Lent – Week 4

So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both the good and the bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. Matthew 22:10

Bruce Stanley, president / CEO – One of the encouraging (and discouraging parts) of Lent and Easter for clergy is the spike in attendance. People who do not bother to darken the door of the church will turn out at Christmas and for Palm Sunday and Easter; pews that are routinely vacant will be crowded. This is similar to Matthew 22 when, in the parable of the wedding feast, we learn that “the hall is filled with guests.”

In this parable, Jesus provides us with an urgent imperative. Christ the King commands his servants to invite all to the banquet without judgment. Everyone is to be welcomed and we are to suspend our ill-informed and less than holy considerations of whom we consider to be worthy.

This is hard for us. Despite earlier teachings such as the log in our eye (and the splinter in the eye of others), we insist on propping up our own righteousness by denigrating others. We are so eager to assure ourselves of our own goodness that we deprive others of their identity. Inevitably, our tendency is to compare ourselves at our best to others at their worst.

Several years ago, Saturday Night Live did a sketch about Vlad of Wallachia. Historically, Vlad was a Slavic hero, widely celebrated as the ruler who defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo. To intimidate the Turks, Vlad and his troops practiced a gruesome form of execution: They mounted prisoners upon great sharpened poles, leaving them to slowly die. He became known as Vlad the Impaler.

On SNL, Vlad (played by Randy Quaid) was approached nervously by Chevy Chase who said the loud and sustained screams (from the victims) made it difficult to sleep at night. Chase suggested Vlad impale fewer people, and politely suggested he only impale the “ones who deserve it.” Vlad’s response was something akin to the question “Who am I to play God and decide?”

Most good comedy has something of an edge. This is a dark tale, and this is dark humor. It does, however, convey the same profound truth found in the parable of the wedding feast. God wants us to treat all persons the same and welcome everyone into the banquet. We are not to make judgment about who is worthy and who is not. Jesus died a death every bit as brutal as Vlad’s victims. He did so not for a select few but for the sins of all the world.

Not just during Lent but every minute of every day we ought to live invitingly. We ought to cease looking for the shortcomings of others and examine only ourselves. It is time for us to get busy. Go out into the wide streets and bring all – the good and the bad – into the banquet. The feast has already been prepared.

Read Lent Week 1
Read Lent Week 2
Read Lent Week 3


Lent – Week 3

Bruce Stanley, president / CEO – When Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, we set aside the traditional liturgical colors of white, purple, green, red, and Marian blue for the somber black of ashes. The journey through Lent is not over until the darkness of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The bright light of dawn on Easter seems far away.

To non-believers this living with darkness can seem unnecessarily painful, even morbid. We believe, however, that it is out of darkness that God’s promises are realized.

When creation occurs in Genesis, chapter 1, we read, “Darkness was over the face of the earth.” A little later, darkness appears again in Genesis 15:12,  “As the sun was setting Abram fell into a deep sleep and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” The Rev. Liz Roberts notes that it is during this darkness that God’s covenant promise comes to Abram. “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18). Even in the middle of darkness, the creative capacity of God manifests itself.

All of us have the experience of darkness. We know mental and physical illness, grief and loss, unemployment, job loss, divorce, discrimination, and more.

But we who are Lenten people have hope.

We are not shy in naming darkness and places where shadows fall. But our God is light, beauty, peace, and grace. Just as Abram was on a journey, so, too are we. We are traveling to our promised land of the Kingdom of God. It has been granted to us just as Canaan was granted to Abram. To get to the place we must go through dark places, but we go with the certitude that the living Lord can penetrate even the darkest places within and around us.

When life is at its worst is often when God is at God’s best. We do not ever lose hope because God’s will cannot be prevented and we will be brought into God’s preferred future for all of us. We name the darkness we know in Lent not because we are resigned to despair but because we are full of hope and confidence that it shall be vanquished by the radiant beams of Jesus love.

Read Lent Week 1
Read Lent Week 2
Read Lent Week 4


Lent – Week 2

Bruce Stanley, president / CEO – The Bible contains poetry, genealogy, history, prose, hymns, liturgy, fable, and science. It is, however, not a book of’ any of these categories, certainly not science.

For example, in Bible stories that talk about seeds, there are things that are simply not correct according to botanical science. In John 12 it says that a grain of wheat goes into the ground and “dies” so that it may sprout and bring forth grain. We know, of course, that the seed does not die but rather germinates and is transformed by growth.

Now look at Matthew 13. Here Jesus says that mustard is the smallest of seeds. As he continues, he talks about the mustard tree and the birds that nest in its branches. But mustard, as we know, is a ground plant. And if you research how mustard grows you learn that it spreads – so much so that it is sometimes labeled “invasive.”  (In many northern climates it grows as fast as kudzu does here, spreading aggressively and taking over not just yards but entire fields.)

