Friday, June 29, 2007


Oh mercy - I am behind on my posts and I have not even been to the middle east! I am in the middle of Vacation Bible School. (Sam said something a couple of weeks ago about the vbs hangover - I think I am there. It is not so much margaritaville as it is juice and crackers town). When this weekend is over, I am driving to the home of the Children's Director of our home church with a great big bunch of roses and a gift certificate to somewhere nice where there are no crafts.

This is hard work! It is also really fun. There is this tiny group of kids running and singing and learning about Jesus loving them. And there are sugar cookies. And tomorrow a pool party (if it doesn't rain). This small church thing has a lot going for it. The cookies are homemade - and the wool for the sheep craft they are making is...sheep's wool! I am learning so much. I am so tired. And I am actually, finally, having some fun. This picture is Margaret the music person teaching the kids to sing the "We are Disciples" song. Remember that one? "We are D." -- "We are D.I." -- "We are D.I.S.C.I.P.L.E.S." You get the idea.

The most interesting thing that happened today has two parts. Part one is the fact that when the kids acted out the Good Samaritan story - our Levite had an intern! Part two is the fact that tonight went so much better once I started to act like a pastor (instead of one of the moms helping with vbs). It's not like I was not acting like the one in charge yesterday. It is just that I was not acting like a pastor. I cannot even explain what was different tonight - but it was different. I was different. And the whole night went better and more smoothly. And everybody had a better time - including the intern. Two weeks ago I was counting the days, wishing my summer away. Now I feel like it is going too fast.

Like the song goes: "Jesus is calling us to be his disciples!!! D. I. S.C.I.P.L.E.S!!!"

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the way time passes

I love old people. I know some might not like that as a category, so, if you prefer: I love senior adults, elderly folks, etc. But I think it ridiculous to think of "old" as a dirty word. Today I met an 81-year-old man (not the oldest in our church by far) who proclaimed that he was old, and thankful for it. Amen, I say, to that.

How can we receive the gifts God gives--age, for example--if we do not acknowledge them? I have been steadily amused at the "young adult" Sunday School class here at the church, where the younger members are in their mid fifties. I am not saying that they ought to "admit" that they are "old," but I do wonder if calling ourselves something that we are not stops us from growing into the blessings of what we are.

Anyway, all I really wanted to say is how much I have enjoyed visiting people--at home and at the hospital. I keep saying that, because it keeps shocking me. I'm not even very good at it. I don't want to do it on many levels. But afterwards I always get the feeling that I have participated in some primal way in my (our?) raison d'ĂȘtre, and so (as usual) a stock phrase: "The Lord is glorious in his saints: Come let us adore him."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Spontaneous Bible Study

Wow. Everyday here at STCC brings more excitement, more challenges, more lessons, more joy, and more God-filled-ness. God is so good. Sooooo good. I can't say it enough.

This past week brought an interesting challenge my way. I must preface this recollection, however, and say that my prayer (for the past week and a half or so) has been that God would help me really live into the truth that He alone is success. You see, with the HUGE amount of responsibility that I carry here at STCC, with the great amount of need present in the surrounding communities, and with my spirit literally being touched everyday by people's hope, pain, and smiles -- I have found myself wanting to plan this, and start that, and do this, and make that work. I have been ever so tempted to depend on me. I think, "If I can just plan the perfect revival, and make an amazing eye-catching flier, and save every teenager in Charlotte by August 17th -- then God will be pleased."

Hahahahahahaha. Yeh right!

Everyday I learn (anew) that if God doesn't do it -- whatever it is -- it isn't going to get done. God alone is the one who touches hearts, who brings in the people, and who meets the needs. I'm just a vessel -- useless really -- unless God molds me, fills me up, and uses me. I am learning that I can't get caught up in planning (as tempting as it is). I have to get caught up in worshipping.

With that said.....let's get back to last week's interesting challenge.......

I showed up at Bible Study on Thursday evening and I noticed a group of church members standing outside the church. I grabbed my Bible, exited my car, and headed to the church steps. As I walked toward the group, Ms. Ann said to me, "We're locked out." "No problem," I said, and I reached for my church key. But....why were they locked out? Wasn't Pastor Rivens here? And wait -- if Pastor Rivens wasn't there -- who was gonna teach Bible Study? Ms. Maggie then turned to me and said, "Are you teaching Bible Study tonight?" Well trust me -- I had not planned to teach Bible Study. As I pondered her question, I was informed that Pastor Rivens had had a death in his family and had to unexpectedly go out of town. Someone was needed to stand in the gap.

Just then -- my prayer came to mind and the Holy Spirit gently reminded me that God is success -- my plans do not make success. God's Spirit -- spontaneous and beautiful -- is the core of true success.

So -- led only by the Spirit -- I opened the church doors and led Bible Study. With an on-the-spot lesson and an on-the-spot hands-on illustration -- the church members and I excitedly walked through Ephesians 6 and the first two parts of the armor of God (the belt of truth and helmet of salvation). It was AWESOME!!!!!! We walked through the text together, asked questions of each other, and learned some really deep things!!

The experience left me speechless. First, I was speechless because of how God moved in spite of my lack of preparedness. Second, I was left speechless by the way the church members so warmly welcomed me to teach them. Third, I was awed by the way we came together as a community -- plans aside -- and just plain ole studied God's Word.

I told you God was good.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sound the Alarm!

This past Saturday, I attended the O.K. Program of Indiana’s 3rd Annual Awards Ceremony. O.K., which is an abbreviation for “Our Kids,” is a program that provides mentors for young African American males. The black teenage boys enrolled in the program are provided with mentors. The mentors serve as positive male role models. Mentors build personal relationships with the teenagers and, by means of a reward system, encourage success in school. On Saturday, students who had achieved or maintained good grades, good attendance to O.K. meetings, and had been good citizens received awards. Included in the package was a one-week field trip to Atlanta, GA for all who met the requirements. A handful of Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) cops have partnered with the program to work with these boys. These officers work together with students, police agencies, schools, community members, and faith-based initiatives to provide support to young African American males. As I see it, this type of law enforcement is preventive law enforcement, rather than the usual retributive law enforcement – often disguised in the name of “justice system.”

During the event, the speaker – Sergeant Timothy Knight of the IMPD – cited a few statistics that sent me reeling. According to Sergeant Knight, among young adults ages 18-44 who are incarcerated, over 40 percent are black males. Of course, being the critical student that I am, I knew not to just accept these nauseating statistics at face value. I therefore decided to do my own research on the Bureau of Justice statistics on prison and jail inmates. The latest statistics on prison and jail inmates can be found on the U.S. Department of Justice website (Please see Harrison, Paige M. and Beck, Allen J, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2005. May 2006). Relevant to our discussion are the rates of imprisonment among young minority men – particularly African Americans. According to Harrison and Beck, “When the total incarceration rates are estimated separately by age group, black males in their twenties and thirties are found to have high rates relative to other groups. Among the nearly 2.2million offenders incarcerated on June 30, 2005, an estimated 548,300 were black males between the ages of 20 and 39” (10). That means – from my own research – that black males within the ages of 20 and 39 make up about 25 percent of the total US prison population. This is different from Sergeant Knight’s conclusion of over 40 percent. The purpose of my research, however, was not to disprove the Sergeant’s findings. His numbers may be more recent than the 2005 statistics from which my conclusion is based (and I have asked Sergeant Knight to point me to his sources).

