College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

Most who know me are aware that I am a big fan of college baseball. I actually think that it’s one of the purest sports left today. Only a handful of each team’s players are on scholarship. The rest play because they love the game. I’ve been to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska 6 times. I stay in a tent for $11 a night at Lake Manawa State Park across the Missouri River in Iowa, about 5 miles from TD Ameritrade Stadium. It’s a blast and a definite bucket-list item for anyone who loves baseball.It’s big time on my mind today because tonight the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will play the University of Arizona Wildcats for the National Championship. I’m pulling for the Chants! The whole thing has gotten me to thinking, especially as we approach Independence Day. There are the usual notions about teamwork, and the ways that each person is important, an e pluribus unum sense of “out of many, one.”

I cannot help but think about a baseball field’s foul lines. Some things are fair and in play, and some things are foul, out of play. Tolerance is the key word on my mind as I anticipate how much leeway tonight’s umpire will give to the strike zone. Every ump seems to call it differently. By rule, a strike is supposed to go over the plate somewhere between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of the torso. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I’m almost ready to let a machine do it, except for making baseball’s history of stats meaningless.

Home plate in baseball, all the way from Little League to the Majors, is 17 inches across – every time. It doesn’t change based on the pitcher’s ability or anything else. It stays the same. Shouldn’t some things, some rules of behavior, morals, or whatever you call them stay the same, too? Do we have too much independence? Baseball has a degree of order and rules, but our country is so conflicted over who’s right and who’s wrong.

Can we agree on anything? Sure, we all know that terrorism is wrong, and all children are precious gifts. Lots of things are right and lots are wrong, but in our good old USA we have confused tolerance and love. We have blessed and embraced our inalienable rights to the point that they are harmful to civilization. We don’t know what’s fair or foul or any clue as to the strike zone. The biggest victims are our children. They have to survive our self-destructive bent toward too much freedom that really isn’t free!!!

British theologian N.T. Wright has something worth hearing as I wonder about baseball, Brexit, Western pluralism, and all the precious children who have got to grow up and try to make sense of what’s right and wrong in our confused world:

“I was going to quote a Beatles song, but then I remembered that you have to pay a lot of money even to quote a single line. But the song is well-enough known, declaring that the only thing one might need is love. It’s ironic, of course, that you have to pay through the nose to quote a song whose whole message is that love matters and money doesn’t.

That irony haunts the mood, and the philosophy, of a large swathe of Western culture over the last forty or fifty years. ‘Make love, not war’, ran the slogan from those who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was going to say that love was a bad thing. Surely life would be simpler and better if we all agreed to love each other and not fight any more. But the protests, insisting that love is better than war, contained a dark note of hatred against Western governments and ways of life, a hatred which easily spilled over into a different type of violence. What happened to all that love?

The trouble is, of course, that ‘love’ covers far too many things in our language today. Yes, as Peter says, ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 10:12). But it is clear throughout the whole New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself, that ‘love’ was never meant to mean one of the main things which, sadly, it has come to mean today.

Today, ‘love’ is regularly supposed to mean ‘tolerance’. You should never insist on anything, but always ‘love’ the other person who does things differently. You should never say that anything is actually wrong: that’s ‘unloving’ to the person who is not only doing it but claiming that it’s the right thing to do. You should never say, either, that this way of doing things is ‘right’, still less that it is the only ‘right’ way to live: how ‘intolerant’, how ‘arrogant’, how ‘unloving’. That is where a large part of our culture now stands. So strongly is this view held that if a Christian attempts to challenge it they are accused of being, well, unChristian.

But, as with protest movements, this passion for ‘tolerance’ only extends so far. Such a position is in fact extremely ‘intolerant’ of people who take a more definite stance – which includes the mainstream of adherents of many traditional faiths. This shows up the cult of ‘tolerance’ for what it is: the moralistic invention of the modern secular world, borrowing Christian language to refer to something very different. Underneath the nice language this view is just as ‘arrogant’, just as ‘intolerant’, as those it opposes. If anything more so, because it effortlessly claims the high moral ground without taking seriously the claims of other world-views…

Is it ‘intolerant to warn people that they should not drive down that road, because the bridge has been weakened by floods and might collapse? Is it ‘unChristian’ to insist that if we are to worship the God we know in Jesus we can’t simultaneously be worshipping one of the very different gods who are on offer elsewhere? Of course not. Is it a failure of Christian charity if we warn people that certain styles of behavior lead to ruin rather than to life?

