Gratitude for Lay Servants and Lay Speakers

It’s been my pleasure to teach the Advanced Lay Servant course, “From Your Heart to Theirs” for the past 7 years. My last stint starts Sunday week. It’s a course that is subtitled, “Delivering an Effective Sermon.” The gist of the whole course is to encourage Lay Servants to realize that the best message is one that comes from the heart and touches someone else’s.

The official teacher’s guide to the course is good and helpful, but like many curricula it needs tweaking to juice it up and grab the attention of the students. The first week of class is mostly lecture with facts about different kinds of sermons, Bible interpretation aids, pluses and minuses of manuscript versus extemporaneous preaching styles, use of the hymnal, and tips on how to use one’s voice more effectively. The bottom line is that the course is about making it personal. The second week is when we listen to each other to see if that’s what we’ve done.

A “heart-to-heart” message is authentic, genuine, and has immediate “street cred.” It is not about sharing a speaker’s glamorous life events, but sharing how our ordinary lives intersect with and are really a part of God’s bigger narrative. The Scriptures are the text and we are the illustrations. Of course, I know that good sermons depend upon thorough exegesis; an interpretation from or out of the text itself. The biggest temptation in preaching a “heart-to-heart” sermon is a tendency to depend on eisegesis; a reading into the text from our own experiences and perspectives.

I submit that although exegesis is most important, the application of that knowledge into our contemporary existence through eisegesis is vital, too. We are required to superimpose our stories onto Scripture in order to be real and relevant. Therefore, I often find myself preaching in a way that uses my personal narrative in an illustrative manner. The Scripture speaks for itself, but I also need to share how it has applied to my life.

My children would have gladly preferred that I kept much of this to myself through the years, and I agree. Too much of the preacher’s story and not enough of Jesus’ makes for a self-centered, look-at-me-and-say-“wow!” hubris. Sharing too much of my children’s stories, usually without their permission, was downright embarrassing! I exposed their lives to a critical public.

I may have seen the moral of the story, but my kids and parishioners probably thought, “There he goes again, tooting his horn about his family.” Now, granted, most of the time these stories were self-deprecating, but it was still overdone. The sermon should be mostly about God’s salvific work than about me-me-me even if primarily about foibles! On the other hand, an all-exegesis sermon can sound like a commentary read aloud – b-o-r-i-n-g! There needs to be a balance, and sermons need to be as creative as the Creator!

The emphasis of the teacher’s guide for “From Your Heart to Theirs” is to help students realize that they already have a basis for ready-made sermon illustrations. Their personal experiences are the source. The seductive pitfall, however, is to start from experience and then hunt a Bible text to back it up. I encourage using the lectionary as the foundation for any given Sunday’s sermon, praying and studying through the passage and other information, then pondering where a speaker’s life and the text meet. Then tell the story!

This process is where the rubber meets the road for Lay Servants, Lay Speakers, and clergy. All of us can benefit from using a timeline of the key events in our lives. Those events can provide tons of illustrations about God’s providence and our obedience to or thwarting of God’s perfect will.

Baptisms, marriages, deaths, grammar school antics, high school friendships and graduations, college encounters, adult friendships, love and heartbreak, parenting, illnesses and the like can provide living proof of God’s faithfulness. Stories that make these scenes come to life animate the sermon and enliven the speaker who can “see” what’s being shared and say it more easily than rattling off a memorized illustration or someone else’s humorous story. The hearers can easily connect their similar adventures or misadventures, and find themselves drawn into God’s narrative. It makes preaching more than just an “inner dance,” as someone has called it. It becomes a “conga line” that brings everyone along!

I appreciate so much the work of Lay Servants. It is an honor to be asked to teach preaching, and it is a blessing when these students fill our pulpits when clergy are out sick or we’re celebrating Laity Sunday – whenever! Preaching is an art that can be learned if laity and clergy alike are willing to tell God’s story and their story in such a way that’s faithful to Scripture and magnifies Christ. Thank you to every Lay Servant and Lay Speaker for all that you do to bring God’s Word to life! We’re all walking sermons!

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,


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Compassion or Caution?

