Family and Faith – Narcie on my Mind


*Narcie got a great report! Thanks for your prayers; still a long haul and trusting Jesus and counting on you!

Have you ever had a day that has your antenna and ganglia hanging or sticking out all over the place and your sensory overload has you jacked up more than with 4 cups of coffee. Well, that’s this morning for me. I’m a little nervous, more than usual. I have a good friend and parishioner’s surgery shortly and am about to head to the hospital. Then I’m meeting with a family about a funeral then probably heading back to the hospital. Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. The text is about Jesus’ own family thinking he was nuts and I’m wondering how to preach that and make it relevant. I hate to admit it but as I was driving to the church a few minutes ago all these alliterating words jumped out at me as options to think about when it comes to family relationships: Restoration or Rejection; Respect or Rebellion; Redemption or Retaliation – what is it about preachers and our phonetic thinking? Anyway, at the stoplight I pulled out my pen and a business card and scribbled my thoughts down while holding the brake and clutch pedals down.

Two other big deals on my mind this morning are Narcie’s regular 3-month MRI about her brain tumor, and next week’s Annual Conference. We do well dealing with the anxiety about Narcie until a two-week window closes in and I begin to get antsy, ratchet up my praying and my out-of-sight-out-of mind attitude is replaced by front-and-center preoccupation. Vice President Biden’s son’s death this week has kicked things up a notch, and another amplifier about Narcie is that next week at our South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference I’ll be the Memorial Service preacher.

Memorial Services are primarily in memory of the clergy who died since the last conference session. We show photos of the deceased, and their families, along with Annual Conference members, are gathered to have a funeral service. Sure, each of these individuals already had their own service, but this is one of the United Methodist things that we do. Since we are a connectional church and try to do everything together, we mourn together, too. Actually, Annual Conference becomes every clergyperson’s church. When we become clergy our membership is literally transferred from our home churches to the Annual Conference.

Next week we will remember many individuals who gave their hearts, lives, and families for the cause of Christ, and we will cry. Narcie and I usually sit together during this service and we have cried. She cried buckets, we both did, when Rev. Charlie Summey’s face went across the screen. He had the same cancer as she and had a better prognosis, but he’s dead. The reality hit us and it should everyone: There’s going to come a time when Narcie’s picture, mine, Josh’s, and even Cindy’s will be up there on that screen at an Annual Conference Memorial Service. Over half my family has the South Carolina Annual Conference as its church home, and there’s going to be a funeral someday.

Of course, my prayer for Narcie is that it’s a long time away but since she has her appointment this morning and I’m preaching that sermon next week, I can’t seem to shake this nexus of events. I covet your prayers that her report is good. Her situation is so important to the doctors that they call her in within an hour of the MRI to give her the news. It’s a big deal. Of course, Narcie’s attitude is typical Narcie: “I’m going to do my ministry, show no fear, and live until I die!” But my eyes are welling up as I write this. I want my “little girl” to live for decades more. God bless every parent who’s ever been through this, or lost a child. For years, I thought as a pastor that I had a clue and could help people through their losses. Maybe my ministry of presence helped, but until all this has happened with us, I didn’t know what this really feels like. Your life is forever changed. God bless every parent who carries this, and please heal every child; in Jesus’ name.

When I think of this day and the family dynamics with every situation I’ll face this morning I can promise you that I will choose Restoration over Rejection; Respect over Rebellion; Redemption over Retaliation – and today I am especially going to choose Rejoicing over Remorse, Resurrection over Regret. A life well-lived, however short or long, is a gift to treasure. Treasure the people around you today as the gifts that they are.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Commencement 2015

Commencement 2015

Dr. Tim McClendon

(Given at Mead Hall, Aiken, SC)


Perhaps you have heard the story of the pilot and his 3 passengers: a fifth grade Boy Scout, a priest, and a famous astrophysicist. The pilot frantically opens a door and yells to the others, “The plane is going down and we only have 3 parachutes. I have a family that needs me.” Then he grabs a parachute and jumps from the plane. The famous astrophysicist stands up and says, “I’m the smartest man in the world. It would be a shame for me to die. The world needs me!” He grabs and jumps. The priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, there’s only one parachute left and I’ve lived a long good life. I don’t have a family, and I’m ready to meet my Maker.” The Boy Scout says, “Hold on, Father. Don’t say anymore. We’re both alright. The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my knapsack.”

