Friday, May 29, 2015

Restorative, refreshing water wash over us again

4 Rejoice[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.[d] 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
You might not get the same image I get in my brain. That's quite alright. Don't stone me, folks. 
Here's my image:
Jesus has just healed someone's withered leg, probably on a Sunday afternoon. He puts his calloused hand on a withered legs and KAPUF (a word of my origin that gives me buttered syrup joy), the leg is whole.
Jesus lifts his old, dirty robe off the old, dirty floor of the old, dirty Palestinian home and with a smile as big as the Mediterranean Sea, he begins to dance. Not pitter patter either. Nope. He is instantly into it. Feet hopping and arms waving and hands clapping, Jesus is suddenly Michael Jackson on a swivel and a moon-walk. No Gene Kelly second-stringer here. Nope. He's full-blown Fred Astaire of Judea, laughing and even singing a Jewish tune of joy (those things do exist; really, they do). 
Seriously, does it get better than that? Break it down slowly. Paul, whom we have so little accusations of laughter mongering, tells us that in Philippi he, the apostle, would lead everyone in rejoicing. Imagine it, if you will, if you can.
1. Rejoice. Be happy. Let everyone know you're happy.
2. Don't worry. Let God know you're happy, through prayer and through thanksgiving, letting God know what's going on, what's happening in your mind and your body and your soul.
3. Tell God what you need, want, desire and within limits, expect it to be given.
4. Let it go, as they say in Frozen, over and over and over and over .... 
5. Peace, like fresh popcorn at an AMC theater, is the aftermath, a smell that can't be explained, a craving that does it have to be.
So, we ...
A. praise, pass the dancing please...
B. quit worrying, pass the dancing please...
C. establish the direct line to God, qet up and start the dancing please ...
6. A whopping order of peace is hand-delivered.
Come on. Seriously. Does it get better than that? It's not an unlimited bank account, but instead it's an unlimited helping of, well, everything, and the greatest of all these things is the ability to generate peace as if it were handed out in the evenings with the garbanzo beans.
I began to concentrate heavily years ago about what is this notion of peace, and why I would want it so greatly. Peace, to me, is this notion of what separates us from the opposite of peace. First, the idea that we don't have to understand peace to obtain peace is beautifully thought-out and written by Paul, given by God. We don't have to know it's there to have it, acknowledge it, call upon it. 
God is peace-giving. God comes to us in the dead of, well, night, day, our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our wants and wishes and He gives us this peace. Can we possibly explain what the peace of God is to those who have never had a dripping of it? No. Perhaps not. That's quite alright, though. God's peace is the absence not of conflict but instead it is the presence of Him. It is the overwhelming feeling that we are filled, not empty, with grace and mercy ... covered with certainty in an uncertain world.
It is wonderfully filling and satisfying.
Last night, our 11-year-old grand son who has had a very difficult summer thus far at the plate in Dixie Boys baseball, hammered a grounder at the opponents' third-baseman. The ball was hit so hard, the third-baseman was handcuffed, which is an old term that means that the successfull gloving, lifting the glove, holding on to the ball and shifting it to a trowing position was not going to happen. And it didn't. The ball adhered itself to said glove, and didn't come out, as if it were a Thanksgiving turkey on the oven tray for but 30 minutes of cook time. 
You could see the pressure and gloom wash off Gabe's slender, tiny body as he reached first base and became aware that he had indeed reached first base. 
Dance. Dance. Dance, his body showed a stadium sprinkled with humanity. Whew, weeeeeeee. Slump was done, at least for that moment. Peace given. Peace received.
Like a pot of water washing a dirty face, Gave was suddenly cleaned and restored by the peace (water) of God.
Here's the deal, dear readers known and unknown, God gives us the shock of our lives when that sweet, sweet peace comes over us. Today, as it gets hotter and hotter outside, turn your eyes upon Jesus, and let the living water begin its steady journey to peace. What a process we live through. We ask, God gives, we receive that which we can't explain even though we might be the best of writers (which I most assuredly am not). We praise Him. We thank Him. And peace is the gift.
Let the living, cool, peaceful water wash over us. It's Friday.
Dance, people, dance.
And let the peace of God revive us again.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Darts of time

It seems like it was but yesterday when we put the last piece of tape on the last box and signed off on a couple of years our lives in Eunice, La. Time had been packed away like it was a carton of , and we were free of restraint and for a few minutes we were even free of worry and concern. Time to go again, like we have so many times before.

Till time crumbled and passed like some sort of assassin's blow dart.

See, at this time each year, many clergy prepare to begin new work in new places with new people. Some of it will feel familiar. But some challenges will catch us off guard. There will be unexpected blessings. Nothing will feel as overwhelming as it does on the first day, but it will not be as easy as we might like either. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to enter many dramatically different places with a continually changing array of new faces. 

It is inevitable that we are going to love these people. It is one of the symptoms of having a pastor’s heart. And sometimes we are going to be surprised by which ones take the biggest chunk of our heart, too. The grumpy older gentleman who refuses to call us pastor because we are young and a woman might just be the one we still think about and worry about years after we have left. Love them, but be careful. Loving people does not mean being stupid or being weak. Love them, even when we disagree. Oh, and while we are busy learning to love this new group of people, we let them love us. It goes both ways.

