Wednesday, December 29, 2010
When I was a new graduate of one of the schools that instructs people about doing ministry, I went to work like I had been taught. Over and over we heard people telling us that we were going out into the world to be resident theologians in communities. We heard people who were supposed to know telling us we were going out to be the professional religious person in the community in the same manner that a doctor is the professional medical person or the teacher, the professional education person. I bought the package being taught and went out to my first churches with this attitude that resulted in detachment more than anything else.
I should have gone to see the Chicken Man. Actually, I did not know him back then, but I am sure he must have existed somewhere. Where I have seen him most recently is at the local Chick-fil-A. He is the first shift manager. Since it is one of our most frequented fast food joints, I have had the opportunity to watch him a lot. While I am sure he spends time behind the counter, in the kitchen, or in the office, I mostly see him out in the store taking care of people and the stuff that needs attention. During the noon rush hour, he can be seen bagging trash and taking it to the dumpster. He cleans tables, always friendly and always asking if there anything he can do. I have even caught him cleaning the bathroom. All those young college students working there may be learning how to serve food, but they also have an opportunity to see a great example of servant leadership.
A lot of clergy and lay leaders at churches should go and watch. Good leaders serve. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, modeled servant leadership. Constantly, He put aside personal needs to care for the needs of those around Him. His servant's heart finally took Him, not the head of the table, but to the cross.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
As I attended the Christmas Eve Communion Service at First Church, Albany, it was hard not to reflect on the difference a year can make. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, I was not preaching a Christmas Eve sermon and serving a church family the holy sacrament. Instead I was kneeling on the outside of the rail with my wife, Lynn, on one side and my oldest grandson, Will, on the other. With hands outstretched and open, I waited for the robed one to place the sacrament in my hand. When it was all done, I listened to the table dismissal which called upon the God who never changes to be a Helper to those whose lives were filled with much transition and change. As I heard the prayer, my own heart was warmed and stirred.
Over the years there have been many times when a departing passer by at the door told me, "Preacher, what you said was just for me." It always pleased me to hear such words, but I also always knew that if it happened that way, it was more about God than the preacher. On Christmas Eve such a moment came again, but this time I would have been the one speaking them had I had the opportunity at the door.
It should not have been a surprise to experience God at work on Christmas Eve for it was the holy moment of celebrating that God is with us. Understanding it is impossible. It is as mind boggling as the theology of the Trinity. What we know, we know more by faith than anything else. Through Jesus being on earth, it has been clearly made known that God is with us. His physical sojourn on earth was brief, but now we know we are not alone. No matter where we are and regardless of the changes, God is with us. Always.
I saw them yesterday and then again today on the journey home from Albany. It was one of those small towns which dot the South Georgia landscape. One yard after another had a red manufactured road side sign which read, "Happy Birthday Jesus." Now I must confess to attending a few Birthday Parties for Jesus complete with cake. In December someone decides a birthday party for Jesus would make for a good children's event at church. I have never planned one, but have walked in on more than a few. To be honest is to admit that there is something inside which screeches like a finger nail scraping a chalk board whenever this birthday for Jesus business shows up.
It has never seemed like good theology. The "Happy Birthday Jesus" signs are trivializing. People have birthdays, but I am not sure it is appropriate to use the human method of calculating years when speaking of the One spoken of with the sacred words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (John 1:1-2). For those who might wonder about the identity of "the Word" John later goes on to proclaim, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:12). No one really questions the fact that "the Word" and "Jesus" are one and the same.
All this birthday stuff is like saying, "Let us make Him in our own image." Folks have done such for a long time. When we talk about Jesus we use words such as Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension, and Glorification. Christmas does not call us to celebrate His birthday, but the Incarnation, the news that God has chosen to be with us. No matter how much we might try, it is not a human event to be celebrated with a party, but a divine event which should be remembered on our knees.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Guess it could be called a stowaway. A "Stowaway Card." It showed up the other day in a book not opened for awhile. Clergy business cards often were used to let people know I had stopped for a visit, but also to write down things I wanted to remember later. On some occasion I came across some words from the ancient church father, Augustine. On the back I wrote a quote I wanted to remember later. "Be always unhappy about where you are. If you want to reach where you are not, if you are pleased with what you are, you have stopped already. If you say, 'It is enough' you are lost. Keep on walking, moving forward, trying for the goal."
Perhaps, Augustine had been meditating on the Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippian Christians. To them he wrote words like, "I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13)
Both Augustine and Paul speak volumes in a few words about this journey we have undertaken. We need not be leery of those whose words speak of a different place on the journey. The only ones to worry about are those who speak words which speak of arriving. There are a lot of folks on the road with us. The backs of others ahead can serve the same purpose as our back does for those behind. They can provide an invitation to "Keep on walking" and to "strain forward to what lies ahead."
