If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Watching the Oscars wasn’t on my must-see TV list for Sunday night, but I have been amused at the mix-up with the “Best Picture” winner. Everyone has an opinion on who dropped the ball. There’s a huge difference between assigning blame and someone taking it. Harry Truman, in good Kansan fashion, said “The Buck Stops Here!” The acceptance of responsibility is refreshing in our blame-everyone-else world. Blaming your parents, your environment, the government, your DNA, and your whatever and whomever is just too easy to do. It’s certainly a lot easier than taking responsibility.

I’m sure Price-Waterhouse appreciates the saying, “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” It is an easy mantra to use when it’s too late. It excuses poor past decisions. Wouldn’t it be better if we counted the cost of our decisions ahead of time? In this season of tax forms and filings, we ought to know that the IRS knows how to do math so we better get it right. No excuse. Similarly, God’s E.R.S., Eternal Revenue Service, can also do math. On the balance scales of life we need to realize that “what goes around, comes around.” There’s payback. Even with the grace of God, we’re all found out as poor mathematicians.

People throw away relationships, their lives, and a lot of everything else because of poor choices. We need to take responsibility before it’s shoved onto us. A good friend has a lot of sayings. Most famously, “There’s no lesson learned in the second kick of a mule.” Frankly, I’ve been kicked by a lot of the same mules. I didn’t learn my lesson.

This Is Us isn’t just a TV show that’s taking the country by storm because of fine acting, or the past and future cliffhanging clues in each episode. It’s a hit because it truly is the story of us. We see bits of ourselves in every show. The same could be true if we took a long look at human history. It repeats itself too much. We must not, however, yield to the fatalism that says that it has to.

Lent gives us a chance to take a long look at our choices and lives, and change them with God’s help. The word “Lent” has its root in the Old English “lencten” from whence we get our modern word “lengthen.” The days grow longer in the spring of the year so during these solemn days before Easter we should take a longer look at our lives and repent, re-think and change our ways. It’s time for me to learn something, do something about it, and not make the same old mistakes.

I was looking through a book filled with stories, humor, anecdotes, and noticed there were pages and pages about the subject of “success,” and only half a page on “temptation.” Seems like the opposite should be true. If it weren’t for temptation, I might have more success! Temptations are distractions from what’s important, and oftentimes it’s a “W/who” that is most important. Sometimes it’s a spouse, a child, or others. Truth be told, it’s always God – the big W, WHO, that we continually let down. When we let God down, it’s all downhill for everyone and everything else affected by our decision making.

Lent helps us to get back on track. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” The problem is that we usually don’t figure that out until AFTER we’ve messed up. There is good news, however. Lent ends in Easter. Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, our sins of omission and commission are forgiven if we want them to be. The end of the story overshadows the beginning. This is how Christianity trumps history every time. When Jesus is really Lord of our lives we get to make it through the valley of death, sin, and even the solemnity of Lent with the absolute knowledge that Jesus has already been resurrected.

It’s like the order of the installments in Star Wars. The original trilogy came out as episodes 4, 5, and 6, and then there was the prequel trilogy of episodes 1, 2, and 3, and “Rogue One” fits between episodes 3 and 4. We also have a sequel trilogy of 7, 8, and 9, with only 7 having hit the theaters. It’s confusing, but, here’s the deal: Some people watch in chronological order, some in theatrical release order, and some of us just watch them in the order of the ones we like. Anyway, the point is that Star Wars’ order helps me look at Easter’s retroactive and proactive effect on our lives: Episode 6 lets us know the Empire loses and the prequels let us know how we got into this mess to start with. Episode 7 and the next installments are what’s coming, but we already know the victory is already won.

