in through the back door

I was over at my father’s this afternoon and he turned on “Emergency!” on MeTV. For my younger readers, “Emergency!” was an hour-long drama from the 1970s about two firefighter/paramedics in Los Angeles and the doctors and nurse who supervised their medical work at a nearby hospital. It was a popular and entertaining show, but it had an even-larger impact on the real world than its ratings would indicate. The show informed the casual viewer about paramedics, an idea that was still in its infancy, and encouraged the creation of paramedic programs in cities and towns across the U.S. It was from Jack Webb’s production company, but an associate of Webb’s named R.A. Cinader was in day-to-day charge of things.

The episode we happened to watch today, however, spent a small amount of time on the regular characters. Instead, it focused on Los Angeles animal control – two officers, one of them played by an impossibly-young Mark Harmon, a veterinarian played by David Huddleston, and a supervisor played by Bing Crosby’s son Gary.

I immediately figured it to be a backdoor pilot – and a quick check of Wikipedia confirmed this.

What’s a backdoor pilot?

Each year, TV networks receive hundreds of proposals for new shows from studios and independent producers. At a certain time of year, each network selects the most promising proposals and orders “pilot episodes” – sample episodes that demonstrate what the show will look like. It’s those pilot episodes that the network uses to decide which ideas it will actually order to series.

Sometimes, pilot episodes are seen by the public. If the show makes it to series, the pilot may – or may not – be used as one of the first-season episodes. However, if the network asked for a lot of changes to the pilot, or if a lot of roles had to be recast, the pilot may never see the light of day, except maybe as a DVD box set extra or what have you. Some cable network – TV Land, maybe – once ran the previously-unaired pilot for “Gilligan’s Island,” which was significantly different from the show which followed it. For example, instead of Ginger being a movie star, Ginger and Mary Ann were secretaries and best friends. There was a high school teacher instead of a professor.

“Star Trek” had a first pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC disliked numerous things about it but still saw potential, and asked Gene Roddenberry to shoot a then-unheard-of second pilot. By that time, Hunter was unavailable and Roddenberry cast William Shatner instead, changing the character’s name. However, frugal Roddenberry didn’t throw that pilot footage away – he simply declared that Pike had been captain of the Enterprise before James T. Kirk, and that allowed him to use much of the Jeffrey Hunter footage as flashback sequences for a first-season episode of the show.

If a pilot episode is not picked up to become a series, the pilot may be locked away – or maybe shown as a one-time special. A few years ago, there was a very funny pilot, “Mockingbird Lane,” which was a witty re-imagining of “The Munsters” starring Jerry O’Connell and Eddie Izzard. The show was not picked up, but the pilot episode was aired around Halloween as a special.

So that’s a “pilot” – but what is a “backdoor pilot”?

In 1959, Danny Thomas – star of “The Danny Thomas Show” – and his producing partner Sheldon Leonard (Nick the bartender from “It’s A Wonderful Life”) wanted to create a TV show around rising young comic and actor Andy Griffith. They pitched it to CBS, but CBS was not interested enough to put up money to shoot a pilot.

So Thomas and Leonard put their heads together and found a way to shoot a pilot without the network putting up any extra money. They wrote an episode of the show they already had on the air – “The Danny Thomas Show” – in which Danny’s character is traveling through the South and his car breaks down in the small town of Mayberry, North Carolina. Danny is introduced to the town’s sheriff, Andy Taylor, and various other colorful characters.

The strategy worked. Using money already in their budget, they were able to give the network a glimpse of what they were planning even though the network hadn’t funded an official, stand-alone pilot. The network ordered “The Andy Griffith Show” to series, and the rest is history.

This technique of using an episode of an existing show to introduce a potential new one became known as a “backdoor pilot.” The resulting episodes are sometimes clunky and contrived, but that’s the price you pay.

“Emergency!”’s “backdoor pilot” about Los Angeles animal control was not picked up by NBC, and so it remained an unusual – and unusually star-heavy — episode of the show. It was a little bit contrived – the animal control officers rescue a child’s pet goat from a fire, but can’t get it to a veterinary hospital in time to rescue it from heart problems and so must convince a doctor from the normal “Emergency!” cast to operate instead, with the remote radio advice of Huddleston’s kindly veterinarian.