Are you, are we smarter than a fifth grader? Do we have wisdom? The difference between wisdom and knowledge is evident in this story. Knowledge is the right information and wisdom is putting it to use. The scientist had knowledge but didn’t know how to use it. I know a lot of smart people today, successful people, affluent people, but they’re jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks filled with knowledge and stuff they don’t need instead of parachutes. What is needed in our “Information Age” is not more knowledge, but more wisdom.

My task on this Commencement Day is to help you, all of us, commence, aka begin to live with more wisdom. James 1:5-6 says that if we want more wisdom we should ask God and it will be given to us. Proverbs 4:6-9 tells us that if we value wisdom it will protect us, watch over us, exalt us, honor us, and even give us grace. The best source of wisdom and everything else is found in what Jesus said about Himself in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2015. I share these 18 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer or mother-in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. The world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, full of yourselves, entitled people who have a preoccupation with appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall and the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue to do independent research for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will play second-fiddle to whomever you’re sucking up to.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things, panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!”
  10. Yes, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll run into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Look up and listen, and don’t text and drive so that your voice isn’t the first to fade through death!
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab, but don’t do anything improper there either. Love and sex are very often two different things, so avoid the complication until you’re ready. There’s nothing casual about casual sex, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tumultuous ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life, c’est la vie!
  13. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice!
  14. Sure you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s great. Plastic is the way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. And when you use your debit card for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague and with all transactions keep your identity protected. There’s some pun in that because how you spend your money reveals a lot about your identity. What do your purchase habits say about yours?
  15. Avoid Platonic thought! The philosopher Plato taught that mind and matter were two separate things and that our minds are good and matter is evil. So what he promoted and is now our soup de jour in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this line of thinking say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You only live once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Buy a life insurance policy and do not separate your thinking from your doing.
  16. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is Platonic thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  17. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 11% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $2,200 on a $20,000 car. Therefore, never make quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down through reflection, meditation, and prayer. Never buy a new car!
  18. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you are the usual reason. Everybody wants to say it: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. If God caused the pain and calamities then God would be worse than a child-abuser, and God’s not. Both bad and good things happen mostly because of our choices, and the choices of others. Bad things also get added nudges from the general decay that’s in the world or from Evil. But, remember, YOU are the primary mover of the course of your life. God’s providence will help you and lead you, but it’s up to you to make the decision and do something about it. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one or why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. Each of you already has what you need to reach the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking!


Last-Minute Christmas Trees

Even today, one week before Christmas, I notice on Facebook that some people are just now putting up their Christmas tree. Part of me thinks, “It’s a little late, isn’t it, and why bother?” There have been those years when we all wonder whether we should put up a tree or not. Family priorities, circumstances, or infirmity may make it an unnecessary luxury. Some of us are going to be traveling to someone else’s house so why not let them deck the halls and decorate a tree? Putting up a tree is such a hassle anyway, but isn’t the mess of Christmas part of the message?

Should we put up a Christmas tree, or not – that is the question for the procrastinators. Although the smell of a tree permeating the house is grand, there’s a cost. Getting a tree, fitting it to the stand, lugging all the ornaments down from the attic, and the sheer horror of untangling the lights is a daunting task. Then there’s the fact that children, pets, and underestimating the size of the tree relative to the ceiling could pose an unsolvable logistical problem, plus the weight of the tree might overwhelm the stand and collapse. So, why take the chance. After all, the whole Christmas tree idea is a co-opting of a pagan Germanic custom that celebrated the midst of life in bleak midwinter, an evergreen to remind the household that there is life after the long arduous cold. The idea isn’t even Christian, right?