Easter does the same thing! We know the end before the beginning! The resurrection speaks to what’s come before and should change everything in the future! Easter is God’s story from the beginning of time to its end. Though I have temptations, sins, and failures in the past, I know the sequel – God wins! This doesn’t let me off the repentance hook, but it does inspire me to shape up before my final installment occurs. Just like Star Wars, the New Testament sequel is always better than the Old Testament prequel! My after-Jesus life should be better than my before-Jesus one: “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” Right?

lent

A Lenten Test

 Who doesn’t like to take those IQ/knowledge tests on Facebook? This week we have a bigger more important test. We have to figure out what to do with a confluence of special days in the life of the church. Here are the three significant events to ponder in your worship planning: Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Valentine’s Day. You could add a few more secular ones if you’re celebrating the end of football season with Super Bowl 50’s completion, The South Carolina vs. Connecticut Women’s Basketball game, and maybe the biggest celebration of all for some of you, Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday! What a mixture to think about from a Christian perspective.

It seems to me that what we have is a grand opportunity to think about love and sacrifice. Ash Wednesday voices the somber realization: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a call to self-denial and reflection whose very name carries the tug of seasonal change. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten which meant “lengthen.” As the days march forward and lengthen with minute amounts of extra daylight, we should also take longer contemplative looks at our own lives.

Valentine’s Day celebrates a canonized priest who purportedly married young lovers when it had been outlawed by a Roman emperor who thought marriage made soldiers less dedicated and effective. In keeping with Lent’s call to carrying a cross, beginning with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes, St. Valentine chose doing the right thing over doing things right. Before his execution he passed encouraging notes to the Christian faithful and signed them, “From your Valentine.”

Valentine’s causes me to wonder if the love notes we share last longer than the paper upon which they are written. Ash Wednesday makes me ponder when or if ever should I wipe the ashes from my brow. The whole season of Lent gives me pause to take a long look at my personal discipleship and discern where and how it may be lacking.

My sincere prayer is that people might see Jesus in me with or without an “X” of sorts to mark the spot! I don’t want to be like the young woman who gave a picture of herself to her boyfriend. On the reverse she exclaimed, “I’ll love you forever and always to the end of time!” with an added postscript, “P.S. If we ever break up, I want the picture back.” Fickle love is not even love, being infatuation more than anything else. No wonder our Ash Wednesday ashes are made of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds burned to a crisp. A wishy-washy crowd that welcomed Jesus with a loud “Hosanna!” quickly switched to a dastardly, “Crucify him!” by the end of Holy Week.

My personal prayer is that we who call ourselves Christ-followers will have a more faithful Lent this year. I hope that people will see Jesus in us, with or without a smudge on our heads. It’s even better, in my opinion, if the people around us see Jesus in us without the sackcloth and ashes of an outward show of repentance. May they see the Lord in our smiles, joys, commitments, and our doing the right things a´ la St. Valentine. More chocolate, not less. More smiles, not mournful somberness. More love!

I have a test to help remind you that you might be the only Jesus that the world will ever see. Look intently at the four dots in the middle of the image below for 30 seconds, then look away and stare for a few seconds. What do you see? Who will others see if they look at you this Lent?

Jesus and Four Dots

Holy Week Highlights

It’s the last day of winter! Sing and shout, spring starts tomorrow and I’m ready for it, not the pollen so much, but even that’s a sign of new life. I’m ready for Easter after a long winter. That sounds vaguely familiar as something the character “Phil” aka Bill Murray said in the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” I love the movie. Phil seemingly is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA wooing Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita. The only thing that finally ends his purgatory is that he finally gets one complete day right, no selfishness or self-serving stratagems. His life is redeemed by letting go of himself and loving others, purely and sincerely.

That is one of the purposes of Lent – to lay aside self, put others and Christ first. The question on my mind today is how well has that gone for me this year. I feel like I’ve been treading water going from one crisis to another. My brain is mush and I’m still waiting for that perfect day. By now you also know if your Lenten observance plans have worked out, too. There are some of you/us who are planning on a crash-course during Holy Week to make things right. You can’t have a great Easter without a good Lent.

This begs the question: What makes for a “Good Lent?” Was it something that you gave up this year, or started? Just making it to “Low Sunday” on April 12 will mean it was a holy observance for most clergy and church staff. “There’s no rest for the weary!” is especially true this time of the year, but it’s meant to be this way. Holy Week services have been around ever since the Early Church and its commemoration of the significance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It’s supposed to be a whirlwind because that’s what it was for Jesus. Thanks to the plethora of preparations we literally feel the weight that Jesus must have felt that last week.

