21 Life Lessons for Graduates

Commencement 2017

St. John’s UMC, Aiken, South Carolina – Dr. Tim McClendon

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

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

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2017. I share these 21 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. Group pictures are great but the world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, egotistical people who have a preoccupation with themselves, and appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall, but the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. They’re okay to start with, but you need to do better than that! If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue doing your homework for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will always play second-fiddle to whomever you’re trying to please.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things. Don’t panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, and a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!” Start with the hardest and the toughest thing first and everything else will be more of a pleasure!
  10. Yes, if you don’t already, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll walk into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Don’t ever, ever, ever, text and drive or your voice will be the first to get silenced! Use proper decorum and mute your cell phones around people you love and situations that demand respect.
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab. Love and physical intimacy are very often two different things, so avoid the complication. There’s nothing casual about casual you-know-what, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tough ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life. Don’t look down on your elders. You will be one someday.
  13. Another observation: You know the saying, “Dance with the one that brought you to the party.” Remember your friends and family who helped get you here. Be loyal. Most importantly, don’t forget your parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, and uncles, and other important adults. I know that your tendency is not to answer your phone, but if one of the people like Mom and Dad or Granddad and Grandma call you, answer the phone, and not with a text, if you can help it. There are some of us who can talk faster than we can type and we’d rather hear the sound of your voice because your voice matters and we can tell a lot more from its sound, inflection, and tone.
  14. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice – God’s!
  15. Sure, you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s very convenient, but please learn how to keep up with your money. Plastic is a great way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. There will be tables outside of buildings and along the sidewalks all around your dorm or college student union trying to get you to sign up for all kinds of things like credit cards. Nothing in life worth having is free, so beware! And when you use plastic for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague.
  16. The mantra in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this mind-over-matter philosophy say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You Only Live Once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Instead of “YOLO,” the truth is, “YODO,” You Only Die Once. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Make sure you have health insurance and buy a life insurance policy, too. The younger you get it, the cheaper. Do not separate your thinking from your doing. There are serious unintended consequences to everything. The only sure thing about instant gratification is that it only takes an instant to lose everything. Pretending you can believe one thing with your mind and do the opposite with your body is malarkey.
  17. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is mind-over-matter thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, and video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  18. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 20% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $4,000 on a $20,000 car. Don’t be afraid of shopping at Goodwill. You actually make a purchase that starts a new fashion trend. Read the book, Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell if you want proof. So, never make impulsive, quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change, they are going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down. Keep your cool. Avoid “fake news” and don’t be a Drama Queen or King. Have enough guts to stop being passive-aggressive, and, instead, speak the truth in love. Passive-Aggressive people say things that on the surface seem passive, even helpful, but their intent is to put you down. People want truth-tellers for friends, and will quickly get tired of those who always have too much drama in their lives.
  19. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you’re usually it. Everybody wants to say: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason, but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. Most of the bad and good things happen because of your choices, or the choices of others. The same with the bad things. God doesn’t cause bad things. God helps us get through them. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. Mom and Dad aren’t going to wake you up for your class or to get to work.
  20. You and your generation have a lot to live up to against difficult odds. A lot of folks think that you’re the most spoiled entitled group ever, and life has been easy for you. I think that most of you know better, but get a job and prove the naysayers wrong. Don’t just make good grades, make excellent ones. Sure, it’s okay to have fun. God wants your life to be joyful, but don’t be foolish, and don’t think you’re owed anything. You have got to earn your due. There’s a young immature dictator in North Korea that is Trouble with a capital “T” because he thinks the world revolves around him. Don’t be that person!
  21. It’s a scary world. How you handle it will say a lot about you and your faith. There will always be malware and ransom-ware that will seek to infect your mind and your computer and shut you down. You’re only worth $300 to hackers, but you’re worth everything to God. Please always remember that Jesus paid the full ransom for your life and it cost him a lot more than a few hundred bucks. So, don’t give into dark thoughts, fears, or worries. Remember that God loves you and will always be with you. Oh, and don’t forget to keep updating your anti-virus protection. It’s even better to make sure that you’re always up to date in your relationship with Jesus! Don’t be a stranger to church and campus ministries, and be sure to come back and see us! We’re your family!

