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Someplace Green

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Looking out from my office desk, to someplace green.

My friend Pat Terry is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, ever.  After a long and successful career in contemporary Christian music, he widened his vision and writing. A successful career in country music as a writer followed, with plenty of hits. He just came out with his latest CD, “How Hard It Is to Fly,” and it’s another great batch of songs.  One of my newest favorites, “Clean Starched Sheets” is on this one.

Pat’s heart has always been as a storytelling songwriter.  I have been in a couple of his workshops, and he is a master craftsman. I’ve performed with him a time or two here in Birmingham, and I’ve gone more than once to hear him sing. His songs are deeply human.  One of my favorites and one of the first I ever heard him perform (while opening for Earl Scruggs!) was “Someplace Green.” It sends me to visions of Eden.

Back in my hometown, everything’s green,

green grass, green leaves, green peaches on the trees in spring. Read the rest of this entry

The Best Time to Give

Carson-Newman College

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 Read the rest of this entry

Thirty Days to Thanksgiving

Last Wednesday night I shared “thirty practices you can try in the next thirty days.” It was a reflection on Philippans 4:8-9:  “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.  Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”  In this time of so much turmoil and uncertainty, I don’t find most people losing their minds, killing strangers or giving up.  They are hunkered down, pulling together, depending on one another, and finding their own solutions to the times.  So I thought a series of sermons on “Simple Gifts: Thirty Days to Thanksgiving.”  The imspiration, grace and God-givenness of life cannot be conjured up, but we can surely put our attention on it, practice and implement them.  I thought it might help to have a simple action each day that we can try that can express, encourage and deepen our sense of gratitude. I hope you find something here that might help.

1. Express appreciation to someone important in your life verbally or with a note. Call or write an old friend and tell them what their friendship has meant in your life. Write your favorite teacher and express what their teaching meant to you. They never got paid what they were worth. Appreciation is about all they get.

2. Volunteer to help in a ministry to those less fortunate. It’s as easy as calling your church office, local service organization or other place of caring and signing up.

3. Choose to forgive someone who made you angry in the past and act toward them as though it never happened.

Sharing a little song

4. Sing with some other people, not just your ipod. Sing with a baby if you can.

5. Give until it hurts and then give some more until it quits hurting and becomes second nature. Get where you can see somebody else getting help and enjoy it.

6. Change the way you talk about your life. Make a list of the negative things you say most often. Can you turn them into positives instead? Reframe them into deeper truth?

7. Get to know one person you walk past, see every day, sit near in church, work with or see at the store or interact with regularly without ever having bothered to ask their name.

8. Create a behavioral set for your devotional life. Clear out a space or have one place for prayer time. Light a candle, or do the same thing every day to create readiness.

9. Carry your Bible to church as a physical reminder to yourself to read it daily. Memorize some verses. Encourage our children to bring it.

10. Read Psalm 4:8. When you go to bed tonight, pray this prayer. “Lord, I turn the world over to you. I have carried too much of it on my back and it was never mine anyway. Be with me in my dreams, my weariness, and my endless lists of things to do tomorrow. Now go to sleep.

11. Laugh, hard, at least once today and remind yourself that you are not the center of the universe. If you need a little help, go to the funny birthday card section at the drugstore, watch children playing together, or look at your high school yearbook picture.

12. Sit in silence and breathe calmly for ten minutes. That’s all. How was it?

13. Do something for someone you love that tells them you do.

14. Fast from the internet and television for 24 hours and give some of that time to loving someone in your life instead.

15. Put a short appointment on your calendar today and leave it fallow. Sit, even for 15 minutes, and absorb a spiritual truth, look at something beautiful, or pray.

16. Share time and attention with someone who is suffering, in trouble or who needs you. It will pull you out of yourself quickly.

17. Make a list of people who have been mentors, encouragers and who have blessed you. The length may surprise you.

18. Give money and pray for a missionary you know or for a country in the world as you do

19. Practice acceptance. Accept God’s acceptance of you—remind yourself that because of grace, you are free to forgive, free to love and free to welcome

20. Get reacquainted with your inner child—play, do something you’re not good at, draw, or roll on the floor with a baby if you know one. Give it a rest with the serious adult for a while.

21. Accept that God has given you spiritual gifts and start using them for the sake of the church. They have nothing to do with how other people see you and everything to do with what God wants to do through you.

22. Pray without ceasing by spending a whole day praying a verse or thinking about God. Just be there.

23. Make a list of your close calls and then think, “It could have gone really badly for me. I was given a second chance.” Now consider giving someone else a second chance.

24. Put a dollar in the mission offering of your Church for every complaint you make today about your life, the government, Congress, the schools, society, “those people” (whoever they are), your parents, your loved ones, or anyone else. At least you can help missionaries.

25. Read Philippians 4:6. When you start worrying about something today, turn it into a verbal prayer.

26. Try praying all the way through the church prayer list. You don’t have to know what their issue is. Someone was distressed enough to put it there.

27. Spend some time in nature and pay attention to its joyful truth to you.

28. Think back to when you were at your most difficult time. Did you learn anything as you went through it that could help you now?

