Ready for the Dance?

My Mother died in January 1993 and my Dad in July of 2000. Their funerals were genuine celebrations of life. My Dad’s was a particularly powerful testimony. Daddy had lost both legs at age 80. After Mother’s death, he couldn’t bear to be alone in that big house without her so he divided up their possessions, sold our home place and the Edgefield Pottery Museum and collection. He moved to Saluda to be near my middle brother and one of his businesses, but he would drive every Sunday back to Edgefield United Methodist Church, 36 miles round trip, on two artificial legs.

His last Sunday there was a good one. He drove himself home and that evening his kidneys shut down. He wound up in the hospital at Providence in Columbia and quickly went into a coma. He died 9 days later. In so many ways he was my hero. He overcame so many odds in life and was so colorful. His funeral was truly a “Service of Death and Resurrection” with the emphasis on resurrection. I was fine throughout it until we got to the last hymn, “Lord of the Dance.”

I could see past the mists of time into eternity and Daddy had his legs back and he and Mother were dancing. He was cutting a jig and Jesus was right there striking up the band! My dry eyes became a torrent of tears, not from sadness but joy! That funeral service was Easter to me! I can so easily hear the echo of those words now, “Dance then wherever you may be!”

I wonder where you and I will encounter Easter this week. In the throes of Holy Week we’re not there yet, are we? There will be times of abandonment, betrayal, passion, suffering, and care this week. In the midst of our present challenges I hear Jesus’ voice offering grace from the cross giving sympathetic solace to a dying thief who wants to be in Paradise and to His mother and beloved disciple who will find new purpose in caring for one another. The greatest measure of compassion was shown by Christ when he looked down on that company and said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I want to hear Jesus’ voice afresh this week.

Wherever we are in the dance steps of life, Jesus has gone before us – through every emotion, trial, temptation, and thanks to Good Friday through death to resurrection. This is the bedrock of our faith that sin and death can never conquer. Health challenges, family issues, financial stress, personal problems, and ethical dilemmas cannot separate us from Easter Hope: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death not life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present not the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).”

This Holy Week reminds us that Jesus is with us in whatever life deals us, and He wins! Dance then! Cut a jig wherever you may be!

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When Is The Right Time to Close a Church?

When is the right time to close a church? The technical process of discernment and action is outlined in Paragraph 2549 in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, but the emotional process is much more complex. The bigger issue for me is the distinction between abandoning a church or discontinuing it. I haven’t closed a church in my 8 years as a District Superintendent and, as I’m in my last few months in office, I don’t plan on doing it now. It wouldn’t be fair to the next superintendent.

There have been a few Columbia District churches along the way that have been “on the bubble” in this regard, but I strongly believe what the anonymous author said, “Where water has once flowed, it can more easily flow again.” If there was enough movement of the Holy Spirit to start a church, why not wait and see if the fire can be rekindled? This seems like a plug for revitalization of existing churches over new church starts and maybe it is. I strongly support doing both!

Jesus said in Matthew 18:20 that “Where two or three gather come together in my name, there I am with them.” That can be an awkwardly low number. I heard about some ladies comparing their previous week’s worship attendance numbers. One said that they had 500 in worship. Another said that they were at the 100-person mark. The last person said their crowd was so sparse that when the pastor said, “Dearly Beloved,” she blushed. Is there a church size that is too intimate to be effective, too small to really be church?

A case in point is Cedar Creek UMC in the Columbia District. It was founded in 1742 as a German Reformed congregation then Bishop Francis Asbury and circuit-riding preacher “Thundering Jimmy” Jenkins came through in 1785 and the whole congregation, including the pastor, became Methodists. There’s a wonderful historical marker in front of the church. Unfortunately they’re down to five members now, all in their nineties. I’ve told the pastor of this three-point charge to go to Cedar Creek and wait, work on the sermon, and if nobody shows up in 15 minutes, move on to the next church. The people are faithful more than they are able at this point, but how dare I close a church that predates American Methodism?

None of the Cedar Creek folks want it on their conscience either so we’ve made an agreement. I will not start the process for their discontinuation. When they have all gone on to meet the Lord or the Lord has come back to meet them, then the church will be subject to the abandonment clause. However, this bothers me somewhat, too. Is there any spiritual value in the difference between abandonment and discontinuation? Maybe there is since you must have a death before a resurrection!