In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement Sunday, I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one. If he didn’t then why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. So do you. Each of you already has what you need to reach your version of the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking! Commence!!!

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Perspective

“Perspective” is the theme word for my life lately. I have done three family funerals this summer. Today I’ll be burying a first cousin the age of my oldest brother. He died 5 years ago. It has become increasingly clear with all these funerals that each of us has our own experience of other people. In my family it was mainly about age. My brothers and I were 8 years apart. I don’t even remember my oldest brother living at home. When I was two, he went off to college.

I had a totally different experience of my parents and grandparents who, by the way, lived with us. In talking to cousins lately, we each have a different perspective. Rather than correct one another and declare this is truth and that isn’t, it has struck me that we all have a little bit of it. We have different perspectives much like the differences between eye witness accounts of the same accident. It’s not that one is right or wrong as much as the view from which one is standing.

The lesson for me as I have had some of my assessments and memories challenged is to cut some slack and listen more than I talk. The grandfather that I loved and adored was aloof and feared by others in the family. Uncle Lee was the one to give each of the nieces and nephews a silver dollar with his initials on it in red finger nail polish or a gift wrapped along with a pig’s ear. He was a meat-cutter after all. Uncle Homer taught me how to fish, marry well, and love college football. Uncle J.C. loved Christmas and survived the WWII horrors of Iwo Jima, nightmares included. He was my mother’s favorite. Grandmother was prim and proper, and the two smells that I immediately associate with her are Ben Gay and Sauer Kraut. She was a tough one and gave her only daughter, my mother, fits.

The cousins have no clue what it was like to live in the same house as your grandparents. To them it might have seemed like a blessing, but it was tough. Thank God for being able to go outside and sneak down to the pond to catch some fish. Perspective makes some sinners into saints, and saints into sinners. If we all knew the whole story then I wonder if we could bear the revelation.

Then I think of God’s perspective. God knows all the ins and outs of everything and everybody. God’s perspective and omniscience doesn’t miss a trick. There are no 8 year gaps in God’s vantage point of creation and its creatures. I have learned a lot this week about people that I thought that I knew pretty well. It hasn’t been so much that I have been right or wrong. I may not have been there or saw the same thing. What I needed this week was to just listen and take it all in. I guess this is a vote for family reunions where you do more than play nice. I want to hear everyone’s perspectives and learn.

There was a time in our family history that everybody farmed. By their standards success was measured by the bushel, the bucket, or the barrel. I’m reminded of the story that says a lot about perspective. One dirt poor farmer never had a bumper crop. He couldn’t afford good machinery or good seed. They lived in a modest shack, but they were happy.

The father worked hard and taught his only son the satisfaction of an honest day’s labor. The family worked and laughed together as a family but to the boy it seemed that they mostly labored together. Every day was full of chores.

Once a neighbor dropped in for a brief visit when the father and son were chopping weeds in a field of waist-high corn. The prosperous neighbor knew how to raise corn so he couldn’t help but comment, “Your corn is tall enough that these weeds won’t hurt. There’s no need for you and your boy to work so hard chopping them.”

The poor farmer wiped the sweat from his brow and replied: “Maybe. But I’m not just growing corn. I’m raising a boy.”

That son continued to learn about hard work and graduated from high school as valedictorian. As he gave his speech to the rest of the graduates, the poor farmer leaned over to his wife and whispered, “That boy is the best crop we ever raised.” Perspective. It is invaluable and needed not just when we gather to celebrate the living or the dead. Perspective is needed in everything from church to politics. The way to get God’s vantage point is to listen and observe; and love more than you judge.

family reunion

 

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!

