May 5, 2009

Dear Centenary friends,

?Jack? is one of my amazingly colorful friends.  He usually comes for breakfast at Centenary Church.  ?Jack? can only be described as brilliant, but, as we all do, ?Jack? carries a lot of baggage.  Theology is one of his passions.  He likes to argue in an ?in your face? sort of way and loves for me to push back with theological discourse, even when he seems a bit intimidating.  Normally one does a lot more listening than talking when ?Jack? is present.

?Jack? considers himself an Irish Jew.  Sometimes he even wears a yarmulke.  A while back after a time of worship during which I preached, ?Jack? came to me, knelt on one knee, grabbed my left hand and kissed my ring finger as if I was the Pope.  Susan, my wife, observed the strange and awkward ritual and questioned whether it should have occurred.  With a twinkle in my eye I said to her, ?I could get used to that!?, as I offered my hand to her.   She rolled her eyes and said, ?In your dreams!? 

?Jack? is a musician.  After Sunday breakfast we are usually serenaded with 30 minutes or so of ?Jack? playing the piano and singing.  ?How Great Thou Art? is normally followed by ?Danny Boy?.  What ?Jack? lacks in talent, he makes up for in enthusiasm and decibels.  Since he plays by ear, there is always an improvisational side.  No two renditions of a song are alike from week to week.  It is rather like jazz. 

But here is the kicker ? With his big, boisterous, booming voice, ?Jack? never fails to sing ?By the Rivers of Babylon.?  Many artists have sung various arrangements of that classic reggae song.  The words are straight out of Hebrew scripture from Psalm 137:1-4.  ?By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem).  There on the poplars we hung our harps,?. Our tormentors demanded songs of joy? How can we sing? while in a strange land??  (Here is a link to the original version by The Melodians:   Bob Marley, James Taylor, Sinead O?Conner and many other artists have covered original.  My personal favorite is Bob Marley?s cover.)

They hung up their harps.  Harps are instruments of joy and celebration and were played in the temple when worshipers came to Jerusalem.  When this Psalm was written many Jews had been taken to Babylon to be slaves and servants.  ?Our tormenters demanded songs, but we hung up our harps.  How can we sing a song in a strange land??

I have been there, and you have too.  Captive.  Controlled.  Obsessed.  Flogged.  Beaten down.  Addicted.  Enslaved.  Handcuffed.  Put in a box.  Abused.  Kicked.  Down and out.  In bondage.

Our inclination is to hang up our harps.  No mirth is possible.  Or is it?

Two things can happen when we want to hang up our harps because we are in bondage:  First, we remember the blessings that have been.   We may not be experiencing those blessings right now, but there are some memories that we can call on to sustain us.  Psalm 137:5 reads, ?If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!?  There is a sustaining memory that comes from deep inside us that gives us the ability to survive, even if we are not able to play the harp with any energy at the present moment.

Second, ?By The Rivers of Babylon? then morphs from Psalm 137:1-4 to Psalm 19:14:  ?Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O God.?  For me, this means that even when I am in bondage, I still intend to be gracious and good and kind.  And even if I don?t feel like singing, I will at least try to hum.  And if I can?t hum, maybe I can hold the music while someone else sings.  This I will do until I take my harp down again so that I can sing a song in a strange land.

?Jack? sings out of the depths of his soul.  We do too.  Why not take your harp down that you hung up on that tree and give it a few strums?  If joy is not present right now, at least joy will come in the morning.


I will be preaching this Sunday about ?The Journey?.  I hope that you will be present in worship for a very special day of celebration. 


Don?t forget that on May 17 I will be preaching a sermon focused on the incredibly popular N.Y. Times best seller, The Shack, by William P. Young.  You can order from it for $8.84 (plus shipping) or you can pick it up at almost any local bookstore.  If you can?t afford a copy, we have ordered extra copies that can be loaned out by Talisa in the church office.  Feel free to contact Talisa if you need to borrow a copy.  Special note:  You do not have to read the book to understand the sermon.  However, everyone is invited to participate in this church-wide reading.  The next two Sundays following the May 17th sermon (May 24 and 31), I will lead a discussion about the book at 9:30 a.m.  The book has sold more than 5,000,000 copies and is ranked #8 on the Amazon sales website.  The point of the sermon and study group is not whether the book is classic, or even whether you agree with the book.  You can like or dislike it, but there is no denying that the theme of the book (which is focused around the nature of God) has struck a chord in many readers.  Let?s talk about it.

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.    


 May 13, 2009

Dear Centenary Friends,

She prays the Lord?s Prayer in French.

She quotes the first 18 lines of Chaucer?s Canterbury Tales by heart, in Old English.

She reads the Bible and C.S. Lewis.