OK, this is probably more than you wanted to know about backdoor pilots. What can I say? Maybe I should propose a pilot episode about the Guy Who Loves To Mansplain Things.

Familiar faces

It was raining when we got up this morning, and so the leaders talked seriously about calling off our trip to Sliding Rock, not only because of rain at the location (after all, the kids were going to get wet anyway) but because of the possibility of rain during our drive down there and back, on windy mountain roads in (mostly) rented vans.

But the rain seemed to take a break, and so we decided to go on — a little earlier than the original schedule. That turned out to be a good thing; our group got to Sliding Rock early, and the kids got some time in before the big crowd showed up. The sun was out for most of the time we were there and there was no rain … but just wait.

Sliding Rock, located within Pisgah National Forest, is a natural rock formation which works like a water slide. Here’s some video I took today that will give you an idea:

I did not slide — and I was not alone; I believe Alden was the only adult who slid out of either the First UMC or Isle Of Hope UMC groups. It looked like fun — but the pool of water at the bottom was quite cold, and I was still feeling a little beaten up from tubing yesterday.

When we first pulled into the parking lot, the very next vehicle after us turned out to have Bedford County plates. I eventually figured out that it was the Osterhaus family. I know Emily Osterhaus, who works in the local extension office with the 4-H program. I didn’t get to speak to her today, though, just her husband. I think I saw her sliding, though.

WP_20160627_11_18_01_ProI also saw two other familiar faces today at Sliding Rock — these two, I was expecting. My long-time Mountain T.O.P. friend Sonja Goold and her husband recently moved to Brevard, North Carolina, and as luck would have it Kim Lachler, another Mountain T.O.P. friend, was visiting her. We made arrangements before the trip to connect at Sliding Rock, which Sonja had been wanting to visit anyway. Sonja and Kim had both been to last week’s Mountain T.O.P. AIM event, and so they filled me in on all the details. It was great seeing them.

After the teens had their fill of sliding, we drove to a picnic area in the forest, where we’d reserved a covered pavilion. We had just finished eating and were thinking about getting underway when it started to drizzle. I walked across a large field to the restrooms, and just about the time I got inside it started pouring. I finished my business, then came outside and stood under an awning the eaves, watching the group from afar to see what they were going to do. Finally, the rain let up a little bit and they started heading in my direction (the restroom was close to the parking area). Fortunately, the rain wasn’t too bad on the drive back. (I was not driving our van; Karen Griffin was.)

We got back to camp and I walked up the street to the Lake Junaluska bookstore and cafe, really the only chance I’ve had to explore any of the Lake Junaluska campus. I had a frosty frappucino with chocolate chips — I don’t drink much coffee, but this was quite refreshing and I figured I needed the caffeine at this point. On my way up and back, I walked past the World Methodist Museum, which I had really wanted to see but which is closed on Sundays and Mondays, so I’ll have to catch it on a future trip.

Tonight, we will walk to a cross on the Junaluska property. This closing ceremony, as Alden was describing it today, is quite a tradition for our senior partners from Isle Of Hope. We will get on the road tomorrow, headed for home. It’s been a great trip.


WP_20160626_16_02_58_ProI felt like such an idiot yesterday for having worried so much about white-water rafting. As I posted yesterday, I had a blast.

I’d never been tubing, either, but it sounded like it would be a lot more relaxing, and nowhere near as challenging.





One continues the journey of self-discovery throughout one’s life, and today I discovered that I am not cut out for tubing. Everything I worried about from white-water rafting came true in tubing. I was an ungainly idiot just getting into the tube, and scratched up my left leg at that point. I kept getting turned around backwards and couldn’t figure out a good way to turn myself around, so I kept getting into the wrong areas — stuck on rocks or flipping over in the rapids. I flipped over at least three times, scratching my right leg even worse than I’d scratched the left one.
Later, several others would try to tell me that they, too, had had trouble, either today or else the first time they’d gone tubing. But I was having worse trouble, as evidenced by the fact that I was lagging way behind the rest of the group. Alden, our leader, and Tori, one of the youth, hung back so that they could keep me in view, which made me feel guilty.

