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!

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How to Handle the Trumps in your Life!

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

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The Time Change and Using God’s Time

Daylight Saving Time (DST) has kicked me to the curb this year! I love the hour we gain in the fall, but this “Spring Forward” thing is ridiculous. The person who said that for every hour you gain or lose, it only takes one day to adjust didn’t have my circadian rhythm! It has been 5 days and I’m still whacked! Ben Franklin, an early advocate of the time shift, may have said, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” but I don’t think that DST proves the point. It proves the opposite for me. What do you say?

Studies have made conflicting claims over the years about the benefits and drawbacks of DST. Those in favor say that it saves energy, promotes outdoor leisure activities in the evening, and provides more time for shopping. Yay for more daylight to cook out, play a round of golf after work, and go fishing. Others have said that since most mischief happens in the dark, the extra daylight cuts down on crime.

However, the cost benefit for electric usage is negligible if you compute the cost of turning on lights for longer periods of time in the mornings while it’s still dark, and using them less in the evenings because it’s light. After all, most of our big-ticket home electrical systems run constantly, and don’t give a rip what time it is.

On the other side of the issue are those who claim that DST costs as much as $40 billion in what it takes to adjust clocks, computers, and even the stock exchanges. Health officials have concluded that DST increases the risk of heart attacks by 10%, and changes in sleep have a direct correlation to poor work performance. Contrary to the popular opinion that DST was created for the benefit of farmers, they are some of the biggest opponents of it. The rationale is that grain is best harvested after dew evaporates, so when farmers or their help arrive at earlier hours and leave later it causes quality problems with the products, especially if you depend on someone with paid-by-the-hour drivers, harvesters, and trucks whose schedules have been rearranged by the time change. Dairy farmers also complain because their cows are finicky about the timing of milking which is dictated less by the sun as much as it is by when the dairy company sends their trucks.

So I am confused, since there are both benefits and disadvantages. I just know how whipped it has made me feel this week, and I have a spouse who works in the education system who says that everybody is dragging a lot more this year. In the discussion of pros or cons there is one thing that’s clear: Nobody is talking about the time change from a religious perspective.

Is there a valid theological reason to have DST? To be sure, I know that I should use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason to figure it out, but I’m not – I’m too tired! It’s not that big a deal, right? But there are more than a few Scriptures about time and its use. II Peter 3:8 says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Psalm 39:4-5 and James 4:14 declare, in similar ways, that life is very fragile and transitory. “Our time on earth,” as one writer puts it, “barely registers on the eternal radar screen,” so we better use our time wisely.

That’s the essence of Ephesians 5:15-16 where Paul cautions, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as the unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25:14-30 basically says the same thing – use your talents and time wisely! One of my favorite passages about the use of time is Proverbs 6:10-11, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” I like the poetic imagery, but I must admit that the workaholism that is promoted is a little too American, not that I’m pro sloth, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The bottom line is that we need to make the most of time and I simply wonder if Daylight Saving Time actually helps! What do you think? Has DST helped your Lenten spiritual disciplines or set you back more than forward, pun intended? Give a listen to the Byrds and their rendition of that famous time passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. This has helped me wake up and enjoy the day better than most things this week. How are you doing?

The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!

Retaking Valentine’s Day!

I recently read of a guy who went to buy a Valentine’s card and asked a clerk to help him pick out one. She looked and finally held one up. She read it to him, “To the one and only love of my life, Happy Valentine’s Day!” The guy replied, “Great, I’ll take 4 of them!” It sounds like he might have commitment issues, but at least he was ready for Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine’s Day is nine days away! I hope every love-bird is getting ready for the big event. I know that I’ll be making a trip to Hallmark and try to get just the right card for Cindy. Her other perennial favorite is for me to purchase cut flowers from Fresh Market and arrange them myself. It’s all in the effort, I guess, but isn’t it always with love?

St. Valentine has been purported to be the patron saint of lovers for centuries. Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine. However, the history behind the actual person and his actions is cloudy at best. Some say he was a priest who secretly married couples during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage so that he could draft more single men for his army. Supposedly after his arrest Valentine sent notes to Christians that were signed, “From your Valentine.” There are stories of his officiating at his jailer’s daughter’s wedding, too. According to tradition Valentine was beheaded by the emperor on February 14, 269 A.D.

