Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

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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

A Message From Narcie

Most of you know that my daughter, Rev. Narcie Jeter, Gator Wesley Director at the University of Florida, had a second brain tumor surgery May 10 of this year. She is so strong because God is so strong. She just wrote this and as I got home late last night from presiding at a charge conference she had just posted this. I needed it. Maybe you do, too, or someone you know. Thank you for your prayers for Narcie. Thank you to Jesus who makes us all Overcomers!

Her blog is “Blessings on the Journey” and this post can be found at:

http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/overcomer/

A Cord of Three Strands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New River

LOL!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stir What You Got!

I haven’t blogged a few weeks and that says a lot about the limbo-land where our family has been. In the last month we have welcomed a new granddaughter and we have been with Narcie after another brain surgery. She describes it on her blog at www.narciejeter.wordpress.com. Where I am emotionally and theologically is an interesting place. We physically came back last night from Narcie’s, but our prayers and hearts are still there. We transition today from one night at home to going to the South Carolina Annual Conference Cabinet Banquet and one last prep time before AC starts tomorrow afternoon. As Parliamentarian I am trying to hone my skills so I can be of help, as if he needs it, to Bishop Jonathan Holston. How blessed we are to have him as our Episcopal leader!

Where I am is twixt and ‘tween: not in Florida with Narcie and not quite mentally in South Carolina; not in Columbia and not yet in Florence yet for Annual Conference; not in summertime but almost; not at work but always working. It’s an emotional time clinging to the renewed hope that God and the doctors hold out, the time between MRI’s, chemo and radiation treatments; between Enoch’s birthday celebration yesterday and Evy’s dance recital today. It’s waking up and thinking, “Where am I?” I can’t even tell if I’m spent or rested. It’s almost an out-of-body experience. Too many of you have been exactly where I am and know how weird it is. Right? Is this our new normal, or, come to think of it, hasn’t life always been this way?

This is why I haven’t written anything lately. What can you say or write when you’re at that hinge point between a life that was and a life that will be. Platitudes don’t cut it and I’m not much of a poet, so let’s just see what comes out. Here’s what I know: I should not worry about the unknown. I need to celebrate every day’s joys and accomplishments. I will not mope around. I will make plans to work and/or relax with purposeful intention. Most importantly, I will live each day with faith, hope, and love.

Faith walks a path unseen, yet believed. Faith trusts in Jesus who is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.” Faith believes no matter what, God can work all things together for good. Faith is both a gift and a choice. God gives us the gracious ability to believe and it’s up to us to believe. Therefore, I choose faith!

Hope is a little different. It is an expectancy of good. I’m not talking a weak hope, like hoping it’s going to rain without carrying an umbrella. Hope is a firm belief that God is good and does not and will not abandon us. If faith is my choice then hope is God’s choice. Hope isn’t about me turning on a switch or something. It’s about me accepting a calm but determined assurance that everything is going to be alright! This kind of hope is neither wishy-washy nor maudlin stupidity. It is a sincere trust in God’s best intentions for us. For me, Christian hope is a noun first that I get to turn into a verb through faith.

Faith and hope sustain us. We should avoid the Charlie Brown attitude that says: “I’ve developed a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time.” One way for me to fan faith and hope into positive expectancy is through love. Relishing God’s love through Christ empowers me to love others, even the unlovely. Love allows hope’s noun and faith’s verb to form a complete sentence: “Since God has good intentions for me (hope) and gives me the grace to believe (faith) then I will live like it through love.” Love conquers evil with good. Love is the evidence of faith and hope every time!

This story from Abingdon Press’ The Heart of the City by Howard Edington inspires what’s next for me: “Late one Sunday night, as my uncle, Andrew Edington (college president and Bible teacher) was returning home, he stopped at a roadside diner in a Texas hill country town to snag a quick cup of coffee. As is typical of all the Edington males, he quickly used all the sugar packets the waitress had left on the table for him, but wanted more. As the waitress came near his table again, he called out, ‘I want some more sugar, please.’ The crusty old gal defiantly put her hands on her hips, leaned over toward him and snapped, ‘Stir what you got!’ That lesson has proved invaluable over the years. No church is perfect, and sometimes you encounter circumstances that make it less than what you hoped… What to do? Stir what you got! … What to do? Stir what you got!”

