Three-legged Chickens and Enthusiam

As a preacher I have found myself trying to drum up enthusiasm for all kinds of things. Stewardship campaigns are aptly named because it carries a military connotation. If it takes a “campaign” to get people to give then the war is already lost. We clergy-types want people to sing with gusto, give cheerfully, and serve faithfully. We want to pay off that building loan. We want the numbers in attendance to stay up without a slump, rain or shine. We like enthusiasm.

Not too much or it’s distracting, but we rather have a few smiles while we’re preaching, if not a few people saying “Amen!”  But, “Happy Clappy” people can turn a good worship service into a free-for-all with little decorum even though there’s evidence in the Bible to promote clapping in worship and even dancing! The bottom line is that everything that we do is to glorify God, not anyone else. Unless it brings honor to God, we’ve failed in our worship! I think we know when to clap at a worshipful rousing anthem by the choir. The joy just rises up from the congregation and spills over into overt enthusiasm.

You’ve heard the story of the circuit-riding preacher who needed a new horse. He went to someone who told him that he had the perfect horse for him. He said that the horse understood religious language. If you wanted him to stop, you said, “Amen.” If you wanted the horse to go, you said, “Praise the Lord!” The preacher bought the horse and started on his way when he came to a steep cliff. He couldn’t remember how to stop. Finally, as he was about to go over the edge, he remembered that you had to say “Amen” to stop the horse. With great relief, he then said, “Praise the Lord!” and both horse and rider plunged over the edge. Some people are too reluctant to say “Amen” and others are too quick to yell “Praise the Lord.” Enthusiasm does not need to be blind emotionalism. We’ve all seen people go off the religious deep end, and are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

That being said, most of us preachers do like feedback on how the sermon went. Often we subject ourselves to the brutal honesty of our spouses and children. Humor us and tell us how it went, gently and with courtesy, and show enough enthusiasm to let us know you got the point. I think that’s the purpose of enthusiasm. It shows the Good Lord that we’re on the same page with Him. We want to be enthusiastic disciples!

Have you ever been to a football game and sat beside someone who either acts like they have no interest in the game or knows nothing about it? It’s annoying at best. They stand at the wrong time, clap in the wrong places, and they don’t usually look at the field! You wonder what in the world caused them to be there. Maybe it was a free ticket or something, but, at least, you wish that they had researched the game – something! There are a lot of people in church and outside the church who profess faith, but act like they don’t know a blooming thing about the Lord. God help when these folks get put on a committee. It’s usually a disaster.

We need enthusiasm! We need people who want to REALLY know Jesus and make Him known! Lent is our church season to wake us up. It should be a time when we rise every day to an ever higher crescendo of discipleship. I’m not talking about somber dull faith. We need folks who are on fire for Jesus with enthusiasm overflowing. John Wesley, our Methodist founder, said of our movement’s success and its cause, “Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Amen to that.

The story is told about a city man who was riding along at 55 mph when he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw a three-legged chicken running beside the car. He accelerated to 60 mph and the three-legged chicken kept up with him! At 70 the chicken took off and left him in the dust. The man pulled over dumbfounded, and stopped in a farmer’s yard.

He rolled down his window and asked the farmer if he had seen the chicken dash by. The farmer said, “Sure, I saw it. I’ve seen plenty of them.” “What was it?” asked the man.  “The farmer said, “That was one of our three-legged chickens.” “Three-legged chickens! What do you mean, three-legged chickens?” “Well,” said the farmer, “there are three of us in the family: my wife, my boy, and myself. We all like drumsticks so we decided to breed three-legged chickens. That way we all can get a drumstick.” “Well do they taste good?” asked the city fellow. The farmer shook his head and replied, “I don’t know. We’ve never been able to catch one.”

May our enthusiasm keep us from being caught by laziness or a lack of faithfulness. Let’s outpace the world and outrun the Devil! Run on!

Three-legged chicken

Resurrection Dust

In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!”  The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.