Guaranteed Appointments, Itinerancy, and Being Sent for Jesus

It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!

Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!

Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.

I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”

Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.

Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.

It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”

My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”

A Trace of Grace

Someone has said it well, “A trace of grace works better than a pile of guilt.” My conclusion is that this is surely one of those things easier said than done. I know better thanks to a mother who was patient and eager to forgive. My father was like most dads I guess. His love was very conditional: if you made good grades, had the right friends, performed your tasks, and behaved like you should then you were okay with him.

When I thought as a teenager that I was doing some new misadventure or sin that my two older brothers had never done Daddy would pull me aside and remind me that it had all been tried before. He spoke good theology to me: “Son, There isn’t anything original about original sin.” What I got from that was the affirmation that though I thought I was unique in my contrived plans, I really wasn’t. Either he or my brothers or somebody else had already done it, so he offered that I should save myself and everybody else the trouble and follow the straight and narrow path. When I tried it anyway, as we are all bound to do at some time or another, he came down pretty hard.

 Mother had expectations just as high, but her love was unconditional. She authentically and simply loved. One of my biggest tests of her love was one of my many adventures. I was between fourteen and fifteen and didn’t have a driver’s license. Mother and Daddy were gracious enough to go ahead and let me start practice driving and fix up her old car. I relished taking driving trips with Mother down back roads. I took great pride in “souping” up her old car. I did all that I knew to do or afford to make that 4-door 1967 Chevy into a hotrod. But I still didn’t have a driver’s license.

Nevertheless, one weekend “Red” Rainsford was spending the night over at our house. On a lark, when Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, “Red” and I sneaked out, got into my car and I started driving. Here’s when I should say that no one else should try this when they’re underage! We first drove the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda. Then we kept going as our bravado increased and drove the next twenty-something miles to Newberry. It was at Newberry that we made a fateful turn.

We got on the interstate, a fairly new experience in those days, and, therefore, one we thought was worth trying. We headed north on I-26, passing exit signs for places we had never heard of until we got just inside of Spartanburg. My conscience was bothering me about what we were doing. I was concerned that my parents might be worried sick. So we stopped. I tried to call home, but nobody answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence. I asked her to call my Mother and tell her that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. I hung up too quick to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it was getting dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to find out where the interstate ended or go to Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, North Carolina. My middle brother and some friends took me there several years before so it was vaguely familiar as an okay destination. Then the highway made the decision for us about finding the end of I-26. You may not remember the days when the interstate ended just below Saluda Grade between Tryon and Rutherfordton, but it did.

 We took a right and I drove through Rutherfordton, no license and all, and then headed north on NC 64 if I remember correctly. We ended up in Chimney Rock some where around 2 a.m.We saw a roadside campground and we pulled in. In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep in the back seat of the car. The console prohibited that for me so I stepped outside and tried to sleep on the ground. It was warm even for the mountains, but I still couldn’t sleep. You know what kept me awake: my conscience! I kept thinking about my poor Mother in particular, worrying. She didn’t deserve that, so after maybe an hour I got back in the car and we headed home, arriving somewhere around9 a.m.Mother just hugged me. She hadn’t told Daddy. He thought we were at the Rainsford’s. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love. When she finally told Daddy what I had done years later, he still got upset that I would dare do such a thing. I was even more grateful for Mother’s grace. Indeed the Scripture is correct: “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

The word for me today is that though I will certainly make mistakes whether as a District Superintendent, a husband, father, friend, and in the roles of life – God is ever more gracious and will hear my plaintive cries for mercy. I should forgive as God in Christ has forgiven me. Nobody is perfect so I’ll do my best to live Jesus’ love and let that guide my thoughts, actions, and reactions. I’m glad for a wise Daddy and even more grateful for a loving forgiving Mother. Thank you, Jesus! I hope that I’ll be more like Christ today.

