Family and Faith – Narcie on my Mind

 

*Narcie got a great report! Thanks for your prayers; still a long haul and trusting Jesus and counting on you!

Have you ever had a day that has your antenna and ganglia hanging or sticking out all over the place and your sensory overload has you jacked up more than with 4 cups of coffee. Well, that’s this morning for me. I’m a little nervous, more than usual. I have a good friend and parishioner’s surgery shortly and am about to head to the hospital. Then I’m meeting with a family about a funeral then probably heading back to the hospital. Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. The text is about Jesus’ own family thinking he was nuts and I’m wondering how to preach that and make it relevant. I hate to admit it but as I was driving to the church a few minutes ago all these alliterating words jumped out at me as options to think about when it comes to family relationships: Restoration or Rejection; Respect or Rebellion; Redemption or Retaliation – what is it about preachers and our phonetic thinking? Anyway, at the stoplight I pulled out my pen and a business card and scribbled my thoughts down while holding the brake and clutch pedals down.

Two other big deals on my mind this morning are Narcie’s regular 3-month MRI about her brain tumor, and next week’s Annual Conference. We do well dealing with the anxiety about Narcie until a two-week window closes in and I begin to get antsy, ratchet up my praying and my out-of-sight-out-of mind attitude is replaced by front-and-center preoccupation. Vice President Biden’s son’s death this week has kicked things up a notch, and another amplifier about Narcie is that next week at our South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference I’ll be the Memorial Service preacher.

Memorial Services are primarily in memory of the clergy who died since the last conference session. We show photos of the deceased, and their families, along with Annual Conference members, are gathered to have a funeral service. Sure, each of these individuals already had their own service, but this is one of the United Methodist things that we do. Since we are a connectional church and try to do everything together, we mourn together, too. Actually, Annual Conference becomes every clergyperson’s church. When we become clergy our membership is literally transferred from our home churches to the Annual Conference.

Next week we will remember many individuals who gave their hearts, lives, and families for the cause of Christ, and we will cry. Narcie and I usually sit together during this service and we have cried. She cried buckets, we both did, when Rev. Charlie Summey’s face went across the screen. He had the same cancer as she and had a better prognosis, but he’s dead. The reality hit us and it should everyone: There’s going to come a time when Narcie’s picture, mine, Josh’s, and even Cindy’s will be up there on that screen at an Annual Conference Memorial Service. Over half my family has the South Carolina Annual Conference as its church home, and there’s going to be a funeral someday.

Of course, my prayer for Narcie is that it’s a long time away but since she has her appointment this morning and I’m preaching that sermon next week, I can’t seem to shake this nexus of events. I covet your prayers that her report is good. Her situation is so important to the doctors that they call her in within an hour of the MRI to give her the news. It’s a big deal. Of course, Narcie’s attitude is typical Narcie: “I’m going to do my ministry, show no fear, and live until I die!” But my eyes are welling up as I write this. I want my “little girl” to live for decades more. God bless every parent who’s ever been through this, or lost a child. For years, I thought as a pastor that I had a clue and could help people through their losses. Maybe my ministry of presence helped, but until all this has happened with us, I didn’t know what this really feels like. Your life is forever changed. God bless every parent who carries this, and please heal every child; in Jesus’ name.

When I think of this day and the family dynamics with every situation I’ll face this morning I can promise you that I will choose Restoration over Rejection; Respect over Rebellion; Redemption over Retaliation – and today I am especially going to choose Rejoicing over Remorse, Resurrection over Regret. A life well-lived, however short or long, is a gift to treasure. Treasure the people around you today as the gifts that they are.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

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The Slaughter of Innocents Amplifies God’s Incarnation

Prelude: This post comes from my son, Rev. Josh McClendon, Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC, who always amazes me at his depth and strength. Only he could handle the Slaughter of the Innocents and write a first-person monologue to make his old man cry. It made me think of the children I have buried over the years and their parent’s pain. It made me think of my daughter Narcie as Hannah. Listen to his words of a God whose incarnation in Jesus risks our pain from start to finish, and gives us authentic hope.

