I Didn’t Mean to be a Preacher

I Didn’t Mean to be a Preacher

I didn’t mean to be a preacher. At least not that young. I had just turned 21; returning from a summer spent in the Philippine Islands serving, as it was called at the time, as a “summer missionary.” Fall semester was about to begin at college and I was one of a handful of early arrivals. My faculty advisor saw me chatting it up with some friends in the student center and walked over my way. I assumed he wanted to ask me about my summer on the mission field, or remind me to set an appointment with him to discuss classes. Instead he came right out and asked had I ever given any thought to being a preacher. Yeah, I thought to myself, when I get old. He said that there was this little country church just north of Rome that needed a preacher for Sunday mornings. There was not much more to the job than Sunday sermons and it would be good experience. The pay was $75 a week. I did not think to ask about benefits.   Since I had nothing better to do, and waiting tables that fall did not seem very exciting, I thought why not. I had plans to go to seminary after college, preparing for a ministerial vocation, but I had no clue what exactly that would look like.   That fall I was introduced to a people who gathered on Sunday mornings, except for fifth Sundays. Fifth Sundays, it was explained to me, the church did not meet. I never really understood why, but then again it was nice to have...
My Hula Girl Broke Her Hip

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…

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

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?

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...