This is a time of many “firsts.” I suspect this is true of everyone. Our church staff, like all congregations and organizations, are having to ask, “How will we do this now that we cannot do it as we once did?” “Touch,” connection, and being together is so crucial to the existence of any organization, but there are peculiar ways that we do church. Communion, literally “in common” is ideally done with shared loaf and common cup. But we have done our first “virtual” Maundy Thursday and Easter, too.
As the mind anticipates the weeks ahead, it has raised a lot of interesting challenges. How do we ordain without the laying on of hands? How do we have Sunday School for children and Vacation Bible School without being in the building? Should we take temperatures and administer tests before baptism? A lot to think about.
This is not without precedent, of course. The church has been through all sorts of times in history when gathering was difficult or even temporarily impossible. And innovation always results from such times. These become the new “rituals.” Ritual is necessary. It is the way we negotiate passages in life. So, we’re having to reinvent them. What they become are our “rhythms” of life. You can’t work all the time, play all the time, or heaven forbid, be online all the time. You have to do other things. Some carry on as is, others have to be reconceived. People are figuring it out, more or less.
On Monday, of course, we did our first online memorial service for Dr. William Poe. The only live event was the graveside service in Tuscaloosa with eight of us present–three caregivers, his son Allan and daughter Jody, Cherri Morriss and two funeral directors. It was a beautiful day and we stood round the outside of the green awning over the grave. Everyone was masked except me. The Lord’s Prayer by Malotte and Amazing Grace were sung acapella. I read a selection from a little book Dr. Poe had written, a memoir. The Continue reading “New Ways for a New Time”→
A friend asked me to reflect on what you learn by staying in one place for twenty five years. I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I haven’t stopped much to ponder that, and before I knew it the years went by. I still am surprised to think that I, who never lived anywhere more than seven years, have been here now for nearly twenty-six (at the end of this month). I moved a lot while growing up. Moving to greener pastures is overblown. There’s always a septic tank under there somewhere, as Erma Bombeck once said. So, here are my current observations about staying.
In a way, staying put means just doing the next thing that comes along. Still, there are amazing rewards for staying put so long. How many people can say to a college graduate, “I still remember holding you at the hospital your first day of life?” No CEO or world leader can.
The world changes even when you stay put. People change, circumstances change, and the church constantly changes. There really is no staying put, just changing in the same place. You change, too. You don’t avoid change, nor does a church, by staying put. You either pastor four different churches in twenty-five years or pastor four or five churches in the same location over twenty-five years.
You sure need friends, colleagues, books, and growth to stay fresh. You can grow tired of your own voice in your head and look out in wonder and think, just before the sermon, “I can’t believe they’re still here. It must not just be me.” Don’t want them to think the same thing. Continue reading “Staying Put”→
I don’t know many people who aren’t generally disgusted with the political process right now. Left to right, top to bottom, it’s a mess. I thought I’d put a little advice together for would-be leaders.
Further, Baptist preachers are about the most able politicians around. They are more like small-town sheriffs, who have to lock you up AND get your vote. Since Baptist churches are about the purest form of democracy around, where even the least of these can topple the most of those with enough work, a Baptist preacher learns to hone the skills of
diplomacy, bridge-building and persuasion. We have to run for election every year. It’s called “the budget.” A lot of high-handed Baptist preachers take over churches, of course, with dictatorial ways, but it doesn’t last long. Turns out that once you deceive people they decide, for some unknown reason, to stop funding your foolishness.
So here are some lessons from a 33 year veteran who has survived some titanic battles over camellia bushes, building programs, and even got a church to vote for a letter of apology to an offended church member once who got mad when his name wasn’t read at the centennial celebration thirty years before. He wobbled back into church on his walker a few months before he died, looked up and said, “Preacher, you reckon the building will fall down if I come in?” And a good old deacon said, “Well, if it does we’ll build it back.”
A little unsolicited advice:
You have to learn how to build consensus. Winning 51-49 is not winning. You don’t need unanimity, but until you accomplish good for all, you haven’t won.
You will learn humility willingly or eventually. Willingly is much less painful.
