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.