Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

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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

Jesus, Narcie, and a Topsy-Turvy Week

Every week is an adventure! Who knew that last Saturday, November 1, we would have the earliest recorded snowfall in South Carolina? I ended up driving through a rough stretch of it to get to my brother who was hospitalized with a heart attack. Since Saturday he’s had a total of two, his renal function needs to improve, and God bless his wife. She is literally the best thing that has ever happened to him!

Last Saturday was also my first Apple Fest at St. John’s and it was unbelievable. What an amazing gargantuan task to turn the church into a mall with crafts, treasures, jewelry, casseroles, baked goods, apples galore, clothing for sale, and a silent auction. I suspect that $20,000 was raised for missions. Saturday night was frigid and I was unfortunately on hand to see my SC Gamecocks humiliated by Tennessee. Sunday was wonderful with an attendance of 1061 as we celebrated the Saints and had a baptism!

Monday was the day for my brother’s second heart attack and oral surgery for me. I have been loopy to say the least. My brother is improving, but slowly. Caleb is home from visiting a friend which is grand, but along the way this week there have been 3 flat tires, a hack on my bank account, Cindy locked her car keys in the car at work an hour away. Oh well, the list of the ups and downs could go on, but…!

I am grateful. When I make my pledge to the church this Sunday the most important Bible verse in my mind will be I Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t mean that the topsy-turvy circumstances are God’s will, but giving thanks is! Saying, “I’m doing okay, under the circumstances,” sounds pretty good, but as Christians we are never “under” the circumstances. Thanks to Christ we are more than overcomers. Romans 8 reminds us that NOTHING can separate us from God’s love and care. My giving needs to reflect just how grateful I am for a God who helps us overcome our circumstances!

Yesterday afternoon brought the best news of the week. Our daughter, Narcie, went for her usual 3-month MRI on her brain tumor. She’s had two brain surgeries in the past 4 years and the prognosis hasn’t been a good one. Her doctors have been very blunt, but she’s a fighter and full of a realistic faith. Yesterday she had the MRI and then met with the oncologist. He gave her good news that the tumor was not growing then she asked the question she had not been wanting to ask, “Has my prognosis changed?” Originally they were thinking 3-5 years, but the doctor said yesterday that he thought he could conservatively push her survivability out another 6 on top of the four. We are ecstatic!

I know that there are situations where there is despair beyond hope and I commiserate with those of you who live in chronic chaos, pain, or dilemmas of any kind. I also know this: No matter what we go through or how down we feel, Jesus is more than ready to hear, listen, and respond. Sometimes we don’t get the response that we prefer, but we have a friend in Jesus who has been to the grave and back to set our course on the path to hope and heaven.

I don’t what this week has done to you, but in all of our topsy-turvy lives, Jesus remains constant. Hang on to that, no matter what. Thanks for your prayers for Narcie. I am grateful more than words can express.

Almost Plucked Rooster

 

Truthful Tuesday

Well, I just got back from a “Truthful Tuesday Rally” at the South Carolina Statehouse. Most of it, maybe all of it was the truth. Yes, Medicaid expansion would help poor people; better healthcare would help children in poverty do better in school; and I need to vote! No problem, I agree with all of that! Just don’t tell me how to vote. I may have an opinion about which party has a better record in helping the needy, but I know, as one speaker put it, that I “shouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid” of one particular party. Better yet, I won’t drink the Kool-Aid of either because no party has the corner on the truth.

I actually had a history teacher in high school named Daniel Webster! He told a story that I have never forgotten. It was about somebody trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. The person explaining said, “In capitalism, man exploits man; in communism it’s the other way around.” Pardon the sexist “man” language, but you get the point. It doesn’t matter which system or which party is in charge – there’s going to be exploitation! So there you have it. I am a political independent and proud of it.

Now, I do think that it matters in terms of truth if you follow Jesus who boldly claimed to be the way, TRUTH, and the life. From there I’m delighted to be a United Methodist. I uphold our polity and means of governance. I especially like the way we conference and are connected. We don’t always agree, and lately it seems we mostly disagree. We have become as polarized as government with ins and outs, my way, your way, or the highway. I couldn’t help but think about all of that today.

