Blog Article Archives

My Hula Girl Broke Her Hip

A friend of mine, no doubt thinking I needed a little more levity in my life, gave me a hula girl doll – the little plastic figurine that, well, bobbles and wiggles on top of the dashboards of respectable automobiles. He was disappointed when the hula girl arrived with a broken hip. Not to worry, because this same friend, with the assistance of a little glue, repaired the hula girl and presented it to me as a stand-by until the replacement arrived. I am now the proud owner of two hula girls, one with a broken hip and one who can wiggle her hip just fine. One can never have too many hula girls.   I guess I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I kind of like the girl with the broken hip. There is something about that “flawed but sassy” look I like. I keep her perched right beside a small figurine of St. Francis, which seems to me a safe place for a hula girl to hang out, broken hip or not.   As my beach vacation approaches, I look over at my hula girl and smile. I have friends that will join me on the sandy gulf shores and together we will assemble our children, our stories, and our laughter. For a few brief days we will listen to surf and to music and dance like, well, like a hula girl with a broken hip. More than anything else we will remind each other of the grace of friendship.   We have our flaws – some are pieced back together in a crude repair, and...

Before I Die…

I was in between appointments in an old section of Knoxville and decided to take advantage of my thirty minutes of downtime by wandering around the city. Deep down I felt certain I would eventually stumble across a good coffee shop, bakery, or maybe both! Turning a corner I was initially disappointed to discover yet another scruffy alley, littered with the usual urban detritus. Along one of the walls of the alley, however, was a painting of sorts – a splash of graffiti from a reflective artist with a philosophic bent. In large letters three words were carefully painted: “Before I Die.” Beneath the caption, lines were drawn in neat rows and columns, encouraging pedestrians to pause long enough to ponder and fill in the blanks with their respective answers. One person wrote, “Date your mom.” Another scrawled, “Dance in the rain.” A beleaguered fan wrote, “Titans make the playoffs,” and a parent wished to “take my kids to the beach.” Jimmy Buffett’s name appeared several times, sometimes inappropriately. The one word I saw over and over again was “love.”   One of the few things that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we have a knowledge that we will die. Daniel Ogilvie, a psychology professor at Rutgers, was giving a TED Talk about death and the soul. He tells the story of his four year old daughter. Late at night she had been lying in bed thinking and bolted upright, jumped out of bed, and raced into his bedroom crying saying, “I don’t want to be a thing that dies!”   The thought...

An Inconvenient Truth

There is so much good to say about the church. Through the years I have published articles, written sermons, and publicly and passionately advocated for churches. Goodness, to be really candid, for the last thirty or so years I have made my living working for churches.   But there is an inconvenient truth: sometimes, perhaps much of the time, church and church members can be difficult. Sometimes church and church members can be painful. One person commented recently that she could never seem to fit into any of the observable cliques that she saw in the churches she visited. She knew there was good there, but could never seem to be included in that good.   I get it, I really do.   Deep in our humanity is the need to find community. We live not in isolation, but in relationships. Communities, however, can quickly become closed groups. In a provincial sense of the word, communities can become cliques. This is when communities get twisted, mutated, and fearful. Maybe we do not mean to be, but it easier to turn our backs on others, because we are more comfortable with the familiar.   In my neighborhood live several families from Turkey. The old grandfather, hobbled by age and arthritis, speaks very little English. When I am out walking my dog, he will give me a small, toothless smile, while clutching his cane in one hand and his rosary beads in another. His children are much more comfortable with the language, although they still struggle for the right words when we exchange brief pleasantries. Their children, however, “fit right in.”...

Why Church?

They came bearing casseroles and cakes, paper plates and folding chairs. The tiny house in front of the dairy barn was filled with folks from all over the surrounding countryside. My grandfather died during the night, quite unexpectedly and word of it passed quickly in the farming community of Putnam County. I was 12 years old, confused and devastated, but comforted by all those older women who mothered me in the days ahead. Solemn men wearing weathered Liberty overalls stood out in the yard, kicking dust, telling stories that made me laugh and reminded me what a fine man my grandfather was to so many. That is church. I was a young preacher and remembered the time I saw church members surround this well-loved, but now devastated middle-age lady. Her son was arrested the previous week on drug charges. I had visited the young man shortly after his arrest, held his hand while he cried out of shame and disappointment, and assured him that our love was steadfast. His family was not giving up on him and neither was I. That is church. One Sunday we awkwardly sang songs in a “blended” worship service – a curious hybrid of hymns, modern praise choruses, drums, guitars and pipe organ. A guy with tattoos running up his neck wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, belted out his praise right beside a demure widow who was a bit uncertain about it all, but grateful for the big crowd that Sunday. Some people groused and complained, but I still carry that image with me of the big man with tattoos beside the little elderly lady...