Finally, after about the third time I flipped, I was gasping for breath and just feeling completely frustrated, completely clumsy and fatter than Fatty Arbuckle.

I stood there, in the current, trying to catch my breath. I was at a place where there was a way back up to the path.

I heard Alden’s voice: “I think you’re going to have to walk it.” I did not realize at the time that Alden was talking to Tori, telling her that a particular area was so shallow that Tori would have to pick up her tube and cross it that way. I thought Alden was talking to me, confirming that I was just so incredibly bad at tubing that now was the time to give up.

I stood there for a few minutes. Alden got out of her tube, went ashore, and walked back to where I was. She clarified that she was not telling me to stop, and in fact she encouraged me to continue, saying that we’d passed the worst of the rapids and it was much easier from that point downstream. But by that time my mind was made up. I did not want to get back in that tube, I did not want to feel like I was holding everyone else back; I just wanted to go.

I got out of the water and made the walk, which seemed like a mile or more, back to the tube rental place. (On the way up, we had actually driven part of the way, but those vans were now already back at the rental place, where we would eat lunch.) It was a long walk, carrying a light but ungainly tube, and I think I’d pulled some muscle in my hip at some point while I was in the water. It actually hurts worse now than it did then; I especially felt it when getting into and out of the van for the ride back to Junaluska. I was berating myself pretty much the whole walk back.

When I got back to the tube rental place, the first few tubers from Isle of Hope were starting to arrive. Kim Floyd, a delightful woman from Isle of Hope who has been doing our food service this weekend, put disinfectant and Neosporin on my shins and taped a big piece of gauze on my right one. I was really grateful for her help and kindness.

I eventually got over feeling sorry for myself. The kids had a great time, and many of them eagerly went back up the hill to do it all over again after lunch. And that’s who this trip is about, after all — the kids.

We had pre-ordered hamburgers for lunch from the snack bar there at the tube rental place, and they were quite good. Later, if we wanted, we could buy ice cream from that same snack bar. I had some Mayfield blueberry cheesecake, and it was terrific. There’s nothing like a couple of scoops of ice cream to put you in a better mood.

Worry too much

Sometimes it feels like bars of steel
I cannot bend with my hands
Oh-I worry too much
Somebody told me that I worry too much

— From “Worry Too Much,” by Mark Heard

One of the reasons I chose “Lake Neuron” as a domain name was a deprecating reference to the fact that I sometimes tend to overthink things. That was certainly the case with white water rafting. Being fatter than I once was, older and less flexible than I once was, I imagined any number of ways that white-water rafting could go wrong for me, starting with stepping into the raft.

Not one of them happened. In fact, I had a fabulous time white-water rafting.

Backing up for those who don’t know, I’m here in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, for a trip with the middle school youth from my home church, First United Methodist in Shelbyville. Lake Junaluska is a Methodist retreat and conference facility. It’s huge, sort of a small town wrapped around a lake, and there are various events, big and small, going on at any given time. A lot of United Methodist ministers retire here.

Our trip here is a joint venture between First UMC and Isle of Hope UMC from Savannah, Georgia. The reason for this is that our director of children and youth, Alden Procopio, is originally from Savannah and Isle of Hope and participated with them in years past. They have a very large group; we’re sort of the junior partner, with only three adults and six kids.

We are staying in a beautiful converted house on the compound called the Lagoalinda Inn. The inn overlooks the lake, and we can see kayakers out there. However, all of our water adventures are off-site. Today, we drove back over the border into Tennessee for the white-water rafting, which was on the Pigeon River.

In my raft today, I was with two of our First UMC kids, Grayson and Kenny, and an adult (my roommate here at Lagoalinda, Henry) and two boys from Isle of Hope, plus our guide, a red-headed woman named Katie. It was loads of fun, and I felt like such an idiot for worrying so much about it. The safety briefing today, of course, was Ground Zero for worry-warts; they talk about how you react to various situations, which just reminds you of all the ways in which the trip could conceivably go wrong.

I was in such a good mood that I spent money on a USB with 16 photos of our raft — too much money, but, hey, it’s the only proof I have. I can look at those photos for a long time to come.

