A Fisherman’s Tale

Easter came so early this year that I feel like I missed it. We had a huge number of people in church. The music was grand. Everything went well, and immediately after the last service I changed into my camping duds, left my suit at church, and took off for the mountains to enjoy 3 days of respite and relaxation. I wanted to catch another trophy. Last May 29 at 12:15 in the afternoon using a Mossy Creek “Rebel” Teeny Weeny Crawdad, I landed a 26 inch Rainbow Trout. Funny how the specifics of that are more easily remembered than much more important things.

This last week’s trip was the earliest I had ever been on the New River near Jefferson, NC. It showed. It was cold and there wasn’t a leaf on a tree. Heavy frost and below freezing temps made my -40 degree sleeping bag a welcome place to snuggle inside my 4-season one-man I-tent. The usual fish that I catch like Redeye, Smallmouth, and Sunfish all had lock-jaw. The trout fishing, however, was the best ever.

It wasn’t a 26-incher, but I missed catching a giant Brown trout except for forgetting to put the net in the canoe. I did catch a beautiful little trout that looked like a cross between a Rainbow and a Brown, pink spots at the top and dark ones at the bottom. Gorgeous, but the fishing went from good to bad by the last day when in 6 hours only 4 fish were caught.

You’re probably wondering why in the world this fishing and camping expedition is on my mind, and there is at least one reason: most ministers need some time off after a hectic Easter! But, the main reason this is on my mind today is that I’ve been looking at the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. The Gospel for April 10 is from John 21 where the disciples encountered the Risen Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He met them doing exactly what they were doing when he called them to join His ministry. They were fishing.

There’s something comforting about going back to the familiar after a life-changing event. Maybe the disciples were just hungry, but, for whatever reason, they went back to catching fish instead of their charge to be fishers of people. Going back to the same-old, same-old is about as disappointing as the drop in attendance from Easter to the Sunday after. It’s not called “Low Sunday” for nothing.

What’s impressive in John’s account is that when they hauled in the miraculous catch of fish, he says the fish are large and they’re exactly 153 of them! Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It makes the account sound a little fishy, but at the same time it adds precisely what the Easter narrative needs after two weeks of going back to our normal schedules. The size of the fish and the specific number add authenticity, reality, Truth.

For the fisherman in me who just got off the river – cold and wet, with precious little to show for my supposed time away, it shows that Easter lasts longer than a special day. It is Good News that comes in handy when we’re doing the ordinary, the usual, and the work-a-day stuff of life. Jesus met the disciples, and meets me, and you, too, more in the natural ebb and flow of life than He does at Empty Tombs or Mountains of Transfiguration. Those don’t mean near as much if they don’t impact where you and I spend most of our time.

Maybe what I need to do today is count fish. Rather than lamenting that Spring Break is over, I can go one better by noticing the miraculous in the mundane. Instead of daydreaming about my next excursion, I can focus on the awesomeness of now. In this strange semi-down time after Easter, it will do my soul more good to ponder the exactness of 153 fish caught and how big they were. Ours isn’t a make-believe faith built on myth and fabrication. Jesus’ resurrection is real. It gives tangible hope in our ordinary lives.

So, whether you’re facing a doctor’s news, test results, hours of rehab, spring cleaning, the spreading of new mulch, or the nuts and bolts of prepping a flower bed, then know this: there is nothing more extraordinary about ordinary life than when you know Jesus is alive! I don’t have to escape to future far-off oases, or to past good old days when the Living Lord is right here and now. If I count them, I’ll guess that there’s 153 large God-moments with my name written on them, just waiting for me to haul them in. How many “fish” have you caught today?

Trout

 

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In Pace with Transfiguration Day

With an early Easter, we have a short Epiphany season this year in the church. This coming Sunday is its climax with the Transfiguration of the Lord. We started Epiphany with a voice from heaven affirming Jesus at his baptism, and we end with God’s voice again declaring the Lord’s special relationship with the Father. The heavenly affirmation to Jesus expresses something that everyone longs for: We are both “loved” and “chosen.” Great words to hear as we wonder who we are and why we’re here.

