Friday, December 21, 2007

A Christmas Card

I love Christmas decorations; I love to drive around and see how people have decorated their homes, or steal a glance in the living room when I am in someone’s home during this season. For one, I think the season is worthy of such preparation, decoration, and celebration. The other reason is that when it comes to decoration, arranging lights or furniture, and other such things, I am a real clod. Between being color blind and having no artistic abilities, it’s simply not my gift.

In this season, may those of us who don’t decorate enjoy the décor of those who do. May those of us who can’t carry a tune in a bucket listen joyfully to those who can. And may all of us prepare the way for the Christ child, every day of our lives.

Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us – everyone.


Monday, December 10, 2007

True Community

I have been a United Methodist pastor for 20 years, and lived in various communities: the foothills of Georgia, metro Atlanta, and in various towns and cities in Western Tennessee and Kentucky. However, last Saturday evening I witnessed community like I've never seen it before.

Every year at this time, Marshall County (KY) High School sponsors the annual "Hoopfest" - a high school basketball tournament that USA Today identified at one of the Top Ten places to see high school hoops. It is a VERY big deal: over the years it has attracted teams like Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) and Mater Dei (Los Angeles). Six of USA TODAY's Top 25 boys teams played in the event in 2003. Notable players who have played at Hoopfest include Carmelo Anthony, Dan Langhi, Barry Goheen, Mary Taylor Cowles. Marshall County's own Howard Beth, the girls basketball coach, has a 647-104 record. This year, Oak Hill Academy was there once again, along with Chicago Hales Franciscan, DeMatha (Maryland), Chicago Simeon, and Chicago Whitney Young H.S. (where a young man named Marcus Jordan plays... son of Michael Jordan). Over the years, coaches like Tubby Smith and Roy Williams have come to scout teams.

The final game is on ESPN on December 13th - the #1 and #2 ranked high school teams in the nation: Oak Hill Academy vs. St. Benedict's (New Jersey). The Hoopfest website is here.

It's great basketball. And I was honored to be selected to officiate a game there Saturday night. But that wasn't the real blessing of the evening.

There is a young man who is on everyone's prayer list in the Jackson Purchase Area of Kentucky: Gunner Gillespie. Gunner has an inoperable tumor on his brain stem. He's a handsome 7-year old boy who has been fighting all of his life, being born premature and enduring the struggles that premature babies often have. And now Gunner is fighting for his life, undergoing treatments at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. Gunner is the son of Gus and Janna, both teachers at Marshall County H.S. Gus is also the boys basketball coach. Here begins the real blessing.

Anyone who has even been to Reed Conder Gymnasium knows that the primary color there is orange, and on a game night the gym is all orange (which is actually comforting, having grown up in Tennessee myself). But at Hoopfest this year, the usual orange was subdued by yellow - yellow shirts that had been screened with a picture Gunner had drawn of the Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can."

I'm not talking about a few shirts. Reed Conder seats 6,000, and they are at capacity for Hoopfest. Now I know I'm a preacher, and preacher estimates can be highly inaccurate, but I'm guessing there were over 1,500 "Gunning for Gunner" t-shirts.

Not just Marshall County folks were wearing them. Teams from around the nation came out of their locker rooms to warm up wearing them. Fans all over the gym were wearing then. Marshall County boys played Rose Hill Christian on Saturday, and Rose Hill's coaching staff all wore Gunner t-shirts the whole game. Bruce Pearl, men's coach at the University of Tennessee, was wearing a Gunner T-shirt.

People bought T-shirts. Officials signed over checks. That money will certainly go a long way to help Gunner and the Gillespies. But I'm thinking about all of the people wearing those shirts: one of the most competitive atmospheres in all of high school basketball, yet showing that even in this tough, win-at-all-costs sports community, there are things that transcend sports and winning. Seeing all of those t-shirts won't just raise some money - it will raise Gunner's spirit and the spirit of his family.

I am frequently told that I don't smile very much - that I seem stoic and seem to wear a frown a lot. As you can tell in this picture, I was having a great time (I'm holding the ball, standing next to one of my partners, Mike Wooten - click on the pic and you can see more of those Gunner T-shirts). I think seeing all those yellow shirts out there reminded me that life is very, very precious - and to be celebrated for its joys.

Many of you who know me know that I usually conclude worship services with the following benediction. It continues to mean more and more to me:

My brothers and sisters: life is short,
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be quick to love, and make haste to be kind,
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

True community lifts each other up: when things are at their worst, Christians are at their best. Such is the Body of Christ.

God bless you Gunner. I think you can, too.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Enduring the Preparation

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. – Romans 13:11-14

For those of you who have been in the Church for a while, you know that Advent is the season of preparation – and you probably know the story well enough to preach it yourself. Advent and Lent have a lot in common: preparation, examination, discipline, patience. I would add to this list endurance.

One of the trips I made in England was to Epworth, where John Wesley’s father Samuel was parish rector at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and the town where the Wesley’s children grew up. Everyone knows that Wesley started the Methodist movement, but some forget that it was not without cost. Wesley’s work was frowned upon by the Anglican Church, because Wesley was ministering to the poor and commoners and preached “to the masses” (something considered “vile”), and he was banned from every pulpit in England – including his home parish. So when Wesley did preach at his home church, it was while outside, standing upon his father’s tomb – where he couldn’t be banished since it was family property. (You can click on the picture to see a larger view)

Two things: (1) We are not "just ourselves" – we stand upon someone’s shoulders. Wesley preached standing on top of his father’s tomb – the man who literally gave him life and whose legacy propped him up to stand tall for the faith. (2) God does not promise to spare us suffering, but He does promise to be ever-present in our lives and our faith.

Preparation is sometimes arduous and frustrating – some things will get in our way, some people will try to trip us up, and it is very easy to grow weary and wonder if Jesus will ever come! The tension – and the miracle – of the Advent season is that we prepare not just for the Christ who is coming, but the Christ who has already come. He came to save us – and comes to save us still.


Saturday, November 24, 2007

Don't Squander Your Gifts

I love music as much as anything in my life. While some folks think it would be a tragedy to lose your eyesight, I think I would go crazy if I lost my hearing. The fact that hearing loss runs in my father's family causes me fear from time to time.

I am a frustrated musician; while I am able to play a variety of musical instruments (piano/keyboard, organ, guitar, low brass instruments including the trombone), I was never accomplished at any of them. Moreover, I really wanted to be a vocalist. I had a good boy soprano voice, but that soon changed to a deep voice that is a bit nasal and harsh. I took lessons, but got frustrated. My range and my stamina are quite limited.