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
For the first time in over 15 years there has been no Advent Cactus to alert me to the approaching season. My Advent Cactus was given to me anonymously while pastoring the Vidalia Church and sat in my office as long as I did. It was watered ocassionally, neglected most of the time, yet, a week or two before the Advent Season it would always start showing pink buds which would soon blossom. Each year I watched in amazement and gratitude for its faithfulness. When I left Richmond Hill for retirement, I gave the Advent Cactus to a staff member as a parting gift. It was for me more than just a plant. It was a treasure.
Perhaps, the plant never made it to this Advent Season. Maybe it missed its owner of all those years and wasted away! Or, maybe it could not stand the shock of an owner who looked after it. Nonetheless, I have found myself wondering about it during these early days of Advent. Without its pink announcement to alert me, Advent almost slipped up on me. So, here I am wondering. Wondering. Not a bad thing to be doing during a holy season of waiting and expectation.
This Advent season will surely be different for me as I have journeyed from a place behind the rail to a place in front of it. Yet, this growing awareness within that something is about to happen is so present with me. The Advent hymns are rising out of my spirit as surely as they do from the pages of the hymnal and there is once again the deep desire to read and hear the sacred readings of the season. Instead of seeing pink buds, there is a sense that the Spirit is stirring within me, saying, "Something is about to happen!" And I find myself waiting, expecting, and wondering all over again!
Monday, November 22, 2010
For so long life was framed by the seasons on the Christian Calendar. Time passed according to its relationship to Easter morning. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost were noted more than the ordinary seasons of the calendar such as Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. One of the things noticed in these early days of retirement is that life is framed differently. While I am not always sure which Sunday it is in the season of Pentecost, I am aware of things like the time of sunrise and sunset. Changing seasons are noted not by changing colors of paraments, but by changing temperatures, the location of the rising sun, the color of trees and fields, and even clouds in the sky. The Sanctuary is not inside a building, but is now much larger and there is no going in or out of it. The sacred smell of candles has been replaced by the sacred smell of earth. The frame of life is different.
Still, however, there are those moments which must somehow be remembered and observed. All Saints Sunday is one such moment. The place I worshipped had no "All Saints Sunday" worship, the space around me was not filled with the refrain of For All the Saints, and there was no reading of the honored dead who live now in heavenly place. While the structured moment was missed, the sacred opportunity was not. During that week I found myself remembering and calling the names of those souls important to me who had passed from this life to the life to come. The hymn of the day became my theme song for the week.
We worship in the sacred spaces all around us. They come in all sizes and shapes. As long as we carry a heart filled with love for God and one bent on faithfulness, He will surely be pleased with our worship. What He sees is not our elaborate ritual or the lack of it, but our heart. Blessed be His name! Blessed be His Name!
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
I found out today that Ron died last Friday. When I was pastor at the Vidalia Church, Ron Southerland was the priest at the local Episcopal Church. During this ten year pastorate, a small group of us met weekly at the Episcopal Church to talk about preaching, but mostly to share our lives together. The group changed from year to year as some left and others came, but Ron was always there. For almost 20 years he served the people of this community of faith. He left an imprint on them and upon those of us who weekly drank his coffee, laughed at his humor, and left thinking about what he had shared with us.
Though we were equals around the table, we all knew Ron was our mentor. He was our leader. He was an earthy kind of guy who had fought some battles. He won some and lost some and was always willing to talk to us honestly about both. Ron shared more than theology and preaching and jokes. He shared with us how to be real. He modeled it for us. My favorite "Ron quote" is, "Just remember there is a God, and she ain't you." He had a unique way of jarring us, making us think, and keeping us from taking ourselves too seriously.
Since my departure from Vidalia, I have missed Ron. And while I am grateful he has come fully into the presence of the Christ he lifted up, I shall still miss him. There is no other option. He allowed me to become a part of his life and he has been and shall always be a part of mine.
June 8 is a good bit in the past now, but still remembered. On that day I did something folks only do once in a lifetime. I gave a retirement speech to the Annual Conference.