Remember the story of the priest who was out walking the streets of Moscow during the days of the Soviet Union. He was deep in thought while praying and pondering his calling. Absent-mindedly he wandered into a forbidden security zone near the Kremlin. A soldier startled him when, with rifle in hand, he asked, “Who are you and why are you here?” The priest then oddly asked the soldier what his monthly salary was as the soldier looked at him with a quizzical look. Finally the soldier blurted out a figure. The priest then told the soldier, “I’ll double your pay if every night you ask me the same two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” The soldier agreed, and the priest’s sense of call gradually returned.

Transfiguration Day gives us the same opportunity. It allows us to be with Jesus on the sacred mountain and hear God’s call on our lives. It is a “thin place,” as the Celts beautifully described their sacred locations for interactions with God. The veil between this world and the unseen one are literally thin. We can palpably sense there is something otherworldly afoot. We can get distracted like Peter, who on that first Transfiguration wanted to get busy and do the mundane thing of building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, or we can focus only on Christ and listen to him.

Which will it be is the choice we make every day. Do we do as the old hymn’s title says, “Take Time to be Holy,” or miss the thin place and remain thick-headed? To be sure, there are places that are more conducive than others for reflection and worship. Several guys were asking each other about their devotional practices and what worked best. One guy said that his best worship was done with his face and hands raised toward heaven. Another said that his best way to approach God was prostrate on the ground in total humility. The third man said, “Both of those sound fine, but the best worship I ever did was when I fell into a well and was praying while I was dangling upside down from the bucket.”

Sometimes, as a clergyperson, it’s hard for me to have a set worship practice that works best. My worst temptation is to turn my conversations with God into sermon fodder. This is my version of Peter’s jumping to doing something at the expense of just being still. Of course, I have devotional routines that I make myself do. Right now, I read three devotionals daily and the Bible chapters that go with them. All three are by Chris Tiegreen: God With Us, Experiencing God’s Presence, and At His Feet. It’s good stuff, not perfect, but certainly good. You might ask, “Why three?” The answer is because I’m a little dense sometimes. It takes me about halfway through them before I settle down enough to turn off my mental to-do list. Then I’m able to hear God speak.

What are your thin places? Some are easier to identify than others. Outdoors is a no-brainer choice for me. On top of Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 feet up is a glorious and sacred place. Paddling the New River with the rhythms of alternating rapids and sloughs help me get in pace with the heartbeat of God. This week it was the thin place of a new grandchild’s birth. Not only was holding little Jude a wonderfully peaceful expression of God’s presence, but I also felt the Divine while I was relegated to staying at Josh and Karen’s while Kaela (4) and Joella (2) slept.

They have a baby monitor that wirelessly connects to the girls’ room with video and sound. All night long I could hear their breathing, in and out, so wondrously peaceful, and I could see them safe and sound. It was hypnotic and special, but I could barely wait until morning to tell them they had a baby brother! Isn’t that an analogy for us? If we go through life exhaling the mundane and inhaling the sacred, all the while anticipating that God is going to show up, then God will do just that! We will be as transfigured as Kaela and Joella’s faces were when they got the news about their new brother: Jude Zechariah McClendon.

When have you felt closest to God? It doesn’t have to be a literal mountain top experience. It may have occurred when you were in the deepest darkest valley. The Lord, through the psalmist (Psalm 46:10), beckons us: “Be still and know that I am God.” To know God is to know who you are and why you’re here. I invite you to listen.