While I must admit that I breathed a sigh of relief after coming up with numbers far less than what Sergeant Knight had suggested earlier, I must confess that the numbers are still repugnant when one looks at the overall picture. African Americans make up about 12.9% of the US population. Let us assume that black males within the ages of 20 and 39 make up about 40% of the total black population – this is not likely; the percentage should seem far less if we are to consider ages of black males under 20years and above 39yrs. If 40% of the black population is males 20-39yrs, then this age group makes up about 5.16% of the total US population – again, the actual percentage would be far less, but I am considering the best scenario. What these results – arrived at from this crash course in statistics – mean is that about 5.16% of the US population makes up 25% (a solid quarter) of all incarcerations. For those of you who are totally discombobulated by all these mathematical calculations, let me summarize my research findings in words (with no numbers): less than five percent of the total US population accounts for over a quarter of the total number of incarcerations! Again, this is the best scenario; the actual numbers might be worse!

Every compassionate person would agree that there is a calamity. I do not think this is the forum to debate the issue that some people who are in jail truly belong to jail. I have been involved in prison ministry long enough to be able to opine that most people are in jail not because they are inherently evil – we all are; rather, an unhealthy environment is the primary cause of most incarcerations. In other words, most people are in jail because of the kind of communities they were born into. At least part of these young people’s crime is that they happened to be born into or lived in the wrong neighborhood. In my five years of prison ministry, whenever I have the courage to ask a prisoner why he did not choose a better path, I get almost the same answer every time: “There ain’t many other options for us. This is what you grew up with.” By saying this, I am not implying that people should not be held accountable for their actions. But it will serve us a great deal if, rather than be quick to judge and condemn others, we acknowledge that if we had been brought up in a similar environment, we too might become a statistic. On a more theological note, then, I have to remind Christians that our quotidian assertion that “I am blessed,” is quite a presumptuous claim.

With such high rates of black males being locked behind bars, prison life permeates African American community and prevents it from rising. There is a kind of vicious cycle – a whirling vortex that sucks young people in as it spirals downward. There are no male role models for these young people. If you have most of the men in a particular community in jail, then it is natural for young males to view transition from community to prison as the normal process. Sad to say that, in some communities, this may be as natural as kids in other neighborhoods transitioning from middle to high school! Let me say – knowing well that this might land me in big trouble with hardcore feminists – that when a community loses men, the entire neighborhood takes a hit, and the stability of the neighborhood is threatened. Indeed a generation of young people has emerged whose lives and very essence has been deeply marred by the prison industry. I do not have time to go into the psychological effects that these kids, required to go through security every time they need to see “daddy,” experience. There will definitely be anger, resentment, anxiety, and bewilderment if a child has to be searched each time he or she wants to see “daddy.” As young as these kids are (sometimes 5 or 6yrs), their only recourse is to mask their inner maelstrom. These kids are too young to express how they feel on the inside.

We need to recognize that there is a crisis. Rather than spend tax-payers money building more prison facilities, the best solution is to deal with the factors that lead to the offenses to begin with. This is “preventive” law enforcement, rather than the prevailing “retributive” law enforcement. If something is not done to rescue some of these young people, many who could have been saved will be damned. As many officers and mothers pointed out during the O.K. ceremony on Saturday, in most cases all it took was showing a young person that they were cared for. When some of these teenagers felt a sense of care and protection, all the anger, bitterness, resentment, and disdain for authority receded. Anger and resentment were replaced by determination and creativity. There is hope: with some effort, many of these teenagers can be rescued.

The purpose of this article is not to point the finger at any persons. We need to get beyond the blame game and acknowledge that there is a crisis. Yes, SOUND THE ALARM. Go and tell it on the mountains, over the hills, and in the country – there is an epidemic that is eating away a whole generation. Tell it with all your might. Tell it with all that you do and are. The prophet Isaiah says, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest” (Isaiah 62:1). For the sake of America’s future, we cannot keep silent. The fact is that we cannot turn this issue into a “black issue.” The task is greater than the black church alone can handle. The truth is that if we care about the future of America – not only of minorities – then we must raise the Homeland Alert level to the “Severe Imminent Threat, Red.” What is needed is an “emergency response.”

If there are any Christians reading this article, then let me end with a reminder of a simple but profound truth: We are all God’s children. And if we are all God’s children, then these kids are O.K. – Our Kids!

The Emergency Phone

Bethany has an emergency phone that members can call if they need a pastor at night or on weekends. It was my first time on the rotation and Mark handed me the phone, commenting that it rarely rings. I stuck it in my pocket without much thought.

Of course, at 1 AM that very first night I am startled awake by an unfamiliar ringing noise. I jump out of bed and answer, “Hello, this is Elaine Wilder.” The person on the other end explains that they are calling from Summerville Hospital, that “John Doe” has passed away and his wife wanted to notify the church. I said thank you and that someone would be there as soon as possible. I hung up the phone, shocked. The Bethany staff gave me the phone, but never told me what to do if it rang! I had never provided pastoral care surrounding a death before. Nerves were building. I knew I was headed to the hospital.

I turned on the light and opened my closet. What does a female pastor wear to the hospital in the middle of the night? The male pastors at Bethany would wear a clerical collar, but I don’t have one. I didn’t want to look too formal, but this wasn’t a casual situation either. I decided on a suitable outfit and jumped in my car.

As I was driving, I started to calm down. I began praying that God would use me to bring peace and comfort, and that God would give me the appropriate words.

I entered the ICU room where the body lay. John’s wife was there filling out paperwork. She recognized me as the summer intern and we embraced. She immediately told me that she was thankful for 36 wonderful years of marriage. I listened as she continued to share memories. We spoke of how we were grateful that John’s suffering had finally come to an end. Once the daughter arrived, we all gathered around John’s body to pray. We shared a lovely prayer together, offering thanksgiving for John’s life and prayers for John as he moved on to eternal life. I wrote down my phone number and left the family to have some private time together.

What a privilege it is to offer care to a family during a death. I have never felt so honored in my entire life. God truly does bless us with the words and gifts we need for our ministry. I am thankful for this, my first opportunity, to minister to a grieving family.

I have the on-call phone for the next two weeks. While I hope it never has to ring, I look forward to responding if it does.

teary-eyed prayers

With Matt (my supervisor/pastor) out of town, I'm having to go it alone this week with some of the home and hospital visits. It is by no means my favorite part working in the church, but it's the part that I most need to remind me that I am in fact working for the church, and not some sort of well-meaning self-improvement intellectual-aesthetic commune.

