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

Brain Surgery to Birthing a Baby

It’s a new day, a new season. I welcome Pentecost for lots of reasons this year! This morning at 6:28 a.m. a new granddaughter was born. Joella Anne McClendon was born to Josh and Karen and beautifully welcomed by her big sister Kaela. Joella is an interesting name, and it fits both Pentecost and my family. Her birth will always be connected to the Spirit’s power predicted by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) and fulfilled on the first Pentecost. As for the name’s connection to us, I can name at least 17 family members who have been named Joel. Joel/Joella is a great name that literally means, “The Lord is God!” Josh’s Hebrew classes have come in handy as he and Karen have selected names. Whenever there is an “el” in a name you can bank on God showing up because it is a shortened rendition of Elohim (God). Way to go in sharing the faith-reminders of Kaela (“Who is Like God?”) and Joella (“The Lord is God!”).

Our whole family says “Amen!” because we need faith-reminders. Who doesn’t? Narcie’s brain surgery was a scant 9 days ago. The surgeon deftly removed the tumor and margins, and slowly but surely, as predicted, Narcie’s speech and fine motor skills are returning. Please keep praying for her as she continues to improve. We have been flying the trapeze between brain surgery and birthing babies. We need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to ride these waves from crest to trough and back to crest again. Have you ever felt like an unanchored buoy bobbing from one emotion to another? Oh, Lord, we need your Holy Spirit to give us strength. We praise you for the mighty things you have been doing in Narcie and with Joella’s birth, but please help us to catch our breath. Interesting that the Hebrew word used for the Spirit is ruach, or “breath.”

So during Pentecost we celebrate the power of God’s Spirit poured out on Jesus’ followers. Pentecost has appropriately been called the birthday of the church, and it will certainly be remembered by us as Joella’s birthday. Pentecost is very personal this year because of Narcie and the baby.  Why? The answer is the same as it must have been for Jesus’ followers on that first Pentecost. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost turned reluctant fear-ridden disciples into daring witnesses for Jesus. After Pentecost every apostle but John gladly died martyr’s deaths for the sake of Christ. The Greek word martyrios meant witness before it came to mean someone willing to die for their beliefs. Pentecost gave Jesus’ followers supernatural power that inspired them to do amazing things.

Pentecost is such a contrast to our usual experience of God. Perhaps we should let God shake us up more so that we won’t be so freaked out by life’s tidal waves. How would we react if our church buildings were shaken like what occurred on Pentecost? What would our reaction be if we saw flickering flames dancing above people’s heads while they spoke about Jesus in unknown languages? Would we be worried? I hope not, but most of our churches are afraid of a smidgeon of the Holy Spirit, much less a real dose. Pentecost is a reminder of what God can do in and through us, not what God can do for us! A God chained to our desires will always be too weak to deliver us from evil or whatever trouble comes our way.

So from one extreme to another we go, God-in-a-box to God-unleashed. Which would you rather experience? I heard of one woman whose idea of worship was decidedly focused on meeting her own personal needs. She complained to the organist one Sunday, “Your preludes are so loud, I can’t hear what my friends are saying.” True Spirit-filled worship is more in tune with what pleases God than us. After all, transformative worship correctly identifies God as the audience for everything we do in worship. The congregants are the actors, and those who serve behind the chancel rail are stage hands of sorts who direct the congregation/actors in whether or not to bow their heads, give offerings, stand up, or sit down, etc. Worship services put God first and foremost or they aren’t worship, and they aren’t relevant to people who have been on life’s trapeze without a net!

Pentecost should remind us that God can do mighty things that are out of the norm to those who truly worship. A woman was attending a meeting of Church Women United where the secretary asked what her church affiliation was. She replied, “I’m United Methodist, but my husband is nondimensional.” Surely she meant nondenominational, but being nondimensional in our faith seems to be pretty popular – shallow, predictable, with a one-sided “What’s in it for me?” attitude. Many want a domesticated God that isn’t Pentecostal. We are afraid of a multi-dimensional God because a wild God who shakes buildings might shake us up, too. Let me tell you, from what we’ve been through lately, and more truthfully our whole life, we don’t want a flat one dimensional or non-dimensional God ever! We want and need the real deal – a God of Power and Might! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Who is like God? Nobody! The Lord is God! Amen!

