Eclipse Protection

If I have my facts straight, only the U.S. will experience a total eclipse of the sun on August 21. People are planning Eclipse Parties, buying special glasses, and doing all sorts of eclipse-related things. Some schools are beginning the school year a day or week later in order to avoid harm to students’ eyes. I even saw a piece on the news about whether one should protect the eyes of their pets. Our church is going to give out 200 pairs of approved Eclipse Glasses along with our nice Bookbag Tags on Backpack Sunday. Fortunately or unfortunately, I will be on my last overseas mission trip of the year, and will be in the Philippines.

I’ll miss the whole thing, except for the fact that I figuratively or literally experience eclipses on a daily basis. I think most of us do! The word “eclipse” is from Greek, ek or “out,” and leipein or “to leave.” There are things that I “leave out” every day. Sometimes it’s God. Very often, it’s people. I face issues, difficulties, opportunities, adventures and oftentimes put the object of my worry or affection in between God and me. I am also blind to the needs of others due to my priorities. Just like the moon is between us and the sun, there are things between us, God, and others. This fits another definition of “eclipse” – “to obscure, to block out; to deprive someone or something of significance, power, or prominence.”

Haven’t we deprived God and others of their true significance, power, or prominence? Since this eclipse is a solely American event I can’t help but ponder the way that we as a nation have set up idols to block our view of God and people. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance at our Monday Rotary meetings, I have found myself cringe occasionally at the part that says, “With liberty and justice for all.” Does everyone truly have liberty and justice?  As a nation we have allowed Jesus to be eclipsed. The moral fabric of our nation has been eclipsed by our penchant for all things self-centered.  Our individualistic tendencies have overtaken community, bi-partisanship, and teamwork.

I saw these words on the locker-room door at Spartanburg Methodist College about a week ago: “If you’re not prepared to put the team first, turn around.” From Congress, sports teams, churches, and marriages, we must stop letting our egos overshadow and eclipse God and others. Oh, how we have deprived the capital “S” Someone of significance, power, or prominence. We have done the same with others. Last year at St. John’s UMW’s Apple Fest fundraiser, we had some items that we wanted to give to a local charity. They drove their truck under the overpass between buildings and got stuck. No one knew exactly what to do. I can’t remember who figured it out, but there is a lesson for me, maybe all of us, when we get so full of ourselves that we get stuck and can’t see God or anyone else. The solution was to let the air out of the tires! I need to let the air out of my ego.

As a nation and community, as individuals, we can learn from this solar eclipse. There are people in darkness because we want things our way or the highway. We must quit our posing and finagling to get our way. The story of three Holstein cows comes to mind. They were tired of their black and white lives, looking the same day in, and day out. They found some purple paint, and had a blast rolling around in it. They were covered in purple paint. Their owner was impressed and thought about charging people admission to his barn. One day, however, when the cows were out in the pasture, it rained. All the purple paint was washed away. No more pretense, no more all show and no dough.

The Sun will come out after the eclipse and we’ll see clearly again, too. I Thessalonians 5:4 is instructive about August 21 and every day: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” Ephesians 5:8-11 also says it well: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” My Dad’s favorite passage is hard to beat, too: “So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

Eclipse Photo

Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My!

Who am I going to vote for? Someone even suggested that I could help the congregation discern the right path by using code phrases in my pastoral prayer this week, tipping people off as to whom I think is the better candidate. That’s not going to happen, however well-intentioned the request. I hesitate to even mention it in prayer for fear that someone may read into my words some ulterior meaning. In many ways I really feel like Yogi Berra as he was playing catcher behind home plate. He was watching the opposing batter standing in the box making the sign of the cross across the plate with the bat. Berra said to the other guy, “Why don’t we just leave God outta’ this one and just play the game.”

Wishful thinking or stupidity! I know we can’t leave God out of our national politics, but if there was ever an election year for God to lay low, this might be it. Why? I don’t think God needs to take the blame for the mess we’re in. We’ve done it to ourselves all on our own. Why pray now when God has been bumped to the sidelines for too long already? Democrats and Republicans and every party in-between claims to be on God’s side and leaves my mind reeling. Give me a break! This election season has been nasty and I’m sick of it. I really appreciate the bumper sticker I saw the other day: “The Donkeys and the Elephants are fighting. If you want peace, turn to the Lamb!”