Unilateral Forgiveness and Advent/Christmas

For my Advent devotions I have been rereading Luke’s Gospel. All four Gospels carry a particular message for a given audience. Matthew ironically is hated by his own people as a Roman collaborator but his emphasis is on Jesus the Jewish Messiah. He quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer. His birth narrative has Jesus fulfilling the proclamation of God’s salvation to the whole world through the Jews. The Magi come from the East to fulfill Isaiah 49:6, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Matthew has the Magi finding Jesus in a house not a stable albeit how incorrect our creches are.

Mark with all of its action verbs and the oft-repeated “immediately” is geared toward a Roman “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” audience. Luke is for the poor with his Gospel directed toward the “least,” “last,” “lowest,” and “lost.” His version of Jesus’ birth narrative has the poor disenfranchised shepherds hear the Gospel instead of the eastern Wise Men. Mary’s “Magnificat” elevates humility over power. Jesus is born in a lowly stable and laid in a manger not a bed in a house. Then there’s John’s Gospel that has no parables coming from Jesus. They are replaced by powerful “I am” statements by Christ. It has Jesus going to Jerusalem 4 times as opposed to once by all the rest except for Jesus at age twelve going to the Temple in Luke’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is a telescoping Gospel with an ever-widening view of Jesus’s salvific work that light conquers darkness. It’s a Gospel for everyone, but aren’t they all?

But, like I said, this Christmas I am spending time in Luke’s Gospel. It seems appropriate given the poverty of our economic times, and poverty of spirit, too. Then the Word spoke to me moments ago in a fresh way as it always does when I’m listening. These are tough times. Those were tough times in Christ’s day. The toughest times don’t occur for me when something hits me externally, but rather when my heart and soul are sucker-punched. The holiday season is often such a time. The shopping frenzy doesn’t exhibit a slowing down but a speeding up. Anger and frustration are evident on driver’s and shopper’s faces as parking lot and store aisles are desperately navigated. Plus there’s the added tension of family drama. That’s the sucker punch.

Ah, family drama! There’s the who gets or gives the better gift reciprocity or lack thereof. The last minute we-decided-to-not-swap-Christmas-gifts-this-year dilemma and you already bought one. Do you keep it for yourself or donate it to a charity? What if it was handmade and created especially for that person? Then there’s the unfavorite uncle or aunt that carries drama wherever they go. Don’t let them near the punch, no matter what! So, what does Luke’s Gospel say about these tense but hopefully joyous days leading up to Christmas?

What does it say about handling the fluster and bluster of anxiety and getting along with difficult people, especially the ones in our own families? Well, ton of bricks, it hit me: unilateral forgiveness! Have you ever thought that there’s not one incident in the Gospels of anyone asking Jesus to forgive them? Not once, but Jesus forgives anyway. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we have all three accounts of Jesus forgiving people in a one-sided unilateral way. I’ve just hit the concordance to recheck and it’s so. In Luke 5 we have the four buddies who want to help their paralyzed friend see Jesus so they dig through the roof and lower him down. Nowhere does it say that this guy asks Jesus to forgive him, but Jesus says to him (Luke 5:20): “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Or how about Luke 7:36ff when a woman who had led a sinful life pours an alabaster bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet? It doesn’t say that she asked to be forgiven, but Jesus in vs. 48 says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then the most remembered example in my mind of Jesus’ unilateral forgiveness is when Jesus is on the cross and he says to the soldiers and jeering crowd (Luke 23:34): “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” No one in that crowd asked for forgiveness. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we have these words. Wow! Jesus forgave even if people didn’t ask for it!

Well, that changes my thinking for Advent and Christmas when my anxiety gets ratcheted up and family, friends, and parking lot pirates get on my nerves. I should live grace and love not because I or anyone else deserves it but because Jesus loves us, forgives us, and sets the captives free. So cut everyone some slack. Let’s be like Jesus and practice unilateral forgiveness. It’s bound to make the world a better place, mine and your house included! Then, wham – Luke 6:37 drives the point home when Jesus says: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” To have peace is to give peace; to know grace and forgiveness is to give it. The Jesus method is to be the first one to do it whether the other person ever reciprocates. What a Jesus! What a challenge! What a hope for the world!

