there seems to be little credible evidence against him, with everything said against him appearing to be hearsay, Jesus is put on trial. In this trial, he is accused of the most serious of religious crimes at the time. He says he's the Son of God.

Look with me at Jesus' exact response in verse 62 of Mark 14. After Jesus was asked, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed one?" He responds by saying, "I am . .. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."

If Jesus wanted to beat around the bush and speak in politically correct language of the time, this was not the way to go. In a culture that held so much respect for the name of God--- not even writing out all the letters when putting God's name on paper-- saying that you were "the Christ" was heresy.

Let me be clear here when I say, that it is this very confession: "I am the Christ" that led to his death.

Though centuries of strained Christian/ Jewish relations and a lot of Judas haters out there who want to place the blame on a the Jewish people as a whole or on the one bad apple disciple-- these players in the drama played minor, very minor roles in the larger drama of what God was doing in the life of Jesus.

Because in the end, Jesus came to this dreadful juncture of his life for one simple reason. He said he was Lord. This dark night was ALL about Jesus' Lordship. The chief priests, the whole Sanhedrin council and Judas for that matter were simply players in the story (and the players could have been anybody) who helped to illuminate this truth: Jesus was Lord.

Can you imagine how dark this night of betrayal, arrest, and interrogation must have been for Jesus?

Can you imagine how lonely he must have been?

Can you imagine how abandoned Jesus must have felt by those he trusted the most?

Can you imagine how Jesus' human nature desperately wanted to call upon the bands and bands of angels and archangels and strike down all who sought to speak wrongly of him?   But at the same time,  his heart burst in compassion for those misguided in truth?  What a conflicted, hurt and deserted place Jesus was in!

Where was the hope? Where was the promise for the night? Where was the light?

If we turn over to our Old Testament lection for today, what we find are words of comfort for a group of people, who like Jesus, found themselves in an unfortunate situation.  All was not right with their world either.

The children of Israel lived in Babylon in exile, and had lived there for a very long time. The prophet exhorts them: soon they'd be asked to go back to their homeland, even as they'd grown quite comfortable in this foreign country. They'd be asked to deal with the ways in which they'd fallen short of God's best for them. They'd have to face up to their own darkness, the blindness of their own hearts. And, they'd be forced to make changes for the journey that awaited them. 

And while the word of the Lord could have been harsh and accusatory, it's not the promise we hear as chapter 43 of Isaiah opens. For the promise begins in the shift of how the Israelites were addressed: "BUT NOW, thus says the Lord, he  created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

And what follows are some of the most beautiful words of comfort in scripture-- words that I wrote down and put on the wall of my bedroom as a teenager to get me through some difficult times-- words that I often read now at every funeral I preach in an effort to speak words of comfort to mourners-- words that speak of God's promise to walk with us even in the darkness of dark nights.

Look with me at verse two: the Lord says, "When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you."  WHY? Because we are told, "For I am the Lord your God."

Such is a promise full of dramatic metaphors which illustrate God's promise to walk with us no matter what situations we find ourselves in.

What is most interesting to me about this passage is what it doesn't say about the journey of faith.

It doesn't say that we won't pass through rivers. It doesn't say that we won't walk through fires. It doesn't say that flames won't get anywhere near us. Though most of us would like to assume that if we just try hard and love well and live the best life we can that life's darkness nights won't find us, Isaiah's promise of prophecy does not guarantee us this at all. In fact, if we have found ourselves deep in rivers or in the middle of fires, or feeling as though our lives are going to crumble at any moment, then we are in good company. We are well acquainted with what it means to be a human being-- just as Jesus experienced on his dark night too.

But even though our lives are full of troubles and there will be moments when the nights of winter seem long and unending-- we receive a hopeful promise. Jesus is Lord.

And not just any Lord-- a word that might be scary to our independent sentiments of a society. But a Lord who loves us unconditionally, a Lord who pledges to be in our lives no matter what, a Lord who holds out joy for us when it seems to be the emotion we fear we'll never experience again.

Look with me at verse four, "Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you , I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life."

It's a love letter for a particular people, a love letter from a God who wants to show forth the light of the good news. I am the Lord.