I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing, game over. So, we are convinced that it is a hard journey to carry a cross. Jesus says that without this self-sacrifice we are doomed. Jesus is the only One who conquers everyone and everything else!

We have to let him “conquer” us so that we give up our wants and wishes and accept God’s will. If we don’t, everything is lost. We need to move from being WAM people and become WAY people. “What About Me?” people are always looking out for themselves while WAY people consistently ask, “What About You?” It is even better if the “You” in question is God. WAY people are selfless, not selfish. The way of the cross is about what’s right and pleases God. It’s the ultimate choice to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.

Christians have been called people of The Way before. It takes faith in action. Lent is our season to drill down and discover our faith’s bedrock. It’s a time to ask ourselves what we really believe, whom we really follow, and will we carry a cross. The song by Matt Redman, “Jesus, it’s all about you,” sings and sounds well enough, but is so hard to do in our self-absorbed world. It is usually the poor who get this truth before anyone else. They depend on the power of resurrection to be real. Actually everybody I know depends on this truth if they’re honest enough.  All of us need an Easter faith. So, Lent and Easter come at a perfect time. We want winter to be over and warmer weather to arrive.

I’ve been nursing an amaryllis since Christmas a year ago. Trying to get it to re-bloom after more than a year has taken more effort than I imagined. I’ve followed all the rules about letting the leaves absorb sun throughout last summer. Finally the time came for me to stop watering so that the leaves would die before last fall arrived. I cut the old fronds away, then stored it in the fridge. I was careful to keep any apples away because their proximity causes sterilization.

Finally I pulled it out 8 weeks before Christmas and expected it to be a holiday delight. I repotted, watered, and put it in as much sun as I could. It turned an ugly rotten brown. I figured I had overwatered it and firmly felt underneath it several times to see it was soggy and too far gone. It felt okay, so now, three months late, it finally started sending out green shoots. I went from being in Dr. Seuss’ “waiting place” in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to Resurrection time, and I’m looking forward to the blooms!

Has this been a “waiting place” of a winter for you? If so, there’s hope! Pollen has begun to fall and cover our cars in our temperate Southern climate. My daughter, Narcie, calls pollen “Resurrection Dust.” It wreaks havoc on sinuses, but it’s a wonderful sign that no matter how long the winter, or how hard the journey, or how heavy the cross, there’s a resurrection coming. Spring is on its way to scatter away the last vestiges of winter’s chill. “Resurrection Dust” sprinkled over our lives gives us renewed hope.

This makes me hear echoes of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” – “In the bulb there is a flower…, a spring that waits to be…, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” My amaryllis was done for, but now it’s alive! God’s “Resurrection Dust” is a sign! If nature recognizes this pendulum that swings from death to life, why don’t we? Look out at the yellow pollen and be grateful. Easter’s coming!

Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

Congo Conviction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by life? My trips over this past month have done that to me: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’ve just gotten back from a preaching mission in the North Katanga Annual Conference of the UMC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the largest conference in United Methodism. South Carolina gets 16 delegates at General Conference. North Katanga gets 56! Bishop Mande Muyombo asked if I would preach at his first Annual Conference, and I was honored to say “Yes!”

My first mistake was to go entirely by myself. There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2! My high school French and my minor in it at USC came in handy, but near enough! Dikonzo, my translator, was spectacular. When we landed on the dirt strip in Kamina after buzzing the goats off, I was greeted by the choir. Bishop Mande asked if I was ready to preach. I said, “Sure!” I didn’t think he meant right away. I had been flying for over 20 hours and was beat. But we immediately marched to the tabernacle where I “held forth,” as people used to call preaching. I preached and preached and preached the whole time I was there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful no matter where you go!