Daddy, October Sky, and the Underdog

Everyone has a story, a narrative with twists and turns, and value. This Advent season we think of Jesus’ story and freshly ponder the awe and mystery of the Holy Family. Joseph is a lowly carpenter betrothed to a young woman not much more than a girl who is pregnant not by him. I think about the Magnificat that Mary sings in Luke 2 and think about how God uses the humble and impoverished to confound the rich and exalted. This is our Christian narrative: God uses the weak to accomplish great things:  Simeon, old and near death, patiently waits in the temple to see the Savior; Anna age-old in years but fresh in the Spirit rejoices to see the Baby Jesus; lowly and marginalized shepherds hear the Angels’ chorus before anyone else. The Gospel of Christianity is replete with many such reversals of the ways of the world. We have a widow commended for giving her two small coins, a hated Tax Collector who becomes a Disciple and Gospel writer, unschooled fishermen who spread the Good News; undervalued women who become Jesus’ ardent supporters and first witnesses of his resurrection, a despised racially profiled Samaritan who becomes forever known as Good, and a crucified Christ who is risen from the dead. God pulls for the underdog!

I just watched the movie “October Sky” again while being home with a sore throat. Every time it leaves me in tears. I’m never completely sure why but I think it has to do with my father, Ralph Thomas McClendon. I’ve never tried to put this into words but today I feel compelled to tell his story and try to articulate his narrative and the Gospel through the vehicle of a movie. Daddy, like the Rocket Boys of Coalwood, West Virginia, reached for the stars. He was the youngest son of a family that had been through many tough times – a family raised in the “Dark Corner” of Edgefield County, South Carolina between Modoc and Red Hill. Daddy only got an 8th grade education. As a teenager he enlisted with the CCC’s (Civilian Conservation Corps) to learn a trade and send money home to his family hard-pressed by the Great Depression. In 1937 he ran off with my mother to get married after her father didn’t even turn around from stocking shelves to give him an answer to his question of asking for her hand. Daddy borrowed money from his brother Bruce in 1939 to take a chance and go to Reppert Auction School in Decatur, Indiana to learn how to be an auctioneer and graduated first in his class. In 1940 my oldest brother was born. My middle brother Ralph was born in 1947, and I came along unexpectedly in 1955. Daddy came from a poor family but by the grace of God and his determination made something of himself. At one time he owned five stockyards. He became known as Col. Ralph not because he served in the military and not just as an honorific title often given to auctioneers. He earned the title through accomplishment and respect.

Homer Hickam and the other Rocket Boys escaped their poverty to go to college and make the world a better place. They were at one time or another ostracized, arrested, or pushed into molds they couldn’t or wouldn’t fit. They made it! My Daddy made it. When he was just 48 he was given six weeks to six months to live because he had cancer that had metastasized. Amazingly he lived for 36 more years. At age 80 he lost his legs to diabetes and learned to walk on his prosthetic ones. Every Sunday he drove to church on those artificial legs. In his last days he went to church, came home, and his kidneys failed. In the hospital for his last two weeks of life he came and went in and out of consciousness. I’ll never forget his words to me as he awoke for the last time. He went over his funeral plans, gave some parting sage advice, and then added, “Oh, Son – You don’t have to put my fake legs in the casket. I won’t need them where I’m going.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that at the end of his funeral we sang “Lord of the Dance.” I was fine until that. I burst out in tears because I could see Daddy dancing a jig with Jesus.