"Bishop King, members of the Annual Conference, I stand before you today with a grateful heart. I am grateful for my wife Lynn who has been my spiritual partner for over 40 years. I am grateful for two adult daughters, Jennifer and Leslie, who grew up in parsonages and are both young women of deep faith. I am grateful for my grandsons, Will and Josh, and Fletcher who will be born in about a month. I am grateful for my Mother, a strong woman of faith, whose marriage to Ray Wilder, Jr. when I was twelve, enabled me to become a third generation clergy member of this Annual Conference. And, I am grateful for the good people of the churches I have served during these 39 years: the people of Stapleton, Bethel, and Zoar, churches on the Stapleton Charge, the people of the Tennille Church, the Talbotton Church, the St. John Church in Columbus, the people of First Church, Vidalia, the Perry Church, and the Richmond Hill Church. I am grateful for the set apart members of this community who have provided me a spiritual home, a place where I have always sensed belonging. Most of all I am grateful to God for calling me, a young boy not yet 18 years old, to preach the gospel and for giving me a place to preach for what has been a lifetime of Sundays. He surely must have been scrapping the bottom of the barrel on the day He called me to preach His Word. Father God, thank You. Father God, thank You.
Friday, April 30, 2010
A few days ago a wedding invitation showed up in the mailbox. It came from someone I remember as a child. Molly was the first child of Burley and Debbie. I had the privilege of baptizing her a long time ago when I was pastor at the St. John Church in Columbus. It turned out to be a three generation baptism. Her Dad who was not a believer before her birth came to faith in Christ, in part, through the miracle of her birth. I had the great joy of baptizing him as well. After his baptism this father started sharing his new faith in Christ with his mother who was terminally ill with cancer. I still remember the day we gathered at her home to receive her profession of faith and baptize Molly's grandmother.
When I opened the card and saw that Molly was about to be married, I was honored to be remembered by this family from so long ago. Neither could I help but to have my heart warmed by the remembrance of the way that God allowed me to have a small part in the faith journey of these three family members. This story of faith in Christ has found found a place in many a sermon preached over the years and its witness has inspired many gathered congregations.
The invitation reminded me of what ministry is all about. You would think from eavesdropping on the Administrative Board meetings of most United Methodist Churches that ministry is about money, building maintenance, and power politics. Time obliterates those kinds of things. The number of new members received in a certain year may have seemed important at the moment, but has long ago been forgotten. What is remembered and carried in the heart with such joy and gratitude are stories of faith, stories like the three generation baptism. Those are the only ones which really count!
Wednesday, April 21, 2010
One of the things I enjoy doing every Wednesday night before our Wednesday Worship is ringing the chapel bell. Maybe it brings out the kid in me! Actually, I seldom ring it without remembering the bell in the Susan B Harris Chapel at Young Harris College. I spent two years there being educated and nurtured by this Methodist institution. More fortunate than I realized at the time was I in attending this small college in the North Georgia Mountains.
When I tell folks that my scholarship job was ringing the bell, they usually look at me a little strange. But, it is true. Young Harris did not have an electronic bell system to change classes. Instead, someone rang the chapel bell which could be heard all over campus and beyond. My work day started at 7:50 AM when I rang the bell serving notice that it was time to get out of the sheets. I rang it again at 7:55 AM to let everyone know they had five minutes to get to class on time. And then, at 8:00 AM, I rang the bell for the last time as a signal that classes could start. Every hour until 4:00 PM, I repeated this task. Ten minutes before the hour, I rang the bell to end classes, five minutes later to hurry folks on to the next place, and then, on the hour to start the next class period. One of the perks of the job was having an excuse for arriving late to class and leaving early!
It was also my first taste of power. I can still remember the face of a friend looking my way as he ran across campus to class and my decision to ring the bell a minute early to insure his late arrival! And, of course, there were times when I felt merciful and would delay the bell long enough for someone to make it without the disapproving eye of some professor. It was a great job! I am not sure when YHC quit using the chapel bell to change classes, but I am happy to have it on my resume!
Sunday, April 4, 2010
If I were not trained to think theologically, I would say about this morning that it is magical. Instead, this morning set aside for remembering and celebrating the resurrection of Jesus seems mysterious. Knowing that it is such a day causes everything about the new day to be viewed differently. The sun seems brighter. The air feels crisper. The blooms of flowers look fuller. On those Ester Sundays when it rains, the rain feels more cleansing. It is like walking into a picture that is still being painted. Suddenly, all our senses perceive how vibrant and full of life are all those things around us. Yes, indeed, it is Easter.
Even though sunrise services are a part of the Easter tradition, there is also such a sense of anticipation about returning to the Sanctuary of the Lord on this day. Having been there on other days such as this one, we find ourselves being filled with a holy anticipation. The crowds will be in the overflow mode. Trumpets will sound. Bells will ring. The singing will be unparalleled and full of transcendence. The preachers will strain to proclaim the profound truth that "He is Risen!"