I was overcome by the depth of spiritual dedication that I witnessed. These are people so poor in comparison to the U.S., but so rich in the things of God. They had walked miles and miles to come. They spoke French as their national language inherited by their Belgian colonial oppressors, but there were many tribal languages present. It was as if John’s vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 was a present reality: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’”

As I participated in the ordination of these dedicated preachers who live off $30 a month US, I was awe-struck by their depth of commitment.  The life span in the DRC isn’t great anyway, but for preachers it is years lower. They literally give themselves to the work of ministry. When these laborers in God’s vineyard answered the call, they meant it. You could literally feel the weight of their call. When they answered Wesley’s historic questions like everyone else in every other Annual Conference as one goes into ministry, I couldn’t help but think about early pioneer preachers who died young and penniless. I know there are clergy from other parts of the world who carry a load of student debt, but this was different.

They wore their worn clergy shirts with missing plastic tabs replaced by pieces of cardboard or just soiled tissue. It is the dry season so everything was dirty. It rains from September to May, but right now it is hot and dry. Nothing is growing. These poor preachers could teach every U.S. ordinand a thing or two about taking your vows seriously. There is no mocking of our Connectional Covenant, and the church in North Katanga is booming. Bishop Mande and his dedicated clergy and laity trust Jesus in the harshest environment.

Electricity only came on for a short period of time in the mornings and evenings. Mosquito nets were a welcome necessity to avoid malaria. Thank God for the UMC “Imagine No Malaria” project. Bishop Mande and his dear wife, Blandine, lost their oldest child to malaria. North Katanga’s conference headquarters is 16 hours from the nearest hospital. U.M.C.O.R. (United Methodist Committee on Relief) has a tiny clinic in Kamina with a 1950’s X-ray machine, but they need so much more. About $500,000 US will build a hospital, and donated used equipment is desperately need. I passed open sewers that flowed into creeks where women and children were washing clothes.

I saw churches crumbling on the outside, but alive on the inside. They were literally crumbling because the rainy season had wreaked havoc on the sun-baked clay exteriors. Most everyone has a pit near their thatched-roof shack. This dry time of the year is when everyone uses a broad hoe to pick out a 10 inch square chunk of clay to replace the deteriorating walls. It’s an endless cycle, but the Lord sustains the people. I went to one UMC and heard intercessors praying in every corner of the sanctuary which was bare bones, no chairs, and a makeshift altar. Their prayers filled the air with power that was greater than their circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a special burden to do everything that I can to change their circumstances. I am convicted!

Pastors giving their lives for $30 a month is unacceptable. What if we could sponsor a pastor and make it $100 a month? We could set up a direct transfer from the US to North Katanga with complete trust that everything would be handled on the up and up. These are great people. They trust the Lord. I’m thinking that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus and put legs to our prayers and help them. I will know more on logistics and post them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I implore you to be in prayer for the people of the Congo. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. We are so blessed in the U.S. We must share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and learn from their utter dependence on God. Amen.

Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Watching the Oscars wasn’t on my must-see TV list for Sunday night, but I have been amused at the mix-up with the “Best Picture” winner. Everyone has an opinion on who dropped the ball. There’s a huge difference between assigning blame and someone taking it. Harry Truman, in good Kansan fashion, said “The Buck Stops Here!” The acceptance of responsibility is refreshing in our blame-everyone-else world. Blaming your parents, your environment, the government, your DNA, and your whatever and whomever is just too easy to do. It’s certainly a lot easier than taking responsibility.

I’m sure Price-Waterhouse appreciates the saying, “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” It is an easy mantra to use when it’s too late. It excuses poor past decisions. Wouldn’t it be better if we counted the cost of our decisions ahead of time? In this season of tax forms and filings, we ought to know that the IRS knows how to do math so we better get it right. No excuse. Similarly, God’s E.R.S., Eternal Revenue Service, can also do math. On the balance scales of life we need to realize that “what goes around, comes around.” There’s payback. Even with the grace of God, we’re all found out as poor mathematicians.

People throw away relationships, their lives, and a lot of everything else because of poor choices. We need to take responsibility before it’s shoved onto us. A good friend has a lot of sayings. Most famously, “There’s no lesson learned in the second kick of a mule.” Frankly, I’ve been kicked by a lot of the same mules. I didn’t learn my lesson.

