My latest In Good Faith Column takes us to Kentucky where I recently spent some time with Bishop Doug Hahn and 45 priests and deacons from the Episcopal Diocese of Lexington. Leading a clergy conference on creativity in ministry was great but not being able to sit in the back and Tweet snark was surreal. Fortunately for me, the lack of WiFi meant karma couldn’t bite me back. With Laurie Brock in attendance, I dodged a bullet! (that’s a wild west reference for those keeping score).
I traveled to Kentucky for the first time in 21 years last week. I was invited to lead a clergy conference in the Diocese of Lexington and suddenly found myself on a mountain in Eastern Kentucky surrounded by Episcopal priests. While that may sound like a nightmare scenario of Dante-esque proportions to you, take comfort in knowing that I was also surrounded by good bourbon.
Being in the Blue Grass State reminded me of my last encounter with Kentucky. After college, where I served in the Army’s ROTC program, I spent four months at Fort Knox training to be a tank platoon leader. Some days I swear this was better training for parish ministry than studying theology but that’s another matter.
Anyway, Route 31 in Kentucky connects the city of Louisville to Fort Knox and I traveled this road on a regular basis whenever we’d have weekends off. Route 31 was nothing if not nondescript but I distinctly remember passing one particular business establishment. It was a liquor store placed just outside the county line between dry Bullit County, where the sale of alcohol was prohibited, and wet Hardin County, where alcohol sales were legal.
Driving down Route 31 through the dry county and approaching the wet one, the liquor store’s giant neon sign read “Benny’s First Chance.” But when you traveled the opposite way on Route 31, through the wet county approaching the dry one, the giant neon sign read “Benny’s Last Chance.” A clever marketing ploy that has probably served Benny well over the years and it’s certainly stuck in my mind.
From a spiritual perspective, we’re offered a number of first chances and last chances. Every day in every moment, we’re offered a first chance to turn our hearts to God. The door is always open, the arms are always wide, the welcoming embrace is always offered, the invitation always stands. Sometimes that first step into genuine relationship feels like stepping off a cliff — it’s called a leap of faith, after all. But that letting go is part of living into that first chance to be with the divine — a chance we’re asked to take again and again and again.
Last chances are trickier. A last chance feels like an ultimatum: “Turn to God or else…” Preachers have fed off the fear of the last chance for generations and, while it’s occasionally effective in keeping people in line or coming through the doors, I don’t believe it gets to the heart of God. Coming face-to-face with the last chance of God’s judgment is always within the context of God’s loving mercy. The merciful judgment of God demands that we take God up on the first chances we’re continually offered to serve God and one another. Regardless, whether it’s a first chance or a last chance, we’re always encouraged to take a chance on God’s love.
I had a good time in Kentucky and I hope it won’t be another 21 years until I make it there. A clergy friend of mine in Lexington set me up with a riding lesson — I was eight the last time I rode a horse. There I was sitting atop a docile beast named Jack circling the ring along with five other riders, all elementary school-aged girls. The smile plastered on my face the whole time had nothing to do with the bourbon I knew I’d be sipping later.