Saturday, December 29, 2007

Top Five for 2007

A couple of weeks ago Gavin Richardson of the Methoblog called for the Methodist bloggers to send in what they consider to be their top five posts for the year. I didn’t do it, in part because I just started blogging this August, and, I just didn’t feel motivated to herald what I thought was tops. But I did think about it.

Reflecting on my blog leads me to say a word of thanks to whoever reads these posts. Thanks for dropping by. And I especially appreciate those who have taken time to leave comments. You’ve encouraged me. At times I’ve been ready to stop, realizing I’m just putting my egotistic ravings out for display. And then a comment lets me know someone is out there, or Joseph leaves another humorous statement, or new responses show up as in a dialogue, and I think I’m not alone in my crazy musings. So, thank you sincerely.

And now back to my top five. What I thought about was not postings, but my top five experiences this past year, which I connected with places. By stopping to think, and write, about them, I realize how immediate pressures can make you forget a lot of blessings.

1. Israel. Cynthia and I got to travel this time with our girls, and some dear friends. Always good to tour Israel, but this time filled with lots of good fun, like hiking over ruins, being offered 200 camels for one of my daughters (!), swimming in the Dead Sea and dancing in Jericho.
2. Scotland. Backpacking across the beautiful country, meeting Scotts at hostels and on the road, and living and worshipping at Iona – mind expanding extended leave.
3. Annual Conference. (Weird, huh?) But both our girls were there as delegates, both addressed the Conference, and seeing Kelsey get elected as a teenager to General Conference was super. Plus, receiving the confidence of peers to send me back as a delegate was both affirming and humbling.
4. Isle of Palms. Seeing our eldest, Lauren, settle into the groove of her new job there as Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries at First Methodist - makes a proud Dad happy.
5. Sumter. Lot happened this year – finishing renovations to open a major section of the Trinity Lincoln Center (an old high school) to house the Boys and Girls Clubs, implementing Natural Church Development goals and creating the Wayfinders ministry, getting the Men’s Bible Class to remove a certain controversial flag, changing the chapel appearance and beginning Mosaic worship, the church’s first construction team mission trip, and a passel of people/ministry moments.

Any such list is incomplete, leaving out the bad and the ugly, and a lot of other good. But this is the one I’ll stick with now, reminding me of many blessings, and how fortunate I am to serve as an Elder in our great church. Glad I stopped to consider a top five.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Blessings

How blessed we are to enjoy a family Christmas. At the Christmas Eve service at Trinity I had Cynthia, my wife preach. The danger is that my folks will be disappointed when I step back into the pulpit. The good is that I enjoyed seeing her preach and hearing her sermon in Trinity's sanctuary.

Then, after Holy Communion, and the candlelight singing of Silent Night, we jumped in the car and rushed to Isle of Palms to join the late service at First Methodist there, catching our eldest daughter by surprise. There we again enjoyed a beautiful service, and especially enjoyed hearing Lauren sing a duet of What Child is This. Kelsey commented in the service that this was the first time in months (since Annual Conference probably) that she had been able to sit with both her parents during a worship service!

Then, after Christmas morning at home, it was off to my mother-in-law's home for a family gathering. Christmas simply calls for family time. That's why it's so difficult when families are broken, or members are missing. Singles who learn to live well in daily life sometimes have to struggle with loneliness at Christmas, simply because of the unspoken call to be with family.

Knowing the true message of Christmas, who should be surprised at this? Christmas is family time for God and all God's creation. God sends his Son to become one with us. God says, through Christ I will make a way for you, a way for you to be with me. And thus we are called "children of God, heirs and joint-heirs with Christ."

With the packing of the car, and the travel, and the craziness of extended family time together, my senses get overloaded. But somehow in the chaos, the promise of God's blessing shines through:

Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds -- his name is the LORD-- be exultant before him. Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God gives the desolate a home to live in. Psalm 68

Jesus answered, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. John 14

A home in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, sin and sorrow, loneliness and longing of this world. And how blessed I am to partake of it with family again this year. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Candlelight at St. Mattel's

The little town of Timmonsville enjoyed a night of the stars coming out for the annual Christmas Candlelight service at St. Mattel's. The white beam and Plexiglas chapel was decked with greenery and a fully lit, beautiful, 8 inch high ceramic fir.

Ken looked resplendent in his all white, silk Brook's Brothers preaching suit, smartly matched with white Crockette and Jones loafers. Since his Bible was permanently opened in the center, he read from Habakkah 2. At first the reading about keeping a watchpost did not seem too "Christmasy," but the congregation perked up when he got to verse 15 and mentioned drunkeness and nakedness.

With everyone still shocked over the scandal of Midge's recall for lead- enhanced paint, there was an effort this year to stay focused on the real reason for the season. However, as everyone knows, whenever the Barbies gather, the occasion is ultimately about the clothes, with quick glances to see who's had the latest plastic surgery.

The service concluded with the light of cell phones held high - casting an ethereral glow over each frozen smile, for the singing of that Christmas favorite, Silent Night, Halfprice Sale Tonight."
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Case of the Missing Joseph

The gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday of Advent (Matthew 1:18-25) tells us of Joseph's implication in the birth of Jesus. Matthew's gospel shows an appreciation for the role of the male in that culture, who normally would not get intangled in birth matters.

The text says, "he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus." I think that didn't just mean sexual relations. In that culture, with extended families involved and the strong distinctions between male and female roles, Joseph perhaps had little contact with Mary until after the birth.

I know this idea runs contra to the idyllic picture of Joseph by Mary's side as she gives birth in the manger. But that image is mainly our projection back on to the first century culture. A Jewish male would have nothing to do with birthing. For them, not only would it violate the codes of gender roles, it was unclean, literally and ceremonially.

The beautifully done movie, The Nativity, has it wrong. It shows Joseph assisting (receiving the baby as it emerges). This is after Joseph can find no one to help. For other reasons, which I won't go into here, I don't think that's what Luke intends at all when he tells us there was no room for them in the inn.

If the little town was full of people for the census, there would have been women to come to the aid of Mary. And they would have done so, honoring the bond of women and the codes of Mideastern hospitality. Once the child had been born, a messenger would have been sent to find the father and announce the news of the birth.

I enjoy reading the work of John Pilch, who has devoted his life to the study of social behaviors and cultural norms of the Bible. So I'm sure he gets credit for many of my thoughts on this, but I'm not exactly sure what is his (and where I read it) and what I've added with my own study. But this much I do remember reading from Pilch: if baby born was a male, the messenger would joyfully announce the "good news" to the father. (If it was a girl, the messenger would try to soften the bad news with a remark like, "Perhaps the father will receive a handsome dowry for his new child.")

The messenger bearing good news plays prominently in Luke's account. Luke takes this common behavior and changes it for a very Lukan emphasis, that Jesus is the redeemer of the whole world. Instead of recording the messenger going to tell Joseph of the birth, an angelic messenger goes to the shepherds to announce "I bring you good news of great joy to all people, for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."

But back to Matthew, who tells us Joseph "is a righteous man," one who honors not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law as well. This Joseph "took her as his wife," staking his honor and his future on the promise of God. Who takes the greater risk? God, trusting Joseph will believe, or Joseph, trusting God will fulfill?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Grace Just Happens

It was my turn to have the children's message Sunday and so I talked about the beautiful poinsettias that had been placed in the sanctuary for the rest of Advent and Christmas. I pulled the Legend of the Poinsettia off the internet and used it to talk about giving our all to God.

Right before my prayer with the children I realized Jill, age 6 (name and age are changed) sitting right beside me. I knew Jill was to have a second round of some corrective surgery on Tuesday morning. I looked at the other kids and said, "Jill here has to have some surgery on Tuesday. I want you to join me in praying for her today."

I then offered a prayer that the doctors and nurses would take good care of her, that she would soon be over the surgery and be well, and that Jesus would help her when she got afraid. After the prayer Jill came over to where I sat and gave me a hug. Then she and the rest of the kids returned to their seats.

After the service I went up to Jill's mom and apologized for bringing up Jill's surgery without checked it out with her first. It was a spontaneous prayer and I didn't think until it was over whether it was OK with her parents to mention it.