But, doesn’t it still make sense? An evergreen does remind us of eternal life in Christ, and wasn’t the first Christmas pretty messy, too? Stables, animals, and shepherds aren’t sanitary hospital delivery rooms. Maybe those procrastinating or worrying about a tree can compromise and get an artificial one, and try not to think, “fake.” When I was a child in the age of modernity’s glory, we had a shiny silver aluminum tree. We used one of those revolving pinwheels of color to add the effect of lights. It was great, sanitized, and the only hassle was looking at the ends of the branches for the code that revealed the proper placement.

But, it wasn’t real, and there’s already too much that isn’t real about Christmas, so out with the artificial tree idea. So back to the real thing: the mess-maker. Old Christmas trees do what every dying thing does. They shed their needles. Don’t you love vacuuming up dead Christmas tree needles months after the holiday. Every time I see another needle, I wonder where they keep coming from. It’s a mess, but isn’t that part of Christmas’ charm: the hustle and bustle, the decorations, even the crowds? Although I long for a simple Christmas, the fact of the matter is that Christmas isn’t simple. It is God’s most elegant extravagance, in keeping with Golgotha and Easter. It begs for a mess and deserves it!

So what kind of tree should I get? Did you ever hear of the lovely legend of the three trees that grew near The Manger – the Olive, the Palm, and the Fir? The Olive made an offering of its fruit and the Palm of its dates. The poor Fir, having nothing to give but worship, raised its boughs in adoration and the Angels hung stars on its branches. Supposedly that’s how the Fir became the first Christmas tree. When Native Americans experienced a spiritual low tide, they revived their vitality by standing with their back to a tree, absorbing its strength and power. Therefore, whatever the tree, a real tree helps open up the real energy of God’s coming to earth as a vulnerable baby, one of us, Immanuel! That’s a message that I need to underscore this Christmas.

Ponder the familiar carol, “O, Christmas Tree” and notice the attributes of God, new life in Christ, and the Incarnation symbolized in the very essence of a Christmas tree – though messy, there’s a message:

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!

Thy leaves are so unchanging

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Not only green when summer’s here,

But also when it’s cold and drear.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

For every year this Christmas tree,

Brings to us such joy and glee.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

A symbol of goodwill and love

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Each shining light, Each silver bell

No one alive spreads cheer so well

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Christmas tree

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

Christ the King Sunday is always the concluding Sunday of Pentecost season and the last Lord’s Day before we begin Advent. It is even more appropriate that Thanksgiving Sunday and Christ the King Sunday coincide! We have so much to be grateful for in response to God’s providence, none of which would be possible without recognition that Christ is King. Caesar isn’t King, nor any other world leader or system. Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings and when we hang onto that reality all of our difficulties pale in comparison. Because Christ is King we can have hope for today and expectancy for tomorrow.

So many stores have been promoting Christmas earlier and earlier because it affects their yearly bottom line. This coming Sunday is finally when it’s appropriate for us as Christians to begin a hurry-up of our preparations for the holidays. Therefore, it is entirely sensible for us to crank everything up a notch. We have waited long enough! This conjunction of celebrating that Christ is King and Thanksgiving is the only time when I’m glad to start thinking about making detailed plans for Advent season and Christmas. We will have moved from what the church calendar calls ordinary time to an extraordinary season where we can make things right before the year ends. There are people that we need to forgive, goodbyes and hello’s to say, visits to make, and debts to pay. We better make the best of these closing weeks of the year. They will never come again.

Therefore, this is when I better gauge my personal bottom line spiritually, financially, emotionally, and physically. If Christ is King in my life what does that do to my scheduling and priorities. If I am a thankful person, how does that prepare me to celebrate the Lord’s birth and get ready for His Second Coming? Like many, this is an important time for me to assess how I have been faithful all year. This is the time of the year when churches send out year-to-date contribution statements, receive pledge cards, and count the cost of doing ministry and make budgets. We need to respond by counting our blessings and giving back to God what is God’s. I dare not forget the Guest of Honor at His own birthday party. I should ask right now what end-of-year gifts I need to make. I need to put my money where my mouth is!

This world is filled with more takers than givers. A pastor was visiting one of his parishioners. He took his young daughter with him. As they visited an elderly couple, the man gave her a handful of peanuts. Expecting her to show a spirit of gratitude, the girl’s pastor-father asked his daughter, “Honey, what are you supposed to say?” Sincerely, and with her eyes fixed upon the older gentleman, she asked, “You got any more?”