Of course not – though, naturally, we need to be sure we are standing on the firm ground of the gospel, not on a point that just happens to embody our particular prejudices. All of that has to be worked out. No doubt this challenge is too hard for some. And, yes, it is difficult to know where to draw the line today. It’s quite unlikely that we will be faced with people teaching what John’s opponents were teaching. There may well be other issues which, when we understand what’s at stake, function as flash-points…”

What are the flashpoints where we need to take a stand? Is it too late? What is the “firm ground of the Gospel” and is it too broad or narrow? Is the Scripture inspired to give us the Word of God more than words of God? What is Christian? Our strike zone is all over the place with conflicting answers. Lord Jesus, help us, help me, to find our way back to you. Amen.

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In Pace with Transfiguration Day

With an early Easter, we have a short Epiphany season this year in the church. This coming Sunday is its climax with the Transfiguration of the Lord. We started Epiphany with a voice from heaven affirming Jesus at his baptism, and we end with God’s voice again declaring the Lord’s special relationship with the Father. The heavenly affirmation to Jesus expresses something that everyone longs for: We are both “loved” and “chosen.” Great words to hear as we wonder who we are and why we’re here.

Remember the story of the priest who was out walking the streets of Moscow during the days of the Soviet Union. He was deep in thought while praying and pondering his calling. Absent-mindedly he wandered into a forbidden security zone near the Kremlin. A soldier startled him when, with rifle in hand, he asked, “Who are you and why are you here?” The priest then oddly asked the soldier what his monthly salary was as the soldier looked at him with a quizzical look. Finally the soldier blurted out a figure. The priest then told the soldier, “I’ll double your pay if every night you ask me the same two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” The soldier agreed, and the priest’s sense of call gradually returned.

Transfiguration Day gives us the same opportunity. It allows us to be with Jesus on the sacred mountain and hear God’s call on our lives. It is a “thin place,” as the Celts beautifully described their sacred locations for interactions with God. The veil between this world and the unseen one are literally thin. We can palpably sense there is something otherworldly afoot. We can get distracted like Peter, who on that first Transfiguration wanted to get busy and do the mundane thing of building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, or we can focus only on Christ and listen to him.

Which will it be is the choice we make every day. Do we do as the old hymn’s title says, “Take Time to be Holy,” or miss the thin place and remain thick-headed? To be sure, there are places that are more conducive than others for reflection and worship. Several guys were asking each other about their devotional practices and what worked best. One guy said that his best worship was done with his face and hands raised toward heaven. Another said that his best way to approach God was prostrate on the ground in total humility. The third man said, “Both of those sound fine, but the best worship I ever did was when I fell into a well and was praying while I was dangling upside down from the bucket.”

Sometimes, as a clergyperson, it’s hard for me to have a set worship practice that works best. My worst temptation is to turn my conversations with God into sermon fodder. This is my version of Peter’s jumping to doing something at the expense of just being still. Of course, I have devotional routines that I make myself do. Right now, I read three devotionals daily and the Bible chapters that go with them. All three are by Chris Tiegreen: God With Us, Experiencing God’s Presence, and At His Feet. It’s good stuff, not perfect, but certainly good. You might ask, “Why three?” The answer is because I’m a little dense sometimes. It takes me about halfway through them before I settle down enough to turn off my mental to-do list. Then I’m able to hear God speak.

What are your thin places? Some are easier to identify than others. Outdoors is a no-brainer choice for me. On top of Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet up is a glorious and sacred place. Paddling the New River with the rhythms of alternating rapids and sloughs help me get in pace with the heartbeat of God. This week it was the thin place of a new grandchild’s birth. Not only was holding little Jude a wonderfully peaceful expression of God’s presence, but I also felt the Divine while I was relegated to staying at Josh and Karen’s while Kaela (4) and Joella (2) slept.

They have a baby monitor that wirelessly connects to the girls’ room with video and sound. All night long I could hear their breathing, in and out, so wondrously peaceful, and I could see them safe and sound. It was hypnotic and special, but I could barely wait until morning to tell them they had a baby brother! Isn’t that an analogy for us? If we go through life exhaling the mundane and inhaling the sacred, all the while anticipating that God is going to show up, then God will do just that! We will be as transfigured as Kaela and Joella’s faces were when they got the news about their new brother: Jude Zechariah McClendon.

