Thursday, December 14, 2006

Prepare… Just Avoid the Christmas Rush

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To you we say, "Come Lord Jesus!"

- Henri Nouwen

It is easier said than done to avoid the Christmas rush. Christmas parties, buying presents, preparing meals, fighting crowds – it can become a challenge instead of a celebration.

I would challenge us to use the above prayer to find some centering every day during Advent: to find some quiet amidst the loudness, to find some peace amidst the fray, and to find some joy amidst busy days and lives. Play some Christmas music. Instead of giving a gift in a box, take some time to take an old friend to lunch, or call a high school classmate on the phone.

In the midst of the darkness, the Light of Christ seeks to shine. Come, Lord Jesus!



Thursday, December 07, 2006

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Just a short note to remind us all of the church schedule for the next few weeks, as well as ways we can prepare the way of the Lord:

December 10th – Regular morning worship services. Baptism of Dalton Warriner at 10:45.
December 17th – Choir Cantata. One worship service at 10:45 AM.
December 24th – One morning worship service at 10:45 AM.
Christmas Eve Candlelight at 11:00 PM.
December 31st – Regular morning worship services.

Evening worship services will be held at 6:30 PM on December 10th and December 17th only, and then will resume regularly on January 7th, 2007.

One of the best ways to maintain a Christmas center (as well as a Christian center) during this season is to read the Upper Room devotionals. For those of you who are on your computer much of the day, consider setting your home page on your web browser to the Upper Room devotional for the day (the same as in the devotional book) here. That way, it pops up first thing when you open your browser, and if you click on the suggested scripture reading, it pops up in another window. No excuses!

The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. - John 12:34-36

Let us believe in the light… and become children of light. Prepare the way of the Lord!


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Restoring, Renewing, and Trying Something New

Last week I did all three.

Restoring. My first car was a 1967 VW Beetle. I took it apart and put it back together twice, and learned a lot about working on cars from it. The transmission on my truck is starting to act goofy, so I bought a “new” car – a 1991 BMW 325i. My wife’s brother-in-law (many thanks, Larry) and I put in about 5 hours of work on it on Friday, and it runs like a top. It needs a few other odds and ends that I’m scared to do myself, but it runs great. It’ll be a labor of love restoring it, and a slow process, but I’ve decided to have fun doing it.

Renewing. My family went to visit my wife’s sister for Thanksgiving. Her family, along with my mother-in-law, had a wonderful time together. Food, family, fellowship – what a blessing, and what a gift. We had forgotten what a great time we have with each other when we gather. I also realized how mentally tired I have been for the past several months. While I’ve done a lot better job keeping my body in shape in the past few months, my mind and soul have needed renewal and attention too. Balance is important in any renewal.

Trying Something New. I am a creature of tradition and habit, and at my age don’t take on new things very easily or often. So when my wife’s brother-in-law suggested that I try dirt-bike riding over the weekend, I initially balked; I had visions of an emergency room visit, consults with an orthopedic surgeon, etc. I’ve ridden motorcycles for a while, but never off-road. But I tried it… and found that I wouldn’t need a whole lot of arm-twisting to enjoy it. I had good teachers (brother-in-law mentioned above and my nephew, Matt).

You know… restoring, renewing, and trying something new are things we as Christians should not only embrace – we should be experts in it!! If we are to be in the world yet not of it, how else can we preach and teach in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Restoring the truth and tradition that the saints of old handed down to us, renewing ourselves and the Church so that both may be effective vessels of sharing the Good News, And trying something new? Well, at one time pipe organs, electricity, indoor plumbing, and computers were unheard of in churches, and probably frowned upon (i.e., can anything good come out of anything new?!?).

What might God be trying to get us to restore, renew, and try? In the name of Jesus.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I'm showing my age... but one song I remember covering in a rock band I played with was The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go."

Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
And if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know...
[Should I stay or should I go.]

It’s a question that United Methodist pastors will start to ask themselves in a few months: “It is time for me to move? Should I go?” More honestly, when word of retirements and “big moves” gets circulated, we pastors may ask ourselves, “Is this a good year for me to move?” Translation: is this good for my career, my family, and my wallet?

There’s a lot of “me” there. What does that say about those laity that we serve?

Church of the Servant United Methodist Church is the largest UM church in Oklahoma, with over 7,000 members. Their senior pastor, Norman Neaves, was appointed there in 1968 to start a new church. He is still the senior pastor there.

Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church is the largest UM church in Kansas, with over 14,000 members. Their senior pastor, Adam Hamilton, was appointed there in 1990 to start a new church. He is still the senior pastor there.

Frazer Memorial UMC in Montgomery, Alabama, is the largest UMC in Alabama. John Ed Mathison was appointed there 34 years ago as the senior pastor. Frazer Memorial was not a new church start; it was founded in 1889, and relocated when interstate highways were constructed. Since Mathison was appointed there, the church grew from 400 members to 8,400 members. Mathison is still there.

I took enough statistics classes in college to be wary of correlations and causality. But it just makes sense that longer pastoral tenures usually bear more fruit. Consider the words of blogger Paul Lamey:
The things that the pastor is called to be and do take time…lots of time! The common joke is that, “pastors work one hour a week.” While this is no doubt true for many hirelings throughout the land, not so with the man who has been called by God and gives himself to the ministry with complete integrity. The average tenure of a pastor in the US is three years. That’s despicable and horrific when we consider what it takes to effectively minister to God’s flock in the way that He has prescribed. I’m not suggesting that a pastor fill his schedule with programs from the denomination office or with the latest fad from the “experts”. To the contrary, I’m suggesting he immerse himself with the specifics that God has called him to in Scripture (e.g., study, preach/teach, counsel, lead/administrate, visit, pray, practice, etc.). It takes time to do these things and it takes even more time to do them with excellence. This means that every week will be full and when he enters his third year of ministry he’s not looking for an escape but he’s just getting started. We see leaders with this basic commitment as far back as Ezra who “set his heart to study the law of the LORD and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

Lamey then found a quote from Calvin’s commentary on some texts from Hosea regarding call to ministry and how long it lasts:
“But when God employs our service for twenty or thirty years, we think it wearisome, especially when we have to contend with wicked men, and those who do not willingly undertake the yoke, but pertinaciously resist us; we then instantly desire to be set free, and wish to become like soldiers who have completed their time. When, therefore, we see that this Prophet persevered for so long a time, let him be to us an example of patience, so that we may not despond, though the Lord may not immediately free us from our burden.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 13, “Hosea” pg.38).

So let’s see… the average pastoral tenure in the United States is 3 years. Is it just too much to consider staying somewhere for 20-30 years? Are we that impatient?

Sometimes we pastors often find ourselves asking the question, “Have I stayed here too long?” It may be that we need to instead ask, “Don’t I need to stay here a long time?”


Note: I have since found out that Norman Neaves retired last year.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Looking Behind, Thinking Ahead

A few weeks ago, I walked around the neighborhood where I grew up. I also drove by my home church where I not only grew up in, but was also appointed to as one of the pastors for five years.

Some of the really big trees I remember as a kid are no longer there; time has taken its toll. A lot of trees that I remember as saplings are now big trees. Someone bothered to plant them, and now, 40 years later, others are enjoying them. My home church has changed quite a bit: the old youth center is gone, the education building has been razed, and a new building is being erected to replace both. The parsonage that my family and I lived in 13 years ago now houses the church offices.