Life and Death are Not so Far Apart

Some years back I had the opportunity to travel to Kathmandu, Nepal to explore some of the mission work going on that country through an ecumenical partnership our church supported. Kathmandu is a wild, exotic city and every turn offered to me something new to see and experience.   One place I wanted to visit was Pashupatinath; a Hindu Temple where cremations occur all day, every day. I’ve always had a morbid curiosity about such things. I wish I could say it is because I have a high-minded, philosophical bent of pondering my own mortality. More to the truth, however, is I am just curious about many things, death being one of them.   Late one afternoon I made my way to the ancient temple grounds. The air was choked with the dust of human cremains, filling my hair, my eyes, and my ears with ashy remains. There were distant, piercing wails coming from grieving family members, mourning their dead loved ones. Soon I saw the pyres of wood lined up, many engulfed in flames, alongside the Bagmati River. As I squinted through the hazy dust I could clearly see limbs of corpses stacked upon the smoldering piles of wood. Periodically brooms routinely swept the charred cremains and coals of wood into the river, where family members bathed in oblation and prayer.   Ah death. For young and old; Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Jew; death comes to us all.   Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in which Christians are called upon to reflect upon death. Many will attend services today and will be marked by ashes in the...

Seeing the World Through My Dog’s Nose

In nearly three decades of marriage we have shared life with a number of animals (besides our children). There was “Bro” the hamster, fondly remembered for his…well, come to think of it, I don’t really remember much about him. When he passed on from this world, my sons held a funeral for him, including a stirring harmonica solo of “Amazing Grace.” For many years we kept an aquarium full of cichlids (cousins of piranhas, but smaller and with less teeth). I am not sure what happened to them, but I think algae was involved. We briefly owned a cat that I named after one of my favorite theologians, “Jurgen,” which sounds a lot better than Jurgen’s last name, “Moltmann.” She was a stray and unfortunately brought in stray parasites that were not welcomed in our home. We have had three dogs. The first one was a sweet beagle named “Molly.” She was not long for this world, so I will not go into it for this article. “Samson” was our beloved yellow lab for 12 years. When he died our hearts were so broken we could not think of having another dog for another 7 years. Finally, this past summer, we saw a little pup at a rescue shelter and our hearts were moved. “Annie” has been part of the family ever since. Taking Annie out for walks can be a frustrating undertaking if what you want to do is actually walk. The walks are more like high speed sprints, interspersed with languid pauses so she can smell – I mean thoroughly smell – whatever is on the ground,...

A Change of Seasons

Funny thing about seasons – just as soon as you get use to a season, it changes. There is a reason why the author of Ecclesiastes uses seasons as a metaphor for life: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Life is always turning and changing. Sometimes for the better and sometimes not, but life is always in motion. The only way we can experience the gifts of the future is to accept the changing from the old. It is also trusting the One who holds all seasons of time. …a time to break down, and a time to build up… When I left the pastorate at First Baptist Church of Augusta to work with Developmental Disabilities Ministries (DDM) I was responding to God’s changing of the season in my life, as well as the life of the church. This of course was not the first time that in order to say “yes” to my call, I have had to say goodbye to others. Now the season is drawing to a conclusion with my work at DDM. I have accepted a position at Mercer University to work with the McAfee School of Theology and Penfield College as a Development Officer. This great institution labors to equip men and women in their service to God through changing lives and transforming communities, and as such it is a position I feel uniquely equipped to fulfill. …a time to weep, and a time to laugh… While I eagerly look forward to this new, emerging season, believing it is a part of...

