Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Some Random Thoughts On The Eve Of My 62nd Birthday

Am I a fool at this late date

To heed a voice that says 
   that you can be great

I heard it young, now I hear it again…

John Gorka, Morningside

This song by John Gorka kept playing in my head this morning as I did my six miles to Starbucks and back. Tomorrow I turn 62, not a spectacular date, like 65 or those years ending in zero. But I have been thinking about it, more so than most birthdays.

Someone recently told me that “60 is the new 40,” whatever that means. I said, “Great! I guess that means we all have to work another 25 years.”

To be honest, I’m not counting my years to retirement, nor looking to do it any time soon. I think I’ll work until my job is through, then find another way to serve.

I have been thinking about what I am doing with my life for the last couple of years. Like Gorka’s song, I’ve been hearing something inside me that I heard when I was young. It’s not that I want to be great, not even have any illusions of greatness. But I want to make a difference. I always have. My greatest fear for many years was that I would get to the end of my life and, after having the proverbial passing of my life before my eyes, I would think “None of it made any difference.” Then I would die. My teen years were about being a rebel. Ask my family. Or the the high school administration that kicked me out of school a record 23 times. My 20’s and 30’s were concerned with making a difference. I became a United Methodist pastor for many reasons, one of which was I thought the church was in the business of making a difference in the world. I thought that through this system, the UMC, we could make a difference. Bring justice, forgiveness, hope, peace, love, acceptance. “ …to proclaim good news to the poor…. freedom for the prisonersrecovery of sight for the blind…to set the oppressed free... to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) This system called the United Methodist Church, and all the churches that were a part of it, would be making a difference in the world.

Somewhere along the way, I gave up on the system. Institutional survival seemed to be the highest order. As one denominational leader told me, “Of course we have to focus on keeping the church alive. If the church dies, then so do all the ministries it supports. It’s like we’re a ship at sea. Your first order of business is to keep the ship afloat.” So much for that “he who seeks their own life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel, will save it.” Who said that?

I never gave up on local churches, though. In them I saw, for the most part, people who wanted to make a difference in this world, too. So I looked to them, and focused on them. Institutions, by their very nature, look to preserve themselves. Years ago a very good friend, an older gentleman who I dearly loved, but disagreed with on almost every thing political, asked me if I knew what the number one priority of any political party was. He then told me, “To get in power.” He then asked if I knew what the number two priority was. He told me, “To stay in power.” Serving people, he said was way on down the line. Same goes for business. Same goes for church hierarchy.

But I have found joy and peace in the churches I serve.

Another song lyric went through my head as I walked.

So you pretend not to notice
That everything has changed
The way that you look
And the friends you once had
So you keep on acting the same
But deep down in your soul
You know you, you got no flame
And who knows then which way to go
Life is short even in its longest days

John Mellencamp, Longest Days

(Why is it that the musicians that I listen to most these days are names John? John Gorka, John Mellencamp, John Denver, John Mayall, John Coltrane, John Lennon, John(athan) Munn, Johnny Cash, Johnny Nash, the list could go on. For my friends named John, don’t get a big head. Your name is also what we call a toilet.)

Mellencamp seemed pretty depressed. Might be because of his heart problems. But whatever it was, I know some of his feelings. Life is short, even in its longest days.


Something in me has come alive that I felt in those early days. I want to make a difference.

Things have gone pretty well for me lately. I have a lovely wife who loves me far beyond comprehension. I have reconnected with some friends from the past, one back to the summer of 1972, and another who was born 8 days before me and is one of my heroes. A few clergy friends have stuck by me through thick and thin, and many others have tolerated me. A few have even forgiven me, which speaks worlds for them.

I have been very fortunate in the churches I have served. I have loved every one of them. Not every one has had the same measure of success (however you would measure that), but every one is one I would go back to. Not so with many of my minister friends. Some have had such painful experiences they will not even go back to a particular town. I have been very lucky. Or blessed.

And the church I serve now is incredible. (See my reflection, 13 Reasons Why I Love My Church.) I do not know when my time here will end, but it will be a good place to end.

Not that I want it to end soon. This stirring, this desire to make a difference, burns deep within me. Gorka’s voice rings in my head-

Don't want to waste what I have to give
 In all of the time that I've left to live  
Don't want to waste what I have to give
In any of the time that I've got left
 I can do more than I thought I could
 Work brings more luck than knocking on wood
There's random bad and random good
 Work brings more good luck, good luck
 Good luck

I hope it’s true that 60 is the new 40. I want those extra 25 years. Maybe I can make a difference. I plan to try.

