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

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!

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!”

Annual Conference

Annual Conference is upon us and I hope we have part revival, part business, and all holy conferencing. I love Annual Conference! Now, of course, there are moments when things get tedious at best, and I’m on a short leash by being parliamentarian. As age progresses the restroom breaks become very much anticipated! I’ve thought about wearing sunglasses this year because the glare from the stage lights creates a haze after a day or so. I bet many people think the same thing about the glare off of my bald head.

This is an important conference for me. My middle child, Josh, is going to be commissioned Sunday night. That’s an incredible milestone on his way to ordination. He’s exhibiting such marvelous gifts for ministry at Bethel in Rock Hill. He and his wife Karen are a blessing in so many ways!
 
This conference is also important because of the Constitutional Amendments that we will be voting on on Monday. If you know me well, my passion with these surrounds the 23 worldwide UMC amendments. If they are passed we could see connectionalism go down the drain, and a regionalistic diocesan polity take over. Wesley’s words, “The world is my parish!” would be changed to “my neighborhood.” Sure, our neighborhood is our parish, but if we are to truly be global Christians, we cannot fragment who we are into regions that dispose of our unity.
 
I hope I don’t have to speak on this issue because parliamentarians are supposed to be impartial and not speak, or even vote by voice or show of hand. Nevertheless, this issue is too important to not speak. We’ll see. This isn’t about conservative or liberal – it’s about our ecclesiology; i.e., Connectionalism. I look forward to seeing how it all shakes out.
 
My favorite thing about Annual Conference is renewal of relationships. When one gives their life tothe ministry their church membership is literally transferred to the Annual Conference. It is my local church, and I love the fellowship with laity and clergy as we get to see each other, sing, hear good preaching, and make those all-important decisions that will shape our life together for years to come. See you Sunday!