South Carolina Flood Relief

This is a good week for I Kings 17:7, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.” The State of South Carolina has been inundated and has literally had its fill of rain. My son’s home is split-level and the lower level flooded. His expectant wife along with their 4 and 2 year olds are staying in Aiken with us while he is at home trying to start the repair process. I have been back and forth to Columbia 4 times using every imaginable route to try to maneuver the streets. His situation isn’t dire and everything will be fine. I only mention his situation to say that there are a lot of people in far worse circumstances. People have died. Cindy’s school has been closed all week because roads have disappeared. This clean-up will take a long time, and we need the brook to dry up!

The context of I Kings 17:7 is instructional. Prior to the brook drying up, God had been feeding Elijah via ravens, and his source of life-giving water was a brook near the Jordan River. Then the brook dried up which wasn’t good news for Elijah like it is for us. It’s good news for us in flood-stricken South Carolina, but bad news for a desert-bound prophet. God then provided another avenue to meet Elijah’s needs. Maybe that’s the primary lesson from Elijah: Hang in there no matter what, or using the words of the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” That is what defines both SC Strong and Christian Strong!

Sometimes, though, it takes a while to even gather hope. God told Elijah to find a certain poor widow in a nearby town and ask for food. She didn’t have any, plus she said that she barely had enough ingredients to make a final meal for herself and her only son before their anticipated deaths. Elijah asked for a meal anyway and she complied and miraculously her food supply stayed constant. That says something about giving even when you’re hurting. Unfortunately the celebration of that miracle was short-lived because her son did die. But the story doesn’t end there. God raised the widow’s son from the dead. We are also in that weird interval when we’re not sure how the story of the SC Flood will end, but we have hope in resurrection, beauty from ashes, bricks out of mud, and lessons from loss. Like the widow, how we respond will largely determine the outcome.

For many of us our theological understanding of God’s taking care of us has been flipped. On one hand there is ample Biblical hope that suggests that we will be saved from floods; i.e., Isaiah 43: 1-2, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” That didn’t come true for some this week, but the God “with” us part has for all of us. Other passages are tricky to understand, too, like the one Jesus uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” This doesn’t offer much comfort and seems to blame us if we get whacked by calamity.

Frankly, most of us would agree that we live this conundrum of “Why, O Lord?” every day and especially in times of crisis: “God, if this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies.” So floods, cancer, and calamities are very complex from a Christian perspective. For instance, we affirm that God sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The part I don’t like, maybe you don’t either, is that God is the one doing the “sending” in Jesus’ sermon. I’m good with a heavy rainfall in a drought, but not like what we’ve had! The counterbalance to God’s seeming responsibility in rain or drought is the time Jesus was on the boat in the storm with the disciples in Luke 8:24. It says Jesus rebuked the storm, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.”

Jesus only used the word “rebuke” when dealing with evil or those possessed by evil. Why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm if nature was already under his control? If God’s will is already a done deal then why are we asked in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It seems to me that nature has a mind of its own, and is often at cross-purposes with God’s perfect will. So we trust God to do what God does best and that is to enter our pain and redeem it.

God does exactly that in the Incarnation of Christ: Jesus experienced all of our problems, died all of our deaths, and ROSE AGAIN! Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:14-16 assure us that Jesus went through all of his suffering so that we can know that God will make a way for us, too. That is the basis for our hope. It is not a fanciful rose-colored hope that knows no storms. It is a hope that is true because it has been through the storms. South Carolina will live up to its motto and then some. It has done it before and will do it again. While WE breathe, WE hope!

How is St. John’s Providing Flood Relief?

We are encouraging monetary DONATIONS to SC Conference Disaster Response, which will:

* Rebuild and repair affected churches, including small churches that do not have flood insurance.

     * Initiate an estimated three-year recovery phase until everyone is back in a home.

     * Walk with those who, even with FEMA help, will not have the resources to rebuild.

Why money rather than tangible assistance?

     * While bottled water, food, and flood buckets are absolutely necessary, the UMC Disaster Response team will provide sustainable and long-lasting means of recovery, rather than solely initial relief.

     * Our UMC SC conference staff are trained to identify how our resources can be used most productively.

     * ALL donations will only be used for SC flood relief as our apportionments cover all administrative costs.

How can I give?

* Bring a donation by the church office or drop it in the offering plate.