Her mom brushed aside my comments and said, "I am so glad you did that. Jill has been insisting she was not going to have the surgery. She's been saying that she would not go to the hospital Tuesday. But she came back from the Children's Message and sat down and said, 'It's OK now, I'll go have the surgery.'"

Two things: 1) May God restore to us such childlike trust, the confidence that once you put a matter in God's hands, you don't need to worry about it. and,

2) Don't underestimate the importance of worship and public prayers for children. They know it's always more than just going through the motions

Thanks be to God for using a serendipitous moment to let grace happen once again.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Virtual Wake

I'm sure it's happened many times before, I just wasn't where I could take note of it. But this time I noticed it when reading my brother's post that honors a friend he'd never met. With internet relationships, we have entered the age of virtual grief.

Through a common interest in photography, Tom, my brother, had a friendship with Dave Anderson, who recently died. The friendship was tied to their Flickr accounts, where they made comments on one another's photography. In his posting, Remembering SisuDave, Tom mentions other tributes posted to Dave. What better expression of loss would there be than for virtual friends to leave virtual condolences?

I've always kinda rolled my eyes when I read in obituaries where the funeral home says condolences can be sent to the family through their web site. I figured it was a way for the funeral home to generate more web traffic and have more advertisement exposure. And I thought to myself, if I couldn't make the visitation for a family I cared about, I think the proper thing to do would be to write a personal letter, not send an email through the funeral home. But those thoughts have concerned people known in real life.

Now through social networks on the web, people have relationships with internet friends and virtual communities. What is the proper way to express and deal with the loss when they no longer exist? And I suppose these tributes are not really for the family at all, as in a "real" visitation/wake. They are for the virtual community to process their loss, and to somehow acknowledge the human emotions behind the user names.

Is the day coming when we have online funerals? Don't laugh. There are already virtual churches. And there are many people fully intwined in social networks on the web. When a social group experiences a death, will the members all log in at a certain site to to say their goodbys? And will the online service attempt to reflect the faith of the person loss, or strive to be faith neutral? And who will fill the priestly roll of gathering the people into one, and voicing their loss, and grief, and hopes, and faith before God (or in a faith neutral attempt, the unknown)? Could get interesting....

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Left Behind Ministry Concerns

If you read this blog you've noticed I've give attention to the issue of church growth and the emphasis on revitalization. Lately I especially have focused on small churches being compared to large ones. And you may wonder why - since I serve what many might consider to be a large church. I don't think of it with that adjective, but I have attended the Gen. Bd. of Discipleship's Large Church Initiative events, so I guess it applies.

One of the inside facts about the United Methodist Church is that if you get put on a committee, you've probably also become a member of some other committee. That's a little surprise for laity when we ask them to do something like chair the Nurture Committee (and then they find out later they are members of the Church Council.) Well, if you are asked to serve on the Conference Board of Ministry, you find out you also serve on the District Committee on Ministry (dCOM). It's not so bad. The down side is the additional meetings. The good side is keeping up with, and helping people in the journey into ministry.

Each year the dCOM has to re-certify the Local Pastors for their ministry. We meet with them, review their mentor report and continuing education, and hear from them what's been happening in their lives and their churches. I enjoy hearing about the various ministries going on in these churches, most of them smaller membership churches on charges. What I've noticed however is that nearly every local pastor in some way apologizes that their church is small and doesn't, or can't "do that much." Or I hear them talking about trying to mimic ministries that really are designed for larger, program based churches.

The images of success, and pressures of numerical growth shape these pastors, and it seems the effect is to lower the church's and pastor's self-esteem. I want to find a way to move beyond that. I think we need to lift up more models and measures of ministry than the one denominational bean-counters exalt, the number of professions of faith in a year (or if you're Baptist, the number of baptisms - same difference I guess).

If we really believe that Christ is present whenever two or three meet in his name, and if we believe the presence of the risen Christ means life, then what are we saying when we send notice that two or three has to become twenty or thirty, and then two hundred to three hundred, etc. for the gathering to measure up and reveal a church with vitality?

Believe me, I know that churches can become both stagnant and wayward. I know that some behave like dysfunction families. And I know churches can become stuck in the past. And small membership churches especially can become defeatest in attitude. But why add to those challenges by forcing the smaller church through the large church mold?

I don't expect an easy answer or a simple alternative model for assessing the smaller membership church. I'd just like to keep the issue on the table and to suggest that maybe what we need are more questions.

How is the love of Christ experienced in the congregation?
How is the compassion of Christ expressed beyond the congregation?
How is the joy of Christ seen in the church?
How is the good news of Christ shared?
How is the church's record of paying its apportionments?

OK, that last one was tongue in cheek, but it wouldn't be that bad a question, since for Methodists our connectional ministry is expressed in the apportioned budget to fund those ministries. I'd be interested to know what other questions might get at the heart of what it means to be a vital church, and that's for churches of any and every size.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Other Than Posting to a Blog...

....what do Pastors do all week? That last part of the question is the title of a article by Becky McMillan.

One half of all pastors in the survey reported working between 35 and 60 hours per week. One quarter reported working more than 60 and one quarter reported working less than 35. The middle fifty percent of full-time (those working for the church 40 hours or more per week) Protestant pastors reported working between 42 and 63 hours per week. Table 1 shows the median hours per week pastors report working for their church and the median percentage of that time per week that pastors spend in the core tasks of ministry.

Percent of week preparing for preaching and worship 33
Percent of week providing pastoral care 19
Percent of week administering congregation's work 15
Percent of week teaching and training people for ministry 13
Percent of week involved in denom. and community affairs 6

The remainder of the work week not accounted for by these core tasks of ministry is taken up by other tasks specified by the pastors, such as: fund raising, writing articles, correspondence, volunteer chaplaincy, and helping to oversee other ministries as board members or advisors.

Pastors appear to spend about an hour a day in prayer and meditation and about 1/2 hour a day reading for purposes other than preparing their sermons. These hours were not counted as part of the "work week" for the pastor; though they contribute in vital ways to the health of the ministry of the congregation.

The full article is found at Pulpit and Pew (of Duke Univ.) with all types of breakdowns. I just can't believe it doesn't include the amount of time blogging! (Thanks to serious blogger Dale Tedder for the link.)

Forty Days

This is the view from atop Mt. Nebo, the traditional site where Moses looked across into the Promised Land. Will be there in 40 days! Forty days is a good Biblical number, like 40 years in the wilderness. Maybe I should do something to create something like a spiritual journey before arriving there. Nah, I've already got enough to do and being there will still bowl me over anyway.

Photo by Templar1307 via Sacred Destinations.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

First Syngogue, Bethany

Biblical Bethany is just over the hill from the Temple Mount, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. What a place to serve. Great to be that close to the temple, but how can your synagogue deal with that? Design the greatest Passover observance you want, and everyone will still go to the Temple for the sacrifices. Forget synagogue growth. Who wants to connect with your little place when the best rabbinical scholars in the land are so easily accessible elsewhere?

If you can appreciate that situation, then you might be in a "Left-Behind Church." I picked up that term from a book by Ruth Tucker that I'm reading: "Left Behind in a Megachurch World." Tucker is a professor of missiology at Calvin Theological Seminary. In this book she does a pretty good critique of the "success" idolatry of our culture that has captured the church. And she reviews the malaise that sets into ordinary churches because of the comparison with the "got everything" churches. Just chew on these quotes:

If a church is not growing in numbers (according to the 'experts'), it must be revitalized...numerical growth is the goal, though it is often disguised in less stark terms such as church health, spiritual vitality, or dynamic ministry. In these (revitalization) books there is rarely any mention of the possibility of God working amid declining numbers.

Wal-Mart churches, like the stores, are not first and foremost concerned with people. They are concerned with numbers.

Ministers today face far greater expectations and pressures than did their counterparts in previous generations. Today ministers are compared to the superstars in their ranks.

The emphasis on church growth and success that pastors face in the ministry derives little authority from the Scriptures.

Well, I won't give you all of it, but I will say that she provides good background material to justify the statements I recorded above. But maybe those remarks will keep you thinking, do I evaluate my church by comparing it with other churches? Do I overlook God at work in "left-behind" places because I want to join the American dream of being in the success spotlight?