So I don’t want to leave God out! No matter who wins we need to pray that the Lamb wins. The answer to America’s problems are spiritual more than political, and until we get that through our thick heads we’re doomed. This country is always in better shape when we turn to God. I saw proof of that in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. Cindy accompanied me to my meeting with the General Commission on Religion and Race. As a group we toured the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a powerful experience. It was easy to see how an oppressed enslaved people turned to God in their abject situation. On her own, Cindy saw more evidence of how people find strength from their faith in tough times. While I was in meetings, Cindy toured the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. These are clear examples of how America’s people have repeatedly turned to God and filled our houses of worship when times are tough.

On a free afternoon together we meandered down Capitol Hill and saw in linear fashion: The National Archives, The Willard Hotel, The White House, Blair House, the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, which we entered after seeing the Vietnam Memorial and Korean Memorial. The order of our steps held a deeper meaning upon further reflection, pun intended.

I literally reflected on our journey as a nation from lofty ideals to written words to the actions of soldiers and statesmen like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose “I Have a Dream” speech was given from the very spot where I stood. Ponder our journey and see the connections. We started with the archives and viewed the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Next was The Willard Hotel where presidents used to go hang out in the lobby and were approached by those who courted favors. It’s the lobby of The Willard that has given us the word “Lobbyist.”

Next we went to the White House, and as many times as I’ve been to D.C., I had never made it over to it. I was shocked by how small it looked. The Executive office Building next door was massive in comparison, and the Blair House, which is home to the Vice-President, smaller still. Then we went further on to the National Mall and the war memorials.

I couldn’t help but connect the dots from the documents of our founding, to the lobbyists who try to use every loophole as an advantage, to the White House where Presidents attempt to lead our republic, and to the war memorials that exist because that leadership either excelled or failed. Commanders-in-chief have often invoked the Constitution goaded on either by higher ideals of freedom or by self-serving lobbyists, both resulting in soldiers having given that last full measure of devotion in blood. Standing near those memorials I couldn’t help but recall how as a teenager I attended the funeral of Bennie Clayton who died as a grunt in Vietnam.

If I can’t vote for God as Commander-in-chief then it’s going to be hard to vote for anyone, but I’m going to vote. I just don’t want us to become a more divided nation of winners and losers with mutually assured destruction and retribution that will consume news channels, court picks, congress, and everything else. A choice between a donkey and an elephant isn’t much of a choice, but the consequences are real. If you don’t believe it, then walk the streets of Washington, Aiken, or stroll the Freedom Trail in Boston. Walk the cemeteries, and see the tombs of those who gave their lives. Pray that there will be hallowed halls in Congress, the White House, and your house. Please, God, help us to do your will. Amen. Help us to pray for the USA and every leader.

donkey-pic

Tea Olives & Seasons of Love

The seasons of life are often unpredictable. The Broadway hit “Rent” has a song that always lights me up, “Seasons of Love.” 525,600 minutes are the time span of every year, but it can never adequately describe what happens in that year. What makes for a good year or a bad one depends on the content of each moment. We should make them count, but we live our lives in counter-productive ways that waste both time and money. We live as if our mantra is: Spend it; Save it; and Share it, when our values would better reflect God’s if we reversed the order: Share it; Save it; and Spend it. In the words of “Seasons of Love,” “that’s how to measure a year in a life!”

How do we measure a person’s contributions? Is it our obituary, the influence we’ve had on others, the fruit of our labors, a tree planted years ago? I’ve often told persons who serve on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of their local church that service on SPRC is one thing for sure that ought to be in their obituary. It’s such a tough, but important committee. Most of us have read the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis (http://www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html). It is a reminder that the most important thing on anyone’s tombstone isn’t the birth and death date, but the dash in-between and what it represents.

So I’m planning to go shopping in a little while for a fragrant tea olive. We have a spot beside our house that is begging for something to go there. I love tea olives. Their fragrance immediately takes me back to walking past The Russell House at USC in the fall. How wonderful it would be that our presence with others would transport them to a pleasant memory. I want my grandchildren to smell this tree and say, “That’s MacMac’s tree!” We’re all God’s trees planted for a divine purpose. How’s our fruit and fragrance?