Yom Kippur for the Rest of Us

New Year ’s Day, like 2016, is now in the past and most of us are back at work, back at school and back to routine. The last of the Christmas fudge is now gone and we are dutifully promising to do better this year; or at least this month; or maybe just this week.   I have never been one to stay up for the arrival of the New Year, mainly because staying up that late is difficult for me. For fifty years now I have discovered that the New Year arrives whether I am awake or not. Still, I like the days leading up to the New Year as well as the days following it, because it affords me a time of reflection. It is a type of religious experience for me.   Each year, usually in the early fall, my Jewish friends observe Yom Kippur, which is a kind of New Year. It marks the end of the year and a time to prepare for the coming year. Yom Kippur, meaning “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the year for Jews around the world. I admit the name itself sounds a bit foreboding and heavy.   In contrast New Year’s Day is pretty much a secular day around the world, prefaced by parties and over-indulgence. For me it serves as my own kind of Yom Kippur. It affords me the opportunity to look back, reflect, ask forgiveness and see what I need to do for the coming year that will be different, better, and more compassionate.   Only a fool thinks one can live...

Just Another Refugee

Christmas Eve 2016 Isaiah 9:2 – The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness– on them light has shined. Luke 2:1-7 – In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. At the risk of sounding political you could call Jesus a Syrian refugee. “All the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Jesus was not from Syria, but events in this world beyond the control of Mary or Joseph led to a regional upheaval, not at all unlike what is happening today in that same part of the world. The holy family would continue to deal with upheavals. Not so long after his birth they would then flee to Egypt, before finally settling in Nazareth. Is there...

Turn the Page

My year began homeless. Well, not really. We were making due with a few worldly goods stuffed in a couple of suitcases while staying with some dear friends (who are, thankfully, still dear friends). The house we lovingly called home for ten years in Augusta was sold and turned over to new occupants. We moved to the Atlanta area on New Year’s Eve, but did not yet have a place to call home.   Not only was I homeless, I was unemployed. Well, that is not quite true either. I was soon to start a new work and ministry, but at the start of the year I felt a bit unmoored. For the first time in 28 years I did not have a sermon to write, let alone a church that wanted to hear from me. And although I projected confidence to my new colleagues at my new job, I knew, and they did too, that I did not have a clue what was going on. For my first month in this New Year at the agency I honestly felt like I was just making it all up until I could figure it out.   Each day, especially in the early days of 2016, was the turning of another heavy page in the book of life. Everything was new, different, and at times a bit overwhelming. But soon we moved into our “new” house – built in 1985 – and placed familiar furnishings that helped transform the house into a home. Soon I was invited to speak at churches for Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights. Soon I...

Fragments of a Life

Tiny scraps of paper were scattered about the floor of my small study at home. My first inclination was to pick up the little pieces and toss the debris in the trash. Well, actually, my very first thought was to ignore the litter and pretend I didn’t see the mess and leave it for another, more convenient time. I thought better of the first thought, so I stooped down and starting picking up the little tatters of paper. This small mess was created by our “little girl,”  Annie – a bullboxer puppy we adopted from a rescue shelter this summer. Picking up the pieces I noticed that it was a photograph she nibbled away from the bookshelf. I am sure she thought, “That guy in the picture looks nice…I think I will bite his face and maybe digest a few parts.”   The picture was from a 1992 whitewater trip I led with a group from the church I served as pastor. I was 26 when the photo was taken, and my oldest child (not pictured) was only a few months old. There I was in the snapshot (or what was now left of me): young and confident; hopeful and expectant. Twenty-four years later I can say that I still like a good paddle down a river, but I am not so young and that little boy of mind is now nearly as old as I was in the photo.   I am a bit sad that there is not much left of the picture. What Annie left me is more like a cheap puzzle missing several pieces. Still,...

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

I am the older of my two brothers. One is just 10 ½ months younger (so we share the same numerical age for six bemusing weeks) and the other, the baby of the family, is 2 ½ years younger. We are close in age and growing up we were fierce in loyalty. I should add that we were, from time to time through adolescence, just as fierce antagonizing each other, tussling through our childhood as brothers tend to do.   There is a well-known story in Genesis of two brothers, Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve. Cain harbors anger against his brother Abel that escalates. Inexplicably Cain kills his brother. Immediately in the story we read that the LORD asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)   Although the question is not answered, we know the answer, don’t we? “Yes, yes Cain, you are your brother’s keeper.” And so am I and so are you. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.   Yet much too often we abide more in the isolation with Cain, absorbed in self – pity, narcissism, greed, and anxiety. Cain loses a brother because he was looking out for himself, forgetting that his identity is shared with others. In losing his brother he loses himself.   We neglect our brothers and sisters in so many small acts. On Facebook we “unfriend” those whose words are inconvenient; we objectify according to gender, race, socio-economics; and we selfishly consume conspicuously because of our steady-belief in the god of scarcity. Who has time for watching out...