How does one balance compassion and caution. Often I’m asked to address a need and my first reaction is doubt. Is this real? Is it a scam? In the last few days a friend from another country with whom I have worked asked me to pray for him and, if I could, help him with a critical financial need. This is a guy I trust, but a part of me wondered if the request was really from him? How could I prove his identity? I thought of something he had said to me in the past so I asked this unknown entity in cyberspace if he remembered it. He did! So through another friend who is headed to that country right now, I and another colleague are sending some assistance.

What bothers me is that I have become jaded about helping the needy. Jesus didn’t seem to treat people like scams before they passed a trust test. I am so ashamed that I made my friend prove who he was before I helped him. The closest Jesus came to doing such a thing was with the Canaanite woman who wanted help for her daughter. Jesus responded by saying that his mission was to help only the Jews. His next statement is so unlike Jesus, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs (Matthew 15:26).”

This smacks of racism, prejudice, and elitism, but, of course, Jesus was just checking out her faith.  And she comes through! It’s still a problematic passage for me, but it proved her mettle. Does it let me off the hook for wanting to prove that my friend’s need was legitimate and that he was who he said he was? Where do we find the gall to need to prove if someone really needs our help?

Well, I, for one, don’t want to squander my hard-earned money. I also don’t want to get caught in a co-dependent relationship that does more harm than good. Been there, done that. And, in general, on more than one occasion I’ve set out to help someone, and it just hasn’t gone the way I anticipated. A very real for instance is that, early in my ministry, Cindy and I felt sorry for a particular young lady in one of our churches. Life was hard for her. As this woman portrayed it, she was a relatively attractive person, but nobody would date her because her poverty prevented her from getting proper dental treatment. Cindy decided that we should do something about it, so we raised money to help; we drove her to a clinic for the procedure, and her appearance was dramatically changed.  Her outlook and confidence were just as changed and, for the first time, she had the attention of young men.  Within a month this young woman not only had a boyfriend but was also unintentionally pregnant.  As our ministry continued with her, we could all agree that our initial vision of helping had come to an entirely unforeseen place. Ever since then I’ve tried to take care in offering help without considering some of the potential outcomes.

How do you determine whom to help? How do you balance compassion and caution? I had a conversation yesterday with someone about how to welcome someone into the life of the church who might potentially feel unwelcomed. I went to Paragraph 4 in the United Methodist constitution which states: “…all persons are of sacred worth. All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments…” This part of our UM constitution is great! All are welcome and all are eligible, but hold on, there’s a serious omission.

What’s the one condition that’s missing? It’s “mental condition,” and it bothers me. Sure, just as I want to balance compassion and caution for the sake of protecting myself, church members, and those whose mental health is tenuous, how can we exclude those whose torment is so insidious, unseen, and misunderstood? There is a point at which we need to throw caution to the wind and show unrelenting compassion to anyone and everyone.

Lately with school shootings and other acts by persons whose mental conditions have gone untreated there has been an uptick in fear toward those particular sufferers. In my mind, this is the wrong response. Rather than fear, we should be inspired to act with compassion. My prayer is that we might offer love, understanding, and treatment with complete dignity to those thus affected. Let’s pledge as Christians to reach these who are too often left on the streets and offer them our best. The Gospel says that the world will know Him and us by our love.

Truthful Tuesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church Pecking Order Prevents Jesus’ Birth

Would we recognize Jesus? Years ago I wrote a dramatic monologue about Jesus’ birth in a small South Carolina town. I used actual places in the community as the setting. I used the Starlite Motel and its back garage as the stable; the shepherds were pulp wood workers making their way to the forest; the Magi were NASA scientists who had been tracking the unusual astronomical phenomenon to this town’s exact location. Smack dab in the middle, halfway between the beginning of US 1 in Florida and the end of US 1 in Maine, is Cheraw, SC and I was the night manager at the Starlite. It also helped that the real-life Oasis pub was conveniently located a block or so from the motel and had its share of potential witnesses to the event – all of whom were on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The couple that needed a place to stay was more like the pulpwooders and the stragglers from the Oasis than the wise folks from NASA.

I thought the parallels were pretty convincing, and I certainly looked the part, unshaven, unkempt, and a lot less than spiffy. The folks at church who didn’t recognize me looked askance! I was a poor third-shift part-time worker who just happened to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ coming, but I didn’t look so good. I looked out of place!