Kaela & Joella
Kaela & Joella

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!

Epiphany Blessing!

The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over and this coming Sunday, January 6, is Epiphany Day, the commemoration of God’s revelation of the Christ Child to the Magi – a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that through his progeny God would bless all nations. This whole new season of Epiphany, from January 6 until Ash Wednesday’s beginning of Lent, is a series of revelations and reminders of God’s presence among all people.

Is there a better time to celebrate this marvelous epiphany? In the midst of dark and bleak midwinter most of us can use a dose of hope. Emotional cliffs still abound and Christmas bills are coming due. Therefore, Epiphany is a much needed season that focuses on God’s signs to us, divine revelations to get our attention, tangible and mysterious signs that God is with us.

However, prepackaged signs aren’t very convincing to me. In my opinion, by definition, you can’t pre-plan an epiphany. Don’t we all like the serendipity of spontaneous “Aha” moments when God suddenly pops up on our radars? It’s like what William Barclay meant when he said that there are two great days in a person’s life ­- the day we are born and the day we discover why. The latter is the kind of epiphany I want! In the rush, I sense the hush. You know what I mean. I hope.

When do your epiphanies occur? Is it during your devotions? Is it seeing some breath-taking view for the first time? Is it holding your grandchild? That’s what it was for me today. I spent a couple of hours enthralled with my 20-month-old granddaughter, Kaela, while her Mom and Dad had to go to an important meeting about their new house. I carried her around the United Methodist Center to see everyone, and then we had a picnic on my office floor. It was grand! My best epiphany of God’s presence today was when she toddled over, kissed me on the cheek and gently laid her head on my shoulder. What had been a dark crisis-laden day melted away into a sublime awareness that there’s a God that loves me. Kaela literally brightened my day!

I think that’s what most of us need spiritually and emotionally during this season of Epiphany. In our darkest worries and saddest moments, God shines a wondrous light. This is the story of how God’s voice is heard in most of our epiphanies.  This is corroborated by Gene Wilkes who pastors the Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. One of his Adult Bible Study leaders, Ed Gentry, wrote this in the class’ newsletter:

“When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandparents’ dairy farm for a week each summer and each Christmas. Each morning my grandmother would wake up at 4 a.m. and head out to the pasture to round up the cows and take them to the barn to be milked. I will never forget the day I came of age. It was announced that the following morning I would be allowed to get up and go with my grandmother as she performed her duties.

By the time grandma was ready to go the next morning, so was I… decked out complete with cowboy boots, plastic chaps, genuine leather holster, metal cap gun (spit polished and with a fresh roll of caps all loaded up), bandanna, cowboy hat, and if memory serves, she found me digging around, looking for a piece of rope to be used to wrangle the particularly reluctant ‘doggies.’

You can imagine my surprise when, as we started to walk to the barn, she began to softly call out the cows’ names into the darkness. By the time we got to the barn, the first few cows were lining up to come in and get milked. I don’t remember if the surprise knocked me off my feet or if I slipped on a cow patty, but I was really bothered. This was NOT how you were supposed to round up cattle!! It bothered me for a long time.

As we studied Psalm 23 last month, this memory came rushing back (yeah, it still bothers me a little). But for some reason, my vision is of God gently calling our names out in the dark as we walk through our lives. I think cattle prods would be much more effective, but Jesus says, ‘My sheep know my voice and I know them, and they follow me: and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28).”

This so aptly describes my need this Epiphany season. As I tread along the unseen paths of 2013, I want to hear God’s voice. God is gently and longingly speaking our names in the darkness so that we can experience the grace that is sufficient for every time of need in Jesus Christ. Epiphany is a special time for us to perk up and listen!