     * Cash donations and checks: Please specify on your envelope or memo line “SC flood relief.”

     * Donate online at:                                                                                                                     http://www.umcsc.org/data/disasterresponseflood2015.php

South Carolina

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The Fourth and Flags

The Fourth of July has a shady heritage in the South. It wasn’t until World War I that most people below the Mason-Dixon Line approved of Independence Day celebrations. The poverty and animosity caused by Reconstruction caused many Southerners to avoid our nation’s birthday. Reconstruction was a tumultuous time. South Carolina was under harsh military rule until 1877, twelve long years after the end of the Confederacy. It was a long military occupation that resulted in exacerbated resentment and retribution against people of color.

Perhaps this explains why Southerners remember “The War” so well. But there is a difference between history and heritage. History is something to learn from so that its evil may not be repeated and so its good might be perpetuated. Heritage is what we pass on to our descendants. I don’t want to pass on a history fraught with prejudice and poverty. I do want to pass on a heritage of front porches and smiling faces, family reunions and neighborliness. In these days of reflection since the Charleston Massacre, I want to make sure that my legacy, our legacy, reflects Christ more than country. Sometimes they are not synonymous.

Our flags should represent our values, our heritage. What happens, however, when flags, whether they be swastikas or rising suns, stars and bars, or even Old Glory, fail to represent our Christian heritage? What if there’s a difference between what we profess as Christians and what we profess as a nation? If history, by definition, is something to be learned from, and heritage is something to be passed on, we, therefore, need to be very careful about the flags to which we offer our allegiance.

I would be highly offended if swastikas still flew over Germany. That symbol invokes hatred and genocide. With that being said, I wonder what people think when they see an American flag? Surely to many it represents freedom and the sacrifice of America’s millions that gave of themselves so that democracy might defeat fascism in World War II. We are grateful for those whom Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation,” plus previous and subsequent generations who have protected our freedoms and honored our flag.

However, people who live in so-called “Banana Republics” think of Americans in a whole different light. To them our flag represents people who will sacrifice democracy and fairness if it will provide us with cheaper gas, clothing, or produce. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) was passed to help us more than it was to help poor Third World residents. We want to pay 1950’s prices for things no matter how it affects people in poorer countries, and we have the gall to gripe about jobs being sent overseas as if it wasn’t our fault. No wonder poverty-stricken countries are more than eager to let our greed for pleasure consume their illegitimate drugs. In their minds it serves us right! Our flag, to them, stands for oppression. To them, we seem very hypocritical, especially in the way that we define “our vital national interests.”

To combat this perception I propose that we do two things. First, we need to be vigilant that our nation’s values be steadfast in fulfilling the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, we need to beware of ever confusing our faith with our flag. As a matter of historical fact, nations and their banners hardly ever represent Christianity. America perhaps has come closest. But that’s our opinion. Ask a Nicaraguan or Panamanian and the answer might be different. Let us make sure that our flag is a consistent international symbol of peace and hope. Then it will remain a worthy national one. God bless America, for we surely need it.

Mothers of God

Theotokos or “Mother of God,” is an expletive to some and a name for Mary for others. To most of us it is a vaguely familiar expression that we somehow recall as being “Catholic.” Sadly Protestants are often a little leery of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, especially in the veneration of Mary. But, on this Mother’s Day, can’t we agree that “Ave Maria” is just as appropriate in a Protestant church as much as in a Roman Catholic one?

If it weren’t for Mary’s humble willingness to endure the ire of Joseph and surely that of the rest of Nazareth’s townspeople, we would be without a Jesus born both of God and of humanity. Jesus had to be human to satisfy justice, and he had to be divine for his death to save the whole world. I dare say one reason for Jesus to have a human mother is to claim that the very best representatives of humanity are women. Too often more is made of the political incorrectness of God as father when we miss the greater affirmation of women found in the person of Mary.

Meister Eckhart, famous theologian and mystic of the fourteenth century, described our affinity to Mary this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.” Like Mary, we should all birth the Christ!

Of course, women are ahead of the game in this regard, whether they have had a child or not. For instance, I am reminded of a somewhat obscure passage of Scripture found in Paul’s lengthy greeting at the end of Romans. In this list he greets a host of people that have meant something to him. One such greeting includes a special word to every woman who has been a spiritual and emotional mother but maybe not a biological one. In Romans 16:13, Paul states, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.