This Is Us isn’t just a TV show that’s taking the country by storm because of fine acting, or the past and future cliffhanging clues in each episode. It’s a hit because it truly is the story of us. We see bits of ourselves in every show. The same could be true if we took a long look at human history. It repeats itself too much. We must not, however, yield to the fatalism that says that it has to.

Lent gives us a chance to take a long look at our choices and lives, and change them with God’s help. The word “Lent” has its root in the Old English “lencten” from whence we get our modern word “lengthen.” The days grow longer in the spring of the year so during these solemn days before Easter we should take a longer look at our lives and repent, re-think and change our ways. It’s time for me to learn something, do something about it, and not make the same old mistakes.

I was looking through a book filled with stories, humor, anecdotes, and noticed there were pages and pages about the subject of “success,” and only half a page on “temptation.” Seems like the opposite should be true. If it weren’t for temptation, I might have more success! Temptations are distractions from what’s important, and oftentimes it’s a “W/who” that is most important. Sometimes it’s a spouse, a child, or others. Truth be told, it’s always God – the big W, WHO, that we continually let down. When we let God down, it’s all downhill for everyone and everything else affected by our decision making.

Lent helps us to get back on track. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” The problem is that we usually don’t figure that out until AFTER we’ve messed up. There is good news, however. Lent ends in Easter. Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, our sins of omission and commission are forgiven if we want them to be. The end of the story overshadows the beginning. This is how Christianity trumps history every time. When Jesus is really Lord of our lives we get to make it through the valley of death, sin, and even the solemnity of Lent with the absolute knowledge that Jesus has already been resurrected.

It’s like the order of the installments in Star Wars. The original trilogy came out as episodes 4, 5, and 6, and then there was the prequel trilogy of episodes 1, 2, and 3, and “Rogue One” fits between episodes 3 and 4. We also have a sequel trilogy of 7, 8, and 9, with only 7 having hit the theaters. It’s confusing, but, here’s the deal: Some people watch in chronological order, some in theatrical release order, and some of us just watch them in the order of the ones we like. Anyway, the point is that Star Wars’ order helps me look at Easter’s retroactive and proactive effect on our lives: Episode 6 lets us know the Empire loses and the prequels let us know how we got into this mess to start with. Episode 7 and the next installments are what’s coming, but we already know the victory is already won.

Easter does the same thing! We know the end before the beginning! The resurrection speaks to what’s come before and should change everything in the future! Easter is God’s story from the beginning of time to its end. Though I have temptations, sins, and failures in the past, I know the sequel – God wins! This doesn’t let me off the repentance hook, but it does inspire me to shape up before my final installment occurs. Just like Star Wars, the New Testament sequel is always better than the Old Testament prequel! My after-Jesus life should be better than my before-Jesus one: “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” Right?

lent

UM IDENTITY: A WAY FORWARD

Identity is huge! Olympians display their identities by their country’s symbols and flags. Children and youth attending new schools or grades establish their unique identities pretty quickly in the ways that that dress or who they choose as friends.

Tattoos speak volumes about identity. Last names carry identity. Red State and Blue State, Republican and Democrat, are labels that carry identities especially in places where you have to register for one party or another. The upcoming college football season will bring out other identifiers like Garnet & Black or Solid Orange.

All this talk of identity has made me think about the identity crisis of the United Methodist Church. It helps me to start with what it used to mean. Having grown up as a Methodist, it meant we were middle to high church in music and worship, loved family night suppers, Vacation Bible School, and were mostly moderate in all matters inside and outside the church. We called our pastors “Mr. _______” more than “Reverend _______.”

