Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My!

Who am I going to vote for? Someone even suggested that I could help the congregation discern the right path by using code phrases in my pastoral prayer this week, tipping people off as to whom I think is the better candidate. That’s not going to happen, however well-intentioned the request. I hesitate to even mention it in prayer for fear that someone may read into my words some ulterior meaning. In many ways I really feel like Yogi Berra as he was playing catcher behind home plate. He was watching the opposing batter standing in the box making the sign of the cross across the plate with the bat. Berra said to the other guy, “Why don’t we just leave God outta’ this one and just play the game.”

Wishful thinking or stupidity! I know we can’t leave God out of our national politics, but if there was ever an election year for God to lay low, this might be it. Why? I don’t think God needs to take the blame for the mess we’re in. We’ve done it to ourselves all on our own. Why pray now when God has been bumped to the sidelines for too long already? Democrats and Republicans and every party in-between claims to be on God’s side and leaves my mind reeling. Give me a break! This election season has been nasty and I’m sick of it. I really appreciate the bumper sticker I saw the other day: “The Donkeys and the Elephants are fighting. If you want peace, turn to the Lamb!”

So I don’t want to leave God out! No matter who wins we need to pray that the Lamb wins. The answer to America’s problems are spiritual more than political, and until we get that through our thick heads we’re doomed. This country is always in better shape when we turn to God. I saw proof of that in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. Cindy accompanied me to my meeting with the General Commission on Religion and Race. As a group we toured the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a powerful experience. It was easy to see how an oppressed enslaved people turned to God in their abject situation. On her own, Cindy saw more evidence of how people find strength from their faith in tough times. While I was in meetings, Cindy toured the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. These are clear examples of how America’s people have repeatedly turned to God and filled our houses of worship when times are tough.

On a free afternoon together we meandered down Capitol Hill and saw in linear fashion: The National Archives, The Willard Hotel, The White House, Blair House, the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, which we entered after seeing the Vietnam Memorial and Korean Memorial. The order of our steps held a deeper meaning upon further reflection, pun intended.

I literally reflected on our journey as a nation from lofty ideals to written words to the actions of soldiers and statesmen like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose “I Have a Dream” speech was given from the very spot where I stood. Ponder our journey and see the connections. We started with the archives and viewed the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Next was The Willard Hotel where presidents used to go hang out in the lobby and were approached by those who courted favors. It’s the lobby of The Willard that has given us the word “Lobbyist.”

Next we went to the White House, and as many times as I’ve been to D.C., I had never made it over to it. I was shocked by how small it looked. The Executive office Building next door was massive in comparison, and the Blair House, which is home to the Vice-President, smaller still. Then we went further on to the National Mall and the war memorials.

I couldn’t help but connect the dots from the documents of our founding, to the lobbyists who try to use every loophole as an advantage, to the White House where Presidents attempt to lead our republic, and to the war memorials that exist because that leadership either excelled or failed. Commanders-in-chief have often invoked the Constitution goaded on either by higher ideals of freedom or by self-serving lobbyists, both resulting in soldiers having given that last full measure of devotion in blood. Standing near those memorials I couldn’t help but recall how as a teenager I attended the funeral of Bennie Clayton who died as a grunt in Vietnam.

If I can’t vote for God as Commander-in-chief then it’s going to be hard to vote for anyone, but I’m going to vote. I just don’t want us to become a more divided nation of winners and losers with mutually assured destruction and retribution that will consume news channels, court picks, congress, and everything else. A choice between a donkey and an elephant isn’t much of a choice, but the consequences are real. If you don’t believe it, then walk the streets of Washington, Aiken, or stroll the Freedom Trail in Boston. Walk the cemeteries, and see the tombs of those who gave their lives. Pray that there will be hallowed halls in Congress, the White House, and your house. Please, God, help us to do your will. Amen. Help us to pray for the USA and every leader.

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Prayers for The UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s clergy session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference.

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference decisions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case in setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

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If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!

Amen!

 Prayer pic

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

A Family Funeral and the Prayers of the Saints

This morning I am going to do the funeral for my last remaining aunt. It is an honor to eulogize such a wonderful person. Aunt Alva saw life through the lenses of grace and accountability. She was always warm and welcoming, and expressed her confidence in you through compliments. She dared you to be the best self that you could be. It strikes me that these two bookends of grace and expectation are desperately needed in the church today.

