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...
Life and Death are Not so Far Apart

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

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

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...