The Calm before the First Rapids – South Fork of New River

New River Rapid

Out of the Mouths of Barbers

We are grateful that our new church has a housing allowance, but we have never bought a house before and had no clue of the hoops that one has to maneuver to make it to closing. How many more copies of this or that will be needed? I pray that we’re near the finish line, but I imagine there’s more to be done. It would have been helpful to know NOT to buy furniture ahead of the move. It depletes your liquid assets that the mortgage company wants to measure, and that’s not a plus to your credibility as a buyer.

I never knew how much of a blessing parsonages are to our clergy deployment system. You move out and move in, food is waiting, unpacking helpers are on hand, and you’re not distracted by much more than whether or not your bedspreads match the existing window treatments. For the first time in my ministry I’ll be without an S/PPRC or Parsonage Committee person to call when something breaks. I’ll be a committee of one whose handyman skills are usually reserved for mission trips. We are grateful for a chance to buy our own home. My prayer is that Cindy and I won’t be too frazzled before we get there.

Therefore, I’m more than a little stressed right now while I’m waiting for the money that I’m borrowing from my 403B to clear the bank so I can prove to the mortgage company that I’m a  good risk. I’m also weary from finishing up appointment-making as a District Superintendent. On top of all this I’m putting out the usual fires that come from “buyer’s remorse” as churches that didn’t ask for their pastors to move want them to move now and it’s too late!

I need to remember what I told a stressed out pastor last night: “You are not responsible for your people; you are responsible to them.” There’s a huge difference between feeling responsible FOR everyone and everything, and being responsible TO others by doing the best that you can and letting the rest go. I want to be like the non-anxious presence of Jesus when he stood before Pilate, secure in who I am and not caught up in someone else’s hurricane.

I just went to get a haircut and the person tending to my very limited strands asked, “How are you today?” I started on my tale of mortgage banking, a daughter who’s had brain surgery, concern over this detail or that one ad infinitum until she simply asked, “Are you religious?” What a great segue into a spiritual discussion with a stressed out dude. It was the best haircut I ever had, and it wasn’t at all about my hair! I never told her I was a pastor, but I did tell her I believe in Jesus. She wasn’t judgmental in the least about why I didn’t seem to be acting like I actually BELIEVE in Jesus. She just simply said what I’ve heard my dear wife say over and over again, “Turn your worries into prayers.”

Goodness, how much better I felt after that haircut! Everything is going to be alright. Jesus is my Rock and Redeemer. I need to do what I am supposed to do and not freak out if the stuff hitting the fan isn’t evenly distributed. You know how there seem to be some people who have a Teflon coating and trouble never sticks to them. Well, I’m one of those who are like Velcro. Everything sticks! Lately I have looked and felt like that old baking sheet we received when we got married almost 39 years ago – bent, rippled, warped, and multi-colored from stains and grime. It might be time for a new baking sheet!

The barber asking, “Are you religious?” has been my chance at a fresh start today. I am going to redouble, triple, and quadruple spiritual disciplines that have been too quickly evaporated by and overwhelmed by the flood of urgent things. If I do believe in Jesus and life is throwing junk at me then I better spend as much or more time talking to Jesus and yielding moment by moment to God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, here’s to fresh starts with the Lord! Plus my ace in the hole is that tomorrow morning I am “getting out of Dodge” with my Bible, fishing tackle, camping gear, chess set, and a good friend to spend a couple of nights listening to the tranquil sounds of a waterfall on the New River in Western North Carolina. In the midst of night after night of Introductory Visits for new pastors, here’s my first chance in months to get away and let the Lord refresh me and I’m taking it!

I’ll be back in time to thank Cindy for being the best Mom I’ve ever seen, and preach a Mother’s Day sermon for one of my convalescing clergy. Then next Monday I’m going to my new appointment and acclimate to things. I will be there for staff and worship meetings, and spend one-on-one time with each person. I’m going to ask them two questions: “What is ___________UMC known for in the ____________ community?” and “What are you known for in ___________ UMC?” I want to hear about each person’s passions and discern how I can facilitate shared ministry and teamwork. People can do so much more when they’re having fun and doing it together!