Mother’s Day Memories

I married my mother! Whoa! Before you start thinking Oedipus, let me explain. Cindy is the only person that I know that is a mirror image of my mother. There’s plenty of evidence that men and women alike seek a spouse that resembles the parent of the opposite sex. So, I’m not weird. I’m just giving my mother an extra compliment by marrying someone like her.

Cindy is such a super mom. She has tirelessly given of herself to all four of her children: Narcie, Josh, Caleb, and me (ha!). She certainly loves our children-in-law, Mike and Karen, too. Now she’s head over heels in love with our three grandchildren: Enoch, Evy, and Kaela. She’s endearingly, “MiMi,” to them. And this Mother’s day has extra meaning since it is our youngest son, Caleb’s, birthday.

Cindy’s life has been focused on family. My mother had the same perspective. My mother was full of unconditional love. She was so tenderhearted. Mother taught me about helping the poor and showing grace to the weak. She was a real lady with appropriate modesty and humility. She had an eye for beauty and fine things. She could decorate a hat when hats were in, and always had a new Christmas theme for the stairway banister. She loved history and made sure that I went to art classes even when I resisted. She also had a green thumb that could grow anything!

She was fun, too. She went camping with the guys and took us to Augusta for a variety of treats. Mother was the most knowledgeable person in town about the perfect route for Halloween candy. She knew just which houses to visit. The car was always full of greedy little gremlins. Every year I had a waiting list of people who wanted to go with us. She humored our every request, even when it wasn’t on her schedule. As a matter of fact, I think we were her schedule.

Mother did have a bit of a temper although she never spanked me. She was too loving for one to deliberately disobey. One time I did get sassy and got a smack. I was standing on the top of the swing set in the yard. As soon as I landed on the ground beside the sliding board, she was cradling me and apologizing. Believe me, once was enough. I didn’t get sassy again.

She had an opinion and words were sometimes pointed for those who had violated the parameters of southern gentility. My father was the usual recipient of those remarks. Cindy and I sometimes act out these vignettes in their honor, calling each other “Ralph” and “Sadie” tongue in cheek. Mother was spiritual and spicy, a lady and a tom-boy, and a lover of arts and crafts while being just as handy with a hoe, lawnmower, or rototiller. We loved her, and love her still.

She fought illness with such grace and without complaint. She endured pain and despair with quiet hope. Mother kept loving even when her idyllic world began to show its age. She never lost her enormous sense of humor. I can relish her insatiable laugh in my mind’s ear right now. She lived a motto that we could all bear to emulate: “Ever she sought the best, ever she found it.” She may have died on January 3 of 1993, but, in Christ, she lives ever more in my heart today. To her in heaven and Cindy on earth plus Narcie, Karen and all mothers, I say: “Happy Mother’s Day!”

The End of the Story

These are tough times to be sure. The Great Recession continues to haunt us and we need help. I can find solace in thinking about the laughs and giggles of my three grandchildren: Enoch, Evy, and Kaela. When I’m inundated with bad news all I have to do is picture them and a smile creeps up on me. Tomorrow I’ll get to see Enoch and Evy and spend some time with them at the State Fair. I’ll have some comfort food, too! Maybe it will be a corn dog or two, or something fried that I’ve never had before. On Sunday I get to participate in Kaela’s baptism and that will be great! Unfortunately, even as I anticipate spending time with them all, I know there’s got to be a stronger anchor in the gales of life.

From my own life experience and those of countless people around me, before me, and those who will follow in the future, the answer to lasting peace and joy is found in Jesus and His Word. The Bible is a source of strength that weathers every storm. Certainly, John 3:16 is a well known Bible verse, but there is no more famous passage of Scripture than the 23rd Psalm. Atheists in foxholes during battle have been known to seek comfort from the words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Haven’t we all? It is one of the most comforting passages in the Bible. It gives us hope, security, and faith.