Do the turn-around programs and new church plants really help the Church discover/maintain a joyful passion for God, demonstrated in service to a hurting world? And if they don't, what will?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Walking Thoughts

We do not walk in our country, unless it is on a treadmill. Seriously, one of the readily noticeable differences when you travel abroad is that in other countries you see people out along the roads, walking. Here, people walking along a road signals that something is wrong. Either their car has broken down, or, (heaven forbid in a culture that worships the automobile) they don’t have access to a vehicle.

In recognition of this, we don’t waste money when constructing roads by creating paved shoulders or pedestrian lanes. OK, some of the newer roads have this, but in general you do take your life in your hands if you decide to walk along a road. I’ve tried it a few times, and the road shoulders hardly give you room to get out of the way of the speeding cars.

During the Living Christmas Story over this past weekend, we walked the street of Bethlehem, recreated in our church’s parking lot. One of the features that makes for a good LCS is when we have a lot of participants out in costume, walking up and down the street, talking and pretending to barter at the shops. The irony is that those who come to “see” Bethlehem and the manger ride through in their cars.

This year there was an exception. A large tour bus pulled up to the entrance. With the trees and turns in the route, the LCS isn’t designed to handle such a large bus. So forty people disembarked and walked through as a group. (One of my friends suggested we tell them they had to do the Monty Python thing and walk through keeping the same seating arrangement they had on the bus.) I wish I walked with them, just to see what I could pick up from their ambulatory experience of the event.

The experience of life changes dramatically when we walk instead of drive. I’m not just talking physically, though that is true too. Our bodies were designed to walk, with the large muscle groups in our legs. For those of you wanting to burn calories, it’s those leg muscles that do the job. That’s why cycling (or stair stepping) gets you in shape like nothing else. If you have a desk job, get up every hour and walk briskly for five minutes and just that reactivation of the leg muscles will keep the calorie furnace going. I don’t do it, but that’s what the research says.

When I walk through our neighborhood, the same streets I drive along regularly, I see a different world. The walking makes me aware of the changing texture of the pavement or the ground. I observe trees and animals and light patterns and all kind of stuff I never notice riding by. But besides being more observant, my mind settles into the rhythm of reflection.

Saint Jerome (340-420 CE), who after some years of contention near Rome moved to Bethlehem to finish his years in a monastery, gave much of his scholarly life to translating the Hebrew Bible into Latin. Jerome apparently often used the expression, “solvitur ambulando,” to solve a problem, walk around. Jerome dealt with a variety of textual and theological problems of his day, including the heresy of Pelagianism, and debates with Origenists. My issues don’t even make the cheap seats in his ballpark. Still, walking about works just as he advised. Walk, until your thoughts and prayers match the pace of your legs, until you actually see what makes up the blur of your life, until the wear on your shoes becomes a witness of waiting, anticipation and patience.

I wonder how church members would react if their pastor went on walks regularly? What if a couple of mornings a week we went walking instead of visiting, studying, attending meetings, or doing administrative stuff. Would they (and could we) appreciate the difference?

Rev. Maltbie Babcock used to take regular morning walks along Lake Ontario while serving as a pastor to a church in Lockport, New York. Bill Dagle, who writes HymnStories, says it was from those walks that Babcock wrote the beautiful hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” I think of the number of times his lyrics have spoken to me during worship. How many walks did Babcock take before those lyrics came clear to him? Was it good management of his time as a pastor?

In this busy season of Advent, with so much to “do,” I think I’ll take a walk.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Living Christmas Story

Trinity just had its weekend of presenting The Living Christmas Story and this was the best one I've participated in. The scenes of the Christmas story are set up, as well as a street of Bethlehem, and visitors drive through while listening to a CD we give them with the story told through scripture readings. The weather was wonderful (too warm for a lot of folks for December) which meant the small kids stayed out and filled the scenes. We had a lot of people participating and the line of cars was constant up until we shut it down Sunday night. For part of the time I was a greeter, taking the census and handing out the CD's. That was fun, talking with the people in the cars and seeing the anticipation on the faces of many of the children.
With our production of the Messiah, church services, and everything else, it was a very busy weekend, but a good one.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Lectionary Thoughts Matthew 3

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. Matt 3:13

The gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent concludes with this verse. It is part of John the Baptist’s prophecy about the one who would follow him, the Christ.

Many years ago on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic I watched a man separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it’s an image that has stuck with me.

At the edge of the small village of Canoa, DR, I noticed a large pile of some kind of small, light brown bean piled on the dirt, covered with a green tarp. The pile was just outside a two-room, mud-brick home, not far from where we were laying blocks to build a church.

One windy morning a man approached the pile with a home-made tool that looked like a hybrid between a shovel and a rake. He would toss shovelfuls of the beans in the air, letting the wind blow away the chaff.

Such a sight was probably common in Jesus’ day, though rare for us. The man sifted the beans all morning. Then he began scooping them with his hands into a gunny sack. I remember thinking about the words, “separating the wheat from the chaff,” as I watched him.

The text makes it pretty clear that John the Baptist knew he was not the winnower, the sifter. His words are strong and direct as he admonishes different groups to get their act right. “You brood of snakes,” he calls the religious leaders. “Who warned you to flee the wrath to come. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

John the Baptist calls people to repentance since the kingdom of God is coming near, but his role is not to separate. As he names the truth of others, there is indeed a judgment, but it is not the judgment that writes them off or casts them aside.

In practice, that’s not an easy distinction to make, and the church hasn’t always done a good job with that either. We’re often guilty of labeling, condemning, and casting into unquenchable fire, so to speak, those who don’t measure up. How much harder it is to speak the truth in love, but to leave the winnowing to God.

And if we were appropriately busy with bearing the fruits of repentance - demonstrating justice, mercy and love in our actions – we would have less time or concern for the separating. The beans I saw sifted had substance, had weight, and fell back to the earth to be gathered in. We, however, have the ability to choose, whether our lives are lived with substance, or whether the wind will carry us away.

Thursday, December 6, 2007


My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior.

For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden
for behold, all generations shall call me blessed.

For he who is mighty has done great things to me;
and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on them who fear him
from generation to generation.
Thank you Sumter High School Choir and director, Eric Wilkinson, for a delightful experience of Bach's Magnificat. You allowed me to hear with fresh ears the hope of salvation in the words of Mary.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

No Church Left Behind

I probably shouldn't post this, but hey, why not. I had a friend send me the following joke about a dentist (don't worry, it's clean). As I read it I couldn't help but think that the same applies to churches. Just change some of the wording - instead of number of cavities insert numbers of new members, instead of a state dentist with an excellent rating insert church consultant or pastor of a large growing church - eerie parallel....

My dentist is great! He sends me reminders so I don't forget checkups. He uses the latest techniques based on research. He never hurts me, and I have all my teeth. When I ran into him the other day, I was eager to see if he'd heard about the new state program. I knew he'd think it was great.

"Did you hear about the new state program to measure effectiveness of dentists with their young patients?" I said.
"No," he said. He didn't seem too thrilled. "How will they do that?"
"It's quite simple," I said. "They will just count the number of cavities each patient has at age 10, 14, and 18 and average that to determine a dentist's rating. Dentists will be rated as excellent, good, average, below average, and unsatisfactory. That way parents will know which are the best dentists. The plan will also encourage the less effective dentists to get better," I said. "Poor dentists who don't improve could lose their licenses to practice."
"That's terrible," he said.
"What? That's not a good attitude," I said. "Don't you think we should try.
"Sure I do," he said, "but that's not a fair way to determine who is practicing good dentistry."
"Why not?" I said. "It makes perfect sense to me."
"Well, it's so obvious," he said. "Don't you see that dentists don't all work with the same clientele, and that much depends on things we can't control? For example, I work in a rural area with a high percentage of patients from deprived homes, while some of my colleagues work in upper middle-class neighborhoods. Many of the parents I work with don't bring their children to see me until there is some kind of problem, and I don't get to do much preventive work.