Sometimes my years are more measured by my distance rather than my closeness to God. It is really a daily, weekly thing. A diet and good eating habits are only good if they are habits. The same with spiritual disciplines. We all have spells when we get off the wagon of healthy living, and it’s so hard to get back on. If today is the first day of the rest of my life then some changes need to be made. Planting that fragrant tea olive is a baby step. Going to the Y in the morning will be a bigger one. I have 35 days until my annual physical. If I want to have more seasons to love, I’ve got to do my part to make sure that it happens.

Good stewardship isn’t just about our material wealth. It includes our health, too, spiritually and physically, but the silken snare of disinterest and apathy are hindrances to good habits. I loved playing hide-and-seek as a child. Living in a large creaky semi-spooky house with lots of places to hide was a boon. Younger cousins would be toughest to play with because they couldn’t count as well, or they cheated. They would count off to one hundred and say those familiar words, “Ready or not, here I come!” Unfortunately, their counting to 100 often went 1,2,3,4,5, on up to 20 or so, then skip to 94,95,96,97,98,99, 100 and then the warning of “Here I come.”

Because it was my home, I, of course, knew all the best places to hide. Here’s what I discovered. After they went by me for the umpteenth time and I had held back my snickering, I finally got bored. Yes, I would get bored even though the object of the game was not to be caught. I would invariably knock on a wall, or try to throw my voice in order to get caught. I can hear them now, “I found you! I found you! You’re it!” I wouldn’t let on that I let them find me. That would be admitting my own disregard for the rules and purpose of the game. To admit being bored is embarrassing.

Truth be told, however, that’s the way I am with life sometimes. I don’t want to admit that I’m bored when I squirrel away my money for some new splurge, get tired of my unapproved past times, or start disagreeing with my stated opinions on touchy subjects. I end up hiding from God and others, and I know what I need to do.

 I need to admit that boredom and fess up. There comes a time to get caught because the alternative is being stuck in some crack of a hiding place in a creaky old house. That creaky old house might be our own body, soul, or mind. We’re better off coming out from our hiding places and planting a tree, going to the gym, visiting a relative, writing a thank-you note, or a sundry other things that make our dash a joy about which people will smell a tea olive and say, “That reminds me of Tim!” and it’s a joy for them to remember us and not a curse. I’m headed to the nursery to buy a tree! What are you going to do? Come out, come out, wherever you are!

In Pace with Transfiguration Day

With an early Easter, we have a short Epiphany season this year in the church. This coming Sunday is its climax with the Transfiguration of the Lord. We started Epiphany with a voice from heaven affirming Jesus at his baptism, and we end with God’s voice again declaring the Lord’s special relationship with the Father. The heavenly affirmation to Jesus expresses something that everyone longs for: We are both “loved” and “chosen.” Great words to hear as we wonder who we are and why we’re here.

Remember the story of the priest who was out walking the streets of Moscow during the days of the Soviet Union. He was deep in thought while praying and pondering his calling. Absent-mindedly he wandered into a forbidden security zone near the Kremlin. A soldier startled him when, with rifle in hand, he asked, “Who are you and why are you here?” The priest then oddly asked the soldier what his monthly salary was as the soldier looked at him with a quizzical look. Finally the soldier blurted out a figure. The priest then told the soldier, “I’ll double your pay if every night you ask me the same two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” The soldier agreed, and the priest’s sense of call gradually returned.

Transfiguration Day gives us the same opportunity. It allows us to be with Jesus on the sacred mountain and hear God’s call on our lives. It is a “thin place,” as the Celts beautifully described their sacred locations for interactions with God. The veil between this world and the unseen one are literally thin. We can palpably sense there is something otherworldly afoot. We can get distracted like Peter, who on that first Transfiguration wanted to get busy and do the mundane thing of building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, or we can focus only on Christ and listen to him.

Which will it be is the choice we make every day. Do we do as the old hymn’s title says, “Take Time to be Holy,” or miss the thin place and remain thick-headed? To be sure, there are places that are more conducive than others for reflection and worship. Several guys were asking each other about their devotional practices and what worked best. One guy said that his best worship was done with his face and hands raised toward heaven. Another said that his best way to approach God was prostrate on the ground in total humility. The third man said, “Both of those sound fine, but the best worship I ever did was when I fell into a well and was praying while I was dangling upside down from the bucket.”