When have you felt closest to God? It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain top experience. It may have occurred when you were in the deepest darkest valley. The Lord, through the psalmist (Psalm 46:10), beckons us: “Be still and know that I am God.” To know God is to know who you are and why you’re here. I invite you to listen.

The Calm before the First Rapids – South Fork of New River

New River Rapid

Out of the Mouths of Barbers

We are grateful that our new church has a housing allowance, but we have never bought a house before and had no clue of the hoops that one has to maneuver to make it to closing. How many more copies of this or that will be needed? I pray that we’re near the finish line, but I imagine there’s more to be done. It would have been helpful to know NOT to buy furniture ahead of the move. It depletes your liquid assets that the mortgage company wants to measure, and that’s not a plus to your credibility as a buyer.

I never knew how much of a blessing parsonages are to our clergy deployment system. You move out and move in, food is waiting, unpacking helpers are on hand, and you’re not distracted by much more than whether or not your bedspreads match the existing window treatments. For the first time in my ministry I’ll be without an S/PPRC or Parsonage Committee person to call when something breaks. I’ll be a committee of one whose handyman skills are usually reserved for mission trips. We are grateful for a chance to buy our own home. My prayer is that Cindy and I won’t be too frazzled before we get there.

Therefore, I’m more than a little stressed right now while I’m waiting for the money that I’m borrowing from my 403B to clear the bank so I can prove to the mortgage company that I’m a  good risk. I’m also weary from finishing up appointment-making as a District Superintendent. On top of all this I’m putting out the usual fires that come from “buyer’s remorse” as churches that didn’t ask for their pastors to move want them to move now and it’s too late!

I need to remember what I told a stressed out pastor last night: “You are not responsible for your people; you are responsible to them.” There’s a huge difference between feeling responsible FOR everyone and everything, and being responsible TO others by doing the best that you can and letting the rest go. I want to be like the non-anxious presence of Jesus when he stood before Pilate, secure in who I am and not caught up in someone else’s hurricane.

I just went to get a haircut and the person tending to my very limited strands asked, “How are you today?” I started on my tale of mortgage banking, a daughter who’s had brain surgery, concern over this detail or that one ad infinitum until she simply asked, “Are you religious?” What a great segue into a spiritual discussion with a stressed out dude. It was the best haircut I ever had, and it wasn’t at all about my hair! I never told her I was a pastor, but I did tell her I believe in Jesus. She wasn’t judgmental in the least about why I didn’t seem to be acting like I actually BELIEVE in Jesus. She just simply said what I’ve heard my dear wife say over and over again, “Turn your worries into prayers.”

Goodness, how much better I felt after that haircut! Everything is going to be alright. Jesus is my Rock and Redeemer. I need to do what I am supposed to do and not freak out if the stuff hitting the fan isn’t evenly distributed. You know how there seem to be some people who have a Teflon coating and trouble never sticks to them. Well, I’m one of those who are like Velcro. Everything sticks! Lately I have looked and felt like that old baking sheet we received when we got married almost 39 years ago – bent, rippled, warped, and multi-colored from stains and grime. It might be time for a new baking sheet!

The barber asking, “Are you religious?” has been my chance at a fresh start today. I am going to redouble, triple, and quadruple spiritual disciplines that have been too quickly evaporated by and overwhelmed by the flood of urgent things. If I do believe in Jesus and life is throwing junk at me then I better spend as much or more time talking to Jesus and yielding moment by moment to God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, here’s to fresh starts with the Lord! Plus my ace in the hole is that tomorrow morning I am “getting out of Dodge” with my Bible, fishing tackle, camping gear, chess set, and a good friend to spend a couple of nights listening to the tranquil sounds of a waterfall on the New River in Western North Carolina. In the midst of night after night of Introductory Visits for new pastors, here’s my first chance in months to get away and let the Lord refresh me and I’m taking it!

I’ll be back in time to thank Cindy for being the best Mom I’ve ever seen, and preach a Mother’s Day sermon for one of my convalescing clergy. Then next Monday I’m going to my new appointment and acclimate to things. I will be there for staff and worship meetings, and spend one-on-one time with each person. I’m going to ask them two questions: “What is ___________UMC known for in the ____________ community?” and “What are you known for in ___________ UMC?” I want to hear about each person’s passions and discern how I can facilitate shared ministry and teamwork. People can do so much more when they’re having fun and doing it together!