Since politicians seem to evidence almost no persuasive ability in the current moment—I add this one: “Learn to tell a story. Keep it simple. Tell the truth. Truth doesn’t need help.”
The same people you defeat will have to help pay for it in the end. They are not enemies, so unless you can regain their support, you lose in the long run.
It’s dangerous to claim God is on your side and never leave room for disagreement. Even if you and your mother think so. God is not too keen on preachers as court jesters and God is intolerant of people misusing the divine name, so you’ve been warned.
Preaching that doesn’t turn into good deeds doesn’t amount to anything.
You have to trust others to make real changes. Nobody does it by themselves.
Those who live by demonization die by demonization.
Forgive and move on. It’s just that simple. Holding grudges is a waste of valuable energy.
Sometimes you just do what is right and let the chips fall. There are worse things than losing your job.
Believe in Someone or Something larger than you. Without a real vision, not only do the people perish, but nothing really happens.
It’s not your church. It’s not their church. It’s God’s church. Seems to me this applies to countries, property, power and prosperity.
If there isn’t any money, you can’t spend it. It’s not rocket science.
Doesn’t hurt to let someone else take credit now and then, even if it’s your idea.
A good staff makes a poor preacher look great.
Principles matter the most when they are most inconvenient and unpopular. Lose ‘em and you might as well quit anyway.
No matter how high and mighty you get, the Almighty gets the last word.
Don’t do the Devil’s work for him.
Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Even a great idea ahead of its time will lose to anxiety and fear and misinformation.
As a friend of mine put it, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and you make bad decisions.”
Love really is the great truth of life. Politics, even with the noble concept of “justice” will degenerate into darkness without the temper of love.
Life-giving leadership is not being in control so much as persuasion of others to offer their best selves to that which matters the most.
I got an email from former classmate, Vicki Butler, now in the Advancement Office of my old college, Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. She was in town and wanted to visit with us. I do this in my work as a Pastor, so I know that institutions need money. I have moved from being a disdainful idealist as a teen to a reluctant fundraiser to a committed realist.
So my wife Vickie and I met Vickie in the lobby of her hotel. She told us what Carson-Newman College is facing and how they hoped alumni would help out. I was preparing my protests: (“Do you know how much I gave last year? The TaxCut preparer always flags my giving. Americans don’t give this much!”) But our conversation moved on to how things are going, how the school has adjusted to hard times, and to what a great mission it has.
We were at Carson Newman from 1972-1976. Vickie and I married early—Christmas of our sophomore year. I was 19, she 18, and in love. That this did not pay bills had not yet occurred to us. We lived in the little house right behind the infirmary in 1973 Continue reading “The Best Time to Give”→
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. Commandments 1-5, unless I have changed them, are in yesterday’s post.
6. Let it Begin with Me. A changed world begins in changed people. Changed worlds can also change people. But the most powerful change is when outer and inner converge. Watch out. Right person, right time, right opportunity and the right choice is a recipe for something the world is waiting for and doesn’t know it. 7. Technique isn’t enough. At some point, there is this mysterious power called, “Inspiration,” which comes from the words for “breathe into.” Change is part analysis, part prescription, and big part art. Technicians and engineers are often in danger of attempting to work without value, the artistic, the visionary. Visionaries, on the other hand, must also be guarded. They are like the Little Girl with the Curl. When they’re right, they’re very, very right, and…(see # 1 in Part One, “humility”) 8. Suffering is Being Alive. “Passion” is the word that gets used a lot, but now we tend to see it as “overwhelming love for,” and even “desire,” without the medieval meaning so often connected with it—submission, suffering, being subject to something. Originally it referred to the crucifixion of Jesus, “the passio”, in Latin, thus, “suffering love.” If the medieval mind was too heavily on the “being subject” part, I wonder if we have severed love too much from it. Grieve, suffer, ache, long, these are all the aliveness of love. Change begins when we let ourselves “love” the world passionately, and therefore suffer inevitably with and for it. 9. Change alone, Rejoice alone. You will love your neighbor as yourself, a friend of mine used to say. Self-loathing people loathe others. People who want to fix the world in an external way never really connect to the human and utterly involved nature of this enterprise. You can stand at a distance, of course, and lob grenades at the foibles of humankind. This is called, “commentary.” It can be a tiny piece of change if it really changes minds, but the object of words to change must be connection and communication and ultimately a summon to understand and join together, not merely celebrate a superior mind in a hopeless world. 10. Assessment is Necessary and Impossible. You cannot finally know the good you do any more than the evil that you are doing, not fully. This is never an excuse not to act. Christians talk often of “faith”, and too often as a noun rather than a verb. That is, it is too often a thing they “have,” like a AAA membership in case of a spiritual flat tire. This “thing” is something they possess, a rabbit’s foot and a lucky charm that can be tossed aside after one freshman philosophy course, because it is not really faith at all. Faith “trust” is more like a “conviction,” a belief about the way things are that is so deep that nothing so superficial as mountains of consensus and cultural agreement can shake it away. Results are good. They are not required to act and sometimes dissuade us from what must be done. Get busy. Do something.