29. Give out ten affirmations today. Don’t go to bed with one or two still in your mouth unoffered.

30. Spend a little time jotting down everything that touches your life today that took other people to get it to you—at work, your food, every part of your life. In your time of prayer, consider the complexities of God’s giving through others to you.

Stewards on a Sinking Ship?

I have committed, as a writer, to undertake the serious discipline of writing during the month of July each year.  This is a little confusing, because I write all the time in my work, as a songwriter, just about everyday as a facebook citizen (won’t find me with those loathsome mundanities like how much mustard was on my sandwich or my farmville situation.  I try to write something short and worthwhile, except when i don’t, of course.  Which is why I like “like.”  Cuts to the chase, and you can “unlike.”).  I mean, though, that I have committed to myself to use my gift, whether anyone reads it or not.  Writing, the very act of committing words to sequence, has a power.

Anyway, I have dozens of book ideas, but most of them are still in my computer.  I’m one of those people Dorothy Sayers talked about in The Mind of the Maker when she said that  all artistic failures correspond to defects in trinitarian theology.  All artistic work begins as idea, “becomes flesh” in the act of writing (or painting, or making music) and then achieves fulness in becoming an experienced reality by those who read it, watch it or listen to it.  A work of art is not complete without this fullness of being–it’s fine that you have an idea, and many people, she said, say “My book is finished.  I have only to write it down.”  But until you write it, it is not complete. So, if you are a writer, you don’t wait for a contract or just think about ideas.  You write.

I have pondered about three projects I have in various stages of completion (whatever I do with them), but the one I have strong feelings about is “stewardship.”  It’s an odd phrase, usually associated in churches with fundraising and subscribing the budget, but it has an interesting history as a word.  According to the website “word origins” (http://www.word-origins.com/definition/steward.html), in Old English, where this word originated in about the 15th century, a steward was literally “in charge of a sty.”  This was either connected with the word “stigweard,” a compound from “stig” (hall or house) and “weard,” meaning a guardian  or keeper, thus, “keeper of the hall.”  It may have been from the word “sty,”, the place where the pigs were kept.  I will admit that in the current political moment someone who takes care of something dirty and unglamorous without credit is indeed, “Weard.”

Was a steward originally the guy who took care of the hogs?  Interesting thought.  Stewardship has a lowly dimension to it.  “Taking care” of things is not glamorous, appreciated, or always understood by much of our throwaway culture.  Our children may be changed by the recession we seem to be still in the midst of, but we are yet to see if it makes our children more fearful about wasting things or more attentive to taking care of what they have.

Where stewardship matters is its sense of one being responsible for many things and, presumably many other people.  If the steward doesn’t do his or her job, the hogs get out, money is lost, the house runs down, and chaos results.

Stewardship has relevance to all aspects of life.  It is the most powerful image I can think of for where we are in our current global situation.  We sit on a fragile planet with abundant resources, but finite ones.  How we treat that planet will not affect its survival in the universe, but it may have a lot to say about whether we’ll be on it for a long time.  Politics, relationships, economic life, culture, food and water, all are affected by our sense of (or lack thereof) of a sense of “stewardship.”

We watch the global economy halted by our politicians’ endless manipulations, who can never seem to answer each direct question with a simple “Yes” or “No”, posturing, accusing, projecting, blaming, offering excuses, and generally carrying on what sometimes feels like the old “bull sessions” in the dorm late at night in college.  Except their bull sessions affect people’s lives.  And in it all, the sense of stewardship can be lost amid the tantalizing seductions of power, fame and money, the Unholy Trinity of our particular moment win out.

It is a very dangerous time, a time that more than ever asks for servants but always gives in to seducers, wasters, magicians and promisers of fantasy.  Yet if they did tell the truth, give us the bad news, admit the pain that it would take to fix it, would we accept it?  It costs to be a steward.  No fame, no vast fortune, just this unrelenting sense of taking care of something that someone entrusted to us, because that responsibility is more important than all the pleasures to be immediately had by turning from it.

My prayer is for the rebirth of stewardship in the world–parents, families, stockbrokers, bankers, neighbors, policemen, company presidents and CEOs, workers, teachers, artists, politicians.  Without that sense that something is always asked of me for the sake of the other, that something that says, “It can never be only about you,” this ship will sink.  Every good ship has an officer called a “steward.”  The steward is not the captain.  No ship can sail with all captains.  The ship steward looks after the passengers’ comfort and wellbeing, and sees after the supplies and food.

Long live the stewards.  May their tribe increase.  But if we merely delegate this to certain poor souls who are left to tend the hogs while we all watch cable, we will sink.  As a steward of writing gifts, however small they might be, I must reject my own excuses and write as though the world depended on me.  Mothering, fathering, taking care of someone else’s money, churches, schools, neighborhoods, aging parents, the poor among us–we are all called to some great and unavoidable stewardships.  And if we evade them, not only might the ship run out of food or sink, we will never once before we die manage to be who we came here to become.  And that is a loss of incalculable measure.