I am going to ask how each person finds renewal in Jesus, and here’s a question for all of us: “Who’s winning in your life: your worries or your faith?” If it’s our worries then let’s do something about it. As the old hymn goes, “I’m going to lay down my burdens, down by the riverside…” What about it? Feeling like Velcro collecting stress, a dented old pan whose shiny wore off a long time ago, then let me ask you: “Are you religious?” That barber asked a great question to put me back on track with Jesus. It’s a great question for you, too, and so is “Where is your riverside?” Give a listen to this quartet of barbers and turn your worries into prayers!

A Cord of Three Strands

Cindy and I are about to take an adventure. Those of you who know me well have heard about my many Mt. Mitchell treks, camping for $11 bucks a night at multiple College Baseball World Series in Omaha, or canoeing the New River between North Carolina and Virginia. Cindy has been camping once with me to Mt. Mitchell, once in Omaha, and tomorrow we’re heading to Jefferson, NC and the New River! I pray that it’s enjoyable enough that it’s not a “one and done” experience. I so enjoy us being together, but for this to be a repeat thing we’ve got to have serenity and spontaneity mixed with a little bit of comfort and a lot of companionship. Most important to both of us is companionship with God.

This reminds me of when I was in seminary in Boston when I enrolled in a strange class called “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I thought the class was going to be about the prayer disciplines of the early Desert Christians. I quickly discovered that it was a backpacking course designed to stretch our faith through rock-climbing, rappelling off a 700 foot high cliff, and spending two weeks hiking through the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. We were in five person teams. One person was the orienteer with map and compass. I was the cook carrying a little alcohol burning Svea stove that had to be warmed up by body heat in order to work. We hiked through snow up to our chests in places, and learned how to work as a team helping each other through the constant obstacles.

It was a marvelous course! I do remember, however, how desperate I became during the middle of the trip. Home and Cindy were far enough away from my memory that I was missing her terribly. We were not yet far enough along on the trip to see the light of civilization at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It was a perfect time for what the leaders planned for us. They gave each of us a piece of plastic to act as a ground moisture barrier or as a tarp, and took us along with our personal gear into the deeper darkness of the forest. Each person was alone, no one was within eyesight or earshot, and we had no food. Each of us had enough water to last for three days, and that was it. We weren’t allowed to keep our watches either.

The first day was terrible! I wanted to eat something, anything. I scoured my backpack to see if a single loose M&M might have strayed from the hands that stripped us of all our food. I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t tell the time, but by the looks of the sun, time had stood still. I wanted a Coke, a candy bar, Cindy, a pillow, and hot water. The second morning things began to shift. I had gotten used to the hunger. I dug out my Bible from the backpack and read to pass the time. I started noticing that the sun was moving rhythmically through the sky. The sounds of the forest were poetic in their random yet predictable patterns. It was so soothing! Over the next two days I pulled out another book that I had stashed in my backpack. It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, Life Together. What a wonderful book about Christian fellowship!

Those days alone in the forest while fasting brought clarity of thought to me that I have seldom experienced since. Priorities were in focus, spiritual insight was effortlessly gained, and God seemed closer than my breath. It took the wilderness for me to see that the main thing is the main thing! God is the best meal imaginable – better than any M&M to a guy doing a solo in the dark woods. Snacking off the candy of life isn’t truly satisfying, and the time alone made the fellowship of fellow hikers all the sweeter when we got back together!

Partaking of Jesus, the Bread of Life, is ultimate satisfaction! So Cindy and I will have a tent, and our Therm-a-rest sleeping pads, freeze-dried meals of turkey tetrazzini, beef stroganoff, and granola, plus two backpacking camp chairs,  a Jetboil, the Bible and some books, along with enough fire starter to give us the essentials; but most important beyond each other there will be God. This has been a summer of “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity” for our entire family and the Lord has been with us. Narcie is doing so much better. We all are!