Haven’t we all had women in our lives like Rufus’ mother, someone who has nurtured us, taught us, cared for us? A lot of my mothers were actually my real mother’s helpers. Aunts and school teachers come quickly to mind. Included would be the wise women of my first parish that taught a young inexperienced minister the way to care. My mother-in-law certainly was a mother to me, and with deepest sincerity I humbly admit that my wife has been like a mother to this her “fourth child” more often than she should have.

Mothering isn’t about biology. Like Mary and Rufus’ nameless mother, we can all fill in the blank of those women who have mothered us. We are grateful! This day is for every one of you. Our prayer, like Meister Eckhart’s, is that your grand unfathomable love might be born anew in us, that we might become Theotoki, bearers of the Christ child, as well as you. This is our tribute to you who have borne Him so well. This is our prayer of dedication. No greater compliment can we pay, no greater Mother’s Day gift can we purchase save the desire to be like you in birthing Christ in the world.

Mary and Child

The Chaos Imperative – Blessings in Disguise

A blessing in disguise is a rare event for me, but I’ve had several this week. First we had a situation with a medicine that one of us takes. There’s never been any problem with getting it refilled, and it has been a regular medicine for years. The pharmacy, however, said it was disallowed by the insurance company. To make a very long story short, it’s been quite a saga of calling the doctor’s office, speaking to just the right nurse who could read the file, going through a committee of the pharmacy provider, getting an automated message last night that it was approved, “Yay!” and then 3 phone calls this morning to get a whopping three pills because the pharmacy has to order this med because it’s about to go generic. Whew!

You’re probably asking, “What was the blessing in disguise?” In the midst of all the events surrounding this saga, it dawned on me that a med that I’ve been taking for years seemed to be running low when I opened the bottle last night. I remembered that I had talked to my doctor about a refill several weeks ago, and his nurse called me to make sure that she had the right number for the call-in prescription line. I didn’t think anything more about it, safely assuming, I thought, that it would arrive shortly in the mail. But in the midst of dealing with the other medicine situation it dawned on me that I usually would have received the meds by mail by now so I went on-line this morning and checked to see if it was on the way. It wasn’t!

So I backtracked with the doctor’s office ad infinitum and called our mail-pharmacy number. Now things are straight on both meds and they’re on the way, plus the rest of the first pharmacy order should be here tomorrow. Breathe! The blessing in disguise is that if I hadn’t had a problem with the first medicine then I probably wouldn’t have remembered that the second one was delayed or noticed that it was running low. By the time I would have figured that out, I would have been out of that one, too!

Blessings in disguise are hard to see when you’re in the throes of anxiety. No wonder the British Navy has a whistle they blow just before they come to “battle stations” in a crisis or emergency. It’s called “The Still.” Their thinking is that if we will pause before we get freaked out then we’ll be better able to think and handle the situation in a much more productive manner. I just finished reading a book called The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack that makes the same point. They suggest that a little unstructured space or pausing can provide insights and innovation. They call it “white space.” White space allows us to recognize more clearly the blessings in disguise that we have written off as horrible intrusions. As Christians, we call this space: prayer, meditation, Sabbath, or doing our devotions. Whatever we call it, our times apart allow us to see God’s perspective on our anxious moments and recognize blessings in disguise.

My second “Aha!” moment of a blessing in disguise occurred over the weekend into yesterday. Last week was my week off. After trips to see grandkids, I was looking forward to a weekend of catching up on favorite TV shows that we had DVRed. I particularly wanted to watch the Masters. Guess what? Our TV went out. I called the cable company and the first night they said that it was an area wide issue. The next day it happened again and the person that I finally reached said it was just a service issue unique to us. Don’t you just love all the “press number” hoops you have to work through to get to a real person! Anyway the person had me reprogram our remotes, unhook the cable, re-do it, send a reset order over the line to the cable box, and on and on until 45 minutes later on Saturday afternoon they said there was no hope, and that the earliest we would get a service call was going to be on Tuesday – yesterday. Goodbye “Master’s” and “Elementary,” and “Bones,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Last Man Standing.”

The blessing in disguise was that instead of freaking out, Cindy and I were disconnected from our cyber-lives for a blessed few days and simply sat in our den and talked and read, went to bed early, and rested much better. On top of that when the repairman did come yesterday, it not only was a very simple fix, but he and I had a very helpful serendipitous conversation about faith and hope. It became a sacred moment – all because the TV went out and we went beyond a having a hassle-filled hissy to being still. The next time I get frazzled I’m going to latch onto Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” and give purposeful pausing a chance. There are blessings in disguise that I need to see. How about you?