There goes the stealing of the heart ...

Again, and again, and again.

It should be noted that all folks go through some type of loss. It gets no easier, no harder. It just is. Saying goodbye is as difficult as we make it. I kind of feel I'm going to make it hard again this time. It goes kind of like this ...

The Drifter's Melody

The time soon comes for parting,
And our time is at an end,
The rest of your life is starting,
And we have no time at all to spend.

You knew one day you'd have to go,
But thought you'd have more time.
We can't reverse time's one-way flow,
But at least you'll have this rhyme.

You had your shining moments,
Upon this life's darkened stage,
And in my book of wonderments,
You'll never be just another page.

Like the exploding of a star,
You've changed me in and out,
Your light will travel with me far,
Past when all other lights go out.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The worst of consequences

We were in the ball park yesterday (well, where else would we be lately? Tonight we have three grand children playing on three fields at approximately the same time). I'm so tired, I'm tired, if you get my drift. I haven't slept, and I finally got up at 5 a.m. to discover darkness has run and hidden again.

Last night, however, two things happened. First, I saw a long, tall drink of water (as we used to say for reasons that escape me). A man, wearing a white T-shirt with black lettering on it that read ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME, was walking between fields. I was almost intrigued enough to go strike up a conversation, but I was afraid I was judging the amount of intrigue so I didn't.

When we got home right around 10 p.m., which isn't the witching hour but the hour I usually fall into bed, I fell into bed, grabbing my I-Pad to read the news.

In doing so, I came across this story that kind of knocked me out, though not enough to go to sleep.

The Rev. Seth Oiler, a 42-year-old United Methodist pastor in Newark killed himself last Friday. He had recently taken a leave of absence, sending a letter to his congregation admitting an affair with an adult staff member. That, by the way, was the manner in which the admission came. We live in a world that requires the addition of the word adult for clarification.

Oiler was married, the father of three. Steve Rath, his boss (the executive pastor of their church, was floored by the decision Oiler had made, choosing death as his way out of the dilemma he faced.

I have few words I can write that would help any of us understand this situation, except to say that clearly this points out that none of us and I absolutely mean none of us have all the answers to all the questions. Pastors are included in that bunch who sometime throw a blanket of judgment onto all the least and lost, including ourselves. Because on occasion we wear a white collar and walk about with noses pointed high, we are no more free of self-judgment, of mistake-prone decision-making than the next person. In fact, we are often the ones most liable to, er, mess up.

I've been on one of those runs lately where my mouth keeps running much faster than my brain, where I've made boo-boo after boo-boo. When that occurs, however, I pray I never forget that Jesus is the judge and I am but a defendant whose only shaky, high-pitched words are indeed, "I plead guilty, your honor." That's my only recourse, my only hope.

I'm reminded of John's words: The law came through Moses but grace and truth came through the Lord Jesus Christ.

That's it. Grace and truth

Oh, I pray I will never come close to the terribly tragic mistakes of Oiler. I pray that as we get closer and closer to becoming a culture where sin is no longer even possible in the eyes of the sinner, we remember that we can't simply re-define sins because times have changed. Discussing the sin, loving the sinner at the same time, is a worthy plan that often heads off course about as quickly as does our best laid plans.

I pray we remember that the best course often is to accept what we did wrong and lean into the wind, like a ship's captain asking for forgiveness from the judge whose verdict will always be "not guilty by reason of atonement," if we indeed ask for that forgiveness. The New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady might want to consider admitting the guilt and accepting the penalty. The cover-up is always worse than the sin in the first place.

I pray that I, we, all of us will continually reach for the love and grace that is the living mercy of the man named Jesus. But I fear all to much that we are instead becoming a culture, a society that never asks for forgiveness because we are instead becoming a culture that does not believe it can sin because we've re-written the rules about what sin truly is.

If we say it is no sin, can it be sin? Of course it can. Re-writing the rule book on our own simply doesn't work. That's where we're headed in an incredibly fast vehicle of the future. We've decided the Bible can not possibly be inerrant because it does not matter in the first place.

The dilemma that Pastor Oiler found himself in was one of terrible consequence. Whatever led him to take the risk of losing his family over whatever substituted for love led him down a terribly dark road toward the end of his life. He risked all of eternity for the briefest of lustful moments, it seems, though certainly I do not know everything about this situation. But it is in that affair that we get a real glimpse of where the culture is going. I can not judge him or his decisions because I am no better, no worse than he. I make poor decisions and then compound them with greater poor decisions of my own. No one is without sin so no one need drop their own stones.

That's life in the year 2015 and beyond.

The Apostle Paul told us this: "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our lord and more was abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy..."

Oh, dear Jesus. I am in great battle with Paul for the title of "FOREMOST SINNER."

Forgive us for the misunderstanding of what we need in our lives and what we want. Forgive us for thinking only of ourselves, for me thinking only of myself when there are young people who have drowned in flooded streets in the past couple of days, when there are persons who have drowned and instead of falling to our knees so that we can rise into the air to meet a Savior leading a chorus of angels, we make continual and continuous decisions that haunt not only our own lives but the lives of our spouses, the lives of our children, and even the lives of congregations, friends, employees, staff.

