Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Manger of.......Charleston

I saw the manger of Bethlehem once. It was located in downtown Charleston.

I was the pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church, on Wentworth Street, in the historic area of the peninsula. The church was two large buildings- a sanctuary and a fellowship hall, connected by a small hallway in the back of the church. There was a tiny alcove between the two buildings. That was where Engadi slept during the winter.

Engadi was a homeless man who lived on the streets of the Holy City. I met him shortly after I became pastor there. He knocked on the door of the church, I answered, and found a man about my height, very thin, with wiry hair that reminded me of the Afro I sported back in the 1960’s. His clothes were dirty, and he had a small cloth bag on a strap slung around his shoulder. He stuck his hand out and said in a strange accent, maybe Pakistani, “You are the pastor?” “Yes, I am. I’m Mike Henderson,” I replied, taking his hand. “Ah, Henderson,” (and that was what he called me from that day on), “I have a question.” He pronounced my name “Hin-dah-sahn.” He pulled out a worn Bible from the bag, opened it to one of the prophets, and asked me, “What does this mean?” I invited him to step into the fellowship hall. We sat down at a table, and began to talk. He did not take much of my time, then stood, thanked me, shook my hand, and walked out. That was the beginning of our friendship.

I found that during warmer months he slept around the corner, under the bushes at Trinity United Methodist Church. When the temperatures dropped, he moved into the alcove at Centenary. It was more protected from the winds. I tried to get him to go to one of the shelters, especially in the winter. But he refused, saying he did not need it, and that others could have his place. I do not know why he was homeless, and he was evasive when I asked about his past. He was well-known on the streets of Charleston. He would take magic markers and color small streaks in his hair. When I spoke of Engadi, everyone knew who I was talking about.

Engadi knocked on the door about once a week. He would always have a question related to what he was reading in his Bible. “Henderson, do you think Jesus really meant it when he said you needed to sell everything and give it to the poor in order to have eternal life?” “Henderson, why does David say he sinned only against God when he sinned against so many people?” “Henderson, what does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth?” I had many good conversations with Engadi, ones that made me think.

The good people at Centenary knew he slept in the alcove, and never asked that he leave. He kept his sleeping bag and few possessions stashed in the rear, behind a propane tank. He never left trash, and the alcove did not become a gathering place for street people. The church members began calling it Engadi’s Nest. Engadi was never there during church times, but whenever the church would have a meal, they would always fix a plate or two of food for him, wrap it up to keep it warm and safe, and place it in the alcove with a thermos of hot coffee. The next day the thermos would be on the doorstep, with a note saying thanks written in magic marker on a scrap of paper. On particularly cold nights people would go by to make sure he was warm, taking extra blankets, coats, and hats.

I learned some unexpected lessons from him, too. He began to use the magic markers to color all of his hair in bright hues. Streaks of blue, red, orange, yellow, green covered his head. He began to look more than just homeless. He began to look like he was mentally ill.

“Engadi, you’re scaring people,” I said to him one Sunday when I ran into him after church. “How is that, Henderson?” he asked. “The way you’re doing your hair. It makes people think you are crazy.” “I am not crazy,” he said. “When I do this, it makes me invisible.” “Now you are crazy,” I said. “I can see you.” “Yes, you can. But nobody else can.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Come with me and I’ll show you.” We walked across the peninsula to a large and rather affluent church and stood across the street from it as people were leaving. “You stand here,” he said, “and watch as I go across the street and become invisible.” He walked across the street and stood by the gate as worshippers were leaving. I watched as a few hundred worshippers walked out and passed by this strange man with dirty clothes, multicolored wiry hair, and cloth bag slung around his shoulder. He just stood there. They walked by, none of them making eye contact with him. Not a word was spoken to him. When they were all gone, he walked back across the street. “See, I am invisible.” “Engadi, maybe they were just scared of you,” I offered. “No,” he said. “They did not see me.”

He did begin to let the colors fade, and hopefully, become visible again.