Today, though, a parishioner volunteered to go with me up to Forsyth Medical Center, where a member had recently been hospitalized. He heard about the situation when I did, he knew that I had never met the man in question, and he had planned on taking me to lunch anyway. Good divine timing, if you ask me.

It turned out that L.V. was in for what he thought was a second stroke--but turned out not to be (they're not really sure what it was). He was sitting up and reading the paper, so we were able to have a good conversation. At the end I offered to pray with him, and so I took his hand and prayed this terrible prayer--honestly, I thought, as I said amen, "Now that was a lame prayer! This guy's going to wonder what kind of idiots they're sending to the ministry these days." But then when I looked up L.V.'s eyes were wet.

I don't know if I'd say making an old man cry is always the mark of the Holy Spirit, but it certainly wasn't anything genius on my part. I was humbled. And so I have to say with John the Baptist, in today's (transferred) reading, "He must increase, and I must decrease."

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I'm a church hopper!

Since my placement is an agency rather than a church, I have no formal Sunday commitments. Each week I have been attending a different church in the Memphis area. It's been refreshing but strange at times to have no responsibilities in the services. I've also had the freedom to visit churches of different denominations--Disciples of Christ (Christian Church), Baptist, Full Gospel, and United Methodist. Over the next few weeks, I hope to attend services at United Church of Christ and Messianic Jewish churches.

I think it's always helpful to remember what it feels like to be a visitor to a congregation. I've really appreciated when pastors explain their understanding of various aspects of the service like Eucharist, offering, prayer, song, etc. Little things like signs, notes in the bulletin, and space in the service to greet one another really help a visitor feel welcome. One church even sent me a bag of cookies!

Even though all of the congregations I have visited have been very warm and welcoming, I have felt most "at home" at the United Methodist Church across the street from my placement. Dr. Scott Morris, the founder and executive director of the Church Health Center, is an associate pastor at St. John's UMC in addition to his administrative responsibilities and medical practice. As a dual-degree student in the UM ordination process, it's been great to have a model of how a pastor can be involved in the worship and life of a congregation as well as a faith-based non-profit organization.

preaching, take one

This morning I preached my first sermon (which I've posted here). I was excited about it up until the last moment, when, singing the hymn, I suddenly realized what I was about to do. Then I got a little nervous. Craziness.

Once I was in preaching-mode everything went well. I got some good comments, and a lot of the comments which basically indicate that people were happy to have gotten out on time. I'm hoping that I get some more critical assessment at some point.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hard Lessons

Though I've only been here at STCC for 2 weeks, its feels more like 2 months! The pastor and congregation here really encouraged me to dive headlong into this new community, and that's exactly what I've done.

I have so many responsibilities, and the pastor here at STCC guides with a (self -proclaimed, mind you) "hands-off" approach. That basically means, whatever God leads me to do -- I am free to do. I am free to take complete charge of a project and shape it and mold it into the thing I feel led to create. This freedom also affects how I work with other members of the church -- I have complete freedom to organize workers, invite youth to activities, or even plan "training meetings" for upcoming events. Along with this approach -- as you may have guessed -- comes a GREAT deal of responsibility. A GREAT DEAL. I am in the midst of planning projects that won't get done unless I coordinate them and I have people who look to me for what to do and when to do it. I am not exaggerating when I say, I have never had so much responsibility placed on my shoulders. Never.

This is a new experience, and I'm not sure how I'm doing at it. I'll give you an example. One of my main tasks this summer is to plan, from the ground up, a 4-day Youth Revival. I never realized that planning such an event had so many ins and outs! There's so much to be considered. A normal day of planning consists of, first, finding entertainment for the revival (this involves a great deal of networking and LOTS of telephone calls). I've been trying to locate several Gospel Rappers and invite them to perform. I've also been in talks with a Christian Comedian and a Christian R&B singer. Let's not even talk about drawing up contracts and setting prices. Second, planning involves going to different businesses in Charlotte and asking for donations -- paper products, food, fliers -- anything that might assist in serving the youth. Third, it involves creating publicity for the event -- composing fliers, putting an ad in the newspaper, booking a slot on local radio stations, etc. Fourth, it involves contacting local churches and inviting them to join us during the revival, and encouraging them to share their gifts during that time as well. Next, there's going back and forth with choosing a theme. What message does God have for the youth? What theme does He want the revival to center around? Also, workshop topics and leaders have to be selected, the menu finalized, the needed funds raised/located, and on and on!

And, all this is on top of daily ministry activities like leading Bible study, serving at Trinity's Table which is a free-meal program offered twice a week, preparing sermons, serving at SOULED OUT which takes place every Friday night from 6-8 as a fun place for youth in the community to come and chill, pastoral care of the congregation, and personal times of prayer and fasting.

The honest truth is, I usually totter between two extremes during the day. Sometimes I remind myself to stand firm on God's Word and I know, without a doubt, that God has everything under control, and I stand confident that God would not have called me here if He wasn't going to challenge me and grow me. And other times, I look around and simply feel like I'm about to have a panic attack.

STCC is a pilot project that was started by the Western North Carolina United Methodist Conference, as an exploration into innercity and urban ministry. Its not a HUGE ministry, and the STCC building isn't particularly high-tech or fancy. There are only 1 or 2 people on full-time clerical staff, and money, of course, is always an issue. Nevertheless, the ministry is doing so much. God has been so good and has truly moved in the midst of STCC. STCC understands the communities that surround it (housing developments), and it uses that understanding to "meet...people where they are" (that's the church's motto). However, its the kind of ministry where when a good thing happens, everyone knows without a doubt that it was only by God's grace. Everyone realizes that though it seemed impossible, and there wasn't enough money, and there weren't enough volunteers, and there were way too many 6-12 year olds running around, and there wasn't enough food to go around...even though it seemed impossible....God did showed up and showed out anyway. Because we are constantly reminded of how little we have in terms of resources, we are constantly reminded of how much we need God.

As I serve here at STCC and I am stretched in ways I've never been stretched before, and stretched in ways that honestly I do not like to be stretched -- I am reminded of how God alone is abundant. Dr. Amy Laura Hall, in her Christian Ethics class, reminded us that Christ is abundant. Even when resources are not -- Christ is and always will be. I am worn so thin, and I even run out at times, and sometimes I'm tempted to complain, give up, cry, and scream. That's when I remember that our work here at STCC exists and continues only by God's grace. We are only vessels. This is a lesson I struggle, on a daily basis, to remember.

