Everybody Needs a Study

There’s a person in my life that keeps me honest. One of the ways that he does it is to ask, “What have you been reading lately?” It doesn’t necessarily get me on a reading frenzy, but it does make me think about how and with what I have been feeding my soul. Too often I find myself flitting frenetically from one situation to another without the quality intake that I need to face the so-called “tyranny of the urgent.” Pastors are blessed in that it is expected that we read. Our offices are often called a “Study,” as if to drive home the point.

There’s no better book to read than the Bible, of course. Reading it prayerfully through careful listening to God’s heart is sublime. I really appreciate devotional books that offer more transformation than information. I especially like anything by Chris Tiegreen. He’s my go-to devotional guy. This is soul-reading at its best. Another such book for any potters out there is one that resonates with me: The Soulwork of Clay by Marjory Bankson. Good stuff.

I also like to re-read Rev. William C. Martin’s insights from his book The Art of Pastoring. His breath-prayers from his other book, The Way of the Word, give me a day-long focus that sticks with me. Listen and hear with me one of Martin’s observations to pastors from The Art of Pastoring:

“You are a minister of the Word but not of words. The Word was in the beginning before words and beyond words. And whether they weave sophisticated patterns of intellectual magic, or they strike with passion at the heart of the people’s emotions, words are not Word for the Word is inexhaustible. One can only stand in wonder and point.” Wow. Will I stand in wonder and point to Jesus today or limit God either by my poor inadequate words or an overzealous appreciation of my own voice? I want to let Jesus the Logos speak!

So there are books that are read for diversion and those that inspire transformation. For escape, I prefer historical fiction, a mixture of mystery and history. Since I like to be surprised, I don’t checkout best-seller lists. Finding a good book is more of a serendipitous discovery that is often aided by wise and helpful mentors. Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s family systems primer, Generation to Generation was suggested by a good friend and has been seminal in my understanding of society, church, and interpersonal relationships. It has actually brought me healing! The Starfish and The Spider and business books by Malcolm Gladwell come to mind as important, but anything by N.T. Wright is even more appreciated. His How God Became King gave me more insight into Jesus than seminary.

One of my favorite things to do is to take a mixture of books to Mt. Mitchell or the New River and read for a week. My traveling library will include escapism stuff by James Patterson, Baldacci, Cussler, Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and anything with a hint of the Knights Templar. Throw in a few “business” genre books, capped off by N.T. Wright’s latest or Migliore for theology, and I’m set. I do love Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on Process Theology, too, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons are exquisite reading. It also does me well to reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings every couple of years while listening to the “Best of the Moody Blues.” It is bliss to know that Frodo lives even after the fires of Mordor! I can hear the hoof beats with the Moody Blues playing on my buds. I will often take with me The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. They are a walk back in time, but they are timeless in their wit and insight.

The point of all this isn’t to declare myself as a nerdy bibliophile. To the contrary, I mix it up between the serious, practical, sacred, and mundane. The real deal for me is to take time, Sabbath, and let words enrich me. They transport me to another time, place, context, and give me what I need most: perspective. They provide a creative pause in the rush of life’s crises. Please read more than this blog today! If we don’t take the time to read, we will burn out quicker than a match on a windy day. Let me ask you my friend’s question, “What have you been reading lately?” Everybody needs a study!


A New Week and a Tired Soul

It’s a new week and I have a tired soul. The body isn’t holding up too great either. “Now do it again, with feeling!” says the conductor or teacher. How often I wake up on a Monday morning in ministry and find myself wondering what happened to the weekend. I’m about to do “it” again with another week of ministry, but the “feeling” is just above empty on my physical and spiritual gas gauges. Clergy hardly have any Sabbath rest. Our offices are often called a “Study,” but with the tyranny of the urgent that we face every day, there is precious little time to actually study. I know what my schedule pretty much looks like for the rest of the week and I am already looking forward to the weekend. Sad, and I wonder how many other clergy and people in general feel the same way. What are we working for? Who are we working for? What is the meaning of life and where does it come from?