With all that is at risk today, with churches defeated, with spiritual hearts crushed by increasingly low expectations, and with men and women walking around wearing T-shirts reminding everyone around them they refuse to be judged by anyone  except God himself, it is imperative that we let Jesus' blood wash away the sins that still exist so that tender little eyes watching it all might not drown in the world's depths. We are in this horrible world not of it.

Or the life that we take might not be be only our own. Our sins might just drown those we love.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Ancient freshly written words

Did you see this story?

A homecoming queen on her way home from from her prom was killed by flood waters in Devine, Texas, about 35 miles southwest of San Antonio.

Alyssa Ramirez, who was also a cheerleader who played tennis and volleyball, spent Saturday night at her prom and was driving home Sunday when flood waters swept her car off the road, according to NBC affiliate WOAI and a funeral home.

There were no barricades on the road and Ramirez's car stalled out in the high water a few miles from her home, Roberta Ramirez, Alyssa's aunt, told the station.

"She did the right things," Roberta Ramirez said. "She called 911. She called her father, but it was just too much and too quick."

Alyssa Ramirez's parents went to search for her but to no avail, Roberta Ramirez said.

"They weren't able to find her until this morning," Roberta Ramirez told WOAI. "They [her parents] rest assured that she was a very strong believer and she has her place in Heaven and they'll meet her again soon."

An obituary provided by Hurley Funeral Home in Devine, Texas, read in part:
"Alyssa was the homecoming queen of Devine High School, as well as a star athlete in tennis and volleyball. She was student council President, cheerleader and co-editor of the high school yearbook. She was very friendly to all who crossed her path, loved her family, her friends and the town of Devine. She had aspirations of being an Optometrist. She will be sorely missed by all. The following excerpt is what she posted 9 days before she died:
'Faith grows through hardship. Faith does not grow in a garden of property, but in a desert of tribulation. Even though it is never pleasant to experience hardship, it teaches us to persevere and to cling to God. He will never desert us.'"

Did you get that? Let's repeat it all to each other as we pray for the family today: "Faith grows through hardship. Faith does not grow in a garden of property, but in a desert of tribulation. Even though it is never pleasant to experience hardship, it teaches us to persevere and to cling to God. He will never desert us."

I'm not sure I've read something more eloquent from anyone, much less a teen. These are words to live by. And these are words to die by.

Monday, May 25, 2015

French fries and famous last words

Finishing is one of the hardest things there is to do. I have a black T-shirt with a gold imprint of Drew Brees dunking over the goal-post in Miami after scoring on a quarterback sneak. One word is imprinted on the shirt: FINISH!

Life really isn't about where you come from or what your background is, but rather it is about how you live, truly live and how you finish.

John Wesley, founder of what would become Methodism world wide, lay on his deathbed at the age of 88 in 1791. Despite Wesley's extreme weakness, the began singing the hymn, "I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath."

English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday was asked, "Have you ever pondered by yourself what will be your occupation in the next world?" Faraday hesitated then said, "I shall be with Christ, and that is enough."

We are working on our bucket list of things to do in New Orleans before we move on June 30 to North Louisiana.

This past week, we ate gumbo and thin catfish at New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood, and we at fried green tomato and shrimp  remoulade po-boy at Crabby Jacks. I coached again, third base for Emma's T-Ball team, and we saw our son, Jason, play the House of Blues a last time on Saturday night and Sunday I preached Sunday and a dear, dear friend from the beginning of the ministry 17 years ago came, then later we spent a long, warm day at Zephyr Field watching with our grand daughter Emma and daughter Carrie the Zephyrs play the El Paso Chihuahuas No, really. Chihuahuas.

Check. Check. Check and check. In the coming days, weeks really, we will eat at our favorite po-boy place for roast beef po-boys, Bear's. We will eat one last time at my favorite pizza place, Coco Bamboo. We will go to the River Walk, and, er, walk. We will ride the street cars to the River Walk from out front of our church down through St. Charles Ave. with its huge oaks and shaded travel among the richest folks' homes in all of New Orleans. We will go to absolutely as many youth baseball and softball games as is possible. We will preach three times in the final five weeks.

And it will be done.

The Bible says of these types of things, from the words of the Apostle Paul, "As for me, I am already poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

I have always loved these closing words from Paul to his student Timothy.

He's saying, "I have given it all, everything I have, and it is time to leave this world. I have fought the good fight and I have finished it."

Final words.

David finished this life by saying this, "David, the son of Jesse speaks -- David, the man who was raised up so high, David the man appointed by the God of Jacob, David th sweet psalmist of Israel."

Jesus finished this life by saying, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."

We are excited to no end about the good folks of the churches we are going to serve, and that's truly how I view ministry. We pray a new wave of the Spirit on these churches, on the people we've met and are about to.

But it will be entirely new. Nothing is quite like New Orleans, which we will leave five weeks from tomorrow. And there is nothing like grown kids and their little ones. Nothing.

So, the long fade into moving has begun. Boxes line walls and rooms that are vacant of furniture. Things to do lists begin to sprout. Bucket lists of things to get done before we leave have begun to be checked off.

Through it all, we are like James French, a convicted murderer, who shouted a few last words to members of the press who were there to witness his death by the electric chair, "Hey, fellas! How about this for a headline for tomorrow's paper? 'French Fries!' "

Friday, May 22, 2015

The last time, I promise

Sometimes it's just too much. Sometimes you just want to switch off the computer and say with full throaty conviction, "I'm tired-to-the-bone of it all."