Happy birthday.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

13 Reasons I Love My Church

13 Reasons I Love My Church

I recently read an article by Thom Rainer, “12 Reasons I Love My Pastor.” It’s a pretty good read, and as a pastor, I am appreciative of how he feels about his. It got me to thinking today as I took an afternoon walk with Cathy about twelve reasons I love my church. I came up with thirteen.
My church is Highland Park United Methodist Church, in Florence, SC. But it is also more than that. It is the South Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. It is the United Methodist Church around the world. It is the Church of all who follow Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation (or lack thereof). And it is the Church on earth AND the Church in Heaven. So I want to give thirteen reasons why I love my church, starting with Highland Park, because it is the closest and most immediate to me, and moving on the larger church.

Three words before I begin the list. 

First, there are some who will immediately want to jump on me for using the term “my church,” saying it’s not mine but God’s. And they are right. “The Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time,” our baptismal and membership vows state. So, yes, the Church is of God, but I say “my church” because it is where I was raised and have chosen to stay.

Second, I know that there are problems, faults, issues, sins with the church on all levels (except the Church in Heaven). This is not to ignore those. We are human, and though the Church is a divine institution, it is made up of people. That’s not an excuse for our bullheadedness, our bigotry, our hypocrisy, and our ego-centered ways. But in spite of all of that, God still has chosen the Church as the way to proclaim divine love, justice, and peace. It’s like Winston Churchill’s statement about democracy to the House of Commons “Many forms of Gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is per­fect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of Gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” (November 11, 1947) The Church may not be perfect, but no other institution on earth (including governments) has started more public schools, hospitals, food pantries, clothing closets, stood for justice, worked for peace, spoken for the downtrodden and oppressed. It freely offers grace and forgiveness, even at its own expense. So, while the Church is not perfect, I still love it.

Third, many people will disagree with me because they do not believe that I am a part of the authentic church. As one woman in another denomination told me, “You, and other churches have a reflection of the Light, but our denomination has THE Light.” A young man in what he called a non-denominational church (which, I think is really a small denomination, just consisting of that church) said, “Man, God left your church and all denominational churches a long time ago.” Of all the sinful things we see in the church, this bothers me most. As a matter of fact, it irritates me and makes me angry. This exclusionary feeling among brother and sister Christians (though most of them do not consider me, and probably not you, as a brother or sister) is in direct opposition to the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Churches that do not believe my baptism was real, churches that exclude me and others from taking part in the Lord’s Supper, churches that immediately dismiss me and my friends as a person, cause something to rise up within me. Perhaps it goes back to my childhood when I was not chosen for things, or when I have seen my friends hurt by the rejection of others. And when those things show up among fellow Christians, I have to remember the poem I learned in childhood-
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !
(from the poem Outwitted, by Edwin Markham)

Having said all that, on to the list!