Worse, my standards are incredibly high. I can take headphones and listen to music and find the mistakes. I can also listen for hours upon end to good music and good voices. One of my favorite musical arrangements was during the 80's when Canadian singers united for "Tears Are Not Enough," a famine-relief song co-written by Bryan Adams, David Foster, and Jim Vallance (the best in their day) that brought some of the greatest and unique voices in music together: Gordon Lightfoot (remember "Sundown" and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"?), Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young (he actually sang on-key), Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Mike Reno (lead singer of Loverboy). Geddy Lee (yes, of Rush) brings one verse home with his incredible voice. All of these folks I mention have unmistakable voices. I wanted a voice like that. (video here, history and better audio here)

God didn't give me that gift. However, he did give me gifts unique to me. While I won't be cutting a record (I guess burning a CD, now) anytime soon, I can lead a hymn. I can strum a guitar well enough that my daughter and I can sing together. If I practiced for a few weeks, I could probably work up an organ voluntary for church. Last year I played the tuba in a Christmas brass ensemble (maybe my swan song). Those are musical gifts. I'm a fair preacher, a good pastor, and a capable administrator. I'm not the highest rated basketball official around these parts, but I enjoy it and so far no one's told me to hang it up.

When it comes to the Church - I fear that we squander our gifts. Bishops and district superintendents whose hearts are in the local church instead of administration. Parish pastors and priests whose gifts would be better suited in hospitals and institutions. Laity who instead of being put on a church committee would rather serve in the background building Habitat for Humanity houses or other hands-on work. Youth who can read scripture and witness. Older adults who are gifted with working with teenagers. And the list goes on.

Sometimes, we are "elevated" to posts we really don't have the gifts for. And sometimes, we spend time wishing we had the gifts others have when in fact God created us uniquely to fit in harmony with the world, instead of at variance.

I would have loved being the lead singer for Rush. For all I know, Geddy Lee might have wanted to have been a rabbi. But I suspect that God knows what He is doing. My mother wasn't supposed to be able to have children; against the odds, she did. Geddy Lee's parents were both Polish Jews who, against odds, survived the Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentrations camps. For some reason, the odds were defied so that I might be a clergyman and Geddy might be a singer. And we are, as the Psalmist said, "Fearfully and wonderfully made."

Rock on, Geddy. Thank you, God, for both of us - and our gifts.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Honest Doubt

It may come to a surprise to you that your pastor occasionally has his doubts and weaknesses. Let me be the first to say that I certainly do. The first time I buried a teenager I was angry with God. When a tornado went through the parish I served, I doubted God. And there are days, even now, when I wonder if I’ve been faithful to the grace I’ve been given. Theological doubts, weakness in ability and faith, doubting of faith and self-confidence – these are real. And as I have read the spiritual giants and eminent divines of the faith, I realize that they had their doubts too.

John Wesley had this struggle all of his life. Not even a year after Wesley’s heart-warming Aldersgate experience, he wrote these words on January 4, 1739:

My friends affirm that I am mad, because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm I am not a Christian now. Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of forgiveness of my sins as till then I never knew. But that I am not a Christian at this day… For a Christian is one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which… are love, peace, joy. But these I have not.

It is very easy for those who take up the cross of Christ and practice radical discipleship to get discouraged, for this reason: any intentional attempts at practicing radical discipleship will bring opposition. And sometimes, the battles within the Church are harder than the ones outside of the Church.

Do our doubts in faith mean something is wrong with us? Hardly. One of the ways our faith is made stronger is through self-examination. And the good news is that not only Scripture, but also the experience of those saints who also dealt with struggle are instructive for us. It is a pipe dream to think that life will not have struggles – that’s simply not realistic. But it is realistic to expect God to be walking with us in our struggles.

In fact, God holds us in the palm of His hand - and doesn't let go.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Torn Between Two Loves

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn't we?"

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him.
– Mark 12:13-17

I love being an American citizen. I have an American flag and Kentucky state flag that hangs in my garage. My father and two uncles served in the Korean War and World War II, respectively. As I prepare to leave for England, I realize that America, despite its quirks, is a great place to live. We are indeed a melting pot, and our diversity makes life interesting and fun.

I also know that my baptism called my allegiance to Christ above all – even country. I leave for the polls today to vote – something I don’t always enjoy doing. And as I get my keys to get into my car, I will also see my jury summons for U.S. District Court. I have jury duty for 60 days starting December 3rd.

Could I get out of jury duty? Maybe. Do I have to vote? Of course not. One of the privileges of being American is the right not to vote. But citizenship, just like discipleship, has responsibilities too. If we love God, out of gratitude for sacrificing His son we take things on. As the writer of James noted, “Faith without works is dead.” The same goes for citizenship: we need to be involved in our communities. Fire departments need volunteers. Communities and cities need council members, commissioners, and representatives. And out of gratitude for those who have sacrificed for our country, we ought to vote. Even if we write in Mickey Mouse’s name.

I wrestled for a long time about faith and politics. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that Christians ought to make darned good citizens. Yes, sometimes our faith will clash with our citizenship. As I was taught in counseling classes: you can’t ever get rid of conflict – you just learn how to manage it. It’s okay to give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar. Just be sure you give to God what is God’s.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Forgiveness and Grace

Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. – Luke 24:45-47

I am writing to you little children because your sins are forgiven on account of [Jesus's] name. – 1 John 2:12

There is a lot of hurt out there, my brothers and sisters. A lot.

There are families that hurt. While it sounds like a catch phrase, dysfunctional families are a reality. To see your loved ones hurt is bad enough, but to see them do destruction to themselves and others hurts us even more.

There are people who hurt. Dreams are not realized. Poor feelings of self-worth take away our joy. Broken relationships between family and friends become heavy baggage to tote around. Gossipers and busybodies seem to take delight in the misfortune of others. Health concerns and diseases of body and mind make us feel shackled.

We often deal with these things by not dealing with them, but all this does is remind us of our inadequacy, incompleteness, and unworthiness. Yet forgiveness isn’t something we earn or is available only for the perfect – it is for us. Our merit and our worth aren't even dependent on the opinions, grudges, or disdain of others: God created us to be in communion with Him. He claims each of us as his child. He hurts when we hurt. And his forgiveness and grace is available to all.

I met with a man the other day, not a church member, who is terminally ill. He has lived a long life, been through bouts of cancer, and this time has decided to forego treatments and instead let nature take its course. When I complimented him on his faith, he said to me, “God has allowed me to accomplish what I needed to on this earth. For now, I am awaiting further instructions.” I was humbled beyond words.