Later in the day, we went to downtown Waynesville, the city closest to Lake Junaluska. It’s got a really lovely and active downtown area — it reminds me a little of Fayetteville, North Carolina, where my brother Michael and his family live. We went in this place called Mast General Store — it’s part of a chain. Upstairs, it’s a clothing store, but downstairs, there are various other types of merchandise including the biggest selection of candy I have ever seen — big old bushels of bulk candy, plus all sorts of other types of candy — lollipops made with maple sugar, PEZ dispensers, candy bars you haven’t seen in ages and assumed had gone out of production, and lots more. It was a hoot.

Also at Mast, I tried a Blenheim hot ginger ale. This is a North South Carolina product which I first learned about in, I guess, the late 1970s, when Charles Kuralt did an “On The Road” segment on them for CBS News. It’s not like any other ginger ale you’ve ever tasted — tangy, but with a heavy ginger bite. They have “hot” and “not” varieties, in case you want the ginger a little more subdued.

Tomorrow, we will go tubing, and then on Monday, we will go to Sliding Rock near Brevard, North Carolina, a natural feature which is a little like a water slide.

We do have programming — a guest speaker who talks to the kids in the morning, before we head out, and then again in the evening. He’s been great so far as well. He has an interesting background — converted to Christianity from a family of Jews.

Anyway, I’m having a great time. Like Warmth In Winter, it feels more like a vacation than like being a chaperone, but Alden says I’m doing fine. In any case, if it weren’t for my presence, Grayson and Kenny couldn’t be here, because our church rules require that for this type of overnight trip, you have to have a male chaperone if there are any male campers (and vice versa).

We’ll drive back home on Tuesday.

chili, interrupted

Well, I joined the International Chili Society earlier this week, so I guess that means I’m committed – I’m going to enter my first-ever sanctioned chili cookoff next month in Shelbyville.

Some special spices I had ordered last week arrived on Monday, and today, our local Piggly Wiggly store started a special “truckload sale” on meat, including the cut of meat which one of our local competitive chili experts had advised me to use. Even though it hasn’t exactly been chili weather, I was itching to make my first test batch, fine-tuning a combination of various recipes and techniques I’ve stumbled across over the years. I stopped by Piggly Wiggly on the way home and bought the roast.

The chili had been on the stove for maybe half an hour, 45 minutes when the power went out – for an hour and 15 minutes. I have resumed cooking. I don’t think it will affect the flavor that much – it might affect the way the meat cooks, but who knows?

At some point, probably after I get back from my trip with the youth next weekend, I will go ahead and borrow the Coleman stove that I will be using at the cookoff and make another test batch that way (incorporating any changes in the recipe that I decide on after tonight).

I don’t know what my chances are, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I hope this isn’t an omen.

