Saturday, June 27, 2009


I don't get away very often to the area where my parents grew up - and I am not proud of that. While my mother has been dead for nearly nine years, her family is still very prominent in Southeastern Kansas, as is my father's. So I was finally able to get away for a few days and take my dad here to visit with his remaining brother and sister. Once, he had nine siblings. Time is taking its toll.

My dad is staying with his brother this evening, so I headed back to the hotel about 25 miles away to read and write a little. On the way back I stopped at the cemetery where several family are buried - I probably haven't been back there since I was a teenager. I took pictures of several gravestones, including my great-grandfather's, Andrew Johnson McCracken.

I don't get maudlin about such things, and I'm certainly not sentimental when it comes to burial sites (when my time comes, I'd rather they just cremate me and let the wind carry me where ever it will), but there is something wonderful about walking on the land where your relatives once walked. I always take time to walk around the farms where my uncles lived (and live), knowing that my grandparents once lived there and raised my father there.

As I say every Sunday to my congregation: life is short. Don't have regrets. Visit your relatives when you can. Be swift to love, and make haste to be kind.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Late For Your Own Funeral?

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
2 a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
6 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
- Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
It actually happened - a funeral that started about 1 1/2 hours late because the deceased was late. There was a good reason: the motorcycle escort - all 18-some motorcycles - bringing Robbie Sturma's ashes got delayed.

When I heard that a biker group called "The Regulators" was bringing Robbie's urn to the church via motorcycle, I had a moment of fear: being a Stephen King fan, the word "regulator" brings to mind a very fearful image. However, these bikers were Regulators all right:
  • Recovery
  • Experiencing
  • Gratitude
  • Understanding
  • Loyalty
  • Accepting
  • Tolerance and
  • Obtaining
  • Rewards
  • Spiritually
Many of these folks were Narcotics Anonymous members, as Robbie was. The testimonies from friends and families were short but powerful. The "captain" of the group, a tattooed man in leather who walked with an obvious limp, spoke eloquently and passionately about the man whom he had sponsored in N.A. so many years ago, and how many people Robbie had befriended and helped along the way. Robbie was a BIG man - but it seems his heart was even bigger. His story was a story of redemption - and what a powerful story.

Many of these folks were REAL bikers - not just people like me who happen to ride a motorcycle. They looked and dressed the part. But as I have learned over the years, never
judge a book by its cover. Large imposing people often have hearts that match their size. "Rough looking" folks have often been weathered by life and have mastered disciplines and faithful lifestyles than many of us can only pray for. Both times that I have had motorcycle breakdowns, it was bikers that stopped both times to brings some tools or simple companionship to get me back on the road.

Some context: I have done more funerals this year that I care to count. Last week it was a couple that died in their sleep and a man who died from Parkinson's disease. I was getting depressed and fighting despair. Some preachers have been accused of being a "Marrying Sam", but I feared being called "Rev. Kevorkian." While the prospect of a biker funeral didn't really worry me, I worried about how church folks would handle men in leather vests and women in leather halters.

How did my church embrace these folks? With open arms. The funeral got started late - but folks waited patiently. And as is the tradition here at Reidland, a grief meal followed the funeral - and this time with food enough not only for the immediate family, but for EVERYONE gathered.

I cannot count the number of folks who came up to me and said how welcome they felt and how gracious my church was to them.

The Kingdom of God is like a lot of things. Sunday, it was like a biker funeral. I needed Sunday. It was a reminder to me of redemption and resurrection. God can do anything, if sometimes we will get out of the way.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Culture of Distrust – Emulating Principalities and Powers

I have been attending Annual Conferences since 1986. I took a pastoral appointment in 1987. I even came to conference while away in Atlanta in seminary. I sat at the secretary’s table for several annual conferences. I now chair a conference commission. I represent the Order of St. Luke at the General Board of Discipleship. All to say that I think I am qualified to share some observations after attending twenty-three (23) sessions of the Memphis Annual Conference, as well as four General Conferences and three Jurisdictional Conferences, serving once as a delegate.

For several years, I thought we were unique among annual conferences – we are small, we all know each other fairly well, and we are very good about caring for and being involved in the lives of others. I think we are very good at nurture, especially when tragedy strikes.

But I fear that we have a very bad side – we are extremely ingrown, and annual conference sessions can become a time of jockeying, horse trading, oneupmanship, and manipulation. These are things that should not happen in a covenant community, but they do happen in a culture of distrust. If the divisions were as simple as conservative/liberal or orthodox/progressive, it might be a little more tolerable. But as one “outsider” remarked to me, it’s more like “20% vs 20% vs 20% vs 20% vs 20%.” We have factions. We have meetings after the meetings. And then sub-meetings after that meeting. I suspect there are text messages going on during THAT meeting.

It showed on the conference floor again this year. One person was able to “guilt” the conference into budgeting additional funding for a new conference position AND for our conference camp and retreat center. Both are certainly worthy causes; in fact, I don’t know any conference agency or outside agency that we help fund that isn’t a worthy cause. However, we only had enough income to fund 79% of our budget last year. Our conference finance folks held hearings to give folks the opportunity to make their case and allow them to prayerfully consider our conference budget – and presented their best work. We also managed to insult the Director of Program Ministries in the process – without a word or reprimand from anyone else. So not only did we guilt the conference into passing a higher budget that we are probably unable to fund, we did so AND shot down both a conference committee and a brother in Christ at the same time.

I got to thinking; heck, I could make an emotional case for the commission I chair (Equitable Compensation). I could say – and support – that we need more money to help supplement the pay of ethnic minority pastors and women in ministry. I could make an emotional plea on the basis of equality. I could say that we need to level the playing field for pastoral remuneration and that this is a justice issue. I could say that we are a commission bound by church law with fiduciary responsibilities to prior claim items. And I am willing to bet that I could have been persuasive and eloquent enough to have gotten it passed.

That doesn’t mean it would have been right. More to the point, it is not the way a covenant community should function. Do we want to model this kind of behavior for our children and those new to the faith? That might makes right, or manipulation makes success? If we don’t, we had better change – because that is exactly what we are modeling for them and preparing them to inherit. That is assuming as a conference we survive financially and in number.

No one seems to want to say it: we are dying.

An Annual Conference should not just be about business – it should be the public model for how Methodists are faithful to the Body of Christ. As Methodists, conferencing has the status of being a communal practice that is a means of grace – something that helps us become sanctified as we move on toward Christian perfection. My concern is that our annual conference’s way of “doing” annual conference doesn’t even come close to doing that – and people leave feeling numb, cynical, and often defeated.

Is it possible that instead of being counter-cultural and leading people to the Kingdom, we have simply given in to the culture around us, modeling the principalities and powers of the world instead of wrestling against them?

Instead of doing a 180°, we Methodists may have done a 360°, and ended up right where the Wesley’s started the Methodist movement.

Can we do conference better? I think we can. Can we clergy reacquaint ourselves with the spirit of Christ, and the spirit of the Wesleys to make Methodism vibrant, instead of a lifeless, dead sect? I certainly pray so. Otherwise, the great Methodist experiment is going to fail.

No condemnation now I dread;

Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;

Alive in Him, my living Head,

And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

Bold I approach th’eternal throne,

And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

- “And Can It Be, That I Should Gain?”
Charles Wesley, 1738