I have really fond memories of the youth center and educational building at my home church. But I know in my heart of hearts that it was time for a change. More importantly, I know that the Kingdom of God seeks to minister to others that will be here long after I am gone. The new building will reflect the changes needed to minister to people in the 21st century.

In thinking ahead for Reidland UMC, if you’ve noticed, utility companies are moving lines to prepare for the closing of Old Benton Road. Our church has been preparing for a Long-Range Planning/Master Site Plan committee to meet. I think that the time for us to meet is now. We need to not only plan for today, but plan for 10, 20, even 30 years from now. Some of us may not live to see anticipated changes; I for one will be retired in around 20 years. But that does not relieve me of the responsibility to be sure that our church is still making disciples for Jesus Christ years and years from now.

So I’m asking you to pray. Pray about what needs to happen at Reidland UMC. Pray about how we need to reconfigure parking and our preschool playground. Pray about how what kind of ministries and visions we need to be capturing to serve the Reidland community the best. Most of all, please pray about what sacrifices of time, money, talents, and thoughts we need to make in response for the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us so that Reidland UMC continues to make disciples for Jesus Christ.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006


My daughter has unfortunately inherited my occasional bouts of writer's block (I haven't blogged lately, as you can tell) This is a problem for Sarah because she is occasionally graded upon her abilities to write. She was coming up blank for a poem due in class... and this is what she came up with:


Blank, Nothing, Empty.
It stares up at me expecting words, sentences, paragraphs.
But I can't. I'm just
It looks up and asks me
"Why? Why must you leave my pages empty?
Must you forever leave me a book of nothing-
My face bare?"
Sincere apologies my friend,
But I can't. I'm just
I think until I can no longer.
My head is no longer the abyss of words it once was.
And so, my friend, I must leave you
Empty, Nothing, Blank.

- © 2006, Sarah E. McCracken

I wasn't this sharp when I was 13. I'm still not.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rust, Restore, or Change?

Eight of us from Reidland went to Kansas City a couple of weeks ago. A very powerful image was presented to us: Three Ford Mustang convertible cars. Two of them were 1965 models, one taken out of a junkyard - rusted, no engine, rotting interior; the other was restored to mint condition. The third was a 2006 model.

It was a good image for the United Methodist Church; 1965 was the last year our denomination experienced any numerical growth – and we are very much looking like the ’65 Mustang that came out of the junkyard.

That leaves two models: (1) we can restore the old car to mint condition with some investment of time, money, and TLC, or (2) we can buy the new car.

The preacher, Adam Hamiliton, noted the restored ’65 looked great and was fun to drive… for a short while. Even though it is restored, however, it doesn’t brake as well as modern cars, is more difficult to steer, has no air bags or even shoulder seat belts. The 2006 model has modern steering and braking, modern safety applications, and can be driven comfortably for hours at a time. It still looks like a Mustang, taking the best from the old and adding modern elements to make a car that’s safe and useful today.

There are certainly ties to the past we need to keep, in order to learn about the eternal faith and to remember those saints who have gone before and upon whose shoulders we stand. However, we also need to embrace change in the church as well as we embrace it in our world. I don’t know many folks who want to go back to telephone party lines, hand-powered drills in the shop or handmixers in the kitchen, hanging clothes out on the line, or lighting our houses at night by oil lamp. The church should be no different.

What does that mean for us and our church’s future? It means a lot of prayer – talking and listening to God. And it means sacrificing our own attitudes and minds and having the mind of Christ. If Christ can sacrifice his life for us, we have to ask ourselves what we’re willing to give up and sacrifice.

Even if it is a ’65 Mustang.


Saturday, October 14, 2006


I haven’t written in over two weeks; I’m as close to overwhelmed as I ever have been in my life. It's taken me two weeks to find the words.

As you can read on other UM blogs, many were in attendance at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection Leadership Institute at the first of this month. I was among them, coming early to attend the Contemporary Worship Institute as well. Striking the Balance was the theme of the Institute. From the brochure:

For the past forty years mainline churches have struggled, while conservative evangelical churches, both denominational and non-denominational, have experienced explosive growth. Will the next forty years see more of the same? Or is it possible mainline churches will again move to the forefront of ministry?

The church of the next forty years – the church that reaches a new generation, will not be the conservative church of the 80’s and 90’s. And while the mainline churches have great potential to reach the next generation, it will not be the mainline church of the 40’s and 50’s that will reach today’s young people.

In this year’s Leadership Institute,
Recentering – Striking the Balance, we will help you see why mainline churches matter now more than ever, what ways mainline churches must change if they are going to reach the next generation, and what the mainline can learn from the “emerging church.”

I had good friends, church staff, and church members attend with me, and every evening brought conversation and debriefing that went long into the night. During breaks I ran into old friends like Jay Voorhees and Ed Phillips (now a professor at Duke), and had long conversations with them as well.

I will confess that I am theologically orthodox, lean toward the liturgical/sacramental where worship is concerned, and have often prided myself to the point of sinfulness regarding my seminary education from a highly respected school. I’m a mainline Protestant.

And we’re dying.

If trends continue as some church growth experts believe, other Protestants may begin to follow us in a few years.

So what am I going to do? Crossing the Tiber and becoming Catholic seems too much like giving up. Waiting on Good News, MFSA, the Confessing Movement, and whatever other renewal organization may pop up to save the day is as helpful as thinking that if we could only get the right political party in control we could “fix” our country.

It’s clear to me that the vast majority of folks don’t feel represented in government, don’t feel ministered to by the church, and don’t feel welcome, inspired, challenged, or moved by worship. John Cobb, known for his progressive theology, has made the most keen observation in noting that the lukewarmness, the lack of intensity, and the lack of theological thinking have all contributed to the decline in mainline churches… which is ironic, since those things were part of the birth and heritage of the Mainline Church!

What will it take? Like a good Methodist, I’m going to borrow from Wesley and make a confession: This orthodox, liturgical/sacramental pastor, a graduate of a United Methodist seminary… is submitting to be more vile. For Wesley, it meant he preached out in the fields… quite “improper” for any Anglican priest of the day. But Wesley believed that religion was mind AND heart, and did what it took.

So if it takes different music, use of multimedia, a change of wardrobe, praying more, and/or reworking (or even stripping down) the basics of present ecclesial practice, then so be it. These innovations aren’t really a whole lot different than previous innovations: pipe organs, electricity, hymnody that embraced harmony, celebrating worship in vernacular language.

I don’t think the Mainline Protestant church is called to stay in the 1960’s. Jesus is alive and well in 2006, and we’re still called to make disciples – in today’s world. I think we can be redeemed - if we allow God to do it.


Friday, September 29, 2006

The United Methodist Connection – Plus or Minus?

Next year will be the 20th year I have served as a United Methodist Minister, beginning my pastoral ministry at the Lynnville-Poyner’s charge in southern Graves County, Kentucky while a senior in college.

As I reflect over this period of time, perhaps the greatest disillusionment that I have had is with the United Methodist Connection. Let me first testify that the Connection has been very good to me: because of it, I received a quality education. I have a pension that will probably allow me to retire comfortably. I am presently serving a very fine church in our annual conference. I have also been fortunate to serve as a delegate at our Jurisidictional Conference, and spoke on an issue on the floor of General Conference in 2004 as an alternate delegate.

But my concern is that there are a lot of “I’s” in the above paragraph. How is the Connection benefiting the people in our pews? And more importantly, how is the Connection benefiting the Kingdom of God and in spreading the good news of Christ?