It is day filled with the crispness of something new, a day filled with the anticipation of the holy, and a day filled with a divine mystery that is glorious. The Savior who was born as flesh among us, the Godhead who came from glory to earth, and the divine Son of God who chose to live in our midst died on the cross as a sin sacrifice for each one us and has been raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit destroying both the power of sin and the the power of death in one full sweep! It is, indeed, a day for celebrating a great mystery.
Saturday, April 3, 2010
Good Friday is now yesterday, but still, it was only hours ago that I walked from the Good Friday worship service remembering Jimmy. He was the one who brought me to a point of offering a tradtional three hour worship experience on Good Friday which focused on the Seven Words of Jesus from the cross. At the time he was at the Glenwood Church and I was at Vidalia. He was young, barely out of seminary and I was in my fifth appointment. When he told me about offering this worship service, I was a bit surprised. "Who," I thought, "would go to a three hour worship service?" I asked him what he would do if no one came. His answer I have never forgotten. "If no one came, I would still read the lessons. It is important that they be read."
Somewhere in those Vidalia years, I started offering that three hour Good Friday worship experience. I discovered that people would come. While it is the kind of worship setting which provides for people to come and go, staying whatever amount of time they want, there are always some folks who come at the beginning and leave three hours later when the benediction is pronounced. I also discovered that something powerful begins to happen in my life as I am involved in such a lengthy service that takes me to the foot of the cross and keeps me there. And, I have also learned that I am not alone as those who share in those moments of worship bear the same testimony.
While too many churches think it is something only Roman Catholic Churches do, it is a thing of great value to the church. More and more the cross is being pushed out of the picture of what God has done for us through Jesus. We do Palm Sunday one week and jump to Easter the next. No one is invited or encouraged to stop at the cross and meditate on its place in our spiritual lives. That omission can lead to a watered down theology. I left Good Friday worship thankful that Jimmy spoke that word to me long years ago. Had he not, I would have missed such powerful blessings over these years.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
We started the journey with ashes. Here we are now with only a few of those holy days left. Coming to the end of the Lenten journey means going deeper into the darkness that has been looming on the horizon for some time now. It can be no other way. What awaits us in this Lenten season is the gathering where feet were washed, the meal was served, and the betrayer went out into the darkness. What awaits us is the nighttime struggle in the Garden with Satan and the arrest of Jesus. What awaits us is Friday, a day filled with such horror that not even the sun could penetrate the darkness being put upon the earth.
The Lenten journey started so long ago ends with a battered, bloody, dead body being lowered from the cross and a trip to a hole filled with the darkness of the nearing sunset and death. It is at this point that the journey ends. The Lenten journey does not end this Sunday when the trumpets sounds resurrection; instead, it ends as we behold the Savior buried in the ground of the earth. As we stand there at the end of the journey, we start coming to terms with how hopeless and dark life really is when it is emptied of the presence of Jesus.
Sometimes as I hear on Good Friday, "It's Good Friday, but, Easter is coming!" I fear we are doing what we tend to do too easily with the stuff of life that makes us uncomfortable. What we tend to do is race on by without really allowing ourselves to experience a present moment filled with the pain of life. Not thinking about it is a way of not dealing with it. Only as we stay in the darkness of the journey's end do we have any hope of truly experiencing all that the Lenten journey offers to us. The beginning is about ashes. The ending is about the death of a Savior and the darkness where there is no hope.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Not really sure what I saw I took a second look. What caught my attention was what seemed to be a person in a long white dress. As I turned momentarily from the highway in front of me to see what I saw out of the corner of my eye, I realized the white dress billowing in the wind was really a white robe. Alongside the white robed man were two other folks who were helping him get under the rather large wooden cross. In the space of those quick seconds, I thought, "Ah, someone is carrying a cross along the road." It is not a particularly unheard of thing. After all, it is Holy Week and Good Friday is coming. Just as I was turning my attention back to my driving, I saw it. At the bottom of the cross where it might be dropped into the ground there was a wheel. The guy was not really going to be carrying the cross, or dragging it. He was going to be rolling it. It was not the old rugged cross, but the rolling cross.
Now I am sure it was still a bit of an ordeal to manhandle that large wooden cross along the side of the road. The wheel might have made it easier, but it was still a task which would surely make the Jesus impersonator weary and worn. It was a warm windy afternoon and rolling that thing along for any amount of time would be a hot sweaty task. It might have been mimicking the suffering of Jesus, but still it was a long way from experiencing the suffering of Jesus.