Also, many of the parents I serve let their kids eat way too much candy from an early age, unlike more educated parents who understand the relationship between sugar and decay. To top it all off, so many of my clients have well water which is untreated and has no fluoride in it. Do you have any idea how much difference early use of fluoride can make?"

"It sounds like you're making excuses," I said. "I can't believe that you, my dentist, would be so defensive. After all, you do a great job, and you needn't fear a little accountability."
"I am not being defensive!" he said. "My best patients are as good as anyone's, my work is as good as anyone's, but my average cavity count is going to be higher than a lot of other dentists because I chose to work where I am needed most."
"Don't' get touchy," I said.

"Touchy?" he said. His face had turned red, and from the way he was clenching and unclenching his jaws, I was afraid he was going to damage his teeth. "Try furious! In a system like this, I will end up being rated average, below average, or worse. The few educated patients I have who see these ratings may believe this so-called rating is an actual measure of my ability and proficiency as a dentist. They may leave me, and I'll be left with only the most needy patients. And my cavity average score will get even worse. On top of that, how will I attract good dental hygienists and other excellent dentists to my practice if it is labeled below average?"

The program sounded reasonable to me, so I asked, "How else would you measure good dentistry?"
"Come watch me work," he said. "Observe my processes."
"That's too complicated, expensive and time-consuming," I said. "Cavities are the bottom line, and you can't argue with the bottom line. It's an absolute measure."
"That's what I'm afraid my parents and prospective patients will think. This can't be happening," he said despairingly.
"Now, now," I said, "don't despair. The state will help you some."
"How?" he asked.
"If you receive a poor rating, they'll send a dentist who is rated excellent to help straighten you out," I said brightly.
"You mean," he said, "they'll send a dentist with a wealthy clientele to show me how to work on severe juvenile dental problems with which I have probably had much more experience? BIG HELP!"

"There you go again," I said. "You aren't acting professionally at all."
"You don't get it," he said. "Doing this would be like grading schools and teachers on an average score made on a test of children's progress with no regard to influences outside the school, the home, the community served and stuff like that. Why would they do something so unfair to dentists? No one would ever think of doing that to schools."
Just maybe this will help you understand why educators resent the recent federal NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT.

A Walk on the Beach

I'm not really a beach person. I much prefer the mountains. But it is amazing how great a walk on the beach can be. Cynthia and I rushed to Myrtle Beach Sunday for a surprise birthday party for a friend. We stayed overnight and the next morning went walking on the beach. Such a simple activity, but so different from walking in the neighborhood at home. The surf, the sand, the wind, the seagulls - I might be a decent person if I walked on the beach regularly. It was a lot more enjoyable than the walk through an outlet park on the way home(!)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Speaking the Language

What do math teachers do in the school cafeteria?
They divide their lunches between them.

What kind of sandwich sinks to the bottom of your stomach?
A sub sandwich!

What did one hotdog say to the other?
Please be frank with me.

By now you either think I've gone crazy posting such jokes, or you're laughing. If you're laughing, then you're probably in the third grade, because that's the age these jokes are directed toward.

The book of jokes containing these was on my desk this week with a note. It was left for me by one of the women working on a new ministry we plan to start next year in the church. It read: Pastor Stephen, Thought you'd want a joke book for the kids, to get ready for The Dock!

A small group has been meeting to design a ministry to help us do a better job communicating the Bible to elementary children. The Dock will be a place where kids come to launch out into God's Word. I'm not sure what all has been planned, but I feel confident of one thing, they "get it."

They understand you have to speak the language of the people you're trying to reach. If we're going to reach young elementary kids, we have to know what interests them, how they understand things, and what makes them laugh. We have to enter their world to help them become ready for a new world.

This is basically true no matter the group we want to reach. As Paul said, "To those under the law I became as one under the those outside the law I became as one outside the the weak I became weak that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some." (1 Cor 9:21-22)

We have to leave the comfort of where we are and the security of what we know to learn how to speak to others. Unfortunately, too much of what's called evangelism in the church is really a marketing and screening process. We promote the gospel to lure people in and keep the ones who are already like us, or who are ready to "speak our language."

I remember many years ago visiting in the home of a church member, an elderly widow who lived alone. On her coffee table were copies of a dirt bike magazine. I had to ask her about it. No big deal, she basically said. Her teenage grandson loved racing dirt bikes. She ordered the subscription so she could learn something about it, and thus be able to talk with him about what he loved. And when he came over, there'd be something there he'd enjoy looking at. She "got it" too. May the rest of us "get it," even if it's something as minor as learning to appreciate third-grade humor.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Christmas Music

Christmas music has already filled the air at the Taylor home. I know that's insignificant, but I've had my own little protest against the expansion of the Christmas season. I wouldn't play Christmas music (and we didn't decorate) until at least December 1st. I think I most closely associate Christmas not with decorations or shopping or good food or parties or presents or cards or..., but with the music of Christmas.

However, yesterday I was getting out the Christmas CDs and suddenly I was holding Selections from Handel's Messiah. It was a weak moment and I couldn't resist. Then while some tenor was belting out "Comfort ye" I went ahead and loaded the CD changer with other Christmas music. Such decadence!

So, what's your favorite Christmas music? I enjoy listening to the new songs Cynthia brings in, but I'm not at all "out there" with my preferences. I could listen to the Messiah over and over (to the chagrin of anyone else in the house or office). I also like the Celtic Christmas stuff (Enya, Lorenna McKennit, Sara McLachlin), but still, new variations on old carols works just fine for me.

Regardless of what style you prefer, however, once the music starts playing, Christmas is here. It has a power to create the reality of the Story, wherever you are. I have no doubt it was the angels' singing that stirred the shepherds to get up and go and see. And come to think of it, I wonder if our joyful singing of the good news might cause others to come and see. If that's the case, forget my prohibition till December 1, bring the music on!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Empty and Full

Well, there's a lot of fullness with Thanksgiving, if you are blessed so wonderfully as we were. In spite of a nearby water main breaking and leaving us with murky, unusable water during the morning, and in spite of losing the sweet potato cassarole (My fault! I "helped" by making room on the kitchen counter by setting the dish on top of the washing machine, and the vibrations of the spin cycle slid it right off on the floor, and everywhere.), we had more than enough of excellent food to fill us up, twice. We had a great time together.

Plus, I was reminded that you have to be emptied before you can be filled - and it wasn't the full plate of food that reminded me. Sometime after dinner Cynthia and I sat down to talk about the Christmas gifts we would be getting for others this year. She wanted to know what to watch for before heading out into the hunt on Black Friday. I was preoccupied with a program I was watching. I shared a couple of ideas, and then she did. But honestly, I didn't hear a word she said. My mind was full and her words bounced off my eardrums.

I didn't tell her (30 years of marriage have taught me something) right away. But later, after some mind/attention emptying, I chanced to ask her to repeat her suggestions, and got away with it! Great Thanksgiving.

Henry Nouwen once compared being pre-occupied to inviting a guest to take a seat in a room where all the seats are filled. There has to be some emptying first. I wonder if God often feels like such a guest when in my prayers I invite him into my life. God's welcome, but I've made no room for him. No wonder it feels that God is distant when our lives are so "full."

"A time to empty and a time to fill" is not the same as "a time to fill and fill some more." How in the world to we confuse the two? So full of stuff, of ourselves, and of our own ideas, we leave no place open where God can do new things. And then we wonder what's wrong when God allows circumstances to begin "emptying" our lives. And think of this: How many times do we go to church wanting God to fill us, when what we really need is for God to empty us? Do we expect times of emptying as well as times of filling?

I guess that was the reason the season of Advent began - a time of emptying like Lent, so we could receive the gift of Christ. Good thing it comes after a full Thanksgiving, or else I wouldn't have room for it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving Rituals

For the first time in 30 years of marriage, we will have Thanksgiving in our own home. All the other years we have traveled to be with family gatherings. This year, however, I’ve just had minor surgery and while I could travel, my girls seized the opportunity to insist they would cook our Thanksgiving meal. Under Cynthia’s guidance in the kitchen, I’m confident the meal will be excellent.

But the change of ritual makes me wonder what it is about the Thanksgiving holiday that so tugs at our hearts. I don’t believe it is the desire to be “thankful” for a day. People either live lives of gratitude or they don’t, and a holiday isn’t going to change that. No, the power of Thanksgiving has to do with our common longings.