Regardless of whether mustard grows up or grows out, what a wonderful object lesson this is. During this Lenten season as we seek to examine ourselves deeply, it is possible for us to conclude that we don’t have much or any faith. Deep inner work can result in us concluding that we are not growing into the likeness of God and we may even feel as if we are shrinking or withering in our faith.

The good news in this teaching from Jesus is the promise that it only takes a tiny seed. God has already gifted you with enough – patience, kindness, charity, love, joy – for the good and God within you to grow. Christ’s presence in you is something God wants to magnify. He wants his love and compassion to become like mustard, wild and unchecked. He wants his love to be present in every thought and every act, every minute.

We don’t have to go “get” stronger faith. We simply need to look inward. God has already planted and begun great work within us. Let us use this season to let that small seed grow.

Read Lent Week 1
Read Lent Week 3
Read Lent Week 4


Advent Week 4

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’ ” Luke 1:41-42

I have long thought that our habit of calling the gestation period “expecting” is defiantly inaccurate. If we were accurate, we would call it “no real idea what to expect.” While we hope and pray for a child who is healthy and whole, the full truth is that every pregnancy is fraught with danger and the lives of every birth mother and every child in utero are at risk every time.

Our defiant inaccuracy causes us to romanticize the beauty of the pregnant mother and ignore the nausea and vomiting, the varicose veins, the oft attendant anemia or gestational diabetes. Our defiant dreams race forward to what the child growing within may be. We defiantly limit the moments of clarity and candor acknowledging that birth defects are real and that all children are not born academically, athletically, or artistically gifted.

We celebrate the meeting of older cousin Elizabeth and younger cousin Mary, both most unexpectedly pregnant. When reading that the child who was to become John the Baptist leaped, my heart leaps also. As Elizabeth pronounces benediction upon Mary and the fruit of her womb, Jesus, I give joyous thanks.

The paradox of this season of Advent, our time of expectancy, is that we already know the end of their individual stories. We live with stubborn defiance that in the middle of our chaotic, broken, and – as John and Jesus will sadly soon see – brutal world, hope is not defeated. Even in the midst of pain we defiantly celebrate pregnancy. Our hopes and dreams are not restrained or contained by reason or logic. The Lord of Love is about to come into our midst and come with forgiveness, fullness, and the gift of life eternal. The facts of life yield to faith in Christ.

Let us pray, with defiant inaccuracy, “Lord, come. Be born to us.”

Read Advent Week 1
Read Advent Week 2
Read Advent Week 3
Advent Week 4


Advent Week 3

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion in Jesus Christ.
Phillippians 1:6

Advent is the season of expectant waiting. As I have moved through ordained ministry in a variety of settings I am convinced that few things are more challenging for the modern believer than having patience and being willing to wait on God.

Grace UMC was the first congregation I served after ordination. It is a very traditional church in downtown Wilmington. During one Sunday service, a man – who clearly was hard living – came in and walked straight up the long center aisle to the altar rail. The ushers, taken by surprise, followed quickly behind and awkwardly stood around him. The pastor left the pulpit and approached the visitor. In whispered voice the visitor asked, “Can I have baptism?” The pastor directed me to continue worship while he went into the transept to hear the man’s story.

Tom had been homeless and was currently residing a few blocks away at the Cape Fear Gospel Rescue Mission. A few minutes earlier during the mission’s laity-lead worship, God spoke to Tom who immediately asked for holy baptism. The lay leader acknowledged the limits of his authority and told him, “I can preach and teach but I am not ordained. You need to go to a church.” So immediate was Tom’s desire for baptism that he walked out of the mission, down the block, and into the first church he found: Grace UMC.

I don’t know if there had ever been an unplanned baptism at Grace. The tradition was to schedule baptisms, weeks in advance. So unprepared were we for this event that the baptistry was dry. You don’t need much water for a Methodist baptism, but you do need some. After water was obtained, the pastor interrupted the service and another child of God was welcomed into the church.

If we had what Paul encourages us to have, “confidence that God was working toward completion,” I am certain water would have been in the basin. However, we at Grace that day had begun to suffer from ennui, assuming that God’s miracle wouldn’t occur during worship.

How pitiful our faith must seem in such moments to God, how limited our imaginations. God is at work in us, through us, around us, despite us. God’s will will not be prevented and His work continues. So let us wait with great expectation. Let our hearts, eyes, ears, and hands be open so that we are ready to welcome those who are sent our way. Whether the child of God comes as a babe in a manger or a bedraggled man in his mid fifties, a child in a group home or a teen in a foster home, let us look for them and receive them. Fetch the water and fill the basins, God’s love is being poured out.