What makes all this so interesting is that February 14 is the same day that had been dedicated to Roman love lotteries for over 800 years. Love lotteries were a Roman matchmaking scheme whereby eligible singles in towns and villages drew names of the opposite sex so that they could be paired for a specified time period. These love lotteries were held on the day before February 15, which is, of course, the 14th, the day dedicated to the Roman god Lupercus, so that couples could be matched. I guess they didn’t need eHarmony or match.com.

Needless to say, 800 years of a coupling custom was hard to undo even when the empire became mostly Christian. After all, love is what makes the world go round. Therefore, whether there was ever a guy named Valentine who sent love notes or not is immaterial to the greater worship of love. So, conveniently, Valentine, or the story of Valentine, was canonized and made a saint so that Christians could usurp yet another pagan holiday and turn it into something good.

Ironically, the suspicious origins of Valentine’s Day caused the Roman Catholic Church to drop it as an official Feast Day in 1969. In reversal of the church’s co-opting of a Roman mating ritual, our contemporary pop culture recaptured the original intent of February 14 – a day with an emphasis on Lupercalian tokens of love. The irony is that what was pagan-turned Christian has now been co-opted by the candy makers and greeting card companies, plus a host of other suppliers. So maybe we’re not sure if it’s love that makes the world go round or money.

Valentine’s customs through the so-called Christian centuries have been celebrated in a variety of ways. In the Middle Ages, for instance, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. They wore these names on their sleeves for a week. It’s where we get our notion about people “wearing their hearts on their sleeve,” meaning that it’s easy for other people to see or know how they’re feeling.

Here’s how I feel about Valentine’s Day, saint or not. I’m all for showering our true loves and loved ones with expressions of affection. It never hurts to let people know that they are appreciated, valued, and loved. As a matter of fact, it’s time for the church to take Valentine’s Day back from the culture. When it comes to love we don’t need to prop up some semi-historical figure like Valentine when we can do better. There’s no better example of love than Jesus Christ. If we love people like Jesus loves then chocolates will be in order year-round! Go get that perfect card!

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Perspective and Opportunity in United Methodist Appointment-Making

“Boy, do I have an opportunity for you!” are words that most United Methodist clergy have heard or will hear during their ministry. Within the next 6 weeks this phrase will be used a lot! The difficulty is that one person’s definition of “opportunity” may not match someone else’s. It is a statement usually said by district superintendents who are on the front-line of making appointments. They are at the point of the triangle between churches and clergy, matchmakers who have on-site knowledge of their churches and ministers. This knowledge is shared with the bishop’s whole cabinet, and through shared discernment, matches are made.

In the UMC system defining an “opportunity” is always a matter of perspective. It takes conferencing about the perspective of the local church and its perception of desired leadership needs; the perspective of the clergy and where they are in their ministry or the importance of family considerations; and the perspective of the bishop and cabinet who are scanning the needs of the whole annual conference and doing their very best to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Connectionalism and working together is part and parcel of United Methodism. Therefore, appointments are made by the whole cabinet, though the Bishop alone is given constitutional authority (Par. 54, 2012 Book of Discipline) to do so after “consultation with the district superintendents.” Consultation includes local churches and clergy, too, and that appears in the form of church and clergy profiles. Therefore, everyone takes a hand, not least God, in our system of clergy deployment. Staff-Parish Relations Committees complete Church Profiles that describe the church, and clergy fill out Pastor Profiles that offer insights into their situations. By the way, both need to understand the importance of a well-presented profile. Those profiles will be pored over with microscopic attention when appointments are made. Please at least use spell-check!

A key paragraph from my perspective about appointment-making is found in Par. 428.4 which says, “All appointments shall receive consideration by the bishop, the district superintendent(s), and the cabinet as a whole until a tentative decision is made.” This fleshes out for me that our appointment-making system is a collegial effort, though the final decision indeed belongs to the bishop. As a former district superintendent who maxed out my tenure after 8 years, and one who is absolutely relishing being appointed to a thriving congregation, I think that a key word as we ramp up for the annual anxiety-laden period of possible clergy transitions is “perspective.”

The bishop and cabinet have a perspective about clergy and churches and the needs of the whole conference, and sometimes they have to make decisions about which only they know all the facts. Churches have their own unique perspective and rightly so if they can only count on one hand the number of effective ministers they have had in any given person’s lifetime. Clergy certainly have a unique perspective shaped by their family needs, and their sense of their gifts and graces and how they might be best utilized. So, what we have as we approach “appointment season” in the UMC is an “intriguing dance of perspectives,” a cooperative connectional effort to discern who goes where and who gets whom.