Our individual celebrations may have little to do with the idealized scene of sitting down at a bountiful table to share a meal with family and friends, but we still want it to be true, if only partially so. We want there to be a place we can come home to, a place where we are welcomed without question. We want there to be a seat set aside for us, where we are expected to be present. And we want the assurance of plenty for all, a fullness of food, joy and fellowship.

These longings are good, God-given, I believe. For they point us to the one place they can truly be fulfilled, the table of the Lord. The image of the messianic banquet (Luke 14) stands silently behind our idealized Thanksgiving tables, and the One who has prepared all things for us desires us to know the fullness of life only He can provide.

Thanksgiving will be a busy time for many people – filled with travel, hunting, cooking, parades, shopping, conversation, work, and who knows what else, as we try to fill our hearts. It is right to stop and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy. But I wosnder if our longings and gratitude can lead us to the presence of Christ, the all-sufficient One.

Friday, November 16, 2007


Had to take a couple of days off to have some surgery for a hernia repair. (TMI?) So now it's the third day, and I'm still not supposed to lift anything or do too much, but I'm ready to get busy again. Well, that is, except for when the pain medication kicks in. Then I just sit. Without the meds I wouldn't make a good Gumbie Cat.

Thank goodness for the computer. Already this morning I've organized and backed up my digital pictures since the Scotland trip, and I cleaned up a lot of my word files. And since my sleeping pattern is off, it was fun watching another #2 college football team (Oregon) get beat as the clock ground past midnight.

Reflective thoughts slip in, "Is my self identity so tied up in doing things that I can't sit still?" Could be. But I think I just see things I want to do, and then in faithful ADD fashion, I see something else I want to do, and then, well, you get the picture, or rather, blur, don't you? Right now, though, I get tired quickly, so it really doesn't matter what I start.

Just like this blog post. I'm ready to chill, and this time I'll say Whoa myself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Measuring Success

We all have to find our own definition of success. Otherwise, we’ll just compare ourselves to others. I remember the words of Desiderata, "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself." Measuring success depends on how we define it, and for some of us, the definition keeps changing as we keep learning what’s really important.

What makes for successful preaching? I’ll leave you to go through the great books on preaching and come up with a checklist on originality, substance, form, flow, impact, inspiration, etc. All I can do is report something pretty good that happened after a recent sermon.

I had just preached on “seeking the welfare of the city in which you live” using as my text Jeremiah 29:7. It was not a great sermon - no original insights, or pithy points. I simply went with the text and tried to apply it. Jeremiah told the exiled Hebrews to seek the welfare of the city where they were, the welfare of their Babylonian captors. And I asked, “Whose welfare do we seek?”

Usually such concern is basically for our selves, or maybe our loved ones and close friends. But should we not seek the welfare of those we do not even know, those who annoy us, and even those who stand against us? I could have used one of several texts for this, Matthew 25, James 2, the Good Samaritan, the Golden Rule, etc.

During the coffee hour, a physician came up to me and said, "I really appreciated the sermon today." I said, "Thank you." But the doc continued, “It made me think. I saw a woman this past week who needs a fibrous tumor removed. She’s indigent, a drug addict, and no insurance, of course. I rarely have time to do free surgeries, but I decided during the sermon that I’m going to do hers next week.”

I thanked the doctor for sharing that decision with me, and we parted to speak to other people. And then I thought about how the Spirit takes our offerings and uses them to bring forth fruit for the kingdom. Monday morning my sermon went into the files as just another sermon, but for the woman whose tumor was removed, it could have been marked an outstanding success. Soli deo Gloria.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The One Hundred Dollar Chain

To understand this post, you need to go to my friend Jim Hunter's blog and read It's a Vicious Cycle @ As Jim Sees It. I saw Jim this past Friday and we talked about the odd circumstances he tells about in the blog, people giving $100 dollars and then getting $100. I thought it was kinda funny, until this morning.

You see, I had a $100 bill from a recent wedding that I'd set aside as part of a Christmas gift I intend to send to a minister friend in Sierra Leone. Heading out yesterday to a big social event out of town, I realized I had less than $20 in my billfold, so I stuck in the hundred dollars in case of an emergency.

At the event I ran into a young mother who I knew had been going through some tight financial times. So I quietly took out the $100 as I talked with her, and put it in her hand as I told her it was just some extra money I'd come across. I felt she needed it then, so the Christmas gift could wait.

This morning right before the second service began, I was near the Narthex, talking with an usher. I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was a member wanting my attention. As I shook his hand, I felt him press some paper in my palm. He smiled and said, "Use this wherever you need it."

As he walked down the aisle, I looked in my hand and saw two folded fifty dollar bills. OK, what's going on here?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Civic Religion

How much attention in the worship service should you give to civic occasions, such as Veterans Day? It's a small issue that floats on top of the church/state cauldron. Jesus neatly side-stepped the issue in his day with his well-known "give Caesar's stuff to him, and God's stuff to God" response. But he was an itinerant preacher who moved right on, whereas we are in the midst of our people, answering to them, at least until the Bishop deems otherwise.

So, do you observe closely the divide Jesus delineated? Do you give only God's stuff to God in church, and keep the state's stuff out? If so, you might be like my friend, Rev. Clayton Childers, who says we shouldn't even display the US flag in the church - its presence gives the appearance that the church condones American policies that are in opposition to the values Jesus taught. That's probably an expected stance for someone like Clayton who works for the Board of Church and Society.

Do you cringe when everyone stands for a prayer before a football game? Do you look for a calendar conflict when asked to give the invocation at a political gathering? Do you agree with a Bishop we once had who said the church should not observe Mother's Day? Do you eschew singing "My Country Tis of Thee" or "America" in a worship service? Then you might just be a Methodist of the reformed tradition - in everything be clear that our allegiance is to God alone. Disavow the public prayers that give a "nod to god" while basically ignoring his commandments. Keep alert to sniff out such occasions of civic religion, and lead your flock in devotion to the God who stands above all kingdoms and powers and rulers.

And yet, we are pressed upon as pastors to fulfill the role of civic clerics. We are asked to bring a divine blessing to events that have little or nothing to do with the God we serve. We straddle the awkwardness of honoring the veterans who have served us, while not glorifying war. We field the sincere pleas of church members who want a good 'ole flag waving patriotic worship service like the Baptists down the street. What to do?

I think we all have to find a level of compromise we can live with. I'm most comfortable expressing my patriotism outside of church, but like my people, I am thankful, thankful to God, for my country and the liberties I enjoy. I am indebted to those who have sacrificed on behalf of our country's call to duty - whether or not in the long run we learn those who issued the call were correct. Taking some time to acknowledge those feelings is to me, an appropriate attention to the needs of the people. Praying at civic events may not adequately reflect the God we serve, but it may, in a prevenient grace manner, remind those present of the God who stands behind all gifts we receive.

As odd as it may seem, it is the story of Jesus' first miracle (according to the gospel of John) that helps me with this. Now I know that John reports the turning of water into wine as a way for Jesus to "reveal his glory" - a radical impinging of the kingdom on common life. But, as John Pilch indicates in his commentaries on the "honor and shame" society of the East, Jesus could have been motivated simply to alleviate the potential shaming of the wedding host. In other words, Jesus meet the need of the people where they were, not where they should have been.

When I fulfill roles that to me are more of a civic religion nature than Christian, or when I have the veterans stand and be honored by their friends and neighbors, or when the Boy Scout color guard brings the flags into the sanctuary and we sing with zest the patriotic hymns, I just remind myself that hardly anyone who drank the best wine at that wedding understood who Jesus was or what he was about, and yet there was wine sufficient for all.

So tomorrow, on Veteran's Day, we will honor our vets, and I will preach on the Jeremiah 29 text, "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare." However, instead of singing "America, the Beautiful" we will sing that wonderful Georgia Harkness hymn, "This is My Song."

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine....

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth's kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.