Sometimes, as a clergyperson, it’s hard for me to have a set worship practice that works best. My worst temptation is to turn my conversations with God into sermon fodder. This is my version of Peter’s jumping to doing something at the expense of just being still. Of course, I have devotional routines that I make myself do. Right now, I read three devotionals daily and the Bible chapters that go with them. All three are by Chris Tiegreen: God With Us, Experiencing God’s Presence, and At His Feet. It’s good stuff, not perfect, but certainly good. You might ask, “Why three?” The answer is because I’m a little dense sometimes. It takes me about halfway through them before I settle down enough to turn off my mental to-do list. Then I’m able to hear God speak.

What are your thin places? Some are easier to identify than others. Outdoors is a no-brainer choice for me. On top of Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet up is a glorious and sacred place. Paddling the New River with the rhythms of alternating rapids and sloughs help me get in pace with the heartbeat of God. This week it was the thin place of a new grandchild’s birth. Not only was holding little Jude a wonderfully peaceful expression of God’s presence, but I also felt the Divine while I was relegated to staying at Josh and Karen’s while Kaela (4) and Joella (2) slept.

They have a baby monitor that wirelessly connects to the girls’ room with video and sound. All night long I could hear their breathing, in and out, so wondrously peaceful, and I could see them safe and sound. It was hypnotic and special, but I could barely wait until morning to tell them they had a baby brother! Isn’t that an analogy for us? If we go through life exhaling the mundane and inhaling the sacred, all the while anticipating that God is going to show up, then God will do just that! We will be as transfigured as Kaela and Joella’s faces were when they got the news about their new brother: Jude Zechariah McClendon.

When have you felt closest to God? It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain top experience. It may have occurred when you were in the deepest darkest valley. The Lord, through the psalmist (Psalm 46:10), beckons us: “Be still and know that I am God.” To know God is to know who you are and why you’re here. I invite you to listen.

The Calm before the First Rapids – South Fork of New River

New River Rapid

Last-Minute Christmas Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!

Thy leaves are so unchanging

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Not only green when summer’s here,

But also when it’s cold and drear.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

For every year this Christmas tree,

Brings to us such joy and glee.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

A symbol of goodwill and love

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Each shining light, Each silver bell

No one alive spreads cheer so well

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Christmas tree

Fall Is In the Air!

I finished my yearly Health Quotient assessment by my insurance company this morning. It’s not mandatory to complete it, but it has several perks. One is a reduced deductible for next year, and the other, more important incentive, is an encouragement to change habits, exercise more, and enjoy a healthier diet. This is a great time of year to get ready for next year. Summer’s busyness is past and the rush of Christmas is yet to arrive.

Fall is in the air! The crispness and chill of the morning air rejuvenates my spirit. At this stage of life I sense autumn’s metaphorical approach. I’m not as young as I once was, but the winter of older years is still at bay for now. As the song goes, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was!” Autumn is a season that helps me take stock of the year that has already transpired, and ponder my life as a whole. This is the most reflective time of the year for me.

It may not be your most introspective time of year, but I do hope the change of seasons gives you an opportunity for a fresh perspective on your life. Lin Yutang appropriately describes fall in these words, “I like autumn best of all, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the satisfaction and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content.”

Where are you in your relationships, aspirations, contentment level, and overall happiness in life? Are you feeling as mature as your years? Ann Landers once said, “Maturity is the ability to do a job whether or not you are supervised, to carry money without spending it, and to bear an injustice without wanting to get even.” The autumn years of life reveal our maturity level. They clarify who or what is important to us. Our values are revealed as either treasure or trash.

It should be no great surprise that autumn is the season for church stewardship emphases. The harvest is upon us so we gauge our giving accordingly. Those who have embraced their autumn years know the true power of giving. Just as trees shed their leaves to prepare for spring’s new life, good stewards are reflective and effective as they make wise choices of the beneficiaries of their bounty.

Harvard Professor David C. McClelland writes about progress in individual development. In his book The Search for Power, he describes 4 stages on the path to maturity. Stage one perceives power as coming from others, but is directed toward oneself. Stage two perceives power as residing within oneself, and is used for the needs of the self. Stage three perceives power as residing within oneself, but is used for the sake of others. Stage four perceives power as residing outside the self, flows through the self, and is used for the sake of others.