There weren’t many “Ms.” or “Mrs.” clergy back then, but it would have been perfectly fine. We were proud to be middle-of-the-roaders. Frankly, what I liked the most about church was light green pistachio-pecan congealed salad and deviled eggs, plus a whole lot of positive vibe. Church gave me hope when my Dad was given 6 months to live when I was 8, and when I had encephalitis and had to relearn how to walk. The church exposed me to faith as a community.

I wonder if you resonate with the way Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame characterizes us:

“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress.

 *If you’re dying, they will comfort you.

*If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you.

*And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.

*Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.

*Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.

*Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there.

*Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.

*Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.

*Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.

*Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.

*Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.

*Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.

*Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.

*Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.

And finally,

+ You know you are a Methodist when: it’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.

+ You hear something funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.

+ Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee.

+ When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” and you respond, “and also with you.”

+ And lastly, it takes ten minutes to say good-bye!”

Does our local experience of United Methodism correspond to the macro view of our denomination, or is it the other way around? As much as I have been involved with our denomination at the 30,000 ft. level of general boards and agencies and 6 General Conferences, I am convinced that we are a better denomination when we view the church from the bottom up, not the top down. Everything done at the upper level is far from practical unless it makes the pistachio-pecan salad taste better on the local level.

So, who are we, and who do we want to be? Maybe if we start with answering those questions from the perspective of our thousands of local contexts then we can put to bed some of the things that divide us. What makes your local church unique? Is it having a great choir or sensational band; lively worship and practical sermons; bereavement meals that are unbelievable; an Apple Fest or annual event not to be missed; delectable church meals and scones; social action projects like soup kitchens, ramp ministries, home rehabbing; wonderful support groups of Sunday School Classes, UMW Circles, or UMM; great faithfulness for connectional giving and missions that are both far and near; youth and children’s ministries that excel; a thriving Mother’s Day Out; Bible Studies and/or Disciple; and can’t the list go on and on? In other words, “What makes your church, church?”

My challenge in the impending war over our identity as United Methodists is to let local churches define us more than anyone else. What does our common ethos declare? Let’s name everything that we all love at the local level, then ask what connectionalism looks like from that perspective. Book of Discipline Paragraph 120 sets the tone of what I’m describing as a genuine way forward for the UMC: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Paragraphs 132 and 701 are right up there, too. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: “When you recall the church of your youth, what do you remember?” “What do you think will be remembered 30 years from now about your church?” “Are we doing things that are truly memorable and why?” Our answers to these questions will determine the identity of the UMC where it counts in the eyes of God, the world, and our own.

Pistachio Salad

If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!

Amen!

 Prayer pic

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

Why Do I Like Handel’s “Messiah” More than Lessons in Carols?

Cindy and I had a wonderful 40th anniversary celebration this past weekend and regaled in hearing Handel’s “Messiah” on Friday night. This got me to thinking. Why do I love it every time I hear it and never tire of the “Hallelujah Chorus?” On the other hand, and I hate to admit it, Moravian Love Feasts and Lessons in Carols absolutely dull my senses though I am sure that others find them poignant. It’s probably my problem, but do any of these “We’ve never done it any other way” Christmas traditions ever bore you silly? Why do we seldom tire of some and hardly abide others?

Trust me, I don’t get bored at St. John’s. The music, for instance, is fantastic! I heard that I missed a wonderful Children’s and Youth Christmas Musical while we were away. I especially heard about 12 year-old Anna O’Flaherty’s expertise on our huge organ while playing “Away in a Manger.” I am so thankful for Catherine Nance and Christopher Nash and their skills. The same can be said of Jane Timmerman and the 9:02 Band. Our whole Worship Team is extraordinary.

Vibrant worship at this church is a cure for worship boredom and Sunday morning naps! This week’s cantata will yield worshipful chills, I’m sure. But maybe what I just wrote is a part of my dull worship dilemma; i.e., I’m EXPECTING chills this Sunday so the anticipation is building. Perhaps the simplest but most profound cure for underwhelming worship is better individual participation through expectant anticipation.

