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(!)