In our Christian tradition we know full well that we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, but we also know that God doesn’t save us to leave us the way that God found us. We believe that becoming a Christian is not the telos end-all, but is rather a beginning of a transformed life. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but God’s grace holds us accountable, better yet, inspires us, and empowers us to do better than we’ve ever done before.

As I eulogize my Aunt today, I almost feel as if I am eulogizing a whole generation of my family. Her dear husband, Uncle J.C., was a member of the “greatest generation” that won World War II. He survived the carnage on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, though it caused him nightmares for the rest of his life. Papa, Granny, Uncle Lee, Mama and Daddy, Uncle Homer, Aunt Florence, Frank, Carlee, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ella Mae, Uncle Buck, Uncle Bruce, Gandaddy, Ganny, Papa Mac, MaMac, Nana, Pop, and more than I can name have “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

But, I feel their presence crowding around this morning. It’s times like this that I treasure that part of the Apostles’ Creed that we so casually recite on most Sundays, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Those of us who believe in Jesus who are left alive are called the Church Militant because we still have inward and outer battles to fight. Those who have joined the great company in the cloud of witnesses above are known as the Church Triumphant.

This communion of saints, this mysterious intermingling confluence of influence is especially felt on days like today. I can picture in my mind’s eye a whole host of those who have gone before us. They are our cheerleaders and models to which we can measure ourselves, or they are like prize fighters who dare us to surpass their own feats of strength or failures of weakness. Either way, we have an opportunity to measure up and/or do better. Both serve a proper function, but it is the emotional tie to these particular saints that makes the call to excel so personal and real. These are people we knew, cared for, even loved, and we want to make them proud. We are their genetic and emotional progeny.

I don’t know for certain if these saints do any more than provide examples and educative fond memories for us. I do, however, know that the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Revelation (8:3-4) says that their prayers for us are still alive and active, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s saints, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” So, though I don’t believe that those in heaven can see anything bad that we do or that wouldn’t be heaven, I do, however, believe that somehow they can see the good we do. This inspires me to try to do all the good that I can. Whether real or imaginary or a weird mixture of apocalyptic history, poetry, and transcendent imagery, I want to sense that this whole host who have gone before us is praying for us.

Call me crazy but just think of the number of cheerleaders that we have! Each of us has had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents and if you extrapolate that out for 10 generations, it adds up to 1,024 parents that are rooting for us. If you take it out to 20 generations, the number is 1,048,576 parents, not counting aunts, uncles, and all the rest of the heavenly host! The epistle lectionary text for July 26 is from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is rich with what I’m feeling this morning, and describes the power of family prayer encompassing all generations. This is St. Paul’s prayer and their prayer for YOU:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

“Throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” Indeed, “Amen.” Be encouraged, therefore, and feel the unfettered wings of those set free from earth’s bonds. Feel the cool breeze of the prayers being sent your way today. They are real, actually more real now than they ever were on earth. I believe in the Communion of Saints!

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Prayer and Passion Week

Palm Sunday is almost upon us and tonight is the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game. You might ask what in the world does Passion Week and Basketball finals have in common. They both say something about prayer in my mind this morning. I know people who’ll pray for all kinds of stuff that doesn’t mean a hill of beans and won’t pray about things that have eternal consequences! There will be people tonight praying for Kentucky or Connecticut to win, but won’t be giving a thought to praying their way through Jesus’ sufferings.

Frankly, I have a hard time understanding why people pray about sports any way, except to pray that no one gets hurt. Being a loyal Gamecock fan hasn’t helped my desire to pray because my prayers have largely gone unanswered! I figure God has better things to do, and our results, except for the past few years, have been more than spotty. So why pray too much about sports? Why not pray for world peace, homelessness, hunger, an elimination of domestic violence, the eradication of racism, family harmony…?

I must admit that I’ve been tempted to pray against some teams that shall remain nameless. But all this is peripheral to Passion Week and Prayer. Jesus prayed as if great drops of blood flowed from his body during Gethsemane’s long hours. The New Testament Greek word used for his efforts in praying is agonizomai whence comes our word agonize. Jesus agonized in prayer while his disciples slept!