An RC and a Moon Pie

If you are within driving distance of Bedford County, let me suggest a weekend activity for you: the RC Cola & Moon Pie Festival in Bell Buckle, which will take place this Saturday, the 18th.
This is one of my favorite events, and I always volunteer to cover it for the newspaper. It’s a fun little festival with a quirky, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Bell Buckle is an eclectic little railroad town in northeastern Bedford County. It’s home to The Webb School, an outstanding prep school with students from all over the world. The combination of the rural setting and the academic influence has always given Bell Buckle its own quirky personality. My father had a three-point charge including Bell Buckle UMC for 17 years, and so I lived in the parsonage there my last two or three years of high school and when I was home from college.
Back when I lived there, there was an event held in June called the “Country Fair,” sort of a wannabe stepchild of the huge Webb School Art & Craft festival that takes place each October. By the mid-90s, the country fair had atrophied and the town’s merchants were looking for a way to revive it. Someone read a news story about the anniversary of the Moon Pie, and the town contacted Chattanooga Bakery and asked for permission to put on a Moon Pie festival. Chattanooga Bakery, probably not expecting much, gave its permission, as did the local RC Cola bottler, and the first RC Cola and Moon Pie Festival was held in 1995.
Moon Pie is a snack consisting of two cookies, with a marshmallow filling between them, dipped in chocolate (or some other flavored coating — there are now multiple flavors). In olden days, Moon Pie was one of the largest and most filling snack foods which was sold in country stores, and Royal Crown Cola came in a larger glass bottle than Coke or Pepsi for the same price. Hungry farm laborers would combine the two as a make-do lunch, and “an RC and a Moon Pie” became inextricably linked in southern culture.
In 1996, the Olympic Games in Atlanta were the talk of the region — the torch relay even passed through Shelbyville — and the Moon Pie festival responded in typical fashion. That year only, it was billed as the “Moon Pie Games.” The 10-mile run, which is still a regular feature of the festival, was added. It is 10 miles, NOT 10K, and the course is hilly and challenging, especially in hot weather. That is a serious run, managed by the Nashville Striders running club with computer chip timing. But another 1996 innovation, poking fun at the Olympics, was “synchronized wading.” Carla Webb, who is currently Bell Buckle’s first lady, started writing brilliantly funny skits — referencing local personalities and events — which were performed in a wading pool. Synchronized wading continued for many years, and is revived occasionally. This year, however, Carla is part of a new musical act, Davis and Dayle, which will be making an appearance as live entertainment at the festival. I’m curious to see them.
The festival draws numerous vendors, including crafts, food and what have you. There’s live entertainment including cloggers and a band. The centerpiece of the day is the parade, which passes in front of the town’s railroad storefronts, followed by the crowning of the RC King and Moon Pie queen. There have been some quite prominent honorees over the years, including Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter just a year or two before Waylon’s passing. Gov. Bill Haslam was the king one year. I first met Russ and Tori Taff while writing a story about their selection as king and queen, a few months after they moved to Bell Buckle. After the Nashville floods, a family from Nashville which had lost its home was honored, and there was a voluntary admission fee for the festival that year to benefit them.
This year’s king and queen will be world champion duck caller Johnny “Boo” Mahfouz and Miss Plus Size Tennessee Misti Appleby (she’s a Bell Buckle resident).
At the end of the day, around 4 p.m., the “world’s largest Moon Pie” is sliced and served to festival-goers. I have to admit I am usually not around for that part. I tend to arrive before 7 so that I can get good photos and/or video of the 10-mile run starting, and so by mid-afternoon, I’m often pooped, especially if it’s a hot day.
But it’s a good kind of pooped. I love this festival, and I think you’d love it too.
For more information, go to

broadsword, calling danny boy

Turner Classic Movies runs a Memorial Day marathon of war movies – but, given the somber nature of the holiday, they run a sort-of-surprising variety of movies within that genre. Yesterday, the emphasis was on service comedies, including both Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello, as well as “No Time For Sergeants.” I wonder if they ever get any complaints.

Tonight in prime time, they’re running “Where Eagles Dare,” one of my all-time favorite movies, but it’s a slam-bang, over-the-top spy thriller.

I am sure most of you have seen it, and I’ve blogged about it before, but in case you’ve somehow missed it, it stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. Burton, of course, is known for heavier dramatic fare, but his son challenged him to do an action movie as a change of pace, and to prove his versatility. “The Guns of Navarone” (which will also be on TCM today) had been a big hit, and so Burton wanted to adapt another Alistair MacLean spy novel. But all of MacLean’s novels were spoken for, and so MacLean agreed to write a new, original screenplay, which he then turned into a novel. Eastwood, who was riding high as the star of Sergio Leone westerns, wasn’t sure about taking second billing, but agreed to it anyway, and the two of them make a fantastic team – the bombastic Brit and the cool, laconic American.

This is one of those movies that you don’t want to spoil, but I can give you the basic setup. An American general, with knowledge of the D-Day plans, has been shot down and captured by the Germans and is being held prisoner in a remote mountain castle. A British commando team, headed by Burton, with Eastwood as a token American member, is dispatched to rescue him.  But events soon make it clear that the situation isn’t what it seems and that no one can be trusted.

Supposedly, Spielberg is a fan of this – when he was asked about it by an interviewer, he immediately started parroting Burton’s radio call sign, “Broadsword calling Danny Boy.” Once it gets going, the last two-thirds of it have the same sort of slam-bang action-serial pace as Spielberg’s “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” There’s a fight on top of a skylift car.