Chaos Imperative

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!

Role Models: Zechariah or Simeon

To everyone who hasn’t figured out your family’s Christmas plans, your gift lists, or whether or not you’re going to invite Aunt Sue, the drama queen, to anything – here’s to you! Two weeks from today is Christmas and I’m behind in my decision making and confused. Like being caught between the First Advent and the Second, I am in this tenuous almost there, but not quite mode of either making some hard and fast decisions or just throwing my hands up in the air and go with the flow. My choice is to go with the flow, God’s flow.

Isn’t that what Joseph decided as he heard about the impending birth? He could have really wrecked things. Gosh, Mary absolutely could have refused to say to Gabriel, “Be it unto me as you have said.” All the people from Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Magi, Shepherds, Innkeeper, Herod, Cyrenius, Simeon, and Anna could have make fateful decisions that would have made the Lord’s birth turn out very differently. It is simply amazing how God allowed human freedom of choice to affect his plan of salvation for the world. What a risk, but we have a God who risks and I’m glad!

Now, I know that some of you think that the whole birth thing and everything before and since about everything in life has been a done deal, pre-arranged, and orchestrated, but to do so lessens the love-factor that God embraces for human history. God loves us so much that He allows us to be partners in this thing called life. Our decisions are ours to make, and for God to use, oftentimes having to bring good out of our bad choices.

Well, enough about theological “what-if’s” and human choice and let me get back to what I need to do about Christmas shopping, planning family get-togethers that fit everyone’s schedules, and whether or not we clean the house for the potential aforementioned festivities. I am reluctant to be as compliant as Mary and Joseph, and feel as resistant and befuddled as Zechariah.

Zechariah is an interesting character. He’s a Levitical priest who is married to Elizabeth, Mary’s relative. He’s pulled the duty that places him in the temple and an angel lets him know that he and Elizabeth are going to have a child. What gets me is that he shouldn’t have been very surprised. It says in Luke 1:13 that his prayer has been answered for a baby, but his response to Gabriel the angel is DOUBT in verse 18, “How can I be sure of this?” He’s like people who pray for rain but never carry an umbrella. He’s been praying, but when it comes true, he’s shocked. Go figure, but it sounds like me – maybe you. I think: “Why pray if you’re going to be shocked when you get an answer?”

The character in Jesus’ birth narrative that I would most desire to be like is Simeon. In Luke 2:25-35 we read of this faithful devout man who has been waiting in Jerusalem for who knows how long because the Lord told him that he wouldn’t die before he got a chance to see the Messiah, the consolation of Israel. What I want to emulate is what it says in Luke 2:27, “Moved by the Spirit, he went to into the temple courts.” Wouldn’t my choices turn out better if I did what the Holy Spirit moved me to do? Of course!

Anyway, Simeon sees Mary, Joseph, and the Christ Child. He dares to take him in his arms like LeBron James hugging Princess Kate last week in NYC, and then he bursts into song. Simeon sings the “Nunc Dimittis” which says, basically “Now dismiss your servant because I’ve seen your salvation…” He says some other very important things, but what captures me is that he was willing to be faithful enough to wait until God delivered on his promise, obedient enough to be moved by the Spirit, bold enough to take the Savior from Mary’s protective arms, and fearless enough of what other people thought so that he could break out in a song that said, “Lord, now I’m ready to go. I can die in peace because You’ve kept your word and I’ve seen the Savior!”

Who do you want to be like in Jesus’ birth narratives? Who are you like? I may be a Zechariah, but I want to be a Simeon. If I’m like Simeon then the Christmas lists, plans, and what-ifs are going be no big deal. Real choices still need to be made like Simeon’s choice to remain in Jerusalem until God came through, but if I rest in the Spirit my choices will turn out better than okay. Reluctant Zechariah or Expectant Simeon, which shall I be?

Simeon

Jesus, Narcie, and a Topsy-Turvy Week

Every week is an adventure! Who knew that last Saturday, November 1, we would have the earliest recorded snowfall in South Carolina? I ended up driving through a rough stretch of it to get to my brother who was hospitalized with a heart attack. Since Saturday he’s had a total of two, his renal function needs to improve, and God bless his wife. She is literally the best thing that has ever happened to him!