He says that stage four defines the essence of religion, faith, theology, and Jesus. In his version of what I will call “Autumnal Assessment” he says that the task of every individual who strives for maturity is to remove the last vestiges of stage one from our lives where we feel like victims, by teaching that even in the world of work, power resides within us, and can be used for the sake of others. So long as people do not know or believe this, theology may well beckon then in vain, to stage four, where we recognize that true power comes from without, flows within, and then out again to and for others. In summary, he says, “We must first learn that we are not victims before we learn that we are stewards.”

During this autumn’s opportunity to assess and reassess my prayer is that we move into a fruitful stewardship of our lives, appreciating the passing seasons, and welcoming an opportunity to give back. Like an apple tree whose gifts sustain us with the crispness of each bite, may we offer ourselves as gifts of the Giver to everyone around us.

 

Clergy as Family Reunion Facilitators

Last week I attended a Dr. Ken Callahan Seminar where he effectively reminded us that churches are active mission outposts, pastors are shepherd leaders, and the community is a family. Three months from today on June 25, 2014 I will be the new pastor of a vibrant and exciting church. How will the transition go? Will I be ready? I have high expectations that everything will be absolutely great, but I am reminded of Loren Mead’s description of pastoral transition as “running through thistles.” Ouch!

I want to avoid as many “ouches” as I can! In preparation I have been rereading some familiar material about starting well in a new parish. One of the best and concise books is The First 100 Days: A Pastor’s Guide by T. Scott Daniels. It is a book that challenges me to pay attention to God, my family, and my next parish.

We have all heard mentors and advisors say, “Just love the people!” But every church is different and so is every pastor. Some congregations are in the throes of separation anxiety because they love their current pastor so much. Every mentor I’ve had has expressed how much better it is to follow someone who is loved than a clergyperson who is disliked. Following a beloved pastor may make things a bit rough at first but early on the family lovingly absorbs you into its fabric. That’s their pattern! To follow someone ineffective or disliked makes you the quick hero, but the angst and anger toward that pastor is just as quickly transferred to you as the love was in the first scenario. The challenge is to do well in either case.

The good news is that whether you follow a beloved longtime pastor, a divisive church splitter, or a middle of the road maintenance minder has little consequence because you control you, not the circumstances. The best approach then is to do a lot of observation at first while repeating the mantra under your breath: “Listen, listen; Love, love!”

I need to get to know the church by becoming a keen sociologist and historian, by working hard to understand the church’s current reality and its processes from vision to finances; and by falling deeply in love with the community. “How do they do things here?” can be answered through bulletins or orders of worship – videos of high Sundays and the ones in between would be extremely helpful. However, from a sociological point of view, how is this church a family? What is its unwritten but very real ethos and set of family rules?

How do they talk and do I have the capacity to speak the same language? Learning what “funeralizing” someone meant became extremely important when I moved from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina! I specifically remember being asked to go visit someone and given a country store and a “colyum” as landmarks. I was supposed to go past the store and take a right at the “colyum.” I found the store but I had no idea what a “colyum” was. When I went back to the store and asked where the person’s house was and they said, “Take a right at the ‘colyum.’” My response was, “Could you spell that for me?” They answered: “C-O-L-U-M-N!” Oh….. I got it and made it to my destination. I had to learn the lingo, the church and community’s history, the expectations of the pastor, the lay leadership, the flow of the worship services, the people who needed immediate pastoral care, the vision and plans of the church, and all the mundane but IMPORTANT idiosyncrasies of that unique family.

The greatest challenge was joining the family! One of the metaphors that The First 100 Days uses is that a new pastor is someone who has been invited to become a “facilitator at someone else’s family reunion.” A new minister isn’t a member of the family automatically any more than a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law is. Newbies have “positional authority” by virtue of their legal or titular standing; i.e., “This is my ____ ___ ______.” However, they don’t have real authority until it’s earned or, I daresay, a grandchild comes along! Some clergy try to get by as long as they can by the “reputational authority” they’re given by their predecessor, the inquisitive detectives in the church who check them out ahead of time, the Bishop, or their bio. I am firmly convinced that pastors don’t really get an invitation to join the family until they acquire “relational authority” through significant interactions with people.

