Birthday-Eve, Wesley, and Existentialism

Existentialism has been defined as, “the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual.” I’m no Existentialist, as defined, but as a good Wesleyan I do believe that our philosophical and theological experiences must be evidenced in personal experience. There must be an eighteen-inch connection between our hearts and our heads. We are not “head-trip” Christians devoid of real world real-time experience with God. We are the people of empirically sensed “strangely warmed” hearts.

Tomorrow, October 23, is my 57th birthday, and that fact has me pondering my existence and calling. Life has never been a bed of roses for me, and it isn’t now. The events of this summer with losing in the episcopal election were daunting, yet I am fine. My back isn’t what it used to be as I have started the Christmas sprint in pottery making for all of the Columbia District Clergy, everyone in the UM Center, the Cabinet, and, of course, myriad family members. Conducting Charge Conferences back-to-back-to-back has been wonderful but exhausting, especially as I’m pondering potential pastoral moves as I discern the sense of those gathered for these important meetings. As Cabinet Secretary I have been busy creating and updating every piece of information to be used by all the District Superintendents in the appointment process and S/PPRC training. Heck, I’m tired from just dealing with the secular election process. There have been times where I have thought about doing harm to my telephone if I receive one more robo-call.

I am sure that many of you are going through much worse and your faith has been tested in far more serious ways, but on this birthday-eve I’m reflecting on my particular and peculiar life. My Mother was 40 and my Daddy was 41 when I was born. Mother wasn’t even sure she was pregnant, and didn’t go to the doctor until a month before my arrival. As a teenager who stressed out my older parents, I unfortunately overheard them upon occasion discussing my very existence. Several times I heard Daddy say to my Mother, “You didn’t want him,” and my mother replied, “If I didn’t want him, I wouldn’t have had him.” On one hand hearing this affirmed that I was a deliberate choice, but on the other hand the very discussion of my being born did not add to my sense of worth. Gosh, to keep my two much older brothers from doing me physical harm, my parents allowed them the privilege of naming me. Carlee wisely gave me the name “William,” after my Mother’s father. Ralph, on the other hand, gave me the name “Timothy,” after the name of the bear in the Dick and Jane books. I guess it could have been worse with something like “Puff” or “Spot.”

Now hear me out, I knew that was loved and appreciated, but I also often felt like a literal afterthought. One of the first serious books that ever helped me name this inner struggle between worth and worthlessness was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. As a fifth-grader it came at a pivotal time in my life. Compounding existing issues concerning my self-worth was the fact that in the third grade I had encephalitis, an extremely dangerous illness. Statisticians say that 50% of its sufferers die and 80% have permanent brain damage. Whether the latter is true or not about me is up to you, but it did put me behind in school. Unfortunately I was also one of the youngest in my class with a birthday less than a week from the next grade’s cut-off. My current hearing loss is also a direct result of this awful illness.

As a youth, to compound things, either due to encephalitis or not, I also had a difficult time saying a “th” sound and earned the ignominious nickname of “Fim” in place of “Tim” because of it. I do know that much of my memory before the age of eight is simply blocked out due to the high fever that I had. If it weren’t for my dear Aunt Florence tutoring me in the fifth grade I would never have caught up in school. She also re-taught me how to tell time and tie my shoes, abilities evidently erased by my illness. There were plenty of deficiencies I ingeniously compensated for until her tutoring. However, before you begin to think that I wasn’t all that bright to begin with, some of you might need to be reminded of my Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa credentials. Sometimes we overdo in life to prove to others why we should have been born or continue to exist.

But, it was The Red Badge of Courage that first helped me turn the corner inside my own head about my unique personhood. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, was an anti-hero of sorts, a boy too young to have to face war and maiming. Henry Fleming was real. I could identify with him. He went through the stages of being scared, a deserting coward, cocksure in false bravado, gutsy under fire, and, in the end, he became a wise veteran who knew that the golden sunlight of peace was a better goal than a red badge of combat. He had earned his stripes, in a very real sense. As for me, I still run the gamut of all these stages. At least Henry Fleming remains a model of someone who survived tenuous times of doubt and fear and made it, despite all of his emotional and physical scars.

The biggest redemptive moment in my life occurred when I fully gave my life to Christ as a sophomore in high school. At that precipitous hinge-point of adolescence, between defining moments of either being cool or vilified, I heard and felt the Gospel. I recognized for the first time that God had always been with me, and had set me apart for joyful obedience. Beyond my feeble attempts to articulate it, I experienced a real relationship with Jesus that has sustained me ever since.