Like an old, old man trying to walk to a gas station lugging his red gas can with him wishing he could remember exactly what it was like to never forget to fill up the dang car, we have staggered along till the end is coming.

I think we, the United Methodist Church's little guys, are nearing that tipping point. The clergy in the trenches of small churches who are being bludgeoned with yak, yak, yaking from all the folks on high who somehow are talking for everyone, though I didn't even know there was an election.

Very long, long story told quickly, we are headed toward what is our denomination's big deal General Conference in 2016. Make sure you get that. In 2016. We've just had Avenger's Age of Ultron on May 1 of 2015. They're filming the next Marvel installment due to be released in May 2016. And AFTER that comes the General Conference. Yet we are talking about it already.

And we will be talking about it all year.  I won't. This is the last time, I promise. We'll talk about petitions and amendments and such for more than a year. Like the coming brouhaha of a presidential race, we will be showered and drenched and drowned with talk and talk and some more talk.

This week was frankly a big one on the ol' see-saw. A Gallup poll came out that showed that 60 percent of respondents believed that marriages between same-sex couples should be legally recognized, the largest in history, and the see-saw went up Then, a study which reportedly showed conversation with gay persons would change someone's mind about same-sex marriage was retracted after it was shown to have used false data and the see-saw went down. The girl scouts are allowing transgendered kids in and the boy scouts are allowing gay leaders and the see-saw is up and down and up and down and we're on a cultural precipice unlike any we've ever come across.

In my denomination, we are trying our best to come to grips with what we're going to do with the gay question. The latest shot fired cross the bow of the conservatives was fired by a body called the connectional table. The body approved proposed legislation to that 2016 event that would, among other things, allow clergy to perform gay marriage ceremonies and local conferences to ordain non-celibate homosexuals.  The denomination's traditional Book of Discipline has historically said that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. The body proposes, in its way forward, that individual clergy and congregations will be able to decide whether they will perform or allow the performance of same gender weddings in their churches and allow annual conferences to decide whether or not to ordain self avowed practicing homosexuals.

So, on we go, teetering on the brink of schism. One little push and ...

I debated not writing about this because I'm just a very, very, very small cog in the big ol' UMC wheel, but even very, very, very small cogs must on occasions make noise in order to get the grease, as it were.

First, I can't fix this. I tried in my own little bitty way. I picked up my cross, er, keyboard and wrote about the need to be one body, to stay together no matter what. That the UMC was better together than apart. That splitting would be the worst of all the ideas. I still believe that. We disagree on a thousand different things, yet we are one body. Till we're not.

But I believe we're reaching, if we haven't already reached, the stage that neither side is going to budge. Those of us in the middle will have to make a decision we don't necessarily want to make one day soon. And the way we've lived in this denomination will change forever.

A guy I admire with whom I went through Cursillo with a few years back, the Rev. Brady Whitton, wrote a thoughtful blog this week that stated in part "I am one who believes we do not have to physically divide over the issue of homosexuality. I have dear friends, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who I do not agree with on this issue. But we are united in our love for Jesus Christ, and a sense of common identity under the United Methodist banner. I served recently on a Kairos weekend with people who have different views that I do on the issue of homosexuality. The Holy Spirit used us in a powerful and transformative way! Now there are surely those -- on both sides -- who will decide not to live with a compromise and will leave the church. In my opinion we will be poorer without them, but they are free to make their choice."

I, too, have friends who disagree with me on a ton of things. I accept that as part and parcel of friendship. I don't believe I have to pick up my ball and go home when that happens.

I've spent the past year in New Orleans. We've had gay persons in our church during that period. I've become a good friend of one in that time, had coffee and discussed how gay persons, gay Christian persons, live their lives. He knows I grew up in a very conservative environment in rural Mississippi. He knows I don't know what to make of all this. He knows I struggle because I clearly, at least in my mind, read the scriptures and see problems with the question.

But He also knows I'm trying to figure out exactly how to be a pastor, a healer, an evangelist to persons whose shoes I can not possible walk in. I do know it's not my right to tell anyone who they can love. I do know it's not my business what goes on in anyone's bedroom. But he knows I hate, truly hate, the way all this is going for both sides of the argument. And he knows I'm really happy I got to know him.

He accepts me for the person I am, and he has reminded me that his own mother in a small Texas town can't go to her Baptist church because the persons in her town won't accept her because she has a gay son. He wants simply for me to accept and welcome some mom in my next church who wants to worship and to love her child at the same time. I hope I'm that guy. I hope I can help her. Heck, I hope she can help me to learn even more about love.

He knows all this, and we've talk scriptures and life and coffee and the United Methodist's stand on who he is and, and, and ...

It's not easy. It won't be in the future.

I can't wrap my mind and heart about what to do next. If there is a fence surrounding this question, I guess I'm straddling it. I know that. But ultimately if we're going to keep sinners out of our churches, none of us, including me the worst of all sinners as Paul wrote, will be allowed.

As a very, very, very small cog in a big honking UMC wheel, where billions of dollars are floating around and 90 million dollar churches are being built we are in a fight to be right which will run slam over all the little bitty folks in the next five years (for the fight in 2016 will bleed on into 2020).