This has made me think about the most important revelations that all this busyness brings. Which services and Scriptures are most poignant and powerful? Without falling further into the tiredness that only church can bring, think with me about the highlights of your preparations for Easter.

Of course, it begins with Palm Sunday. In Matthew and John, it was palms that the people waved, although Matthew added additional cloaks to the red carpet treatment. In Mark, it was unidentified branches cut from the fields that the people used along with cloaks. In Luke, there are no branches of any kind. If the only Gospel we had was Luke it would have been called “Cloak Sunday,” because that’s the way he portrays the people’s welcome for Jesus.

The bigger deal to me about Palm Sunday has nothing at all to do with branches versus cloaks or how many donkeys were used. By the way, Matthew has two, the rest one. The big deal to me is that the crowd went from Sunday to the next Friday from praise of Jesus to demands for his crucifixion. It’s little wonder that our ashes for every subsequent year’s Ash Wednesday are made from burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – a powerful reminder of how we fickle humans have failed the Lord throughout the year and need Lent to help get us back on track.

I am going to jump ahead, but it fits with the fickleness theme. The people on Good Friday asked for Barabbas over Jesus. The significance of Barabbas’ name is powerful. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means “father,” so the Son of the Heavenly Father, all caps “BARABBAS,” is sentenced to die in the place of all the rest of us “small cap” children of earthly fathers. Such horrible irony, but this is a clear image of the depth of God’s love.

Back to the schedule, though. Maundy Thursday is a must! “Maundy” derives from the Latin, mandatum which means commandment. It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, his washing the disciples’ feet and his command to go and do likewise. This event is only recorded in John’s version of the passion narrative (John 13), which may explain why foot washing didn’t make the list of sacraments. If something is only mentioned once in the Bible there’s an argument that one shouldn’t make it into a sacrament or a doctrine. However, John’s depiction of Jesus’ servant-like kingship is amazing, especially when you consider that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Maundy Thursday always inspires me to think about whose feet I need to wash.

Another Lenten and Holy Week epiphany occurred when I noticed something very interesting in Matthew’s passion account. When Jesus is about to be betrayed by Judas with a kiss in Matthew 26:50, Jesus says a rare and powerful thing, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus hardly ever calls anyone “friend.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t a friend, but the fact remains that it wasn’t a word that he lightly tossed around when he was talking about people. He called Lazarus a “friend” (John 11:11), and the guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof (Luke 5:20). Only 3 times in the entire Gospels does Jesus call anyone “friend,” and Judas is one of them! This really sets the bar high for my Lenten observance. Who are the enemies with whom I need to reconcile?

God’s amazing grace is on glorious display after the resurrection in Mark 16:7 when the women are told to go announce Jesus’ resurrection. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…,” are their instructions. This is only mentioned in Mark’s account, though in John we have the dramatic reinstatement of Peter. What’s powerful to me is that here’s Peter who has denied the Lord multiple times and yet he’s singled out to get the good news about Jesus being alive. Peter wasn’t at the crucifixion. After he heard the rooster crow after he denied Jesus, he went away weeping bitterly, but Jesus didn’t give up on him and leave him out.

This word instructing the women to go tell his disciples AND Peter, is amazing grace and gives me so much hope. I have been a betraying Judas, a denying Peter, and a fickle fan. I have lived through days that seem like a never-ending purgatory where nothing ever seems to go right, and the God of the universe, who is yet fully human, suffers, dies, and rises for me – for you.

The song “Better” by MercyMe captures how this makes me feel today. Give a listen.

The Time Change and Using God’s Time

Daylight Saving Time (DST) has kicked me to the curb this year! I love the hour we gain in the fall, but this “Spring Forward” thing is ridiculous. The person who said that for every hour you gain or lose, it only takes one day to adjust didn’t have my circadian rhythm! It has been 5 days and I’m still whacked! Ben Franklin, an early advocate of the time shift, may have said, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” but I don’t think that DST proves the point. It proves the opposite for me. What do you say?