Why do we have such a difficult time joining Jesus in such heartfelt prayer? We get worked up over our favorite sports team and fret over all kinds of superfluous things. We innocuously tell people, “We’ll be praying for you,” as if it were a semi-greeting or salutation like “Hello” or “Goodbye.” Agonizing with someone in prayer is far from our usual meaning. Sad!

My solemn promise as Holy Week approaches is not to get bent out of shape and waste spiritual and emotional energy on basketball, baseball, the Masters Golf Tournament, or spring football scrimmages. I want to pray like Jesus over things that matter eternally. I love sports and they matter to me, but, no offense, this week they’re going to take a back seat to more important things.

Three neighbors were talking and discussing the proper position and attitude for prayer. One said, “You should be on your knees with your head bowed in reverence to the Almighty.” The second man spoke up and said, “Remember that you were created in God’s image. The position in which to pray is to stand up looking at the heavens into the face of God and talk to Him as a child to his father.” The third man spoke up and said, “I don’t know much about these other positions, but the finest praying I ever did was hanging upside down in a well.”

Let’s do our best praying in the coming days before Easter! The world needs it! I do hope the best teams win and no one gets hurt in whatever the sport, but my priority over these last days of Lent is going be about bigger things.

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/

“I’ll Be Praying For You!”

Right off, I want to say thanks for everyone’s prayers on our family’s behalf during this eventful summer. An update: Narcie has finished radiation and is daily improving. There’s months of chemo to go, but she’s been in ministry every day at Gator Wesley and across the United Methodist connection as a leader in Campus Ministry. She has been preaching and is overcoming the initial issues with her voice and fine motor skills. She continues in speech and occupational therapies. I am amazed at her progress and I know it is largely because of your prayers and support, and mostly Mike’s help along with Enoch and Evy, too! Narcie has been a witness for perseverance, faith, and the power of prayer! She needs more, for sure, but the Lord continues to sustain her and us! Thank you!

However, not to sound critical, but I’ve been thinking about the difference between real prayer and the ubiquitous phrase I’ve heard not only this summer, but for many years: “I’ll be praying for you.” I am sure that most people have really been praying, but this phrase sometimes comes across as a Southern way of saying, “Goodbye.” “I’ll be praying for you,” is it a greeting, prayer, or an unfulfilled intention? I don’t doubt your sincerity when I’ve heard you say it. This is about me because I need to do better and pray more! I love the old Cokesbury Hymnal song, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” but I haven’t hit that benchmark in a long time unless you add up the cumulative minutes of my breath prayers throughout the day!

So how do I do better? I think one way is to personalize it. What I mean is that prayer is a relationship expressed in words, a give and take, with much more listening than me spouting off a list of what I or others need. Hey, if I would listen more I would probably hear the ways that God wants me to be the one to answer the prayer needs of others anyway! Comedienne Lily Tomlin once tongue-in-cheek questioned, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?” What’s really crazy is for us not to listen to God. It’s the difference between a soliloquy for an audience of one and a divine-human dialogue. Therefore, prayer is an art, practiced and spontaneous, speaking and listening to God, both/and, not one without the other. It is meant to be more than a conversation-ending pleasantry, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s supposed to be a real conversation!

Someone said that prayer should be like having a date with God. Now we’ve all seen people out on dates or at least sitting across from each other at a table in a restaurant. Unfortunately we have also noticed the difference between certain couples’ conversations and others. Some talk with each other with ease while others hardly speak or don’t even look up from their plates. Someone might assume that it’s the difference between courting couples and long-married ones, but I don’t think that’s the whole story at all.

Keeping our relationships fresh is an ever necessary opportunity to grow more deeply in love. Praying to God is similar. In prayer we too often show the dispassionate nature of a stale relationship, barely looking up, just mumbling through some rote words as if they were good enough. If we talked to our spouses or dates the way we talk to God, I think a lot of us would be in big trouble. Listening attentively and speaking passionately about things together is what makes communication the number one ingredient in successful relationships.