I don't know where you are in your journey of faith this day-- believer growing, eager to go deeper in your faith, skeptic standing on the sidelines not ready to say you believe in this Jesus story yet, or somewhere in between, but I dare say wherever we find ourselves this morning, we've ALL had experiences where we've experienced God's presence with us, especially in difficult times.  (For it seems our awareness of God seems to be softened to receive most memorably when we hit a place of helplessness, lostness, or even feeling as though our lives are so bad "that there's no place to go but up.")

For me, one such time when I felt God's presence with me came when I was on my first trip out of the country to Africa as a freshman in college. Alone, I traveled to spend three weeks with some missionary friends of our family. Eager to experience the culture of some new nations and to be with folks I thought at the time were some of "God's best people on earth" (i.e. the American missionaries) I boarded the plane and set out for what I thought would be a life-changing adventure.

However, the trip turned out completely not as I expected. These missionaries, I admired from afar, turned out not to be the welcoming bunch I hoped they'd be-- to me a young adult hoping to follow in their footsteps one day. None of them really seemed to care to get to know me at all. The missionaries were among some of the most rude, selfish-centered and arrogant people I'd ever met. You could imagine how crushed I was. All my dreams for a career in international service felt ruined. There was no way I'd want to work in a community like this! What in the world, was I then going to do with my life? And did I even want to follow this God?

But, in spite of the unfortunate turn of events, grace found me. This grace came from two women, whom I don't even remember their names anymore who I worked alongside as I taught at Bible camp during one of the weeks I spent with the American missionaries. These two women, from the US like me, but in particular, came with the purpose solely of teaching some of the missionary's kids while their parents sat in meetings. And, I have to say, if I ever met an angel on earth, I know it was these two women, who said they were from Alabama. They nurtured me, welcomed me to teach with them and showed me through their actions that I was not as alone as I felt at the time. God spoke through me and my broken spirit at the time to say, "I am the Lord; and it is going to be ok." I don't know if I would have made it back home in one piece if it weren't for these two women.

In the same way, one of the things I hear most often from you, even those of you who still have great doubts about your faith and wonder if you are a Christian at all, is that you've experienced God's presence in dark times of your life. You've had experiences where you've encountered this promise in the night of "Fear not, for I am with you." You've received comfort from something you can't explain in rational terms. You've experienced what you can only call the divine. And these are moments that we remember.

But the thing is that though many of these experiences are impactful in the moment, our memory as a human race is short. How quick we are to forget! How quick we are to doubt! How quick we are to throw up our hands in disgust, wondering why we find ourselves drowning in rivers again, feeling as though we have no life-preserver to help get ourselves to shore!

Such is why today's promise in the night is so important. Jesus is Lord. For in fact it is the promise, if we remember nothing, I mean absolutely nothing else about the Christian life, it is the promise we need. Because knowing and believing that Jesus is Lord changes EVERYTHING about our personal lives, about our life together as a church and about our outlook for the future.

And because Jesus is Lord as we walk this journey in community, everything begins to look different. We get out of our pettiness, our focus completely on ourselves, and we look up to the one who is the Lord.

When we are figuring out who is bringing what for coffee teams on Sunday morning and how to clean the tables, we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When we are choosing what color to paint our walls in our bedroom with our spouse and really want to strangle him or her for their tacky taste, we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When we are deciding if we will buy just one more thing at the mall or make our pledge to the church- we remember: “Jesus is Lord."

When we find ourselves bickering and then not speaking to a dear friend for weeks-- we remember: "Jesus is Lord."

When quick fire backs of anger seem more enticing than going the extra mile in life-- we remember: "Jesus is Lord"

When folks slander us, speak ill of us for reasons we know are untrue - we remember: “Jesus is Lord"

And, most of all when we find ourselves in bleak situations when we wonder how in the world we are going to get out of bed and face another day, we remember what? "Jesus is Lord."

For this promise in the night or in the day or in the in between can make all the difference in our lives my friends. For when we get out of the framework of this life is about me, me, and more just me, we realize that though the road of following the Lord may be rocky and though the journey may be long, we have this larger truth in which to cling. And what is it? Jesus is Lord.

AMEN