This fight, on the surface, won't be won -- by anyone, not the right, not the left, and most assuredly not the middle, which will be beaten into submission some day by one side or the other. There are two luncheons at our own Louisiana Annual Conference this year for the two sides of the issue. Imagine that. With all the hurting folks in our state, all the poor, all the homeless, all the battered women, all the racist gathering for the coming storms, all the budget issues and health issues and on and on, we're having luncheons to talk about someone's sex life that is none of our business in the first place.

I was going to go to both, to listen to the rhetoric and see what I thought.
They scheduled them at the same time.

You must, MUST, be on one side or the other.

Here's my facts:
I'm still a conservative/moderate on a bunch of things and a liberal/moderate on others. I'm less conservative on some things and very contemporary in worship for example on others. It's been a long life and the winds of change have carved my face like cliffs in New Mexico.

But this I know:
Jesus said love our neighbor as ourself. He didn't much seem interested in what their background was. He just said love them.

But Jesus told the woman who the Pharisees wanted stoned to go and sin no more.

Somewhere in there is our answer.  It's not a question of can we love everyone, it's about what is sin and what is not and what these scriptures really were meant to say.

Love and let Jesus judge seems to be the answer. But that's not in our Book of Discipline.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

And the number is ...

Emma Burst, left, and Gavin Rubio
 display the power of the number
Taking a minute from all the United Methodist denominational disaster talk, let's talk families.

My wife, Mary, and I are moving from this house we've rented just 10 miles or so from our girls and their kids in about five weeks, give or take.

So, we're piling up the mileage going back and forth from our house to the ball fields on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, watching three kids play ball. I even coached third base for a few moments last night, the first time in, oh, 15 years or so this old man got on the field.

Let's take a trip back to elementary school at Northeast Lauderdale in Ponta, Miss. to see how a family tradition was born.

Someone came around one day asking if we, the kids, wanted to buy a high school football jersey replica of Northeast Lauderdale High School's Trojans. Oh, man. I wanted so badly to have this jersey, in white with red stripes across the shoulders and Trojans printed in gray lettering across the front. I got my mother to buy it, we ordered, and it came in. I had forgotten to put a jersey number preference on the order form, and in it came with a number of their choosing. No. 8. Well, who was No. 8 on our team? Nobody. I immediately wanted to exchange it, but there were no give backs. So, No. 8 I was. I wore that shirt for at least three years or till I outgrew it.

When I got old enough for junior high football, I was No. 8 the first year till they figured out I was way too slow for any skill position. I became No. 60 and stayed No. 60 till I was done playing.

But in baseball, I was always No. 8. Always. Right on through high school baseball. No. 8.

Then, lo and behold, Archie Manning -- my favorite college and pro player of all time to this day -- was assigned No. 8 by the New Orleans Saints. No. 8 it is, was, will always be.

When my oldest daughter began softball, we picked No. 8 for her. When my youngest daughter began softball, No. 8 it was.

Somehow along the way, it became a family tradition. Right on through the grand kids. They've always been No. 8 till this year No. 8 was on a jersey that swallowed our oldest grand child whole. he is No. 3 this year, because it almost fits. Still, if you squint really hard, No. 3 looks like a No. 8 that wasn't finished yet.

Now, is there any power in the number? Nah. Is there magic in the number? Nah. But it is some sort of connection that melds us together, that takes the years and makes them seem like they've never been torn off the calendar though I certainly feel like they have been.

Every family has unique and treasured family traditions and stories. The oldest members of extended families are often the keepers of these riches and pass them from generation to generation. The greater the connection with the generations that came before, the more traditions and stories there are to share with the next generation.

Family traditions vary from culture to culture and family to family. They might include, oh, recipes, holiday celebrations, a keep sake ornament for example, or songs, books or games. These traditions are the legacy one generation can leave for the next.

Often this comes out in story form. In our case, they come out in a number.

In the Bible, the No. 8 represents a new beginning, meaning a new order or creation, and man's true born again event when he is resurrected from the dead into eternal life.

But with each generation of our family that comes, perhaps it will mean a new beginning to the tradition of youth sports, of teamwork, of concentration that turns into accomplishment, of a link to an old man's youth.

Or it could mean they forgot to ask for a number.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The right thing

Years and years ago I was part of a sports department in Jackson, Miss., thought to be one of the best in the nation for the size and resources of the newspaper. We covered the state of Mississippi quite unlike other newspapers did in their states. We were quite innovative. We were well written and well edited. I was deputy sports editor in charge of running the show while my boss was (and is to this day) the writer most readers identified with.

We had two lead writers among 21 on the staff. Then one day in a cost-cutting measure, they took our lead writers and put one on news and one in the features department.

From that day forward, I was looking for a way out. I interviewed in Atlanta and didn't get the offer. I interviewed in New Orleans and they bumped me to executive sports editor in Jackson and I took that offer for a day till the New Orleans paper called back and offered even more. I took the New Orleans job. For years afterwards I wondered if I did the right thing. But every step along the way has led me to this computer right now writing this that might be read by the one person who needs to read it and it might stop them from making a rash decision that proves to be the wrong one.