Augustine once said that we are restless until we find rest in God. I think he's right, and when we do find our rest in God, the baggage of unforgiven sin and the weight of our unwillingness to forgive others are removed. Instead of fearing life (or death), we can embrace it. God is eager to forgive us and our sins, and to share our burdens.

Don’t be afraid to ask God for what He so desperately wants to give us.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

God Works in Mysterious Ways

Some churches would give anything to be able to move their church to a more prominent location. In our case, however, the prominent location is moving to us.

After years of planning and promises, Reidland's traffic is being re-routed for safety reasons. And Reidland UMC will now be on the busiest corner in Reidland and southeastern McCracken county. We are scrambling to make parking provisions, and have hired an architect to see if he can turn what used to be the back of the church into a new front of the church. We now have contiguous property not separated by a highway. Exciting times!

(Click on any picture to enlarge)

The road construction project (now underway) got a lot of press around the church... even the governor showed up! From left to right: James Brockman (church council chair), Jim Wheeler, myself, and Govenor Fletcher.

Plans (so far) can be seen by clicking here. The master site plan poster is in the background as the governor speaks on upcoming highway projects in Reidland UMC's fellowship hall. Pictured with him is County Judge-Executive Van Newberry and Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton.

Groundbreaking took place at the end of the press conference. I am certainly excited... but will be more excited when it's all done.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What’s Old Becomes New Again

Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the Lord… - Psalm 148:12-13a

I heard on the news this morning that the first of the baby boomers are starting to receive Social Security benefits. Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964 (I missed being one by a year). Already, retirees make up the largest demographic group in the United States in terms of age. It will only get larger. Now I could go into what that means for us as a national practically, socially, and economically, but I won’t, as I might need that for newsletter fodder when suffering from writer’s block.

Some facts:

• There are now about 629 million people in the world age 60 or over. Some representative countries:
• China now has 10 percent over 60; by 2050, 30 percent is projected;
• Mexico now has 7 percent over 60; by 2050, 24 percent is projected;
• United States now has 16 percent over 60; by 2050, 27 percent is projected; and
• Brazil has 8 percent over 60; by 2050, 24 percent is projected.

In the United States:

• In 1770s, the birthrate was 7 children per woman.
• In 1930s, the birthrate was 2.1 children per woman.
• After World War II, the birthrate jumped to 3.8 children per woman.
• Beginning in 1946, 76 million children were born over an 18-year period, creating the Baby Boomer generation.
• Of today’s boomers, one-third are well off, one-third will work longer to gain resources for retirement, and one-third are deeply in debt with no pensions.
• In 1900, 4 percent of the population was 65 or older, and 40 percent were children or teenagers.
• By 1990, 12.5 percent was 65 or older, and only 24 percent were children or teenagers.
• Projected by 2030: 22 percent will be 65 or older; only 19 percent will be children or teenagers.
• Today, the average age of a United Methodist is between 57 to 62.

Life Expectancy:

• Through 99 percent of human history, average life expectancy was less than 18 years.
• During the last century, average life expectancy has risen from 47 years in 1900 to 76 years today.
• Currently, there are 78 million Americans past the age of 50... a number nearly equal to the total American population 100 years ago.
• By 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be more than 115 million adults over 50 years of age — a 50 percent increase.
• Currently, there are about 100,000 anti-aging projects underway.

Wealth and Politics:

• Age 50+ adults control more than $7 trillion in wealth; that’s 70 percent of the total.
• They own 77 percent of all financial assets, represent 66 percent of all stockholders, own 80 percent of all money in S&Ls, buy 48 percent of all luxury cars and 74 percent of all pharmaceuticals.
• During the 1990s the percentage of Americans with income of $100,000 or more has tripled.
• Nearly 70 percent of Americans 65 years of age or older voted in 1995.
• Only 33 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted.

What does this mean where the Church is concerned? I think it affords us a lot of opportunity. If we as Reidland UMC were to look at our programming ministries in terms of numbers, do you know which program is the largest? Older Adult Ministries. Our OWLS gatherings sometimes have as many as 60 people present. The reality is that, at least in the United States, we are begetting fewer children and our population is increasingly older. It may be that more and more churches will be hiring full-time older adult ministry coordinators. Not that youth and children’s ministries aren’t important, but among the baby-boomers that are rising (and now retiring), many of them have been unchurched their whole lives. Along with evangelizing the young, we may need to expand that to evangelizing the older, too! One day in the not-to-distant future, I may be holding confirmation classes for retirees.

Something to ponder: our church’s main mission could be to excel in ministering to older adults. As the baby boomers retire, there is certainly going to be no shortage of older adults. What if we became “the older adult” church in the Greater Paducah area? We might not be able to hold everyone.

Think further outside the box for a moment. Do you know what group of people has the freest time to volunteer? The most free income and resources? You guessed it – older adults. There is no telling what kind of ministries could be birthed and supported by a church full of such adults.

We certainly need to instruct our youth and raise our children, and no one is saying to ditch those ministries. But it is very hard to argue with facts and data – older adults are the largest segment of our population, and getting larger by the minute. While we have often said that youth are the lifeblood of the church, it may be that we need to rethink that saying. It may be that older adults are the lifeblood of the church: they have so much to offer and share to all of us, and the world.

I think that’s something for all of us to think about.


p.s. Most of the demographical information came from Ken Dychtwald’s “The Age Wave Is Coming,” his congressional testimony on March 19, 2002, in support of SB 953.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ever Feel Like This?

From one of my most favorite Saturday Night Live skits:

Reverend Dwight Henderson: World's Meanest Methodist Minister

Rev. Dwight Henderson.....John Lithgow
Secretary.....Nora Dunn
Paul.....Kevin Nealon
Barbara.....Victoria Jackson
Janet.....Jan Hooks
Marvin Hill.....Dana Carvey

Announcer: It's time for another episode of "Reverend Dwight Henderson: World's Meanest Methodist Minister".

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ dictating a letter to his Secretary ] "My Dear Mrs. Randall: Regarding your invitation for Easter dinner - in someithng akin to a nightmare, I imagine myself seated with you and your.. grotesque family, suffering through an evening of what passes for conversation in your household. And the horror of that image compels me to shun your home, Madam, as I would some kind of dread skin disease." Mmm.. "Yours, with best wishes for this holiday season.. blah, blah, blah.. Reverend Dwight Henderson." Oh, and uh.. "P.S. Enjoy your turkey and Cheese Whiz."

Secretary: I'll get this in the mail today, Reverend.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ sighing ] Oh, Rose.. I'm so desperately tired. Why don't we call it a day?

Secretary: But, Reverend, it isn't noon yet, and there's some people waiting to see you, they've been waiting all morning.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Honestly, can there be a job on earth more difficult than mine? Show them in.