Sure, the Annual Conference trustees will do their best to see that Cedar Creek’s property is used in a way that promotes Christ’s ministry and the funds that they are currently using will be redirected to more flourishing ministries, but there’s still a sense of loss, even death. As Cabinet Secretary for these past eight years I have been the one who has stood in front of our annual conference and presented the resolutions for church closures. It has always been solemn, moving, and a funeral of sorts, except it’s hardly ever felt like a “Service of Death and Resurrection.” The resurrection part has been largely absent except when there’s a church whose assets have been designated to start or fuel another ministry. There’s real gratitude for past ministry, but seldom a hope of future fruit.

What is there to do? Oh, there are lots of avenues that have been explored through our excellent Congregational Development Office, great nearby churches and other partnerships, but in an area where the deer vastly outnumber humans there’s a dilemma. This is true across our denomination and others where demographics have changed. I have seen churches in the U.S. repurposed where a former Roman Catholic Church in Pittsburgh was turned into a brewery and a Baptist one in New York City has become an excellent Italian restaurant.

What happened? Is there any valid excuse for a church to close? I’m really struggling with this. You can visit Wesley’s Chapel on City Road in London and quickly discover that people don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but they still have an active congregation! In Cedar Creek’s case its near-demise seems to be all about location, location, location, but in New York City and London people can catch a subway or ride the tube to get to church. There are plenty of cars and drivers around here to get people to Cedar Creek, too.

So maybe the problem isn’t as much about location as what happened decades ago or sometime in the interim. I don’t think that this is Cedar Creek’s story, but I have certainly seen it in other places: Many if not most of our declining churches either started as or at some point turned into family chapels and the families have died out. For too long we have counted on people having children who stayed put: duty, loyalty, and inward focus; i.e., too much intimacy without welcoming the stranger and the church has shrunk. If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication.

To replicate the New Testament church we have to sometimes shut a church’s doors for a season in order to squash the old DNA and later reopen it as a new ministry. Frankly, the results have been mixed, but we have to do something. Rocking along propping up failing institutions is a horrible drain on our human and financial resources without much fruit to show for it. Our Wesleyan Movement ends up motionless.

The preferable response to this inertia is worth repeating: If we have timed out on reproduction or tuned out on our communities then we need to focus on replication. For instance, use the official definition of “replication” in computing. It is defined as: “sharing information so as to ensure consistency between redundant resources, such as software or hardware components, to improve reliability, fault-tolerance, or accessibility.”

Now, that will preach when I think about keeping churches alive and well: sharing information (talking about Jesus Christ and his mission), ensuring consistency (discipleship), between redundant resources (connectionalism-“Together We Can Do More!”), such as software or hardware components (people and buildings) to improve reliability (sanctification), fault-tolerance (loving communities), or accessibility (openness to new people and ideas).

My task as a District Superintendent is to be a “chief missional strategist” (Par. 419.1 BOD). That means that I need to help churches effectively share the Good News of Jesus by using all the resources of replication. In Cedar Creek’s case we might build a buzz and momentum for Christ’s witness by turning it into a teaching church. I have 65 churches in the Columbia District and 58 charges. What if I got at least 52 of those churches and charges and/or their Sunday School classes to go out there and hold services once a week for a year? It would be a chance to hold a lab school of sorts about the early history of Methodism for both adults and confirmands, an opportunity for Lay Servants to hone their speaking and teaching skills, a place to talk about ways to retain relevancy when your demographics change and the need for churches to engage new and different people.

The Board of Ordained Ministry could use it as a place for Residency Groups to learn about the Wesleyan Movement and have their very own class meeting. They would have a chance to get ready for the Proclamation Committee, too, by sharing the Word. Gosh, the Cabinet could meet there as a big reminder of two big questions: “What business are we in?” and “How’s business?” Rather than be repurposed into a bar or restaurant, the Lord’s Supper could be served to Emmaus gatherings and others. There are lots of opportunities that need to be explored.

My wheels are turning, but I need to hear your thoughts and dreams. What do you think that we should do with Cedar Creek and others like it? What are your suggestions? I’m all ears,

tim

church bldg

Never a Low Sunday or Day!