It was on a cold, wet day the week after Christmas that he knocked on my door again. “Henderson, I just want to wish you a merry Christmas.” “Thank you, Engadi. Let’s go get some soup and a sandwich.” In all our time together, Engadi never asked for anything. But he would accept gifts when offered. We walked to the small diner at the end of Wentworth. I order the food and coffee, and we sat and talked for a while about our hopes for the new year.

After the meal we walked back towards the church. He had other places to go, so we wished each other a merry Christmas and happy New Year, hugged and walked our own ways. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and Engadi was holding out his gloves to me. They were old, ratty, and the fingers were worn through. “Henderson, I want you to have these,” he said. “Engadi, I can’t take your gloves.” “No. I noticed that you do not have gloves. I am used to the cold. You are not. Please take these. They are my gift to you.” So I took the smelly old gloves and put them on my hands. “Thank you, Engadi.” “You are welcome.” We hugged each other again and walked away. As I passed the alcove, Engadi’s Nest, a blast of cold icy wind hit my face. My eyes teared up from the wind, and as I looked into his nest, I swear by all the angels in heaven, it looked just like a manger.

I hope that the wind blows in your face this season, and you see something you did not see before. Or Someone.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Dylann Roof and The Death Penalty

Dylann Roof has been convicted of all 33 counts against him, including the murder of the nine people in the Bible study group at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston. This is not surprising since he pretty much said, “Yep, I did it.” He hoped to start a race war. So far, he has been unsuccessful. Now it moves to the sentencing phase. He plans to represent himself there. He did that for a while in the first part of his trial. I suspect he will once again call for the lawyers. The big question is, will he receive the death penalty for his heinous crimes?

Many of my friends who will read this will immediately say that he deserves to be put to death. I agree. He does. But I am not so sure it is the best thing. I usually oppose the death penalty. I say “usually” because there have been some instances where I have thought otherwise.

In Roof’s case, I think it would be a less wise decision for many reasons. But I must say from the start, I have no feeling of pity for him. Nor do I harbor hatred, as strange as it may seem. To hate another person gives them power over your life, and he will have none over mine. I read of a Jewish rabbi who survived the concentration camps of Germany. After he was freed, he immigrated to the US. He said in an interview years later that before he left Germany, he had to forgive Adolph Hitler. He said he wanted nothing of that man coming with him to this new country. So he had to let it go. I want none of Roof in me.

Here’s what I think the death penalty would and would not do.

First, it would make Roof into a martyr for the white-supremacy cause he espoused. We have had these race based hate groups with us since….well, forever. They were very evident up through the 1970’s, then went into hiding for a while. They are coming out from hiding now. Some have had victory marches since the election. (This is not a statement about our president-elect, but it is about some of the groups who support him.) Roof’s death by the state would elevate him in their hearts and minds. It would give a face to their cause that they could rally around. I do not want him to become a martyr. I know some will say that by putting him in prison for life, with no chance of parole, would do the same. And while it is possible that it would elevate him in their minds, it would not be as great.

Roof’s death would not ease the pain of those who lost loved ones, or the three survivors who were terrorized by it. In cases of the death penalty before, family members of victims rarely, if ever, feel good about the death of the perpetrator. Some have expressed relief when interviewed immediately following the execution, but years later still find their lives haunted by grief. As one said, “It wasn’t enough.” It never will be.

Nor would it ease the pain and anguish of the African-American community, though if he is not executed we can expect to hear a lot of “if he had been black, he would have been dead by now….” kind of argument. There is much to do in our continuing journey towards unity and reconciliation. Another death will not move us forward.

His execution, while satisfying “the state”, would not deter further acts of this kind. When averaged together, states without the death penalty have had a lower amount of murder than those with the death penalty for the past twenty-five years. And the difference is increasing. The difference in the murder rate between states with the death penalty and those without in 1990 was 4%. In 2016 the difference was 25%. If the death penalty had any effect on murder rates, we would see that. It does not. Years ago I heard one very popular radio preacher, in speaking about this subject and of the impending execution of a convicted murderer, say “Well, it will stop him from ever doing it again.” True. But the chances of him murdering someone in prison are extremely low. Almost nil.