Please note that the word “authority” does NOT carry its usual heavy-handed meaning. Since “authority” comes from the word “author,” it really means doing something creative and productive rather than destructive; as Hebrews 12:2 describes Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Authority built through relationships with people and communities isn’t engendered through titles and degrees. It comes through an incarnational presence with people at their most important life events: illnesses, births, deaths, marriages, crises – whenever and wherever the clergyperson is invited to be a part of the new family.

According to author Scott Daniels the notion of “The First 100 Days” was originated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after his inauguration in 1933. In the midst of the Great Depression he and Congress paved the way for the main components of the New Deal to be enacted in his first 100 days in office. It wouldn’t have happened unless he had the political capital to get it done. FDR had almost two years of campaigning under his belt before the clock started on his presidency. During those two years FDR articulated and garnered support for what was accomplished in his first 100 days! New pastors don’t have that luxury or capital!

In quick-step time we must gain capital through relational leadership with careful attention to avoid rushing. It sounds like an oxymoron to hit the ground running while going slow enough to really get to know the lay of the land. Relational authority has to be earned and that takes time, skill, and observation. It also requires the support of a new church family that is willing to be helpful, supportive, and patient. The most important key for all concerned is to trust in Jesus and follow His example. Then the rest will take care of itself!

Keep Calm and Carry On!

I saw a sign in front of a church that looked downright wrong to me. I’m sure they meant something else. It said, “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help.” As a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church I have experienced the unfortunate reality that sometimes the church can exacerbate worries more than help them. Church squabbles and differences of opinion distract too many Christians and turn them into worriers.

This is a season to be thankful, not worry! I am enjoying everyone’s “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” posts on Facebook. Each day’s renditions of gratitude for simple and profound gifts are inspiring. What a great thing to do. It reminds me of the refrain in my Mother’s favorite hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.”

What a great spiritual discipline, especially if you are a worrier. “Turn your worries into prayers!” is an often heard phrase in our house, and I’m the one who needs to hear it.  I come from a long line of worriers. My Dad worried himself and everybody around him so much that I once made him a perpetual calendar that used interchangeable complaints and ailments for daily use. I called it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” At the bottom, I emblazoned the phrase, “For God’s sake and Mother’s, you only get to complain about one thing per day!” After getting upset about it, he actually lightened up and started showing it to his buddies.

Worrying doesn’t help a thing, does it? Someone said it’s like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Jesus talked a lot about not worrying. The most familiar verses are Matthew 6:25-34, but I’m especially partial to Luke’s version of the same passage. Luke 12:22-34 is really neat. Verse 32 nails it: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.” What wonderful words of promise and a cure for worry!

I’ve heard from several well-meaning people that there are exactly 365 “Fear not’s” or “Do not be afraid’s” in the Bible, but what I add up with my concordances is about 70-something, even when trying different translations. Sure, it would have made a great devotional book to have one per day as a reversal of my Dad’s Ailment Calendar, but ONE is all we need anyway. If God says it one time then that pretty much covers it, right? However, there are lots of anti-worry passages, whether they have the exact wording or not. For instance, James 1:17 says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Isn’t it good to know that God is the unchanging source of all that is good! That’s a worry-killer!

What about Psalm 46? The whole psalm is great, but I cling to verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God…” Sometimes I can forget that so quickly, and I end up worrying. I get panicky over little things like where my cars keys are, and big things like Narcie’s health. If only I can wait on God without worrying! Instead I run around and make more trouble for myself and others. Heck, the debit card that I thought was eaten by the ATM machine turned up this morning as I happened to reach behind my car seat. Of course, this was weeks after I had already been to the bank and applied for a new card and put a stop payment order on the old one. I know not freaking out and being still are better choices to make. If I can stop and pray, “Lord, please show me where ________ is, then in that simple little act God usually lets me know which way to turn. It worked last night when searching for my watch!

This reminds me of one of the traditions found in the Navy. You’ve probably seen ship’s officers “piped” on board by a Bosun or Boatswain. These sailors use a high-pitched pipe that is like a bugle on land and can carry a specific tune and message. Each “call” is meant to be heard over the din of sounds found on a typical naval vessel. When a disaster or emergency occurs on a ship the Boatswain uses a specific signal called, “The Still.” The signal basically means, “Stop what you’re doing. Pause. Get your bearings. Prepare to do the right thing.” To some it may seem like a waste of precious time, but it actually saves lives. It clears away the confusion of worry and panic, while helping everyone remember their training. In stillness we find clarity that steers us in the right direction. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we chilled out more before we react poorly and say or do the wrong things?