1.       I love my church, Highland Park, because the people there take their faith seriously. They are not somber, legalistic, bombastic, or exclusive, but they want to know what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the world today. So, for the most part, from the youngest to the oldest, they are constantly growing in love and grace. As the Apostle Paul said, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.” (Philippians 1:9)
2.       I love my church, Highland Park, because they care for one another. Though it is a growing mid-sized church (around 700 members), and the members do not know all of the other members, whenever a concern is mentioned for any of them, almost all of them respond. Prayer, calls, meals, financial help, you name it, they are there! With no questions other than “How can we help” “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."- Jesus, John 13:35
3.       I love my church, Highland Park, because they are willing to risk in order to serve Christ. An example (only one of many)- on Sunday, May 17, rather than staying inside the walls of the church for worship that day, they decided to worship by serving others directly in the community. So we gathered early in the morning, had a very brief time of worship, and went out to be the hands and feet of Jesus in Florence. We served in 16 sites around the community, loving others in Christ’s name doing things to make God’s love real and tangible. Some were uncomfortable with doing it on a Sunday. After all, isn’t that breaking a commandment? (No.) But they did it anyway. And we could feel the Holy Spirit’s presence among us as we built a ramp for a needy family, did manicures and talked, sang and prayed with women in assisted living facilities, took men who never got out of the nursing home fishing, painted the local free medical clinic, and did hundreds of other things around the community. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”- James 1:22
4.       I love my church, Highland Park, because they are very generous. Highland Park has members whose income ranges from “just getting by” to “doing quite well.” Almost all of them see what they have as gifts from God, to be used for others. They give sacrificially, not just from the excess, often denying themselves in order to help others. They inspire me through their generosity. “Every person shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you.” – Deuteronomy 16:17
5.       I love my church, Highland Park, because they allow me, as their pastor, to be myself. My sense of humor does not always fit in with church folks. My wanting to use music that may speak to us, but is not specifically Christian, is not always accepted in places. And when I screw up, when I fail miserably at something I thought would be wonderful, or forget something important, or do the wrong thing, they forgive me and help me to move on. They do not put me on a pedestal, and when I step up on one myself, they gently help me down, rather than knocking me down. And, I should add, they treat each other that way. Billy Graham once said, “It is the Holy Spirit's job to convict, God's job to judge and my job to love.” They live this out with me and with each other. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”- Ephesians 4:12
6.       I love my church, Highland Park, because they treat my wife well. She is loved by the congregation (who doesn’t love her?) but they do not consider her an “unpaid employee.” They let her be herself, choosing what she will join with, and what she will not do, as most of them do. They do not try to force her into a mold, nor compare her with other clergy spouses. I have no doubt that if she were not my wife, but still a member of the church, they would treat her with the same love, care, and respect. That eases a lot of tension in the parsonage. Sorry, I can’t think of a Bible verse to go along with that! But it is true!
7.       I love my church, the SC UMC, because it works as a large body in our state, doing things together that we could not do alone. The 40 Salkehatchie Camps, the 13 Advanced Special Mission sites, the 4 colleges, the campus ministry on every residential campus in the state, the hundreds of other ministries that we lead, guide, and support, could not be done by one church. Together we make a real presence of Christ seen, felt, and heard.
8.       I love my church, the SC UMC, because it has a wide variety of pastors. Not just by age, gender (which can’t be too wide- there’s only two; but in some denominations and churches, there is only one), ethnicity, but in theology. Our clergy range from very conservative to very liberal, yet we hang in there and work with one another. We challenge each other to authentically follow Christ. With the exception of those on the outermost fringes, I rarely hear anyone accuse someone of not being a disciple of Jesus, even when we may disagree.
9.       I love my church, the SC UMC, because it gives me (and others) the security needed to be the pastor I am called to be. I have talked with many clergy from other denominations and churches who have faced the fear of being fired from their church, not for immorality, or breaking the law, or even incompetence, but merely because they grew older. They have been removed by congregations and left without a way to make a living because they proclaimed the gospel and it offended people (as it often does). And churches have struggled when they knew it was time for a change in pastoral leadership because they love their pastor, but knew if they asked him or her to leave, they would be without a job. That is not so among us in the SC UMC. We may end up moving somewhere we never thought we would go, but we are not left out with no means of support.
10.   I love my church, the SC UMC, because I have seen it be more interested in restoration and reconciliation than in judgment and punishment. I have seen this both in the public arena, and I have seen it in the areas that are not so public. When I have failed, which I have so many times, when my ego has ruined me, my brothers and sisters, though hurt, have found ways to forgive me. For that I love my church. They are the body of Christ!
11.   I love my church, the UMC, because it has a global impact. I have been fortunate enough to travel in many parts of the world, in North America, Europe, Africa, and a little bit of Asia. There were three things that I saw everywhere, from the smallest village in the bush in Zimbabwe, to the Navaho nation, to large cities. Those three things were the symbols of the Coca Cola Company, Singer Sewing Machines, and the United Methodist Church. We have people who are following Christ all around the world.
12.   I love my church, the Church of all people who follow Christ, because I find in them all kinds of ways of God showing love to the world. There is a commitment that goes beyond our walls of denomination and title, and a desire to see God’s realm come on earth. And the sooner, the better.
13.   I love my church, the Church Universal, the Church on Earth and in Heaven, because I am part of a living body of people who I may not see, but their voices join with mine in praise to God. Those from 2,000 years ago are still with us, and the future generations of believers, though I have not seen them, are, too. Because all who are connected to God are beyond all time and space. I look forward to the day when I will get to see them face to face.

I could go on, but that’s enough for now. Thanks for reading!