Secretary: [ goes to the door and lets a couple enter the Reverend's office ] Uh, Reverend, these are the Marchinsons - Paul and Barbara.

Barbara: Morning, Reverend.

Paul: Morning, Reverend.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ not interested in the formalities ] Yes, yes.. you have a problem of some kind?

Paul: Uh, yes, Reverend.. [ fidgety ] Barbara and I were, were married.. uh.. two years ago.. uh.. and lately.. lately..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Please. Get on with it.

Barbara: Uh, Reverend, our marriage has notbeen going on too well lately.. and before we went into a professional counselor, we thought we would ask you for your advice.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Madam, as a minister of the gospel, of course I recognize the importance of the institution of holy matrimony. At the same time, however, I must tell you that it simply is not a subject which interests me. Next! Next!

[ the Marchinsons are marched out, as the next member of the congregation is brought in ]

Secretary: Reverend, this is Janet Whitmeer..

Janet: Good morning, Reverend!

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Yes?

Janet: Uh, Reverend.. I live alone with my mother..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Yes?

Janet: And, uh.. she's an invalid, and during the day I have to leave to go to work..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ annoyed ] I trust this is leading somewhere..?

Janet: Well.. Reverend, she has a heart condition, and I worry if something should happen.. [ Reverend Henderson mimes playing the violin in sarcasm ] ..while I'm not there. And so I was wondering if perhaps someone from the parish could just drop by and check up on her from time to time?

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ mocking ] Someone? Don't you mean "Reverend Henderson"? Sure, why spend money on a nurse. We'll get Reverend Henderson to do it for free! Sure! He's happy to spend his days running all over town entertaining all our local shut-ins! He's got nothing better to do!

Janet: [ aghast ] Reverend, I didn't mean you.. I.. I..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ upset ] Oh, away with you!

[ Janet is pushed outside, and the next member of the congregation enters ]

Secretary: Marvin Hill.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ perturbed ] Yes..

Marvin Hill: [ carrying Easter basket ] Good morning, Reverend. I'm not here on account of any problem.. although, things haven't been going too well for us since I got laid off. But I just came by to wish you a Happy Easter, and to drop off this Easter basket that the wife made..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ miffed at the annoying gesture ] Puh-leeeeze!

Marvin Hill: ..and to say hello from Joan and myself.. well, actually, Joan.. uh..

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ waves him off ] Dismissed! [ walks away ]

Marvin Hill: Thank you. Thanks a lot. Thank you. [ exits ]

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ back at his desk ] Rose, you know it's been a few weeks since we've gone over the accounts for the Sunday collections.

Secretary: Well, Reverend, there really hasn't been much to count.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: I see. Well, how much was turned in?

Secretary: Well, actually, Reverend, nothing was turned in. As a matter of fact, nothing has been turned in for the last three Sundays. I think it may be part of an organized protest.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ shocked and disturbed ] I'm afraid you've lost me! A protest against what?

Secretary: Reverend Henderson, forgive my bluntness, but you should be aware that you are not liked by some members of the parish.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: Well, of course. They're cattle!

Secretary: Well, Reverend, the fact is that a great many people find your tone sort of off-putting. The Methodists in this community are used to a more conventional style ministry.. you know, someone who's a lot more polite, and not such a.. butthole.

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ takes it in ] I see. Tell me, Rose.. why do you work for me? You know, I don't pay you.

Secretary: Because.. [ pause ] I love you!

Reverend Dwight Henderson: [ absorbs the sudden information ] Puh-leeeeze! Spare me!

Announcer: This has been another episode of "Reverend Dwight Henderson: World's Meanest Methodist Minister".

Originally aired: April 11, 1987

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Being Bold with the Gospel

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland. – Isaiah 43:18-19

During the past year, I have found myself challenged as never before. I am in the midst of middle age in a denomination that is facing decline. My physical age tells me that I will be more resistant to change. Everything I read in scripture and the reality of things, however, tells me that I need to be ready to embrace change. My father sometimes says, “The ‘good ole days’ weren’t all that good.” The prophet Isaiah said, “Do not dwell on the past.” Touché.

So I’m trying to lighten up. At the end of the month, Grace Episcopal Church is having a “U2charist,” that is, a service of Holy Communion set to the music of U2, whose lead singer Bono is a committed Christian and very active in world benevolences. In exchange for U2’s publishing company allowing the music to be used, they have asked that all offerings go to charity to fight extreme poverty and the AIDS crisis. I have agreed to help plan and participate. Now I have done a communion service set to music many times… but never to rock music. Who will come to it? If the current trend is any indication, a lot of unchurched will show up. And that’s a good thing.

And recently I read of a media campaign that GracePoint Church, a United Methodist church in Wichita, Kansas, marketed in their area. They rented billboards, designed T-shirts, did movie theater advertising, and sent direct mail out in their area with this slogan: “Church doesn’t SUCK!”

A lot of people didn’t appreciate it – and I didn’t even have the nerve to print the whole word "suck" in our church newsletter (blogs tend to make us a little braver, I guess). But the target audience evidently did appreciate it. GracePoint went from 400 to 600 in worship since the campaign began. And one young lady told pastor Bryson Butts, “You know, I was surprised. The worship service DIDN’T suck!” Bishop Scott Jones said that the slogan communicated well with the young. And the Rev. Butts added, “We weren’t risking enough. We weren’t stepping out enough. It’s about taking risks and being bold with the gospel.”

Evidently, it’s working. GracePoint only started as a church in 2004. They now worship 600. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!”

What can we do to be bold?


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Who Gives a …?

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much… And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." – Luke 16:10, 12-13

All that we have is from God – even our money. This is what Jesus is telling us – we have to be faithful with what God gives us.

Is it really that painful? Do we need to warn the offering stewards to beware? [smile]

Who gives in our church? Here’s how it looks through the month of August:

Total Giving, 34 weeks = $249,256.62 - Average Weekly Giving: $7,331.07
Total Needed, 34 weeks = $241,468.00 - Needed Weekly Giving: $7,102.00

There are 156 regularly attending individuals or families (units).

10 units – 6% did not contribute to the budget
47 units – 30% contributed $20 - $500. This represents 5% of the total giving.
84 units – 54% contributed $500 - $3000. This represents 52% of the total giving.
15 units – 10% contributed over $3000. This total represents 41% of the total giving.

And here’s an interesting statistic: 66 units – 42% of our church – are composed of widows/widowers, singles, and retirees. They gave 34% of our total giving.