Here are Josh’s words and for a picture of Joella and other wisdom go to his blog directly at http://joshtmcc.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/blood-stained/:

Even though our culture moves on pretty quickly, the 12 days of Christmas are still here. One usual reading this time of year makes very clear how raw and risky the incarnation was. The passage is sometimes titled, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” and for lots of congregations it is totally avoided. But this is roughly the very next chapter in Jesus’ story and, if not for his sake then for the sake of the “Innocents” themselves and their families, it is worth our attention. Read Matthew 2:13-23 here.

Today we’re going to approach these events from the perspective of those directly affected. I’ll ask you to imagine that we’ve stumbled across the personal journal of one such family. Try to do your best to visualize the following three journal entries as the work of a father in first-century Judea. As a fairly new dad (one of my girls is pictured above), I know this is tough but stick with it.

The journal book of Yosef son of Amos, and Divorah, of Beyt-Lechem. It is the chronicle of our Hannah.

First Entry (8th day of the month of Tishrei)
By many standards, today I am a young man, full of strength and life, who was blessed by God. I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one. I have a good name, which is priceless among my people. I have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it. The Lord led me to my love, my wife, Divorah, and we have had three full years of joy together. God even favored us enough to give her a child, a daughter, whom we named Hannah. She has been the most precious thing I’ve ever known. Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it’s been overwhelming.

Her mother and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could. We wished we could record everything! That is how this journal came to be. With all of our savings, and the help of our parents and my uncle Shlomoh (one of the Temple scribes), we bought these few pages. Yesterday, for Hannah’s first birthday, we dedicated them to keep her story, to be a book of memories.

For all of that, a day ago you could have called me blessed by the Lord indeed.

But, today, let no one talk of the Lord’s favor. Let no one speak his name before me. May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips, or those of anyone in my household, while I live and breathe.

Yesterday morning my Hannah had her first birthday. She was dark-haired and green-eyed like her mother, and big for her age with a good-sized head, like me. She had become so aware – she recognized us, and her grandparents. She would smile and laugh when we entered the room, and fuss when we walked out. She could just speak a little. She was a crawler, and we couldn’t keep her out of all the wrong places. Just a year old.

But yesterday evening, on the seventh day of the first month, a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders. Divorah and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door. They didn’t ask about the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if I was a member of the latest Jewish rebellion. They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers. They clubbed me nearly to death. And those Roman dogs wrenched Hannah from her mother’s hands. So, today…today her life has been cut short.

I couldn’t protect her, and she is gone for it, and I cannot fathom it. My wife hasn’t spoken a word.

I write all of this now, this the first and the last entry in Hannah’s book, because it is the only thing I have left to record of her. And, now, to hell with these memories. To hell with this life.

Second Entry (12th day of the month of Shevat)
Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages that I swore never to write in again. I’ll confess that it’s not the first time… I’ve read and re-read those words often since that day. No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back to this page to remember. More than once I’ve even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old. But it seemed wrong to change this book. It seemed like moving on.

I write today for one reason: because new facts have come to light in the history of Hannah’s life, from someone unexpected. Not long ago I met again a young man named Yohanan, John, one of the sons of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee. John’s mother is my wife’s cousin, and I knew the boy; he spent some time here on the farm when he was younger.

Anyway, I was in the city on the Shabbat, and had been told that John was invited to teach at synagogue. A strange thought for the son of fisherman, but apparently the local Rabbi wanted to know more about another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, Jesus. So, I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, the “spirit” that was upon him and the peace that he exuded. I greeted him afterwards and he remembered me; he took me to lunch and started to open his heart to me.

That is when he mentioned Hannah’s name.

He explained that they believe this Jesus is the Messiah. Right away I interrupted him and said, “I’ve heard all of that talk before and I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.” But, before I could go, he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village that night so many years ago.

He said, “My Master threatens the evil rule of men like Herod and Herod’s sons, because he is our true king. He is God’s great savior.” And I couldn’t respond. John spoke of how this Rabbi had been born to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents. He described it as signs that the kingdom of God is coming and a new age is beginning, one where even grief like mine will be no more.

