photo by dlkinney
photo by dlkinney

Perhaps you have seen the new series on Netflix called “The Queen’s Gambit.” That show brings back a lot of memories for me. More than two decades ago, I was a high school student, and one of my favorite extra-curricular activities was to play chess with our school’s chess club. We stayed after school one day each week to play, practice, study, sharpen our skills, and have a good time. Our practices were in preparation for weekend tournaments which were scattered throughout the school year.

Most of these tournaments were Saturday events. We would arrive at a school or convention center – local to us, across the state, or in another state – in the morning for registration. We then would play five games, each lasting up to ninety minutes. Then, at the very end, the tournament results would be announced, and trophies would be given to the top several players and teams. Everyone would celebrate a job well done, and we all would go home.

I was on a good team, and I was a pretty decent player. So we expected to win. At each tournament, our team expected to come home with a team trophy. We would easily finish in the top ten, but maybe we could place in the top five, or even win the whole tournament. Individually, I usually finished at least in the top 20. If I had a pretty good day, I would finish in the top 10. Finishing in the top 5 meant I had played really well that day – winning four out of my five matches and only losing once, maybe winning four games and drawing (tying) the fifth, maybe even winning all five.

We won a lot. We won the state team championship in my junior year. We were the sixth place team in the nation that same year. I brought home lots of trophies from smaller tournaments: second place here, ninth place there, fifth place here, seventh place there.

But I don’t want to write about winning today.

I want to write about losing.

I had a couple of bad days in my chess tournament career. Really bad days. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before, or maybe I just wasn’t mentally focused. In one tournament, out of five games, I went 1-3-1 – winning only one game, losing three, and drawing one. Needless to say, I didn’t bring home a trophy that day.

But the one day of losing that really stands out in my memory comes from my senior year in high school, twenty-three years ago this winter: the eleventh annual Lexington Winter Scholastic, in Kentucky, about four hours away from home. For some reason, my mom and I drove separately from the one teammate of mine who played in that tournament too. That was unusual because my parents rarely came to my tournaments. (I don’t blame them! What parent wants to sit in a high school cafeteria all day on a Saturday?)

In the five rounds of that tournament, I won three games and lost two.

My first loss came to a guy named Gabriel Popkin, who ended up winning the whole tournament. I lost to him in the third round, which didn’t bother me too much.

But then, in the fifth and final round, I faced his younger brother, Alexander Popkin. This kid was much younger – I think he was in middle school. His chess rating (a numeric measure of a player’s skill) was much lower than Gabriel’s, and much lower than mine. I fully expected to beat him and finish the day with four wins and the one loss.

Alexander wiped the floor with me. The game wasn’t even close. He won easily. And I still remember him sitting across the board from me, smirking at me, as if he were thinking, “My brother beat you, and now I’m beating you. You’re not that great!”

I lost badly. Not just on the chessboard – in real life, too. I left the gymnasium and started crying furious, angry tears because I had been so humiliated. My mother tried to console me. I remember another lady, a stranger, probably some other player’s mom, saying to me that it was honorable just to compete and participate in the tournament. I remember crying and shouting, “there’s no honor in this!”

I made quite a spectacle, I’m sure.

I was so upset that I asked my mom if we could leave right away. I didn’t want to be there any longer. I didn’t want to wait for the trophy presentation. I just wanted to go home.

So we left.

courtesy of uschess.org
courtesy of uschess.org

The next week, back at school, I found out from my teammate (who won four games and finished third) that I, with my three wins, finished ninth out of 37 players. The tiebreak system put me at the top of the list of players with three wins, because my two losses were against players who finished first and sixth.

I finished in ninth place. They awarded trophies to the top ten players. When they called my name, I wasn’t there. I was already on the road back home.

I was such a bad loser. To this day I don’t know exactly why losing to Alexander Popkin sent me over the edge, but it did. (It’s quite possible that I was exhibiting some early struggles with anxiety, which became a bigger issue for me in the next several years. Thankfully, through therapy and medication, I don’t have these kinds of outbursts any longer!)

I learned several important lessons about losing that day:

  • Losing badly can overshadow any wins and any positive recognition by others.
  • People notice when someone loses badly. (My mom, the other parents, the other players, my teammate…)
  • Perception does not always correspond to reality. (I thought I did poorly; I actually finished ninth.)
  • Losing is part of life.
  • No one can win all the time.
  • Running away doesn’t change the results.
  • Losing tells us more about ourselves than winning does.

What can you learn about yourself through your experiences with losing? What can you learn about others by how they lose?