Likewise with God and us! We make time for everything else, don’t we? I know some people who spend more time sending and answering their email than praying. I heard of one mother who said, “I had been teaching my 3-year old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation,’ she prayed, ‘but deliver us from email. Amen.’” Yes, God deliver us from email or evil – anything that might get in the way of our time in prayer.

We should resemble the monks from California that Barbara Brown-Taylor, famous preacher and writer, described in an article in “Christian Century.” She said, “Four times a day, a bell rang in the courtyard. As soon as it did, the brothers stopped to pray. The rest of us were welcome to join them, but it was not required. If we did not show up, then they would pray for us, as they prayed for everyone else in the world – for those who were present along with those who were absent, for those who were inclined toward God along with those who were not, for those who were in great need of prayer along with those who were not aware they needed anything at all. Prayer was their job, and they took it seriously. They prayed like men who were shoveling coal into the basement furnace of some great edifice. They did not seem to care whether anyone upstairs knew who they were or what they were doing. Their job was to keep the fire going so that people stayed warm, and they poured all their energy into doing just that.”

Let’s stoke the fire and pray! What do you say?

Our Family Wreath Includes You!

Years ago Cindy and I bought a framed pressed flower wreath composed of the tiniest of colorful blooms. It still hangs on our wall. Inside the wreath in dainty calligraphy were prophetic words that we have tried to honor through all the subsequent years: “Our family is a circle of strength and love, with every birth and every union, the circle grows, every joy shared adds more love, every crisis faced together, makes the circle stronger.”

There have been births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs, and we continue to praise the Living God who gives us the grace to endure together. If anything, it’s the together part that makes the journey easier. No wonder Jesus wanted his followers to be formed into a community of faith. The “two or more…” of the church represents the strength that we gain from bearing one another’s burdens. I can tell you this if you don’t have a community of faith, United Methodism’s connectionalism works! I want to say “Thank you!” to all of you who have been a part of our family sagas over the years. You have lightened the load. You have inspired us to live life with honesty and hope through Jesus.

The Christian faith is not an opiate for the masses as said Marx. Christianity is a very real source of hope. The world’s ways of coping with problems isn’t sufficient. Take a peek at the mostly inadequate methods espoused:

Sixteen Thoughts to Get You Through Almost Any Crisis

1. Indecision is the key to flexibility

2. You cannot tell which way the train went
by looking at the track.

3. There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.

4. Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

5. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

6. The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.

7. Someone who thinks logically is a nice
contrast to the real world.

8. Things are more like they are today than
they ever have been before.

9. Everything should be made as simple as
possible, but no simpler.

10. Friends may come and go, but enemies
accumulate.

11. If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

12. One-seventh of your life is spent on Monday.

13. By the time you can make ends meet, they move the ends.

14. This is as bad as it can get, but don’t bet on it.

15. Never wrestle a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

16. The trouble with life is, you’re halfway through it before you realize it’s a “do-it
yourself” thing.

Although there may be some truth in a couple of these, all in all these clichés are absolutely no comparison to the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. John 10:10-11 says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Yes, the source of evil and disease isn’t God but the thief. Jesus is the Good Shepherd that gave himself so that we poor sheep can have life to the full.

As a family we thank you for your prayers through the years. Some critical times were when we lost our fathers 5 weeks apart in two sudden deaths, and your support through the deaths of both of our mothers was unwavering. Your prayers and presence through my brother’s sudden death were comforting. Your wisdom and guidance through our youngest son Caleb’s journey have been appreciated as well.  You have been with us through the births of our grandchildren Enoch, Evy, and Kaela, too. Guess what: Josh and Karen are about to have another daughter within the month, so thanks ahead of time for prayers for them! The baby is going to be another little girl! My Dad often said that he would have traded all three of his sons for one daughter so Josh and Karen are doubly blessed!

Thanks to Narcie, I can really understand my Dad’s sentiment about daughters. So today I want to thank you especially for your support through Narcie’s travails. It doesn’t seem like it’s been almost three years since her first surgery and diagnosis of an oligodendroglioma brain tumor, and here we go again. May 10, this coming Friday, she is scheduled for another brain surgery. Dr. William Friedman at Shands Medical Center at the University of Florida will be the surgeon. Pray for him and the whole team!

