warmth in wrap-up

All of the moms of First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville teased me about whether or not I was ready to be a chaperone at Warmth In Winter, and carried on like I was making some great sacrifice by attending.

But I expected going in that I’d have a good time – and I did. It was a blessing, in a very real sense.

It’s a moving thing to see young people in the throes of some of their first religious experiences. Bishop Bill McAlilly, who preached this morning, recalled a church camp experience at which James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was played, and I had to laugh – because one of the strongest memories of my own junior high church camp experiences has to do with Taylor’s “Shower The People.” “That’s not a church song,” I thought to my seventh grade self. “That’s a song from the radio. Are they allowed to do that?”

That camp experience is still potent in my memory, four decades later, and I always list it as a key part of my spiritual journey whenever I’m asked to lay out my spiritual timeline at some retreat or mission trip training event.

That’s where these kids were this weekend. How remarkable for them to get to go and be at a nice hotel with three thousand of their peers, and see a Christian band play with rock-concert-style staging — video screens, lighting and what have you.

The teens from Shelbyville First are a great group, and they really got out of this experience what you’d hope they would get out of it.

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We know that one peak experience doesn’t guarantee a life of faith. Nothing guarantees a life of faith; faith has to be renewed on an hourly basis. In fact, during a breakout session on Saturday I and the other adults from First UMC heard some disheartening statistics about how many children who actively participate in their church youth groups lose their connection to the church just as soon as they get to college.

Bellarive, which was the worship band for this weekend’s event, has a song lyric that goes “You will never fade away / Your love is here to stay,” and while God’s love is faithful we are not always faithful to God.

That’s a challenge and an admonition to all of us in the church, but it does nothing to diminish the value of, or the need for, events like Warmth In Winter, or the week-in, week-out youth activities in a local church. We do not know whose heart might have been turned this weekend. Decades from now, some great Christian leader – maybe a member of the clergy, maybe a layperson whose faith has been reflected in a life well-lived – may look back to that weekend in 2016 when she stood up in front of the stage in the mosh pit, bouncing up and down to the music of Bellarive and swapping warm fuzzies with strangers from other churches.

In case you’ve missed my previous posts, Warmth In Winter, which started in 1982, is an annual youth weekend held by the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Despite the name, the “Tennessee” conference is made up of Middle Tennessee.) It’s been held for the past several years at the Embassy Suites hotel and convention center in Murfreesboro, but it attracts thousands of teenagers and has outgrown even that facility. This year, for example, the Embassy Suites was sold out and there were church groups staying at several other hotels in the Medical Center Parkway area, plus some churches that just commuted. The Saturday morning programming had to be done in shifts – while the groups staying at the Embassy Suites were in breakout workshops, the groups staying off-site were in the main room for worship, and vice versa. Next year, Warmth In Winter will be held at Gaylord Opryland.

My nephew T.J. Carney was a member of one of the “design teams” that put on the event this year, and he appeared on stage a couple of times, in a skit and as a “stick figure dancer” (you had to be there). I could not be prouder. T.J.’s younger brother James also got to attend the event; they are both from Bell Buckle UMC.

So it was tremendously moving to see all the kids enjoying this experience and hope that it will have an impact on them down the road.

But I also enjoyed the programming directly. When you’re talking to teenagers, you don’t talk to them about nuances of theology, or socio-political implications, or textual criticism. Duffy Robbins, the keynote speaker for the event, had a three-point slogan upon which he based all three of his sermons: “God has a plan … Man has a problem … The choice is up to you.” Simple, clean and direct. Every now and then, even we adults need a message that cuts to the essentials and touches the heart.

Duffy Robbins, by the way, was terrific all around, with a sense of humor that appealed to everyone in the room. I found this on YouTube from 2014, but he did exactly the same routine this weekend:

He had a way of taking this simple story and making it come to life. A story about teaching his teenage daughter how to drive became a lesson on the Incarnation, and the need for God to be in the seat next to us. Just perfect.