I am going to ask how each person finds renewal in Jesus, and here’s a question for all of us: “Who’s winning in your life: your worries or your faith?” If it’s our worries then let’s do something about it. As the old hymn goes, “I’m going to lay down my burdens, down by the riverside…” What about it? Feeling like Velcro collecting stress, a dented old pan whose shiny wore off a long time ago, then let me ask you: “Are you religious?” That barber asked a great question to put me back on track with Jesus. It’s a great question for you, too, and so is “Where is your riverside?” Give a listen to this quartet of barbers and turn your worries into prayers!

A Cord of Three Strands

Cindy and I are about to take an adventure. Those of you who know me well have heard about my many Mt. Mitchell treks, camping for $11 bucks a night at multiple College Baseball World Series in Omaha, or canoeing the New River between North Carolina and Virginia. Cindy has been camping once with me to Mt. Mitchell, once in Omaha, and tomorrow we’re heading to Jefferson, NC and the New River! I pray that it’s enjoyable enough that it’s not a “one and done” experience. I so enjoy us being together, but for this to be a repeat thing we’ve got to have serenity and spontaneity mixed with a little bit of comfort and a lot of companionship. Most important to both of us is companionship with God.

This reminds me of when I was in seminary in Boston when I enrolled in a strange class called “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I thought the class was going to be about the prayer disciplines of the early Desert Christians. I quickly discovered that it was a backpacking course designed to stretch our faith through rock-climbing, rappelling off a 700 foot high cliff, and spending two weeks hiking through the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. We were in five person teams. One person was the orienteer with map and compass. I was the cook carrying a little alcohol burning Svea stove that had to be warmed up by body heat in order to work. We hiked through snow up to our chests in places, and learned how to work as a team helping each other through the constant obstacles.

It was a marvelous course! I do remember, however, how desperate I became during the middle of the trip. Home and Cindy were far enough away from my memory that I was missing her terribly. We were not yet far enough along on the trip to see the light of civilization at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It was a perfect time for what the leaders planned for us. They gave each of us a piece of plastic to act as a ground moisture barrier or as a tarp, and took us along with our personal gear into the deeper darkness of the forest. Each person was alone, no one was within eyesight or earshot, and we had no food. Each of us had enough water to last for three days, and that was it. We weren’t allowed to keep our watches either.

The first day was terrible! I wanted to eat something, anything. I scoured my backpack to see if a single loose M&M might have strayed from the hands that stripped us of all our food. I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t tell the time, but by the looks of the sun, time had stood still. I wanted a Coke, a candy bar, Cindy, a pillow, and hot water. The second morning things began to shift. I had gotten used to the hunger. I dug out my Bible from the backpack and read to pass the time. I started noticing that the sun was moving rhythmically through the sky. The sounds of the forest were poetic in their random yet predictable patterns. It was so soothing! Over the next two days I pulled out another book that I had stashed in my backpack. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, Life Together. What a wonderful book about Christian fellowship!

Those days alone in the forest while fasting brought clarity of thought to me that I have seldom experienced since. Priorities were in focus, spiritual insight was effortlessly gained, and God seemed closer than my breath. It took the wilderness for me to see that the main thing is the main thing! God is the best meal imaginable – better than any M&M to a guy doing a solo in the dark woods. Snacking off the candy of life isn’t truly satisfying, and the time alone made the fellowship of fellow hikers all the sweeter when we got back together!

Partaking of Jesus, the Bread of Life, is ultimate satisfaction! So Cindy and I will have a tent, and our Therm-a-rest sleeping pads, freeze-dried meals of turkey tetrazzini, beef stroganoff, and granola, plus two backpacking camp chairs,  a Jetboil, the Bible and some books, along with enough fire starter to give us the essentials; but most important beyond each other there will be God. This has been a summer of “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity” for our entire family and the Lord has been with us. Narcie is doing so much better. We all are!

We have learned like Bonhoeffer did. We really need the community of life together, but mostly we need an awareness that God is right here with us, too. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says it well, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” So, here the three of us go – Cindy, me, and Jesus!

New River

LOL!

Cindy and I got back from Lake Junaluska late Thursday night and had quite the full day on Friday. She caught up on sorting things around the house as we anticipate moving next year, since her time for doing this is running short because she knows the clock is winding down for school to start back. I spent the day having the car worked on, sitting in one of the dealership’s computer work stations typing up a bunch of Cabinet stuff.