Some say that we need to be more connectional. I do recall in my childhood and youth attending conference camps, district youth events, and districts gatherings on 5th Sunday evenings for worship together – and I recall such events with much fondness. But as I have later realized, United Methodism was already losing members even then. Was “being connectional” really helping the Church?

If we say “Connectional” in a United Methodist context, it often means:
• Pastoral Appointments
• Annual Conference
• District clergy and Council on Ministries meetings
• UMW and UMM gatherings
• Paying your apportionments

Of course, that’s grossly unfair and inaccurate… but it is the general perception out there. The question now is not just a question of public relations and teaching, but of survival: who needs each other worse, the Connection, or individual churches? My hunch is at present, the United Methodist Church needs local churches more than local churches need the United Methodist Church.

Like most organizations and organized entities, it may be that the United Methodist Church has become self-serving, rather that serving in the capacity originally intended. Our understanding of the truth, our mission, and the way we live out our faith is dictated by popular vote. The problem with that is that I’m not sure Christianity affirms democracy nor acknowledges it as the truth. This loss of authority ends up affirming mediocrity and adding to the already pervasive individualism that is running rampant in America.

We have to take leadership seriously – not based on entitlement, not based on quotas, not based on diversity or inclusivity – but based on gifts of courage, humility, willingness to live by discipline and courage to act with authority. These are the people we need to be church lay leaders, annual and general conference delegates, UMYF presidents, pastors, and bishops.

In their book Where Resident Aliens Live, Hauerwas and Willimon make this comment about seminary students, which I think could be expanded to church leadership both lay and clerical alike:

The truth of the matter is that the best and brightest are not coming to seminary today. That should not be surprising, given the loss of the church’s social power and status. Those of talent look elsewhere for success.

Yet we know that God has given us people of talent, and we as the church must call them into ministry whether they want to or not. We must say, “You have the gifts, and we need you.” That is a true call, since it’s not a matter of whether you really “want” to be in the ministry. -
from Where Resident Aliens Live, © 1996, pp. 65-66

The United Methodist Connection can do something about it – if it will. But to do so it will have to be less self-serving and more in service to Christ. That might mean resembling the government less and the Kingdom of God more. Democracy seeks to please as many as possible. Christianity seeks to proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected…a stumbling block to those looking for worldly power, but authority and wisdom to those called by God.


Saturday, September 23, 2006

Déjà vu… All Over Again

“History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes.” - Sir John Templeton

Ever since 9/11, I have always had mixed feelings about our country’s response. The retired firefighter in me stifles a sob, the American patriot in me rises to the surface, the political cynic in me gets nauseous, and the Christian in me causes all of these other hats I wear to be in mass confusion.

But as history records, America’s experience on September 11th, 2001, isn’t the first time that a superpower was brought to its knees. On August 24th, 410, Rome was sacked by Alaric, King of the Visigoths. 40,000 troops pillaged the place. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, was in the middle of all of it. Augustine was a prolific writer and formulator of Christian doctrine, and my Christian history and theology professor at Emory, Dr. Bill Mallard (an Augustinian scholar himself), once joked in class that when Rome was sacked in 410, Augustine was so shocked that he couldn’t write for two hours.

But when Augustine regained his senses, he resumed his writing. And one of the things he reflected upon was that regardless of the circumstances, Christians must never equate any government or political entity with the Kingdom of God. This is especially poignant today, in that while Islam may equate government and religious authority, Christianity does not (and has not, and should not).

So what’s our response? I think it is to remain faithful. A few years ago, I would have said, “What’s the point.” But recalling the words of C.S. Lewis after Hitler invaded Poland:

It may seem odd for us to carry on classes, to go about our academic routine in the midst of a great war. What is the use of beginning when there is so little chance of finishing? How can we study Latin, geography, algebra in a time like this? Aren't we just fiddling while Rome burns?

This impending war has taught us some important things. Life is short. The world is fragile. All of us are vulnerable, but we are here because this is our calling. Our lives are rooted not only in time, but also in eternity, and the life of learning, humbly offered to God, is its own reward. It is one of the appointed approaches to the divine reality and the divine beauty, which we shall hereafter enjoy in heaven and which we are called to display even now amidst the brokenness all around us.
– Sermon at Church of St. Mary the Virgin at Oxford, October 22, 1939

Even when things are broken… we stay on task. We keep the faith. We render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's... but we give to God what is God's. First.


Note: A lot of this story was inspired (and borrowed) from an article in Christianity Today entitled, “Theology for an Age of Terror,” by Timothy George

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ryder Cup - Are We Going to Get Whipped Again?

I was listening to British golf commentator Ben Wright this morning on the radio, who was discussing this year's Ryder Cup. He made a very interesting observation: Last year, the bar tab for the U.S. team was $4,000, while the bar tab for the Euro Team was over $30,000. The Euros went on to whip our backsides last year... as they have for previous years.

Maybe Americans need to lighten up a little.

He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart. - Ps. 104:13-15

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

We Find a Vision… or a Vision Finds Us?

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we find the reason for the existence of the church: to reconcile the world to God. Our task, then, is to help people learn how to draw closer to God.

How do we do that? A lot of folks will tell us, “Your church needs a vision.” We might adopt a mission statement. But many churches that have broken out of stagnation and decline have found the opposite: don’t seek to discover a vision; let the vision discover you.

Churches that have broken out into new ground and faith have found that the intersection of the following factors will help a vision discover a church:

1. Passion of the church’s leadership.
If a pastor and church leaders disciple their flock, evangelism and spiritual growth will become a regular part of their lives and witness.
2. Congregational Gifts and Passions.
Ministry is pursued according to the gifts and passions God gives to church members, and the church’s atmosphere encourages and nurtures such to happen.
3. Needs of the Community.
John Wesley made it clear: the world is our parish. The book of Acts reminds us that we are to be Christ’s witnesses in the world. Whatever we do in Christ’s name must include the world, and seeks to provide for the community without expecting anything in return. We have to be passionate about our community!

The implications are many: We can only choose a few areas where we excel; if we try to do everything, we will do little of it well. It also means that since none of the three above factors are consistently constant, our vision will never be constant; leadership changes, membership changes, and communities change. Rather than be static, our vision will be dynamic. God is always leading us down new paths.

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone.” – Bill Cosby

God – and his children - are the ones we ultimately serve. God’s vision for us will find us if we are willing to be found!


Most of these ideas came from Breakout Churches: Discover How to Make the Leap, by Thom S. Rainer.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Cheerful Heart

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person's strength. – Proverbs 17:22 (NIV)

I have always loved the writings of Ferrol Sams, Georgia physician and writer (and Emory U. grad, I might add). He’s always written from the standpoint that all of us are searching for meaning on our lives. His book Epiphany is a compilation of three philosophical novellas that center on people experiencing revelation in their lives.

“Harmony Isn’t Easy” is my favorite novella in Epiphany, which shows how important humor is to our lives. He tells the following story that circulated around his family anytime someone had a “Melrose” kind of day:

An old farmer, the story went, arose at daybreak, dressed for the field and went to his kitchen for breakfast. There was no food on the table, no light on, and the stove was cold. He knocked on the door to his housekeeper’s room to ask explanation and was answered with the plaintive wail, “I ain’t cooked you no breakfast cause I’m too sick. I ain’t even able to get out of bed. I need for you to go get me the doctor out here and that just as quick as you can.”