Anyway, I love it. I have it set to record (I also have the DVD around here somewhere), but I’ll probably watch it live if I’m here tonight.

The Very Impressive Centurion

Mt. Lebanon UMC
May 29, 2016

Luke 7:1-10 (CEB)

7 After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said,“I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” 10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.

This is one of my favorite stories from the Gospels, and when I saw it in the Lectionary for this week I was delighted, and I thought I knew the story well. But whenever I go to look something like this up for a sermon I learn something new.
For example, a week ago I would have told you that a centurion was an officer in the Roman army who was in charge of 100 men. The word “centurion” comes from the same root as “century,” or “bicentennial,” or “percent.” It means 100.
However, I learned that by the time of Jesus, the Romans had changed their structure a little bit, and by that time a “centurion” was actually in charge of about 80 soldiers. The Romans didn’t bother changing the name, though; they were still called “centurions.” It’s like when you say you’re going to “dial” a phone number even though your phone doesn’t have a dial. Force of habit.
But actually, it’s possible that the centurion we’re talking about here wasn’t really with the Roman army at all – at least, not the real Roman army. According to the Wesley Study Bible, historians tell us that the Romans had no troops stationed in the region of Galilee, which they considered a remote and unimportant backwater. So this particular centurion, and whoever was under his command, may have been local forces, not actually a part of the official Roman army but rather mercenaries whom the Romans had hired to keep the peace – sort of a Roman cross between the National Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
But the qualities that made a good centurion were the same no matter what the nationality. Luke, who wrote both this gospel and the book of Acts, mentions centurions numerous times, and according to the commentator William Barclay it’s always in a positive context. It was a centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion who said “Surely this was the son of God.” There were several times in the book of Acts when we hear about centurions protecting Paul or ensuring that Paul is treated fairly while he is a Roman prisoner.
Perhaps it was the case that a centurion was a man who had proven himself worthy and earned some level of trust and responsibility – but who hadn’t yet risen high enough on the organizational chart to be truly corrupted by power.
Whatever his citizenship, we know that the centurion in today’s scripture was a gentile – and yet, he was a gentile who was friendly with, and supportive of, the local Jewish population. In Luke’s account, the Jewish elders from that community come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They tell Jesus that the centurion loves their people and that he actually donated the money to build the local synagogue.
The great center of worship for Jews was the temple in Jerusalem. But synagogues were, and are, neighborhood or community meeting places which are the Jewish equivalent of a local church.
Although the Romans had their own gods, and their own belief system, they did not necessarily force the countries they conquered to worship their gods. If there was a pre-existing religion, and if it wasn’t fanatical, the Romans tended to encourage that it continue, believing religion to be a civilizing, or at least pacifying, influence. The Roman emperors would rather have the people in a temple or a synagogue than in someone’s back room plotting rebellion. In fact, according to William Barclay, Caesar Augustus encouraged the building of synagogues in Judaea for that very reason.
But we don’t get the sense that this centurion’s support of the local synagogue in Capernaum was calculated. We get the sense that he had developed a warm and friendly relationship with the Jews of that area, which is all the more amazing because the laws of Moses limited the extent to which he, as a gentile, could interact with those Jews.
It is possible for a Gentile to convert to Judaism, but that’s not what had happened here. The centurion remained a Gentile. That meant that in certain ways, he and the people he was helping had to remain at arm’s length. But he was friendly enough to Judaism to give enough money to build the local Jewish community a meeting place.
It’s easy to be generous to your own. It’s harder to be generous to those outside your circle, and even harder to be generous to people who are, by their own laws, prevented from showing you a full measure of generosity.
This centurion was a remarkable man. But the Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people as examples of faith.
This centurion had a slave who was ill. Now, just as this centurion’s attitude toward the Jews was quite unusual, his attitude towards his slave was also quite unusual. Roman slaves had no rights. One writer even recommended to his fellow Romans that they go through their slaves every year or two and the ones who were no longer productive should be abandoned to die. But this centurion apparently had a different attitude towards this slave, and the slave’s illness grieved the centurion.
And so, the elders came to Jesus and they asked Jesus to intervene. They tell Jesus what a good man the centurion is, and it comes out as if they’re apologizing for the fact that he’s a gentile. We know there was no love lost between the Jews and the Romans, or the Jews and the gentiles in general.
“Well, we know he’s a gentile,” they tell Jesus, “but he’s not one of the bad ones. He’s one of the good ones. It’s okay if you help him.”
It’s funny, because that sounds kind of prejudiced. Anyone who has a really bad prejudice will try to defend themselves by pointing to their one black friend or their one Hispanic friend. “See? I can’t be prejudiced! I have a black friend!”
At any rate, the elders bring the message to Jesus, and Jesus – in his compassion – goes with the elders to the centurion’s home.
But then the centurion hears that Jesus is coming, and sends word – “No,” he says, “I’m not worthy to have you in my home.” And, in fact, Peter – after Jesus’ resurrection, when he visited the centurion Cornelius and began the process of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles – acknowledged that, under the rules and customs of the time, it was considered wrong for Jews to visit Gentiles or associate to closely with them, such as visiting them in their homes. The centurion in this passage knew that as well, and he didn’t want to put Jesus in a position of breaking the Jewish law.
But the next part of his message is what’s really extraordinary.
“Just say the word and my servant will be healed,” says the centurion. “I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
There’s an old story – and I apologize to those of you who have heard it before – about a town where there was a bad flood. One man was sitting on his porch, his entire house surrounded by the flood waters. An inflatable raft came by, and a man from the sheriff’s department said to him, “Get in the boat, and I’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to move up to the second floor of the house. He had the window open, and a powerboat came by with someone from the Civil Defense. “Get in the boat,” they said, “and we’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