Today, 24 years later, I've left all that behind. All those corporate decisions, decisions about hires and fires and such are just so difficult.

But ...

Here's where it gets dicey. I watched a television show last night that talked about the power of coincidences. It simply said that science has no control over them. They exist as anomalies. Every decision, every hire, every fire, every choice, every job offer rejected or taken, every moment in every life exists, breathes, touches others.

What we do, what we think, what we say has consequences.

So, how do we make these decisions? What is the governing body, as it were?

I believe there is strength in simply doing the right thing. Not the easiest thing. Not the immediate thing. Not the pleasing thing, either. But the right thing, ah, that's the correct answer for $1,000 Alex.

The Bible says it this way: "Now the God who helps you not to give up and gives you strength will help you think so you can please each other as Christ Jesus did. Then all of you together can thank the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

I have been on occasion part and parcel of bad decisions. I have made them myself, with great assurance that I was doing the right thing. I have been part of a team that made them, and they proved to be the wrong decision. But I have never been part of a team in which I know we might be making a bad decision and seen it happen anyway, completely unable to stop it.

I guess those things happen, too.

But the God who strengthens me will help me think so that I can be part of a team that pleases each other as Christ Jesus did.

I believe that, too.

At the end of the day, I believe we are tasked with not just being leaders in our own way and our own style, but it seems we are to be Jesus' hands and feet in this world. We are to do all things in love, and with that comes respect. Each decision we make, no matter our status in life, needs to be made prayerfully and slowly.

The great news this morning is God is perfectly willing to help. Oh, I'm not saying you ask and there's a burning bush in your morning. I am saying that you ask and peace about the decision will let you know if you've made the correct one. If we've made the right decision.

In the end, that's all we have. We turn it over to God, and we give Him the leeway to let us know what step to take next.

God will help you to not give up, and he will give you strength. That's the answer...each and every time.

Decisions today might not reflect that, but that's all we have. Any of us. The great thing is that none of the decisions made have to be the be all end all. God still forgives. One can come back from any of them. I'll tell you about my 10 months in Reno, Nev. sometime.

Now, that was a mistake...

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Seeds of peace

When times are difficult, and you have something you must do though you do not want to or even feel you can, there is help. Take a minute to sew some seeds.

The Bible tells us: "But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure. Then it gives peace. It is gentle and willing to obey. It is full of loving kindness and of doing good. It has no doubts and does not pretend to be something it is not. Those who plant seeds of peace will gather what is right and good."

When the talk about splitting a denomination comes around, it seems to me that seeds of peace need to be planted.

When the talk that could split a church comes around, you got it... seeds.

When the talk that could split a marriage... seeds.
Talk...split...seeds of peace.

Catch the formula here?

Seek the wisdom that comes from heaven ...
It gives peace.

Be gentle and willing to obey...
it gives peace.

Have no doubts ...
It gives peace.

Never pretend to be something we are not ...

Doing what is right and good...
No matter how hard that is, no matter the consequences, the sum total of all this is it gives peace.

There's a story, by Georgianna Moore, that needs sharing.

"Once upon a time the earth was even more beautiful than it is today. The water was pure and deep, reflecting within itself the sunlight which gave life to all the creatures beneath the waves.

The earth was green with many kinds of trees and plants. These gave food and shelter to the birds, the animals, and to all mankind. At night the air was so clear that the starlight gave a glow almost as bright as the moon.

The people of the earth lived close to nature. They understood it and honored it and never took more than what they needed from it. The people lived in peace so they prospered and began to build many nations all around the world according to nature's climate.

But one day, a terrible thing happened. A strange spirit of greed entered the hearts of mankind. People began to be jealous of one another, and they were not satisfied will all the good things they already had. The nations wanted more and more of everything: more land, more water, more resources. They squeezed precious minerals from the earth to build terrible weapons to defend their nations from other greedier nations. They killed one another. They polluted the air and the water with poisons. Nature began to die. This is called war. War is ugly. It destroys love and hope and peace.
Then one day a magical thing occurred. The birds of the air, the animals of the land, and the creatures beneath the waters came to an agreement: if they were to survive, something would have to be done to stop these wars. Only through peace could their world survive.

We cannot speak the human language, they declared, and mankind can no longer understand ours. We must find among us a symbol of peace so brilliant that all who see it will stop and remember that peace and sharing are beautiful.

I am what you need, said a golden sunflower. I am tall and 
bright. My leaves are food for the animals, my yellow petals can turn 
plain cloth to gold, my seeds are many and are used for food by all living 
beings. Yet, the seeds I drop upon the ground can take root and I will 
grow again and again. I can be your symbol of peace.

All nature rejoiced, and it was decided that the birds would each take one sunflower seed and that they would fly over every nation and plant the seed in the earth as a gift. The seeds took root and grew, and the sunflowers multiplied.

Wherever the sunflowers grew, there seemed to be a special golden glow in the air. The people could not ignore such a magical sight.

Soon they began to understand the message of the sunflowers so they decided to destroy all of their terrible weapons and to put an end to the greed and to the fear of war. They chose the sunflower as a symbol of peace and new life for all the world to recognize and understand."

Seeds of peace, folks, are planted when we take the worst we face and turn it with God's great help into the best. It can, and will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, May 18, 2015

What exactly is religion?