The Sunday after Easter is often anti-climatic because the throngs that filled the pews last week have dissipated. It’s called “Low Sunday” because church attendance has dipped so drastically from the week before. How do we keep up the enthusiasm when Easter comes and goes?

The answer lies in the fact that every Sunday is a little Easter. Early Christians moved from Judaism’s worship on the Sabbath, Saturday, because Jesus rose on the first day of the week. The first day of the week is not only appropriate because of its theological emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, but also because it’s during the work week that our faith faces the largest obstacles.

Easter faith is needed more than once a year, or even once a week. Our credo needs to be: “Never a Low Sunday!” or “Never a Low Day!” if we truly believe in the grace and power of Jesus! To worship the Living Christ is to put Jesus first day in, day out. A victorious life depends upon constant faith and faithful dependence upon Christ. To keep Easter is to let Jesus set us free from the sins that hold us.

A couple sat in a pastor’s office preparing to be married. It was the second marriage for both. The pastor asked, “When did your relationship with God become very real and personal?” The bride-to-be’s answer was profound. She said, “It was following my divorce, during a low period in my life. I was running with the wrong crowd. One morning at 3 am, I found myself in the parking lot of a place I did not want to be. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m tired of this lifestyle. Lord, I confess that my own sin has fouled up my life. I believe you loved me enough to die for me and rise again for me so that I can be forgiven. Please forgive my past. I want to be your child from now on.’” She said that she felt an immediate release, as if a huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She became a new person in Christ.

Each of us has a past, some more sordid than others. Unless it is faced and resolved, it will haunt us and pull us down every time. Easter can continue if we will let God heal us. Each of us has our own particular list of sins. But none is too short to dodge judgment, and none is so long that Jesus can’t forgive. According to a story I heard, Sam Snead, the great golfer, was playing a round of golf with the baseball great, Ted Williams. Ted said, “Sam, you’ve got it made. You just tee the ball up and hit it. The ball is dead still. But I have to stand in a batter’s box and face an incredible array of fastballs, curves, and sliders. The ball is moving, maybe 90 miles per hour. That’s why my sport is tougher than yours.” Sam Snead thought about that then said, “Yeah, but you don’t have to play your foul balls.” That reminds me of Bubba Watson’s incredible hooking golf shot last Sunday from the foul ground in the woods off of #10 at the Masters during the play-off.

What do we do with our foul balls? How do we fix our mistakes? The answer for the Christian is through forgiveness. Jesus forgives us if we confess our sins. He sets us free. He empowers us through the Holy Spirit to begin new lives. He gives us the supernatural ability to say, “No!” to sin.

Our faith puts God first in true worship. Then God changes us into God’s likeness. Did you hear about the three people who were asked the question, “What is integrity?” One man, a philosopher, answered, “Integrity is how you act when no one else is watching.” The second person, a business person, said, “Integrity means that when you shake hands on a deal, no written contract is even needed.” The third person, a politician, looked this way and that and said, “What do you want it to mean?” The third person could have been any profession especially as I think of Coach Bobby Petrino’s lack of truthfulness with his family, the Arkansas Athletic Director, and others in the last few days. His self-proclaimed one-person motorcycle wreck, which we now know included a female staffer with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship, finally sunk him.

As much as we would all want to distort God’s standards to mean what we want them to mean, God has a set standard. When we couldn’t meet that standard, Jesus came to save us. Now through faith and the Holy Spirit we can be made children of God, redeemed and set free from sin! Easter’s hope of redemption is needed every day for all of us! I’m counting on it!

Easter Is Personal!

Death bothers me. Some deaths take an even greater toll than usual, as if there’s anything usual about death. I guess that I have seen somewhere around 600 people take their last breath, including my mother and father. Some people die easier than others. Thank God for Hospice. Nevertheless, a few deaths have bewildered me and turned time on its head. Some I saw die and with others I was there for the aftermath. Some deaths gut punch us in a very personal way. Every death diminshes humankind and the ripple effect pains us all in personal ways. Some hurt more than others though.