The other major part of the program was illusionist Jared Hall:

I knew going in that I’d enjoy the program. I had seen enough slide shows from previous Warmth In Winter trips to have a basic sense of what the event was about. But as I posted Friday night, I wasn’t quite sure of my own role. I wasn’t rooming with the kids – that’s prohibited by United Methodist “safe sanctuaries” policies due to the risk. Our church’s director of children and youth, the wonderful Alden Procopio, does a great job with the kids, and so it’s not like I was needed to hand out stern looks. (The kids were great all weekend, really.) This was a suite hotel, and as the only adult male in the First UMC group I had a suite all to myself. I felt almost guilty for being there and enjoying the program.

After I wrote those words Friday night, a couple of things happened Saturday that made me feel better. We had a block of free time, and went to a nearby shopping area with a lot of food options. We gave the kids the freedom to go where they liked. Alden and the Three Moms – Vickie Hull, Tanya Lane and Rachel Cunningham – went with a few of the teens to a barbecue restaurant, but I tagged along with another group that went to Panda Express. Just being there, me and the teens hanging out, made me feel a little more like I was actually a chaperone and not just a tag-along. I sat with most of the same kids that night at the Murfreesboro District pizza party:

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I also found out that I had to be there. The event’s policy required that if there were male campers, there had to be a male adult from that church (and, I assume, vice versa). If I hadn’t been there, Grayson and Kenny and Sam might not have been able to be there.

I bought myself a T-shirt on Saturday, but I joked about not buying another souvenir I really wanted. At a layspeaking class I took last November, I was amused at the John Wesley bobblehead doll brought along by the teacher. They had those bobbleheads at the Cokesbury table at Warmth In Winter this weekend, but I decided they were too expensive.

Today, on our way home, we all stopped for lunch at Toot’s South. After we’d eaten, as we were trying to consolidate the plates a bit, all of a sudden the four grownups with whom I was sitting started looking at me and handed me a white paper bag and an envelope.

The bag, as you’ve no-doubt guessed, contained this:

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The envelope was even better – a card signed by the kids and the other adults thanking me for being there.

By the way, there’s a bad pollen problem inside Toot’s this time of year.

Warmth In Winter, Friday night

Terrific first night at Warmth In Winter.
As we were gathering for evening worship, there was a theatrical percussion group (along the lines of Stomp or Blue Man Group) called RePercussion, and they were terrific. Illusionist Jared Hall really only did one trick tonight, but I think we’ll see more of him tomorrow. Bellarive, the worship band, was great, and I really enjoyed the keynote speaker, Duffy Robbins, who was funny and relatable. Of course, none of this content is aimed at washed-up 53-year-olds; it’s aimed at youth, and there were 3,000 of them in the ballroom tonight, and I think they were really connecting to all of it. Communion was led by the Rev. Skip Armistead, whom I knew briefly in the early 90s when I was serving on the Tennessee Conference singles council (he probably doesn’t remember me), and the Rev. Amanda Diamond of Morton Memorial UMC, a great friend of the Mountain T.O.P. ministry whose pulpit I’ve filled before. After the service, I saw Amanda along with Kylene McDonald at the T-shirt booth, and I’m always happy to see Kylene.
I got to see my nephew T.J., who is on the design team which is running this show, very briefly; he’d been here all day and was already tired, and that was before evening worship. T.J.’s brother James is also here; I haven’t run into him yet.
I’m happy to be here, but I guess I don’t feel that much like a chaperone yet. There’s not much for me to do other than be here, and there are a few of the teens that I’m not sure even know who exactly I am, and vice versa. I am here in this big old suite, which I have all to myself as the only adult male in our group. The boys are next door. In the old days, teens and adults would have bunked together, but that’s prohibited, and understandably so, by the new Safe Sanctuaries policies. So that’s good in terms of me getting a good night’s sleep, but I feel almost guilty for being here.

a blessing in song

I am one of three people with administrative access to our church’s Facebook page. A few weeks ago, while my pastor, the Rev. Lanita Monroe, was on a mission trip to Louisiana, I was checking that page and there was a message from a man named John Lemonis.

Crosby LaneJohn is a member of a vocal trio called Crosby Lane, named for famed hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Their specialty is new, Americana-style or country-style arrangements of classic hymns, and they also tell the stories behind those hymns as they perform them in concert. They also have some original songs, one of which – “Crucified” – is right at this moment being played by not only Christian radio stations but country stations, and is about to premiere on the cable channel GAC.

