Category Archives: Ministry

Abide With Me

Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life.  He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

 

It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow  clergyman, of which he said

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”[1]

Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals.  In one of the eight original verses is the line  “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”[2]

Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.

Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”

That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.

 

 

[1] Darrell St. Romain, “History of Hymns: Abide with Me” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-abide-with-me

 

[2] St. Romain.

Lessons From the Waiting Room

This morning, I pulled on my clothes at 5:30 am and headed to the hospital to be with a member going into surgery. It took me back to August of 2001 when my “baby” sis had breast cancer. I wasn’t pastor that day. I drove to Atlanta, took the day off, and went to be with my family as she fought the toughest fight of her (maybe any of our family). She is 12 years my junior, and I left home for college when Amy was only 5. I adored her more like a doting uncle than a brother, although as adults I have loved her as a peer. She is smart, lovely, and, it turned out, a fighter. She went through it, survived, and is going strong. Still, I went back to that day, years ago, when I sat, helpless, in a waiting room, unsure what the coming hours would bring. It taught me some lessons.

Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  Last week, though, Vickie and I spent the day where so many of our members find themselves at one time or another—in the waiting room.  As we awaited my sister’s surgery, I found myself in the unusual position of being the recipient of visits.

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

Photo from flicker by timmielee5359/Kim Schuster

As a family we had gone through all the decisions, phone calls, prayers and anxiety that patient families do.  Now the day had come and we had to—wait.  Here are some of the lessons I learned for just one day.

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom. You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day. Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect it.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort. You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people I hadn’t met from her church came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her older brother from out of town.” No tie.
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse. I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit. (Editor’s note: this is better now)
  • Time is timeless in a hospital. That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations. Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, you’re Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world. People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped. God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.
  • 2017 update: In the waiting room, you are all the same. Democrat, Republican, affluent suburbanite, poor rural family, educated and street smart, old and tired and toddlers rambunctious. We are one in our waiting. Too bad we can’t keep that in us when we go home. The man next to me is worried about his wife, the lady over there and her friend are laughing, someone else praying. If we all hang in there, we’ll get through the day. Wait. Pray. Hope.  

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Reality

Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us.  I said, toward the end, these words:

“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”

Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:

I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this:  “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”

And this one from G. K. Chesterton,  The Everlasting Man  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.

Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

Praying On Main Street

Civic prayers are perilous, and yet unless we would make the exercise completely a matter of private preference, we venture with trembling now and then out into the public square. As a Baptist I am squeamish about these places, sensitive to the realities of those gathered, but also to the potential to trivialize prayer (“so we can get started”). Still, there is something about the heady moment of freedom to act in public, understood or not, to call out to that which is deepest within and among us. I write prayers because there is nothing particularly more virtuous about an unthought about prayer that makes it superior.  If anything, our “spontaneous” prayers can be crippled by the habits of mind that tend to bring the same structures and words about without careful reflection. A good editor doesn’t diminish words but strengthens them.  I always try to think carefully about what I say about God, representing God, and to God that it be the best I have in that moment.  I offered this prayer at the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce, before busy people who all needed to be somewhere next pretty soon.


Eternal God,
O what a tangled web we weave when we try to voice what we believe!
We affirm that you are in control—and that it is all up to us.
In our political life, we talk as though our nation is falling to pieces
And it is also the greatest nation on earth and that nothing can stop us.
In our personal lives, we call out in the helplessness of crisis,
And then remember the scripture that says that through you we can do all things.
No wonder it sometimes looks odd to those who watch us without joining us.

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Charlie and the Kardashians

Twitter is a wonderful tool.  I keep up with dozens of journals, news sources, and artists who interest me through it.  Of course, if you lack a trash filter, you can easily get distracted onto thousands of useless spiritual cul-de-sacs.  They are hard to resist.  For some reason, two stories caught my momentary attention.  One said, “Taylor Swift may never marry.”  The other said, “Teen Mom photographed in bikini.  Makes sex tape with porn star.”  My reponse to the first is, “Uh, Taylor Swift is free to not marry.  Think I’ll survive.”  The second?  “Someone needs to help that child before she makes another stupid mess out of her life.”

What’s the deal with us?  People ruining themselves is momentarily interesting, of course, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of eating only French fries for the rest of your life.  You’ll pay for it eventually.

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Charlie and me on a good day.

My day was not nearly so glam.  I conducted a funeral for one of my dearest friends in the world.  He was the chair of the committee that brought me to my present church twenty years ago.  He was always the one who was working behind the scenes to lead through others without a spotlight on himself.  Today, after the service, the stories poured out of things he accomplished, family members he helped with finances or trouble, lives changed because Charlie said, “I think you ought to do it.”