I pray for all those who are feeling the tensions rise in anticipation. Being on a trapeze with one hand letting go of one bar (pastor, church, friend, etc.) and willing to trust God enough to reach out for that the next bar (church, pastor, friend, etc.) is daunting, yet potentially thrilling. Throughout the whole process, as it is bathed in prayer, we absolutely must believe that God is in this enterprise, that Jesus will be glorified, however saddened or distraught we might be. In other words, we need more than a human perspective. We must affirm that a heavenly perspective is of highest importance. In our system we yield ourselves to a scary and vulnerable process not unlike the risk Jesus took in his incarnation.

So the word is “Perspective,” both divine and human. This is the essence of our belief in the system we call “itineracy,” the moving of clergy. John Wesley called itineracy the “apostolic plan of evangelization.” He thought that our “sent,” not “called” system was and is one of God’s best ways of mobilizing and energizing God’s salvific plan for humanity. I agree and have yielded myself to our peculiar process. Trust me, I haven’t always seen the wisdom of the bishop and cabinet, nor have all of my appointments been rosy. I do know this, however, that God has provided for me, my family, the local church, and the community. When we yield to a divine perspective all other perspectives come into focus!

Some people claim that their personal perspective is supreme and that their needs and/or agenda supplants and trumps everyone else’s. That’s not our system. I’ve seen people finagle their way upwards using manipulation and maneuvering, but, sooner or later, their solitary and self-promoting perspective will come to a halting stop. They have elevated what they want over saying “Yes!” and yielding. God help the UMC if that kind of personal aggrandizement ever wins the day.

Let me share a story that illustrates the illusion that getting our way and making what we think are unseen jabs is the way to go in appointment-making, whether by churches, clergy, district superintendents, and even bishops. Good appointment-making values everyone’s perspective, especially God’s. The story goes like this:

“During World War II, a general and his aide, a lieutenant, were traveling from one base to another. They were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their compartments where two other folks were already seated – an attractive young lady and her grandmother. For most of the trip, they conversed freely. The train entered a long and rather dark tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, the passengers in this particular car heard two distinct sounds – the first was the smack of a kiss; the second was the loud sound of a slap.

Now, although these four people were in the same compartment aboard the passenger train, they came to four differing perspectives. The young lady thought how glad she was that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she was somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for doing it; the general thought to himself how proud he was of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find this opportunity to kiss the attractive young lady but was flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant; the grandmother was flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her granddaughter, but was proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it; and the young lieutenant was trying to hold back the laughter, for he found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time!”

Perhaps our so-called “opportunities” are not at all what they seem, or they are fleeting chances for us to “work” the system and “slap” the “Man” by bucking authority. We better be careful not to be so creative in our massaging the system that God’s video cam doesn’t catch us and we end up as our own worst enemy. I would rather trust the communal perspective of our appointment-making system than end up getting what I finagled for and be absolutely miserable. So, let’s trust everyone’s perspective, especially God’s! Everyone’s input insures a better opportunity for fruitful ministry.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Narcie, Josh, and I at Josh’s Ordination

The red Stoles represent the Yoke of Christ saying that We YIELD to where we are SENT!

Wedding Receptions and Dress Codes

“Hate the sin, and love the sinner,” is an oft told phrase. It reminds me of Matthew 22:1-14 where Jesus says that everyone is welcome to come to the Wedding Banquet but they need to dress appropriately. This is a often misunderstood passage. Of course, this is all metaphorical and not about an actual dress code. The point is that God wants us all to go to heaven but not without forethought and repentance.

How does it make you feel to go to a special function and there is someone there who is inappropriately dressed? Are you tired of the dressed-down casual look that is so pervasive in our society? Ball caps don’t cut it in fine restaurants. Where are our standards of proper decorum? But just as quickly as I want to put up fences to keep the riff-raff out, I am reminded that Jesus wasn’t very exclusive. Unlike Augusta National, He let just about anybody into the Kingdom. It was the Pharisees who had such impossibly high standards that they missed both the Messiah and the Kingdom.

Thinking of pharisaical dress codes reminds me of a family that had invited a college student and his date over to their house for Sunday lunch. As everyone started to relax, the host said to the young man, “Why don’t you take your coat off?” The host had already taken off his coat and tie. The young man kind of hem-hawed around, however, as if he didn’t want to do it. Finally, he got the host off in a corner and said, reminding the man of an old trick that he knew well when he was in college, “The only parts of my shirt I ironed were the cuffs and the collar.” He had pressed just the parts that showed. The rest of the shirt looked as if he had ironed it with a weedeater! That was the way of the Pharisees: the part people could see looked great, but their interiors were a different story.