Now, what do I hope in this case?

The dark, evil, vengeful side of me hopes that he’ll be put into prison for life, with no chance of parole, never seeing any more of the outside world than he can see through the bars in his window. The reason is this- (unfortunately, but it is true) most of the people in the prisons in South Carolina are African-American. The very ones he wanted to start a war with, and the ones who he killed. I can’t imagine the terror he would have to live with day and night forever. I lick my lips with vengeance on my mind, and laugh evilly with the thought of it. Which, in some strange way, makes me just like him as he held his gun in front of those people studying the Bible. I have to admit it in order to get it out of my system. I do not want him or anyone making me into a person I abhor.

I know there are some people who say the Bible supports the death penalty, and argue forcefully for it. They are right. The Old Testament has the death penalty for the following (there are more, these just stand out):
·         Murder (Exodus 21:12-14Leviticus 24:17,21) (that seems obvious)
·         Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17) (our teenage population would go down dramatically)
·         Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) (there go the younger children, too!)
·         Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
·         Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
·         Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18Leviticus 20:27Deuteronomy 13:51 Samuel 28:9) (own a Ouija Board? Sorry, got to kill you.)
·         Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)
·         Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19Leviticus 20:16)
·         Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:1435:2Numbers 15:32-36) (there goes all of the people working in the restaurant business, along with about a zillion others)
·         Incest (Leviticus 18:6-1820:11-12,14,17,19-21) (does that include cousins?)
·         Adultery (Leviticus 20:10Deuteronomy 22:22) (Donald Trump, you’re outta here)
·         Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
·         Prostitution by a priest's daughter (Leviticus 21:9) (it’s tough being a pk!)
·         Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,1623)
·         False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20) (bye-bye all you forecasters of political events!)
·         Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
·         Refusing to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12) (you better listen to the preacher!)
·         False claim of a woman's virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
·         Sex between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

Here’s a list of where the New Testament specifically endorses the death penalty:

Some will contort New Testament writings, and even the teachings of Jesus, for the death penalty. But that’s what it is. A contortion.

The better angels in me, though, have another hope. What would it be like if he was converted, became a Christian? I’m not talking about “jailhouse religion.” I’ve seen enough “conversions” there to question most. (But, who other than God, knows the human heart? Sometimes conversions among those not in prison make me question.) But, what if he truly was converted, saw the damage that he had done, the hurt and the pain not only to the families and victims, but to our society as well? What if he began, from his own cell, to do the things for bringing people together? What if Jesus actually changed his life, and he began to live it out? There have been other folks who deserved the death penalty whom God used. The apostle Paul comes to mind.  Perhaps God would use him from the chains of prison to speak to others, and lead them into new life. This may or may not happen, but if he is executed, it definitely will not.

During all these months since the massacre I have prayed for the families, prayed for the survivors, prayed for our state and country, and prayed for Dylann Roof. Like me, they are all part of this world whom God loves, and for whom Jesus bore the death penalty on our behalf.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Why I Hate Andy Stanley

Ok. Now that I have your attention, let me say I do not HATE Andy Stanley. I have never met the man. I have read a fair number of his books. Like Will Willimon, he does not seem to have an unpublished thought. And, like Willimon, most of his thoughts are worth considering. We have some theological differences, but that’s not a reason to hate him (or anyone). He seems to be a good man, he loves the Lord, and he loves people. So how can you not like him? But something in me gets riled up by him.

I have the same feelings for Rick Warren, the heir apparent to Billy Graham as America’s pastor, Max Lucado, one of the best story-tellers in the country, and Craig Groeschel, pastor of the largest church in the country. And, just so you’ll know it’s not all of these in their particular denominations. There are some within my own tribe, the UMC, that raise the same feelings in me.