The farmer sighed but went dutifully back to his room and changed from overalls into his suit in preparation for going to town.

When he went outside, he found that his old car wouldn’t crank. He sighed, and by the dint of much straining managed to roll it over a rise and down a little hill to jump-start it. He chugged on until he had to ford a creek, where he got off-center a little and the car was stuck.

He sighed, but patiently removed his shoes, rolled up his pants legs and managed with a prise-pole to free his car and go on his way.

A quarter mile down the road he had a flat tire. He folded his coat, with a sigh, changed the tire and put on the spare. A mile later he had another flat tire. He gripped the steering wheel and thought for a while. Then he removed the flat and with patience began rolling it before him toward town.

A half-mile from the car, the sky suddenly darkened. Rain began falling so heavily that the old man could barely see. Within seconds, he was soaking wet. He felt his shoes filling with water, he felt his only suit shrinking on his frame. He let the tire fall to the ground before him, raised his clenched fists to the heavens and howled at the top of his voice, “My God! Why do all these things have to happen to me?”

With that the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and a deep voice boomed down, “I don’t know, Melrose; there’s just something about you that chaps My ass!”
- Epiphany, Ferrol Sams, 1994, p. 122

Keep smiling. It's good for you.


Staff Parking

No, the pastor didn't buy a new bike; the Preschool Director did. Congratulations to Melinda Warriner - preschool director, mother of 4, grandmother of 4 (with 5 and 6 on the way), and proud owner of a 2006 Honda Shadow Aero.

You go, girl.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Faith Is a Journey - Not a Guilt Trip

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Romans 12.2

The quote “Faith Is a Journey…”can be found in a lot of places and churches, and it’s a quote I like. It takes the emphasis off of fear of God and places it in the context of God’s will.

Before you say, “that’s too easy,” be sure that knowing and conforming ourselves to God’s will isn’t easy. It means not being in charge. It means letting go and letting God. If you’re task-oriented and have a Type A personality like myself, it means letting go of a lot: control, fear, and guilt.

While I’m not putting a stamp of approval on an anything-goes mentality, I think guilt often paralyzes us into a state of fear that makes us scared to do anything good or bad for the Gospel. The “God is going to get me for that” attitude often works against boldness in the name of Jesus. Playing it safe may be a good business or financial practice, but it is the death knell of Christianity.

Will we stumble in our journey of faith? Most assuredly. But if we allow fear of failure and unworthiness to stand in the way of taking up our cross and following Christ, we won’t take the cross far nor will we be able to follow Christ for long. The grace of God picks us up and triumphs over the guilt that Evil would put in our way to stifle the Spirit.

That journey is faith, and it’s a good journey – and good news. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Greater Tuna, and a Great Time

I used to go to plays all of the time. I grew up in a small college town, and in addition to watching plays, I was often in the cast in small parts, both in the children's theatre and the college theatre. My only "starring role" was in the play M*A*S*H as Lt. Col. Henry Blake in 1982. That was the last play I ever attended.

Greater Tuna is probably one of the most produced plays in the U.S., and I knew the play by reputation: a comedy and satire (somes a little dark!) about Southern life, with two actors portraying 20 different roles. One of our Sunday Schools went to see it at the Badgett Playhouse in Grand Rivers, KY, last night, and my wife and I tagged along. A great write-up of the play locally can be read here.

We had a ball. If you're from the South, you'll laugh yourself silly. And if you're not... you'll still laugh yourself silly. If you live around the Purchase Area of Kentucky, go support this wonderful cultural opportunity.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Two Prayers and Hopes

I am going out on faith in two areas this fall. One of them involves worship and the other involves confirmation classes.

Worship. You’re all familiar with the “Mayberry” series that was done a few years ago. Well, believe it or not, there is a “Gospel According to the Simpsons.” Is this out of my comfort zone? Sure. But in reading and preparing the material, I’m finding that it’s quite usable for worship on Sunday evenings. As we have in the past, we will begin with some informal praise singing before we dig in to study. But we will move to the Fellowship Hall for our Sunday evening worship experience. This will allow us to share more freely, have a cup of coffee or a Coke, and experience worship, study, and fellowship in a little more relaxed atmosphere. I look forward to seeing you there!

Confirmation Classes. We have a lot of church youth who have never been through a confirmation class. Because of this, I am led to believe that our study time might be the most fruitful during the scheduled time for Sunday School. Our young people will soon be getting an invitation to join us on Sunday mornings to explore the core of our Christian faith: spirituality, doctrinal stances, Scriptural teaching, discipleship formation, and other aids and aspects of our total salvation formation and experience.

I ask that you keep both of these things in your prayers. I feel that they could bear much fruit. Reidland UMC has a lot to share with the world – let’s equip ourselves to share the love of Christ that is so much a part of our lives and faith.

Grace and Peace,


Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Armor of God?

I thought my sermon on "The Armor of God" this morning wasn't bad. But I wish I'd known about this for my children's sermon illustration. (If you're interested in ordering a pair, click here).

You've gotta smile.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 3

In trying to understand the future of the episcopacy, I’ve been trying to understand how it works in the present, outside of the obvious roles of appointing clergy and presiding over sessions of the Annual Conference. In doing so, my bubble was burst as I read one of the most disturbing paragraphs in Richey and Frank’s book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition:
The Discipline provides no theological or ecclesiological rationale for episcopacy in the UMC; does not locate UM episcopacy in the spectrum of episcopal practices in various Christian traditions; and defines few specifically mandated responsibilities of bishops. While a number of bishops have published autobiographies of been the subject of biographical studies, few have attempted their own interpretations of any theological or historical basis for their role in the Church. - Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, pp. 145-146

The authors conclude that while vigorous defenses were presented in the 19th century, today’s Church is fairly silent – perhaps because we take the role for granted. I would posit another possibility that is less optimistic: most people in the pew (and many behind the pulpit) are indifferent about the matter. How many people in the pews can name their resident bishop?

I think it’s important to know our bishop; important enough that not only our resident bishop but also our district superintendent’s name are listed in our Sunday worship bulletins as leaders. Our bishops are our shepherds.

But why haven’t we said so? In checking out Richey and Frank’s claim above, they’re right about the Discipline’s lack of rationale. I suspect Methodism has coasted for hundreds of years on a traditional/historical understanding of the episcopacy, but the law of inertia has caught up with us. For lack of theological and ecclesiological direction, the UMC has “done its own thing” where bishops are concerned. More to the point, jurisdictions within United Methodism have done their own thing. Our denomination is fractured, and the fracture is taking its toll. The UMC in the U.S. went under 8 million members this year. However, the UMC outside of the U.S. is growing.

So what do we do?

1. Get rid of the episcopacy?,
Not my vote, and it would be a feat of legislation and lobbying to enact it. However, the fact is that the Episcopal Fund is in dire straits. Only twenty-one conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionments in 2005. That’s only one-third of the whole Connection.
2. Redefine it?
If folks don’t know who their own bishop is or what a bishop does, redefining the role would be a good start. We’re currently in a tenable situation; what theological and ecclesiological rationale can we give to support continuing the episcopacy, which is becoming an unfunded liability? The Episcopal Fund is 14% of the General Conference four-year budget, or $83.5 million. Can we afford something we can’t define?
3. Elect bishops globally instead of regionally?
The Council of Bishops seems to lack cohesiveness; bishops represent the area they were elected out of, and not the global church. Before 1939, jurisdictional conferences didn’t even exist, born out of racism. Now, not only are we becoming regionally segregated, we are running the risk of being an “American-only” United Methodist Church. What does this say to our United Methodists abroad? But this too would be a feat of legislation and lobbying.
4. Enable bishops to lead.
This is my vote. Our bishops have the power to appoint pastors and preside at conferences, but they have no voice or vote in either local or general church matters. They rule over matters of church law, but their decisions are always subject to automatic appeal by the Judicial Council. Do we really empower them with leadership, or do we shackle them instead?