How easy it is to expect more and more without expressing our gratitude in return. This coming Sunday and Thanksgiving week is a marvelous opportunity for us to say, “Thank You,” to God. What we decide this week in honoring Christ as King will go a long way in making or breaking our entire 2014 and our Christmas. Too often we are like the child who received a dictionary on her birthday from her grandmother. After considerable time had lapsed without a word of thanks, the grandmother wrote her to make sure that she received it, “I hope you liked the dictionary I bought for you?” Her granddaughter wrote back, “Yes, and I just can’t find the words to say thank you.”

Just as she had the words literally given to her by which she could have given thanks, so has God given us talents and treasures to use in saying “Thanks!” to Him. If we will just do it! There are really no excuses to our negligence or procrastination. December 31 is just around the corner and each of us as individuals will close the books on another year. What will our ledgers say about our faith and faithfulness in 2014? When you’re passing out thanks this coming week, don’t dare forget the One who gives you eternal life. One young man said to his father, “Guess what? I can say please and thank you in Spanish.” His father asked, “How come you never say it in English?” Let’s use every language of the heart, soul, and body to offer our praise and gratitude to God. Christ is King! Give thanks!

Money Where Mouth Is

Southern Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Southerners are known for their manner of speech. A woman from the South was talking to her young son about why all their relatives from the North talk funny. “They have a different accent,” she explained. “Everybody talks in different ways,” she continued and added, “To them, we sound like we talk very slowly, and all our words are drawn out.” The little boy’s eyes got big and he asked, “You mean they hear funny, too?” We all talk in a manner that is peculiar to our region or even our families. For instance, my mother used a phrase about people, women in particular that exasperated her or had questionable morals. She said that they were a “big six.” I have no clue what she meant, but if you do, please let me know! I’ve been trying to figure it out for years!

Southerners are truly exceptional at indirect speaking and passive-aggressive behavior. I have been at the dinner table with Southerners and instead of daring to ask directly that someone pass the salt, the proper way to do it is, “Would you like some salt?” The acceptable response is, “No, but would you like some?” which is the cue to say, “Certainly.” Why not just come out and ask for the blooming salt? What if they said that they did want some salt and you were stuck sitting there inwardly fuming because they didn’t know the unwritten rules of indirect communication?

This, of course, leads to passive-aggressive behavior. Southerners are famous for this, especially church people. We hate to launch an attack at someone in a frontal assault. It would be so unbecoming, Darling! Maybe you’ve heard about the two Southern Belles who were sitting on a veranda one day. Darlene said to Billie Jo, “See the red Cadillac over under the magnolia. My husband Billy Bob just handed me the keys one day and said I’d look good in it. It wasn’t my birthday or anniversary or anything.” Billie Jo replied, “How nice.” Then Darlene said, “You know last year he sent me on a ten-day cruise and said here’s a few thousand dollars to buy some new clothes to wear. I’m not going to go with you. I want you to look good. You dance with whomever you want to.” Billie Jo responded, “How nice.” Next Darlene pointed out her 4 carat diamond and said, “Last year Billy Bob just up and gave me this diamond. It wasn’t my birthday or our anniversary. He just said he thought I deserved it.” Billie Jo responded again, “How nice.” Finally Darlene said, “Why Billie Jo, I’ve been going on and on about all these things that Billy Bob has done for me. Has your husband ever done anything like this for you?” Billie Jo replied, “Why yes, last year he sent me to charm school. Now instead of saying ‘Up ______, I say “How nice.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is what Jesus got a lot from the Pharisees. They asked roundabout questions trying to trap him. They said something that seemed innocuous, but meant something more subtle yet sinister. Passive-aggressive behavior is like that. It comes off as harmless but really is aggressive. It’s like someone asking you, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” Sounds simple but will make you think all day that you must look horrid in that color. Maybe someone will ask you, “Do you like your hair like that?” Sounds like a fair question, but there’s nothing fair about it. It’s an indirect passive-aggressive insult because they want to say that your hair doesn’t look so great, but they don’t want to be too direct in their attack. After all, such an explicit remark might hurt your feelings.