Here’s the issue: I am not them and I do not serve a church like theirs. Every time someone comes to me (and they often do) and say, “Pastor Mike, I just heard the most moving sermon I have ever heard by (fill in the name of any nationally known preacher),” what I hear is, “Why can’t you preach sermons like that?” When someone says, “Well, at that church they have the best process for welcoming non-believers into the church. Why can’t you do that?” I want to say, “Because I’m trying to just keep up with us.” A well-meaning church member told me, “You just need to work smarter.” I didn’t know how to tell them, but this is about as smart as I can get.

Those churches with pastors like Stanley, Warren, Lucado, Groeschel, etc. are different. Not only are they much larger, but they have different needs, and are in different communities. They do not do pastoral care in their congregation. That doesn’t mean people aren’t cared for, it just means that it’s not the pastor who cares for them. If you have an illness, if your parent dies, if your child is in a horrible wreck, in Florence SC, and you are part of a church, you pretty much expect your pastor to show up. And he/she wants to. If you are part of 25,000 member church with seven campuses, and you see your preacher more often on a screen than in real life, don’t expect him to be there to pray with you before you go into surgery. Perhaps someone from the congregation, or from your small group, will be there, but you cannot expect your pastor to…..well….pastor.

I get leadership “tips” from most of the above mentioned folks, and some others, almost every day. I’m on about a zillion email lists.  And I like what they have to say. But it’s obvious we’re in very different places. One of them writes about his schedule. “I get up early, spend some time with the Lord, go to the gym, work out and talk with friends there, then get into the office about 10. I’m usually in the office from 10 until 3, where I work on the Sunday service most days of the week. After 3 I go home, spend time with my kids and wife, then read and relax for the evening. And I usually take Friday and Saturday off.” Curious about how that works, I emailed and asked some questions, and, surprisingly enough, he wrote back. I’ve emailed, mailed, and hand written a lot of pastors, asking questions. Most do not reply. So I was grateful for his.  Here are some of the questions and answers.

Q:“When and how often do you visit your home-bound and assisted living members?”
A: “I don’t. We have very few members like that. Our church was a new church plant, and we reached out to younger adults. We really have very few older adults, and we let their small group, if they are in one, care for them.”

Q: “Do you visit the hospitals when your members are sick?”
A: “No. I watch after my staff and their families. I expect the congregation to take care of itself.”

Q: “What kind of relationship do you have with the children and youth in your church?”
A: “I love every one of them! But I know less than a hand full. I let my staff care for that.”

Q: “How many church meetings do you attend?”
A: “One. I have an advisory board of 7 people in my church. We meet once a month.”

Q: “How much time do you spend with your church doing community outreach?”
A: “Very little. I spend most of my time developing sermons that will meet people’s needs. I find that if I do that, all the rest takes care of itself.”

There were a few other questions he answered, then wished me well.

Andy Stanley says that his church, which started with more people than my current church has, said they wanted to make a church that non-churched people would be comfortable in. And they did that. According to him, you might walk into their worship space and the band be playing old Beatles songs. Nothing wrong with that. I sort of like the idea. But I would feel real bad about all of those people in my church that have loved it and supported it for generations walking out. This is not to say that I don’t want to change, because I do, but there’s a dynamic here that is not in other places.

Rick Warren has all his 100,000 people reading the same book at the same time (usually written by him) for a few months. It’s a great thing. A couple of years ago our church decided to read through the Bible together and use our readings for Sunday school and worship for about 9 months. For some in the church, you would have thought that I had said, “Why don’t we all burn the International Lesson Series in a bonfire.” By the way, the church did it, the people learned and grew and were very appreciative of it, but said, by and large, “let’s not do anything like that again.”

Another one of the pastors said his church gives him the summer off, so he can plan the sermons for the other nine months. I can hear how that might go at my church. “You want to take off for the summer so you can work on the rest of the year? Okay by me, as long as you don’t mind if we don’t pay you for the summer.”