Maybe one question in this overrides all else: Is the UMC a connectional church, or are we an association of local churches? That might answer how we approach the future of the episcopacy in United Methodism. In fact, that might answer how we approach United Methodism as a whole.


Related blogs here, here and here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Be Still And Know

I guess I’m getting cranky in my older age, but some things bother me more than they used to. Quick movements and loud, sudden noises I’m not expecting are at the top of the list. In fact, I’m starting to see that I prefer it quiet. Loud blaring commercials on the television, obnoxious laughter from sitcoms, and game show sound effects grind my nerves. So much for my idiosyncrasies.

When I am a guest preacher, one of the things that I now ask about when leading prayer is, “Is the pianist or organist going to play while I pray?” If the answer is yes, then I’ll take it upon myself to ask him or her not to. Why? I think it distracts the conversation.

If we believe prayer is conversation with God (and I do), shouldn’t we tune in to God and tune out everything else? In fact… I’m convinced that at least half of the time (and probably more), we should be listening to God instead of talking. God has a lot to say to us if we'll listen rather than talk.

Perhaps Steven Curtis Chapman says it better (if you have Real Audio, you can hear the song here at Chapman’s website):
Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is holy
Be still oh restless soul of mine
Bow before the prince of Peace
Let the noise and clamor cease

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know that He is faithful
Consider all that He has done
Stand in awe and be amazed
And know that He will never change
Be still…Be speechless…

Be still and know that He is God
Be still and know He is our Father
Come rest your head upon His breast
Listen to the rhythm of
His unfailing heart of love
Beating for His little ones
Calling each of us to come
Be still. Be still.
- Psalm 46:10 / Zec. 2:13


Saturday, August 12, 2006

Faithfulness vs. Mediocrity

Several months ago, Bishop Will Willimon made starting new congregations in the North Alabama conference a top priority. The North Alabama Conference also proposed increasing their budget for new church starts by 50%. I’m a Bishop Willimon fan, and I applaud him for his aggressiveness and vision.

Right after that, Shane Raynor, the guru of the Methodist blogosphere, wrote about new churches being the future of the United Methodist Church (click here). Again, a well-written and visionary statement.

In my experience of the Connection of the United Methodist Church, one conference that I’ve always admired is the North Carolina conference. They’ve always been cutting edge, well established, and with Duke Divinity School close by have always had the sharpest pastors and been well steeped in Wesleyan theology and tradition. Imagine my shock when I read this statement in The News & Observer, Raleigh’s newspaper:

Don Curtis was serving on a committee devoted to launching new United Methodist churches when a single statistic stopped him cold: Half the churches started each year fail.

"It's a very expensive thing to launch a church," said Curtis, a Raleigh businessman whose Curtis Media Group owns 15 radio stations in the state. "When you fail, you've dropped a lot of money."

After talking to Bishop Alfred W. Gwinn Jr. of the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church, Curtis learned that church administrators were well aware of the problem and searching for solutions. With a $1 million challenge grant from Curtis, the conference came up with one: An academy to teach pastors and lay people practical skills to keep churches healthy and vibrant.
- Raleigh News & Observer, Aug 11, 2006

More of the article reveals that the population in North Carolina is growing. Somewhere along the line, there’s been a failure.

If you read the entire article (click here), I can't help but think that the Church is failing its people and its Christ. Permit me these observations:

1. Seminaries. In reality (at least in the UMC tradition), we really don’t have seminaries; we have schools of divinity. Lots of biblical, theological, and historical education – which are all essential – but very little practical education in areas of finance, conflict resolution and group dynamics, and training and enabling volunteers. In short, very little praxis. The argument is that these things aren’t the seminaries’ job. Perhaps. Whose job is it, then?

Hey… I got a great education at Emory/Candler. But I had to learn all the practical aspects of ministry on my own. Fifteen years later, I find myself a little angry that seminary (at the cost of $21,000 in 1991) didn’t prepare me to be a practice-ready clergyman when I was sent out into the parish. If I hadn’t served churches while in college and seminary, I’d have been even further behind.

2. Continuing Education. Doctors have to continually be educated in new medicines and new techniques and approaches in order to “keep up.” Members of state bars have to do the same in the legal profession. What passes for requirements in continuing education for UMC pastors, though, is a borderline joke. Greg Jones of Duke Divinity said it well: "What we've had too often in religious communities is mediocrity masquerading as faithfulness," Jones said.

3. The General Church is doing little or nothing about either. I am very glad that Mr. Curtis is putting his heart, soul (and yes, his money) into an Academy for Leadership Excellence to train pastors how to start churches. But this is a really damning statement to our General Church – why hasn’t the General Conference of our Church done this... in fact, why wasn't it done years ago? Why didn’t such a mandate come from the General Board of Ministry? Instead of spending a fortune on Igniting Ministry commercials, why didn’t we start such academies across the annual conferences?

Making disciples is supposed to be our Great Commission, as opposed to aligning ourselves with whatever caucus we like or acting like our government at General Conference in budgeting money we don’t have. And it’s really poor stewardship to invest money in new church starts that are currently experiencing a 50% failure rate.

It’s time we used the Connection to do something that will work, rather than do something mediocre. We can’t afford mediocrity anymore.


Friday, August 04, 2006

Everything That We Know, All That We Love?

Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior. - Isaiah 43:1-3

That's me at a much younger age... and wearing something different from a clerical collar and suit.

I rarely watch movies or television shows about firefighters; I was a firefighter and EMS responder for over 12 years, and I either get bothered about technical inaccuracies or too caught up in the emotions. But I watched a good movie the other night; Ladder 49. A little bit about the movie:
Under the watchful eye of his mentor Captain Mike Kennedy (John Travolta), probationary firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) matures into a seasoned veteran at a Baltimore fire station. Jack has reached a crossroads, however, as the sacrifices he's made have put him in harm's way innumerable times and significantly impacted his relationship with his wife and kids. Responding to the worst blaze in his career, he becomes trapped inside a 20-story building. And as he reflects on his life, now Assistant Chief Kennedy frantically coordinates the effort to save him.

I went into several burning buildings in my life, and I always prayed the words above from Isaiah each time. Contrary to what most people believe, firefighters are usually scared of fire – because they intimately know what it can do and how powerful it can be. I’ve never failed to be thankful that I was never seriously hurt. In all of those years I only had one close call.

Twelve years in the fire service also taught me a lot about camaraderie, teamwork, and brother/sisterhood. You put your trust into so many persons: the person on the nozzle with you, the pump operator supplying water, the rapid intervention team who will come in after you if something goes wrong, the officer in charge of the incident… the list goes on. Even weeks of training at the fire academy couldn't wholly prepare me for the real thing. I remember going into my first burning house with Jerry, a seasoned firefighter. The room next to us suddenly flashed, and I wanted to run, run, run. He put a hand on my back and said, “We’re okay. I’m not gonna let you get hurt.” And then he proceeded to teach me how to cool down a room, how to fog your nozzle stream, and how to think like the fire in order to find it and extinguish it. I learned the difference between acceptable risks and stupid risks. He helped make me a good firefighter. And I passed on the craft to others as I got older.