We have learned like Bonhoeffer did. We really need the community of life together, but mostly we need an awareness that God is right here with us, too. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says it well, “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” So, here the three of us go – Cindy, me, and Jesus!

New River

Getting Ready for the Best Year Yet!

I haven’t written in weeks, but have great excuses. We had Annual Conference which was wonderful under the leadership of Bishop Jonathan Holston. Then the day after it ended I went on a 2 week tent-camping, fishing, and canoeing trip along the New River between North Carolina and Virginia. It was wonderful! There was great camaraderie, superb fishing, rushing rapids, adventurous mishaps, magnificent food, and good reading. Getting back in the saddle as a District Superintendent has been challenging, but I’m ready for this final year as a DS to go well. Oh, yeah, we also made a mad dash down to Florida to check on Narcie’s progress, and we start Cabinet Retreat this Monday with folks connected to Patrick Lencione as we work on what it means to be an Annual Conference team and what are our goals and strategies.

Describing a Bishop, DS’, and Conference Staff as a team should go without saying, but we have all probably heard or seen the opposite. I just reread Lencione’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team for the first time in 8 years when it was recommended in Baby DS School, and am now reading his book The Advantage for the first time. Good stuff! Challenging stuff. He doesn’t say the following things, but it’s what comes to my mind as I think about the church’s organizational health. There are two primary questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” I can answer the first question with the acronym “MD4C” – Making Disciples for Christ. The second question is a lot more nebulous and complex. Some people want to talk about metrics that suggest an outcome-based answer. Others want to describe a healthy church as one that’s relevant, relational, missional, touchy-feely, and friendly. I want both descriptions! Numbers with a personal nuance!

And I know that you can’t slogan your way to better health as a church or as a person. Slogans and mission statements are usually so pie-in-the-sky that they don’t really mean much anyway. Writing a mission statement makes everybody feel good before the meeting or retreat is over, but then it’s back to the grind where theory is replaced by harsh reality. And in the church we’re too “nice” to care enough to confront reality and sub-par performance in our peers. So we go along to get along and the result is usually mediocrity. Oh, I like slogans and I like them short enough to be memorized and long enough to be memorable, but slogans are only as good as what we do with them.

We can talk a good game about organizational health but sheer talk is mushy rambling without clear action and buy-in as a team. According to Lencione the five stages to organizational health are: trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. Put another way, he says that the five dysfunctions are an absence of trust evidenced by a lack of vulnerability; fear of conflict with its artificial harmony; a lack of commitment with too much ambiguity as its evidence; avoidance of accountability whose evidence is low standards; and, finally, inattention to results whose evidence is seen in self-promotion and ego issues among team members. Let me tell you, Lencione is worth the read!

I can say over and over again how I would like our denomination, annual conference, or so-and-so to be better and do such-and-such, but if I never do anything about it or take it to the actionable level, I’m not doing anybody any good. I guess that’s where I am – caught between deciding to make a difference or to just bide my time in this last year as a DS. Do I check out of the process and play the lame duck bureaucrat, or do I fully engage for my own personal growth and that of the United Methodist Church?

If you know me, you know the answer. As a person with at least 15 more good years to give to the UMC, I am going to choose to be all-in. If I can give a canoeing trip my best, or support my daughter with my best, or be a rabid Gamecock fan with my best, how dare I, for one second, not give my best to the church that I’ve seen Jesus use more often than not to save souls and save society? So here goes, “I’mmmmmm baaaaack!” I want to do everything I can to get ready for the best year yet!

United Methodism is Dying for a Makeover!