This reminds me of those British “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirts with a crown on top? Actually you’ve probably seen variations of them all over the place, especially on social media. In my googling I found out that the phrase was first used on posters and other items in 1939 at the start of WWII. It was a way to bolster the spirits of the British when things looked bleakest and there was the temptation to give up or give in to worry. I’m glad for its resurgence, but God’s been sending this message for a lot longer than 1939! Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-22 for just a little proof. This passage is a testament to the “Keep Calm and Carry On” theme!

Whatever happens today – Pause and be still before God. Don’t let worry kill you. Keep Calm and Carry On!

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A Close Encounter of the Third Kind with God

I use the same body for all my clay-throwing which is Highwater brand “Little Loafer’s Glory.” It feels great to the touch, fires and looks like the kaolin based clay of my childhood. It is simply superior. It’s a consistent winner in the battle against thermal shock and takes glazes well. I repeatedly use a chun plum glaze layered with an ancient jasper one. The look never fails even if I dare to do multiple firings of the same piece. This is simply my opinion and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

So, yeah, I like what I like and tend to keep going back to it. What’s up with my tendency to do the same things whether it’s the same clays, glazes, restaurants, foods, or recipes? For instance, why do I like to watch recorded football games when I already know that my favorite team won?

Could it be that in all these circumstances I like the certainty that comes from anticipating positive outcomes. Sure, every now and then I take a risk on a new clay, glaze formula, untried restaurant or entree. However I do find that the stress of each day’s uncertainties makes me more and more desirous of the tried and true. There’s very little I can control in life so when I can, I’m going to do it! So risk and reward ratios cause me to lean toward the familiar.

What does this have to say about the life of faith? Where I live there are some packed out high energy contemporary worship services that are making main-liners ponder how to jazz things up. At the same time, however, there are some churches that have excelled at high church traditional worship and they’re full, too.  Then, of course, there are some that do both well!

I prefer the “bells and smells” of what’s good worship in my opinion. I like the ambience of a well-appointed church that belies the mystery of God and re-presents the Gospel in time-honored rituals within sanctuaries that smell like church, look like church, and more importantly act like church. Of course, this is probably where I hit the slippery slope of my own downfall today. I may end up looking for God in all the wrong places while he shows up somewhere else. Worship is for God’s sake, not mine – right? If I keep that straight, it’s all good!

But we all have personal preferences. For me, it’s not a big deal if the church is adorned with simple elegance or has Tiffany-esqe windows. What lights me up is a worship experience that has an enduring appeal to those who want a solid faith experience. It’s not consumer-driven, it’s God-driven. It’s more worship than spectator sport. I want to look like Charlton Heston in the “Ten Commandments” when I leave church with my face glowing from a close encounter of the third kind with God.

So here I am with a dilemma. I definitely have a penchant for contemporary Christian music and worship done well. At the same time, however, I have a love for rituals that take me back to Iona’s Celtic Christianity and the mystics. I want the security of traditional worship with the promise of meeting a God who dares to risk. I like contemporary songs but not the “7-11” ones where you sing the same 7 verses 11 times. Life is crazy enough so please give me some old time religion done well. It must invite me to experience God more than the worship leader.

Because I’m a visual thinker, let me ask you about worship preferences another way. What kind of service would you rather attend on Christmas Eve: candlelight communion with an acapella rendition of “O Holy Night” sung from the balcony by a great baritone, chasubles on the clergy, an elegant chrismon tree, and real candles held high, or a make-shift worship space with a clergyperson in a bright Christmas sweater, colored lights strung haphazardly all around, and everybody holding a neon glow stick?

My prejudice shows even in my description.  If I truly believe that true worship is more about God than our preference does it really matter what worship style works? I personally need more awe than wow to get me through my day, but everyone differs on what produces either effect. What floats my boat might sink yours. I know that and, way better yet, God knows what you need to get you through the tough times and the answer, either way, is WORSHIP, however defined or practiced. After all, the manger was much more awe inspiring than Herod’s palace, wasn’t it? So in the midst of today’s uncertainties I’m just pondering out loud where I can best meet a Certain God. Whatever works for you, seek and ye shall find, and I’ll try to do the same.