Nevertheless......God is faithful, and every now and then He places people or events in my path to remind me of this lesson. This past week, my reminder came in the form of "Sweating in the Spirit!" "Sweating in the Spirit" is an aerobics DVD. Every Monday and Thursday, the women of the church come together (dressed in t-shirts, shorts, and sneakers), pop in the DVD, and.....sweat in the Spirit! The aerobics class is a FUN way for the women to spend time together, and to remind one another about the importance of physical health. As I stood there exercising, laughing, and dancing with my sisters in Christ, I was reminded of the beauty of community and I was encouraged to keep on keepin' on. And that's exactly what I'll do.

a little youthiness

Sorry for two posts in a row, although this does follow up somewhat on the previous. I had the youth last night for the first time. There aren't many of them--even less in the summer. Last night we had four, all boys. The bulk of the time we spent making bubblegum sculptures--which they loved, to the utter disgust of their parents. But I also decided that, rather than trying to make up some sort of devotion, I'd do Evening Prayer with them, and in the process introduce them to some of the benefits of praying something that you didn't come up with on the spot (i.e., the nonce prayer that nevertheless all sounds remarkably similar to me).

I don't think most of them cared. They squirmed through the whole thing, interrupted to ask what we were doing, lost their place, dozed off, etc. But, overall, I'm very glad I did it. It introduced them to something new, refreshed some things they'd heard before (like the Our Father and the Creed), and gave them the opportunity to ask some questions (which did, by the way, prove that they were paying a little attention) like, "Why are we talking about the catholic church? Don't they believe that you pay to get into heaven?" So amidst the dizzying conversation that followed--which still convinces me that these kids take in a lot more than you would expect--I dare to hope that at least three ideas came across: (1) "catholic" means universal, (2) Methodists don't believe in Purgatory, (3) catholics do not believe that you have to pay your way into heaven. I guess it's not a bad start, all things (gum sculptures) considered.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

sanctifying time

What are the most important parts of pastoral ministry? I had the answer but I dropped it somewhere in the part of my mind I lost at noon from eating too many hushpuppies.

Oh, yes. So we hear all about the wonderful social ministries of the church, the mission projects, the youth groups, the children's choirs, even the worship services and sermons, but it's not that often that I hear about prayer. I mean, we're all supposed to do it, right? And everybody seems to think that pastors pray--though whether or not they pray more than your average parishioner (especially when we start counting the elderly folks with little to do) is up for grabs. While it would be ridiculous to sit around praying all day and never do any good (I'm pretty sure the prophets have some comments on that), it's equally absurd to go around trying to save the world (an interesting aspiration to begin with, whatever you mean by it) without prayer.

One of the ordination vows in the Book of Common Prayer asks, "Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in private, asking God's grace, both for yourself and for others, offering all your labors to God, throught the mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification of the Holy Spirit?" The ordination rite in the Methodist Book of Worship contains (not surprisingly) very similar language.

I knew when I first got here that I was going to need some kind of daily ritual. The Daily Office, one of the great gifts of Anglicanism, has provided it, as is "meet and right." It provides both opportunity for prayer but also for meditation on the Scriptures. What's wonderful is that I can easily consider this part of my job, and likely it will be for most of my life. During the school year, unfortunately, our academic schedule at Duke does not lend itself well to routine prayer (much less regular corporate prayer). (I shall stop here lest I start ranting about chapel.)

Anyway, if you've never tried the Office, don't think about it as an Anglican or catholic thing. It's a tradition to be shared. It's "common," after all. And it's a joy to know that when I pray I'm not simply praying for the Church but with the Church.

If you'd like to join us sometime, the easiest way is simply to find Morning or Evening Prayer in the BCP (available online), or find it daily somewhere such as the C of E's website (though the readings are different).

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Meet Monica: A Challenge to Traditional Notions of Mission

I went on a mission trip with a group of youth and adults to Wolfe County, KY from June 10-16. Wolfe County has a population of about seven thousand – over 99.2% these are White. I am sure I helped to double the Black population in Wolfe County during the period that I was there! We spent a week with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP). ASP is a Christian volunteer organization that provides housing services to low-income families living in Central Appalachia – specifically in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Volunteers repair the homes of families in these rural communities.

We stayed at the Bethany Christian Center in Campton, KY, and each crew – of about seven – were dispatched to their job site every morning. My crew was known as the “Babysitter’s Club.” I am sure this name was derived from Monica’s occupation. Monica, the wonderful lady whose house we repaired, babysits for friends and family. On a given day, Monica could have anywhere between five and ten children at her house. She kept a close eye on the kids and also tried to instill moral values in them. These adorable kids played with us and offered a helping hand. I bonded with a 3-year old boy called Michael. Each time I crawled out on my belly from the bottom of Monica’s house - after hours of digging 2 ft by 2ft square holes and pouring concrete - Michael, who would often be keeping an eye on me, would run to meet me – his face beaming with excitement. While Michael was so comfortable and enlivened around me, some of the other kids gazed at me in awe from a distance. My approach toward them would, however, cause a retreat on their part. Monica, never afraid to express what was on her mind, would often say about those kids: “they ain’t never seen a black man before; they’re from one of them places”! We would all giggle at this statement, knowing, though, that there was an element of truth in Monica’s dissection of the situation.

Monica was a wonderful host. Each person on my crew expressed that the memorable part of the trip was getting to know Monica. While she was bugged down with the distraction of trying to keep her children in their place, Monica would still offer to give us a helping hand in our project. Despite being often turned down, Monica was insistent that we allow her to give us a helping hand. She would ask over and over again, “Is there anything I can do to help.” Being aware that she had her hands full, we would often say “no.” But a determined Monica would find something to contribute to our project. At times she would pull out the bags of dirt that we had accumulated from digging, giving us more room to dig. In the face of impending shoulder surgery, which is to take place within the next couple weeks, Monica would grab a hammer and beat the nails into our girders. Finally, when we had managed to get Monica away from getting her hands dirty with us, she would either go inside the house and grab her electric fan to cool us as we worked, or make a gallon of kool-aid; or sometimes even order pizza.

For the life of me, I could not understand why Monica would not just “leave us be” to do our work. Why could she not just be content with being a hospitable host to volunteers working diligently on her house? Why could she not concentrate on taking care of her many children and not interfere with our project? After days of watching a restive Monica, she made a statement that seemed to me a rejoinder to my poser: “I feel bad watching you all doing all that work and me doing nothing.” Monica wanted to contribute to this project.

Of course, I tell Monica’s story because there may be a profound pastoral or theological reflection that can be drawn from her story. Monica’s story, while not directly related to the church, has shed some light on an aspect of our traditional understanding of “mission” that baffles me. This was a “mission” trip, but one does not have to travel in order to do “mission.” Thus, most churches are involved in what they refer to as “local mission” – an attempt to reach out to people in depraved neighborhoods within the locality of the church. I tell Monica’s story, because often in our “missionary” work, we place people on the receiving end of the spectrum, while we do well to remain on the giving end of the spectrum. Of course, we are the missionaries, and thus, we have to give to these people whatever we planned (or should I say budgeted) to give them. These people on the other hand, as beneficiaries of our benevolent mission (or should I call it missionary zeal), should allow us to do our ministry effectively by receiving whatever we planned (or budgeted) to give them. Notwithstanding, churches – especially affluent churches trying to reach out to impoverished communities within their locality – have to reexamine their traditional conception of “mission.” I say this because the result of placing people on the receiving end of the spectrum, while we remain (or work hard to remain) on the giving end of the spectrum is that we create invisible boundaries around us. These invisible boundaries prevent people that we have placed on (or pushed to) the receiving end of the spectrum from ever feeling that they can fellowship with us. Needless to say, we are often oblivious to these invisible boundaries because of our blind spots and our zealousness to engage in mission. We need to remember that it is extremely – very, very, very – difficult to be on the receiving end all the time.