The truth is we much prefer a rolling cross. It looks like the real thing, but is not even close. Jesus once spoke to His disciples about "taking up a cross." A cross was an instrument of death. To take up a cross means denying self to the point that we count our life something of no value unless it is useful for the purposes of God. Taking up a cross as Jesus talked about it is messy, painful, and results in a death. While it may not be the death that takes away our breath, it is the death that takes away the right to self. It is no wonder some folks sing, "I will cling to the rolling cross..."
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Though times are changing some, it can still be said that the parsonage is a permanent fixture in Methodism in the South Georgia area. For those out of the Methodist loop, the parsonage is the house provided by the local church for its appointed pastor. Having lived in one since the 8th grade, I have seen more than just a few. While a few have been near new and more have been well used, one stands out as the most unusual. The most unusual was not the one from which the snake had to be evicted before we could move in. Actually, we didn't move in that one. The snake seemed to be a signal that the church needed new housing. The most unusual was the one that was shared with an unseen friend.
The parsonage at Talbotton was a unique place. It was built in 1890, was on the Registry of Historical Places, and had been updated as much as possible without negating its place as a historical site. It had a great front porch, high ceilings, and a wide interior hallway down the middle which separated one side of the living area from the other. It still makes a striking presence on the corner upon which it was built over a century ago. When we went there in the mid '70's, we were told by a pastor and his wife had who lived there decades earlier that the house was haunted. At the time the pastor was my District Superintendent! Stories abounded about the reason. Some said there had at one time been a graveyard on the site of the house and a grave or two had been missed when they were moved to the new cemetery. Others declared an American Indian had been laid to rest where the house stood.
I wonder if stories still come from the Talbotton parsonage. Maybe preachers of our day have become too sophisticated to take the stories seriously, or maybe the unseen presence finally decided that no matter what, another Methodist preacher was still going to come. Maybe what happened to the unseen presence was what happens to a lot of church folks. Sometimes church folks get tired of waiting on the preacher to leave, so they go.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
For me the journaling experience has always been a part of my early morning devotional time. As I come to that hour I turn on the computer, bring up the last entry of the journal, and type in the date. In addition to the scripture, there are several daily devotional guides which I read during this time. One is written for clergy; one is written by Dennis Kinlaw, the President of Asbury College back in my days; and, the other is a pre-1900 devotional guide from my old book collection. As I come across a verse or a sentence which seems to stand out as a significant word for that moment, I copy it in my journal, noting the source, and my response to it. This gives me a record of what was going on in my walk with God on this particular day. It has also proven to be helpful to read back over previous day's entries and read these highlighted passages.
The journal discipline also provides a place to note some of the things about which I am praying. Sometimes there is simply a notation about a prayer and sometimes I actually turn to the keyboard and type in the prayer as if I am writing and sending it to God. So, what I end up with is a record of praying. It has been more than interesting to look at what I was praying about months ago, or maybe even a year ago, and see how it is that those prayers were handled by the Father God who received them. At times it seems like God is standing behind me, looking over my shoulder as I pray these prayers on the screen before me. It has become another way for me to be interactive with God about the things of my heart.
The bottom line for me is the journal has become another spiritual discipline. It is a constant reminder of the degree to which I am intentional about my personal life with God. While I do not require of myself an entry every day, a long space between the present and the last dated entry says a word about my commitment to being spiritually disciplined. In those moments my journal becomes like a call to once again do some re-arranging of the space in my life.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
"Blog a bit about journaling," was the suggestion I received after my recent posting about a lost and found journal. It caused me to think about something I have just been doing. To be honest is to to admit that I did not really start out to journal. I was struggling with some stuff and sat down to write about what was inside of me. It was for me one of those things about which it can appropriately be said , "It just happened!"
After receiving the suggestion, I decided to offer a few personal thoughts. In retrospect, a journal provides a place to be honest. My writing is a bit like the Psalmist David. While it is not eloquent, poetic, or a word for the ages, it is honest. From the beginning I found myself falling into a pattern of being honest with myself and God about some of the things I was feeling. Some of those feelings can only be described as unholy, maybe even thoughts which were "un-preacher-like!" It has never been my intent to simply recount the experiences or the encounters of the day; yet, there are so many entries in which I am remembering some of the affirmations or conflicts of the day and reflecting upon them. In some ways the journal process has become a documentation of the way God brings my life to a place where it intersects with the lives of others.