Some answers to those questions are found in the word “relationships.” My prayer focus this morning is a derivative: Companionship. “Com” is Latin for “with,” and “Panis” means “bread.” Breaking bread with one another has been and continues to be a sign of fellowship and hospitality. Jesus fed the 5,000, broke bread with his disciples on multiple occasions before and after his death, and with the fellows on the Road to Emmaus after the resurrection. Breaking bread with family, neighbors, and the poor is a sign of community, shared purpose, and common meaning. When Christians celebrate Holy Communion they give thanks to the one who redeems and makes us one: “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body.”

So I face another Monday morning to offer and receive companionship. It is not just another day in a long litany of days. This day is an opportunity to break bread with someone, many someones – to sit at table and enter their story. Isn’t that a calling to embrace and not dread: to hear and be heard, to commune with a fellow straggler on the journey and meet Jesus who always walks along and breaks bread with us?

As a United Methodist District Superintendent this is that time of year when I spend time at each church or charge and hold annual meetings. In my seventh year people’s names are known quite well by now and we share personal history. We have become companions, sometimes literally. I was at one church the other day and they gave me some bar-b-que and hash to take home. We ate it for two nights and it was delicious! We also just had our seventh District Clergy Retreat on top of Mt. Mitchell and shared bread and hearts as we ate together, discussed together, and shared prayer for one another. Gosh, when I go back and think of all the times of companionship in recent days I am inundated with companionship and its positive influence on my life. It has occurred in church, with seat mates at football games, and in my office as I have listened to the hearts of dear lay and clergy.

Therefore, I embrace the ways that Jesus will come and break bread with me this day through others, and pray that I will be spiritually prepared to welcome the opportunity. Someone once told me the story of a person who was invited to visit heaven and hell. In heaven he saw people holding 4 foot long chopsticks and before them was spread a banquet table loaded with delectable treats. In hell he saw the same thing: people holding 4 foot long chopsticks sitting at a sumptuous banquet table. The only difference was that the people in heaven looked well fed and happy, joyfully conversing with one another. The people in hell were bitterly quiet, emaciated and starving even though there was ample food laid before them. The person asked St. Peter what was the difference. St. Peter said the people in heaven used the 4 foot long chopsticks to feed each other, while the people in hell were impossibly trying to feed themselves.

Companionship is less obsessed with feeding one’s own appetite for attention or self-interest, and more engaged in communing with the Jesus in those with whom we break bread today. Feed yourself and starve. Feed another and be well-fed. God bless your week with encounters with Christ. This is how God made us to enjoy life and find both help and meaning. Feed yourself and go hungry. Feed another, and thrive!

Christmas in July


Saturday, Saturday – It’s about the only day that ministers get to have Sabbath. Sunday is usually chock full of sermons, Sunday school, afternoon and evening meetings, the usual. The rest of the week is packed, too. I used to try to take Fridays off, but Friday became the day to get things done so Saturday was truly a Sabbath. Sometimes it actually worked.
I have high hopes this morning. We went to the Original Pancake House and indulged. We love it and haven’t been since Cindy got out of school for the summer. We both half-heartedly joked that the district parsonage has been like a motel where we just plop down for the night. Our lives have been in Rock Hill with Narcie, Mike, and the Kiddo’s, plus Josh & Karen; and thank God Caleb and I had our oasis together in Omaha.

Everybody needs an oasis: Like the picture I took of the robin in the snow-tipped pine tree. Christmas in July is having Sabbath in the midst of a hot grueling summer. Part of me longs to be on top of Mt. Mitchell in the solitude and crisp cool air with the clouds swirling in from every direction. It’s always 30 degrees cooler there than here in Columbia’s sauna. Call it “Recovery Time,” or whatever. We need it or we run out of gas and aren’t worth anything to anybody.

So today I’m shooting for a perch in a snow-tipped pine: read a little, sleep a little, catch up on DVR’ed TV shows that I missed during the week, play with the kids and not worry about a thing. I made a pit stop at a local bookstore the other day and stocked up on some novels. Oh, to find the time; or, better yet, MAKE the time to read them. Well, that’s my hope for today, to play with the kids, to read a good book, to be a robin in a tree with dreams of cooler weather.

To all my clergy buds, grab a Sabbath today or whenever you can. Like the little robin, chill out and feel the breeze. Come on, Nicodemus, you can’t see it, but you know it when you feel it. Today is the day. Enjoy.