Read Advent Week 1
Read Advent Week 2
Advent Week 3
Read Advent Week 4


Advent Week 2

The Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, while he was in the wilderness. He emerged and went about all of the region of the Jordan, preaching baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Luke 3:2

The second Sunday of Advent features the role of John the Baptist and highlights his work of “preparing the way of the Lord.” His presence is jolting. We beautify most of the people in the Christmas story: the shining angel Gabriel, the beautiful young Mary, the handsome and resolute Joseph, earnest shepherds, and wise men wearing ermine capes and crowns of gold. We cannot however make John the Baptist beautiful. His hair is uncut and likely unkempt. He wears a camel’s hair shirt to chafe and cut him as a reminder of his sin. He is an ascetic whose diet includes desert insects. His manner is confrontational and his message of repentance not always easy to hear. John’s presentation of self is as much (if not more of) a challenge than his preaching.

In every congregation of which I have been pastor there has been an awkward person of simple, straightforward piety. In each instance, most church members have had a hard time either accepting their expression of faith or incorporating them socially. One of my favorites was a man who lived very simply and alone in a single wide trailer. His life was centered on the Word and the waves. His hair was surfer long, pulled back in a ponytail. He had a pronounced goatee into which he had woven beads. He worked as a night clerk in a hotel so that he could have dedicated time each night to read and memorize scripture and so he could have his early morning hours to surf while the waves were best. He witnessed to literally EVERYONE he met. One of our district superintendents, a guest in that hotel, called me to compliment me on the fervor of my parishioner. The DS said that when he arrived, the man was reading his Bible and immediately offered his witness. I had another surfer in the church who told me that he was at our church because of this person’s testimony on the surf board. He said, “You have a pulpit but he has a platform upon which he floats, swims, and surfs. While young persons are bragging about partying or other things, he is quoting scripture and urging them to holiness. But, while many love him, there are plenty who avoid him.”

This man was so totally devoted to a life of simplicity and study that I really wanted to find a place in formal leadership for him. But when I tried to recruit him, he smiled and politely declined. He said, “You haven’t been here long enough to know that won’t work. People here love me but they don’t know what to do with me. I can’t hold back from challenging persons about their lack of devotion, study, and commitment. I have tried to work that way but I just don’t fit in. My ministry is at the check-in desk providing hospitality and in my wet suit on the waves calling attention to God’s creative work.”

During this Advent season, my hope and prayer is that we will each have our ears, eyes, and hearts open to hear the eloquent message of God’s awkward people. Like John the Baptist, they, too, are part of the Christmas story. Let us not simply tolerate those whose difference from us is a challenge, but accept that the Word of God dwells in each and every person. Only then can we truly prepare the way.

Read Advent Week 1
Advent Week 2
Read Advent Week 3
Read Advent Week 4


Advent Series

Week 1

The days are surely coming says the Lord when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called, ‘The Lord is our Righteousness.’
Jeremiah 33:14, 16

When news spread of the massacre of the faithful at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my siblings and I reached reflexively for one another. Immediately my older brother Mark shared with us a connection he had to that congregation.

His beloved wife of 29 years, Von, now deceased, was best friends with Carol – Carol who was maid of honor in their wedding. Shortly after graduating from West Virginia University, Mark and Von moved to Pittsburgh where Carol had grown up and where she had returned. Carol married Marvin, and together Marvin and Carol became part of Tree of Life. Mark said with emotion, “That’s Carol and Marvin’s church. Von and I were there for bar and bat mitzvah for their children, their graduation parties from high school, and other functions. What an awesome congregation; what a horrible thing to consider.”

Now whether this slaughter took place in Portland or Pittsburgh, whether it was Baptist or Jewish, does not change the terror of what occurred. And yet, the fact that my brother Mark directly knew members of the congregation, and had sat in the pew and broken bread in their fellowship hall, caused the event to have a greater impact on us. I have not seen Marvin and Carol since Von’s funeral, yet upon hearing this it felt as if they were near. Personal connection, even across time and distance, matters.

This is why Jesus came and lived among us. We celebrate a Lord who not only loves, but has lived among us and as us. He endured temptations as do we. He experienced joy and frustration, heartache and success. He lived our life and died our death so that we might one day realize the promise of Jeremiah. As we enter into the season of waiting, Advent, we do so with confidence that we are not loved from a distance. Jesus has come, is come, will come. We call upon his person to be with us fully and completely.

Come Lord, let Judah be saved and Jerusalem live in safety.

Read Advent Week 2
Read Advent Week 3
Read Advent Week 4


Husband, father, farmer …

Meet Jason Brown

Say the name Jason Brown and the words “best offensive lineman” come to mind. He’s a North Carolina native who – despite much success – decided to walk away from football and the NFL at the age of 29. Since then, he has given away over 46,000 pounds of food.

Come to Wilmington’s Epicurean Evening to meet Jason and hear his story of sharing Christ’s love as a husband, father, and farmer working to alleviate hunger. It’s going to be a spectacular evening.