So here I am on my birthday-eve, thankful for the faithfulness of God through thick and thin, lean and abundant years, and all the vicissitudes of life. I can wake up in praise more than fear because God is God and that hope inspires another day of service from this inadequate, but more-than-conquering servant. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, I will head back onto the field of warring emotions and hope that it is valor more than duty that calls me, and the Gospel of Christ’s grace more than a desperate endeavor to justify my own existence that inspires me. I will, through Christ, wear the red badge of courage.

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Memories and Calling

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This picture says a lot – Great perch except for the doo under your feet. I know folks who can see a pile of manure and believe there’s a pony underneath, and then there are folks who seem to attract trouble. I guess most of us are somewhere in between those that appear to have a Teflon coating and avoid trouble sticking to them, and those that seem to never ever catch a break. Reminds me of the Apostle Paul who said in Philippians that he had learned to have contentment whether well-fed or hungry. How? The answer is in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ.”

Now that’s the rub isn’t it? At least it is for me. Doing everything through Christ is easier said than done. Basing my contentment and joy on Christ rather than circumstances, doctor’s reports, or bank account balances is more than kind of hard for me. For instance, the bird picture comes from a shot I took this past January at Epworth-By-The Sea on St. Simon’s Island, Ga.; beautiful spot and brings back memories. One of those memories is from 2 years ago when I was a nominee for Bishop. I, along with others, had to stand up and speak about our episcopal calling. Then last week I was at Lake Junaluska Assembly in NC where I made the same type speech and where the election was held. Two years ago today I came in second to a great guy. Second, second – beats last, but… am I spiritually up to going through that gauntlet again? There’s a lot of doo and poo that abounds in the process, but that’s life, c’est la vie, n’est pas?

Someone yesterday asked me if I was “running” again for Bishop. Well, it’s not “running,” is it? At least, not for me. It’s a calling, and in the United Methodist Church, you can have a wonderful personal call, but that call has to be ratified and confirmed by an ecclesiastical call via the voters at Jurisdictional Conference. Well, the answer is “Yes.” I still feel called to do the task. Everything I’ve been through has been a school for this calling, but I am not and will not be presumptuous about other people’s clarity about that. I can die content with whatever happens, and I’d trade everything I have in life for my little girl to be well.

Next year’s Annual Conference elections have a lot to say about all of this anyway. That’s who gets a lot of “say” in this, and my hands are full in the meantime as a Dad to Narcie (Mike) and her future, husband to Cindy who was thankful to get her mother’s estate settled today. And, of course, I’m MacMac to Enoch and Evy and will keep on encouraging Josh (Karen) and Caleb. Plus, I love being District Superintendent to the Columbia District Clergy and laity spending time with both. For going on 5 years I have been spending 3 hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do and we’ve done everything from hiking, trips to the zoo, crawling under churches, Frisbee golf to real golf. What we’ve been doing is making friendships, connections beyond consultations in my office or at a Charge Conference. I have spent hours with District laity getting to know the people, teaching in Lay Speaking classes, leading United Methodist Men’s retreats, and more.

To be honest, I think this kind of community-building underscores one of the most important senses of my call about being a bishop. You can’t be a decent one, in my book, if you don’t stay in and know the Annual Conference to which you are assigned. I don’t know why over 4-8 years I couldn’t do what I do now with the Columbia District clergy and laity. If a bishop takes their being on site seriously, there has to be a genuine concerted effort to connect with the clergy AND laity of an Annual Conference. It can be done!!! I’m doing it now, on a smaller scale, every year.

And this is in the midst of everything else on my plate. There’s no way that being a Bishop or a District Superintendent is a part-time job. Next week I head to Emory’s Candler School of Theology for my 10th year of teaching “United Methodist Discipline and Polity.” Then right afterward I head to our Cabinet Retreat, then it’s off to Africa for the Worldwide UMC Study Committee where we will listen to how other UM’s around the world live out our polity and ponder how much do we have in common and what should be in a shared Book of Discipline and not adapted region to region. I’m not for much, if any, diocesan regional adaptation. That’s one of the reasons why we’re UNITED Methodists! I’ll stop in Ethiopia, go to Mozambique, then through South Africa, and end up in Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire). I’ve had enough inoculations to last me a lifetime – wish I’d had some before I went to Manila for the Connectional Table earlier this Spring.

Anyway, in the midst of all this my email from the Columbia District will be answered, and I’ll be in touch with the needs at home with my family. As a potter I know how you have to stay connected to the clay, become one with it, to create art. The emotional oneness is what makes the difference between a craftsman and an artist. I want to be an artist and feel the inner dance of this marvelous life God has given us through Jesus. You can’t enjoy the perch without making fertilizer, right? Ah, but the view is great, and worth it all. The song “The Summons” from The Faith We Singarticulates the call I feel better than I can. Give it a listen.