Crosby Lane had a radio interview scheduled in Scottsboro, Alabama, early in the day on January  20, and then after that they would be driving back to their home base in the Nashville area. They had decided to message some churches along their route home to see if any of them might be interested in a Wednesday night performance.

I messaged John back telling them that our pastor was in Louisiana. I gave him her e-mail address. I had no idea whether he’d end up e-mailing her (after all, one of the other Facebook contacts might come through first), or how often Lanita was checking her e-mail while on the mission trip.

After the return of the mission team, I was delighted to discover that John had, in fact, gotten in touch with Lanita, who had agreed to have the group perform tonight. I tried to help get the word out through social media and on the church news page of the Times-Gazette, so that we’d have a decent crowd.

Then, of course, weather happened. I worried that Lanita might have to call off the church’s normal Wednesday night activities, or that we might have a poor crowd. When I stopped by the church while on my daily walk today, it looked like our Wednesday activities were good to go, but the person I spoke to at the church wasn’t sure whether the band was still coming. If they came, they would be driving down from Nashville rather than up from Alabama, since their appearance in Scottsboro – the whole initial reason for their visit here – had been cancelled.

They came, and I’m so glad they did. It was a wonderful performance, melodic and inspiring. John and Michaela Lemonis and Tonja Rose blessed all of us with their music, with the stories behind the hymns, and with their joy in performing, even for a crowd of 35-40 people on a cold, wet Wednesday night. As it happened, I ended up sitting at the same table as the three of them during dinner, and they couldn’t have been nicer or more enthusiastic.

Everyone who was there for the performance loved it, and many of us bought CDs afterwards. “We want you to come back!” someone called out.

I hope they do too, on a night when we can give them a bigger crowd  — even though they may have bigger and better things ahead.

a balm in gilead

Back in the 1980s, while my father was pastor of Bell Buckle, Blankenship and Ransom United Methodist churches, he looked out into his congregation one morning and saw the Murfreesboro District superintendent, William Morris, seated in the pews.

This was an unusual thing. My father was usually assigned to small, multi-point rural charges, and he’d never had a district superintendent drop in on a worship service like that, unannounced. He immediately wondered if something was wrong.

wmorrisNothing was wrong. Bill Morris was just the type of district superintendent who felt it was important to get out into the district and see what was going on in the churches. That really impressed my father. It was around that time, or not long after, that my father decided, on a whim, to invite Rev. Morris to preach at the annual Easter sunrise service at Blankenship. Dad sort of figured that a district superintendent would already be spoken for on Easter Sunday, but he was delighted to find out that Rev. Morris was available and willing to come.

I cannot count the number of times he’s preached Easter sunrise services for my father since that time, wherever Dad happened to be serving. The service would usually be outdoors, and Rev. Morris would usually conclude his sermon by singing something, a cappella, in his deep, rich voice. The song was often “There Is A Balm In Gilead,” a wonderful old hymn. His wife Mary was usually with him.

Rev. Morris went on to be appointed as a bishop – first in Alabama, but then back here in Tennessee. Even as a bishop, he came and preached several sunrise services for Dad.

Rev. Morris, long since retired from the episcopacy, had agreed to come and preach for Dad again this Easter. But he will be singing with a heavenly choir instead. Rev. Morris passed away this morning, at age 79.

For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting Bishop Morris – and I count it a privilege — I found this interview with him on YouTube:

He was a great man, and a credit to the United Methodist Church. I ask your prayers for his family.

all jerusalem was troubled

First UMC Shelbyville

January 3, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 (CEB)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

because from you will come one who governs,

who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

We think of this passage from Matthew as a story about three visitors from the East. The word for them in Latin was “magi,” plural of “magus.” Sometimes that’s translated as “wise men,” and sometimes – as in the Common English Bible, from which I read today – it’s not translated at all. The idea that they were kings is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew, in fact, is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story, and he uses the term “magi.” It was later Christian writers who called them kings, perhaps inspired by Old Testament prophecies of kings bowing before the Messiah. In fact, two of our other Lectionary passages today make reference to this. From Psalm 72:10-11 (CEB):

Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;

let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.