Well, the flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to climb up onto the roof of the house. A National Guard helicopter came flying overhead and dropped a rope ladder. “GRAB HOLD OF THE LADDER,” said a guardsman holding a bullhorn.
“NO THANKS,” the man yelled back. “THE LORD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME.”
Finally, however, the flood waters rose too high and the man drowned. He found himself at the Pearly Gates, and was escorted inside, where he insisted on speaking to the Almighty.
“Why didn’t you take care of me?” the man demanded to know.
“I sent two boats and a helicopter,” God responded. “What more do you want?”
That’s us sometimes – we ask God for help, but we get a little too specific about what form that help should take. Maybe we ask for a new washing machine when God’s will is actually to make our old machine last a little bit longer – or maybe God has plans for us to encounter someone at the Laundromat. We get fixated on asking God to help us in some specific and dramatic way, and we miss the beauty and richness of all the other ways God might be looking after us.
But the centurion was not trying to limit God – just the opposite. The centurion was showing that he understood that God works in many different ways. When he heard Jesus was coming to visit him, he was alarmed – because he knew it was against the religious laws for an observant Jew to enter his home. So he sent word to Jesus – “Don’t come. I know you don’t have to come. I have men under my command, and I tell them to go somewhere or to bring me something, and they do it. I know you can heal my servant from anywhere.”
In the account of this same story in Matthew’s gospel, the centurion even rushes to meet Jesus himself to say this in person. That contradicts Luke, who quotes the centurion as saying he’s not worthy to approach Jesus in person.
The centurion knows what it’s like to have a little bit of power. And he has the imagination, and the faith, to understand that Jesus has divine power. And just as the centurion can send people to do things or get things, the centurion knew that Jesus could heal his servant from afar.
Jesus responded to this with amazement. I read from the Common English Bible earlier, and I want to repeat verse 9: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’”
Jesus was impressed with the centurion! What a remarkable thing! This centurion had a better concept of who Jesus was, and of what Jesus was capable, than the Jews who had come to recommend him. He had a level of faith that Jesus hadn’t found anywhere in Israel.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is in Cana, but a royal official from Capernaum comes to see him. The royal official has a son who was sick. The official, like the Jewish elders who approached Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, assumes that Jesus needs to be present to heal his son. But Jesus, as the centurion understood, isn’t limited by time or place. Jesus speaks the word, and sends the royal official home.
When the official gets home, an overnight trip, he discovers that his son is healed – and when they tell him what time the boy started getting better, it was at one in the afternoon on the previous day – exactly the time that Jesus had pronounced him healed.
So Jesus can heal from anywhere, and this is true in the case of the centurion’s servant, who was found in good health by the Jewish elders when they got back to town.
The centurion’s faith is held up as a model for our own. The centurion had complete trust that God, in the person of Jesus, could and would do what was right. But the centurion, rather than insisting that God act in one certain way, put his request in the context of God’s kingdom as a whole. The centurion didn’t want Jesus to come to his home because he was concerned about the impact on Jesus and his ministry.
That concern might have been misplaced – Jesus was on his way to the centurion’s home, and apparently had no hesitation about going there, just as Jesus freely associated with whoever needed him and whoever turned to him, regardless of how those associations looked to the religious leaders of that day. But the important thing is that the centurion was concerned for something larger than his own household.
God encourages us, throughout the Bible, to bring our cares and concerns and requests to the holy throne. We don’t always receive what we ask for. Sometimes we ask for things that would be harmful to ourselves or others. It’s like the Garth Brooks song – some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes we make requests that aren’t really that important in the larger scheme of things. Sometimes we don’t know why God doesn’t grant our requests.
Those of you who are parents or grandparents may have a better sense of this. When your child, or your grandchild, comes to you and asks for an ice cream cone, you know that ice cream cone isn’t of any great importance in the long run. You know that you’re providing for that child in a hundred other ways that are much more important – seeing to their health and their education and their safety.
Sometimes, you have to say “no” and the child doesn’t understand why. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want them to ask. The fact that they ask you for things is a sign of their trust, a sign that they know you love them and that you want the best for them. It’s part of the conversation of growing up.
And as they grow up, as they begin to mature and better understand the world and their place in it, what they ask you for will change.
God wants us to ask for things, for ourselves and in intercessory prayer for others. God already knows what we need, but God still wants us to make the request because that conversation helps us. It helps us realize what our own priorities are. It helps us realize our dependence upon God. And as we grow in our faith, our prayers will change over time – they’ll become less selfish and more about what’s best for others. The centurion wasn’t requesting healing for himself – he was requesting that his servant be healed. Although, actually, even that’s not true – it wasn’t the centurion who made the initial request, it was the centurion’s friends, the Jewish leaders.
Prayer is a conversation with God. It needs to be a two-way conversation, in which we listen for God’s voice in our hearts. God wants us to be in that conversation, and even if we start that conversation asking for the wrong things, at least it’s a start.
And this story is also a great example of the importance of intercessory prayer. Everyone here is concerned with someone else’s welfare – except the servant, and we don’t meet the servant, so he’s not really a character in the story.
Let us all aspire to be more like the centurion, someone who trusts completely in Jesus, who believes in Jesus’ kingdom, and who has the compassion to pray for others. Maybe someday, we’ll get to hear Jesus say that he was impressed by our faith as well.