Those who recognize Jesus will need to see him in every face they see. They will honor everyone whether they look the part or not. Therefore, I am firmly convinced that our readiness and ability to recognize Jesus’ coming is in how well we see him in those around us. Who lives up to our standards, and fits in with our Christmas plans, and makes it on our holiday gift list?

Think about church life and Christians and the notion of who’s in and who’s out in the way we do things and interact with society. Somehow our pets along the way have preached a sermon to me about this very subject. Cindy and I aren’t animal lovers per se. We have had pets through the years for the children’s sake more than ours. Names like Taffy, Shoelace, Snuggles, Brio, and, of course, Pug come to mind. When we lived in the country around Lydia, SC we would take these walks down along the swamp and back up the railroad grade with our vigilant squirrel chasers clearing the path. Those days were magical in many ways. And Narcie still has Pug, a Cheraw Christmas gift who dearly loves her.

Occasionally strange dogs which really weren’t strange would come by our fenced in backyards. They belonged to unknown somebodies. At first there would always be a terrible racket. Our dog(s) would be inside the fence barking up a storm at the outside dog. I figured the best thing to do would be to let the dog into the gate so the owner could come by and pick it up. If it went down by the railroad or up the road or street who knows what might happen.

When the dogs were in the backyard together the barking always stopped. They sniffed each other out, checking one another, and then proceeded to ignore each other altogether. In the words of my late father-in-law, “They were establishing the pecking order.” That’s what dogs and people do. It’s not a best case scenario, but the status quo rules at least until meal time when the growling over first place at the dinner table kicks in.

Churches are notorious for this same kind of behavior. The ones on the outside of the church walls never bark, but the ones inside bark like crazy at those who aren’t insiders like them. When they do happen to come inside they’re ignored until a pecking order has been established with them on the bottom. Wouldn’t it be nice if we would stop acting like dogs and offer one another more than a sniff and a handshake at church? Wouldn’t it be nice if we, like Jesus, turned the pecking order on its head and saw everyone as better than ourselves – especially the poor?

He came to “poor orn’ry creatures like you and like I, says the old Appalachian folk song. There’s no pecking order at the manger! Let’s quit acting like dogs before the church really goes to the dogs!

Knowing Right From Wrong – Christ the King Sunday

A friend sent me a quote recently from the author Oswald Chambers: (Satan) “does not come to us on the premise of tempting us to sin, but on the premise of shifting our point of view…” How true for me! The premise also seems to be true for lots of people. We have become so confused about what’s right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. Like scotch tape yanked away from a piece of paper, we have picked up more of the world than the world has picked up us.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday and if Christ really is King then we who are the subjects of the realm have usurped the throne! Does it appear that Jesus is in charge of our lives? Doesn’t anyone take responsibility anymore? I’m around clergy and parishioners as a District Superintendent who are often in conflict, and it seems everyone says its somebody else’s fault. I remember the old hymn that says “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord – standing in the need of prayer…”

We need to take responsibility and personally put Christ on the throne of our lives every day! As United Methodists we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to do theology and determine if something is kosher, orthodox, or sinful. The Quadrilateral, a matrix used by our founder John Wesley, is a good determinant for right and wrong: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Where I get fouled up is when I put Experience before anything else. The United Methodist, even Christian reality, is that Scripture is primary and is informed by and informs Tradition, Experience, and Reason. We get into trouble when we think of the Quadrilateral as an equilateral, as if all 4 components are of equal value. It would be much better from an orthodox point of view to think of the Quadrilateral as a three-legged stool with Scripture as the seat with Tradition, Experience, and Reason as legs. I would avoid so much sin in my life it I started with Scripture, recalled the teachings (Tradition) that the church has valued over the centuries, checked my actions via the lens of Experience, and finally asked if what I’m doing or about to do is Reasonable; i.e., “Rationally, what are the consequences of my actions?”

I remember hearing about 2 preachers who were talking one day. They usually rode past each other on their bicycles but on this occasion one of the ministers was walking. The other asked, “What happened to your bike?” The other responded, “I think one of my parishioners stole it.” His fellow minister said, “What you ought to do is preach on the Ten Commandments next Sunday and really bear down on the part about ‘Thou shalt not steal’- You’ll get your bike back.” The next week the 2 preachers met up and both were on bikes. The one who had given the advice said, “It looks like you did what I said and preached on not stealing and got your bike back.” His colleague said, “Not exactly. I did preach on the Ten Commandments, but when I got to the part about not committing adultery I remembered where my bicycle was.” Ouch, big ouch!