I had a copy of his autobiography written years ago, just so his family might know about his life.  I read back through it before I did the eulogy.  It was a story like many from his generation—love of family, friends, faith, and helping others.  He rose to a Vice Presidency in the Bell system before he finished, but you would never know it.  Everyone felt like his best friend, although if you fought him, he was tough.  He had a way, said one friend, of being determined and once he set his mind on what was right, there was no way you would stop him.  But he was never mean about it. Read the rest of this entry

Disappointing Others for God: A Reply to Elizabeth

the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation

placed on Him, and purposefully,

for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. 

That is and always will be enough.

Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church.  Don’t Hate Me.”  I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration.  I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend.  Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.

I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time.  In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.

A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.”  I have found this to be true, again and again.  Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it.  Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests.  Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.

Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call.  The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done.  When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that.  I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course.  Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much.  It will pass.

Gary Publicity 2012

Gary Furr

Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church.  The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times.  Eventually you come to expect it will be there.  The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there.  I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left.  Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?”  I was hurt.  Now I get it.

In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday.  He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving.  I hadn’t.  He felt differently in time, and so did I.  I was hurt, too.

Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure.  Maybe it takes a lifetime.  So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much.  There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over.  Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it.  They’ll survive.  And so will you.  Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.

So listen within.  Be clear.  Turn it loose.  The kingdom has survived worse than even us.  But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry.  It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it.  You just live with it and move on.  Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.  That is and always will be enough.

Coming and Going: Spring Break as Holy Hiatus

There’s a time to stay, and a time to go

This week has been Spring Break week for us—others are about to have theirs.  For preachers in churches of any size, it is a thrilling time, a high holy day, whether you leave or stay.

Resting at the beach...

Holidays for ministers always include times when large hordes of our parishioners go somewhere else and we stay behind in quiet offices and can only pray for them until they return.  Or, in occasional cases, along with the ancient eastern prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” we toss a few prayers from Jackson Browne, “Why don’t you stay…just a little bit longer…”   Read the rest of this entry

The Ten Commandments of Change (Part One)

Ten Commandments for Working for Change (Kingdom of God Version)

I am not sure why I started this.  I have been thinking, at 57, about how disappointing the world, other people, the church, society, politicians, even myself, are.  And yet, I hope.  I still think things can be better.  This is mysterious.  I went to Mount Thinkaboutit to consider this, and came down with two tablets carved in sand, so they can be easily revised if needed, but these are some things I have thought about in my experiences thus far.

  1. First Things First.  The ministry of healing requires clear priorities.  The First Commandment is always the First Commandment.  “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.”  “Let God be God,” is redundant.  God IS

    We're all in this together, at least until they colonize the moon.

    God.  The only question is, “Will we rail against God and the universe and the Way It REALLY Is or not?”   All of our spiritual traditions say God doesn’t care for human deities running around lording themselves over the rest of us.  This keeps motives clear, priorities arranged and a healthy dose of humility in all of our efforts.

  2. Caring IS change.   We are changed the moment we care.  The poor are my neighbors, friends, or estranged kin, not problems to be eliminated or solved.  Helmut Thielicke, the theologian, once said that sin entered the world when God was first spoken of in the third person by Satan:  “Did God REALLY say?”  Maybe the same is true of our neighbors—when we talk about them in place of “I-Thou,” as Martin Buber called it, we get, well, what we have.  Listening, being present, loving our neighbors has already changed the conversation.  Until you care, nothing changes.  Not caring is a tempting way of protecting from the hurt, but it is ultimately impossible for being really alive.
  3. Politics alone cannot heal.  It can facilitate genuine healing or get in its way.  The same can be said of all the “principalities and powers”—economy, power, business, civic life, and even religion.  They are instruments to occasionally use but never of eternal value for themselves.  Sometimes it is the obstacle to go around, sometimes the opposition to ignore but never a god in whom we trust wholly.  Politics is pretty important, which is why it is always overestimating itself
  4. Epiphanies are doorways!  Real change begins with ideas, relationships, and genuine connection.  Money, power and importance can only follow them if the change is genuine and the commitment unwaivering.  Money, fame, and power are not usually agents of change so much as instruments of resistance.  They get on board when it suits them, and left to themselves tend to prefer comfort, control and micromanaging (i.e., spiritual anesthesia).  Because change will always bring the Unholy Trio into question, they become anxious because they will decrease if things do change.  They do not like this, but sometimes the numbers just aren’t with them any more.  Epiphanies are fast track connections.
  5. The Power of the Question.  Before transformation was the question and it must be asked by right person at the right time.  “Questioning” can be a somewhat self-righteous exercise, however, even a delusional self-perception (this was franchised in the United States in the 1970s, causing the number of people who were at Woodstock to quadruple).  Real questions, like real change, have the element of self-involved investment/caring/suffering.