I think of Brittany Anne Gudger who I watched die in her mother’s arms at eighteen months. Dale Owen comes to mind who died in junior high when his four-wheeler hit a guy-wire connected to a telephone pole. He was one of the best left-handed pitchers I ever saw. His mom buried him with his pager so that she could call his number every day just to soothe her sorrow. I think about Wayne Threatte, a friend and former parishioner, who died too young as a 45 year-old. His last words to me were, “I’m going to be alright.” Well, I wasn’t even if Wayne was. Holly Alford’s death was a shock, too. She was 12 when she drowned in a freak accident when she and her mom hydroplaned into a ditch during a downpour. She was an only child. The list could go on and on. Death and grief care are perhaps a pastor’s heaviest burden. Parishioners rightfully become your family.

My only solace is the same solace that I offer to others: JESUS. Easter’s proclamation is the most profound news of all time. Jesus lives! Because He lives so do Brittany Anne Gudger, Dale Owen, Wayne Threatte, Holly Alford, Mr. Godwin, Mrs. Godwin, Suzanne Godwin, Karl Alexander, Bob Newsom, Etah Fields, Carlee McClendon, Mama, Daddy, and all the rest who have died in Christ. There’s not one soul in Christ left in the grave. How do I know this? Here’s the answer via a story that some claim is true: A man was standing in line at the bank when there was a commotion at the counter. A woman was distressed, exclaiming, “Where will I put my money?! I have all my money and my mortgage here!! What will happen to my mortgage?!” It turned out that she had misunderstood a small sign on the counter. The sign read, WE WILL BE CLOSED FOR GOOD FRIDAY. I guess Easter was not uppermost in her thoughts, because she thought that the bank was going to close “for good” that coming Friday.

Death’s depository of despair was closed on Good Friday. That day Christ took upon Himself all of the pain, sadness, heartache, and sin of the entire world. He endured crucifixion to conquer death. Death came into the world as a result of sin, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus closed death’s bank on Good Friday because He had never sinned. Since He didn’t sin, death couldn’t hold Him. His resurrection on Easter is proof of His triumph and it is the proof that we can triumph, too, through faith in Him. When we believe Jesus died for our sins that means we also believe He rose for our lives.

No wonder worship for the first believers quickly changed from Saturday/Sabbath to Sunday. Since Jesus rose on a Sunday, the first day of the week would forever be a reenactment of Easter. This Sunday is the biggest reenactment of the year. If your faith needs a boost, your grief some solace, and your sins a white flag, then Easter is your day! The victory is won! Just as death is personal, so is Easter. I’m ready for a fresh experience of Easter! How about you?

Easter Needed Early: Marian Dyer

Yesterday made me shrink before the mystery of death. I attended the funeral of one our pastors, Marian Woodle Dyer, age 53, who fought a courageous battle against cancer. She was always so positive and full of faith. I preached a revival for her last fall and sensed an overwhelming expression of how much she was loved by the congregation at Mt. Pleasant. We celebrated her life yesterday and we rejoiced in Christ. The pain of loss is real and I especially grieve for her husband Mike and teenage daughter Adrianne. I know today is Maundy Thursday but I need Easter before Sunday comes. I need the mystery of death defeated and unraveled by the deeper mystery of Easter

Someone once said that God’s incarnation in Jesus was just as the Apostle John phrased it in his Gospel, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” and theologians have been trying to explain it away ever since.” If Christmas is beyond the ability of human language to adequately explain, then the mystery of Easter is totally out of reach. As a matter of fact, our attempts to explain the unexplainable may even detract from the miraculous news of Jesus’ resurrection.

In this vein, St. Francis once said, “Listen, my child, each year at Easter I used to watch Christ’s resurrection. All the faithful would gather around His tomb and weep, weep inconsolably, beating on the ground to make it open. And behold! In the midst of our lamentations the tombstone crumbled to pieces and Christ sprang from the earth and ascended to heaven, smiling at us and waving a white banner. There was only one year I did not see Him resurrected. That year a theologian of consequence, a graduate of the University of Bologna, came to us. He mounted the pulpit in church and began to elucidate the Resurrection for hours on end. He explained and explained until our heads began to swim; and that year the tombstone did not crumble, and, I swear to you, no one saw the Resurrection.”

Therefore, let’s leave Easter as it is: the most marvelous mystery imaginable. It is beyond our comprehension that death can be conquered, that evil can be overcome, that justice can roll down like a river, and that peace will someday reign in God’s kingdom. But, we believe in spite of our grief, our frustration, our lack of empirical evidence, and the gnawing fear in our gut that faith is but a sham.