Some people, even though they need the help we offer, do not always want to receive; they want to participate; they want to bring something to the table. Like Monica, they want to contribute. Most people – especially those in impoverished communities – increase their feelings of self-worth by being useful. The problem with our traditional model of doing “mission” is that we try to develop a relationship with people, but we tell them – indirectly or unconsciously – that they should not worry about contributing something to the relationship. We tell them to be leeches and feed off the divinely inspired vision placed in our hearts by God. Those of us who have been in any kind of relationship, whether with friends or lovers, know that a relationship cannot exist if both parties do not contribute to the relationship. If only one person contributes, the other becomes a parasite. If only one person is allowed to contribute, what we have is a hierarchy and not a relationship. Could it be that despite our stellar local missions ministries, we fail to draw people into our “open doors” because of the invisible boundaries that we have created around us – a boundary that says to people: “we have open doors, so long as you come in here with open arms to receive.” After much discussion with folk who are beneficiaries of churches’ local missions, I have discovered that people would very much like to enter our “open doors”; but they also want to be assured that they can bring something to the table. The challenge for us is whether we will be prepared and willing to receive whatever they have, even if we have millions and theirs is a widow’s mite.

We have to reshape our conception of “mission” that views mission as a one-way street. Mission is a two-way street, and we must begin to find ways to give people the opportunity to offer something.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Some thoughts from an exam room...

So I've been spending time in the wound care clinic and learning about the healing process for bodies and souls...

The majority of the patients who are referred for wound care have diabetes. One common complication of diabetes is neuropathy, which is a nerve disorder that often leads to numbness in hands, arms, feet, and legs. Once a person loses feeling in their hands or feet it is easy for them to injure their bodies without even realizing it. A small blister that might be a painful nuisance for a non-diabetic person can lead to infection and even amputation for a diabetic patient if it is not properly treated. Diabetes is an extremely demanding disease that requires discipline with nutrition, exercise, monitoring of blood sugar, and checking your feet.

I have been amazed and touched by the loving care that the wound care nurse and physician provide for their patients. They patiently listen to the concerns and needs of the patient before they ask them to sit in the exam chair in order to examine their wound. They thoroughly understand the healing process-cutting back calluses and applying ointment and bandages when needed.

Some patients enter the exam room with smiles on their faces, but as one woman stepped through the door her body language and tone of voice seemed to indicate that she was feeling downtrodden. She had been referred to wound care because she had two large blisters on her feet from walking. As she commented about the situation, she said that she was disgusted. I asked her if she was disgusted about the actual blisters on her feet or that she was not able to walk. Tears streamed down her face as she told us, “I’ve been doing everything they have been telling me to do—checking my blood sugar six times a day, walking five days a week to try to lose some weight—but now I can’t even walk because of these blisters. I’m just disgusted because I’m trying so hard but for no use. I’m afraid I am going to start to get depressed over it all.”

I spent some time just listening to her, giving her some space to cry, and responding with some empathy. Then, I shared with her about some of the exercises that I learned about in the Diabetes group meeting that she could do from a chair while her blisters heal. I also got her some information about Diabetes group meetings and a fellowship group that meets once a week to support one another because she felt like talking to some others with similar struggles might help and give her hope. The physician asked me to call around to area pharmacies to try to locate lamb’s wool to prevent further blisters. I was able to find a pharmacy and ask them to hold it at the front for our patient.

This encounter with this disgusted patient has stuck with me. How can we as churches and faith-based community agencies best support and care for patients who are overwhelmed by their diseases? Her situation brings to light the intimate connection between physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Where are calloused places in our lives that need to be cut away in order for us to spiritually heal and provide space for others to heal?

The Least

I've noticed, especially in the last couple of weeks, much of the pain that is present in a rural community. I haven't been able to diagnose a cause of it all, but I don't know that I need to. My role, as I see it, is not primarily in diagnosis (though that component is present), but in identification and treatment.

Identification: pain. Lots of it. Everywhere. I have met congregation members who have been to prison, who have lost loved ones to drugs, who have committed crimes I don't want to mention here. Prostitution in Pembroke is too common, and the Syphilis rates for the county are among the highest in the nation. Children come into our daycare with evidence of abuse.

This week, I've been talking to one very distraught mother; her son passed away just a few days ago unexpectedly...probably from drug-related reasons. I was at the church on Saturday morning working on my message for Sunday when I noticed her standing across the road at the cemetery. She was standing by her son's grave. We talked and prayed, and I tried to reassure her. She wanted to change the way those with drug problems get help...and pointed out so many of the problems with the "system."

I'm so glad that the church is not a "system," and I really hope that we don't become one. In the midst of all of this pain that surrounds me, I realize that the church surrounds those in pain. The faithful people of this community come, week after week, when things like these keep happening. Healing occurs here, at the church. Thanks be to God.

This week, I've seen firsthand how the church as surrounded the family of this distraught mother. Also, they've surrounded the pastor and his wife. See, last Friday, our pastor had a heart attack, and is currently hospitalized. He's okay, and we thank God for that. The love poured out by the congregation has been immense. Our prayer-time during yesterday's worship service was particularly powerful. Some of the children made a giant card and went around the church getting everybody to sign it.

Isn't it wonderful that the love of Christ can sustain us in these difficult times? Isn't it wonderful that the Church is a beacon of hope in a dark world? I give thanks that God is found with the least...and I give thanks that--if we're the least--God is with us the most.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

words, telling the truth, and thin theology

I'm revisiting the big topic that is in some sense the topic of the Modern church in America: the Christian Gospel (let us be explicit: "Jesus is Lord") is about more than what happens to me after I die. It's also about more than me. (We've already discussed it here in this post.)

But how do you teach that in a way that is more constructive than deconstructive?

Yesterday in one day I had two different, but equally frustrating experiences of the way our culture (our church culture) has watered down the strength of the faith.


I went with the senior adults (a smallish group) to visit the "talking murals" at a church an hour or so to the North. The murals were interesting--quite nice, really, and a surprisingly vibrant thing to see in a rural church. But after we looked at the murals and listened to the presentation, this pastor walks out with a big stack of materials (and a giant Bible--which he never opened--ah how I love the prop Bible) and proceeds to explain how to make a "wordless book"--you know, the little homemade evangelistic tract made of different colors of construction paper (black, red, gold, etc.) to symbolize the "plan of salvation." And then he pontificates about how you have to ask people if they have made a decision and invited Jesus into their heart, and he suggests that these seniors need to share the wordless book with someone before the summer is up. (Or else what? I mean, does that mean that their 80 years have been worthless before they found this brilliant salvific technology?)