Over 40% of our budget comes from 10% of our church. And 34% of our total giving comes from retirees, singles, and widows/widowers. Wow!

It is important not to lose sight that God just doesn’t need our money: when we take church membership vows, we vow to give the church “our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service.” But how we spend our money, and how we use it for Kingdom work, is also something we should not lose sight of. Where our treasure is found is where our hearts will be found.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Communications 101: Developing Community

You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoys its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. – James 3:18

I am not a huge Rick Warren fan (author of The Purpose Driven Life ), he is too much of a Calvinist for me - especially when it comes to predestination. But he once said something about cultivating community in a Christian context that caught my eye: “It takes both God’s power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community.” What are those efforts? Warren gives some good advice:

Cultivating community takes honesty. In other words, speak the truth in love. Don’t gloss over tough issues or pray that they go away. In the end, people like honesty better than flattery.
Cultivating community takes humility. Being stubborn, being self-important, and being prideful destroy fellowship and community at lightning speed. Humility builds community. In the words of Paul, paraphrased: “Live in harmony with each other. Don’t try to act im-portant, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all.” Being humble, Warren says, is not to think less of yourself; it is to think of yourself less.
Cultivating community takes courtesy. We have to respect our differences, be consider-ate of others and their feelings, and be patient with others – even those who irritate us.
Cultivating community takes confidentiality. Only in safe places will people share their hurts, needs and mistakes. God hates gossip… and yes, sometimes a “prayer request” for someone else is gossip. What is shared in your prayer group or Sunday School class should stay there. “Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendships.” (Proverbs 16:18)
Cultivating community takes frequency. In other words, fellowship needs to take place often, because relationships take time; deep relationships take a lot of time. Shallowness in churches is often due to a lack of spending time cultivating relationships. We need community for spiritual health.

Most of all, community requires commitment, just like families require commitment. And in the Christian context, the family of God is the Church. We have to ask ourselves continually: are we committed to cultivating community?


Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 5

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that the lack of leadership and direction in the UMC is showing in alarming ways. And I mentioned that while our bishops should lead, we don’t give them much power to do so. And one solution I mentioned (which I wasn’t for) was this one:

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.

The good news is that twenty-two conferences remitted 100% of their Episcopal Fund apportionment in 2006. The bad news? According to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCF&A), the Episcopal Fund may experience an increase of at least 30% for 2009-2012. Reasons for this include:

• economics of health insurance for active and retired bishops
• impact of early retirements
• salaries and benefits of the bishops
• the fact that no jurisdiction reduced the number of episcopal areas

What this means is other funds will necessarily have to be reduced, even our World Service funding. And if the Côte d’Ivoire and other global members of our Connection join us in 2012 - increasing our role as a truly global church - we will face even greater budgetary challenges. Complicating this is the fact that we have decreasing membership and attendance.

As they say, this is not good.

Where I think we are challenged is to show faithful United Methodists that our bishops are worth the funds. I think what that means is that the Study on the Episcopacy is going to have to make a very strong case for bishops AND define their role, both theologically and practically.

In summary, the Episcopal Fund:

• Pays bishops' salaries
• Pays episcopal office expenses, subject to approval by the General Council on Finance and Administration
• Reimburses 67 percent of the costs for episcopal residences
• Provides pension and health benefit coverage for bishops and their families and disability coverage for bishops
• Covers the cost of episcopal travel
• Defrays moving expenses
• Provides pensions for retired bishops and surviving spouses, and minor children of deceased bishops

It’s an old fable: the donkey in the well. A donkey falls down into a well. Everyone tries to figure out what to do. It’s decided that the donkey is old, the well needs to be covered up anyway, it just isn't worth it to retrieve the donkey. Everyone grabs a shovel and shovels dirt into the well.

The donkey figures out what’s happening, shakes off the dirt with each shovel load, and take a step up. Pretty soon, there is enough dirt for the donkey to step up over the edge of the well, and the donkey trots off.

When I heard the fable the first time, I heard the pithy moral afterwards: “Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a stepping stone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up. Shake it off, and take a step up.”

But I heard a different take on the moral of the story the other day. It’s this one: When you try to cover your ass, it always comes back to get you.

I heard Sandra Lackore, GCF&A treasurer, say at the last General Conference: “We have a structure that we can no longer afford.” She warned us. Where the Episcopal Fund was concerned, we were advised to cut one Episcopal Area. No one did. And the Church continued to add off-line expenses and increase budgets. We covered ourselves by saying “We don’t want to cut ministry.” But in essence, we are cutting ministry if we are spending less on evangelism and mission and more on ourselves.

We need to give our leadership the ability to lead. We need to elect our very best to be our episcopal leaders. Not the ones who have paid their dues and bided their time. Not the ones who will satisfy whatever caucus needs to be represented. And not the ones who are elected from a sense of entitlement. We need our best and brightest. And we need them soon.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Communications 101: Clothing Does NOT Make the Man (or Woman)

"Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” – Matthew 25:44-45

Our society places an inordinate emphasis upon attractiveness, attire, and economic prosperity. Studies have shown that men who wear business suits are perceived as more attractive than men in casual attire. Nice for the secular world, but I wonder if Jesus would approve?

Some people bemoan that people dress more casually for church. My response is: since fewer and fewer people are even bothering to come to church, we should welcome folks with open arms, no matter how they are dressed.

I think we have to be very careful with the first impressions we give our visitors: we only get one chance at a first impression. If we betray our thoughts with a glance at manner of dress, an earring on a man, or a body piercing – we may give ourselves away. We are to welcome everyone, regardless of manner of dress.

This story from “One Tip on How Not to Welcome a Church Visitor” makes a good point:
One of our first time visitors had only been in America for three days. She had never ever been in a church on the globe. Her shorts redefined “mini-shorts.” The curves of her butt cheeks were visible. Her shorts were so tight her thong was visible. Her choice of plunge cut and tight fitting blouse was what we see outside of the nightclubs across the street from our residence in Panama. Instead of being welcomed, she was practically shunned. People didn't approach her, or talk with her (I did, which is how I found out about her story). They stared, stealing secret glances, and trying not to get caught. Let's just say it was a socially awkward morning. Five years later, that visitor is still remembered by the men – only because they remember how much skin they saw. They didn’t see the immigrant searching for God. – from the blog Evangelism Coach, June 12, 2007

The author leaves us with some very good questions. Be honest when you answer:

• How does your church react to visitors who dress or look differently than you?
• Can you still engage visitors in conversation when you can’t stop looking at their nose piercing?
• Do you secretly stare at their interesting haircut or choice of hair color?
• How do you react to twenty something in ripped blue jeans?
• Do you secretly wonder if the foreign visitor is legal?