Most firefighter shows and movies end with a tragic death, and having officiated at three firefighter funerals myself, it’s the part I don’t want to see of the movie. The wail of bagpipes, the lineup of firefighters and engines from neighboring departments, honor guards, dress uniforms – all very impressive, and all very depressing to me.

But Ladder 49 was a little different. A funeral takes place in a large Catholic church. In his eulogy, Chief Kennedy concludes by asking the congregation to stand and give thanks for the life of the fallen firefighter. The congregation stands, and they clapped with thunderous applause. Firefighters saluted. They walked in formation behind a fire engine that served as a hearse for the coffin. It was respectful, and it was a celebration.

It begs the question: why does the fire service, law enforcement, and the military have the best funerals?

My hunch is that it has something to do with the way we approach Christian discipleship… or more accurately, how we don’t approach it. Churches often get a rap for being cold, unapproachable, or even downright unfriendly. Worse, it’s been said that the Church is one of the few institutions that shoots its wounded. While I might take exception with anyone saying these things to my face, the fact that they’re said means that the perception is there.

One of the tag lines for Ladder 49’s movie trailer is this: “Everything they know, all that they love, is what they risk every day.”

Man, that’s good. I wish someone had thought of it for the United Methodist Church before we adopted “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

The observation has often been made that many bars have better community life than some churches. I would place public service personnel even higher than that. Why is it that the Church abdicates to other organizations the very ideals and roles that it is supposed to excel and take a lead in? And why is everyone else taking risks while the Church plays it safe?

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” I pray that one day, people will once again say that about the Church... and the Cross.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Who’s Your Daddy? And Who’s Your Momma?

I was reading Peter Cammarano’s blog page the other day (he’s a UM pastor from Texas), and he reminded his readers of that old, lovable curmudgeon of a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University’s Divinity School.

I had breakfast with Professor Hauerwas once; he is as Peter described him: a gruff and abrasive person who has a heart for the church. Hauerwas grew up blue collar and of moral and ethical parents. He’s a radical: staunchly against abortion, yet an avowed pacifist. He knows he’s in the minority… and he knows that Jesus was, too. He has passed this attitude down to his students.

He has also passed down the love and necessity of the Church. He correctly describes the most accurate image of friendship and worship in this world: the two sacraments of the church, Eucharist and Baptism. In Eucharist the church habitually longs for the return of God, and reminds themselves of hospitality, friendship and love. Baptism incorporates our life and Christ’s life as one. A quote he frequently gives is this one derived from early church fathers Origen and Cyprian, and goes something like, “You cannot have God as father unless you take the Church as your mother.”

So much for being able to worship God just fine in a deer stand or a bass boat!

Community life is so much at the heart of Christianity. Yet fostering community seems to get harder and harder. People don’t want to reach out. We’re suspicious of those we don’t know. We’re scared of new leadership, or training others to take our place. The problem with that is that the Church is always one generation away from dying. If it is of Christ, it will of course flourish. But if it is of our own making… I shudder to think about it.

The Church isn’t ours; it is God’s. Without discipleship and servanthood, church membership is nothing more than being a member of a religious country club. If God is our Father, and the Church is our Mother, it may be that we might best see ourselves as children in the family of God – children who are loved, children in need of direction, children who will grow and learn the rest of their lives, and children who will share what they have learned and experienced with others.

Do we dare sit on our hands and let down both our Father and our Mother? Should we at the very least practice hospitality so that the Kingdom might increase?


Monday, July 24, 2006

Christian Purity...along the Way to Christian Perfection

A good friend of mine challenged me to write about Christian Purity. My initial response was that I’m not qualified! But some closer examination of scripture and the writings of John Wesley are very illuminating.

While much has been made about Wesley’s Aldersgate conversion, the leading up to it hasn’t always been given as much press. Wesley struggled even in his own calling as a priest, and once recorded in his journal:
“I went to America to convert the Indians; but O! who shall convert me? Who, what is he that shall deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ‘To die is gain.’ … I show my faith by my works by staking my all upon it . . . O who will deliver me from this fear of death?”- Journal, January 24, 1738

Yet Wesley also placed a high value on “a clean heart, a single eye, a soul full of God! A fair exchange, if by loss of reputation we can purchase the lowest degree of purity of heart!” These were things he embraced and believed despite the fact that it cost him earnings, friends, and reputation as a “proper” Anglican priest. When Wesley began his work evangelizing the lost and forgotten in society, I think he worked out his struggle.

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. – Philippians 2:12

Paul was addressing the converted, that their journey was far from over. That leads me to believe that Christian purity, just like our salvation, is something we’re always working on. And if we consider what John Wesley said about Christian holiness (“wholeness and perfection of the soul”), I think all of our Christian experience is a process of growth and cleansing, with our souls moving toward the likeness of Christ.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Am I Supposed to Take This Seriously?

Two things I want someone to confirm for me:

Is this for real? (click here) "Hannidate - The place where people of like conservative minds can come together to meet. Whether you are looking for a life partner, or just someone to hang out with, here you'll be able to find exactly who you are looking for, locally or around the world."

Sean Hannity is running an online dating service? Surely not.

2. Al Franken, a/k/a Stuart Smalley, is considering running for senator of Minnesota?

These guys are good entertainers... but an online dating specialist and senator?

I guess the daters and voters will decide.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 2

It’s been said that among the many oxymorons (such as military intelligence, friendly fire, plastic silverware, Microsoft Works) that one should be added to the list: United Methodist. It is quite evident that as a denomination, we are not united.

Could it be that the way we elect bishops is partially to blame? Is the way that we elect bishops truly representative of the whole Church, or do we elect regional leaders that fit the political and social demographic of an area? I think in reality we do the latter, and the problem with that is that we then become a denomination of regions, rather than a united denomination. If we were like the Southern Baptists, where every congregation is autonomous, that would make sense. But at least in theory, our Book of Discipline says that we are a covenant Church. Moreover, our baptismal theology states that our membership exists at three levels; (1) the Church Catholic, (2) the United Methodist Church, and (3) the local congregation or parish. That means – in theory – that a United Methodist in Alabama should feel somewhat at home at a United Methodist Church in Washington state (and vice versa). Moreover, children going through a confirmation class should be taught similarly and come away with the same “method” of Methodism. Again, at least in theory.

We know that practice tells a quite different story.

What would happen if we elected bishops at General Conference instead of at Jurisdictional Conferences? Before someone says “we’ve never done it that way before,” it actually WAS done that way for many years, and jurisdictions are a relatively new invention. The change that created jurisdictions was primarily born of racism… and we ought to be ashamed that we still have such barriers up in a truly United Methodist Church.

One of the first things I learned in a polity class in seminary was that when we elect a bishop, we elect someone to the general superintendency of the whole Church. But in reality, we really don’t. To quote Richey and Frank in their book Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition:
…[I]f bishops are elected in a region, and if their “residential and presidential supervision” is restricted to that region only, in what sense can the Church maintain the myth that bishops are general superintendents or bishops of the whole Church?… [T]heir primary responsibilities lie in the region in which they were elected. (p. 108)

It seems to me that one of the ways to restore unity in United Methodism would be to elect bishops at General Conference. Why? The same people who are shaping legislative and doctrinal policy, mandating missions, and discerning spiritual, liturgical, and sacramental actions in our denomination would be electing people that they believe would best shepherd the church in such a context. Richey and Frank believe that such a change would grant the Council of Bishops more episcopal oversight over the whole connection, as they would be a more representative of it as a whole.