I admit his words started to take me in — his facts were sound as far as I could tell. It had always indeed been a point of pride in our village that Israel’s king was destined to come from the birthplace of David. Even now, I can remember the Roman census in that second year that Divorah and I had been married. The perennial rumors about a Christ child had been unusually active and vivid at the time, and we had noticed – I remember we had taken it all as a good omen because only months later Divorah had become pregnant with Hannah. “Think of it,” we would whisper to one another, “our little one growing up to see the reign of the Coming King….”

And, in that moment, I came to myself. I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night. I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they know what life is like here and now, on earth. I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose for his son to be born to peasants in an unsecured and unknown town. I asked him why this God speaks in fables and dreams, while men like Herod give orders to armed legions. I asked him why it was only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone that night. I asked him where he saw a Savior’s reign, in this dust-covered Rabbi of his.

I can’t remember John’s reply, if he even made one, but as I regained my temper I thanked him for the lunch and arose from the table. I wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar, or the Chief Priest for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation. If I am honest, I feel no better for my rage. Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me. I have no answers to my questions. I no longer know who I am or why I live.

I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story. God have mercy on us.

Third Entry (20th day of the month of Nisan)
Today, I write here for the last time because Hannah’s record in this book comes to a close. And, as I read again my last words on this page, it feels like ages have past for me since my time with John on that peculiar Shabbat. I recall that over the days and weeks after our lunch together, I couldn’t take my mind away from his words, or the memory of his presence; it began to gnaw at me. The possibility that John was telling the truth sparked a fire of emotions – one moment I would long to risk some hope in God again, the next moment I would be overwhelmed with confusion and contempt at how this would-be Messiah had a part in shattering Hannah’s life. It was the first time in more than thirty years that I had truly felt something. It was the first time in so long that I cared to feel something, or that I dared to wonder at what might be. In the end, it drove me to seek Jesus out, face to face.

I started by following on the edge of his crowds, very skeptically at first. Then, through John, I was able to sit with him, and speak to him on occasion. I don’t know how to describe the experience except that the same presence and Spirit that I first saw in John in the synagogue, I experienced in this man in its fullness. It was clear that he was the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

Can I remember when I first truly started to consider him the Messiah? No. It was gradual. It came slowly as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones. But something particular in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me. Occasionally, he would speak of death, and of his own suffering. He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again. He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, the words rang in my heart. The crowds asked him not to say such things. They foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies. But, in my mind, he was hinting that something deeper was at work. And we soon saw.

Before any of us could have imagined it, Jesus had indeed arrived in Jerusalem. He had been greeted like an emperor, and had seen the hearts of the people poised to crown him their ruler. But, only a moment later during the heart of the Passover, he had just as quickly been betrayed, arrested, and put on trial.

Almost all of the others fled in fear, or they stayed only to shout in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal. But I felt stirred to draw nearer to him than ever before. What did I have left to lose? What could the soldiers take from me now? I hadn’t come to see a victorious king; I came to stand beside the man, my Teacher, who had led me back to life. So I did, and I prayed for him.

The scene broke my heart, and infuriated me, and I wanted to cry out to Heaven, but suddenly something else struck me. I had wrestled with these same feelings before, for some thirty years. I realized then that Herod’s assault on my Hannah, intended for the newborn Messiah, had been in the same vein and for the same purpose as what I witnessed now. It was the same injustice, cruelty, tyranny. And one thing was clear that day: the evil right in front of me, and that which stained my family’s past, was none of God’s doing. It was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do. It was an effort on the part of darkness to quench his great light.

In that moment, I repented from every word of blame and curse I had ever laid at the Lord’s feet. God’s doing had been to spare his own son in Bethlehem, not so that he could flee to a life of safety, but so that he could return one day to shed his own blood. Jesus, the Passover lamb. As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured it, it was confirmed in my heart that this was my Lord and my God.