Disabling an Omnipotent God

When we speak of God we typically think in categories of “omni” – such as “omnipotent” (all-powerful); “omniscient” (all-knowing); “omnibenevolent” (all-good); or “omnipresent” (all-present). Such philosophical ponderings can lead to some silly conundrums, such as the one a religion professor posed to a class I was taking in college. It went something like this: “If God is all-powerful, can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it?” His follow-up was equally disturbing, “If God is all-good, who created evil?” Logical absurdities aside, many take comfort in believing in a God that is all and everything. Have you ever thought of God as disabled? What comes to your mind when you hear the word, “disabled?” Some synonyms for this word include incapacitated, restricted, immobilized, and hindered. Such words seem inappropriate for the Lord of the Universe. Again I ask, have you ever thought of God as disabled? The Bible does. In Isaiah we read: he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by others;    a man of suffering[a] and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces[b]    he was despised, and we held him of no account. (53:2b-3) But the text that really grabs me by the collar and shakes me is the ancient hymn Paul quotes in Philippians chapter 2: Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God,    did not regard equality with God    as something to be exploited,...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life, part 7

“A Life of Gratitude”   Meister Eckhart, in his contemplative and mystical work Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”   I am discovering these days that gratitude marks most of my prayers when, especially when I am not sure what else to say. It is not that I am thankful for all events in my life. Certainly not. I am not thankful about pain or suffering, especially when it involves those whom I love the most. I am not thankful for evil in this world, or the hateful speech I hear, or the unloving acts against others.   But I am grateful to share in this life with others as we confront a world that is often broken, suffering, and wanting for love.   The monk David Steindl-Rast presented a Ted-Talk and said that the one thing that unites all persons everywhere is that we all want to be happy. Some think that when you are happy you are grateful, but this monk challenges us to think again. It is not that gratitude comes from happiness, but that when we are grateful we are happy. I think he is right.   I have lived, for the most part, a happy life, but not because my moments are filled with pleasure. It is the moments when I can slow down enough to be grateful: grateful for good food, and the hands that have prepared it; grateful to see my sweet wife smile when I walk in the door in the evening; grateful for a...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life, Pt. 6

“The Grace of Doing Nothing” I am not very good at doing “nothing.” I am easily distracted; fidgety; and deep down carry the deceptive belief that I should always be “productive.” Productivity is a lie we tell ourselves so that we may feel valuable. Nevertheless, I struggle with this lie and have spent too much of my life shouldering this onerous burden with busyness. Family vacations have taught me a different path; a path of passive resistance. I did not grow up with a family that took regular vacations. It was a luxury of time we did not have on a dairy farm that operates with milkings twice a day, every day. I can remember going on four distinct vacations with members of my family. When I was 8 years old we took a vacation to Disney World. The park had just opened a couple of years earlier and it is still one of my favorite childhood memories. A few years later my grandparents took us to the Smoky Mountains for a few days. Those mountains still have a hold on me. The first time I remember seeing the ocean was on a quick trip to Daytona Beach. Another time I went to Destin Beach with my maternal grandparents. The ocean holds its own kind of mystery and I never tire in hearing the tide come in. These four vacations all occurred within the first twelve years of my life, and I am grateful for each one. After that, if we wanted to see the mountains or go to the beach we had to find a way on our...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life Pt 5

“Friends” When I was a child, friendships came easily. All I had to do was “play nice,” and just like that, friendships were formed. I remember swinging with Harold on the playground. We talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up and how we would be friends forever, maybe even live in the same neighborhood. Harold was African-American. Back then I did not know about issues of race or the divisions of class distinctions. I just knew that Harold was my friend.   But as I grew older friendships became more complicated. Cars, clothes and relationships were sources of competition. As such, my circle of friendships grew smaller. No longer was it a matter of swinging on the playground during recess. It was more of an issue of popularity, and as such friendships were  like commodities to be used and traded.   Entering college I left behind my childish ways, as well as most of my friends. It was not so much a rejection of my childhood friends as it was geography. I was 180 miles away from my hometown. When I moved to seminary it was nearly 500 miles away. Nevertheless more than thirty years later there are many of my friends from childhood that I have not seen since the day I received my High School diploma. Harold, along with a few others, has since passed away.   College, and later seminary, brought new friends, but, as with my childhood, life’s progressions like graduation, family and career would eventually leave many – most – of my friends behind in a nostalgic wake of memory.   I...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life pt. 4