She lives on the street.

She digs ?The Hill? for scrap metal that she can sell so she will have a little change in her pocket.

She realizes that her addiction causes her to spin out of control sometimes.

She wants to be sober.

She is a mass of contradictions, as we all are.

Centenary is her church home.

And when I say home, I mean home.

I have known her for several years.

She is my friend.


Last week, her love died.

Traveler offered her protection from the dangers of the street.

He would often say, ?Pray your prayer in French?, and was comforted by the words he did not understand.

They were as much a couple as any two people can be.

But Traveler died last Thursday of a massive brain hemorrhage at the Medical Center in Macon.

There were no other family members other than my very bright and articulate friend who lives on the street.

With conflicted emotions, she offered Traveler?s body to others who needed him?

Both kidneys and his liver were used to save others.

The gift gave her a bit of a lift.

But then a great sadness descended.  A darkness visible. 


Travelers? ashes are in my car, along with a shovel and a pick.

Wednesday I will pick up my friend and we will make our way to Wilkinson County to bury Traveler?s ashes.

When I say bury, I mean bury.

I have never done everything that needed to be done at a cemetery.

Wednesday, I will.


I have thought about that a lot

And have concluded that I probably need my friend much more than she needs me.

It is her presence (and the presence of some other friends) who save me from being insulated.

Insulation is a dangerous condition for the soul.


So, I will take my shovel, pick, Bible, and Book of Worship? and I will dig a grave for Traveler.

A grave-digging preacher ? that is what I am?at least on Wednesday.

I have asked my friend to say the Lord?s Prayer in French? and even to quote Chaucer.

I will then say a few stammering words in the face of death? and I will read Psalm 23.

Words of grief, sadness, memory, longing, and hope.  Hope with a capital ?H?.


Then we will drive back to Macon and I am taking my friend to detox.

I want her to be well and sober.

She has agreed to go to detox. 

Actually it is her idea.


So, pray for my friend.

And pray for me as I dig a grave.

And pray for me as I cover a grave.

And pray for yourself.


In the midst of the story, I find my heart filled with gratitude.

Can you understand that?

Let those who have eyes, see.

Let those who have ears, hear.


This Sunday I will be preaching a sermon which comes out of William P. Young?s book, The Shack.  The answer to the question which is forming in your mind is, ?No, you do not have to read the book to understand the sermon.?  The sermon is about how God reveals God, and how we are to look at the nature of suffering.   We will look at all this through a story from Mark 14:1-9 which is about a woman who pours some very expensive perfume over the head of Jesus.  Beth, Jerry, and I have been working on this service for awhile? It will be filled with great old hymns and new hymns set to old music.  The words of the hymns will weave together the celebration.  Spread the word? I hope that you will plan to be present at 11.  It will be a good day for contemplation and celebration.  Invite some friends to come with you.  (If you have read the book, bring your copy with you.) 


And, by the way, on Sunday, May 24 and Sunday, May 31, I will be meeting with anyone who wants to talk further about the book at 9:30 (before worship).  We will have some coffee and share together informally.  We would be glad to have you join us.


Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell


Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself. Serve.    


May 21, 2009

Dear Centenary Friends,

I recently read an article by Bishop William Willimon that set me to thinking about prayer.  Willimon had one of those awful accidents with a chain saw.  The saw tore into his arm, cutting it to the bone.  Surgery was required to repair the damage.  Morphine became Will?s friend. 

Suffering great pain, Will?s prayer life shifted.  He started by reminding God of all the good he had done in the world.  Why should he be the one to suffer?  Then he writes:  ?It?s humbling to learn firsthand how rapidly a mature, well-informed theology reverts to infantile bargaining, pleading and threats.?  Will began to examine his own prayer life from a new perspective. 

One thing he noticed is something that has occurred to me over the past several years.  In our obsession with physical health, we?ve reduced God to a member of a health-care-delivery team.  Is it true that  obsession with our health has crossed a line in terms of faith and our awareness of what God is about?  Why do we spend such an inordinate amount of our prayer time (75%? 85%? 95%?) petitioning God for our own health or the health of family and friends?  Has the obsession with health become an idol?  ?Sickness?, Willimon writes, ?has become the most interesting thing that happens to us?? 

If you read the New Testament, Jesus is most certainly identified as a healer.  However, he was, according to WIllimon ?notoriously ambiguous about what we are to make of his healing work.?  He did not heal everyone and when he healed someone, he told them not to tell anyone.  (Which is precisely the opposite of what most of us do.)  Jesus was interested in far more than physical maladies.  I remind you that everyone he healed eventually died.  Good health is always temporary.