Her little eyes looked up at me in such expectant fashion.

The subject came up Saturday at a ballpark with my youngest granddaughter. We were talking about who knows what when somehow the word religion came up. She, who attends church each week, has given communion on numerous occasions, knows the Bible stories pretty darn well for a soon-to-be six-year-old said, "What's religion?"

I stumbled around for a bit before answering it's talking about God, which actually is theology, but who was complaining at that point.

I began to think about that for a day, then saw the story last night.

Perhaps you've seen the figures. The rise in number of Americans who say they are unaffiliated with any religion is up to 22.8 percent. Nearly 1/4 of all Americans says they are unaffiliated with any religion. Any. That's up six percent in the past eight years.

Church folks, it ain't getting better. The General Social Survey of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (and they should research getting a shorter name), has tracked drops in religious affiliation and church attendance for more than 40 years. Last year's figures, 22 percent, are up from eight percent in 1990 and five percent in 1972.

In other words, in the years since I've graduated from high school, nearly 1/5 of all my fellow countrymen decided they wanted nothing to do with religion.

But let's get this right, right now. No where does it say they have such a disdain for Jesus. In fact, 7 of 10 Americans identify with a Christian Faith. It's not Christ they are having a problem with, I think. It's us.

They came, they witnessed us witness and they went out the back door, rocking till it was their time to roll.

Oh, younger people are more likely to be unaffiliated than older people and single people are far less likely to identify with a religion that married people. But that's always been the case.

But here's a fact we can't ignore. Only 56 percent of so-called Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) identify with a religion. Some think they are turned off by the visibility of conservative spokesmen in American politics.

The fact is, they have come, they have witnessed us witness and they chose to leave.The study showed that nearly one in five U.S. adults were raised in a religious faith and now identify with no religion. Nearly one in five were brought up in a religious home and decided to leave that religion.

That's chilling.

Conversely, only 4.3 percent of adults went from non-belief to belief.

That means we aren't converting them, either.

So, back to the question of little Emma. What is religion? It is the thing that is choking the Jesus out of folks, just as the Pharisees did 2,000 years ago. It is forgetting out core values, forgetting that showing love is paramount, far more important than being right, far more important than imposing a set of rules that won't save us in the first place. It is all the things that are wrong with the church and none of the millions of things that are right.

Religion is not worship. Religion is not caring. Religion is not sharing love. Religion is none of the things that we've made it to be.

And it most certainly is not Jesus, who wanted us to care so much for others he showed us how by dying to self, dying to anything that was not from the Father and eventually died because we couldn't do the first two things.

Emma, I pray you never find a religion. Just be affiliated with Jesus and everything will work out fine.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The strength of the weak

         Paul writes this in the second chapter of Ephesians: “But God is so rich in mercy, and He loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)
         “For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. God saved you by his grace when you believed.”
Let’s break this into sections.
1)   We were dead;
2)   Because of our sins.
3)   He gave us life.
4)   Through grace.
     That’s the way, Gray. That’s the plan, Stan.
     We were dead because we had sinned. Look up, look around, and steadily gaze at what is and what isn't. We were dead. Kaput. Lifeless.
He gave us life by offering grace. That’s the way we are to live from now own. He raises us. He lifts us. He saves us.
     So, the question is a simply, polite one. Are you really looking for something new, something daring, something different? Or are you looking for something you can simply say is new, daring, different? 
    Are you looking for what wasn't? Are you looking for what could be?
    It is simple. Are you looking or have you found? If you haven't found what is and are looking for something still, you need to find the one who is searching for you. New. Fresh. Different. Daring. That's Christianity at its finest.
           As the hymn suggests: Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me, but he’s doing it in a wonderfully new and unique way. He is calling for you and for me by actually calling for you and for me. Softly. Gently. Lovingly. Wonderfully. 
           Listen. Like the slicing go a melon goes the loving knife of Jesus. Hear the sound of the slice. Hear the whish of the knife against the flesh of the melon that offers no resistance whatsoever. That's love's stand against blade.      What will come one day when we are rescued from our mistakes by someone who never makes mistakes? That's the harrowing sound of no resistance at all.
          I suspect we will one-day come to the conclusion that love not only conquers all, it covers more than even that. One day we will come to the conclusion that love's strength is in its smothering weakness.
          We simply need to let it go, and let it change the world. It has done it before and can well do it again.
          I believe it preparing to do it again. That's Jesus. That's 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

New World Order: Unbalanced and loud

Trying to be fair and balanced in a world that had lost its balance is difficult. There was a time, seriously, when reporting was based on facts and opinion was best kept for columnists. Now, one must look at the source when reading the story to determine its validity -- often, if not every time.

In religion news, for example, one gets a slight slant if one is reading the religion news network's material and one gets a slight slant the other way if the story has originated on the Christian Post, for example. I'm not criticizing as much as I am simply pointing out the way news is written in some outlets. I don't even need to go deeply into the difference between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox networks, no do I?

I point this out to make sure one understands the following story as best one can. Here, in a brief nutshell, is the story as told by a Good News (conservative) reporter

Dr. Carole Hulslander was recently relieved of her duties as pastor at Still Waters United Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta. Hulslander, who happens to be a licensed local pastor (the same DNA as is your blogger) whose appointment to the church began in her living room 16 years ago when she started a Bible study there. She was informed, according to the story, that she was losing her congregation and appointment in a meeting on March 17 with North Georgia conference representatives.