He was a man not without foibles but his character was impeccable. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why God more often uses the lowly of the world. They are real, more authentic than beatific. As someone put it, “The branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit.” Daddy thought of others as better than himself, sometimes to a fault. He never forgot where he came from and it pushed him to excel. He was a character that laughed at adversity. Sure he worried sometimes about worrying but his driven nature more often sought solutions than sympathetic solace. He had a way with people that was uncanny. He could talk to the animals, too. My favorite photo of him is one with him standing in an open field with his hand on the hip of a cow and he’s between her and her calf. You just can’t do that, but he could.

Daddy encouraged us and gave us his own proverbs to live by. I can hear them now: “Any fool can make money, but it takes a smart man to save it.” “Give people a horse to ride home on when they’re angry.” “Love everybody.” Daddy lived all three consistently, except he didn’t save his money. He gave it all away. He invested in us, his church, strangers, family, and friends. He and mother were so much in need after their wedding that my mother’s parents took them in. In another reversal of fortune my Dad who could outwork anybody earned enough money so that when my mother’s two oldest brothers and father were desperately in need due to a not-to-be-shared event, he came to the rescue. He could have taken the family’s country store and all their houses but he settled for owning the homeplace and calling it even. That made for interesting dynamics but the ostracized country boy from the “Dark Corner” with an 8th grade education did the right thing. He loved my mother, he loved us, he loved Jesus and overcame the odds.

‘Tis the season for nostalgia for sure and the movie prompted me to think about my Dad’s upbringing and how he survived and thrived through hard times.  I also couldn’t help but shed a couple more tears as Miss Riley, the schoolteacher who inspired the boys, is fighting Hodgkin’s at the close of the film and in the postlude credits it’s stated that she dies at age 31 – the same age of my daughter Narcie who has a brain tumor. All the more reason to cling to our Christian narrative: Through Jesus we will overcome! That’s the message of Advent and Christmas for me this year. Thanks, Dad, for the reminder.

Christmas: New Location, Same Love

Christmas will be very different this year. Yes, we will be spending less, and we have another first Christmas to enjoy with a new grandchild, but the biggest difference for me is because we won’t be celebrating at Cindy’s Mom and Dad’s house for the first time in 36 years. Last year was the grand finale. After her mother’s untimely death the house is now leased and all the heirlooms dispersed. The biggest legacy, I pray, will live on into the future – family. We will hopefully gather all the existing clan at our house and pray that everyone comes! Christmas is when we need each other the most, especially when there are empty chairs around the familial table.

Mine and Cindy’s first Christmas together was right after our wedding that occurred on December 20, 1975. After honeymooning in Gatlinburg and enjoying its perfect Christmas atmosphere including snowfall and St. Bernard puppies for sale, we went back to Cindy’s Nana’s house to celebrate the 25th with the extended family of Godwin’s and Burch’s. I was adopted by a wonderful family. Christmas with Cindy’s family has been made rich with memories of gift swapping, carols sung, games played, all-night barbeques, and tons of sweets. But, by far, the best thing about my in-law’s and extended family has been their gift of relationship. They exhibit love on a grand scale but without pretense. The gifts aren’t elegant or measured one against the other. The main gift that is passed from one to another is love.

This is key for me! I also dearly love my own biological family and have marvelous memories of Christmases past when we all gathered at our house, which, by the way, was also home to my grandparents. We cousins and kin celebrated on a huge scale. After all, December 25 was my grandparent’s anniversary, and my own parents were married on December 23. Nevertheless, with all of its hoopla, Christmas with my family of origin hasn’t compared with the reality of familial love that I’ve witnessed with Cindy’s relatives. No offense!