2020 was an apocalyptic year

When you hear the word “apocalypse,” you might think of the phrase “the end of the world.” Armageddon. The return of Jesus. Judgment Day.

But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

“Apocalypse” means an “unveiling.” It means revealing something that has been hidden. Think of the Wizard of Oz – not the big, scary projection on the wall that Dorothy and her friends saw, but the man behind the curtain, who stayed hidden until Toto pulled back that curtain. Once the Wizard of Oz was revealed, the truth was known, and everything changed.

That’s what I mean when I say 2020 was an apocalyptic year. The curtain was pulled back, in so many ways. Now we can see what is really going on, what is really important to us, and what we really believe, if we choose to look at ourselves carefully and honestly.

Let me summarize three topics from the past year. Our responses to these topics are particularly revealing.

  1. The Pandemic

Is covid-19 a serious disease, or is it just a bad flu? Do you believe the numbers of deaths and infections, or not? Should we wear masks around others, or not? Should we be allowed to gather in large groups, or not? Are politicians trying to take away our rights, or are they working in the best interest of everyone? Should churches be treated differently than other organizations where people gather? Are you planning to get vaccinated or not? What should be done about the financial hardship facing so many people?

Each of these questions is revealing in its own way. Each of us responds to these questions differently. What has become clear in the past year is not so much that there is a pandemic in the world (certainly there is!), but that you and I have motivations, beliefs, perspectives, and desires which may be vastly different.

  1. The Election

Was November’s presidential election fair? Was there massive voter fraud in several key states? Do you trust our nation’s electoral process? Who do you believe won the election? Who, if anyone, do you believe is trying to steal the election? How do you feel about or make sense of President Trump’s continued efforts to stay in office? What do you hope will happen between now and January 20? What do you hope will happen after that?

These are revealing questions, too. Our responses to these questions say more about our motivations, beliefs, perspectives, and desires than they say about the election itself. This entire election season has been apocalyptic – revealing – about what motivates us, our neighbors, and our elected officials.

  1. The Racial Unrest

Why did George Floyd die? Why did Breonna Taylor die? Why did Ahmaud Arbery die? Is there corruption among police officers? Do Black Lives Matter? Should NFL players be allowed to kneel during the national anthem? How do you respond to this summer’s marches, protests, and riots? What books have you read about racism in America? Does our country have an ongoing problem with racial injustice?

Like the previous questions, these are revealing as well. How we respond to them (and even which questions we think to ask) says a lot about what is important to us. Once again, what has become clear in 2020 is not so much that there is racial unrest in our country, but that our perceptions of reality significantly influence how we engage with this issue.

2020 was an apocalyptic year. So much has been revealed about what we believe, what we value, what we hold most dear. The curtain has been pulled back.

Let me make an analogy to that climactic scene of the Wizard of Oz, where Toto pulls back the curtain, and Dorothy and her friends discover who the Wizard of Oz really is. In this analogy, you and I are NOT Dorothy and her friends. You and I are the Wizard of Oz. We might portray a bold, confident, perhaps frightening image for other people to see. But the pandemic, the election, the racial unrest – important parts of 2020 (Toto in this analogy) – have pulled back the curtain to reveal who we really are.

Our choice now involves how we decide to move forward. Are we willing to acknowledge the reality of the situation, admit what we really believe, and let go of whatever false images of power and confidence we have portrayed to others? Are we willing to acknowledge our shortcomings and listen humbly to the needs of others? Are we willing to use our abilities, resources, and voices to help others whom we encounter?

That’s what the Wizard of Oz did. And that’s what made him wise.

 

Our 75th anniversary celebration weekend is just around the corner! One of the songs we will sing this coming Sunday morning is an old Church of God heritage hymn entitled “The Church’s Jubilee.” It’s a song that I grew up singing in my home church. Perhaps you remember it well, also. But we have not sung this song at all – not even once – in my time as pastor of this church. This Sunday will be the first time. I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why. Continue reading

This past Sunday, we had a little bit of a technological snafu, and I thought it might be helpful to explain what was going on. Somehow, the responsive reading that appeared on our screen was the reading from the previous Sunday, not the psalm that was intended for this Sunday’s service. When we discovered the mix-up, Heather offered to lead the reading as it appeared on the screen – from Psalm 34:15-22. But I knew that Psalm 146 was the correct reading for the day, and that it was printed out (like normal) for Heather to read from the pulpit. So I asked her to read the entire psalm aloud by herself, thus nullifying the “responsive” part of this week’s responsive reading.