Some moments have such value that they must be remembered. For example, I do not want to forget the way a small child's hug spoke to me of God's presence. And neither, do I want to forget the way I felt after lashing out at someone who was throwing verbal stones at me. The memory of the child's hug has often encouraged me and the memory of my unleashed anger has helped me to still my tongue. So, I suppose the first words I would offer about journaling is that it is about remembering and learning.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
Small Group ministry has been around the United Methodist Church for a long, long time. What is surprising is that we do not do more of it. John Wesley, the father of Methodism, got us started down that road back in the 1800's with his emphasis on the Society group as the primary gathering place for those called Methodists. Wesley was a reformer wanting only to see renewal come to the Church of England so he mandated that good Methodists go to a small accountability group during the week and to the Church of England services on Sunday. God had other plans for the people called Methodists.
Whenever we take even a casual look at our Methodist heritage, we see this strong focus on small group ministry. It is not surprising that we have moved away from it since such meetings require face-to-face communication and personal accountability. Nowadays we do too much of our communication through email and internet social groups which speaks of our preference for the impersonal over the personal.
Currently, I am involved with two small group ministries. Disciple Bible Study provides the forum for one and a recent Bruce Wilkinson book, You Were Born for This" has become the focus for the other. One group numbers about fifteen and the other about ten. After each one of these gatherings, I am so renewed by the fresh and honest faith being expressed by those who sit around the room with me. While I am perceived as the leader, it is I who is being so richly blessed in my spiritual life. It is always amazing the way God uses each of us to love, care for, and minister to others.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
I found it a few weeks ago. It had been lost a long time. When I found it, I realized it has been gone for almost a year. I had missed it. I had looked for it. Turned the room upside down a few times, but all my effort resulted in nothing. What I had lost and have now found was a spiritual journal. I started keeping it in December of '99. Instead of writing in a book, I elected to use a black floppy disk. When I started the practice of journaling, it quickly became a part of my early morning devotional time.
I must confess that there is not an entry for every day. I have never been that kind of journal keeper. In fact, in the beginning I made the decision that it would be ok not to enter something every day. I wanted desire to be my motivation and not guilt. It has been a good spiritual discipline for me. It is good to look back at some of the struggles and see how it all worked out. It is good to be able to read and remember some of the prayers and conversations with God. I have enjoyed recording some of the spiritual insights which have come through the scripture as well as through some of the various writings used over the years.
Somehow, it was lost. Disappeared. Things have a way of disappearing around my office. Not being as organized as I ought to be means that sometimes things of value get swallowed up by the clutter. Something like that must have happened to my journal laden black floppy disk. Several times I had gone through a stack of disks, but never was the right one found. Until the other day. All of a sudden, as if uncovered by the finger of God, it was clearly in view. I popped it into the hard drive to make sure it was indeed my journal and then I sat back and had my "Luke 15" moment.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
My thumb was gray last night at the end of the Ash Wednesday service. I ran water over it, applied some soap, and rubbed it dry with a rough paper towel. The gray was still there. I suppose preachers who do Ash Wednesday services run the risk of leaving with a gray thumb. Actually, I wish it was just the thumb. Ash Wednesday worship is a powerful moment of worship for the people of God, but it is also an unsettling moment. Most everyone who came last night knew that before the work of worship was done, ashes were going to be placed on their forehead, and they would hear it said, "Remember, you are going to die." The words of the ritual may have been, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," but the message remains the same.
As the one who imposes the ashes and says the words, I find it to be an unsettling moment. After saying the words of the ritual a hundred times or more, the meaning of those words about our mortality really settles down in a deep place in the soul. I can never get away from the realization that the people before me are those I care about and, here I am, looking them in the eyes, telling them they are going to die. It is just unsettling. Some who stand before me bear the marks of aging, but some also are carried to the ashes by parents. These, too, are marked and hear the same words. Yes, them, too. They, too, are a part of that crowd bearing mortality.
Last night another group showed up as well. I found myself remembering and seeing some from previous Ash Wednesday moments who were no longer here among us, but in the heavenly place. Their coming in my memory made it one of those "Yes,...but" moments. Yes, it is true that we shall all die. But, it is also true that death does not have the last word for we shall live as surely as Christ now lives and reigns among us and in the heavenly place. As I left the service with a gray thumb and an unsettled spirit, it was good to hear that word resonating in the inner places of my heart.
Monday, February 15, 2010
When I went to Talbotton as the Methodist preacher in 1976, it was a small place. Still is. The last census reported a few over 1,000 folks. However, small does not mean insignificant. Per acre it may be the most historical place in Georgia. The current Macy chain has its roots in the Straus family who started their first retail business in Talbotton back in the 19th century. The first session of the Georgia Supreme Court was held there in 1846. Before the depression took its toll, there were two colleges. Even the Methodist Church is a part of the historical parade. It was built in 1857 and is one of the earliest brick churches in Georgia. The parsonage was built in 1890 and is on the National Historical Registry. Legend has it that the town fathers deciding against the railroad coming through changed what might have been. Who knows?