Studies have made conflicting claims over the years about the benefits and drawbacks of DST. Those in favor say that it saves energy, promotes outdoor leisure activities in the evening, and provides more time for shopping. Yay for more daylight to cook out, play a round of golf after work, and go fishing. Others have said that since most mischief happens in the dark, the extra daylight cuts down on crime.

However, the cost benefit for electric usage is negligible if you compute the cost of turning on lights for longer periods of time in the mornings while it’s still dark, and using them less in the evenings because it’s light. After all, most of our big-ticket home electrical systems run constantly, and don’t give a rip what time it is.

On the other side of the issue are those who claim that DST costs as much as $40 billion in what it takes to adjust clocks, computers, and even the stock exchanges. Health officials have concluded that DST increases the risk of heart attacks by 10%, and changes in sleep have a direct correlation to poor work performance. Contrary to the popular opinion that DST was created for the benefit of farmers, they are some of the biggest opponents of it. The rationale is that grain is best harvested after dew evaporates, so when farmers or their help arrive at earlier hours and leave later it causes quality problems with the products, especially if you depend on someone with paid-by-the-hour drivers, harvesters, and trucks whose schedules have been rearranged by the time change. Dairy farmers also complain because their cows are finicky about the timing of milking which is dictated less by the sun as much as it is by when the dairy company sends their trucks.

So I am confused, since there are both benefits and disadvantages. I just know how whipped it has made me feel this week, and I have a spouse who works in the education system who says that everybody is dragging a lot more this year. In the discussion of pros or cons there is one thing that’s clear: Nobody is talking about the time change from a religious perspective.

Is there a valid theological reason to have DST? To be sure, I know that I should use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason to figure it out, but I’m not – I’m too tired! It’s not that big a deal, right? But there are more than a few Scriptures about time and its use. II Peter 3:8 says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Psalm 39:4-5 and James 4:14 declare, in similar ways, that life is very fragile and transitory. “Our time on earth,” as one writer puts it, “barely registers on the eternal radar screen,” so we better use our time wisely.

That’s the essence of Ephesians 5:15-16 where Paul cautions, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as the unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25:14-30 basically says the same thing – use your talents and time wisely! One of my favorite passages about the use of time is Proverbs 6:10-11, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” I like the poetic imagery, but I must admit that the workaholism that is promoted is a little too American, not that I’m pro sloth, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The bottom line is that we need to make the most of time and I simply wonder if Daylight Saving Time actually helps! What do you think? Has DST helped your Lenten spiritual disciplines or set you back more than forward, pun intended? Give a listen to the Byrds and their rendition of that famous time passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. This has helped me wake up and enjoy the day better than most things this week. How are you doing?

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!

Judas Trees and Jesus

As I was driving across town this morning to the United Methodist Center I counted 19 Judas Trees. They look like thin trees or shrubs with close-cropped purple buds on the limbs. They are beautiful! Some people call them redbuds although I haven’t seen a color close to red yet. Much like the dogwood with its association to Lent and Easter via Jesus’ cross, the Judas Tree is said to have been the type of tree upon which Judas hanged himself after he betrayed the Lord.

No matter whether it’s an Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) or a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) the bright purple Lenten-like color is a great precursor to Passion Week and Easter. Before there are any blooms on any other trees or shrubs these artful wonders stand out in yards and woodlands with their bright foliage. My mother always pointed them out when I was a child and said, “Look there’s a Judas Tree blooming. Easter’s coming, we better get ready!”

That is always good advice, hence our reason to have 40 days not counting Sundays to prepare for the Lord’s resurrection. In this in-between time of spring being sprung and the last vestiges of winter, I need a visual reminder that Passion Week and a culminating Easter are upon us. Judas Trees blooming while no dogwoods are in sight is a metaphor for the spiritual work that I yet need to do. What do I need to do to get ready for Passion Week and Easter?

I’m going to take my cue from Judas Trees, more specifically the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Judas Iscariot is such an enigmatic character. He’s the only disciple who was a city-boy, from Kerioth, which is why he’s called Judas Iscariot. We know he’s a thief who helped himself to the Disciples’ common cache of money. He struck a deal to turn Jesus in to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver.  He identified the Lord with a kiss. We also know Judas felt remorse over his actions, perhaps too little, too late.