I’ve got a couple of things whirling around in my brain today. August 15th is my late older brother’s 72nd birthday and tomorrow is the start of a new adventure. My middle brother, Ralph, and I, along with a cousin and a preacher buddy are going camping for 3 nights, 4 days. We’re going to canoe the New River that straddles North Carolina and Virginia. Ralph has had open-heart surgery, has a bad foot, and is a diabetic on insulin, plus he’s never been in a canoe and it’s been decades since he went camping. I told his wife to sneak up on us and video our shenanigans and she said, “Oh no! I don’t have to do that. I live with him!” He has been calling me pretty often wondering what to bring, what to wear, what to eat, will I have a tent for him and a sleeping bag. The list goes on. Hey, he just wants to know the lay of the land. Does he need to bring fancy clothes or a poncho? The poncho is a better choice. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a fancy Manhattan restaurant or camping on the New River. What’s the proper attire or etiquette?

Proper etiquette nowadays fluctuates from person to person. There’s hardly a one-size-fits-all standard anymore. With blended families and other concerns, even the seating arrangement at weddings can be a maze of upset-the-fruit-basket. I’ve had some interesting weddings. There was the one when the bride’s veil caught on fire. Instead of snuffing out the candle in her side of the Unity Candle, she blew and her veil went right into the flame. Things went up in smoke, literally, before our very eyes. However, the little glitches that happen at weddings are no big deal really. Weddings are like that, and the couple’s love for one another completely overshadows the snafus. Things happen. Indecorum occurs when people are either intentionally insensitive to others, or they just don’t know the proper etiquette.

We do want to do things right, don’t we? I want to know if a party requires casual dress or formal attire. There’s nothing as awkwardly obvious as a minister decked out in formal clerical garb at a casual garden party. It puts a damper on the festivities to be sure, and telegraphs a not-so-subtle assessment of the affair. For the most part, we want to fit in rather than stand out. We applaud those who know the rules, have discriminating taste, and are connoisseurs of acceptable standards of decorum.

But what if you don’t know the rules? What do you do when you aren’t sure what to do and the latest edition of Amy Vanderbilt doesn’t cover your decorum dilemma? It makes sense to me to enjoy the party and go with the flow. Sometimes good etiquette has spoiled an otherwise fine time. We can have such discriminating taste that we end up eating alone. What a bad idea. Is it better to be right, or to be included? An even bigger question is whether or not we value being inclusive over discrimination.

Wouldn’t you rather have your long-lost friend show up at your party with dungarees and dirt than not be there at all? Maybe they didn’t hear about the party until the last-minute. Maybe they were helping someone in an emergency. Nevertheless, my guess is that you would rather see them than what they were wearing. That’s the nature of friendship. Friendship looks past the outer trimmings and values the friend.

Don’t get me wrong. I like rules. I wouldn’t be our Annual Conference’s Parliamentarian if I didn’t. I wouldn’t have taught the United Methodist Book of Discipline to seminary students at Emory if I was an antinomian. However, when worse comes to worse, and shove comes to shove, I say, “Let decorum move over if friendship is at stake.” Put another way, “It’s more important to do the right things than to do things right.” We need to beware dressed down Fridays and dressed up Sundays if we’re not in tune with what’s sensitive to people. Dress codes promote elitism as much as sexism promotes gender inequities, and racism falsely touts the inherent superiority of one group over another. Don’t let a buddy’s tee shirt attire cause you to bump him from the guest list. Jesus ate with all kinds of people and the ones who gave him the worst time weren’t the dressed-down but the dressed-up.

Our United Methodist motto is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors!” Some say it’s false advertising. Paragraph 4 of the UM constitution says it’s the real deal. Our Articles of religion and Confession of Faith declare pretty clearly that we all need Jesus so there’s no room for anybody to act holier-than-thou. Let’s open our arms to everyone and practice a Jesus-like reverse discrimination where the last is first, the lost sheep is found, and who cares if you have everything you need on a camping trip. The best part is who you’re with, not the equipment. Keep that in mind and that’s an etiquette that will never go out of style. The United Methodist Church is dying for a makeover. We have got to reach younger people, more diverse people, unchurched people. We better be in tune with who they are, or United Methodism will die as a church while it lives as a club.