Let all the kings bow down before him;

let all the nations serve him.

And from Isaiah 60:2-3 (CEB):

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you;

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

There have been various theories about exactly who the magi were. The commentator William Barclay quotes the historian Herodotus; Herodotus identified the magi as Medes. The Medes were part of the Persian empire. They tried to overthrow their Persian conquerors and failed, and the leaders of the Medes lost their ambition for military victory, according to this story, and just became priests and religious leaders. They not only served their own people but they became advisors to their conquerors, the Persians.

As you’ve heard many times, we don’t actually know how many of them there were. “We Three Kings” makes a nice song, but all we know is that there were three different gifts. Those gifts could have been given by two magi or by 10. But we like the idea of three people, each one holding a different gift, and so that’s what we put on the Christmas cards.

The magi, whomever they were, saw a star which they interpreted as a sign, an indicator of the birth of a new king and they traveled to Judea to try to find out about it. Billy Hix will have more to say about that star during his program next Sunday night; it’s a great program and I strongly encourage you to attend.

The star only leads them in a general direction, towards Judea, and so when they arrive in that country they went to its capital, Jerusalem, to check in with its current king.

That king was Herod – or, more specifically, Herod the Great. There was a story just a week or two ago at the Christianity Today website, by a seminary professor named Alexander Stewart, in which he makes reference to three different books that have been published about Herod the Great in the past two or three years.

Most of us just know about Herod from this Bible story. The king about whom Matthew writes in this story is Herod the Great. There’s another king named Herod, Herod Antipas, who is referred to elsewhere in the Gospels, during the adult ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great.

Herod was not the king because he was descended from David. In fact, he wasn’t descended from the Jews at all. Herod was born about 73 B.C.E. His ancestry was Idumaean. The Idumaeans were known in the Old Testament as the Edomites. They had been conquered by the Jews in the second century B.C.E. and forced to convert to Judaism. So Herod was brought up as a Jew but was not truly of Jewish ancestry.

Herod the Great was King of the Jews because he’d been appointed to that post by the Romans. Julius Caesar had first appointed Herod’s father as procurator of Judea, and Herod was able to curry favor with a succession of Roman emperors and stay in power for 40 years.

By many earthly measures, Herod’s reign was a successful one. There’s a reason that he’s called “Herod the Great,” in comparison to his sons.

Herod expanded the temple in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall – a retaining wall which is one of the only remnants of that temple – is a must-see stop for tourists to Jerusalem. That western wall is part of what Herod built. He also built fortresses and seaports. His reign was a peaceful one. When there was famine, or hard times, he reduced taxes or even donated some of his own treasures to buy food for the people, something that few kings of that day or time would have done.

There was a famous saying about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that said, yes, he was a dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. It turns out that statement is a bit of a hoax – yes, the Italian train system got a lot better during Mussolini’s lifetime, but most of that had to do with improvements made by the administration from before Mussolini came to power.

Herod was an efficient ruler; if there had been trains in Herod’s time, Herod would certainly have made them run on time. But he was also jealous, and ruthless with those whom he perceived as a threat. Herod ruled with an iron fist.

Given Herod’s paranoia, it’s not surprising that he was upset when the magi showed up with reports that a new king had been born. But what surprises me is the rest of verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him?

Why?

What reason did the people of Jerusalem have to be troubled?

Herod was not well-loved by his people, and he knew it. When Herod was near death, he gave his officials a list of prominent citizens of Jerusalem, with the order that they were to be arrested, and whenever Herod died, those citizens were to be executed as well – so the people would not be inclined to rejoice at Herod’s passing. (Fortunately for the citizens of Jerusalem, this plan does not seem to have been carried out.)

Is that the reason the people of Jerusalem are troubled – because they’re afraid of how Herod will react to this threat? Are they afraid of being caught in the crossfire? Shouldn’t the promise of a new king be a sign of hope? Shouldn’t it give them reason to hope for redemption from the cruelty of Herod – and maybe even redemption from the Roman government which was the source of Herod’s power?