What to do for us, for Narcie, for Josh, for Caleb – for me, Cindy, and maybe you – Stir what you got! Stir faith, hope, and love and see what happens!

Our Family Wreath Includes You!

Years ago Cindy and I bought a framed pressed flower wreath composed of the tiniest of colorful blooms. It still hangs on our wall. Inside the wreath in dainty calligraphy were prophetic words that we have tried to honor through all the subsequent years: “Our family is a circle of strength and love, with every birth and every union, the circle grows, every joy shared adds more love, every crisis faced together, makes the circle stronger.”

There have been births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs, and we continue to praise the Living God who gives us the grace to endure together. If anything, it’s the together part that makes the journey easier. No wonder Jesus wanted his followers to be formed into a community of faith. The “two or more…” of the church represents the strength that we gain from bearing one another’s burdens. I can tell you this if you don’t have a community of faith, United Methodism’s connectionalism works! I want to say “Thank you!” to all of you who have been a part of our family sagas over the years. You have lightened the load. You have inspired us to live life with honesty and hope through Jesus.

The Christian faith is not an opiate for the masses as said Marx. Christianity is a very real source of hope. The world’s ways of coping with problems isn’t sufficient. Take a peek at the mostly inadequate methods espoused:

Sixteen Thoughts to Get You Through Almost Any Crisis

1. Indecision is the key to flexibility

2. You cannot tell which way the train went
by looking at the track.

3. There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.

4. Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

5. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

6. The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.

7. Someone who thinks logically is a nice
contrast to the real world.

8. Things are more like they are today than
they ever have been before.

9. Everything should be made as simple as
possible, but no simpler.

10. Friends may come and go, but enemies
accumulate.

11. If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

12. One-seventh of your life is spent on Monday.

13. By the time you can make ends meet, they move the ends.

14. This is as bad as it can get, but don’t bet on it.

15. Never wrestle a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

16. The trouble with life is, you’re halfway through it before you realize it’s a “do-it
yourself” thing.

Although there may be some truth in a couple of these, all in all these clichés are absolutely no comparison to the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. John 10:10-11 says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Yes, the source of evil and disease isn’t God but the thief. Jesus is the Good Shepherd that gave himself so that we poor sheep can have life to the full.

As a family we thank you for your prayers through the years. Some critical times were when we lost our fathers 5 weeks apart in two sudden deaths, and your support through the deaths of both of our mothers was unwavering. Your prayers and presence through my brother’s sudden death were comforting. Your wisdom and guidance through our youngest son Caleb’s journey have been appreciated as well.  You have been with us through the births of our grandchildren Enoch, Evy, and Kaela, too. Guess what: Josh and Karen are about to have another daughter within the month, so thanks ahead of time for prayers for them! The baby is going to be another little girl! My Dad often said that he would have traded all three of his sons for one daughter so Josh and Karen are doubly blessed!

Thanks to Narcie, I can really understand my Dad’s sentiment about daughters. So today I want to thank you especially for your support through Narcie’s travails. It doesn’t seem like it’s been almost three years since her first surgery and diagnosis of an oligodendroglioma brain tumor, and here we go again. May 10, this coming Friday, she is scheduled for another brain surgery. Dr. William Friedman at Shands Medical Center at the University of Florida will be the surgeon. Pray for him and the whole team!

When Narcie got the appointment at UF for the Gator Wesley Director’s position, we had no clue that they had a medical school, much less a renowned tumor center, and Dr. Friedman is chair of the department! God’s providence is marvelous. Even when life’s storms have come our way, God has provided. God doesn’t cause the dilemmas, but God always provides a way out. I Corinthians 10:13 says: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”