It may be that the reason we don't want bishops to have too much oversight is because, regionally, we don't seem to fully trust them as a Council! We might trust "our" bishops ("our" meaning "from our jurisdiction"), but we are reticent to fully trust them collectively. The recent skirmish between the Council of Bishops and the Judicial Council more resembles our U.S. government than a covenant Church.

Jurisdictional conferences tend to “elect their own kind,” and my own Southeastern Jurisdiction is as guilty as anyone in this regard. Such a concept may be in keeping with a United States caught up in the religion of individualism, but it seems antithetical to a United Methodist Church that is supposed to be bound in covenant.


Related blogs here and here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Forgiving in Order to Love

There is a chapter in Roberta Bondi’s book To Pray and to Love that has always grabbed my attention (Roberta was my Christian History and Theology professor in seminary). The chapter is entitled “Our Life and Death Is with Our Neighbor.” She makes the very bold comment that wanting another’s well-being is not necessarily wanting what he or she wants; it is wanting to be able to live in the love God created us for.

Her book reminded me of something that happened in Atlanta while I was in seminary. A brutal murder took place by a MARTA train station; four teenagers tried to steal a man’s car as he waited for his wife to get off the train from work. He resisted and the boys shot and killed him. It was a black-on-black crime, and it outraged the city. Three of the boys admitted their part in the crime, and testified against the fourth, who was the boy that actually shot the man. Despite the testimony of the three boys and several other witnesses, the boy who pulled the trigger never admitted his guilt. At the sentencing, the judge gave the widowed woman an opportunity to address all the boys. She had nothing to say to the gunman. She said this to the other three:

"I’d like to say it takes a lot of courage to admit your guilt… [my husband] cannot be brought back to life,” she told them in calm, reassuring tones. But the killing, she said, “doesn’t have to be a stumbling block for the rest of your lives. I challenge you to rise above this, to realize that God loves you and you are somebody. You can be better. I bear no ill will toward you. Your life can make a difference. We’re losing our young, black men every day… For your sake, for your mother’s sake, make a difference. That’s what I challenge you to do.” Atlanta Constitution, July 18, 1990.

The three boys received a light sentence. The gunman drew a lengthy sentence. The widow wanted these three boys to rise above the murder, become good men, and join the community of faith.

It doesn’t mean that Christians are suckers – and “repeat offenders” of any sin or crime need to be dealt with accordingly for the sake of community. But in order for us to love, we have to be willing to forgive. So many of us carry around hurts that are a result of our being unable to forgive: injuries that parents or adults inflicted upon us, injuries from former marriages, injuries from children, wounds from strangers, wounds from loved ones.

How do we do it? We pray for their well-being – not for what they want, but for what they need. That prayer not only benefits those whom we need to forgive – it needs to be our prayer, too. In the words of Jesus, son of Joseph: “Father, forgive them… they don’t know what they’re doing.”


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ministry of Hospitality

"Distributing to the necessity of the saints; given to hospitality..." - Romans 12:13

Monday night at the Worship Committee meeting, we discussed and identified strategies in greeting visitors who come to our church. As I did some research in this area, I stumbled upon this except from a recently retired UM pastor, Rodney E. Wilmoth, who visited several churches upon his retirement and found ALL of them wanting in regards to greeting visitors. Here is an excerpt of what he said:

For 47 years, as a United Methodist pastor, I worshipped where I was appointed. Now retired, my wife and I are shopping for a church. We have found that many congregations must be more proactive when welcoming visitors…Churches could ask, “Are there opportunities we are missing in welcoming visitors?” Or, “Would we do things differently if we knew some first-time visitors would be coming?”

Here are four tips for congregations cultivating their ministry of hospitality:

1. Develop an intentional ministry of welcoming visitors.
2. Develop a specific plan for what to do with the visitors.
3. Seek suggestions from people who recently visited the church and then joined.
4. Help members and regular attendees understand how important it is for them to greet people.

A church that takes seriously the ministry of welcoming visitors will grow, because visitors will say, “That’s a friendly church! I think I’ll go back there next week.”

We need people who will serve as church hosts and hostesses. We need some folks who will put together visitor bags. Our church needs to develop a brochure that includes Sunday School information for each class. Our bulletin format will be changing to something more “user friendly.” And we need everyone to be pro-active in their greeting of visitors: making them feel welcome, asking them if their small children might be more comfortable in the nursery or attending Church in the Yard, etc. Just as we would make visitors in our own homes feel comfortable, we should do likewise for visitors in our church – God’s house.

This is not a job for the evangelism committee; it’s a job for all members of our church! Just think of how much our church has been a blessing to us – let’s share the blessing! As Jesus reminds us: the way we greet strangers is a measure of the way we would greet Him.

Jesus may be at church on Sunday – in the form of a stranger. How will you greet Him?


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Family Reunions and the Family of God

Family is the first social unit for developing the qualities of the heart. A true family grows and moves through life together, inseparable in the heart. Whether a biological family or an extended family of people attracted to each other based on heart resonance and mutual support, the word "family" implies warmth, a place where the core feelings of the heart are nurtured. Family values represent the core values and guidelines that parents and family members hold in high regard for the well-being of the family. Sincere family feelings are core heart feelings. They are the basis for true family values. While we have differences, we remain "family" by virtue of our heart connection. Family provides necessary security and support, and acts as a buffer against external problems. A family made up of secure people generates a magnetic power that can get things done. They are the hope for real security in a stressful world. - Doc Childre and Howard Martin, The HeartMath Solution

Our annual conference policy says that with my number of years of service I’m entitled to three weeks vacation plus professional development and continuing ed. time off. I’ve never been able to see how to practically work all that in.

But one thing I am realizing more and more – spending time with family is not just vacation time; it’s blessed time. Everything said in both Testaments points toward the fact that the way we view and live out our family life has a direct impact and witness on how we live out our faith.

What haunts me is this question: is my witness of time spent with my family a good one? If it haunts me… I suspect it haunts many. If we’re too busy for what God and others have considered to be primary and formative in our lives, it may be that our faith and the life of the Church will suffer.

I’m at the McCracken family reunion today – in Bourbon County, Kansas - and going to try to place faith in practice. The last reunion I went to was when I was just a tiny boy. My cousin Mark was in the Navy. Now I’m 41, and Mark is 60. His sister just had bypass surgery. How have we let all this time get away from us?

Perhaps we should all challenge each other about spending more time with family, and by doing so create a better family of God in the Body of Christ. By His blood, we are all made brothers and sisters.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Social Gospel of Christ – and Our Place In It

The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness…You cannot be holy except as you are engaged in making the world a better place. You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world but by plunging into ministry on behalf of the world's hurting ones. – John Wesley, 1739

Our world is guilty of a lot of perversions, but in my opinion one of the worst today is the emphasis we have placed upon personal evangelism with little regard for any social emphasis. Salvation is far more than personal and individual; it is communal and corporate. Jesus didn’t tell us to do what he said, be saved, and keep it to yourself. Nor did he say “It’s all about you and me.” He told the disciples (plural), “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." The Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them…”

That’s what Wesley meant by social religion – it’s not just individualistic, and it’s not just personal; it’s a both/and, not an either/or: “You do not become holy by keeping yourself pure and clean from the world.” It’s quite obvious that Wesley believed as Christ did that we are supposed to be in the world while not becoming of the world.