Remember: communications is more than just talking. Our body language and facial expressions tell as much about ourselves as our words. How do we welcome the stranger - or even those known to us who dress or look differently? Do we welcome them as we would Jesus?

Jesus had long hair and didn't wear underwear, by the way.


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Communications 101: Failure to Communicate

One of the biggest myths in the church: Lack of money prevents a lack of excellence in church communications and hospitality. To be honest, that’s not a reason – it’s an excuse. Budgets do not, and never have, prevented progress in communications nor in how we welcome church visitors.

Why is this important? The stakes are high! A church is a living organism. If one leg is not communicating with the other, walking will be difficult and running impossible. Hospitality is important too, to friends and strangers alike. People who come through our doors aren’t made to be here – they come on their own. If we don’t welcome them into the faith and into our fellowship, there may be nothing else to keep them here initially. We don’t meet folks halfway… we meet them all the way. Guests are expected to do nothing; we invite them into fellowship.

Fact: How often have we heard or said, “I didn’t know about that.” Did we read our newsletter? Bulletin announcements? Our emails? And if we chair or serve as secretary of a committee, did we send our minutes to other church entities? The church office? We are considering printing the minutes of all committee meetings so that we can all be in the know. No church meeting (other than personnel matters) is a “secret” meeting – and if we don’t communicate, as a body we will not function well.

Fact: The church calls us to, as well as depends upon, hospitality. Thom Rainer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary predicts, based on data, that 50,000 American churches will close by the end of 2010. Worse, further analysis shows that most churches are on “life support” – living off previous generations’ work, money, and energy. 80% of the money presently given to congregations comes from people aged 55 years and older. Some of the best givers are widowed men and women! Anyone that is knowledgeable in finance or actuaries knows that we cannot be sustained on inherited faithfulness or inherited money. We must always be creating a new generation of disciples who are faithful in much.

We have to talk and listen. We have to be knowledgeable about our church. And we have to welcome each person who comes through our doors as a fellow sinner in need of grace, redemption, and forgiveness. We are the disciples of Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Communications 101 - What A Pastor Does During the Week

I’ve heard the line probably more times than any of you – “Hey preacher, where have you been? You only work one day a week.” Most preacher jokes are like lawyer jokes – probably well deserved for some, unfair to others. The reality is that pastoral work is a very strange critter that often defies description, calendars, and schedules.

I used to try to keep office hours in my ministry; that quickly got frustrated with the reality that hospital emergencies happen, surgeries get scheduled, family crises happen – and a number of other things that you never think about. That frustrated me, and frustrated people who came to see me during office hours I tried to keep but had to be away because of pastoral needs. So I’ve found keeping set office hours usually doesn’t work.

Expectations, I know, are high. Besides preaching, presiding over worship, and providing pastoral care, churches also expect their pastors to be conflict managers, evangelists who bring in new members, and the chief administrator of the church (the Book of Discipline now says “Administrative Officer”). In the midst of that, churches rightly expect inspiring sermons and want close attention paid to the personal needs of the congregation.

Sermon preparation takes time. My preaching professor said that for every minute spent in the pulpit, one should spend an hour in preparation. I’ve never been able to spend 15-20 hours a week in sermon preparation. But it does take some time – time where I have to listen to the congregation’s needs, and to discern what the Word of God might be saying to us. I’ve found that studying in the office rarely allows for that; if I’m in the office, I need to be available to staff and those of you who need to talk with me, or just want to chat. And I like doing those things.

Communications in this area is important. So I want you to know that I am almost always available to you – I have a cell phone that I carry at all times, and it is also equipped with Caller ID, text messaging, and email. Should you call and I am counseling or in pastoral conversation or a meeting, I may let the voice mail pick it up and call you back. In short – I am only a phone call away. Sometimes, pastoral work takes me outside the office. That doesn’t mean you can’t call me. In fact, I want you too.

Pastoral work also doesn’t respect the clock; being available to you as a congregation sometimes means meeting with people after working hours, even late into the night. Sometimes, my time off and my “weekends” are a little different from the norm. So I have to be mature enough to know when to work and when to take Sabbath. However, I knew all of those things when I accepted the call to ministry.

I just want you to know that the lines of communication are always open.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Possible Master SIte Plans

Here are the initial and ultimate plans that our church will be wrestling with in the months to come with the closing of one highway and the new avenue of contiguous property (for those of you unfamiliar with the situation: we are designing new parking and campus property. We already have all of our buildings built). Keep in prayer!

Click on this image for the initial stage.

Click on this image for the ultimate stage.

Friday, August 03, 2007

God’s Critters

My first paragraph just changed. A very brave squirrel is watching me from 3 feet away. Or perhaps he knows a wimp when he sees one. I’m not the greatest fan of animals.

Pets were forbidden in the McCracken household when I was growing up, so I was never around many animals to begin with. In high school, I worked on a couple of farms – hogs and cattle, however, don’t (usually) qualify as pets. And beautiful creatures that they are, I am terrified of horses. I note, however, that when my brother and I moved out of our house in college, my mother adopted a kitten that showed up one night - to the amazement of everyone that knew her (Mom was NOT a pet fan). Duchess was a beautiful, long-haired tortoise-shell cat. She died not long before my mother died. I think a part of my mom died with her.

In our house over 20 years, we’ve had a cat and a dog. Both were short-lived disasters. I thought we were out of the pet business forever until a little furry critter came home with my wife a couple of weeks ago. “She was orphaned; her mother got hit in front of my office,” she said. It was a tortoise-shell colored kitten that couldn’t be four weeks old, barely eating solid food. I didn’t realize it was coming to our home to live until I saw a litter box and food dish. I wasn’t real happy about it.

I can admittedly be a grouch, and my demeanor doesn’t always appear pleasant even when I’m in a good mood; it’s something I’ve had to work on all of my life. My wife and my teenage daughter love the cat, and moreover, they take care of most of its needs. However, I am keenly aware that my daughter watches me when the cat is around. And I am haunted by the words of Immanuel Kant that I heard several years ago:
"He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals." – Immanuel Kant

I am afraid that I have to agree. The way we treat animals is a measure of our humanity. God did give us dominion over the critters (I mean creatures, my Kentuckyian is showing), and our kindness to animals is probably good practice for the way we as Christians should show hospitality to friends and strangers alike. The burden of hospitality and kindness is always on us.

My daughter named her “Pandora,” meaning “all gifted.” The myth of Pandora’s Box is certainly apt for Christians when we deal with theodicy – the problem of evil. Perhaps living with Pandora will teach me how to face and endure evil with goodness. And maybe, more simply, teach me to smile a little more at the antics of a small kitten learning how to function in this world.