Why can’t we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Rather than triangle in another subject or person, shouldn’t we care enough about each other to talk plainly? Southerners and diplomats need to quit quibbling here and there trying to sound all nice and cordial and get to the point. We could avoid more than a few spats and wars and get over the tension more quickly. Seems like the Bible says something about, “Speaking the truth in love.”

I’ll never forget the kick I got out of my Dad and the Yankee. This particular woman had been visiting his Edgefield Pottery museum, cataloging every piece for a book she was writing, and picking up and photographing every piece to his silent but obvious dismay. After a day of quiet exasperation, he was ready for her to leave. In typical passive-aggressive Southern fashion he said, “Wouldn’t you like to stay for supper?” She replied, “Sure!” He was cooked. He threw something together, we ate, and then she wanted coffee of all things. After she finally left, Daddy blasted her for being rude, staying for supper and so forth. I said, “You invited her.” To say the least, he didn’t think that my lack of sympathy exhibited proper decorum. She simply didn’t understand Southern passive-aggressive behavior.

We would rather shift the focus to someone or something else to avoid being direct, and it only complicates our misunderstandings more. I hope that today I will exhibit speaking the truth in love without sugarcoating it so much that the message is muddled or missed. We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!

passive-aggressive picture

Coca-Cola Christianity

I have gone over to the dark side! The vending machine at St. John’s has Pepsi and Coke products and my usual preference is Diet Pepsi. However, since Coca-Cola has come out with the customized cans with the names on the side it’s been a no-brainer for me to switch. I’ve been popping coin into the machine just to find out “who” I get. This morning, to my great chagrin, I got nothing, nada, zip – a plain old can. This cool marketing ploy worked. I immediately got more money out to get another can. The soda vending machine has become my very large “fortune cookie” of sorts, inviting me to buy with more than a bit of anticipation. What if the church did something innovative like this in the ways that we share Christ?

Of course, at first we would have the nay-sayers who repeat the mantra of every dying church, “We’ve never done it that way before.” We’ve got the muddling middling skeptics that are almost in favor of a new idea, but want to know how much it’s going to cost, whether the benefits outweigh the risks, and every other what-if imaginable. These folks can usually be brought along and buy into a new idea if you overwhelm them with positive data. First they have to trust the data and if you’ve ever heard a preacher name a statistic or percentage they probably made it up on the spot. Just saying! In other words, if you’re trying to convince the middlers, make sure to have the right info and the right spokesperson!

Praise the Lord for the risk-takers whose first response is, “Let’s give it a try!” Yes, indeed, I am grateful for the people who DO NOT take the lowest bid on everything and instead say – “You have to spend money to make money!” And that is exactly what Coke has done with their cans. Certainly, it costs more money to produce this plethora of named cans, but it’s worked, at least on me!

So, now that we know it works, in order to know if this is something applicable to the church, we have to ask, “Why does it work?” We don’t need to ask how much it costs, how they physically do it, or anything else for that matter if we know the “why.” If we can answer the “why” question we can determine our ability or inability to extrapolate the Coke can phenomena into something that I’ll call “Coca-Cola Christianity.”

So why does it work? Part of the answer is what I’ve already hinted at in the fortune cookie analogy. Fortune cookies are pretty innocuous things and almost tasteless, yet we compulsively have to crack them open to read what’s inside. Have we made our faith and our churches that irresistible? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had such a vibrancy, sense of expectancy, and excellence about us that people couldn’t stay away on Sunday mornings! Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if people found us personally so engaging and magnetic that they just HAD to ask us, “What is it about you?” We could and should answer, “Jesus!”

Other things about the Coke can thing that has made me switch brands have to do with the personalization. I have been to and found out that I can do everything from get cans with my own name on them, the names of other people in my life, and much more. Wow, the site even allows me to share a “virtual” can with someone. I like the “What-About-Me” and “What’s-In-For-Me” aspect of the marketing. I know that our faith and church worship are supposed to be about worshipping God, but get real – if we don’t get something out of it, we’re not going to put anything into it. I don’t want to be so crass as to repeat that oft-said statement, “I want to be fed,” but isn’t there some truth in it, however self-centered it sounds?