Last Wednesday night, one of our church members made a profound statement: I asked the question, “What is our answer to the question, ‘Are you saved?’” Without expecting it, the answer that came out? “I’m working on it!” It was a great answer.

In fact, isn’t it the perfect answer?! Salvation is personal AND social, if Jesus is Lord of all. Can we serve Jesus if we don’t show love and concern to others? Christianity HAS to be a social religion; if it’s not we’re not practicing Christianity, and our salvation may be in question. In fact, it moves us to the next obvious question: when is our salvation complete?

If we love God with our whole hearts, and we love our neighbors as ourselves, that will mean we are involved and engaged in the culture we live in – always and forever. It means we sponsor (and participate in) blood drives at our church, and a thousand other things we do or haven’t even thought about. By these and so many other ways we witness for Christ. It means that all of the acts of piety and holiness that John Wesley spoke of are ESSENTIAL for us in working out our salvation. “Faith without works is dead,” (James 2.17).

Maybe we ought to get to work on it!


Friday, June 23, 2006

Getting Old Ain’t So Bad

My father tells me that, given the alternative, getting old isn’t so bad. As I get older, I find that I resemble that remark.

Earlier this week, I gathered with several folks that I worked with twenty summers ago (1986!) at Lakeshore United Methodist Assembly, our annual conference’s camp, conference, and retreat center. Twenty years ago, I weighed 118 pounds. Tom had hair. All of Sheila’s hair was the same color.

Four out of our six were able to attend. A lot has changed since then (except for Kathy – who we believe has made some sort of pact with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named). I now weigh 200 pounds. Tom’s hair is thin. We buried Don several years ago. Gina’s had three kids, so if nothing else her personality and disposition has probably undergone changes.

But getting old really isn’t that bad. When we worked that summer of 1986, there were six people on summer staff. Now, in 2006, there is over five times that many! Progress is a good thing; Lakeshore has grown in its mission and ministry: making more disciples.

Age is really a good thing – and it’s been a blessing in our tradition of faith for longer than just 20 years:

Abraham is going to become a large and strong nation; all the nations of the world are going to find themselves blessed through him. Yes, I’ve settled on him as the one to train his children and future family to observe God’s way of life, live kindly and generously and fairly, so that God can complete in Abraham what he promised him... Abraham lived 175 years. Then he took his final breath. He died happy at a ripe old age, full of years, and was buried with his family. - Genesis 18.18-19, 25.7-8

I think about all the changes that have been made in people who have walked the grounds of that camp: how their lives have changed, how their faith has been shaped, how their souls have been healed, and how their God-given gifts have been realized. God, being the skilled potter he is, takes us in the shape that we are and transforms us. Abused kids know that a good and caring Father loves them and claims them. Neglected kids know that there is a God who listens when they cry out and when they pray, who walks by their side. And in a camp that becomes a sanctuary to many, everyone who enters knows that they are safe, they are loved, and they are claimed. Hopefully, they leave to go into the world to be transformers, witnesses, and peacemakers.

Some things stay the same: the lake looks the same, some of the old cabins are still there. I still tell too many stories, Tom’s memory and enthusiasm is still strong, Kathy’s gentle strength is still inspiring, and Sheila’s laugh and beautiful smile is still infectious. I suspect Gina is still as gorgeous as ever, and if Don was still alive I imagine he would be shooting basketball with the best ballplayers in the camp – and still winning a few games with his unblockable hook shot. Don's final breath wasn't at a ripe old age, but I find comfort in knowing that he is with family among the communion of the saints. I'm glad to have him rooting for us.

Whether some things remain the same, or things undergo change, getting old ain’t too bad if we allow God to work through us. God isn’t finished with us yet; we have a lot to learn… and a lot to teach.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Joy, Salvation, Peace

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence;
And take not thy holy spirit from me.
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation;
And uphold me with a willing spirit.
– Ps. 51:10-12

It occurs to me that, like most folks, I’m usually more ready to share my burdens than to lift up my joys. So I’m going to remedy that today.

It’s been a great two weeks; I saw old friends at Annual Conference, I spent Friday and Saturday with my father, I got to baptize a baby on Sunday, and I saw very old and good friends on Monday. My wife and daughter are spending a week with family – and family time is always good time.

My father and I rode around the beautiful hills of the Shawnee Forest on Saturday; I had no idea that such beautiful countryside was but an hour's drive away. What a marvelous piece of God's creation!

The bishop fixed the pastoral appointments for 2006-07… and my name is next to “Reidland” for another year. That’s good to me, and I hope it’s good to you.

Do we ever really realize how blessed we are… and how we’re blessed to be a blessing? That should make the “seed scattering” of Sunday’s Gospel reading a whole lot more joyful. Too often Christianity is portrayed as rules and regulations. Why can’t we make it an invitation to live a life more joyful and meaningful? That certainly seemed to be the intention of Christ.

Don’t keep your joy to yourself. There’s a world that desperately needs to hear it.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Memphis Annual Conference

This is my view of the Memphis Annual Conference at the Luther Carson Four Rivers Center in Paducah, KY - a beautiful venue in our fair city.

I serve as one of the conference secretaries, and those in the foreground of the picture are the conference secretary, bishop, administrative assistant, and conference lay leader.

The object behind the bishop is a crozier. But around these parts of Kentucky, we call it a stick.


You can see the latest conference procedings here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Methodists and Their Meetings

Not quite a year ago, columnist David Waters of the Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote the following:

It's June, the time each year when Methodists young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative, clergy and lay, get together to form the mother of all church committees: The annual conference.

John Wesley, the first Methodist, saw regular "Christian conferencing" as a means of grace, not quite a sacrament but much more than a reason to pour coffee and practice Robert's Rules of Order. "Wesley considered such conferences as indispensable means of discerning God's will and sharing in God's mission in the world," Bishop Kenneth Carder wrote in "Living Our Beliefs."

Not everyone who attends the annual conference would describe it that way. In fact, some Methodists think the denomination has become way too methodical for its own good. United Methodists spend about 31.3 million hours in committee meetings each year, the Rev. John Robert McFarland wrote in the latest issue of
Zion's Herald.

"What would happen," McFarland asked, "if those 31.3 million hours were invested in personal evangelism? Or as (juvenile court) volunteers? Or at food banks or soup kitchens or homeless shelters? Or in Habitat for Humanity? Or reading the Bible to children?"

McFarland has a point, but Methodists aren't the only church folks who spend too many hours in meetings. Fortunately, Wesley and others had a remedy for meaningless meetings, something that reminds church people what and for whom they are gathering.
- Commercial Appeal, June 15, 2005

The remedy Waters was talking about was Holy Communion, the Eucharist. We Methodists see it as a means of grace. "The sharing and bonding experienced at (Communion) exemplify the nature of the church and model the world as God would have it be," it says in "This Holy Mystery," the United Methodist Church's official statement on Holy Communion, which one of our Sunday School classes is currently studying.

Wesley recommended "constant communion,” and communed four or five times a week. But we’ve gotten lazy. "The grace we receive at the Lord's Table enables us to perform our ministry and mission, to continue his work in the world - the work of redemption, reconciliation, peace and justice," the 2004 statement explains.

That’s a meeting I wouldn’t mind attending. Often.