But, another reason for my worship apathy is self-centeredness. There’s something that I need to get off my chest to prove the point. This year at St. John’s we have said for quite some time that we will have 5, 7, and 9 p.m. Christmas Eve services. There won’t be the usual 11 pm one, and some have thought that it was my idea. Nope. I honestly don’t remember a specific reason, and, maybe, that’s my own apathy at work. My self-centeredness is that I was willing to yield on not having 11 o’clock because I was getting what I wanted at 9 – Holy Communion! I cannot tell you how important that this is to me, but in getting what I wanted some of you didn’t get what you wanted. Maybe that’s the crux of the problem – what WE want.

Sure, I can pull rank since worship is under my purview, but clergy shepherds who disregard the sheep’s needs are in for a rude awakening. I could pick 10 am on Tuesday’s for our primary worship time, but I’m not an idiot. People’s opinions count, but not near as much as God’s. Why did I agree to the switch to 9 instead of 11? I got communion at 9 out of my own self-centeredness.

Christmas Eve Communion at Trinity Episcopal Church in Edgefield shaped and solidified my call to ministry. The understated elegance was magnificent as we sang simple carols and celebrated the Eucharist by candlelight. For me, Christmas Eve without communion is like being United Methodist and saying you don’t believe in church dinners!

God was present in every atom infusing that sacred space with glorious whispers that filled my entire being with purpose, call, and sublime joy. So, yes, I want communion at Christmas Eve. To have candles without communion is a trade-off that comes up short in content and meaning. It gains time at the expense of something way better! My decision, therefore, is that I’ll be at St. John’s at 11 pm on Christmas Eve ready to worship, no choir, and no musical instruments. We’ll sing acapella. I’ll bring the bread and juice; chalice and paten. We won’t need to conjure God’s presence, but we will need expectation to notice it was already here.

In this tell-all, I think the problem for me and some of my worship experiences has become clear. At times my expectation level affects my participation. Other times it’s all about me, me, me, and what I want. So many worship wars are about what we want and me, me, me, and this is an anathema to true worship. We promote that worship is about God when the reality is that it’s often a consumer exercise: “Do I like the minister, the music, and the people?” Worship, however, isn’t about what we like, but what God likes. God is the audience, not us. We’re actors bringing homage in the best ways we know how to God. It’s God’s opinion that counts, not yours or mine!

So, if I can get rid of me-ism in worship and add an expectancy that God is going to show up, then I won’t get bored. I will be a participant that worships the Majestic Almighty Holy Other Creator Incarnate God-in-the-Flesh Jesus Christ and the Blessed Trinity. I will be able to hear echoes of the seraphim, cherubim and the whole heavenly host bringing glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Worship!

The wisdom of Fred Craddock strikes a chord as I write:

“Boredom is a preview of death, if not itself a form of death, and when trapped in prolonged boredom, even the most saintly of us will hope for, pray for, or even engineer relief, however demonic. Sincere Sunday worshipers will confess to welcoming in muffled celebration any interruption of the funereal droning. Be honest: Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew, a bird flew in a window, the lights went out, the organ wheezed, the sound system picked up police calls, or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit? Passengers on cruise ships, after nine beautiful sunsets and eighty-six invigorating games of shuffleboard, begin to ask the crew hopefully, ‘Do you think we’ll have a storm?’ … For the communicating of the Christian faith, formally or informally, to be boring is not simply ‘too bad,’ to be glossed over with the usual, ‘But he is really a genuine fellow,’ or ‘But she is very sincere.’ Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling us to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

Ah, “indifference and unimportance,” which are the essence of my duly noted apathy and self-centeredness. To be clear, worship at St. John’s is wonderful, at least that’s how I perceive the way God feels about it. The rest of our opinions don’t really matter that much anyway. Sure, I want us to have a warm-hearted experience every time we’re here. That’s who we are as United Methodists! Our acts of worship carry our theology and what/Who we value, always has. So, see you somewhere, sometime on Christmas Eve, and may our hearts affirm that God is truly pleased!

candlelight_communion_small