Making personalization a part of our church mission statement might be a little overboard, but it sure works for the neighborhood bar “where everybody knows my name.” Therefore, we ought to wear our name tags, and preachers (especially new ones like me) should pray through pictorial directories and learn names and faces. I want to be able to call everyone by name whether it is in the communion line or the grocery store one. Man, if people call me by name I get the feeling that I matter. Churches that take Jesus to the streets need to call people by name and make everyone feel important. That’s the Gospel, isn’t it?

Didn’t Jesus say in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…?” The Gospel is personalized! God so loved you, and God so loved me. The Gospel isn’t stuck in past tense, either. God currently and forever loves you so much that he gave Jesus for you. That’s my hope with a Coke Can Christianity – to let people know individually and in inviting ways that our faith works miracles and can change attitudes, lives, even our world. Coca-Cola Christianity is sitting right in front of me as I type this. My Diet Coke can says, “Share a Diet Coke with your BFF,” and I know that my Best Friend Forever is Jesus! The whole world needs to hear the same message, and you and I are the Coke can to do it.




We went to see “Inception,” and it is one of those “thinkers” that keeps your mind going back to it, pondering, replaying, trying to unravel the conundrum. I’m not going to give away any of the twists and turns, and really am not sure that I can. However, the movie is a must-see if you ever think about the 21st century and the church.

The movie asks you to ponder “What’s real?” In our work-a-day-world with people seeking meaning beyond just having a paycheck in this economy, I am challenged to look at the church’s on-going gnosticism, it’s flirtation and marriage to mind over matter; i.e., “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Gnostics, the ultimate neo-platonists, separated mind and knowledge (gnosis) from matter. They elevated unseen thought above the seen “projections” of mind. Objects, people, the environment – None of it matters. One’s mind and feelings were the ultimate filters and gauges of value.

Sounds like our culture, “Inception,” and me. Why do I say,”me?” Well, I’d really like a lot of the junk I see, the gaping fear I feel about Narcie’s condition, to be all a dream, a falsehood, a projection, from which I’ll wake. How many of us have a reality that we really wish wasn’t real? I think there’s a whole bunch of us.

Worse in all this pipe-dreaming is that this kind of dualistic separation of mind (psyche) and body (soma) is rampant in the church, maybe in the Bible, the New Testament at least. Think of the last funeral you attended. We buried the body, and the soul is gone to heaven. Well, thank you, Paul, for setting up this Greco-Roman embrace of Plato that flies in the face of Hebrew thought’s understanding that one cannot and could not divide mind and matter. Our human personhood is an unitary whole, therefore, EVERYTHING matters! We will not rape Mother Earth. We are partners and interconnected with everything. John Dunne’s “No man is an island…” or Wesley’s notion of connectionalism come to mind?

I hope so. As I have been reading Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, I have been challenged in how much we need to shed our gnostic theological underpinnings and get back to the solid Rock, the utter realness of Jesus. I’m not talking “Jesus Seminar” neutering of Jesus as God Incarnate, but an embrace of incarnational theology and process theology that celebrates that we as “Second-Adams,” like Christ, should live enmeshed in the creation fully; that we are not and cannot be bifurcated into meaningless lives separating who we are from what we do. We bear the image of God, made in that image. From the beginning we have been co-operants with God’s plan to redeem everything. The more we separate mind from matter God redeems nothing.

Hear this, if you don’t get it from “Inception,” get it from me: Your life is real. Your pain is not a phantasm. Feelings aren’t the end-all of everything – God is, and that God in Christ has entered our real lives, pains and triumphs, and cries and smiles with us. God goes with us through everything and the ending of the movie is never the ending because God continues to connect with our journey, our going on to perfection, sanctification. The Gospel of Jesus Christ redeems our total reality because we are not mere projections, we are precious participants in a holy endeavor to make all things real and right. You matter! You matter! You matter!