But, hold on, we also know something else! Jesus called Judas his friend when he betrayed him with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus said, “Friend, Do what you came for.” We absolutely need to note that Jesus didn’t call many people “friend.” As a matter of fact, except for several uses of the word “friend(s)” in a few parables, the only other times Jesus uses the word directly about a person was when he healed the paralytic let down through the roof (Luke 5:20), and when he was talking about Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. In John 11:11 Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up.” Jesus only called three people, “friend!” Wow!

And one of them was Judas, and Jesus already knew that he was going to betray Him (John 13). To top off this audacity of grace, Jesus called Judas “Friend” just after He washed all of the Disciples’ feet, including Judas’, in the Upper Room. How many of us would wash Judas’ feet? How many of us would call our betrayer “Friend?”  We have all had someone treat us poorly. Rather than ostracize or at least avoid them, Jesus goes out of his way to show extraordinary grace and compassion, and He calls us to do the same knowing that there is nothing He does that He won’t empower us to do.

Therefore, I want every Judas Tree that I see make me want to have a Jesus-heart, a heart that can express friendship to all regardless of their meanness. Rather than stoop to the level of our adversaries, let us rise to the example of Christ. Jesus calls us all His friends and we’ve all let Him down like Judas. Look around you in the coming days and let the Judas Trees inspire you to turn your enemies into friends!

Judas Tree

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!

Lenten Neglect – A Good Thing?

What do you think? Is it easier to give something up or start something up? What about giving up doing too many good things along with the bad? That’s the question for today. Ash Wednesday is here again with the somber imposition of ashes and the words intoned, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent begins 40 days of us taking a long look at our lives. Hence the name Lent. It is a derivative of the Old English word lencten a counterpart to our modern word lengthen. The days get longer during this season and so should our introspection and faithfulness to spiritual disciplines.

Before I wax on about what we should give up, I’m wondering if this Lenten season we might ask ourselves, “What do I need to do that I haven’t been doing?” As profound as Pope Benedict giving up his office, it is more striking that he is doing it so that he can better take up a life of prayer. It hits me that giving up something for Lent trivializes the deeper sacrifice and greater energy that it would take for most to start doing something.

That’s something to ponder for sure! To use Lenten season to help others, pray for a specified period of time; to give at least 5 hours a week to a local soup kitchen, to walk around the building every day and offer greetings to each individual – these are all tantalizing prospects, even fun sounding.

But my problem isn’t in the doing. It is in the overdoing. The tools of evil are many and myriad! Temptation sometimes slaps us in the back of the head. Often it hits us head-on between the eyes. Evil works best on me when it sneaks up on me with the silken snare of doing good deeds. I know that sounds odd to many of you. However, I am just as sure that the stress of having too many good things to do is killing you, too. Few people know how to say “No!” enough.

We end up overworked and overwrought by the tyranny of the urgent. We can’t not answer our cell phones; reply to a text, check Facebook, or go, go, go… do all the urgent things. Pacing ourselves seems impossible. Ordinary maintenance of our bodies, spirits, or minds, much less our homes and families, gets pushed farther and farther from the front-burner of our existences. The squeaky wheels of life sidetrack what is most important. You know what I mean: “The squeaky wheels always get the grease.” What or who are the squeaky wheels in your life?

A regular maintenance schedule keeps the car from squeaking and out of the shop. Likewise, Lent reminds us that the same goes for our spirit. Neglect of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer, fasting, Bible study, and fellowship diminish us to the point of breaking. Doing too many good things often keeps us from putting the best things first.

Neglect, therefore, is one of the greatest tools of evil. Listen to the following and ponder: “I have never been guilty of wrong actions, but on my account lives have been lost, ships have been sunk, cities have burned, governments have failed, battles have been lost, and a few churches have closed their doors.

“I have never struck a blow nor spoken an unkind word, but because of me homes have been broken, friendships have grown cold, laughter of children has ceased, wives have shed bitter tears, brothers and sisters have been forgotten and parents have gone brokenhearted to the grave.