Last Saturday was also my first Apple Fest at St. John’s and it was unbelievable. What an amazing gargantuan task to turn the church into a mall with crafts, treasures, jewelry, casseroles, baked goods, apples galore, clothing for sale, and a silent auction. I suspect that $20,000 was raised for missions. Saturday night was frigid and I was unfortunately on hand to see my SC Gamecocks humiliated by Tennessee. Sunday was wonderful with an attendance of 1061 as we celebrated the Saints and had a baptism!

Monday was the day for my brother’s second heart attack and oral surgery for me. I have been loopy to say the least. My brother is improving, but slowly. Caleb is home from visiting a friend which is grand, but along the way this week there have been 3 flat tires, a hack on my bank account, Cindy locked her car keys in the car at work an hour away. Oh well, the list of the ups and downs could go on, but…!

I am grateful. When I make my pledge to the church this Sunday the most important Bible verse in my mind will be I Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t mean that the topsy-turvy circumstances are God’s will, but giving thanks is! Saying, “I’m doing okay, under the circumstances,” sounds pretty good, but as Christians we are never “under” the circumstances. Thanks to Christ we are more than overcomers. Romans 8 reminds us that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love and care. My giving needs to reflect just how grateful I am for a God who helps us overcome our circumstances!

Yesterday afternoon brought the best news of the week. Our daughter, Narcie, went for her usual 3-month MRI on her brain tumor. She’s had two brain surgeries in the past 4 years and the prognosis hasn’t been a good one. Her doctors have been very blunt, but she’s a fighter and full of a realistic faith. Yesterday she had the MRI and then met with the oncologist. He gave her good news that the tumor was not growing then she asked the question she had not been wanting to ask, “Has my prognosis changed?” Originally they were thinking 3-5 years, but the doctor said yesterday that he thought he could conservatively push her survivability out another 6 on top of the four. We are ecstatic!

I know that there are situations where there is despair beyond hope and I commiserate with those of you who live in chronic chaos, pain, or dilemmas of any kind. I also know this: No matter what we go through or how down we feel, Jesus is more than ready to hear, listen, and respond. Sometimes we don’t get the response that we prefer, but we have a friend in Jesus who has been to the grave and back to set our course on the path to hope and heaven.

I don’t what this week has done to you, but in all of our topsy-turvy lives, Jesus remains constant. Hang on to that, no matter what. Thanks for your prayers for Narcie. I am grateful more than words can express.

Almost Plucked Rooster

 

Taking the Rat Up!

I need hope to conquer worry! The Great Recession has knocked a dent in our ability to fulfill the so-called “American Dream” of home ownership. Our doctors and medical experts are great but new diseases are cropping up every day. Ebola and the new viral respiratory disease attacking children are real fears. On the political front, Isis is a new threat that President Obama wants to eradicate. Real and imagined fears consume us every day.

In order to survive we need an overwhelming awe of God, faith in Christ’s love, and an assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence so that faith and hope will sustain us in troublesome times. Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particularly sick child. The teacher told her that the class was studying nouns and adverbs and hoped that the child would not fall behind the other students by being in the hospital.

The teacher went to the hospital and found the boy in the burn unit. She wasn’t prepared to see the young man in such pain and obvious agony from his burns. He and his situation looked terrible. She was about to run to the door in horror when she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your regular teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”

Before she could finish with an abundance of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him and his will to live.  But ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment… It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy would they?” Everyone needs hope! It motivates us. It encourages. It pushes us beyond the bad news and helps us grasp new possibilities. It stops worry in its tracks.

In the pioneer days of aviation when planes were little more than mere fabric held together by piano wire, a pilot was attempting a flight around the world. After he had been gone for some two hours from his last landing field, he heard a noise in his plane. He recognized it as the gnawing of a rat. He realized that while the plane had been on the ground a rat had gotten into the fuselage.

For all he knew the rat could be gnawing through a vital cable or control of the plane. It was a very serious situation. He was both concerned and anxious. At first he did not know what to do. It was two hours back to the landing field from which he had taken off and it was more than two hours to the next field. Then he remembered that a rat is a rodent. It isn’t made for heights; it is made to live on the ground and under the ground.