A significant amount of our prayer time is wrapped up in our obsession with health for us and for others.  Don?t get me wrong.  Health is a good thing and worthy of some prayer time.  BUT if it is pretty much the only thing we find ourselves in communication with God about, then we are missing the point. 

Take care of yourself, but don?t let our cultural obsession with health become your mantra.  What does it mean to have faith when your health is spiraling down?    I have watched some people with chronic pain have great faith in the presence of God, in spite of their pain.  The quiet dignity they exhibit is profoundly moving to me.

So? I want to utter prayers that move beyond ?heal me? or ?heal my friend or family? or ?take care of me? or ?bless me? or ?bless someone else?.  If that is the focus, then God is no more than an extension of the health care industry.  God is more than that, don?t you think?  God works the nightshift as well as the dayshift, so ?All shall be well.  All shall be well.  All manner of thing shall be well.?  God is to be trusted, come what may.


This Sunday, May 24, I will be preaching about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  What a story!  Hope you will worship with us!


Many of you have asked for a DVD of last Sunday?s service when we focused on Young?s book, The Shack.  (The sanctuary was crowded as people came from distances to consider the themes of the book and to experience worship at Centenary.)  If you would like a DVD, please send a $10 check to Centenary UMC, 1290 College Street, Macon, GA  31201.  Make the check out to Centenary and mark it clearly for DVD.  We will mail your copy (or copies) to you.  If you have questions, please contact Talisa Hanson at  


A discussion group about The Shack will take place this Sunday, 9:30 a.m., in a classroom below the sanctuary.  We will be glad to have you join us!

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve. 


 May 28, 2009

Dear Centenary friends,

They are family.  You might not recognize it at first glance, but they are.  There is dump in Macon which my friends from the street call ?The Hill?.  For decades, Macon Iron heaped scrap on the site and eventually it became a hill. 

It occurred to someone about 5 years ago that there might be some stuff with value on and in the hill.  My homeless friends tell me that when people first started walking the hill, you could make up to $30 a day by picking up copper, aluminum, or brass.  ?The Hill? is very close to being mined out now. The return is closer to $5 per day and that comes only with very hard work.

If you visit ?the hill?, you will find people who are trying to earn enough so that they can live by honest means.  The hill is a small area.  It has been excavated and dug through many times in recent years.  Those who dig regularly in ?the hill? tease each other about finding gold.  ?The hill? looks like a archaeological site.  There are patterns in the digging.  There is a sifting process that occurs as scavengers dig through the dirt, hoping to find something of value.  The excavation must go deeper with successive years in hopes of finding something that can be sold to a recycler.

While some choose to be solitary in their search, others are in groups.  There is honor among these honest scavengers.  If one of them is particularly in need, they will put some of their ?find? in his or her bucket.  They feel compassion for each other because they are all in the same boat, for the most part.

The day I visited ?the hill?, I was there at the invitation of a ?gate keeper? who knew everyone by name and was a regular scavenger on the hill.  I was safe.  But even with my borrowed credentials which came through my gatekeeper, those digging were hesitant to talk to me.  I can understand that.  I was a strange man wandering around and why should they trust me?  I am sure that for them I represented unwelcome authority.  But Mr. George talked with me a little? He was methodically digging on the crest of the hill.  Another guy was sitting close by.  I had a hard time understanding everything that was said.  And then there were two guys who had dug much deeper on the side of the hill? several feet down.  They laughed and teased each other about searching for gold.  Occasionally one would pick up something that looked absolutely worthless to me, would brush it off, and would drop it in the bucket with a smile. 

Family happens on the hill.  There is a bond.  Some have been digging side-by-side for years.  Look at it however you want, but they are working hard, trying to earn their money.  And there is a very real sense in which they take care of one another.  Family can happen in all sorts of ways and in various places.

One of these days I am headed back to the hill, but this time I will be carrying a big bag of Krystal Burgers to share.  I hope to catch a glimpse of Jesus because I have a sense that he shows up occasionally at the hill.  Then again, come to think about it, I may have already seen him at the hill.


I hope that you will come to worship this Sunday.  I am anticipating the rush of a mighty wind!  It is a day of great celebration ? Pentecost ? the day when the church focuses on the Spirit of God.  Our sanctuary will be creatively adorned for wind. You will hear several different languages in worship.  Red is the color which is symbolic of the Spirit.  So, if you read this before Sunday, try to wear something red when you come to worship ? shirt, pants, socks, hat, scarf, gloves? whatever you have.  I am looking forward to seeing you in worship as I preach ?Come Upon Us Mighty Wind?. 


The study group on ?The Shack? will meet again this Sunday at 9:30.  Great crowd last Sunday ? even on Memorial Day weekend!  You are welcome to attend.  We will be in a classroom below the sanctuary.

Grace and peace.

Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.