Church: Exercise Without Endorphins

>Cindy and I had an adventure yesterday. We took her mom, who has been either bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound for the last 7 months, to a movie. She is improving and we’re getting close to her last hurrah. She has surgery a week from Friday, and who knows if she’ll make it in her condition.

Nevertheless, we had a great day, with a few tense moments. We took her to see the movie, “Julia & Julie” about Julie Powell cooking and blogging her way through Julia Child’s Mastering French Cooking. It was a feel-good flick that was authentic and amazing. Meryl Streep deserves the “Best Actress” Oscar.
The tense moments in the adventure were timing (it’s difficult to handle a wheelchair on a schedule, not to mention a frail 76-year-old), the thick traffic on Saturdays on Harbison Blvd. which is atrocious, and our sheer fatigue from long weeks at work. But we made it and it was worth it.
However, in the inimitable words of my dad, “They didn’t have to rock me to sleep last night,” meaning someone is so tired it’s an effortless thing to just hit the pillow and count down from 10 and you’re out. One cute thing happened as we grabbed a quck bite to eat on the way home though. The cashier mentioned how exhausted we looked (never a good sign). She asked if we had been doing yard work or something to tire us out. I said, “No, her mother in a wheel chair and a movie.” Cindy spoke up and said, “Yeah, but tomorrow is Sunday. It’s the day of rest.” Then I said, “We’ll go to church and have Sabbath.” The the profound words from the cashier: “Depends on the church. Some churches will tire you out, too. It depends on what they’re talking about.”
How unfortunately true! Some churches will wear you out no matter what they’re talking about, sometimes worse depending on the preacher’s words. Rather than being energized, it can be deflating. We/I need to do something about that. May it not be so today! Church shouldn’t be exercise without endorphins!

A Womb with a View

>Well, I turned 53 yesterday, October 23. One of my 2 brothers (the one in the photo) called me as is our custom with each other and sang “Happy Birthday.” The same song was shared gleefully at my 2 charge conferences last night. My other brother called earlier in the week and sent a card. He is in a nursing home and has a tough time. My brothers are special to me. I love them and I know that they love me. We’re 8 years apart in age. I guess Mother and Daddy didn’t get a lot of consistent alone-time since Grandmother and Papa’s room was across the hall. I was 2 when my oldest brother left home for USC. I have no recollection of him ever living at home.

Nevertheless, with both parents deceased, I think about my brothers today and thank them for their love and care. They got to name me. They gave me the name William as my first name after my mother’s father, and my middle name Timothy came from the name of the bear in the “Dick and Jane” books. No joke! I guess they got naming rights from my parents so they wouldn’t kill me or because Mother and Daddy were just too worn out to do it themselves. Mother was 40 and Daddy 41 when I was born.
According to her, Daddy, and my brothers, she thought I was an ovarian cyst or early menopause for about 8 months. I guess I didn’t kick a lot. When my Dad was attempting to explain the “facts of life” to me as a early teenager he asked me a peculiar question: “Do you know that you’re a M.A.C.?” I replied, “Sure, I know that I’m a Mc-Clendon.” He responded, “No, I mean a M-A-C, Middle Age Carelessness. Do you understand what I mean?” Reluctantly I replied, “Sure.” That was his sex-talk for me. I guess he figured if I knew what he meant about my birth, the rest would be okay.
My brothers naming me and Daddy’s attempt at sex-ed has often come to mind over the years and made me wonder, “Did they want me?” “Was it a happy surprise?” I think so because they sure did love me. Mother said I kept her young. I do know this in terms of self-awareness: I have too often tried to live in such a way by working hard, pushing frenetically to somehow prove to my parents, even in death, that I mattered and should have been born.
I want to give that push-push-pushing up. It’s one of the reasons I love the mountains where I sit and ponder; I love pottery making because it’s slow and reflective; and I need my cave-time on Saturdays to feed my soul more than I do the rest of the week. I guess we all battle our demons and tapes about self-worth. The best news is that I know my wife loves me, my children, and grandson are glad I’m here, and a lot of other folks along the way. Even better is that God knew me in my mother’s womb even if she didn’t.