Maybe I have a glimpse of how much fun God has watching me.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Construction Is Happening Quickly

I am writing this from the deck of a rental house at I have at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. The view of the lake is spectacular, the humidity is low, and it’s 79° at 4 PM. It is calm, serene, and very peaceful.

The world hasn’t stopped, though. I am well aware of the construction beginnings at Reidland. Things in the “Y” are about to get busy. The post office has informed us that our mailbox has to be moved. KY DOT is making changes to help us with drainage problems. The small committee appointed by the Master Site Planning committee is getting things ready for temporary parking that can transition into more permanent solutions that don’t jeopardize future possible expansion. U.S Bank is being very helpful in our transitional needs, and there are things we can do to help each other. Land surveys are being done to develop accurate plans. Finance and trustees are meeting to shore up details. The preschool playground is taking shape and getting ready for school.

All of this is happening very quickly. Yet prayers and listening to God’s promptings have been blessings. I am amazed at all of the things that have fallen into place in so short a time and so smoothly.

This Sunday is a pivotal one. In addition to having our district superintendent preach and preside at the communion table, we will have a presentation of temporary plans that can easily phase into permanent plans. These plans will be available for all of us to look over and approve – this is not a plan asking for a rubber stamp, but a proposal asking for your blessing.

I hope you will join me on Sunday and be present as we meet to prepare for change, and to grow as a church family from it!


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vacation, Holiday, and Sabbath-Keeping

I am the world’s worst about taking vacation. Not working and sitting idle seems lazy to me. I am a workaholic. Some people praise me for that. Unfortunately, avoiding Sabbath is breaking a commandment. Not good.

I am allowed four weeks of vacation. I’ve never taken it all; I used to think it a sign of my “good” work ethic and devotion. But I am slowly realizing that not only is that flawed; it is possibly sinful.

In some ways, this is an American phenomenon. Most Americans are allowed two weeks of vacation. Brits average four weeks. Germans average 27 days. The French average eight weeks. Yet a third of Americans don’t even use all of their vacation time. Why are Americans reticent to take vacation? Here are a few of the reasons given:
(1) Job security: “My boss won’t like it.” However, studies have proven that Europeans are more productive in their work environments than Americans. Maybe if bosses knew that they’d encourage vacation rather than frown on it.
(2) Stress: Some people don’t know how to deal with down time, and the stress they carry from work into vacation. They also worry about the pile-up of email, messages, and to-do lists when they return.

Here is the catch: if we catch ourselves saying "I'm so busy... I just don't have enough time to complete all my work,” what we have just done is say that God didn’t make the day long enough! Now, are we wiser than God? Or are we defying the God of creation… who took a day off, too, and called it holy?

Sabbath-keeping just isn’t a nice idea. It’s one of the Ten Commandments. How can we get around not keeping it?

A fellow sinner,


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Older Adult Sunday

At the 10:45 service this Sunday, we will celebrate the ministry and presence of our older adult church members. As the planning for the worship service took place, those working on the service learned several facts:

• In the past 100 years, our life expectancy in the United States has increased by about 27 years.
• We not only live longer, but we are more active in our later years.
• Older people today enjoy learning and continue to grow in their knowledge and spirituality. Although our physical bodies decline, our spiritual selves will mature.
• Christ's death set an example of how suffering can be reconciling, even though it is painful.
• The experiences of older people bring wisdom and insight to our congregation. There is joy in the harvest of a life-lived spiritual treasure.
• There are opportunities for all generations within our church to worship, work, and play together.
• Mature years bring a special opportunity to redefine our goals.

Unfortunately, we also learned that:
• Many older people have incomes below a subsistence poverty level.
• Many have no medical insurance or very poor medical coverage that pays less than 50% of their medical needs.
• Older people sometimes must be dependent on others for life's necessities.
• Lifestyles today often result in older people having to live a distance from other family members.

Just as we lift up children and youth in our congregation, we also should lift up our older adults. They contribute to the life of our church, and we stand tall upon their shoulders. This Sunday gives us an opportunity to celebrate their wisdom, guidance, and presence in our community of faith.

Won’t you join us?


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Change and Vision

Dr. Lovett Weems was a professor at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City when I was in seminary at Emory. I was part of an interview team that interviewed him for Dean of the seminary at Emory, and I really liked him. He wasn’t hired, but he has made an indelible mark on the United Methodist Church.

He wrote a book a few years ago, entitled Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church. In his book, he makes some very keen observations.

One observation is about change; he suggests that there are seven unchangeable rules of change. They are:

1. People do what they perceive to be in their best interest.
2. The change must have positive meaning for them.
3. People thrive with creative challenge, but wilt under negative stress.
4. People are different, there is not one single key to all change.
5. People believe what they see and previous deceptions can lead to present suspicions.
6. The way to make effective long-term change is first to visualize where you want to go, and then go ahead and inhabit that vision till it comes true.
7. Change is always an act of imagination.

No one likes change – unless, of course, it’s his or her idea! One of our prayers might be, “God, I pray that your will might be done, instead of ours.” Sometime, change may be God’s idea.

What I am learning as a leader is that change, vision, and leadership take time. Change takes time and imagination. Visions are never invented; they are discerned from prayer and active listening. And leadership takes perseverance. One of the reasons that leaders often don’t stay more than 3-4 years in leadership is that the years following are often difficult.

How much can we imagine? What can we discern from what God might be saying to us? And are we willing to persevere?


note: I've read a lot of articles and blogs on this subject - my apologies if I've failed to cite a source I should have.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Worship Matters

Several of you have asked me about why I don’t always recognize secular holidays in worship. My immediate answer is because they are secular holidays, not church holidays. But let me give a few more reasons.

My vows as a United Methodist pastor are similar to a physician’s; I took a vow to do no harm. Being a pastor to over 425 people can sometimes make that task difficult. Keeping everyone happy is impossible; I quit trying to do that years ago. I have made some pastoral mistakes over the years, and even after 20 years I continue to make mistakes. Some of the worst of them have been over the celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. There are a lot of variables when it comes to families and celebrations of those days. Some people don’t have the fondest of memories when it comes to their parents. Some have recently lost parents. These days and the resulting celebrations can end up sending mixed messages.

I once served a church where awards were given for the youngest father/mother, the oldest father/mother, the father/mother with the most children, the newest father/mother, etc. I thought it was pretty cool… until I had a young couple come to my office to tell me how painful those Sunday mornings were for them. They had been trying to have children for several years and were finally told by a physician that they would never be able to have children. All of the Mother’s and Father’s Day awards made them feel that they had nothing to celebrate. I realized that I had done harm.