I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name the Ten Commandments, much less live them. We need to have a firm understanding that Scripture is more important in our ethical decision-making than experience or anything else. There is a cartoon which I’ve seen in several places. It shows a crucifixion scene, and depicts Jesus saying, “If I’m O.K. and you’re OK, then what am I doing up here hanging on this cross?” As much as we seem to hate to admit it, “We’re not O.K.” We need a Savior. We need Jesus and we need to drop our rationalizations and pretense of false innocence.

There was a big burly lineman for a NFL football team who really liked to sneak out of the confines of his motel room on the night before games. Despite the club’s curfew he would try to fool his coach as he made his rounds to do bed-checks. He would pile things under his blanket so that it looked like he was in bed. At one motel, however, he couldn’t find enough things to stuff under the covers so he stuck a floor lamp in the bed and took off. When the suspicious and wise coach peeked in way after curfew and flipped on the switch for the light you can guess what happened – the bed lit up! Our sins have a way of finding us out! We may think they are hidden, but the light of judgment is coming!

Christ the King Sunday reminds me that there is only One to whom I owe allegiance and it’s Jesus, not my own desires and wants. If Jesus is Lord and King, it’s high time we acted like it. Don’t let evil shift your point of view. Some things are wrong.

Keep Calm and Carry On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Live for Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding God’s Will: Will Jackson

This morning as the dawn’s sun peeks through the trees, I’m thinking about my last congregation where early on I quit going to the front door to shake hands with parishioners. You see it was the custom for whoever did the preaching to go to the front door and the other clergy to go to the side door. On my first trip to the side door and every Sunday after that the dear and challenged young man, Will Jackson, grabbed my hand and heart. He sat by the side door every Sunday with his beloved parents, Bill and Faye, and his big sister, Mary Katherine. Every time I walked by he reached out his hand – a touch of sacramental grace from a lad who couldn’t speak with words, but spoke with his heart. From that first time it happened I knew it was God’s will/Will for me to go to the side door because I didn’t have church that Sunday or any other until Will touched me.

Do you want to know God’s will/Will? What or who is God’s Will/will for your life? What’s your personal mission statement? What’s your church’s? I have enjoyed listening to churches share their mission statements and goals at charge conferences, and I agree with what someone once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” In my experience that lack of direction usually means a less than worthy destination. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Without a vision, the people perish.” Thoughtless doing without clear goals is busy-ness without fruitfulness. Doing lots of stuff without clarity of purpose is wearisome and lacks satisfaction. It leads to mediocrity, and describes much of what I see in our churches.

The churches that I’ve seen that are thriving know their goals. They can say them out loud, not like automatons or lemmings, but because they have a passion for a singular purpose. Someone said that mission statements need to be “long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized.” I like that. The purpose of the church should have enough depth to challenge, but be clear enough to be immediately verbalized. I’ve heard some like “MD4C” which stands for “Making Disciples for Christ,” and “Together We Can Do More.” Clarity of direction is key for disciples. If leaders aren’t clear then the rest of the flock is left wandering in the wilderness!

In ­Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters the Red Queen as she is trying to find her way through the fairy tale forest. Alice cried out, “Which way do I go?” The Red Queen was almost nonchalant in her reply, “Well, that all depends on where you want to go.” Alice continued her plea for directions with, “Well, to tell the truth, I really don’t know!” The Red Queen concluded, “Then it really doesn’t matter which direction you take, does it?” So we have churches, people, governments, and societies floundering around going in every direction imaginable like chickens with their heads lopped off because they have no clue where they want to go.