O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
Myself I give thee, let thy will be done.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Do Not Be Afraid

Thought a lot about fear this week. It began with an evening conversation with my daughter. We were talking about her Spanish classes and she said she also needed to learn Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. I asked why. She's 16. She said those are the four basic languages, with a bit of French, that will be used when she is older. Here's her future world view: The Americas will all be Spanglish, Europe and the Middle East will be Muslim, Asia will be dominated by China, and I suppose Africa still won't be a player.

Then she said, I hate the way Europe is becoming Muslim, and the countries will gradually lose their identities and there's nothing you can do about it. While Kelsey is an independent thinker, I sensed in the talk that she'd had similar talks with her peers, and so was expressing more broadly held assumptions.

I didn't argue that such radical cultural acquiescence is highly improbable (note the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Neither did we venture into cultural protectionism (as occurring in France - e.g. with laws limiting cultural dress in public, or the ghettoising of Muslim communities) or the effects of American interventions. What intrigued me was the latent fear expressed, that her world will be a global divide between the Americas and Arabic-Europe.

It immediately reminded me of the fear from the era of my youth, of a world embroiled in a global conflict between the Communist block and Democratic countries. I remembered the absurdity of nuclear fallout drills - an elementary class learning to wrap coats over their heads and huddling under tables and desktops! Flashbacks of fallout shelters, draft cards, and the arms race flooded my memories. Behaviors and national policies were shaped by our shared fears. Turning and turning in the widening gyre; here the fear comes around again, and yet the center continues somehow to hold.

Next I finished Michael Crichton's novel, State of Fear. I actually don't care that much for Crichton's writing style, overloaded with techno-jargon, and reviews have shown the book is riddled with errors about global warming. But this novel about ecological terrorism did have an interesting speech that essentially said: Nations need a pervasive fear of something, anything, throughout the populace in order to keep us all in line, paying our taxes, and supporting the global industrial-military complex.

A pervasive fear. We all have an assortment to choose from - fear of crime, of incurable diseases, of stocks tumbling, of running out of money in retirement, of ecological disasters, of nations rising up against nations and consuming our youth, and for some, a loss of morality in public behavior. We may not run around crying that the sky is falling, but we absorb the fears and they shape our lives, usually without our even noticing it. Why else at age 16 would you consider learning Arabic and Mandarin Chinese?

And then the words resound in my head, "I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!" (Jesus, per John 17) I wonder what latent, pervasive fears are shaping me. How would it feel to so trust in Christ's victory, that you can glow through the day like the lilies of the field, or sing like the birds of the air, that do not fret? We might make some of the same life choices (and still learn hard languages), but I think it would all be quite different. The beginning of peace is the death of fear.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Happy 60th Anniversary Mom and Dad!

You showed us love before we understood words.
Instilled in us God's grace, and the desire to sing,
Taught us responsibility, integrity and compassion,
And joined us in laughter, and wonder at all things.

You held to each other in times good and bad,
Penny pinched daily, then to colleges paid;
Kept us in prayer, and taught us each to pray,
And believed in us as we went our own ways.

You've led by example to serve others in this life,
An unassuming pair of the greatest generation.
And so we give thanks to our Lord, Jesus Christ,
For you, Mom and Dad, on this 60th celebration.

Houston and
Joclair Taylor

7 children
12 grandchildren
7 great grands

You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain. John 15:16

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Tombstone Maker

Meet George. George makes tombstones. I drove by and saw them in the back. He was working in his yard. I asked if he had his own cemetery. Then he told be about the stones. People in his community can't afford grave markers, he said. Marble stones and brass markers are too costly. But the dead need something, he said.

So he bought some concrete molds. He pours the headstones. Paints them. Then he letters the vital information. George says he doesn't make much off them, but he enjoys doing it. Niche market, good guy, and the dead are remembered.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Chapel Update

For All Saint's Observance, Nov. 4, the Chapel was set up in formal style with our new chairs, with a Sunday School historical display in the back. It was the first time members had seen the chapel in this configuration since the pews had been removed this summer.

One of our members, after seeing it, told me, "It looks nice, I might be able to forgive you." Grace. :)

Demolition Dogs

Well, I am back to writing. Want to tell about my chance to be a demolition dog on our mission trip this past weekend. We had 12 go to the United Methodist Relief Center in Mt. Pleasant. I didn't know they had such a great group house as a base for teams.

Friday half our team was assigned to dig out a foundation for an ET House. Elderly Transportable (ET) Houses are one person homes built on a trailer chassis. It is provided free of charge to elderly persons who qualify, but remains the property of the UMRC. When it is no longer needed by the person, it is refurbished and moved to the property of who ever needs it next. Trinity built an ET in 2003 and it is being used by a lady outside Sumter.

The rest of our team took apart the treated wood stairs and landings at another ET. This home was never lived in. Just as it was made ready, the man had to go into the hospital, and would not be able to live independently again. We joked about whatever mission team this past summer that built the stairs coming back to see their handiwork and being unable to find it.

Can't you just see some teenager standing there on Clement's Ferry Road, exclaiming to his parents, "Honestly, we did do mission work down here - I don't know what happened to the house, it was right here!"

Saturday, we all worked together on a house out toward Wando on Hwy 41. We tore out the kitchen and the bathroom, and took off the roof. Demolition dogs. Someone else will have the fun of building back.

It was good to get out and do some physical work. For some reason, I especially enjoyed busting out the tile bathroom walls with a hammer. And it was nice working with a group of people who understood we were just playing a small role in a big relief effort.

No one complained about moving about to different sites, or lamented that we didn't get to build anything, or griped about what they had to do. They signed up to serve and that's what they did. And we enjoyed working together. Our efforts will contribute to others having decent housing somewhere down the line, and that's what it's all about.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Not Even a Rejection Letter

A couple of weeks I got a message that our Conference monthly newspaper was doing an article on the trip to Scotland by the History and Archives group. They wanted to know if I'd like to write something about my trip.

Well, that night I wrote a 500 word reflection on my stay at Iona in May and emailed it to them the next morning. Got my copy of the November Advocate yesterday and it has the article about the History and Archives trip, but not mine. I am so crushed. O.K., so maybe it was more like 550 words I send in, and the style is different than what they normally publish, and there probably was a lot more current church news to report. But, not even a "Thanks but no thanks?"

I have decided to stop writing altogether. No more articles, no more sermons, no more blog posts. In fact, you aren't even reading this. However, if you'd like to read "the article with no rejection slip," I posted it on my Checked Luggage blog. Let me know what you think. The future of my laptop is at stake.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Surrounded by so Great a Chatter

I did not grow up with All Saint's. Like everyone else, it was Halloween I looked forward to. Getting pumpkins carved, making our own costumes, and overdosing on candy were perfect for me as a child with a short attention span. And while we knew ghosts and goblins weren't real, there was just enough uncertainty to keep us watching in the dark.

As parents of young children, Cynthia and I continued these basic traditions, as the rest of America became fascinated with Halloween. Now we've just become "old foggies" and hardly note its occurance. This year small packs of popcorn and pretzels replaced the sugary treats we handed out at the door, and there wasn't a pumpkin anywhere near. I googled "Halloween sales" and learned that the National Retail Federation predicted we'd spend over $5 billion on Halloween this year, with the average customer spending $64.82. Guess we let them down.

But today is All Saint's, a day of cosmic warping. Heaven bends near and all the earth becomes a thin place, for those with ears to hear. I awakened this morning at 5 to the laughter of the apostles, somewhere in the distance. Came to my study chair to read and write and realized the desert mothers and fathers considered my arrival to silent prayer to be tardy, and possibly disrupting. Saints and theologians, some ancient, but many not, peer out at me from the line of bookshelves in our study. We are not alone on the spiritual journey, and today is the day the faithful witnesses delight in reminding us of this.

I prepare myself for the rabble of the day, the kind of hub-bub that greets you when you enter a party late, and so many people are engaged in conversation. The writer of Hebrews called it a "cloud of witnesses surrounding us" but he (she?) could just as easily have said "chatter of witnesses," for it seems they each have a word of encouragement. It would be uncomfortable to be gazed upon and commented about by all these saints, except I recognize some of the voices, and the smiles here and there are from those I have known and loved.