Jim Harnish, a pastor friend from the Florida Annual Conference, told the story of a little boy who was, “not exactly happy about going to church on Easter Sunday morning. His new shoes were too tight, his tie pinched his neck and the weather was just too beautiful to be cooped up inside … As he sulked in the back seat, his parents heard him mutter: ‘I don’t know why we have to go to church on Easter, anyway; they keep telling the same old story and it always comes out the same in the end.’”

This attitude reminds me of a book I read several years ago about the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a revisionist history of the battle by Newt Gingrich, of all people and this is no political advertisement. Author Harry Turtledove has other revisionist histories of the Civil War that are also interesting, but what made Gingrich’s Gettysburg so fascinating is that General Robert E. Lee acts decisively and wins. That’s a switch for any Southerner who has visited this site of such abject defeat. I have a love-hate relationship with visiting Gettysburg. I had ancestors who fought there, and I know they left defeated and broken. No matter how many times I visit I know the outcome. There are a lot more Yankee monuments than Southern ones because the winners usually have more reason and more money to do such things. Nevertheless, even though I know how Gettysburg always comes out, the trek is worth it. Its pivotal role in American history is without precedent.

Similarly, I keep coming back to church for more of the same at Easter. The message, though always the same, is one that I need to hear, some years more so than others, and this is one of those years. Easter is the penultimate hinge in history, cosmically and personally. Thank God it always ends the same. That’s a sameness that I can bank on year after year, day after day, and minute after minute, and I’m glad! Today I’m especially glad for all of us who will miss Marian Dyer.

Good Friday to Easter!

>Death bothers me. Some deaths take an even greater toll than usual, as if there’s anything usual about death. I guess that I have seen somewhere around 600 people take their last breath, including my mother and father. Some people die easier than others. Thank God for Hospice. Nevertheless, a few deaths have bewildered me and turned time on its head. Some I saw die and with others I was there for the aftermath.

I think of Brittany Anne Gudger who I watched die in her mother’s arms at eighteen months. Dale Owen comes to mind who died in junior high when his four-wheeler hit a guy-wire connected to a telephone pole. He was one of the best left-handed pitchers I ever saw. His mom buried him with his pager so that she could call his number every day just to soothe her sorrow. I think about Wayne Threatte, a friend and former parishioner, who died too young as a 45 year-old. His last words to me were, “I’m going to be alright.” Well, I wasn’t even if Wayne was. Holly Alford’s death was a shock, too. She was 12 when she drowned in a freak accident when she and her mom hydroplaned into a ditch during a downpour. She was an only child. The list could go on and on. Death and grief care are perhaps a pastor’s heaviest burden. Parishioners rightfully become your family.


My only solace is the same solace that I offer to others: JESUS. Easter’s proclamation is the most profound news of all time. Jesus lives! Because He lives so do Brittany Anne, Dale, Wayne, Holly, Chuck, Mr. Godwin, Bill, Lois, Jean, Bob, Etah, and all the rest who have died in Christ. There’s not one soul in Christ left in the grave. How do I know this? Here’s the answer via a story that some claim is true: A man was standing in line at the bank when there was a commotion at the counter. A woman was distressed, exclaiming, “Where will I put my money?! I have all my money and my mortgage here!! What will happen to my mortgage?!” It turned out that she had misunderstood a small sign on the counter. The sign read, WE WILL BE CLOSED FOR GOOD FRIDAY. I guess Easter was not uppermost in her thoughts, because she thought that the bank was going to close “for good” that coming Friday.

Death’s depository of despair was closed on Good Friday. That day Christ took upon Himself all of the pain, sadness, heartache, and sin of the entire world. He endured crucifixion to conquer death. Death came into the world as a result of sin, “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus closed death’s bank on Good Friday because He had never sinned. Since He didn’t sin, death couldn’t hold Him. His resurrection on Easter is proof of His triumph and it is the proof that we can triumph, too. When we ask for forgiveness and believe that Jesus died for our sins that means we believe that just as much as He died for our sins He also rose for lives. No wonder worship for the first believers quickly changed from Saturday/Sabbath to Sunday. Since Jesus rose on a Sunday, the first day of the week would forever be a reenactment of Easter. This Sunday is the biggest reenactment of the year. If your faith needs a boost, your grief some solace, and your sins a white flag, then Easter is your day!