If anyone in Jerusalem was hopeful as a result of the magi’s visit, Matthew doesn’t tell us about them. He just says the people of Jerusalem were troubled, just as Herod was troubled.

We are often threatened and troubled by changes, even good ones. The prospect of a new king – a new regime – a new era – is a prospect full of questions. And we don’t like questions; we like certainty. Questions make us nervous. We want to be in control of our own fates, and changes remind us that we’re not.

The arrival of a new king would be a dramatic change, a change that could have profound effects, good or bad, for everyone in Jerusalem. Would he be a wise king or a foolish one? Herod derived his power from the Roman government, but perhaps a new king might try to challenge the Romans, to lead the people in revolt. Maybe such a revolt would be successful – but it might not be. And it could be bloody either way.

Or maybe Herod would try to end this new king’s reign before it began – perhaps that’s what the people were really concerned about. And if so, they had a right to be concerned. We know about the tragic action that Herod took in Bethlehem, killing all of the young boys under the age of two – an evil response from a ruthless and frightened man. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned to take his family to safety before Herod carried out this evil plan.

No one in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth could have possibly imagined what kind of king Jesus would turn out to be. Even the people who lived through his earthly ministry had trouble understanding what was going on and recognizing it as it happened. But the people of Jerusalem, hearing reports of a new king, could imagine enough possible outcomes to make them nervous. They were too busy imagining the worst to hope for the best.

The most troubling thing about our relationship with God isn’t going to church, or trying to do good, or confessing our sins. The most troubling thing about our relationship to God is that we have to give up control. The most troubling thing about true Christian faith is that it requires us to trust God, and often it requires us to reject the things that give us security. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and walk away from their livelihood as fishermen. He told a Pharisee named Saul to abandon his self-righteousness and the laws of Moses which had governed his life in order that Saul could become Paul, an evangelist to the Gentiles.

The Christmas season is a time of tradition and comfort, as we celebrate the arrival of a baby in a manger, someone who – it seems – cannot threaten us at all. But we cannot forget that this this baby is a king, a king who is destined to rule over us.

It’s interesting that while the people of Jerusalem were troubled by the arrival of their new king, the magi – who, according to most interpretations, were Gentiles and from another country – were celebrating. They, somehow, had a clearer view of the truth of what was happening. It reminds me a little of the story of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his daughter – a case where an outsider had a clearer understanding of who Jesus was, and how his kingdom worked, than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time.

The holiday which takes place on the Christian calendar this Wednesday, and which we’re celebrating a bit early this Sunday, is called “Epiphany.” That word has two common uses – one is as the name of this holiday, and the other is defined as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”

The magi, despite the fact that they were pagans, if you will, from another country, another religion, another way of life, had an epiphany. They saw a star, and they knew somehow, through some revelation of God, that the star was the indication of a new age to come. And the magi knew enough to come in reverent adoration, bearing gifts, to honor this king. Despite what we see on Christmas cards, this visit did not take place on Christmas night. It was some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. In the 11th verse of the passage I read earlier:

“They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Herod saw Jesus as a threat. The people of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a question mark. Both were afraid of this infant king. But the magi saw this king as a new hope, a cause for devotion and celebration.

It’s easy for us to be excited during the advent season about the celebration of the baby Jesus. But what will happen when we realize that this little baby is our king? Will we welcome him to the throne, or will we be troubled? Will we be like Herod, and refuse to yield the throne to this new ruler?

What does it mean to make Jesus the king of our life? It means giving up control. We don’t like giving up control. We want to be the king. We want security. We want to rule with an iron fist.

Or sometimes we are like the people of Jerusalem – we sit around and worry, more concerned about our own safety and convenience than we are about God’s plan.

When we reserve the throne for Jesus, when we make Jesus the king of our lives, sometimes we have to step out in faith. Sometimes we have to do things that frighten us. Sometimes we have to love people who are difficult to love. Sometimes we have to change our priorities. Following the star – following the king whom the star represents — may mean traveling far from home and comfort, and it may mean changing your travel plans if God tells you to.

But it also leads to a sense of joy and wonder that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were, it seems, incapable of experiencing.