I also know that there are some of my colleagues who hate me. For the same reasons. We have a wonderful children’s ministry, an active and growing youth ministry, and the best preschool weekday ministry in town. I also have the best staff members leading those programs. And I’m sure that at some smaller, struggling church, a church member is saying to their pastor, “Mike Henderson’s church does this…..” and that pastor walks off muttering my name and a few words.

Please hear me clearly. I’m not complaining about where I am or what I do. I am in a church that has some older members “who want to see the preacher, and anybody else, but only the preacher really counts,” some parents of teenagers and children who want me to know what’s going on in those areas and to make sure that everything they do is the best in town, and some younger members who are looking for ways to serve and wondering why we don’t meet in the local pub. I have lots of people who sincerely want to serve Jesus by serving others, and some who are here to see what’s in it for them. I have some who are scared to death of change, and others who are scared we will not change.

Many of them want to see the best at Highland Park, and by best, they mean what they have read about or seen in those other churches. I am sure that those other high profile preachers have struggles, though for all their talk about authenticity and vulnerability, most do not share them with the congregations. Maybe that’s why so many fall, and our hearts go out to them. In my church, people see my shortcomings and failures up close. They see how I am not able to do everything, and the things I do, while they may be the best I can do, are not the best.

So while I do not really hate Andy Stanley and the rest, I am not one of them. And though I do not know what to do to make Highland Park be “the next big thing” among churches in Florence, there are three things I do know. I will just try to be the best me. I will continue to love Highland Park, because they are a great church and at the same time just regular people (like me). And I will find ways to serve Jesus in the world.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Goodbye Boob Tube .... at least for now

I'm finishing day 9 of a 30 day experiment- no TV. No network TV, no streaming, Netflix, Youtube.   I read a Fast Company article last week, How Giving Up TV For A Month Changed My Brain And My Life, and it challenged me. So I am giving it a try.

Not that I watched that much anyway. Star Trek TNG, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Call The Midwife, Sherlock, Boardwalk Empire, Maria Bamford, maybe a movie, and then I was through for the night. Okay, I didn't watch all of those every night, but usually two or three. I've made it through this first week okay. And if I can make it through the next couple, I should make it more than the 30, since I'm going to Africa at the end of the month for a couple of weeks. I know, they have TV over there, but I'll be busy doing other things. I remember being in Belgium years ago, coming in from some touring, turning on the TV in my refrigerator sized room, and watching The Dukes of Hazard. In Flemish. A waste of a beautiful language.

I've noticed some things. First, I don't (as yet) miss it. Which means I was probably mindlessly watching it. Well, it is the boob tube. And I've kept up with important stuff other ways- radio, newspaper, occasional smoke signal. I don't need to see video of radical Southern terrorists to know the harm and damage they do. Or Donald Trump ranting and Hillary Clinton responding. I've seen enough already.

Second, I'm sleeping better. I do not usually sleep well through the night. Haven't for a long time. But I am doing better. Hoping one night to make it six hours in a row.

And third, I've been thinking about the shows I used to watch. Not a lot, but about one characteristic that jumps out now. Almost none of them ever have anyone watching TV. The sitcoms, the dramas, even the animated shows, usually have people talking to each other, going somewhere, doing something. My wife is a big fan of HG TV. She loves to watch Fixer Upper. That show and the couple on it have saved HGTV in the same way that Pawn Stars saved The History Channel several years ago. Chip and Joanna Gaines are getting to be more than famous for their TV show as well as what seems like a great marriage. In a recent interview, Joanna revealed that they do not have a TV in their home. Their children do not watch TV. They do not watch TV. Not even their own show.

If people who make a living on TV do not watch TV, that ought to tell us something.

Now I have read most of my magazines. I've finished a couple of books. And even begun writing again. Will I make it 30 days? I don't know, but I think I will. And in the meantime, I'll get a few other things done.