Its words suggest that God knows our every need and will see us through the deepest valleys of darkness. Immediately after World War II the allied armies gathered up many hungry homeless orphans and placed them in camps. They were well taken care of, but that didn’t keep the children from having trouble sleeping at night. They were restless and afraid. One of the Army psychologists had an idea. After the children were put to bed at night, they were given a piece of bread to hold. If they wanted more to eat, it was provided. This piece of bread was simply for holding. The result was amazing. The children slept. After all the torment of hunger and loss of family, that piece of bread gave them the assurance that they would have something for the next day. The piece of bread took away their fear of tomorrow.

God the Good Shepherd provides for us when we’re war-torn and weary. Jesus is the Bread of Life born appropriately in Bethlehem which in Hebrew means “house of bread.” Until we know the goodness and care of the Shepherd who is the Bread of Life we will continue to be afraid. Garrison Keillor, in his radio program “Prairie Home Companion,” tells the story about a teenage boy who drove down to St. Paul and waited in line all night to purchase tickets to a rock concert. The rock band was the boy’s favorite, so he camped outside of the ticket office in the middle of a snowstorm just to make sure that he would get tickets.

His mother didn’t approve of the band. She didn’t like their music or their reputation. She had read all sorts of horror stories about rock concerts and the things that go on and the kinds of people that attend. When her son got home from getting the tickets the next morning, he put them on the kitchen table and went to bed. The mother looked at those tickets. What should she do? Hide them? Tear them up? What would a loving mother do? Should she leave them on the table or tear them up? What was in her son’s best interest? There she stood, looking at those tickets, wondering, debating what she should do. And then after a long pause, Keillor said, “Well, that’s the news from Lake Wobegon this week, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” The story was over. Those who heard it were left dangling, wondering and unknowing.

Keillor opened his program the next week talking about all the letters he had received the past few days. People wrote: “You didn’t finish the story. What did the mother decide to do?” Keillor Left it hanging. He said, “I don’t know how it is with most of you out there, but there are a lot of unfinished stories in me.”

With all of the uncertainties of the present economic crisis, family issues and an uncertain future with its multitude of unfinished stories, it is good to know that Jesus the Good Shepherd goes with us and takes care of us. With Christ we know the story’s victorious ending. Hebrews 13 says it well: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Wherever we are, God is with us. That is our faith and foundation. We will continue to say, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” and count on Him.

Memories of God

A week ago today 15 of the Columbia District clergy went to the top of Mt. Mitchell for 3 days of retreat. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Things are so busy right now. I have consultations every hour on the hour for the next 3 weeks. I have charge conferences to preside over every night. This past Friday night I had to work in a SPRC meeting dealing with church conflict. Yesterday was 3 charge conferences plus two sermons, one filling in for a preacher who had a heart cath on Friday. I’m whipped but here I am back at it. Such is the life of a United Methodist District Superintendent, but, thank God for Sabbath rest when it comes.

Thank God for memories, too. Sometimes I fall asleep thinking/praying about God’s grace and providence. I remember my parents, other family members, special events like great times with Cindy or Narcie, Josh, and Caleb. I think about their weddings, graduations, the joy of hearing them preach and grow, become parents to Enoch, Evy, And Kaelea. I think about being in a tent for two weeks for two years in a row with Caleb and can feel the gentle breeze while sleeping ever so soundly. I just wrote a note for a friend who is about to go on the Walk to Emmaus Spiritual Life Weekend reminding him of how often I have seen God in his life. I’ll never forget how he came and sat up all night with me in the hospital as my Dad was dying. Last night as I preached revival I was blessed to see many friends from a former church that I served. Good and poignant memories flooded my mind.

I am rereading Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God. It is a sublime reminder of God’s presence in the nodal points of our lives, the hinge-moments that shape our theology and understanding of God. The narrative of God intersects with our narrative and Jesus’ incarnation is made personally real. In twenty-minutes I have my first consultation of today and they go straight through until late this afternoon when I head to a charge conference. It is good to start the day with memories of God. They are fresh every day and get me through it. I took the above photos last Monday and they will serve me well as good memories of God’s unfailing presence! Soak up the memories so that they will last. Dwell on them so that they inspire you. Have a great week.