Maybe part of the difference is that my parents were older when I was born, fortyish, and might have been too tired for a newcomer. They even let my two brothers have the honor of naming me, I surmise to help extend my life. My first name “William” was my maternal grandfather’s name. My middle name, “Timothy,” came from the bear in the “Dick and Jane” books. My brothers and I are eight years apart in age. When I was two, my oldest brother went off to college.  I really don’t remember living in the same house with him. He was a celebrated visitor. My middle brother was just becoming interesting when he got hooked on cars and girls. So I became another one of the independent agents of our household, fending for myself, except for the gracious tutelage of extended family and friends. The yo-yo between closeness and distance has been a family trait. My family has always been a three-ring circus with everyone going off in his or her own direction. Therefore, maybe it was the whole family’s penchant for doing your own thing that led me to give much of my Christmas holidays to selling fireworks in partnership with one of my uncles.

Therefore, learning to do family has occurred mostly after marriage for me, and I haven’t been the greatest student of the art. It is an art to be in relationship with other people. The eagerness to be with family and the Christmases we have shared is what makes Cindy’s family so dear to me. They haven’t just adopted me. There’s a host of others who have been included in their family, too. The inclusion of so many is what makes Christmas, or any other time with them, so special. Rather than a disjointed make-an-effort family system, theirs is as natural as breathing.

As much as I miss my deceased parents and oldest brother and desire to have closeness with my living McClendon kin, I made a choice a long time ago. I’ll always love my brothers and their families and my extended Jackson cousins from my mother’s side, but for all practical purposes I belong to another family now, my wife’s. I love them, and they have taught me how to love better. I just wanted to say, “Thanks and Merry Christmas – See you soon!”

Women Clergy and “Stained Glass Ceiling”

I have been traveling for the last 3 months to all the churches in the Columbia district presiding over charge conferences. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I continue to hear gender bias and the dreaded phrase, “Some of our people won’t accept a woman as their pastor.” The church has long caused clergywomen to hit the “stained glass ceiling” of serving smaller parishes with lower salaries. As a justice issue, we should all agree that equal work should result in equal pay. I have two children who are Elders in the United Methodist Church, one daughter and one son. Narcie and Josh are both unique and are great! Of course, I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you as objectively as I can that both are better preachers and leaders, pastors and teachers than a lot of the clergy that I know. My daughter should not get short shrift because of her gender! She is excellent and she’s working harder than most male clergy AND she has the prolonged anxiety of a brain tumor on top of everything else. When people talk about women clergy in a disparaging way I want to say, “Give me a break!”

The church hasn’t always been this way about women’s leadership in Chirstianity. In the early church, women earned positions of prominence. During Jesus’ life it was primarily the largesse of working or wealthy women that provided the support that Jesus and the disciples needed (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3). Women were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. Women were there at the prayer session in the Upper Room that led to the birth of the church at Pentecost. Phoebe was a Deacon in the church at Cenchrea that Paul greeted in Romans 16:1 and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesied/preached (Acts 21:8). And where would the church be without Mary, the mother of Christ? Paul sums up the equality of Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It was also Paul who reminded St. Timothy of the source of his faith, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice,” and, how “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).”

Therefore, if women were so indispensable at the beginning of the church, how can we imagine women being left out today? Unfortunately, the early church acceptance of women dissipated all too rapidly into an enculturated male-dominated entity. We have sadly experienced 2000 years of allowing the secular world shape the sacred. This is all the more reason to celebrate, rather than disparage the influence of women in the church. If it weren’t for the faith of my mother, grandmother, wonderful female Sunday School teachers and mentors (I never had a male teacher in grade school or at church), my faith would have either been nonexistent or desperately inadequate. Women are the core-supporters of many churches. United Methodist Women are invaluable as leaders in ministry and mission. I thank God for what they do in the Columbia District, the Annual Conference, and General church!

We need more women leaders (men, too, for that matter). Thank goodness the United Methodist Church has long supported the call of women into ordained ministry. Still, however, clergywomen are a minority and there are those who wish to keep it that way. Here’s my response to churches that don’t want a female pastor, “Get over it!”