Domed and Doomed Christians

As much as I’m an underdog-fan as a Gamecock, I was glad the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. I like the Steelers because I like the city of Pittsburgh. I’ve spent time there upon several occasions. It’s a pretty city with the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers meeting to form the Ohio. The tunnels through Mt. Washington are daunting and majestic. The ride up the city’s famous Incline is worth the view overlooking historic Fort Pitt. The PP&G (Pittsburg Plate & Glass) building is an east coast version of the Crystal Cathedral.
The steel mills are mostly closed in this Rust-Belt city, but the Steeler attitude is still present. For the nearly two weeks I was there five years ago, I witnessed the what-you-see-is-what-you-get grit of the people. For instance, practically every day I ate at the Steel City Diner. It wasn’t a fancy restaurant, not even close. It was exactly what the name said it was, a diner. The food was hearty, hot, and hit the spot. The folks working there were personable and caring. The whole city exuded a raw edgy work ethic that was both no-nonsense and refreshing. There was no “putting on airs,” as the old adage goes.
It’s interesting that the Pittsburgh Steelers play at Heinz Field, named, of course, for the famous condiment company that is one of the backbones of the Pittsburgh community. Heinz Field is completely au naturel in both grass and sunlight. The Cardinals play in a facility with a retractable roof. I think there’s something to be said for football teams willing to duke it out in the brutal cold of winter. I think it helps them win, too.
Here’s why. The conditioning of a Super Bowl team requires rain, wind, mud, heat, cold, snow, and sleet. No team will be ready for the challenges of the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, who hasn’t been through the elements. For my two-cent’s worth, the hardship of the elements builds character and character is what wins Super Bowls. Every team has talent. Therefore, hunger, desire, and character are huge. That says to me, from my experience of their hometown, why the Steelers were able to pull the big win off.
But what has this got to do with Christianity and faith? Christianity that resides in a sheltered environment is domed and doomed. To be Christian is to be in the world, open to all of its elements. Christianity didn’t begin in the protected enclave of a hot-house but in the open-air arenas and coliseums of Roman martyrdom. When pagans saw how Christians fared under the sword, how we weathered the persecutions, and how we died for Christ; they knew there was something “real” about Jesus, and they wanted to learn more.
We don’t play on artificial turf. We live in the real world, and the real world needs us! The earth needs us! I saw a bumper sticker the other day as I was driving down the street: “It’s time to Mother Earth.” At first, slow of mind, I didn’t get it. Then, wham! Yes, it is time for us to nurture this planet. We take and take, and hardly ever give back. Spaceship Earth is in dire need of our protection and stewardship.
Genuine Christianity is involved in an open-air transparent defense of creation and all its creatures. Artificial Christians and sheltered ones need not apply for discipleship. God wants us to make a difference. Can we? If we keep playing on real turf in the real world both history and statistics are on our side in the Super Bowl of life.

Too Christian to Tell the Truth

>High anxiety and the tyranny of the urgent is what I’m feeling because I have just opened all of the Advisory Response Forms about potential pastoral moves. Clergy exist for churches, not the other way around, but I want what is best for both. Sometimes I feel the adage as truth: “If I could buy someone for what they’re worth, and sell them for what they think they’re worth, I’d be a millionaire.” Some of us clergy have unrealistic expectations about the appointments or churches that we deserve. This lack of realistic expectations sets us up to be disappointed or disappointing.

Part of the problem is we’re “Christian,” which means we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Pastors tell SPRC’s that the DS is making them move. Some even tell their families that it’s my fault. Then there’s the lack of truth-telling that SPRC’s do. They don’t really want to tell their pastor what they think, and they end up giving an innocuous non-helpful hail-fellow-well-met do-nothing evaluation without “speaking the truth in love” about what makes us clergy more effective in that given context.

I’m doing SPRC training this weekend, and I’m going to lay it on thick about SPRC’s doing their job so I can do mine for their church’s sake and the clergy’s sake. It is going to be an interesting year to say the least. Pray for wisdom, grace, clarity, and truth on everyone’s part. It’s all about Jesus and growing the Kingdom, not a “protect the fishbowl” for the churches or a “take care of each other” mentality for clergy. It’s about effective Kingdom-building.