When Narcie got the appointment at UF for the Gator Wesley Director’s position, we had no clue that they had a medical school, much less a renowned tumor center, and Dr. Friedman is chair of the department! God’s providence is marvelous. Even when life’s storms have come our way, God has provided. God doesn’t cause the dilemmas, but God always provides a way out. I Corinthians 10:13 says: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”

So thank you now for the prayers for Narcie, and please continue to lift her up. We will make it by the grace of God. We will continue to live in a posture of faith trusting in a good God who gave his only Son that we might have everlasting life. We will rejoice together and suffer together, and we will prevail together! Thank you for being a part of our family wreath,

tim

The Yo-Yo Pre-Op Stage

My daughter Narcie wrote recently in her blog “Blessings on the Journey” (www.narciejeter.wordpress.com) about being in the anger stage with her upcoming brain surgery. Denial, bargaining, anger, resignation, and acceptance aren’t descriptive enough to handle the emotional roller coaster of dealing with life’s crud. I have no clue where I am right now, but it’s for sure that I’m pretty tired, no offense, of the well-meaning clichés that abound. I know behind those clichés that you care, are praying, and love us. Please cut me some slack if I give you a wierd look if you say, “God is in control.” My God isn’t a puppet-master. God’s a Savior who sees us through. Nevertheless, I thank you even for the platitudes. You mean well. Sincerely, we thank you, and all the more as the May 10 surgery deadline approaches.

Good God, I just wrote the word “deadline” and it freaks me out. The uncertainty of it all is so scary. Narcie is such a person of faith and strength, but we aren’t pie-in-the-sky sugarcoating types. It’s not that we don’t believe that Jesus can heal her, but, hey, if the amount of faith were the determining factor wouldn’t Lazarus still be walking around? Dead for days and risen – if a tiny mustard seed of faith can make a mountain jump into the sea, surely Lazarus would have enough faith to cure any ailment – right? But, wrong. Lazarus is dead. I have seen plenty of faithful people suffer and die. All the Disciples are dead and gone. Papa Mac and SaSa, Ganny and Gandaddy – they’re dead. I get it even if I often don’t like it – the only way to have eternal life is to die. There’s no Easter without a Good Friday.

The Christian Gospel is no clichéd sham of a utopian existence. The Good News that Jesus brings to me is incarnational in essence, though right now a Christus Victor triumphalism is preferred. So I’ll cling to the Jesus who meets us where we are even when it is in the bewilderment of the walk to Emmaus when all seems lost. The Incarnation proves that Jesus knows all our sorrows and redeems them. As much as I presently deplore the import of Romans 8:28, “All things work together for good for those who love Him,” I am comforted by the fact that we do not worship a God who has been insulated from humankind’s desperate plight. Jesus came to earth to be with us, faced temptation just like we do, and stayed faithful to God’s commands when we couldn’t. Since the wages of sin is death and Jesus didn’t sin, the grave couldn’t hold him. Our faith in his victory seals our own triumph over death and the grave. Therefore, all things can work together for good. Maybe that is Christus Victor triumphalism?

But I want it right now. Sure, I know that the Kingdom of God is already and not yet, both come and coming. I don’t want to wait, do you? I want a Jesus riding in on a white horse in Christus Victor style to save the day, especially to save my daughter – now, by God! Yes, I know someday that miracle will occur and its fullest expression of triumph will be through death and resurrection, but I want Narcie to win the lottery now. Heck, I am very certain that the early Christians felt this way. They faced persecution and martyrdom with a certain hope in Christ’s deliverance through their death, in spite of death even.

Gosh, what keeps ringing in my ears is a swing from Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4 to the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.” Paul said (2 Corinthians 4:16ff): “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands… Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” In Philippians 1:21 Paul adds the capstone: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Part of me wants to shout, “Malarkey!” Or, perhaps, I want to say that Paul was speaking from a perspective that only comes with age or severe pain. Surely! I have unfortunately seen the heartache of parents who have lost children. I buried an eighteen month old, a nine year old, and two twelve year old children. There are no words that suffice, only one’s presence and that of Christ can help – the hope and certainty of redemption and reunion. Maybe the whole point of today’s blog is to make the most of life, to make the dash (-) between your tombstone’s birth and death dates mean something – to count each second and treasure them. Listen to the words from “Seasons of Love:”