When we worship together, content is more important than form. What we sing, read, pray, and communicate is more important than the way in which we do it. I would much rather change a responsive reading into reading done by one person, rather than have everybody involved in reading something that doesn’t quite fit into the flow of the service.

You see, our services at Mt. Haley are carefully designed to move from one item to the next, always with a central theme in mind. Each week, when I plan the service, I sit down with the scripture texts for the day. Those usually (but not always) come from the “lectionary,” a structured way of working through the whole Bible, which is used by many different Christian groups around the world. I sit with those passages and consider what they have in common, what kind of theme they suggest for us to experience together in worship. With that theme in mind, I then select songs and the “between-song” scripture verses, so that the entire service is, more or less, about that particular theme.

For example, this past Sunday was all about “Jesus the healer.” The sermon text, Mark 7:24-37, tells two stories of Jesus healing different people. The reading from Isaiah 35:3-7 is an ancient prophecy of the Messiah who would come and bring healing to the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. The songs we sang reminded us of Jesus’s ability to bring healing in all areas of life: physical, spiritual, emotional, and so on. Through his sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus gives us abundant life even in the midst of difficult circumstances.

So our responsive reading, which came very early in the service, needed to set the tone for the rest of the service. We needed to hear Psalm 146 proclaim its ancient truth:

God “upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” (Psalm 146:7-9 NIV)

All of this is to remind you that our worship services are not cobbled together by accident. Each service has a theme, a guiding principle, something that draws together every piece of what we do. That theme is printed in the bulletin at the beginning of the service. Just this morning, Stacy (our wonderful secretary) had the idea to include the theme on the electronic presentations that run before the service, both in the sanctuary and in the narthex. That way, you will have more opportunities to see the theme of the day and to begin thinking and praying about it, even as you get settled in your seat in the sanctuary.

I hope this helps you to worship at Mt. Haley. Worship is one of the most important things we do as a community of faith! Thanks for being part of this experience with us.

Pastor David

Friends, I know the past season in our church life has been very difficult, very stressful.

Since the end of May, we have had three ambulance visits to Mt. Haley, for three different church members. You all remember, of course, that R.H. passed away while working on our church property earlier this summer. Then two Sundays ago, D.S. had a non-epileptic seizure during church, and this past Sunday, D.O. had a small stroke during church. (I’m using their initials rather than their full names because we try to be sensitive when sharing this kind of information online.)

It’s enough to make anyone a little leery of coming back to church next week.

I am reminded of the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, which Jesus himself quoted at the beginning of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)

Interestingly, Jesus quoted Isaiah a little differently than Isaiah appears in our English translations today. In particular, one phrase from Isaiah 61:1-2 is missing from Jesus’s words – not because Jesus didn’t believe this or was somehow twisting scripture, but because translations are sometimes complicated and tricky after hundreds and hundreds of years. The noteworthy phrase for us in Isaiah 61 is this:

“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)

We usually think of “brokenhearted” as describing someone who has lost a loved one or who has gone through a painful breakup or divorce. Most often, “brokenhearted” describes something relational, a state of being overcome by grief or despair. The closer the relationship, the deeper the brokenheartedness.

And you know what? If you are feeling a bit brokenhearted by the recent stressful situations at church, that’s a good thing – because it means that your relationships with other people at church are important to you. I would be concerned if you weren’t feeling kind of desperate at this point in time.

I know I am! After this past Sunday’s incident, I was reminded of Rosemary Gifford, who passed away just a year and a half ago. Rosemary always said that bad things always happen in sets of three. If two people close to her died, then she was unsettled until a third person died, and then she could relax a bit. Oddly, that pattern seemed to hold true for a long time.

So now we have had our set of three visits by paramedics to Mt. Haley. That’s it, right? We’re finished with this medical emergency business, right?

I sure hope so.

It’s time for God to bind up the brokenhearted around here. It’s time for us to draw closer to each other, reaffirm our faith in Jesus Christ together, and be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. In reality, God has already begun doing that work, and God will continue doing that work for as long as it takes.

There is no guarantee that we won’t have another medical emergency at church in the near future. We could have another this coming Sunday.

But the good news is that Jesus has entered into this world to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

One thing is for certain: Jesus is still in our midst. His presence joins us each time we gather together. And in a special way, we will recognize his presence this coming Sunday when we share Communion together.

So come. Don’t be afraid. Rest in the presence of Jesus. Remember to pray for D.S. and D.O. and all the others. Read Ephesians out loud once again. And allow God to begin binding up your broken heart, to ease your grief and despair, by drawing you close to him and close to your brothers and sisters in Christ.

I’ll see you Sunday.