It seemed like he went on for ages--and I had to bite my tongue, because I got really angry. Nothing seemed to phase the group. Afterwards they all said, "Oh, well that was pretty!" But I kept thinking about how crassly manipulative and wrong the impromptu sermon was. I wanted to tell everyone, "Look, you can ignore everything that guy said." But as it turned out I didn't say anything because I realized that they weren't too worried about it. They have probably seen it before. I am young, and occasionally hotheaded. They have the peace that comes from age.


Last evening was our third night of Vacation Bible School. It has been a lot of fun. I love spending time with the kids.

Can you tell the truth by lying? This is an old question, and not as easy as you might imagine; it hangs on quesions of what language is and does. An old professor gave this example: a kid kicks his brother. You ask, "Did you just hit your brother?" Now strictly he could say, "No," insofar as "hit" may imply the use of the hands and not the feet, but it may be more truthful for him to say "Yes."

I bring this up because I feel like a lot of adults lie to kids by simplifying Christian concepts for their level of comprehension. Last night at VBS the theme was "courage." I can't tell you how many times I heard people equating courage with bravery, with facing your fears. That's all well and good, but it is only vaguely connected with the Christian virtue of courage. Bravery is for the soldier, but courage is for the martyr. I know that's a little too deep for the younger kids, but I figured I could broach it with the 5th graders. They didn't even know what a "martyr" was.

Perhaps my queasiness here just means that I'm not the best person to teach younger kids. Because--back to my lying question--I don't think that you should hide the concise but complex theological terms that the Church has chosen over the centuries. Kids may not understand it all--and we should do our best to explain--but I wonder if it is not better to leave it incomprehensible and intact--for the time when they can understand--than to water it down and risk them understanding wrongly. Because that can lead to that weird place in which adults realize that things aren't exactly like they were taught as a child--and so it all falls apart. Furthermore, if language actually shapes our understanding (and I tend to believe that it does, as does the old Christian maxim, lex orandi lex credendi), then shouldn't we use the best language possible as we are forming young disciples?

Please forgive this long and directionless post. I am developing what my supervisor calls a "VBS hangover."

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It Has Begun!

I'm back!

Some three and a half weeks ago, I posted my first note on this blog -- and announced that before I began serving at my field-education placement, I was headed to the Middle East (Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Greece)!

Well, my incredible trip has come and gone, and I have finally arrived in Charlotte, NC as the summer intern at South Tryon Community Church (STCC)!

I must say, the trip abroad was incredible. Absolutely incredible. I experienced God in so many different ways!! I could spend all day reminiscing, so I'll just mention one God-filled moment. While in Egypt, I (along with 35 other seminarians and laypeople) was given the opportunity to climb the mountain that, for thousands of years, believers have recognized as Mt. Sinai! As I stood at the foot of the mountain (at 2am, mind you) and stared at the sky -- my knees felt wobbly and weak. The beautiful curve of the mountain, the perfect placement of the stars, the stunning darkness of the night, the crisp smell of the dust-filled desert air -- it was all too much.

How could I stand in the presence of God? Because that's exactly what I was doing.

And then it hit me (just before I headed up the mountain to watch the sun rise) -- I stand in His presence EVERY day. Every single day. Every moment, every second. Though I am unworthy -- God invites me to stand in awe of His presence, His goodness.

And I've been ever reminded of that truth here at STCC. Today a few church members walked with me through the community that neighbors the church. I passed out a few fliers and talked to a few people -- introduced myself -- ya know. And again, I felt that wobbly-knee-sensation.

As I saw the many homes in the community, saw children playing, met mothers and fathers of the community, and as I passed one home and smelled dinner cooking -- I realized that this community of people is ALSO a might show of God's presence. And I, though unworthy, have been called to enter into this community to serve and be served.

I am SO incredibly glad to be here at STCC and am crazy-nervous AND crazy-excited about what God has in store!

Monday, June 11, 2007


Bible School is coming along well – I think!I guess I won’t know until it is finished.I am enjoying having lots to do. Although I do not get to be with people in the church as much as I would like since I feel this push to get bible school done.I am not really a very good details person.I am more of a big idea person who can come up with what to do, and is happy to let others do it. That is sort of what I am doing here, but I need to make sure all the details are covered…and that is making me nervous!I know God is in here somewhere- but the old clichĂ© about who is in the details is probably really true. So, it makes it harder to see God when you are nit picking about making sure there will be enough tacky glue for the Saturday project for bible school weekend.

The details.

I spent some time with a pastor/ friend this week who pointed out the obvious to me about what I was doing detail-wise this summer.How terrible and wonderful to have someone in your life who will point out the underbelly of your hard work.Show you where you are making it about you and not about God.I have to say it was hard to take.But at the same time who else would do that?Ah, no one.That’s who.Holy friendship as our good Dean Jones points out is a tough job.She is holding me back to be sure.But only so that I stop and see my beautiful family; so I stop and remember to read a book for fun this summer (shudder at the thought); so I stop and maybe see the really beautiful opportunities that are waiting for me, but that can be accomplished in a way that leads to Sabbath – to resting in God.Rather than frittering away my salvation like some puritan on a mission, I should see that God is in the details… and be at peace.The thing is, the people I want to serve (someday and the ones I am working with this summer) need me to be the kind of pastor who does see God --- and not a pastor who is anxious about every little thing or who is too ambitious to notice who this is really all about.

Two weeks ago I was blessed to serve my family communion.I had never done that before.I pressed the bread first into the callused hands of several farmers: “The body of Christ broken for you.”reminded me of Dr. Lischer’s book so much.Then the middle aged widow of the country doctor whose eyes were so incredibly blue and so incredibly sad: “The body of Christ broken for you.”And I thought, “The communion of saints, here for you.”Then my little family came up like stair steps.I bent down to give four year old Dave bread, “The body of Christ, broken for you,” I said.“Tanks” he said quietly, seriously.Then Luke so grown up with a big sweet grin and “Amen” just like the adults.Then Susanna.“The body of Christ broken for you,” I said trying at this point not to cry.But instead of “Amen” she said, “Please Mommy, give me a big piece.I am really hungry.”

And I think that is the message that my friend has been trying to teach me over the last couple of years, and part of what my supervisor is trying to teach me this summer.While I want immersion in this experience of ministry, the reality for me is that I am mostly someone’s mommy.I am called to be a pastor to rural church folk.I am also called to be a pastor but, mostly a mommy, to this little band of raga-muffins who call me "Mom."