Therefore the pilot began to climb. He went up a thousand feet, then another thousand and another until he was more than twenty thousand feet up. The gnawing finally stopped. The rat was dead. He could not survive in the thin atmosphere of those heights. More than two hours later the pilot brought the plane safely to the next landing field and found the dead rat.

Worry is like a rodent trying to crash our planes, dash our hopes, and make us give up. Our job is to inspire others like the teacher with the burned boy, and find encouragement ourselves by taking the rat up into the rarefied heights of heaven where we can reach out and touch the face of God through prayer and praise. Worry can’t live when it’s that close to God. I am going to try to take the rats up today to God and let them die because they don’t compare to the power of God that seeks to work his wonders and way in our lives. Have hope and discard worry. God is greater than both! Today is going to be a great day if we will believe it!

biplane

Flying the UMC Trapeze

I have been thinking about this in-between time of being the Columbia District Superintendent and the new senior pastor of St. John’s UMC, Aiken. At 12:01 on this coming Wednesday it will be official, but I have already been flying the trapeze by attempting to let go of one bar to grab the other one. We have already moved into a house in Aiken. We have eaten in some great local restaurants, walked the streets, and met great new people both in the community and in the church. I have been acclimating myself to new surroundings while driving back to Columbia to fulfill my last days as DS – attempting to live in two worlds.

Jim Elliott, deceased missionary, was absolutely correct when he said, “Wherever you are, be all there!” I can’t reach out and be fully the pastor that St. John’s needs unless I let go of the other trapeze bar, and I surely don’t want to get caught hanging in the middle between the old and new. Flying the trapeze with one hand grasping one bar while the other hand is clenching the other is untenable. How many of us have found ourselves caught in similar circumstances between jobs, relationships, or situations? We catch ourselves wondering if we should risk a new thing or hold onto the familiar. One has to let go and be all there, wherever the “there” is.

As preachers move this next week there is going to be a lot of anxiety. There will be anxiety for churches and for clergy, and fear can be paralyzing. One church sign was frighteningly near the truth in this appointment transition time for churches and clergy: “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help!” It’s almost not funny! For pastors and church members caught in pastoral transition, worry and church can often go hand in hand. What do we do with our worries? Do we bury them, or let them bury us? Do we have enough faith to take risks for God? Are we ready to move into God’s new opportunities for us? Are we ready to let go of the former things and embrace the new?

One day in July, a farmer sat in front of his shack, smoking a corncob pipe. Along came a stranger who asked, “How’s your cotton coming?” “Ain’t got none,” was the answer as he continued, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid of the boll weevil.” The visitor then asked, “Well, how’s your corn?” The farmer replied, “Didn’t plant none. ‘Fraid o’ drought.” The visitor continued his line of questioning, “How about potatoes?” The reply was familiar, “Ain’t got none. Scairt o’ tater bugs.” The stranger finally asked, “Well, what did you plant?” “Nothin’,” answered the farmer. “I just played it safe.”

Playing it safe can be downright disastrous. Divine motivation demands our willingness to go out on a limb. Fear has to be defeated. Some of us anticipate the worst and don’t try anything. God wants us to put on our wave-walking shoes and get out of the boat of our comfort zone. I know that we all fear the unknown. I like routine as well as the next person. I’m infamous for ordering the same dish in restaurants. It’s simple really. I don’t want to be disappointed, but if I’m not willing to try something new, think what delights I’ve missed.

When a person fears the worst will happen, their own thoughts may help bring it about. Someone once wrote, “Fear is the wrong use of the imagination. It is anticipating the worst, not the best that can happen.” The story has been told about a salesman who had a flat tire while driving on a lonely country road one dark and rainy night. He opened the trunk and discovered that he didn’t have a lug wrench. He looked around and could barely see a light coming from a farmhouse. With relief in mind, he started walking through the driving rain toward the house.

The salesman began to think all kinds of thoughts. He thought, for instance, that the farmer would surely have a lug wrench that he could borrow. Next he thought about how late at night it was, and, of course, the farmer would be asleep in his warm dry bed. Maybe he wouldn’t answer the door. And even if he did, he’d be angry at being awakened in the middle of the night. And so on and on his thoughts went as he was walking to the farmhouse. Being soaking wet didn’t help his thought process, either.