Live for Today!

When I slow down enough to reflect on life do I long for yesterday, yearn for the future, or relish today? Too often my life is a pin ball bouncing here and yon without rhyme or reason. There’s no adequate explanation to much of life’s mysteries, so I cling to a simple faith in the midst of it all. I trust the Incarnational Jesus, the One who is with me through it all. I neither long for the supposed good old days of yesterday nor pine for the future. Many want to go backwards in their minds to events and days that look good from today’s perspective. It’s like rewatching a football game when you know the winning result. There’s a little tension once in a while, but you can mostly relax and enjoy it because you know how it turns out. When you daydream or do your version of counting sheep at night, do you ponder the past or the future? Which is your happy place?

I am convicted this morning. My mind goes to both places, past and future, and misses today. Sure, I have to process the past in order to move on. I have to work with its emotional baggage before the dam breaks and floods today’s thinking, but how unfortunate I am if I stay in the past too long. The present is a gift, pun intended. As for tomorrow’s hopes and dreams, they will never materialize if I don’t do what I need to do today. I can anticipate better days in the future, but they are pipe dreams of false hopes if I don’t commit myself to living today – putting one foot in front of the other, loving the people around me right now, knowing the Incarnational Christ who is ever present in THIS time of trouble.

The hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is dancing through my head as a word I need to hear today. This version by Fernando Ortega is a bit out of sync with the version in the United Methodist Hymnal in verb tenses, theological slant, and leaves out a significant verse, but I still appreciate his voice, tempo, and scenery. Verse 4 of #139 in our hymnal says, “Praise to the Lord, who doth nourish thy life and restore thee; fitting thee well for the tasks that are ever before thee. Then to thy need God as a mother doth speed, spreading the wings of grace o’er thee.” Its present tense feel of God’s healing and equipping grace is too good to leave out. Give a listen and add the verse above!

So stay in the present. That’s where God is for you today. Sure, work through the past and give it to God. God was there, too. Plus you can give the Lord all your tomorrows. But today, where will God be? Closer than a breath, with you in tears and hopes, ever present to conquer your fears and frustrations, and deliver you! Jesus is Emmanuel – God with us now!

Listen to what Robert J. Burdette says about lingering in the past and longing for the future at the expense of embracing today:

“There are two golden days in the week about which I never worry – two carefree days kept sacredly free from fear and apprehension.

One of these days is yesterday. Yesterday, with all its cares and frets, all its pains and aches, all its faults, its mistakes, and blunders, has passed forever beyond recall. I cannot unsay a word once said. All that it holds of my life – of wrong, of regret and sorrow – is in the hands of the Mighty Love that can bring honey out of the rock and the sweetest water out of the bitterest desert. Save for the beautiful memories, sweet and tender, that linger like the perfume of roses in the heat of the day that is gone, I have nothing to do with yesterday. It was mine. It is God’s now.

And the other day that I do not worry about is tomorrow. Tomorrow, with all its possible adversities, its perils, its large promise and poor performance, its failures and mistakes, is as far beyond my mastery as its dead sister, yesterday. It’s God’s day. Its sun will rise in splendor or behind a mass of clouds, but it will rise.

Until then, the same love and patience that held yesterday, holds tomorrow. Save for the star of hope and faith that gleams forever on the brow of tomorrow, shining with tender promise into the heart of today, I have no possession in that unborn day of grace. Tomorrow is God’s day. It will be mine.

There is left for myself, then, but one day in the week – today! And you can fight battles of today. Any person can fight the battles of today. Any person can resist temptation for just one day. Any man or woman can carry the burdens for just one day. It is only when we willfully add the burdens of those awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow – such burdens as only the mighty God can sustain – that we break down. It isn’t the experience of today that drives people mad, it is the remorse of something that happened yesterday, and the dread of what tomorrow brings. Those are God’s days; leave them with God.

Therefore, I think and I do and I journey, but one day at a time. That is my day. Dutifully, I run my course and work my appointed task on that day of mine; and God, the Almighty and All-loving, takes care of yesterday and tomorrow.”

Have a great day today! As much as I like the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” it is not a friend of what Jesus can do in and through you today – “This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it!” Commit yesterday and tomorrow to the Lord and live for today!