We can’t turn over the raft, because Methodists avoid immersion

I’m looking forward to a trip I’m taking with the First United Methodist Church – Shelbyville middle school youth next month to Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

I’ve heard of Lake Junaluska for years and always wanted to visit; it’s one of the most famous Methodist retreat centers and headquarters of the World Methodist Council. It’s owned by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

This being a youth trip, we will get to enjoy some of the surrounding area in the mountains. This will include tubing and white-water rafting, neither of which I’ve ever done before, and a natural rock water slide. We’ll also have some programming with a special guest speaker.

There’s a museum at Lake Junaluska about the history of Methodism, but the musuem closes at 4 each day and, according to the agenda our youth director has sent out, our free time periods all seem to start around that time. So I may not make it to the museum. That’s sad, because — by sheer coincidence — I’m currently reading Wesley And The People Called Methodists, by Richard P. Heitzenrater, a history of the origins of Methodism which was recommended at the last lay servant class I took. But, hey, there’s always next time.

I had a great time as a chaperone with our youth (both middle and high school) at Warmth In Winter in January, and I expect to have a great time on this trip as well. We have a great group of kids at First UMC. This trip will be in partnership between First UMC and our youth director’s home church in Savannah, Ga., Isle Of Hope UMC. So we’ll meet new people as well. We’ll all be staying at the Lagoalinda Inn at Lake Junaluska.