“I have tended no evil, but because of me talents have come to naught, courtesy and kindnesses have failed and the promise of success as well as happiness has yielded sorrow and disaster.

“I have no sound, just silence. No cause for being myself. I have no offering to make except grief and sorrow. You may not in an instant call me by my name, but surely you are personally acquainted with me.

“My name? … NEGLECT!”

This Lenten season I hope that we don’t neglect what or Who is most important. However, some things are better left undone if by their doing you or God’s work are undone! This Lent, who and what are we not going to neglect, and what good, but not best things, are we going to purposefully neglect? Ah, these are the questions that make for a very helpful Lenten discipline. To say, “Yes!” to some things, and “No!” to some things. Which will it be for God’s glory?

Connected Appointment Making

As a District Superintendent I’m about to head to our Appointment-making Week. I just came back in after spending 3 hours walking with one of the Columbia District clergy. Every Spring and Summer I spend three hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do so we get to know each other at the heart level. Last night I had a long church local conference with a fine church that had some issues that needed to be addressed. Without knowledge of that church the impasse would have remained, but everything worked out well. I know them and they know me and that helped tremendously. I don’t think District Superintendents can adequately represent clergy or churches without personal knowledge. Connectionalism only works if we’re really connected.

This was important in my first parish and every parish. In my first appointment I pastored three churches for five years. I moved from seminary in Boston, Massachusetts to the outskirts of Cheraw, South Carolina. Although I grew up in South Carolina, I had never been in the Pee Dee region. As a matter of fact, I was under the mistaken impression that there were only three regions in our fair state: the Lowcountry, the Midlands, and the Upstate. I learned rather quickly that the Pee Dee is a separate region unto itself, with characteristics of the other three.

I had never heard of “funeralizing” someone. “Chicken Bog” sounded like something you could get stuck in rather than something wonderful to eat. I learned the hard way what a “colyum” was. I asked directions to a church member’s house and was told to turn at the house with “colyums.” Only after stopping at a country store and asking did I discover that a “colyum” was a “column.” Every place has a unique story, even vocabulary.

Each of the three churches was unique, as they should have been. Pleasant Grove was closest to town, situated on a four-lane highway. The folks there pronounced “Cheraw” as “Sha-rah” like “que sera sera.” The people at Mt. Olivet near Teal’s Mill pronounced it as “Chur-rah.” The members of the smallest church, Bethesda, pronounced it as “Chee-raw.” Each church was unique in attitudes, worship styles, and socio-economic preferences.

These differences were especially evident in how each “did” church. Pleasant Grove was closer to town and the music and worship reflected this. Mt. Olivet’s choir was more oriented toward quartets. Bethesda had no choir and the congregation primarily chanted their music except when Cindy played the piano for them.

Bethesda loved revivals and baptisms at the creek. Each Sunday for five years my sermons went through a cultural time-warp as I criss-crossed Thompson’s Creek in my used Plymouth Arrow. I preached every Sunday at 9:45 a.m. at Mt. Olivet, 11:15 a.m. at Pleasant Grove, and at 12:30 p.m. at Bethesda. Bethesda loved what I would call “Hard-Preaching.” They wanted the unadulterated truth straight from the Bible, no humor – all with the bluster of a whirlwind with accompanying fire and brimstone with a dash of thunder and lightning.

They didn’t like the Gospel “sugar-coated,” so to speak. Now, understand, this didn’t mean that they lived up to the Word any more than the other churches. These were hard-living people. They had tough lives and were poverty-stricken, but they also exacerbated their own situations by adding their personal fuel (usually moonshine) to their already tenuous existences. I think they needed Hard-Preaching because they knew themselves. They didn’t hide behind fancy liturgies and worship services. They came to church for medicine, and they expected it to taste like castor oil.

I remember one of my first funerals at Bethesda. I thought that I should comfort the family by bringing out all the good things that I could glean from the deceased’s life. He was a rascal by many people’s estimation. I learned very quickly that I needed to tell the truth at subsequent funerals. It was after this funeral that I first heard the pointed joke about the woman who told her son to go check who was in the casket because the preacher had described a man that was a lot better than the one she was married to. The lesson learned was this: if you don’t own up to sin you can’t appreciate grace.