The letter she received dismissing her said the action was taken because "she did not order the life of the local church according to the 2012 Book of Discipline and because she had failed to properly report and handle an allegation of Child Abuse within her congregation/school." Still Waters UMC has a school that is associated with it.

Sharon O'Conner, principal of the school, said in the story that neither law enforcement officers nor representatives from "child protective services ever visited or even contacted the school regarding the allegation." O'Connor confirmed that District Superintendent Dana Eberhart never followed up on the allegation with officials at the school, the church or with the parents of the child reportedly involved.

Oh but that were all the story. No. No. There's more. Since Hulslander was removed, the council at the church has very, very (see how I put two verys to make it even more emphatic) vigorously and publicly contested the charges against her -- which is the way that sentence is written in the story that appeared in the Christian Post.

But there's more. Much, much more. This was found in something called the Red State. I don't even have to guess which side this story's writer comes down on. Out of the blue, er, red, comes a different allegation. Writer Erick Erickson tells us that the removal of appointment came about after Hulslander, which he designates as Dr. Hulslander, signed a "Unity and Integrity (capitalized for some reason) statement calling on the UMC to 'maintain its standards of Biblical integrity with regard to marriage. It was then, Erickson writes, that the 'culture war arrived at the door of Still Waters (now plural) United Methodist Church. It's congregation, whether they like it or not, is being made to care.' The punctuation and grammar is the way it appeared in print, wrong as it might be.

Erickson goes on to write: "Two weeks before Easter, the District Superintendent showed up with a new pastor. When the Chair of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee refused to allow a service that Sunday morning, because the District had violated the church's Book of Church Discipline, the congregation retreated to their fellowship hall to sing and pray. The new pastor came in and began berating one of the members of the congregation. The new pastor demanded keys be handed over. When others intervened to calm the situation, the new pastor told the congregation to 'f### off.' The lion that would separate the sheep from their shepherd now paces around the walls of this church."

That appeared in print somewhere on the planet. Really.

I won't even go into the absurd metaphor of lions pacing on walls.

I tried to find another version of this story, from the "other" side and could not. There's nothing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that I could find. There's nothing on the Religion News Network, and that seems to me to be significant because this story should have legs.

A pastor is removed from the church she planted because, according to the writer in one publication, she didn't follow through with a child abuse allegation or, according to another writer in another publication, she was vocal about her beliefs on same-sex marriage.

These things are significant because in a world of social media when something is printed today it becomes fact whether it is or not. If Hulslander was removed from her position as pastor of this thriving church and the person who follows her curses the PPR committee chair in public because they are not allowed to take the keys to the church, that would certainly seem to me to be a story even in mainstream media. Maybe especially in a mainstream publication.

I don't know all the particulars, obviously, but wow, and er, uh, wow.

Let's focus on the most important thing, friends. If indeed DR. Husbander signed a statement on either side of the same-sex marriage debate attached to the United Methodist Church today and was ditched because of it, which honestly I find unbelievable, then there are even bigger problems facing our denomination than I thought. And I think there are huge problems anyway.

I read this story just a day after reading Church of the Resurrection pastor Adam Hamilton's proposal for General Conference, which opens almost exactly a year from this reading. Hamilton proposes essentially that each church be allowed to vote its convictions about the issue. Hamilton says: "I continue to believe that the best way forward is to allow United Methodist pastors to determine who they will and will not marry, while allowing local churches to determine their own wedding policies as it relates to the usage of their building. This is currently how things are done for heterosexual marriages. Pastors meet with couples and determine whether they will or will not officiate, and local churches develop wedding policies for the use of their buildings. Under this scenario the current language of the Discipline regarding homosexuality and same-sex weddings would become the “historic position” of the United Methodist Church and the default policy of each local church regarding same-sex marriage. The Discipline would allow local churches to adopt a more permissive policy towards same-sex marriage.  Only churches that felt compelled to change the default position would take a vote.  Conservative churches would continue as they are.  Moderates might spend several years in conversation before deciding whether to make a change to the default position. Progressives would vote right away to adopt a different policy. Likewise, while a pastor would be bound by the local church’s policies for weddings within the walls of the church, each pastor would determine who they would and would not marry outside of the walls of their local church.    
"I believe we can trust local churches to make this decision. Some have suggested that allowing local churches to make this decision will be the end of connectionalism and will signal that we have adopted a congregational polity.   But it is not our position on homosexuality that makes us a connectional church; rather, it is our shared ministry, our shared doctrinal standards, our appointive process, our episcopacy, and our trust clause that are the hallmarks of our connectionalism."
Let's sum these things...One story says a pastor has been relieved of her duties for simply signing a petition. One story says a large-church pastor proposes a vote by local churches determine their own wedding policies. These things are not mutually exclusive, are they? Can we at least see the issue isn't going away, isn't being solved, isn't even being written about without a less than neutral viewpoint. Everyone has their own view. Everyone has their own voice. And everyone is using it. The only difficulty I can see is if there comes a time when someone on either side isn't allowed to use that voice. At that point, we become something other than America. If either side of the issue forces that to happen, we've lost far more than an argument.