“You Are Not Your Own”   I grew up with a family where church was simply a part of life together. It was, and still is, a small church embedded in a rural county, surrounded by thickets of pines and pastures of hay. A portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall stared at me every Sunday as we recited the Apostle’s Creed. From the little, brown and slightly tattered Cokesbury hymnal our mighty congregation of about 30 would sing “Dwelling in Beulah Land,” although no one in particular was in a hurry to go there any time soon.   Since my beginning, and I am certain at my very beginning, it was impressed upon me that my life was not my own and that I am a part of something much bigger than my solitary life. I stopped being the center of my universe many years ago, although my own orbit still tugs against the hidden gravity keeping me from being fully consumed with self-centeredness.   I suppose you are expecting me to write about all the certainties I have unearthed along the way about faith. I will save those sermons for other pulpits. I am content enough to saunter deeper into mystery. It is enough for me to know that I am but a part of the Great Mystery’s work.   My mentor, Thomas Merton, who died two years after I was born, wrote: …if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life, pt 3

I have decided that for my 50th birthday I am going to write 50 articles this summer reflecting on my wanderings. These are not “pearls of wisdom” by any stretch of the imagination. Truthfully I have accumulated very little wisdom in all of my days. I simply want to reflect “out loud” as an active bystander of this life. I am grateful to share it with you.   Mentors, Pastors, Coaches and other Companions Along the Road   I am learning – and it has taken me 50 years and counting – that you cannot make it through this world alone. The notion of “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is misleading at best, a lie at worst. Everyone needs someone to guide them along the way.   For me, it has taken a long time for me to acknowledge that I need help.   When I was a teenager and well into my adult years I had too much pride and rarely asked for help. Maybe I did not want to appear weak, or ignorant, or helpless. I wanted to demonstrate that I was smart enough and what I did not know I could figure out.   Well that is just dumb thinking.   I am slowly learning the truth than I cannot do anything, really, all by myself. As my hair continues to grey (and retreat) I am recovering the importance of connecting with those who have gone before me and who will help show me a better way.   For eight years I played football. Throughout that time I worked with coaches who inspired me, cajoled me,...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life, pt 2.

June 21, 2016   Every moment and every event of everyman’s life on earth plants something in his soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of men. – Thomas Merton, “New Seeds of Contemplation”   Meaningful work. I count it a grace that most of my life has been filled with meaningful work to do. I am grateful for health that allows me to sweat over tilling a garden, or splitting a pile of firewood, or sprinting down a corridor in a hospital to visit a loved one. I am grateful for a mind still sharp enough (but not that sharp) to articulate a thought into action and a dream into a plan.   Work that means something is meaningful work whether it is repairing a car, stitching up a patient, or cleaning a house, or helping feed a friend.   In my teens I remember many days standing on the wet, concrete floor of the dairy barn looking out to the pastures as the morning sun began to warm the sky with color and light. I gazed longingly and hopefully for something more.   Growing up on a dairy farm there was always work to do, and to be candid, I rarely appreciated it. Everyone knows that cows have to be milked twice a day, every day, but there are so many other chores. There were endless miles of barbwire fences that needed to be repaired or replaced, leaving hands and arms nicked and...

Wanderings: Reflections on a Life

June 20, 2016   I have decided that for my 50th birthday I am going to write 50 articles reflection on my wanderings. These are not “pearls of wisdom” by any stretch of the imagination. Truthfully I have accumulated very little wisdom in all of my days. I simply want to reflect “out loud” as an active bystander of this life. I am grateful to share it with you.   Today is my birthday. I am 50. On the one hand, it is just a number. Nothing happened this morning that was particularly different. My alarm rang at 4:59 AM; I shuffled downstairs and groggily made a cup of coffee; I read for a while; and left for my morning commute to the office. But today I am 50, and it feels as though it should mean something.   It does mean that I have traversed this good earth for half of a century. It does mean that I do not have the body, looks, reflexes or mental acuity of a teenager. It does mean, according to actuarial tables, that I have lived over half of my life. Someone asked me over lunch if I felt different. Well, not really. I feel like I should be twenty-five, but the mirror and my driver’s license does not lie.   For my birthday I want to share with you about a hike I made a couple of weeks ago.   I had just wrapped up a 14 mile trek that began near the top of Newfound Gap and descended to Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Although the...

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