However, one of the most influential men Talbotton produced was a man named Clarence Jordan. Back in the 1940's before anyone was thinking about racial injustice and the need for radical change, Clarence Jordan was living it out in a bold experiment in an inter-racial communal farming community known as Koinonia Farm near Americus, Georgia. While seldom mentioned his impact cannot be forgotten. His vision inspired many, including Millard Fuller whose name will always be attached to Habitat for Humanity.
While I never met Clarence Jordan, my stop in Talbotton introduced me to his story. It is a Kingdom of God story. It is the mustard seed story all over. From the smallest of places, the Kingdom of God becomes visible in mighty ways for those who have eyes to see.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Sometimes as I am inviting people to share something of their walk with God, I ask the question, "What has been the highwater mark of your walk with God today? Where have you in this day been made most aware of His presence?" I thought about the question Sunday as I left worship. I thought about it because I knew the answer. Most folks would have thought that my response might center around the wonderful anthem. It was indeed a good one! Or, others might have thought that I would point toward the preaching. For me it was one of those preaching moments when God seemed to truly be at work in both the preacher and those who were listening. Some Sundays preaching is characterized as a struggle, but last Sunday was one of those special Sundays of blessing when the sermon seemed to flow from beginning to end.
But, still I have not spoken of that moment which I would count as the highwater mark of my experience with God during those hours. It actually came after the benediction as I stood in the hallway with a couple. They were telling me of their need to move and something of the struggle in their lives which had precipitated the decision. We were together for no more than five minutes. We were together long enough to share our hearts, shed a few tears, and offer a prayer toward heaven. As I prayed the last words of the prayer, I knew that my day of ministry was really all about that one single moment of prayer in the hallway with a couple broken by the circumstances of life. What was important was not leading worship, preaching, or teaching a Sunday School group. What was important about last Sunday was the prayer in the hallway after the benediction had been sounded.
God does bring us to the unexpected moments. As I was doing all the preparation for ministry on Sunday, it never really occurred to me that the most important moment would be the one for which I could least prepare. Such is often how God works with us. It makes all the more important the daily work of prayer for from those moments we are made ready for the unexpected things God has for us.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Getting ready for preaching today meant reading and preaching from a Lukan text telling about Jesus' first foray into his preaching ministry. From the Jordan to the wilderness to Galilee and the synagogue He went. It set me to thinking about my first preaching foray. My partner was Harold Lumley, a friend and fellow ministerial student at Young Harris College. During our second year we were provided an opportunity to preach in the mountains of western North Carolina. A Methodist preacher was appointed to an eight point charge in the Western North Carolina Conference and looked to the college for some student help in preaching. Every Sunday morning we left the campus and made our way up toward Murphy, NC to preach. We alternated Sundays which gave us more time to prepare.
One of the churches was Peachtree Methodist (no comparison to the one in Atlanta). Also, included in our rotating preaching schedule was the Bellview Methodist Church and Reid's Chapel. Those folks in those small rural mountain churches surely suffered through a lot of bad preaching as we tried to do our best, but they never were anything but gracious and kind to both of us. One thing I always remember is the music. Harold was an accomplished pianist, but the church normally had their own. One of the churches had a pianist who could only play I Am Thine, O Lord and Victory in Jesus so whenever we went to that church, those were our hymns!
So many small mostly rural churches have been the training ground for a lot of Methodist preachers. Some even speak of it as a ministry given to them by God. Certainly, I am grateful for those that have been a part of my life. My journey of faith would have been diminished without the opportunity to share with those good folks who model for green preachers extraordinary love and patience.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
While visiting Talbotton memories, I found myself thinking about it as the town with an overabundance of characters. Some places are blessed in such ways. So, I found myself remembering "Little Brother" who towered over us all while walking and who flew over us all with the town's only airplane. Mr. Thomas was a courthouse fixture who gave two dollar bills to children at Christmas and who was such a character that his funeral was constantly being punctuated with laughter by those who remembered him. But, the most memorable character was Felder Spivey.
He operated and owned a general store on the courthouse square that had so much stuff that aisles were an afterthought. If it was not in his store, you probably did not need it. When I made my Friday afternoon visit through the stores in town, I always enjoyed seeing Felder. In his earlier days he had been in law enforcement and was mentioned in the book "Murder in Coweta County." As a carry over from those days, he still wore his holstered pistol.