Gender issues and discrimination should be a dead issue in every profession. We have made great strides, but there is room for growth. In 1888 there were only 5 laywomen and no clergywomen at the United Methodist General Conference. After approximately 90 years of almost no representation, in 1976 there were 10 clergywomen and 290 laywomen out of 1000 delegates at General Conference. In 1992, it was 81 clergywomen and 303 laywomen out of 1000. In 1996, it was 107 and 328 respectively. In 2000 the numbers were 112 clergywomen and 212 laywomen. In 2008, of the 996 delegates, 148 were clergywomen and 220 were laywomen. Forty percent of the total delegates were female.

The church certainly has more than 40% women despite the number of those elected. It seems that the gospel hasn’t caught up with us yet in the church. The secular world has laws and changing attitudes in its favor, but we have something even greater – God’s Spirit! The Church should be the leader, as it was in the beginning, in women’s rights!

Defeating the Tyranny of the Urgent

Call it the “Tyranny of the Urgent” or whatever. The fact remains that we’re all too busy. It’s Thursday and I’m salivating over the fact that tomorrow is Friday. T.G.I.F.! Will my batteries get recharged this weekend or will life’s urgencies and emergencies consume my expectations of rest and replace peace with worry?

Worrying is like being in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere. I have a long list of stuff that I need to do. I need to go to Charlotte and buy more clay for my Christmas Pottery. I need to go to the funeral of the father of a good friend. What is imperative is to figure out the difference between what I need to do and what I have to do. There’s the rub!

A salesman was driving through rural South Carolina when he noticed a man and his small daughter sitting beside a creek. The salesman stopped his car and went up to the two. “You have a lovely little girl,” he told the farmer. “What’s her name?” “Sybilistina,” the farmer replied. “That’s a pretty long name,” said the salesman. “Look, mister,” the farmer answered, “We’re not city folks. We’ve got time for long names around here!”

I don’t know many people today, whether in the city or in the country, who have much time. A Roper survey sometime ago found that 58% of the U.S. population has too much to do. Seventy percent of the people in the 30-44 age group described themselves as rushed and pressured for time. I hope they didn’t spend too much money on the survey because it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to know the obvious!

C’est la vie! is what the French would say, “That’s life!” for any age. Time is always at a premium. It takes time to write notes, pick up children, grocery shop, visit doctors’ offices, cook meals, and on and on it goes. Can we ever lie down and sleep with our daily list of want-to-do’s done? Doubtful!

Maybe it would be more important for our nightly rest if we were at least at peace with God, that we have done what we could on any given day to use our time and talents to the best of our ability for the glory of God. Isaiah 26:3 declares: “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” Keeping our minds steadfastly on God is a Spirit-given gift only accomplished by God’s grace. On our part we call it “trust.”

Bob Garfield wrote a piece for the “Washington Post” that speaks of this kind of trust and peace as he wrote of a business trip to Korea. After eating a meal of unnamable entrees he retired to his hotel room utterly sick. As he put it, “I was stricken with crushing chest pains, radiating down my arm and into my back. Obviously, I was having a heart attack. Or a gas attack. How are you supposed to tell? I thought of calling for help but then I considered the problems of communication, and the chaos, and the potential for embarrassment, to say noting of the uncertainties of Korean cardiac care. I imagined the emergency-room physician saying, ‘Yes, Mr. Garfield, you are having a serious myocardial infarction. I will now place seven tiny needles in your eyelid.’”

Garfield continued, “So I decided to take my chances. I managed, through the pain, to write a brief, tender note to my survivors, and lay down at PEACE with myself. I loved my family. They loved me. I had accomplished some interesting things in my career. No felony convictions. Sufficiently insured. Go to sleep now, Bob. Maybe you will wake up. To the best of my knowledge, I did. And I was joyous – not that I had lived through the night, but that I had not been afraid to die. I was at PEACE with myself, a priceless revelation.”

Can I peacefully pray the children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…?” God desires to give us such peace that no matter what our circumstances or situations, He will keep us in perfect peace as our fretful thoughts are surrendered to Him.