As a child I was mildly concerned about the spirits out on Halloween night, for fear of what they might do. As a grown child, I now am concerned about the spirits out on All Saints, not for fear of what they might do, but for fear of my behavior. They look to me, to you, for us to be faithful, to run our laps with patience, looking to Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, until the time comes for us to pass the baton on. Today heaven comes near, and the whispers become cheers, and I do not want to disappoint those who would not fail me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Harold's Country Club

Last Saturday, Lauren and I went to Varnville, SC, for the celebration of Bess Ware's 90th Birthday. Amazing lady (looks like she's ready to dance for another 30 more years) and great family. On the way back to civilization, however, we detoured to Yemassee, S.C. (right off interstate 95) to eat at Harold's CC, a first for both of us.

A friend had told us to call ahead and order your steaks. So we did that. And we got directions: "Come to the stop sign, turn right and you can't miss the large green roof over the gas pumps."

Harold's has a personality disorder. It doesn't know if it is a country store, flea market, pool hall, gas station or diner. Every shelf and corner is stacked with something that should have been tossed out a long time ago. We got there ahead of the 6:30 serving, so we played pool, until the manager called out "Steaks are on!" We assumed that was the equivalent of "Come and git it!" I was grateful since Lauren was cleaning my plate at pool.

Actually, the inch thick steaks were delicious, as well as the spicy onions, with plenty of sweet tea. Not a bad meal at all at $16 a plate. Most of the patrons were Citadel fans on their way back to Charleston. But they were a friendly bunch in spite of the defeat at Georgia Southern.

Harold's has its own character, a rare commodity in restaurants, and is worth a stop. Just call ahead and tell them how you like your steaks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I have called you by name.

It is amazing how a human face changes things. Take an issue, any issue, and speak of it in generalities and, especially if it is a controversial issue, people will quickly become adamant about the correctness of their position, whatever side of the issue they happen to be on. But speak of a mutual friend dealing with the same issue and the conversation changes. In the abstract, stem cell research may be wonderful or murder in your opinion. But when a neighbor with a rare cancer pins her hopes on such research, all you can do is feel the pain and longing.

In a similar way, when we hear a news report of a tragedy and we feel regret or some sadness for the pain and loss. But put a human face with it, and it changes for us. We are connected, and one persons' loss is a loss to us all.

The fire tragedy at Ocean Isle Beach, NC this past weekend that claimed the lives of seven college students hit me with these thoughts. We have watched the news of the horrible fires raging in southern California for weeks, which included loss of life. Those fires were horrible, and we prayed for the victims and the fire fighters. But that was far away and we did not know them.

This loss, closer to home, with names we unfortunately can connect with, becomes an ache we carry for those in shock and grief. Names and faces of people we know, or who know the people we know. And so we pray anew.

My point is, I do not believe God sees in generalities. God sees and knows each face. Maybe another way to say it is, God does not see us a people, but as persons. That probably says more about our faith than I can comprehend, but for today, it is both a comfort, and a calling.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Special Day

You changed my world.
Stood all my ideas on end
Then toppled them over like dominos.
And that was with your first cry.

You rock my world.
Slicing through my stoicism
With laser wit and laughing eyes.
Easily being the center of all connects.

You pulse my world.
Taking hopes and love and faith
As you own natural gait,
Moving to the beat of joy.

Happy Birthday, La.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Aldersgate at Epworth

One of our Aldersgate Special Needs Ministry board members emailed pictures of the home being built on the Epworth Children's Home campus in Columbia. I was by there two weeks ago to take pictures, and it was still just a concrete pad. Wow! They jumped on it and got busy.

The Aldersgate web page has some updated pictures of the home in Orangeburg. It already has the brick work done. Still hard to believe becoming operational is within sight. Considering the need, a place for 12 people with developmental disabilities to call home is a a very small step, but of course, for each of those 12, it's a tremendous life change and answer to prayer.

Saturday Blues

It's Saturday. I've got a cold and it is finally a weekend with much needed rain. But of all things I'll be going to the church mid-morning for Charge Conference! With both Clemson and Carolina playing away this weekend, I'll probably get about 10-15 people to attend (out of 50 on the Board). For most it is a necessary inconvenience. It definitely isn't the way they identify our church's connectional nature.

The reports are prepared and actually were taken to the District Office this past Wednesday. The salaries have been approved. The people have been identified for next year's offices. I think only action that church members see of significance at the CC is the formal action of electing those persons. And honestly, why do you need a District Superintendent present for that?

Maybe the CC does still serve a 'connectional' function. It'd be interesting to hear whether the Dist. Superintendents think so, especially after conducting 60-70 of them. I just wonder if there aren't better ways to do that - and my wondering has nothing to do (honestly, seriously, well...) with it being a Saturday morning and I'd rather lounge around, watch football on TV, and drink plenty of OJ.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Paper Piles

OK, I'm ready for some brain to come up with a filing system designed for people with attention deficit disorder. Those of us with ADD usually have good intentions. We mean to file it where we can find it. So we put it in a place where we can do that, and then the next thing comes along and it is promptly forgotten.

Someone suggested the Paper Tiger system. I looked it up on the web. You number each paper and then enter it in your computer, also listing key words so it will show up in something like a "google" search. Sure, I'm going to be focused enough to do all that?

Guess I'll stay with the paper pile method. It takes longer to find things, but while you're looking you come across other interesting things. Like last night while I was looking in my office for a sheet with charge conference figures, I came across an article with some notes I'd made on it for a great sermon illustration. That's a great "find" that just wouldn't have happened if the article was stuck in some neat hanging file, with it's proper number!

Monday, October 22, 2007


At MOSAIC last night we focused on the Holiness of God. Someone read the story of Moses and the burning bush and we all took off our shoes as a sign of being on holy ground. No big deal. Except walking on the cool marble of the chapel, I couldn't ignore being barefoot.

There came a time in the service when we talked about being vulnerable before God. I even felt that way, with my feet exposed. And afterwards Mitch suggested I ought to have the congregation at the traditional service remove their shoes one service. Yea, right!

But it brings a question to mind. Have we lost the sense of being exposed, vulnerable before God? We come into worship pretty secure in who we are, and what is going to happen in the service. We have our emotional defenses in place and our masks on. Any given Sunday, 95% of those in a United Methodist worship service are basically untouched by God. Why? There's no exposure. Going bare footed is just a ploy. How do we get people to go bare-hearted before God?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Vigilante

The other night was "prank night" for my daughter's high school. The seniors attempt to TP the junior's yards and thus our yard was a target. Kelsey and her friends were back and forth from our house and a friend's, whose parents were out of town. So I was pulled in to help keep watch.

Good thing I was. I grabbed a blanket and pillow and settled in an easy chair by the window of one of the front rooms. At 1:30 a car stopped out front, but I stepped out the door and it took off. At 3 AM I heard a car and when to the front door. Five boys were just starting to spread the toilet paper, I threw open the door and shouted as I went out. The car sped off, but the five guys ran behind it just about as fast! I watched as they piled back in at the end of the next block. I was proud of being so vigilant.

An hour later Kelsey called to say keep watching, they'd just hit another house. So I was ready when at 4:30 AM another car stops right in front of our mailbox straight out the walk from our front door. In a flash I was to the door, flung it open and stomped out shouting, "What do you think you're doing?"

"Delivering your newspaper," shouted back the newspaper guy. Oops. He didn't stick around for my apology or explanation.

By the way, they came back, this time parking the car down the street and sneaking up to the yard. Kelsey and her friend pulled into the drive at 5 AM and caught them. Off they ran again, but toilet paper adorned our trees and shrubbery. So, a night without sleep, we still got hit, and I probably won't have a newspaper delivered in the morning!

Jury Duty

This week I've been plagued with municipal court jury duty. Excuse me, I mean I have had the civic privilege of ensuring the right to trial by a jury of your peers. Last week I showed up for jury selection where they randomly draw potential juror's numbers, bingo-style, for each case. If it'd been a lottery, I'd be stinking rich. My number was called so many times that when it didn't come up, the others shook their heads in disbelief. I had my clergy collar on so the defense attorneys would immediately ask for a pass on me. Not much luck with that this time. What good is a clergy collar if it won't get you out of jury duty?