I stayed that day until the end. I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, watched his breathing cease, and saw the women mourn. I thought back to his many promises and wondered what could be next. Then, only days ago I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers: “the grave could not hold him.” Today, I believe I know what that message means.

I run through his words in my mind. He once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And didn’t he say, “Because I live, you shall live also”? I remember it. And I believe it.

I believe that, although God not intervene in that moment years ago to spare Hannah’s earthly life, today she lives also in Christ Jesus.

So, yes, today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close. But that is only because it continues elsewhere. As does mine. And I can think of no better words to close this book than these that I borrow from my brother, John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors, Amen.

Trash Talk and Thanksgiving During Rivalry Week!

Thanksgiving Week is perennially a time for major trash-talking in the state of South Carolina. This is the week year in and year out that Carolina and Clemson sometimes literally slug it out on the football field, and unfortunately repeat the same scene in the stands or living rooms. This week will be even tenser because both teams are in the top ten in college football polls. In all our years of playing football this has never happened! This week’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium could be one for the ages. My hope is that it’s for all the right reasons. I have been hearing and participating in the banter for years. “Fear the Thumb!” is my favorite quip this year. Since the USC Gamecocks have won 4 in a row, the thumb represents number 5!

Pretty much wherever you live in the US this is Rivalry Week for your favorite college football team, and it couldn’t come at a worse time: Thanksgiving! On Thursday we will gather as family, friends, and loved ones and share a common meal, but more than a few people will raise their smack talk to a higher level and back it up with small or large wagers on Saturday’s games. There’s enough stuff to divide families that we have to add football, too? Rivalry Week becomes sibling rivalry and more – ad infinitum.

I live in a divided house myself. I graduated from South Carolina and rarely miss a game. Cindy graduated from Winthrop University, but was born at Clemson when her parents were there. She was baptized at Clemson Methodist Church, and when her Dad went back years later for another degree, she was confirmed at the same church and got her driver’s license at Clemson, too. Although she did get a Master’s degree in counseling at USC, her blood pretty much runneth orange. However, she does feel sorry for poor hurt animals and underdogs. That typically means that she has pulled for Carolina over the years. I am grateful for her Christian sympathy and USC has usually earned it.

My kids are really mixed up. Narcie graduated from Winthrop and Candler School of Theology and is a natural Carolina fan, except that she is the Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida and says, “Go Gators!” Her UF hat she was wearing last night got interesting stares in a local grocery store. Our middle child was raised right, but, thanks to his maternal grandfather’s influence and a scholarship, Josh graduated from Clemson with an engineering degree, though he’s now a UM minister. Caleb, our youngest, is the only one besides me with a USC degree. Thank God for Caleb! He helps even the odds.

Narcie and Josh did recently go to a USC game and Narcie talked Josh into humoring her and allowed her to put a Gamecock logo on his cheek. He caught heck for that from a lot of his Clemson buds. He was just being kind to his sister and loves Clemson, but the photo below is more than a pretty sight for me because this Thursday I will definitely be in the minority.

Our extended family is overwhelmingly Clemson! This Thursday when we all gather together for Thanksgiving the trash talk will be out of control. Point spreads and smack about the differences between the ACC and SEC will abound. Of course I like the SEC better! It makes sense to me, “I love God, sweet tea, and the SEC!”

But how do we get through Thanksgiving without a family squabble? How do we handle the trash talk of Rivalry Week without losing our cool or our kin? It all comes down to the use of our tongues and love. There was a conversation between a 4-year-old boy and the mail carrier about the child’s little sister. The mail carrier asked, “Can she talk yet?” “No,” the little boy responded, “She has her teeth, but her words haven’t come in yet.” This Thanksgiving will prove that a lot of us have teeth in our conversation, but the right words aren’t there yet! The frightening thing is that our bitter words may not just be about football. I’m afraid that most of our trash talk has little to do with football and is about underlying jealousies or tensions.

Now here’s a challenge: Try to make it through Thanksgiving Day without saying anything negative or derogatory about anyone or their team. Also take note if you say something about someone who isn’t present. Keep track when others say something negative and what your reactions are. Notice whether you rebuke the verbal attack, or invite people to spill all of their “dirt” about the other person. Watch your speech and ask the Lord to bridle your tongue.