Mercy, I have tried to be as orthodox a Christian as can be but some of my friends think I’m too liberal, and others think I’m too conservative. I’ve thought about self-declaring that I am a moderate evangelical liberal, liberal evangelical moderate, or a liberal moderate evangelical, but someone would say “Aha! I knew it!” How about this for Truthful Tuesday – I believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and the Apostles’ Creed as something that is literal. Call me oxymoronic but I believe in the mystery of God while at the same time think it’s appropriate to celebrate Epiphany season. God is mystery but God has revealed Godself.

Oh, and don’t wait for me to declare which way I believe on human sexuality. I will not do you that pleasure so you can label me one way or the other, but you can take this to the bank: I believe our United Methodist Book of Discipline is right on the subject; my problem is that it doesn’t openly share an opinion about all human behaviors. If we’re waiting for the culture to influence the church to change, we have already abdicated.

Don’t dare pigeon-hole anyone, because nobody ever fits everything! If we’re being truthful, we all hold diverse opinions ad infinitum, sometimes within ourselves. Sure, I have some non-negotiables like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation through Christ alone, but hold on: which theory of the atonement do I like best? Gosh, will it be Christus Victor (most likely), or substitutionary, ransom, legal, moral influence? Frankly, it depends on the day, sometimes the hour, but what should matter most is who I’m talking to about Jesus. Which way of talking about what Jesus can and will do in their life is most appropriate. Which do they need to hear? So, to heck with fitting a checklist of some party or side. Life is too complex for that, isn’t it? Good gracious, one speaker today pointed at Strom Thurmond’s statue on the Statehouse grounds and said some pretty bad things about him. Get this; thanks to my Daddy’s grandmother Lucinda Sharpton who was half African-American and half American Indian, I can actually say “Cousin Strom” and “Cousin Al” at the same time. Edgefield County was my DNA’s melting pot and I know some good Republicans, gay people, straights, Democrats, and some bad ones of every ilk, too.

Last example: I absolutely love Sara Bareilles’ song Brave. I’ve been told that she wrote it about a gay friend being brave enough to come out. I’ve appreciated it because of my daughter Narcie’s bravery against cancer. You might like it for another reason. The point: Can’t we appreciate the song for being a song and the words meaning different things to different people? I hope so. This is America, the home of the free and the not-so-brave, so let’s pledge to speak the truth in love on Truthful Tuesday. Do listen to the song.

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!

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Keep Calm and Carry On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Live for Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Big Day for Narcie

Today is a big day with Narcie. This is her first MRI after the May 10 Brain Tumor surgery and we need you to help pray that everything is A-Okay. She’s a fighter, a wife, mother of two preschoolers, and campus minister and Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida. She is a wonderful daughter, big sister, and lover of Jesus!

Here’s what she posted last night about today’s events:

“I have my first MRI post-surgery tomorrow at 9 am. The doctor is going to read it at our appointment at 1 pm. I’m not expecting that the tumor will grow back overnight. Not by any means. And I’m sure the doctor’s visit will be anticlimactic – but only in a GREAT, AWESOME, GOD way.

This song “Hurricane” by Natalie Grant has really struck me lately.”

I would appreciate your prayers for her scans at 9 am this morning and the doctor’s appointment at 1pm today, October 14! Pray for Mike, Narcie, Enoch, and Evy and everyone who is working for Narcie’s healing. Thank you for your support. We couldn’t make it without you.

I was at one Charge Conference yesterday afternoon where folks were asking about Narcie and the pastor suggested that we all hold hands and pray. That meant a lot. It does every day. I know that we all face hurricanes. The hope we cling to is that God will find us in the hurricanes of life, and be with us! Whatever you’re facing this week, trust that! Have a listen to Natalie Grant’s “Hurricane:”

Just talked to Narcie and MRI is clear! There was some fluid and she has 4 more months of chemo. Next MRI in 3 months. Please pray that she handles the chemo and it does its job! God is good and we’re grateful to the Lord and y’all! Here is link to Narcie’s post appointment thoughts as she and family try to take it all in: http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/survival-mode/

A Message From Narcie

Most of you know that my daughter, Rev. Narcie Jeter, Gator Wesley Director at the University of Florida, had a second brain tumor surgery May 10 of this year. She is so strong because God is so strong. She just wrote this and as I got home late last night from presiding at a charge conference she had just posted this. I needed it. Maybe you do, too, or someone you know. Thank you for your prayers for Narcie. Thank you to Jesus who makes us all Overcomers!

Her blog is “Blessings on the Journey” and this post can be found at:

http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/overcomer/