But, Felder's great passion in life was his wife, Libba. When I went in the store, he would often read me a love poem he had written for her. She was an invalid during my Talbotton years, but she never seemed to lack for attention from her doting husband. After she died, Felder would go out to the cemetery late in the afternoon and play his trumpet over her grave. A stranger might not have understood, but those of us who knew about Felder and Libba just smiled and hoped that one day someone would care enough to blow a trumpet over us.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Awhile back, I started writing some about churches to which I have been appointed. After the three point Stapleton Charge (three chuches: Stapleton, Bethel, and Zoar) and Tennille, I was appointed to the west Georgia county seat town of Talbotton. Most folks mis-pronounce it. Try "Tall-but-ton" without a southern drawl and you are likely to get closer than most of those who pass through and take a guess at the right way to say it! Actually, there was another church attached to the Talbotton Church, but a retired preacher, Brother Sam, took care of it the four years I was there.
The church was not a big congregation. As memory serves me in these days, it seemed like good Sundays had 75 or so sitting in the pews. Established in 1828 with the Sanctuary being built in 1852, or there about, I was around when the sesquicentennial celebration of the church was held. The big word a few back just means 150. It was a small enough place that I got to know most everyone in town as well as to be known as the Methodist preacher by most of the people in the community.
While some young preachers might want to shun a place like Talbotton, it is the kind of place any young preacher should hope for, particularly, in the beginning days of ministry. There was plenty of work to do, but not so much that it was overwhelming. Being the preacher at Talbotton was like being the General Practitioner instead of the medical specialist. The church provided an opportunity to interact with folks in all sorts of different circumstances. The church family was very much like a family. Folks knew each other, about each other, and still cared for each other. Every starting out preacher should be so fortunate as to have a stop like Talbotton on their list of places served.
Monday, January 11, 2010
As soon as I stood up to speak, I noticed Roy. Whenever I preach at the Sunday afternoon worship service at Magnolia Manor, a United Methodist Retirement Center here in Richmond Hill, the men stand out because they are always in the minority. As is the case in most older adult communities, the women greatly outnumber the men. Out of the 25 or so folks worshipping at one these services at the Manor, there are likely to be 4 or 5 men. When I started preaching I saw Roy sitting behind the back pew in his motorized chair. When I finished my sermon, I sat down right in front of Roy. The closing hymn was announced. Even though I had just finished preaching about the wise men from the East, the closing hymn was "He Lives."When we got to the chorus, this strong bass voice sounded from behind me. "He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!" It was so strong I just stopped to listen. Each time we came to the chorus, I ceased singing and listened to the passionate singing of this man who obviously knew about Jesus living in his heart!
It was the highlight of my Sunday. His voice resonated all around as his testimony of faith in Jesus. After the singing was over, I caught up with Roy and told him, "You must have sung in some church choirs along the way." Of course, he had. I did not need him to tell me it was so, but he seemed to enjoy telling me about some of the places where he did.
I do not imagine Roy figured upon leaving his apartment last Sunday afternoon that his voice and his presence would be used by God to provide an act of ministry to another. Seldom do any of us leave home thinking that we are only a few moments away from being used by God to touch another person's life. I am grateful Roy made the effort to go to Vespers. God used him to inspire and encourage this Methodist preacher at the end of a long and tiring day.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Last Sunday's sermon was worth $11,000. Well....almost. Actually, nine more dollars was needed to make it to $11,000, but it is close enough for me. Our Conference Asking goal for 2009 was just a shade over $127,000. Conference Askings represent that part of the church's giving commitment which support ministries beyond the local church. For several years the church here has come up short in reaching the goal of 100%, but this year we struggled, gave, and found ourselves about $21,000 short at the end of the year. So, I preached this sermon which ended with an invitation to give to a second offering that would go toward this part of the church's ministry. People got excited and $11,000 showed up in the offering plate. With that kind of response, the Finance Committee made sure we had the rest. It was a great day.
I felt really good about what we had done. I put my sermon away, thinking, "Here is an $11,000 sermon! Don't preach many of them." As I was basking in it all, I saw this article about Rick Warren. He is known as the "Purpose Given Church" guy out in California. It seems his church was having some financial woes as well. He wrote a letter asking for $990,000 from the congregation and got $2.4 million! It took a little of the air out of the ego balloon I was starting to inflate!
But, the truth is still the same whether we are talking about $11,000 or $990,000. God can still be counted on to provide what is needed for His church. Maybe a problem bigger than the economic downturn is the lack of faith which keeps us from ever really asking with expectation in the first place.