I tend not to make a big deal about patriotic occasions in church. I love my country as much as anyone; I have an American and Kentucky State flag that hang prominently in my garage. However, I do not worship or adore my country as I do Almighty God. So, for one hour a week, I think God and Jesus Christ deserve our total worship. In light of this, I am very careful to separate the worship of Almighty God and patriotic occasions. God always comes first.

I don’t try to avoid such things altogether, but I am very sure not to make the focal points of worship. God is always central to our worship. To quote the UMC Book of Worship: “Our worship in both its diversity and its unity is an encounter with the living God through the risen Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s what we as a worship committee try to do each Sunday.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I’m Staying Here – It’s Official

Not that there was much doubt. But United Methodist pastors always feel better when they have it in writing. My letter from the bishop and district office came last Saturday.

One of my good friends, fellow pastor and blogger Jay Voorhees, lives in Nashville. He and his wife Kay pastor churches in the Nashville area, and Jay is known around the denomination for his writing, communication expertise, and his interest in the emerging church movement. He recently wrote about being reappointed to his church for another year. His thoughts are similar to mine on the subject:
One of the struggles we itinerant Methodist types have is the tension between participating in a system that discourages deep connections and rootedness with the call to ministry in a specific location which requires one to make those connections and place those roots in order to be effective. Some would argue that this is a good reason to throw out our connectional system, and especially the itinerancy that is part and parcel of that connection. I don’t quite go that far, for there are also positives to itinerancy (most particularly, a system that should (when it works) promote and emphasize the ministry of ALL Christians). Yet, I have experienced a deeper sense of calling to this place where I live and serve. I find myself sometimes wondering if God is continuing my call to a denominational system, or instead to a neighborhood and parish. Don’t worry, I’m not about to “honorably locate” or turn in my ministerial orders tomorrow — luckily our Bishop and Cabinet’s discernment is that I am to stay in my current situation. But, for the first time in many years I am more able to say that my calling is located in a specific piece of ground.The Rev. Jay Voorhees, from his blog: Only Wonder Understands

It is becoming more and more clear to many that long pastorates are better for churches and parishes. I agree. If I were a layperson, I don’t think I’d be willing to follow someone’s leadership fully unless and until I trusted him or her. Trust, as we all know, doesn’t come easily and takes time.

I am certainly glad to be in Reidland. So is my family. May we grow with each other in our trust and service in Jesus Christ.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 4

Subtitle: The Future of the Itinerancy?

As I have heard stories across our jurisdiction about pastoral appointment-making woes, I remembered an old book I read right out of seminary: Send Me? The Itineracy In Crisis (before any of you say it’s not that old of a book, I looked in the front and it was published 16 years ago).

One fact that the editor, Donald Messer, lifted up was this: “The Commission for the Study of Ministry noted that ‘if itinerancy is to remain a viable option for the church, issues of injustice and inequity, as well as accountability, availability, and authority must be addressed,’” a quotation from the 1988 General Conference’s advance edition of Daily Christian Advocate.

It’s nineteen years later. It was not addressed. As a result, we have mediocrity and poor clergy morale. Clergy will tell their superintendent that they can’t move because of family and personal needs. Being compassionate has been a plus to clergy compared to the previous manner of itineration, but are congregations being served well by it? Now, two classes of clergy exist: itinerant and non-itinerant. This has lead to a situation that was called in the 1988 Episcopal Address as “separate and unequal, with all of the advantages going to the non-itinerant.” Has anyone asked what this has done to the churches that the church is supposed to serve?

Housing allowances in lieu of parsonages have been good for clergy finances and assets. But has it served an itinerant church well?

And what happened to the vow UM clergy made, to be appointed “without reserve?” Do we just wink at that and cross our fingers when asked that?

Korea abolished guaranteed appointments in 1978. They had lost trust with the episcopacy and the appointive system. Local congregations chose their pastors and governed their own structure. As a result, the membership went from 597,691 in 1978 to 1,125,667 in 1990. Observations? The Rev. Joon Kwan Un noted that ministerial concern went from “politicking” to “ministerial competency.” “Pastors had to become more sensitive to the needs of the congregation and of the possibility of upbuilding the community of faith…” Longer pastorates emerged, which strengthened church growth. The negative? A phenomenon called “local churchism” took place, and connectionalism became questioned even more.

It may be that the bishops need to lead us through some rough waters: do we need to abolish the guaranteed appointment in order to remain connectional? United Methodism has always maintained that a bishop’s “power” comes from the ability to make pastoral appointments. Does the guaranteed appointment tie the hands of the bishop?

If bishops and other leaders don’t step up and address these concerns in a denomination that is losing membership rapidly, the laity may do as Korea and vote to get rid of the guaranteed appointment and bishops’ appointive power. The next logical step would be to say, “Do we really need bishops?”

It’s been nineteen years since the bishops identified the problem. Are they, are we, ever going to address it?


To read other entries on the Future of the Episcopacy, click "Bishops" immediately below.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Catholic Spirit

“A Catholic Spirit” is one of my most favorite sermons of John Wesley. Some excerpts:

"And when he left there, [Jehu] met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he greeted him, and said to him, "Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?" And Jehonadab answered: "It is." [Jehu said], "If it is, give me your hand."- 2 Kings 10:15.

1. Even those who do not pay this great debt concede that love is due to all mankind, the royal law, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." It carries its own evidence to all who hear it. This does not mean, according to the miserable construction put upon it by the zealots of old times, "You shall love your neighbor," your relation, acquaintance, friend, "and hate your enemy." Not so; "I say unto you," said our Lord, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children," may appear so to all mankind, "of your Father which is in heaven; who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

2. But it is sure, there is a special love that we owe to those who love God. So David: "All my delight is upon the saints that are in the earth, and upon such as excel in virtue." And so a greater than he: "A new commandment I give unto you, That you love one another: as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one to another" (John 13:34, 35)…

3. All men approve of this; but do all men practice it? Daily experience shows the contrary. Where are even the Christians who "love one another as he has given us commandment?" How many hindrances lie in the way! The two grand, general hindrances are, first, that they cannot all think alike and, in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike. However, in several smaller points their practice must differ as their opinions differ.

4. But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?…

5. Surely in this respect the example of Jehu himself, as mixed a character as he was, is well worthy both the attention and imitation of every serious Christian. "And when he left there, [Jehu] met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him, and he greeted him, and said to him, "Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?" And Jehonadab answered: "It is." [Jehu said], "If it is, give me your hand."
- John Wesley, 1771


Good sermon, Father John.