I didn’t give Susanna a bigger piece of bread than I gave anyone else that morning…but I need to remember to give her as much Christ as she can stomach – and for a while more of me than I give others.It is a delicate dance.But – if in ministering to the world, I forget to minister to my family, what will be gained? What kind of life am I modeling for others? If instead, we can live into this fish-bowl of a life together, then surely God will see to it that there is enough of me and enough of Christ to go around. It is about abundant life - not a burned out life.

I am starting to get it.Thanks be to God for pastors who care to spend a lot of their time nurturing others (when I know there was a sermon to write) for nothing more than love of neighbor and love of God.Grant that I can learn these lessons well enough not to forget them in the midst of the details or in the flush of success. Maybe this is a lesson only for second career students, but I really don't think so. I wish for all of my friends in field ed - the joy of an immersed experience this summer - and for those of us with families - the joy of both serving and living sabbath.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Annual Conference: The State of the Christian Church

I attended South Indiana Annual Conference in Bloomington this week. The image you see on the right is a picture an amazing group of Duke Divinity School alums who serve in the South Indiana Conference.

The biggest issue on the table this week was whether to merge the two conferences in Indiana – “Imagine Indiana,” it was called. The Indiana Area of the United Methodist Church has been divided into a North Conference and South Conference since 1968, with one bishop serving both conferences. What this means is that there is one bishop overseeing two cabinets, two lay leaders, two councils on ministries, two councils on finance and administration, two boards of ordained ministry, two boards of laity, two conference staffs…and all the other duplications that my Methodist brothers and sisters can identify. At annual conference this week, the recommendation by the Imagine Indiana Planning Team was for a new conference to be created in the state of Indiana.

After an hour of intense discussion, during which people argued for and against the proposal, delegates voted on the Planning Team’s recommendation. The results released showed that both Conferences voted in favor of uniting to form one conference: 78% voted for the plan in the North and 67% in the South. This is, indeed, a gigantic step in favor of moving forward to form one Indiana conference. This new conference could meet as early as 2009.

After Annual Conference I could not help but reflect on the state of the church. My reflection began with the words of Jesus in John 17:21 – “that they all may be one.” There is a Christian obligation to achieve Christian unity. This is a very sensitive and complex subject. Nevertheless, I am forced to believe that Christian unity should not consist of a mere acknowledgement of “one God,” but also “one body…one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4-6). Our biggest setback as the people of “one faith,” is our fragmentation into a multiplicity of “denominations,” “movements,” “conferences,” “fellowships,” … the list goes on. Christian unity has become a utopian vision limited to “academic discussions.” No matter how eloquent or sophisticated these discussions are, if all we have are theoretical considerations but not a pragmatic approach to unity, we become another version of a bird trying to fly with one wing – it moves around in circles, i.e., if it is lucky enough to get a lift. One should visit these “denominational” websites and observe the different groups (or should I call them “sects”) that exist even in a particular denomination. There is, indeed, a heavy weight of Christian sectarianism.

Both of the verses cited above (John 17:21, Eph. 4:4-6) connect Christian unity to God’s unity. Thus, with the proliferation of Christian denominations – all having different practices and doctrines – it may not be farfetched to say that Christian disunity is (or looks like??) practical polytheism. We have to reaffirm the unity for which Jesus prayed for his followers – a unity which is based on God’s love. When we are united in God’s love, “everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). Not only do we have to reaffirm our belief in this unity, but as Christians, we have a fundamental duty to realize this unity.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

the saints

One of the simple joys of this summer has been the experience of living with members of the congregation and spending time with their friends and family. It typifies why I wanted to do field ed: while I have always felt drawn to the more visible aspects of ordained ministry (teaching, leading worship, administering the sacraments), I haven't know what to think about the more subtle moments which fill the rest of the week, all of which involve people. You see, I am not what you would call a people person. Large groups of people tire me. (And that, he says with a kind of understatement, is the definition of introversion.)

Perhaps I am not very talented at self-description; that, or: introverted and extroverted are not especially intelligible terms in the life of the Church. The point is, these folks are wonderful. It's not like every moment is the most exciting thing in the world, but every moment is a gift. I've written in the last few posts about children's activities, but today I had lunch with my host and his friend, an 88-year-old named Harry. I feel, half an hour later, almost buzzed, because I was in the presence of a saint. This gentle man didn't say anything terribly profound: for a couple of hours we talked mostly about gardening, but also a little bit about food and Billy Graham (he was on his way to the new museum). Bob later told me a couple of stories of how Harry had influenced people.

My impulse, as we left, was to kiss his feet and ask for a blessing, because I thought somehow that he was a sort of icon, a sacramental presence of the Kingdom in the world. I didn't, though in a way I did get a blessing as he said he would "talk with God about me."

Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

you never know what to expect

Exempli gratii: I had no idea that I would get a flower arrangement my first Sunday here because I drove the farthest. But it happens.
Last Sunday I tried to teach the kids "you are what you eat" as a way of thinking about Holy Communion. I had my celery stalks which had drunk a good deal of blue food coloring. But when I asked what the difference was between the blue celery and the normal celery, the response was, "This one has more leaves. Can I eat it?" Ah. Charmers, aren't they? Tonight I get to talk to them about the armor of God, which I'm pretty sure is going to be one big Play-Doh fest.
My laptop broke. And yes, I am a child of technology and feel completely helpless right now. What am I going to do, read? Well maybe, and do more planning (more children's stuff, a "normal" sermon, and some prayers). Unless the Gideons come by again and instead of telling them the pastor's out I accidentally open my mouth and say something about how strange it is that their Bibles don't have Tobit and Wisdom.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Quick Update

A Joy: Sunday was wonderful. I sat in on the young adult Sunday school class, and we talked about Amos and social justice. The discussion got quite heated, and I think some folks learned some things. I got pretty agitated when folks started in on the "God helps those who help themselves" gig...but we rectified that situation quickly. Worship was also a delight. We celebrated our past and present Sunday School superintendents and talked about fishing for people (I brought along a fishing pole for the kids).

Make sure you use the right term:
I don't have any hard data on how often Duke Divinity Field Education Interns see the need arise to use a synonym for "buttocks" in their day-to-day ministry, but it can't be that often. Well, I used one particular synonym today, and got in a little bit of trouble. It all started when I saw, upon arriving at the church this morning, that the children from the daycare had assembled for a storytelling/singing time in the church sanctuary. I ran for the guitar, and led the group in a couple of songs. We sang ah-la-la-la la-la-le-leu-ia... (you know the one? It's kinda hard to communicate without actually singing it for you)...and lots of the verses like "hug another neck," "clap another hand," "Jesus is a friend," etc. One of the favorites was "bump another rump." I must admit, the rump-bumping verse was my favorite verse in those pre-elementary years.

A little later in the day, after lunch, Sister Sandra, who directs the daycare, came up to me and asked "are you gonna be offended if I ask you a question?" "Well, that depends on what it is," I replied, jokingly. She kindly, and quite seriously asked me not to use the word "rump" in front of the children.