So thank you now for the prayers for Narcie, and please continue to lift her up. We will make it by the grace of God. We will continue to live in a posture of faith trusting in a good God who gave his only Son that we might have everlasting life. We will rejoice together and suffer together, and we will prevail together! Thank you for being a part of our family wreath,

tim

Birthing Babies and Lent

Lent is the get-ready season for Christians, in more ways than one. It’s a season for needed spiritual reflection about every facet of our lives. On this Wednesday “Hump Day” of the week I am reminded of just how important Lenten season is. I got to the office at a little after 6:30 am this morning and had a wonderful time of lectio divina praying the Scripture and listening to God, then… Well, let’s just say it’s been busy: a conference call with the Executive Committee of the General Commission on Religion and Race; the landline phone ringing while being on my cell; and vice versa with clergy wanting to put their name in the hat at the last second about moving, churches saying they want their pastor to stay in one instance and go in another. Another DS called and wanted a clarification about something in the Book of Discipline. Another just called about a Cabinet Policy about Clergy Housing. There were four or five unexpected drop-in people – all good, papers to sign, “How are you doing?” kind of stuff. A typical day in the life of a District Superintendent.

It is never boring! There were two instances of me trying to be the ringmaster of a three-ring circus trying to schedule important meetings with all the interested parties. There were two calls from pastors worried about some family issues so we prayed over the phone. A clergy friend called offering baseball tickets which I‘ve learned is something to ask Cindy about later. Anyway, you guessed it, my Quiet Time with the Lord ran out about 9:30 this morning, so here I am typing because there’s finally a lull, but second shift is coming. Some of you have asked how I can write a weekly blog. My answer is that I have to. It’s a part of my spiritual discipline, electronic journaling, if you will.

I need to use every means of grace there is to get ready for the unexpected, to handle the tyranny of the urgent with a Holy Spirit imbued calmness. I bet you do, too. There, of course, is the blessing of God-guided boundaries, and the knowledge that God doesn’t put on us more than we can bear. Even better is the blessed hope that God will give us strength for whatever befalls us each and every day. Therefore, all the more reason to spend a Holy Lent in preparation, not just for our day-to-day dilemmas, but also for the emotional barrage of Holy Week. Ready or not, here it comes!

I should know about getting ready. Some of you know the story of our children’s births, and some of you don’t. All three were born in the small but beautiful hamlet of Cheraw, South Carolina, and they were born in three different locations. That’s pretty hard to do in small-town South Carolina, but it happened. Cindy went into labor with Narcie and I called her doctor whose office was an hour away. We had taken the hospital tour, and done the child-birth classes in that fair city. He asked me if I had timed the contractions and I had. They were three minutes apart! He said that was mostly impossible with a first child so he suggested she might have indigestion or something like it. He said we could go to the local hospital so they could check her, and call him back if we needed to.

Well, the local hospital didn’t have a doctor on site. A local General Practitioner, Dr. Jim Thrailkill, was called in. Seventeen minutes after our arrival, and just a few minutes after Dr. Jim got there, we had a baby girl! Whew! The quick delivery was great for Cindy, but it didn’t go over that well with her mother. Her goal in life was to be present for her grandchildren’s birth, then she missed it. Two years later we were expecting our second child. We went back to Florence, SC for the pre-natal doctor’s visits and the hospital tour, but we took the childbirth classes at the tech school across from the parsonage in Cheraw.

After the midwife/instructor heard the story of Narcie’s quick birth, she decided that I should read an emergency childbirth book. I finished it a few weeks before the due date and the next day I came in from doing some pastoral visits. Narcie was two years old and asleep in her room. Cindy was in the bathroom and promptly said, “I think this is it!” It was February 25, 1982.

Good thing I finished reading that emergency childbirth book! I dutifully called the doctor an hour away, and the friend who was going to watch Narcie while we went to the hospital. The friend got there and, “Boom!” both the baby and the book kicked in and I got on the delivery end of things and the baby was already coming. Thank you, Jesus, for that book and what it said about turning and dipping a baby’s shoulders. Thank you, Jesus, for prompting me to finish reading it the night before! I delivered Josh wrapped him in a towel, suctioned out his nose and mouth with an ear bulb syringe that had been sitting in the medicine cabinet ever since Narcie’s birth. Josh cried. I called the Cheraw Rescue Squad and went outside and got thoroughly sick. They cut the cord on the bathroom floor, and Cindy’s mother got another phone call saying that she had missed another birth.