Do you remember the old television show, “Newhart?” It lives only on reruns now. Bob Newhart and actress Mary Frann played an author and his wife who owned an inn in a weird little rural Vermont town. Among the strange characters who inhabited the town were three goony looking brothers, only one of whom ever spoke, named Larry. Larry introduces the group the same way every time they make an appearance: “Hi, I’m Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”
It’s crazy. How can there be three brothers with two names? Life tends to be flat in our minds a lot of the time. A friend recently told me about something an old fellow told him one time: “We often say, ‘There’s two sides to every coin.’ But there are actually three—heads, tails, and the edge.’”
Three-dimensional space is a geometric notion. These three dimensions are length, width, and depth (or height). The edge of the coin is most frequently forgotten part of things—“depth.” For me it represents the narrow place that many false polarities might share. There is only one edge on a coin, not two. It is, in a sense, its own place. It gives a third dimension.
So many complex questions and problems require the edge for solutions. First, the notion of creativity and depth requires the capacity to see the other side as well as our own, to truly sympathize with an opponent’s positions if they are not simply disingenuous. Second, it means holding out in our deliberations for the idea that there may be a “thicker” set of possibilities than first appear in the “coin flip” approach to theology, ethics, and politics.
There was an episode of the oldTwilight Zone called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.” The main character, Hector, is a timid guy who’s never advanced in his job at the bank. He’s likeable, but his life is stuck.
One day he buys a newspaper, and flips a coin into the collection pan, where it lands on its edge. As a consequence, all day that day, he can hear people’s thoughts, and it changes his life. He discovers love in the thoughts of a woman who is attracted to him that he never had the courage to ask out. He reads the mind of an old teller who is stealing from the bank and turns him in. He negotiates a better position and a raise and even gets help for the old teller who had stolen the money.
At the end of the day he stops by the newsstand again and buys a magazine and throws in another coin, this time knocking the coin off its edge and his telepathic powers are gone. But he is a new man. He has seen into the depth of his life, discovered things he did not have the courage on his own to see.
A lot of public issues turn into coin flips these days—somebody wins, the other guys loses. Never is there the possibility that it could land on the edge and find another possibility. This is different from compromise. Compromise is resolving without the coin—both of us agree to be mildly unhappy.
The creative depth of life offers possibilities yet unimagined. We have to learn to look there. Who would have thought that the 2,000 year old teachings of Jesus about non-violence would bring down British rule in India or Jim Crow laws in the American South? But it happened. Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw a new possibility between violent overthrow and acquiescence and discovered the creative possibilities.
It makes me wonder in our political landscape of the moment—what are we missing? If ever we needed the dimension of depth to apply to problems of economy, work, immigration, homeland security and the other vexing issues of our time, it is now. The great problem of politics is not merely electing different people from the ones we have at present, but in putting forth solutions that move beyond the impasses. For that, we will require a level of creative possibility that is largely unknown in the landscape of the culture wars, limited as they are to the “heads” of progressive change from what is on one side and the “tails” of conservative resistance on the other.
Hope resides on the edge. May the creative leaders who can see it find us for this time.