She laughed a little, and explained that there was one preschool teacher who didn't approve of that term..."I know," she said, "it's silly." As I tried not to roll onto the floor, Sister Sandra explained that she too thought that this was silly. Apparently, the daycare prefers the term "bottom." Bottom! Even "butt" is okay! Hmmm. "Bump another bottom, bump a bottom next to ya" just doesn't have the same ring to it, does it? I'll be leaving that verse out from now on, I suppose. I'm perfectly willing to respect other's wishes when it comes to the language their children use...I guess, in this case, I'm just...amused, very amused.

It's a good thing that the daycare doesn't cook rump roast for the children at lunch time. What would they call it? "Bottom roast?" Eww.

Friday, June 1, 2007

fight over the flag

Okay – I was not going to write about this – but then Grace said something about it yesterday during our evaluation/reflection time and now I think I do want to write about it. Yesterday when she asked why I had not written about it - I said it was because I thought it bothered her more than it bothered me since she was the person in the hot seat – but now I think it is actually bothering me enough to at least need to process it.

It is a flag thing. Should the flag be in a church? By flag I mean THE FLAG – of the United States of America, Old Glory. If you do not vote the right way – you are a socialist. If you separate church and state, you are a socialist (that is bad, btw). If you are the pastor and you separate church and state…I cannot repeat what you are called. For this part of the state (I mean John Edwards’ big new house is in this county)…it is divisive as you have lots of political and theological diversity. How do you navigate these waters without offending the very people you are trying to teach and help form? How are we to be in community as the Body of Christ without hurting people who have given their bodies (or the bodies of fathers and husbands) in order for us to have the freedom to worship as the Body of Christ? Where is God in this conversation? And what to do when this conversation reveals who you really think God is and what you really think Church should be. Are we the rotary club or a church? What is the difference? Or rather …how do we teach the difference without dishonoring veterans and their sacrifice? Any thoughts on this?

Do you know where you will go?!

One thing I’ve been struggling with at Sandy Plains is how preoccupied many people are with heaven, hell, the devil, and “getting saved.” My first Sunday, as I sat towards the back of the sanctuary, I heard one woman share a prayer request during our customary prayer-request time. She asked for prayers for the husband of a friend who had passed. Apparently, he died sometime early in the morning, just a day or two before. She shared concern for her friend, who said that her husband “wasn’t saved.” She tried to comfort her friend by saying “You don’t know that. The Lord could have been working on his heart between the time you went to bed and the time he passed.”

Other members of Sandy Plains have shared some the same worries about “un-saved” relatives and friends. As I believe in the extraordinary healing power of Jesus Christ, I too share worries about friends who don’t know that power. I see God as the power to transform lives, to heal our broken places, to make us servants so that we can be instruments in bringing the just kingdom of God to fruition here, in this realm. Yes, here, at Sandy Plains, in Pembroke, Robeson County, eastern North Carolina, God’s will be done, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

So, sure, I get a little concerned when people don’t know Jesus…but I don’t usually think about it in terms of an eschatological location. I’m more concerned when the church down the road sponsors a drama like Judgment House, which seems designed to scare the hell out of people. This can’t be good. Around these parts, it seems that many folks are far more concerned about eternal this-or-that than they are about here-and-now discipleship.

I’ve thought about a couple of explanations for this kind of “scary as hell” thought.
• One, I think, is economic. The area of Sandy Plains has been, historically, an area with a low-income population. Perhaps a preoccupation with the next life, where there will be streets of gold and a mansion for every believer, comes from conditions of great need. Why wouldn’t the hungry be ready for the heavenly banquet?
• Another reason might be the kind of denominational influence in the surrounding community. I pass at least four or five Baptist churches of the free-will/fundamentalist variety on the way out to Sandy Plains. I’ve been told that there are tons more of these fundamentalist-type-churches than Methodist-type churches in the area, and folks are influenced accordingly. Everyone has family members and friends who go to other churches.
Well, I don’t know what to think or do about it all. Maybe I shouldn’t do anything. After all, it is certainly not my place to correct theology at a time of intimate need. It seems like the nice thing to say is that “there’s room for both of these views” or to try and find some middle ground. I most certainly wouldn’t pass judgment on something as important as one’s eschatological outlook, but I must disagree with it, even if silently. So far, I’ve been keeping my mouth shut about the issue, but I’m sure that sometime soon someone is going to ask a question that’s too direct to get around. What will I do then? In the meantime, I suppose I’ll pray for grace.

The Radical Message of Jesus!

I went with Rev. Pickering, pastor of Care and Nurture at North UMC, to visit RJ (name and identity withheld) in the hospital last week. RJ is a regular at North’s soup kitchen – Bread-N-Bowl – held three times a week to feed the poor. RJ, a homeless man, was accidentally shot in a drive-by-shooting incident that occurred across the street from the church about two weeks ago. During our visit, RJ was in immense pain. He gave vent to his frustration with a system that shows little or no sensitivity toward people who are not well off. He complained about not receiving his medicine. No one seemed to care or show any sensitivity toward a person in great agony, suffering from several gunshot wounds. RJ expressed his desire to leave the hospital, even though he was a homeless person. “I will get out of here if I could walk or get one of them wheel chairs,” he said.

In addition to the many words that he said to us, RJ passed a comment that has caused much reflection over the past week. “Somebody getting paid anyway,” he remarked! That RJ was in a hospital where workers were paid to take of people like him – people coming off the streets with no insurance – and yet having no one to empathize with his cry of anguish was, for him, an almost incredible tale of hope and tragedy.

It would be difficult for all of us to imagine RJ receiving such treatment if he was the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation. It is to a society like ours – one in which the cry of the needy is neglected – that we must, with conviction, proclaim the radical message of Jesus:

I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’”
(Matthew 25:42-45) – RSV

Jesus regards that which is done to “one of the least of these,” as done to himself. He does not ask what we have felt or thought, but what we have done or left undone in our dealings with “one of the least of these,” not the kings nor people usually in position of honor, but the afflicted ones – people like RJ. Jesus identifies himself with the suffering human race, and shows that in neglecting to perform acts of charity to the afflicted, we disregard, despise, and dishonor him. In our neglect of “the least of these,” we are neglecting Christ; when we show no love, no sympathy, no pity, we would not have ministered to the one who claimed: “foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:56). Love looks to Christ, and rests in Christ as its ultimate center.

Is it preposterous to think that Christ, even now, dwells incognito among us, wandering among us, disguising himself as the poor, sick, distressed, disabled, suffering, and oppressed. He is not concerned about how we feel, or what we think about the “least” among us, but what we do to and for them. Everyone who ponders this finds that it is radical! It is to this radical service that the Christian community is called.

The more I ponder the life and radical message of Jesus, the more I wonder if there is, indeed, a rigid dichotomy between having a conversion experience and disrupting the status quo. The two are beginning to seem interconnected, like the two beams of the cross!