What would happen this year if each of us decided to follow God’s epiphanies rather than our own fears?

my new study bible

I used to have a Wesley Study Bible, in the New Revised Standard Version, and I liked it – it was probably the favorite of the various study Bibles I’d owned up to that point. The Wesley Study Bible has interesting little features scattered throughout pointing out how particular Bible passages relate to Wesleyan theology.

Unfortunately, I lost the Bible. I think I must have misplaced it during a layspeaking assignment somewhere a year or two ago, but I’m not sure. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t realize it was gone right away – part of that was because I’d been listening to the Daily Audio Bible for my daily Bible reading, and I had a smaller, non-study Bible I would often take to church. The DAB is a great program – it costs nothing, and you can listen on your desktop, your phone or tablet, or even on smart TV devices like Roku (look for a podcast app for your smart TV). If you hop on board Jan. 1 it will take you through the Bible in a year’s time. I may take a break from it in 2016, however, if only because I don’t think I’ve been doing it justice and I think maybe forcing myself to read the Bible each day will be a better discipline for me. There are some great Bible reading plans available for download.

By the time I went looking for the study Bible – probably to start writing a sermon for another lay speaking assignment – I couldn’t figure out what had happened to it. It wasn’t in the lost and found at my home church, and so my best guess is that I left it at one of the other churches where I spoke.

I have other study Bibles, and continued to use them, but I missed that Wesley Study Bible. Meanwhile, I had become a fan of a different Bible translation – the Common English Bible.

I’ll digress a second. I suspect most of you understand the difference between translations and paraphrases, but just in case: a translation (like the New Revised Standard Version or the New International Version) is a Bible version prepared by a team of translators, working from the best and most reliable old manuscripts available, who strive for a high standard of accuracy in the difficult task of translating writings from thousands of years ago into the English of today. A paraphrase (like The Message) is often the work of one person and is designed to be readable, often updating figures of speech, metaphors or expressions by replacing them with close English equivalents.

WP_20151226_19_50_46_Pro (2)Either has its uses – a paraphrase can be great for personal reading and can be dramatic when read aloud in a worship service. But if you’re trying to settle a complex or nuanced theological point, a translation is likely to be more accurate and reliable.

I like the CEB because it is a true translation – prepared by a team of scholars – and yet it has the readability of many of the paraphrase versions. The CEB is also endorsed by the United Methodist Church and is now used in some of the church literature.

I knew that an edition of the Wesley Study Bible was now available using the CEB translation. My father often just gets me clothes for Christmas, and they’re wonderful – I’m lousy at buying clothes for myself. But this year he specifically – and repeatedly – asked me for a wish list. One of the two items I mentioned was a CEB Wesley Study Bible, and sure enough it was under the tree yesterday – with my name inscribed on the cover.

I want to take good care of it, so I braved the after-Christmas crowd at Walmart this morning to buy a Bible cover. I’ve put contact information in a little window inside the Bible cover in case I try to leave this Bible somewhere, and I’ll write my name inside the Bible too (since the Bible cover hides hides my name on the front of the actual Bible).

Happily, I’ll have this Bible to use from the pulpit in another week when I preach Jan. 3 at First UMC in Shelbyville. Often, I just copy and paste the Bible passage into the manuscript of my sermon and read it from the printout. I’ve been told at lay speaking classes not to do that, though – it helps to give reverence to the Bible reading if the congregation actually sees you holding and reading from the Bible.

call waiting

Ever since my father became a United Methodist minister, people have asked me if I planned to follow in his footsteps. I’ve never felt that call. I do, in fact, love to write and preach sermons – maybe for some of the wrong reasons. I have been a United Methodist layspeaker since the 1990s, filling in for ordained ministers when they go on vacation, get sick, or what have you. The past few years, I had been averaging up to one speaking assignment a month, but this year has been slow, for no particular reason. It’s just that way. A couple of people who used to call on me regularly are now in different situations.

But being a pastor is a lot more than preaching, or even preparing sermons. A lot more. As a PK, I’ve seen that firsthand. And I don’t think I’m suited for some of the tasks that are part and parcel of that job. Now, it’s true that God sometimes qualifies the called instead of calling the qualified. God sometimes brings out strengths or abilities that the simple shepherd boy from Bethlehem or the Galilean fishermen didn’t know they possessed. But I just don’t feel called to that particular job.