When Caleb was born fifteen months later we decided to skip going to Florence. We hadn’t made it yet anyway! Cindy simply looked funny one afternoon so we headed to the new hospital. The old one had been turned into a nursing home. Dr. Essman was waiting on us, and Caleb took a whole hour! Since Cindy’s folks lived an hour and a half away, they still didn’t make it! All three of our children were born in little Cheraw, SC – one in the old hospital/nursing home, one in the parsonage bathroom, and one in Chesterfield General, one baby each for my three churches where they were each baptized in descending order of size. I was glad I had three churches instead of four!

The moral of the story: Just like Lent, it’s good to be prepared! I’ll be spending some extra time with the Lord in the morning! I won’t be birthing babies, but I’ll be preparing for New Birth!

A Love Story for Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day is upon us, but because we have a Cabinet meeting, Cindy and I will celebrate this coming Saturday. Cindy and I have been married for 37 years, and they have been great because she’s great, and God is even greater! She has put up with me and my quirks for a long time! I love her more today than ever! The glue that holds us together is our shared commitment to Christ. We knew that from the beginning.

That’s how we met actually. She and some Christian friends from Winthrop College were staying together at Rev. Jerry Robinson’s Presbyterian manse in Clover, SC. He and his wife had unofficially adopted Cindy’s roommate. Somehow I got wind of the news that a group of single young Christian ladies from what was then an all-girls college were going to be together. Ever an opportunist and a recent high school graduate, I thought driving 90+ miles to Clover from Edgefield, SC would be a welcome event for a guy wanting to hit it off with some older college girls. It would be tutelage for my upcoming arrival at USC. So off I went.

I’ll never forget walking into the house. There were these wonderful young women, but nothing special, no fireworks, no signal flares in the sky. They were nice, great even, but, then, this raven-haired quiet beauty walked around the corner of the refrigerator in the parsonage kitchen, and immediately I was struck. I will never forget it! I don’t know if I believe in love at first sight, but that’s what happened to me. Her eyes were like homes of silent prayer! I could sense her heart and it was pure. You could read her like a Nathaniel in whom there was no guile. She wasn’t prissy, pompous, or a put-on. She exuded a simple elegance. She wasn’t “frou-frou,” but, “Wow!” what a depth of beauty. Right then and there I was in love with Cindy Godwin.

The first words out of my mouth, however, pretty much doomed me. I said it with all sincerity, but everybody else immediately thought it was a horrible pick up line, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” She declares that she said something back to me like, “In your dreams!” before dismissing me as a very poor example of mature Christianity.

Over that weekend, I backed off and tried not to be too direct in my approach. We talked in the Tudor-windowed sunroom, and shared in great conversations about God. I pushed her in the swing behind the parsonage. Then we freaked all the rest of the girls out when we went to a pond and I paddled her around in a canoe. After all, she was sort of the untouchable one in their group, like a Bride of Christ, and here she was letting this much younger whipper-snapper paddle her around. Beyond that, I also remember their suspicious stares as we walked the trail at King’s Mountain National Park and we both slipped into British accents as if the Continentals and the Redcoats were at it once again. I haven’t been able to do a British accent since. It was magical. We clicked. There was an overwhelming sense that we had always known each other.

I was in love. She wasn’t, at least with me. Her friends, I’ve been told, gave her the once, twice-over, and more, that I was too young, too much of a ladies’ man (I had dated the younger sister of her roommate – big mistake). Anyway, I was forlorn but not forgotten. Oh, I kept dating, which probably didn’t help my stature in Cindy’s eyes, though in all honesty I was looking for someone like her if she wasn’t going to give me the time of day. We saw each other at lots of shared retreats between the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chapters at Winthrop and USC. We went to Inter-Varsity’s “Urbana 1973” with friends. The next 2 summers I got the job as Youth Director at her home church, Kingstree United Methodist. We were the closest of friends. I accepted our non-romantic plight, but was deeply in love with her. Our paths continued to cross as I spent lots of hours at her Mom and Dad’s, then as she graduated and took a teaching job in my hometown some three hours away from hers. We literally could not keep from seeing each other. We were partners in the faith, the Lord’s work.