Foremost, let us season our speech with lots of love. Remember and put into action the words of St. Paul in Ephesians 4:29-5:2, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling, and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Be a R.E.A.L. family this Thanksgiving: RespectingEncouraging AffirmingLoving. I hope your Thanksgiving is more about God than goal lines. Everybody calm down and take a deep breath! I’ll try, too!

Image

LOL!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stir What You Got!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Family Wreath Includes You!

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

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

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

Sixteen Thoughts to Get You Through Almost Any Crisis

1. Indecision is the key to flexibility

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

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

4. Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

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

6. The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

tim

Birthing Babies and Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baptism of the Lord Sunday!

Yesterday our middle child and daughter-in-law texted us a sonogram announcing that they are going to have another daughter. Coming from a guy like me who had two brothers, this is absolutely great! I remember quite well my father’s repeated declaration, “I’d trade all 3 of you boys for one daughter!” Now Josh and Karen will be doubly blessed and Kaela will make a great big sister! This fits with this coming Sunday in my mind. As we commemorate Jesus’ baptism, we all can ponder our births and baptisms.

A little boy asked his mother where he came from, and also where she had come from as a baby. His mother gave him a tall tale about a beautiful white-feathered bird. The boy ran into the next room and asked his grandmother the same question and received a slight variation on the bird story. He then scampered outside to his playmate with the comment, “You know, there hasn’t been a normal birth in our family for at least three generations.”

No birth or baptism is normal. They’re better than that! What do we say about births? I can hear the voices in hospital rooms right now, “It’s a miracle!” or “Ah, the Miracle of Life,” and it’s so true. Epiphany season and each of its Sundays explores a specific aspect of how God has revealed God’s self in Jesus. This whole season is focused on miracles and Jesus’ baptism is a great kick-start.

This analogy might help. I’ve been in more than a few bishops’ offices. There are similarities and differences in each. Some bishops reveal their individuality in artistic tastes via the artwork on the walls. About some, one becomes quickly aware of their family or sports allegiances through photos or mementos.

One of the more unique items that intrigues me and gives cause for deeper thought are the “episcopal pedigrees” that I’ve seen. In several Bishops’ offices I’ve noticed these framed documents that give a historical lineage of which bishop consecrated which subsequent bishop all the way down the line to the bishop in whose office the document now hangs. More than as an apologetic to those who are concerned about whether United Methodist bishops have proof of “apostolic succession,” I think the documents reveal the wonderfully complex web of connected relationships from one generation of United Methodists to another.

United Methodist clergy and laity are linked in a mutually supportive way through one of the constitutive principles of our denomination. We call that principle “conference.” In our church we “conference” about everything. On the local level we have what is called a “charge conference” comprised of all the members of the administrative board meeting with the express permission/supervision of the district superintendent. Up the line we have “district conferences” that usually cover churches over several counties; “annual conferences” that usually comprise all or major portions of a state; “jurisdictional conferences” that are multi-state regions; and a “general conference” that is global. Conferring with each other about God’s will is a hallmark of Methodism. We are a connection of interactive relationships that positions us for more effective ministry.

On this coming Sunday we need to think about another kind of spiritual pedigree. Since the earliest days of the church, the first Sunday of Epiphany season has focused on Jesus’ baptism by John and God’s miraculous affirmation from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism as he began his ministry. Therefore, at Christ’s baptism, and, I dare say, at our own, we see the interactive relationship of God’s personhood empowering our ministry.

Therefore, this Sunday should be our commemoration of our baptismal pedigree, our call to ministry. Wouldn’t it be spiritually enriching to think about who baptized us, and who baptized them, as far back as we can go? Wow! We are part of a community of faith that has a rich heritage of God’s mighty acts of salvation. This can be a personal epiphany for you, reminding you of God’s faithfulness to you and yours for generations. Answer the question, “How did I get here?” and be thankful!

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!”