Lent is our time to lay down pretenses and be honest – no sugar-coating. That’s the lesson from Bethesda: grace excels when you need it most! By the way, each of the three churches was the scene of each of our children’s baptisms. Narcie was baptized at Pleasant Grove, Josh at Mt. Olivet, and Caleb at Bethesda. Each of those churches will remain special in many ways. They trained me as a young pastor and taught me how to live incarnationally with diverse and unique individuals. They especially taught me about grace in the midst of judgment. They were and remain vital to our family.

As we make appointments this week I am profoundly reminded that the Cabinet has to know the churches and clergy whom we will consider. This Annual Conference is our family. The Lenten discipline of speaking the truth in love, helpful insight mixed with bared souls is necessary. If we want to do our part to increase the number of vital congregations we have to express an intimate knowledge of every person and church on the table. Effective and grace-filled appointment-making depends on it!

Birthing Babies and Lent

It is always a good thing to be prepared. Life is filled with twists and turns so we better have contingency plans for the unexpected. Today I’m between two dates that remind me of how life comes at us in unexpected ways. February 25 and March 5 are Josh and Narcie’s birthdates respectively. On March 5, 1980 we were almost ready to have a baby. However, it was about 3 weeks before Cindy’s due date and she began having some sort of discomfort. We weren’t sure if it was labor or not, especially being so long before the due date and a first child at that.

We called Cindy’s doctor whom she had been seeing for the prenatal care and told him what was going on. He was in Florence, SC, about an hour away. It was around midnight. He asked how far apart the alleged contractions were. I replied, “Three minutes!” He also asked how long the supposed contractions had been occurring. I told him, “Maybe an hour.” He thought that wasn’t long enough to get to that 3-minute stage of labor so he surmised that it was “false labor.”

Nevertheless, the panic in my voice gave him concern enough so that he advised us to go to the local hospital in Cheraw and have Cindy examined. Then everyone could go back to bed, or so he/we thought. After arriving at the hospital, which didn’t even have a doctor on site, we were there just 17 minutes when Narcie was born. The doctor barely got there! Our best laid plans of her being born at the fancy hospital in Florence by a familiar doctor went for naught.

Two years later we were expecting our second child. We knew the drill but decided to do childbirth classes once again. We were also determined to make it to Florence and have this child in the right hospital. The person who taught the childbirth class suggested that I might read a book about emergency childbirth, given our 17 minute experience with Narcie. I read the book and finished it. The very next afternoon I came in from visiting people. Cindy was indisposed, so to speak, and Narcie was asleep in her room. Cindy firmly but with her usual sense of calm said, “I think this is it.”

I got on the phone with two important people: her doctor in Florence and Lynn Koon who was to watch Narcie while we were away. As Lynn walked in the door I urged Cindy to get ready to leave, post-haste. She said she couldn’t move, so there we were! Josh was born in the parsonage’s bathroom. The emergency childbirth book came in handy as I delivered him. I did everything I was supposed to do, even using an ear-bulb syringe from the medicine cabinet to suction out Josh’s nose and mouth so he could breathe. It was both exhilarating and overwhelming.

I was a wreck. Cindy was as calm as usual. After dialing 9-1-1, I went outside and got thoroughly sick. Cindy’s mother whose hope was to be present for at least one of her grandchildren’s birth had missed both. The unexpected happened once again.

We did learn from the experience. With Caleb’s birth we decided to forget about making it to Florence. At the first sign of labor we made it to the new Cheraw hospital, and after an hour Caleb was born. Cindy’s mother didn’t make it then either, but it was close. They lived an hour and a half away. Whew! All three children were born in Cheraw, in three different places, which is quite a feat in a small Southern town. The unexpected occurred, ready or not.

So it is with much of life’s experiences. Life comes at us full speed and there’s no stopping it. The best we can do is to get ready. Lent is the season in the church year that helps us do that. It is a time of reflection as Jesus makes his journey to the cross. It is a time of devotion and pondering, saying “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God.  Come what may this year, I want to be ready!