Once, and only once, in that time of working and sharing together, I dared to try to take our relationship to the next level. We were sitting in her parent’s den and I reached out to take her hand, and, “Wham!” she slapped me. Her words were fraught with poignancy, “It would take thunder and lightning for me to ever go out with you!” In other words, she wanted a miraculous sign from God or it wasn’t going to ever happen. I wish I could say that I moved on, but I couldn’t. I occupied my mind with my mother’s illness and kept doing my job at the church. I was 19 and Cindy was 22. She was a school teacher on summer break and I was still a kid. She says now that she saw me grow up when I was dealing with my Mom, and she admits that she missed me when I was away – a first step. We shared lots of prayers during that summer of 1975.

Then one afternoon we were sitting on her parent’s front steps sharing Scripture and talking about a passage from Ezekiel that I felt was a description of God’s call on my life to be sold-out for Jesus. I told her of my call to be a minister and what that life would be like. Then I repeated to Cindy something that I had never said to anyone else but had often said to her because she was/is so special, “You’re set apart.” I really meant, “You’re set apart, too,” like me, probably in different ways, places, and with a different person. To my everlasting delight and amazement at God’s profound grace she said to me, “Set apart for you.”

 What? I almost couldn’t believe it. This woman that I loved was returning that love. She wanted us to be partners in ministry! And, guess what, when she said, “Set apart for me,” it started thundering and there was lightning! Yeah, I know, a summer thunderstorm in the lowcountry of South Carolina is a common phenomenon, but, let me tell you, it was a marvelous confirmation from God. We walked in the rain basking in the glow of the Holy Spirit.

We went back into the house soaking wet. We had never kissed or been on a date but I asked her to marry me. She said, “Yes!” Then we hugged and had our first kiss. Telling her parents and sister took some courage. Her Dad was great. Her sister was reluctant. Her mother was so sick that she lost 13 pounds in two weeks! We got married 5 months later on December 20, 1975. I was 20 by then and she was 22. I graduated a semester later from college and off we went to seminary in Boston.

It has been a wonderful and sublime journey ever since. She is my Valentine, my heart, my love, the greatest gift God has ever shared with me, save Jesus. We have been blessed by three precious children, children-in-law, and 4 grandchildren. God is love and makes our best hopes come true in ways that are beyond our imaginations. Happily-ever-after’s do happen. I know so! Hang in there and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Keeping Christmas

This year Christmas Day has been most unusual for Cindy and me. We resemble the movie “Home Alone.” Caleb is visiting Amy in Washington State. Josh, Karen, and Kaela have their own place. Narcie, Mike, Enoch, and Evy live in Florida. So for the first time in 37 years of marriage, it’s just us. Yes, it’s been peaceful, even worshipful. We did go over to Josh & Karen’s for a few hours, but now the quiet is falling like a gentle snow. It’s been a simple Christmas, but grand in so many ways. We’ve enjoyed family and sharing with friends.

I want to keep it this way for as long as I can. That’s what we heard yesterday when we went to church on Christmas Eve. It was the usual bit about Christmas’ twelve days, but I think that we all know the difficulty in keeping the wonder of God’s incarnation. Having faith in Jesus is a year round challenge. It’s especially difficult to celebrate Christmas, much less keep it, with a pall over my emotions as I ponder the unopened presents in Newtown, Connecticut, and the divisions that polarize our nation and world. But keep it we must if we are to give hope to everyone who is going through tough times. The news of Jesus’ birth gives us the certainty that God is with us through everything.

Henry Van Dyke, in his piece, “Keeping Christmas,” sums up the point of my thoughts this Christmas Day 2012:

“There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
• to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
• to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
• to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
• to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
• to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
• to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
• to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
• to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
• to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
• to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
• to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—
Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—
• stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—
• and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.”

Amen. Together we can bring solace to hurting hearts. Together the powers that be in Washington will work out an equitable compromise and avert the fiscal cliff. Bloodshed will stop in Syria. Palestinians and Israel will lie down together like the lion and the lamb. Together we can save the least, the lost, and the lowest. Together we can keep Christmas, together with God and each other!