Where do you want to go? Better yet, where does God want you to go? How can you tell? I think sometimes our sense of call or direction begins with the opportunities around us. What’s the need? Other times I need to ask myself what are my passions, or as I ask the clergy who are coming in to see me for their consultation, “What lights you up?” That simple question gives me more than a hint as to what that person’s direction might need to be. What do valued and wise people in your life advise you to do? Sometimes others see more clearly than we do what our priorities should be! Of course and foremost, what has God said to us in prayer and in God’s Word? If I read the Scriptures and ask intently with undistracted focus, “What are you saying to me today, Lord?” – God usually speaks with a deep inward impression on my soul. Oh, for the courage to do what the Lord says! That’s direction!

Our Bishop, Jonathan Holston, is wonderful. He often says that we need to dream what he calls “God-sized dreams.” He’s so right! That’s a sure-fire way to avoid mediocrity. When Disney World opened south of Orlando the widow of the great entrepreneur Walt Disney stood with one of Disney’s engineers as they were both gazing at its magnificence and beauty. The engineer was sincerely trying to honor one of our country’s greatest innovators when he turned toward Mrs. Disney and said, “Boy, I wish Walt could have seen this!” Without lifting her gaze off the awesome sight of Disney World in all its splendor, she simply replied, “He did. That’s why it’s here.”

God wants us to have God-sized dreams and articulate them clearly enough to inspire others to catch them. Listen today to God’s voice and sense the Holy Spirit’s nudges; listen to your own heart and think about your passions, giftedness, and what lights you up. Listen to the wise counsel of Christian friends. Look at the needs around you that must be addressed. Knowing God’s will ain’t rocket science! Do something about it! Amid the din of all other voices and clamors for your attention, touch the “least of these” in Jesus’ name and you’ve met and done God’s Will/will. Give a listen to Martina McBride to know what I mean.

Saddle Up Your Horses!

I presided over my last set-up meeting as a District Superintendent last night and now it’s Wednesday. What shall I do with my time today or for the next 15 years of available ministry as an active Elder in the UMC? It feels like a hurdle has been crossed. What to do with this feeling? Go out with a whimper or a bang? Wednesday – Hump Day, middle of the week, a little past the downhill slide to the end of the week, or the moment when we start salivating over a gloriously anticipated weekend. My weekdays can be filled with unexpected “God” moments or a countdown of the trivial and mundane. These are questions with larger answers for a lifetime. How do we run our race? Do we coast or catch a new gear? Do we relish new opportunities or get fixated on the finish line. Is it time for a victory lap, or a call to “Start your engines!”?

I can remember the times in my life when I have thought about the next phase or the finish line too much. When the kids get out of diapers we can save some money… out of braces… out of school… out on their own… or when their cars and student loans are paid off. Then you’re doing it for grandchildren! We are waiting for when we can finally scrape together enough nickels to pay off our credit cards, medical bills, and all our perceived necessities and “want-to’s.” It’s like living on the stressful edge of waiting for God to heal a loved one’s illness, to intervene and help us win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes of life. It’s waiting, waiting, and more waiting for some magical threshold to be crossed so we can finally relax, sit on our duffs and read a book; waiting for life to be a Larry Levinson Hallmark Channel movie.

In all the waiting until such-and-such happens, I have succumbed to a world that’s still Waiting for Godot without appreciating the fact that God’s immediate presence is already here and now. I have said, in essence, “I’m not going to believe that God has shown up until I get what I want or what the world tells me that I need.” What a horrible way to live! No wonder we are so stressed, tired, and devoid of spiritual power. We’ve told God to wait until Friday or when we hit some mythical cosmic jackpot, and all the while God’s presence is here NOW!

My devotional this morning from Lead Like Jesus asked, “What are you doing today? Is your ‘to do’ list filled with the mundane or the extraordinary?” It then said, “As Christ’s followers, everything in our lives is changed by the overarching reality of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus turned a woman’s daily task of drawing water into a life-changing encounter, a little boy’s lunch into a miracle. He continues to intersect lives today just as He has done for thousands of years. Look for Him at work today, and follow where He leads. Be part of what He is doing in the world.”

Wow!  What a cure for my waiting sickness. Is my “to do” list filled with the mundane or the extraordinary? Does the reality of Jesus’ resurrection permeate my otherwise routine existence? If I really believe Jesus is alive then there’s no way that I can slow down, coast, live for the weekend, or the whatever. I can live for Jesus and every day becomes a God-filled adventure. Every day and every minute is an opportunity to do the profound and glory in the Risen Christ! Saddle up your horses!