Part Two tomorrow…

When Nothing Else Can Help, Love Builds a House

One of the most-read blog pieces on here was one I did on the Hardy family of Williams, Alabama called, “Following Jesus from Israel to Rural Alabama.”  As a follow up to that, I am happy to report that last Sunday evening, the Hardy family received the keys to their new home in a dedication ceremony led by Pastor Mike Oliver.

Times of crisis can certainly reveal our failings and weaknesses.  But it is also true that crisis reveals character and new possibilities.  one of God’s most mysterious works is bringing communion and healing from our disasters.  Such times can divide, but they can also invite new re-formulations of Christian fellowship.  Ordinary divisions become an unaffordable luxury in the moment of need.  We come together and leave lesser things to God.

home again

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a man of broad spirit and reconciling heart.  He sought Christian cooperation in every way possible.  He once preached a sermon[1] on 2 Kings 10:15, which says, “When [Jehu] left there, he met Jehonadab

son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.”

Wesley said “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

In other words, unity of heart, spirit and love can exist even though we must have differences that will take longer to resolve.  We begin with this willingness to know a fellow Christian’s heart and build upon the possibility of fellowship.  It does not mean give up our convictions.  But we must begin with the hardest and highest call Jesus gave to us—to love one another as He loved us.  That is not what we do once we have worked out all our disagreements, our differences or

our hurts with one another.  Forgiveness itself is born out of obedience to the Savior’s call to love one another.

 



 

The keys

 

Lessons From the Waiting Room

In all the uproar of 9-11, a lot of personal history got pushed out of view.  A month later, ten years ago, whatever was going on was dwarfed by a morning that changed the world forever.  So it is surprising to me to reconnect to anniversaries that I thought were some other time.

Ten years ago, on August 13, 2001, my sister underwent surgery for breast cancer.  Her situation was serious, she was young—in her thirties—for such a thing.  Our family was, like all families in such a moment, devastated and anxious.

As a minister, Wednesdays are usually the busiest day of the week for me—surpassing even Sundays.  That week, though, I was on the other side, sitting in a waiting room in an Atlanta hospital with my parents, brother-in-law, and a parade of friends and church folks coming by to check on us. This week she marked her tenth anniversary without a recurrence and we rejoice even as we encourage all those who fight against breast cancer.

I wrote about that day in the waiting room, ten years ago.  And since it got lost in what happened a month later, I went back to read it again.  As we rejoice today, I share these words again.  Maybe they will help someone who isn’t so far down the road as we are right now.  These were my “Lessons from the Waiting Room.”

  • The greatest enemy in the waiting room is boredom.  You talk, laugh, tell stories, and every now and then find yourselves staring at each other, waiting for something else to say.  Long periods of blanking it out interspersed with imagining “in there.”
  • There are so many feelings for just one day.  Fear stops by in the morning and pops back in when you least expect him.  Hope, love, frustration, weariness, impatience and irritation.  They all pass through.  All you can do is sit while they fly through your brain.
  • People have truly different ideas of what the phrase “Dress appropriately” means.
  • Family, friends and church members are a comfort.  You don’t have to say much.  Just seeing a face and knowing a connection does something for you.  All day long people came by and said, over and over in a dozen ways, “We care about you.”  It was truly humbling.  Many friends came by, and two graciously gave us over an hour of their busy lives to sit and help us laugh the time away.  Three church staff came to comfort us, and they did.
  • It is neat to just be “her brother from out of town.”
  • Hospital food must come from a single warehouse.  I had the same thing I ate the last time I had a hospital meal.  Some of the vegetables seemed to be prepared to drum up extra business for the gastro unit.
  • Time is timeless in a hospital.  That explains why nothing starts when it is scheduled and why things go on longer than you were told (reminded me of the little Catholic boy who visited a Baptist church with his buddy for the first time.  “What does it mean when the preacher takes off his watch and lays it on the pulpit?” he asked.  “Don’t mean anything at all,” sniffed the Baptist boy.)  It is why surgery feels like eternity when you are waiting on it.
  • You overhear some really interesting conversations.  Over in the corner a man from Jamaica recited the entire genealogy of his family to two kinswomen, loud enough for us to hear intermittently.  “No, no, no, your Uncle Elias, see, he was my brother’s cousin…”  That went on for two hours, forming a Caribbean Book of Chronicles until they finally, I think, got back to the present day.  I believe the conversation only started with a single question about a nephew.  “Sorry I asked,” I imagined them saying as night fell.
  • There is plenty of time to think about important things—how much you love the important people in your life, how wonderful the church can be when the chips are down, what really matters in life, and how connected we all are.
  • There are a lot of people in trouble in this world.  People from everywhere.  People who wouldn’t say hello to each other on the street smile and ask each other how it’s going.
  • Thinking about my friends back home praying for us helped.  God truly is with us, even in the waiting room.

    My wonderful sister ten years later