Actually I ended up having to report for only four trials. And we never heard a one of them! Every one was settled without going to trial - settled apparently after much negotiation while we sat in the jury room waiting.

The first day I followed the rules and left my cell phone and book in the car. The next day I took both in with me. And the last day I even took in a portfolio with work to keep me occupied. However, what I should have taken was a tape recorder. You can find some interesting characters in the jury room.

One woman, recently moved to town from the north, was apparently missing her friends back home, cause she was trying pretty hard to make friends out of us. She made me feel like I was at a Chamber of Commerce after-hours social mixer - a lot of questions and overly sincere affirming responses. I'd try to return to my reading material, but like the collar, it didn't work.

One man who was on two juries with me freaked me out a little. Seriously, he knew a lot about every one of us in the room. At the selection session you have to tell what you do and what your spouse does. He must have memorized everything we said. There was just too much information coming from this man, and it made me start watching my own comments carefully.

Most of the folks, however, were just looking to pass the time like I was. And so you know what happens while a jury waits, here's a topic sampling from our conversations: moving to the South (obviously), the drought, dieting, alligators in unexpected places, hunting wild pigs, saving a niece from a domestic violence situation, heart catheterizations, more diets and recipes, fire fighting, deer hunting, church choirs, traffic accidents, children, job closures, and favorite places to eat.

The judge was nice, appreciative of us, and kept us updated on the negotiations. And except for it being a busy week for me, it wasn't any worse than going to the dentist. Wait, it was better. We got paid $10 a day for our service to the community, without ever passing a verdict.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Baptism excitement!

This must be baptism season. This Sunday I have three couples bringing their infants for the Covenant of Baptism. And next Sunday three young girls of the same family are to be baptized.

Since these girls are ages 7, 8 and 10, I visited with them to talk about the meaning of baptism and what it means to follow Jesus as your Savior. At the end of my visit I gave my cell phone number to their mother in case she needed to reach me with any questions. Next thing I knew, all three girls had their own cell phones out (!) and entered my number as well.

Contrary to my expectations, I haven't been bombarded with calls. I can just imagine the speech their mom gave them about doing that. But I have gotten a few text messages from them - and it always brings a smile to my face.

A text message this week was the best one of all. Short and to the point it said: "Can't wait to be baptized!" -Caroline.

How about that! How many of us express such anticipation about receiving God's grace?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sometimes There Just Aren't Enough Rocks

The beautiful weather this past weekend took me outdoors to clean about the carport, and I found a handful of rocks I'd brought back from Scotland. When I travel I pick up small rocks as momento's. It's strange, I know, but it's cheaper than the souvenier junk. One of the rocks, the one in the center of the photo, shaped somewhat like an egg, I picked up on the north coast of Scotland at Burghead.

One evening, sitting alone and looking out over the North Sea, I saw that rock at my feet and it took me back to an experience from twenty years ago. At that time I was on my first UMVIM trip which was to the Dominican Republic. The work, laying blocks to build a church, was hard and meaningful, and the bay town of Barahona was beautiful. One evening, driving back from visiting a mission medical clinic, we stopped to see a beach that was covered with rounded, smooth rocks rather than sand.

We simply walked the beach, enjoyed the view and picked up some of the well-worn rocks. I picked up one that looked just like an egg - perfect egg shape and a little off white in color. I started to keep it, but then tossed it down preferring to find those with unusual colors and shape.

Here's the embarassing part. When we got back on the van to return to our motel, one of the guys excitedly showed us his great find - a rock that looked just like an egg! It was the same rock I'd tossed away. I didn't say anything, but I remember to this day the strong feeling of jealousy that swept over me. I had a handful of rocks just like I'd looked for, but they paled in value as I admonished myself for not keeping the suddenly admired egg-rock.

I know, it was a childish response. And as I said, it's still embarassing to think about it. But as those memories rose up and stared back at me in my solitude at Burghead, I wondered if I'd really grown up much since then. Have I allowed the Spirit to root out such envy in my heart, or do I just do a better job of disguising it, or refusing to acknowledge it?

I'd be too ashamed to admit this, except I do believe others have to deal with the same kind of emotions. In the Methodist Connection it shows up every spring. We might be happy in our appointment and have no desire or intention to move to a new church. But then we hear about the moves of others and so we say to ourselves (and yes, sometimes to others) "I should have been the one to go there." But really it could be just another pretty egg-shaped rock.

Envy shows up when we feel passed by with career opportunities. Or when we hear of friends receiving accolades for doing something we chose not to do. It creeps in when we compare our material possessions with what others have. It's funny how that when others value something, that increases its value to us. How many things have we bought, or worked to acquire, not because we really desired them, but just because others said they were desirable. You know, things like designer-label rocks, big screen rocks, iPhone rocks, exclusive membership rocks - the list could go on and on.

Now it is true that feelings are simply feelings, and that it's our behavior based-on-0ur-feelings that is open for judgment. But I'm not talking character development here, rather, the transformation of the heart, something Wesley called sanctifying grace. I need, we need, a principle within to awaken us to a sensibility of envy, a pain to feel it near.

In my case, rocks will have to do. The title of this post is one of my favorite lines from the movie Forest Gump. Forest and Jenny, "his girl," walk up to an abandoned house in a field where she survived a terrible childhood. Jenny runs up and angrily starts throwing rocks at the house, until she collapses into a crying heap on the dirt road. Forest tried to comfort her and in his narrative voice-over says, "Sometimes there just aren't enough rocks."

I kept the rock from Burghead as a token reminder, not only of my reflections that day, but also of the grace there that allowed me to examine my thoughts and feelings and turn them over to God. But I wonder, are there enough rocks to change my wayward soul?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Domestic Violence Awareness Week

This is Domestic Violence Awareness Week, an effort to draw attention to a hidden killer. I don't have the figures to quote, but women and children are physically, emotionally, and verbally abused on a regular basis. Being a pastor puts you in contact victims of domestic violence, and it is true that you find it in all types of homes, no matter the economic level. And it is heart wrenching when you see someone so hemmed in, so afraid, of what their spouse might do. So wrong, so unnecessary, so damaging.

I called for prayer yesterday for those caught in the whirlwind of domestic violence. My heart aches for those who endure abuse. The wife whose self-esteem is shattered and who implores, "Please don't say anything." The child who cowers, yearning for the "good parent" to show up. I feel total disgust toward the ones who seize power and control by tearing down those they should protect, but yet I pray, may Christ the Redeemer, the Liberator, free both victim and abuser from this evil.

Tailgate Sunday

Beautiful weather this year! Lots of fun together.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sermon Evolution

This Sunday I preached a sermon written by my wife. People ask us sometimes if we share sermons. We rarely do. We preach in different settings and we usually see different things in the lectionary that we want to address. We have been known to fight over good illustrations, however.

The sermon in question began last week when Cynthia said she wanted something different for their outdoor service. I suddenly remembered something lodged in my brain from about ten years ago. A church member back then told me of a sermon preached by a pastor in Texas that had an unusual beginning. It was the pastor's first sermon in the church and he began with a re-telling of the story of the three pigs. These pigs, however, went out to build churches, one using memories, one using dreams, and I forgot what the third one was.

Cynthia liked the idea and we came up with a) people's desires, b) right belief, and c) people who love. Off she went to write, and wow, I think she nailed it. After reading it, I knew I was going to use it myself, for our Tailgate Sunday. You can read it here.

I guess the story idea really belongs to that preacher in Texas, but ideas and sermons evolve. Since it is story form it would kill the effect to say, this idea is not original. But some might say you have to give proper credit. Guess I feel differently about it. I fully understand the guidelines of attribution and plagiarism in the academic world. You should be evaluated on your own work.

But I've got a question about the way it all shakes out in the practice of preaching. In a real sense, we all need to do our own work. But our own work is usually an amalgamation of things we've heard and read throughout our lives. Seems to me that as long as we're all trying to proclaim the good news as best we can, there's not much of an issue over the common usage. There are a lot of "borrowed" stories and ideas that circulate. It's the whole issue of personal credit or profit from the material that generates the problem. If I want to reap personal benefits from my material, I've got to put a fence around it to keep others from tracking across it. And when I've done that, am I still "preaching?"