Jesus wants us to look good inside out. His solution to our dress code dilemma is found in the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in Sanctifying Grace that creates clean hearts and lives in you and me. We cannot measure up on our own, but God can make us new creatures! Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “The gospel life isn’t something we learn ABOUT and then put together with instructions from the manufacturer; it’s something we BECOME as God does his work of creation and salvation in us and as we accustom ourselves to a life of belief and obedience and prayer.”

This is a good old-fashioned Wesleyan emphasis on Sanctification. We’re saved by grace, to be sure, but there IS a dress code! Consider this pastor’s dilemma: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary.

All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

Compared to what we think a Christian should be or look like, what are we?

wedding reception

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

What to Do When in a Funk – Roundabout Thoughts on Philippians 4:1-9

It is interesting to live on the edge of South Carolina’s border with the state of Georgia. I have been amused with the Augusta, Ga. television stations’ ads for that state’s political candidates. However amused I am with the not-so-subtle mudslinging, their ads are very well done and better than any I’ve ever seen in South Carolina. As a matter of fact, they’re so good, as an objective newcomer who knows nothing of the Peach State’s politics, I can’t easily discern who I would vote for if I was registered there. When every candidate says the same thing it all starts running together, and the truth is either lost or at least blurred. Jesus said something about knowing people by their fruit, and when it comes to Georgia, I’m clueless.

What I do know is that every ad purports that their person has a solution to either real or perceived problems. I wish that was so! Wouldn’t it be great if there was a pill or a politician that would really cure all that ails us? Some might say that our national malaise is the product of a poor economy, the war on terror, election year mudslinging, the disintegration of the family, and sorry football teams. It’s tough when sports, one of our sources of distraction from life’s difficulties, only adds to the problem. So much for being a South Carolina Gamecock fan!

So what are we supposed to do? What I’ve found when life is on a slippery slope is to do something worthwhile. It doesn’t matter so much what the task, just so it takes commitment. Psychologists, for years, have said that one of the best ways to get out of the doldrums is to make yourself do something for somebody else. They’re right! If we give in to the pits we’re never going to get out of them. Commitment is the ability to push through the pain, the angst, the pessimistic cynical mindset in which we find ourselves and keep at the projects that we’re supposed to complete.

George Miller gave an interesting analogy, “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.” What he’s saying about Italian food is true for me, and reminds me that what we stick to doing keeps on nourishing us long after we’re done. So when we’re down, we shouldn’t give in to it. We should stick to doing the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. Sure, I know very well that I don’t feel like going to the “Y,” but I also know that the endorphins that are released when I exercise will make me feel better. Unfortunately, many of us easily avoid the things we should do. Jerome K. Jerome, who lived from 1859-1927, said it for all sad-sacks and procrastinators, “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

We shouldn’t vegetate and let our burdens build up. Doing something good and worthwhile is a better answer. It’s all about commitment. Lewis Smedes puts the matter quite plainly, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God… When a person makes a promise, he reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: he will be there even when being there costs him more than he wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.” Amen!

Think what would happen if we followed Smedes’ advice. What a better world we would have if we kept our end of the bargain as employees even when under-appreciated, as spouses to our spouses even when things are rocky, or as parents to our children even when feeling disrespected and worn out. When we’re in a funk do something positive. Don’t lash out. Do the unexpected – your duty!

Doesn’t this apply to our faith communities, too? Wouldn’t our churches be better off if members actually kept their promises and vows? Someone said that there are three different kinds of believers: “if,” “because,” and “regardless.” An “if” believer follows God IF he or she receives blessings and rewards in return. This person waits to see what God will do first, then decides whether or not to respond in obedience. A “because” believer follows God BECAUSE God blesses the person. This person has seen the connection between personal obedience and God’s blessing and wants to keep it going. A “regardless” believer follows God REGARDLESS of the person’s circumstances, cynicism, and hardships. A “regardless” believer honors commitment and knows that God is faithful to the faithful. Which are we? How you act today casts your vote, so choose wisely! Do something worthwhile, follow God, and do the right things REGARDLESS.

Donkey and Elephant

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 www.shareacoke.com 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.

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