There’s something of an irony, then, that I’m now part of the process for people who do feel that call. Last summer, I joined the District Committee on Ordained Ministry, or “D-COM,” for the Murfreesboro District of the United Methodist Church. There are various types of pastoral ministry within the United Methodist Church – although not everyone achieves, or intends to achieve, the final destination as an ordained elder. But there’s a process you go through to get to each of these various steps. And at various points on the journey, you go before D-COM, which makes recommendations about whether you should proceed.

When I was first called last spring and asked to serve on D-COM, I wasn’t really familiar with it and thought they had called me by mistake, meaning to call my father. But D-COM has both ordained clergy and laypeople as members. I am a layperson member.

My first D-COM meeting was last summer. I had to miss the next meeting due to work responsibilities, so tonight was my second chance to actually attend. At last summer’s meeting, we were interviewing candidates who were very early in the process – the only decision we had to make was whether or not to allow them to go to an exploratory retreat where they would discuss God’s call on their lives.

Tonight’s meeting was with candidates who were further along in the process. Naturally, I can’t discuss any of the specifics, which are confidential. We divided up into two teams, and each team conducted interviews separately.

The thing that struck me tonight was that each of the three candidates I heard from humbled me in some way. Each of them had some quality to that person’s life or ministry that made me think, “Gee, I wish I had more of that.”

And I have to admit, even though I haven’t heard that particular call I find myself a little envious of them for having a call. They didn’t necessarily all know exactly what form of ministry they were being called to, but they were in the pipeline, trying to respond to God’s call, moving forward.

I wish I had as clear a vision of where God wants me or what God wants me doing.

melts in your mouth, not on the bulletin

I cannot wait to tell my father about the children’s sermon at First UMC this morning.

You have to understand that my father is a big M&Ms fan (as are we all, but in his case particularly so). He loves the M&Ms themselves and loves various dispensers and merchandise with the M&Ms characters on them. I gave him a heads up a couple months ago when a temporary pop-up M&Ms World store opened in Cleveland, Tenn. (Did you know M&Ms were manufactured in Cleveland? I didn’t, until I happened to get the press release about the pop-up store.) Sure enough, he and Ms. Rachel made a special shopping trip to Cleveland, which is on the other side of Chattanooga.

mmsAnyway, there’s a corny old joke, which I’ve told more than once, about the joke-teller’s stupid uncle who got fired from the M&M factory for marking all the “W”s as factory seconds and throwing them out. In a sense, that’s what our director of children and youth Alden Procopio played off of in her children’s message. She gave each child a few M&Ms and showed them that, depending on how you held a piece, the marking looked like an “M,” a “W,” an “E” or the number “3.” Then, she read a little poem in which the E stood for the star in the East, the M stood for the manger in which the baby Jesus was laid, the 3 stood for the three wise men* and the W stood for the fact that they came to worship the child.

I just thought it was a fun visual aid, and you can immediately see why I want to share it with Dad for him to use at his church.

*Yes, I know there weren’t necessarily three wise men, and that the child was no longer in a manger when they came to see him.

a long day, but a good one

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Since the 1990s, I’ve been a United Methodist lay speaker – which, when I first got into the program, simply meant someone who was not an ordained minister but who was approved by the church to preach. A layspeaker might fill in for a sick or visiting pastor, and some churches have “laity Sunday” observances in which the entire worship service is presented by members of the church.

When I got involved, you would take a basic lay speaking class, about 8-10 hours of instruction – after which you were approved to speak at your own home church. Then, after you’d taken any of the available advanced classes, you became a “certified lay speaker,” approved to speak in any United Methodist Church. You had to take some sort of advanced course at least every three years in order to remain certified. Many people would take courses more frequently, just because they’re usually enjoyable, and you get to know and reconnect with other lay speakers.