We had been at Junaluska for our Cabinet Retreat. It’s when we do a lot of team building and plan for the rest of the conference year. For United Methodists the new year started with our Annual Conference in June. Now is the bit of respite between set-up meetings for clergy and the start of Charge Conferences. After two wonderfully intense visioning days focusing on teamwork we got down to the nuts and bolts of the 2013-14 new conference year; composing the calendar that represents our life together and our common mission, deciding on this year’s Appointment Process; changes in Charge Conference forms; amendments to Cabinet Policies that cover everything from who pays for what in moving costs for clergy to Records Retention rules, and a whole lot more! As Cabinet Secretary I get to write and edit all this stuff, and for the most part I actually like it!  After all, a part of me is a process kind of guy who likes order.

But I’m also a dreamer who loves art – go figure. I love connecting the dots of our methodical process, and I feel that the covenant that holds us together is more of a creative thing than a rules thing. Being United Methodist is more a faith praxis (practice), or way of being, than a blind adherence to a set of rules in the most current Book of Discipline. You read it as much as I do and you start noticing the typos and mistakes. Try to figure out the official age of a young adult in the 2012 BOD (Paragraph 602.4). In less than five lines a young adult is defined as “between the ages of 18 and 30” and subsequently as “not younger than 18 and not older than 35.” So is it 19 to 30, or 18 to 35, and how much does it matter since we as a worldwide denomination have real different experiences of what that means? I used to care more about this stuff. I still notice and like the conundrums but the patterns and praxis of why we do what we do is much more interesting to me.

Part of our retreat time included taking Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and I came back as an an “ENFP.”  Now, 36+ years ago when I came into UM ministry and had to take the MBTI as a part of my psychological testing, I was declared an “ESTJ” – an extroverted, sensing, thinking, judging person. But in looking at the differences through the guidance of this week’s facilitators, the ENFP label fits who I am better.  I can see that during that time as an ESTJ, I’ve been someone who is outgoing, sensing the truth through empirical evidence, thinking things through, and a pretty critical judge of others and the facts — the kind of person who thinks and acts in a linear/literal sense and who loves rules!  But now that I consider it, that’s the guy I turn(ed) into when I’m stressed, afraid, or insecure – something the expectations of marriage, fatherhood, and the church drew me toward. For a long time I felt like I had to work, work, work to prove my worth.  Looking back, though, that isn’t who I was as a new Christian or where my heart has always been.

The guy Cindy fell in love with and married was/is an ENFP who is just a bit extroverted (a low “4”), is intuitive (N) and discerns and reads people and processes, is more into feeling than thinking (I am a potter after all), and perceives more than judges; i.e., even as a multi-decade parliamentarian it is more important for me to do the right things than to do things right! People rather than rules for rule’s sake come first in the ENFP worldview. Ministry isn’t a quota system of numbers of visits or sermons but is about being relational and thereby relevant. As you’ve heard me say before, one of my favorite life mantras of all time is from martyred missionary Jim Elliott, whose widowed bride, Elisabeth, was one of my most significant seminary professors and said: “Wherever you are, be all there.”

So maybe everything we have been through in the last few years has brought me full circle to where God’s heart and mine have most easily intersected. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore, and can just allow God to bathe me in life, family, faith, throwing clay, camping, and a little more “What-the-hecking-it” with a lot of stuff. Freedom! I can enjoy this wonderful gift of life and love and let go of fear of failure. Cindy and I can have a great time together, and be blessed by Narcie, Josh, and Caleb and their love and loves, and our grandchildren, of course! I would encourage you to retake the Meyers-Briggs or do it for the first time. It helped me get a perspective on things that I was feeling but couldn’t adequately describe.

A half-drunk Congressman once staggered up to the table of the late newspaperman Horace Greely and said in a loud but slurred voice, “I’m a self-made man!” Greeley replied that he was glad to hear it, “for it certainly relieves God of a great responsibility.” Acting like or being something we’re not isn’t worth the trouble and it still exposes what we really are.  All the cover-ups that we pull in overwork, name-dropping, and any other overcompensation are pretty darn obvious anyway. I truly resemble the remarks made about a man who was less than average in height, a little fleshy, and also bald. One day he and his wife were walking down a busy sidewalk when the guy turned to his wife and said, “Did you see that pretty young woman smile at me?” His wife replied, “Oh, that’s nothing. The first time I saw you I laughed out loud!” Thank you, Cindy, for not laughing at me too much, and for putting up with me anytime I tried to be somebody I really wasn’t.  And thank God for God’s grace through Jesus, that gives love to us all!