Pastor David

Homosexual. Transgender. LGBTQ. Human sexuality is a religious question that is tearing church groups apart. I believe it is such a divisive question today because most Christian adults have made up their minds whether or not their understanding of Christianity allows for homosexual (or other nontraditional) relationships and practices. We have no room for discussion, no room for truly hearing the perspectives or stories of those with whom we disagree. If others disagree with us, we assume they are speaking out of hatred. Everybody believes they are standing for the truth. No one is willing to change their minds.

This week, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a document called the “Nashville Statement,” named after the city where they were meeting when they wrote it. This statement was signed by many famous Christian leaders and distributed all over social media. It immediately produced negative feedback among other Christian groups, some of which responded with statements of their own (see the “Denver Statement” for an example). I encourage you to take a few minutes to read both of the statements I’ve linked here. Continue reading

Last weekend, I attended a conference in Rockville, Maryland – where it was sunny and hot, nearly 90 degrees! – hosted by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. As their website says, “Shalem is grounded in Christian contemplative spirituality yet draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions.” I would guess, simply based on observation, that the vast majority of the 150+ attendees to this conference are Christians, but they practice Christianity in a way that is a bit different than how you and I usually practice it.

I attended this conference in order to fulfill a requirement for my current Doctor of Ministry “independent study” course. I designed this course a few months ago, in consultation with my supervising professor, in order to propel me forward into the Professional Project which will be the culmination, the capstone, of my doctoral work. According to the seminary’s instructions, my independent study was to include an “immersion experience” which would connect to this Professional Project and, at the same time, would stretch me in some meaningful, significant ways. Last weekend’s Shalem conference did exactly that. Continue reading

Last year, we introduced a series of banners to decorate our sanctuary with the colors and symbols of the various seasons of the church year. The banners rotate around our sanctuary during the course of the year, with the current season’s banner displayed prominently beside the pulpit. We have green banners to designate “Ordinary Time,” purple banners for Advent and Lent, and red banners for Pentecost and the Lord’s Supper. Starting this Sunday, you might notice that one our banners has changed colors:

The banner representing the current season of Easter, showing a cross on a purple background, now shows a cross on a white background. Why the change? Continue reading

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

Wait, isn’t that a Christmas carol? Why are we going to sing it on Easter Sunday morning?

Yes, the song appears in our hymnal in the Christmas carol section (which is named “Jesus Christ: Advent and Nativity”). Before it is “We Three Kings,” and after it is “The First Noel.” I keep track of the days on which we sing songs in worship, and in my years as pastor at Mt. Haley, we have only ever sung “Joy to the World” in the month of December – or, occasionally, in late November. There is no question that this song is a Christmas-time song.

But we’re going to sing it on Easter Sunday, and I’m excited about that. :)

“Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98. Isaac Watts wrote these lyrics as part of his quest to point all of the Psalms specifically to Jesus. Take a few minutes right now to read Psalm 98 – which, by the way, will be our responsive reading on Easter Sunday, as well.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.

If there were ever a day for us to celebrate the arrival of Jesus as King, it is Easter Sunday. After all hope seemed to have been lost on Good Friday, and after a quiet day of somber reflection on Holy Saturday, Christians around the world will celebrate with great wonder the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Who else would we claim as our King?

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns. Let men their songs employ, while fields and flocks, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.

All creation joins in celebration of the new life found in Jesus Christ. Remember that Easter coincides with the early days of springtime. Take a look around you: fields, flocks, rocks, hills, and plains are all bursting at the seams with new life. (Well, ok, maybe the rocks are a little stoic. But maybe not: see Luke 19:37-40.)

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

This is what the Easter season is all about: through his death and resurrection, Jesus has made atonement for our sins. The sorrow of Good Friday has been turned into Easter celebrations. The thorns on Jesus’s crown are exchanged for a royal crown that will never be taken away from him.

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.

Jesus came into this world full of grace and truth (John 1:14). His resurrection from the dead proves that the world’s greatest powers – religious and secular alike – are no match for his righteousness and love.

We live in an in-between time, between Jesus’s resurrection and his return at the end of the age. During this in-between time, we remember and celebrate the past: Jesus died, was buried, and rose from the grave. But we also remember and celebrate the future: Jesus will come again in glory, and the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Revelation 11:15). Rightly understood, “Joy to the World” is a song about the second coming of Christ. Won’t it be grand to remember Jesus’s future arrival on the day that we remember his victory over the grave?

Come and worship with us at Mt. Haley on Easter Sunday, April 16, at 10am. We will have a sunrise service at 7am and a hot breakfast at 8am as well.