A few years ago, the United Methodist church re-worked the program a bit – it’s now known as “lay servant ministries” instead of “lay speaking ministries,” and more different types of people are encouraged to get involved, even those with no desire to stand behind a pulpit. Within that program, there is still such a thing as a “certified lay speaker,” which now has more stringent requirements than before. Instead of becoming certified after one random course, you have to take at least one course each in five different topic areas. I was grandfathered in under the old requirements – not automatically, but based on an endorsement from the director of lay servant ministries for the Murfreesboro District, Ruthan Patient. But of course, I still need (and want!) to continue to take courses.

In recent years, the format for the course was either Friday-night-and-Saturday or Saturday-and-Sunday-afternoon. At any given event, the basic class will be offered for those who need it, while there will be one or more advanced classes going on at the same time.

After a couple of recent training events failed to get enough registrations to “make,” they decided to monkey with the format and whole the whole thing on Saturday.

That’s where I was today – at Blackman UMC in Murfreesboro.

The new format proved popular with students – we had forty some-odd people today – but it also made for a long day. We gathered at 8:15, started at 8:30, and were supposed to dismiss at 6. But the closing worship ran long, and so we didn’t get away until 6:30 p.m.

WP_20151114_10_30_23_ProI’ve spent too many words setting this all up. What I really wanted to say was that today was a good one. I was in a class on United Methodist heritage and how it relates to our beliefs, taught by the Rev. Karen Barrineau. I’d thoroughly enjoyed reading the text, Living Our Beliefs by Bishop Kenneth Carder, and Rev. Barrineau did a terrific job with the class. I learned a lot about Methodist history – although now I want to go and read full autobiographies of John Wesley and Francis Asbury. (And I definitely want a John Wesley bobblehead.)

One of my classmates was Wayne Bradshaw, with whom I’ve served on a committee and who I’ve been with at previous training events. Wayne goes to Morton Memorial UMC. I saw several others at the event; Ruthan, of course, was running the whole she-bang.

Others I knew at the event included Tom and Nita Wright from Smyrna and Jim Overcast from Shelbyville. Later in the day, District Superintendent LeNoir Culbertson and Rev. De Hennessy dropped by; Rev. Culbertson officiated at the communion during our closing worship service.

the body of christ, broken for you

I had all but forgotten that it was my turn to be a greeter at Sunday School today, but my phone beeped helpfully at me, and I was able to get to church a few minutes before I needed to be there. We were standing there chatting with Rev. Lanita Monroe when she asked me – apologizing for the short notice – if I would assist in Communion.

I was delighted. I don’t do it that often, and I consider it a privilege. I was thinking about this just a week ago while listening to this excellent episode of The Liturgists Podcast, featuring Rachel Held Evans talking about her book “Searching For Sunday,” which I’m reading right now. Both Rachel and one of the regular hosts – I can’t remember whether it was Michael Gungor or “Science Mike” McHargue – told the stories of what it meant to them to serve communion for the first time. (By the way: Check out The Liturgists Podcast. It’s excellent.)

And today was actually World Communion Sunday. I’ll let Chuck tell you about it:

So, I assisted. As a lay speaker, I find it’s amazing how many little details you don’t think about in worship until you happen to find yourself responsible for them. I wasn’t sure which direction to go, or when to move. Was I going to fast? Was I holding the tray too high for people to reach comfortably?

It all worked, and it’s wonderful to watch the variety of people in church – young and old, men and women, what have you – receiving the sacrament. We have two different people at church who are in wheelchairs with severe mobility or muscular issues, and in both cases a family member has to gently put the little piece of bread in their mouth and gently hold the little glass cup up to their lips. It’s a powerful thing to see up close – the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.

Next Sunday, First UMC will play host to 13 other churches for their charge conferences – an annual meeting at which various church reports are turned over to the district superintendent for approval, and at which each church approves various committees and leadership positions for the coming year. In the past, each church would host its own charge conference, but this year they’re being done in county-wide batches at central locations, and at each such location there will be a combined worship service following the separate business meetings.

Anyway, the district director of lay speaking/lay servant ministries, Ruthan Patient, has asked me to help her next Sunday in greeting and guiding the various church members as they arrive. We’ll have someplace for each church to wait until it’s time for that church to meet with the D.S. I always enjoy working with Ruthan, and so it should be a fun afternoon.