He pondered that even if the farmer did answer the door, he would probably shout some rude vulgarity at him. This thought made the salesman mad. After all, what right did the farmer have to refuse him the loan of a simple lug wrench? He was stranded in the middle of nowhere soaked to the skin, and the farmer was a selfish clod! Fuming, the salesman finally reached the house and banged hard on the door. A light went on inside, and a window opened above. A voice called out, “Who is it?” His face white with anger, the salesman called out, “You know darn well who it is. It’s me! And you can keep your blasted lug wrench. I wouldn’t borrow it now if you had the last one on earth!” Anticipating the worst can become self-fulfilling prophecy. We need to give God a chance and stop worrying!

I hereby covenant to take a risk by trusting in God’s unfailing providence. Because God always provides, I am going to take flight on the trapeze bar of United Methodist itinerancy. I will not be caught in the middle, but will risk letting go of the past and embrace the glorious future called St. John’s UMC, Aiken! What risks are you willing to take on God’s trapeze?

Remembering Daddy on Father’s Day 2014

As Father’s Day approaches my Dad’s life vividly floods my mind. He and Mother were a great team. As I actively try this morning to recall them both I spent more time listening to what my Daddy said and watching what Mother did. It was not that both traits weren’t important but their individual strengths leaned toward doing for my Mother and saying for Daddy. They weren’t deficient in either skill. Mother was a doer without fanfare that helped people, cut the grass, and made sure her three sons’ needs were met. Daddy was a professional talker, literally, whose proverbs and talks can be replayed at a moment’s notice. 

He was an auctioneer that graduated in 1939 from Reppert School of Auctioneering in Decatur, Indiana at the top of his class. His primary vocation was in the stockyard business, owning 5 at one time: Wilkes County Stockyard in Washington, Georgia; Thomson Stockyard in Thomson, Georgia; Saluda County Stockyard in Saluda, SC; Lugoff Stockyard in Lugoff, SC, and the original one in Edgefield, SC. He was very successful to say the least as a communicator and as a people-connector. His gift of gab served him well both professionally and personally. He turned many an enemy into a friend through active and effective communication. 

He and Mother were keen examples of Christian character. They loved people and proved it in ways that went above and beyond what I witnessed in others. Together they made a decision to adopt a mentally-impaired African-American. Frank Arthur became a part of the family before I did since I was born when my parents were in their early 40’s. Daddy taught me how to shave by shaving Frank. They both taught me compassion for the hurting through meeting Frank’s needs. They showed that love can conquer injustice when you put a real face (Frank’s) to it.

A fond memory that sticks in my mind this morning is walking up the 17 steps past their bedroom to my upstairs abode and overhearing their last verbal check-in as they were preparing for sleep. I heard love expressed; days unpacked and analyzed; concerns voiced; hopes and dreams visualized and planned. I heard their character embodied in those stolen moments. Then when I got upstairs to my room there would always and every night be a three-fold knock on the wall below me. My Daddy could have been just checking to see if I was really in bed, but in my heart of hearts I knew there was more, so much more. Those knocks were Daddy’s way of saying what he said to me countless times during the day, on the phone, or in a letter: “I love you!” Every night I knocked back, tap-tap-tap – “I love you!” 

Daddy’s affection was real, palpable, genuine and even when he got angry and verbalized it, his love always spoke louder. Oh, how he and Mother loved us and each other. They were married 56 years when she died seven years before his own death. The depth of his loss was exhibited in his inability to live in our home place without her. He moved to be closer to my middle brother which was, interestingly, the same thing that his father did after my grandmother died. We have been blessed all along our family tree with parents that loved each other to the grave and beyond.

In our theological enterprise that we call eschatology or the study of the final things; i.e., death, heaven, judgment, the end of the world – there is an acknowledgement that there is no end to love, the circle is unbroken, and as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed we do believe in the Communion of Saints – that mystical but very real interconnection between the saints militant who are alive on earth and the saints deceased but more alive than ever in the church triumphant.

On days like Father’s Day I can literally feel those saints’ presence. I can hear Daddy’s voice. My reminiscences become real. I am inspired to say things that my children not only need to hear but will hopefully treasure some day. On this Father’s Day 2014 I remember my father, Ralph Thomas McClendon, and am grateful to Almighty God for a wonderful Daddy. 

God bless us all to become fathers and mothers to the parentless in this often loveless and unloved world. There are people watching and listening, or as Daddy used to say, “Small pots have big ears.” Let us give them something to hang onto, to remember, and to celebrate.

Daddy & Microphone in Hand
Daddy & Microphone in Hand