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.

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.

in the interest of ministry

Well, this afternoon I drove to Murfreesboro for my first meeting as a member of a particular church committee. I was kind of nervous about it, frankly, but it turned out fine.

I can’t really tell you anything at all about what we discussed, because of the confidential nature of it, but I’ll tell you where I was and how I got there.

Several months ago, I got a phone call one evening from the Rev. Chris Haynes. When a United Methodist minister – familiar or unfamiliar – calls me on a weeknight, my first thought is that I’m being called on to fill the pulpit in my role as a certified lay speaker. I don’t believe I’d met Chris before, but I had no reason to think any different that night.

But Chris wasn’t sick or getting ready to travel; he was calling me for another reason entirely.

“I’m calling to ask if you’ll serve on the district committee on ordained ministry,” he said.

Then, I jumped to another conclusion.

“Oh, I understand. You didn’t mean to call me; you meant to call my father, Rev. Jack Carney. His number is ….”

But that was just as mistaken as my first thought. It turns out the committee, known to clergy and Murfreesboro District officials as “D-COM,” has both ordained clergy and lay people as members.

The committee talks to candidates for ordained ministry at various points in the process and makes recommendations related to whether they should proceed. We’re only making recommendations, not the final decision, but still, it’s a pretty important matter. I wondered whether I’d have anything to add.

So I drove to the Murfreesboro District office in Murfreesboro this evening.

But – again, without any details at all – I thought the meeting went OK tonight, and I felt comfortable. I’m sure we’ll have tougher interviews, and tougher decisions, in the months ahead, but I feel a lot better about it now.

It helped that the first person I saw on the committee was my pal Ruthan Patient, director of lay servant ministries for the Murfreesboro District. Ruthan always puts me at ease, and she did so tonight. She even had a certificate for me – something she’d been meaning to give me since last November but didn’t want to mail, saying that I was grandfathered in under the old rules for certified lay speakers.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the other committee members and seeing where this heads going forward. Hopefully, my experience as a preacher’s kid will come in handy at some points as well.

72 plus me

The honest truth is, when the letter first came inviting lay speakers and lay leaders to participate in something called “72+U” training, I was not at all clear what it was all about – even after reading the letter. But it sounded like something that would fit in with the educational requirements for me to continue as a certified lay speaker, and besides, it can be fun to go to district and conference events and meet United Methodists from other communities.

So I signed up online, and I put out a call on Facebook to see if anyone else from Bedford County was interested in carpooling to Nashville. I was Facebook friends with Jim Overcast, a very active – and very connectional, to use the church’s term – United Methodist, but I’d really never had much actual contact with him. So riding together turned out to be a chance for us to connect as well.

The training event was originally scheduled for the Tennessee Conference offices, just off I-24 at the Harding Place exit. But strong advance registration numbers resulted in a change of venue, to Hillcrest United Methodist Church. The wonderful Ruthan Patient, director of lay speaking for the Murfreesboro District, was also there, and the three of us sat together. I saw several other friends and acquaintances as well.

This event was actually training-for-the-trainers. Each of us who completed the training today received a notebook and DVDs which we can use to teach the 72+U curriculum in local churches – our own, or any others that might want or need the training. The curriculum can be taught in large group or small group settings, either as a single-day event or split up over four weekly sessions. It could be used as four weeks of Sunday School lessons, or four weeks of Wednesday night programming, or you could put on a day-long training as a regional event to bring in people from smaller churches that don’t hold the training on their own.

So, what is 72+U exactly? It’s an initiative of the Tennessee Conference (which represents United Methodist churches in Middle Tennessee) and the Memphis Conference (churches in West Tennessee). The name comes from Luke 10, in which Jesus commissions 72 disciples and sends them out in ministry. The curriculum has to do with equipping and motivating local church members for ministry, mission and outreach, in keeping with our conference’s mission to “discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that offer Jesus Christ to a hurting world, one neighborhood at a time.”

The 72+U curriculum has been carefully developed and researched to implement a variety of educational principles and techniques, with a lot of participation from the students. There are different versions of the curriculum tweaked for large group and small group settings.

I really enjoyed today’s training, and hope I get a chance to teach the 72+U curriculum. The district superintendents will get a list of today’s participants, so it’s possible we’ll be called on (and we’re also free to set something up on our own). The Murfreesboro District is already looking at holding its own training-for-the-trainers event similar to the one today, and Ruthan said that Jim and I would each be asked to be a part of putting that on when it happens.

All in all, it was an enjoyable day. At one point, we did a “scavenger hunt” in which we were tasked to find various things in our 72+U curriculum notebooks. I was one of the winners, and so I brought home a very attractive-looking box of fine Belgian chocolates. I decided the best use for this would be to put it in First UMC’s annual bazaar tomorrow, so I dropped it by the church on my way home.

I did, however, get to enjoy a bag of custom-printed M&Ms (you can order those online) which they’d printed up for the event, with slogans such as “GOD IS CALLING,” “72+U” and “BE ONE OF THE 72.” Each of us got a little bag of them.


In the kitchen

I had taken the afternoon off work, in part to manage hours and in part to help out with the cooking for the annual Murfreesboro District United Methodist clergy dinner. Andy Borders had told me to show up about 1; I actually got there at 12:40, but Andy and the few others there at that time had gone out to lunch, and so I didn’t start work until they got back at the appointed time.

At 6:30, with the meal and most of dessert having been served and with a lot of people on hand tripping over each other in the kitchen, I ended up slipping out and heading on home. I wasn’t sure how long we were going to have to stay for cleanup. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving, but part of the reason decided to leave was that there was a good crew there and I didn’t think my absence would be noticed.

Anyway, I’d e-mailed Rev. Nan Zoller, for whom I’ve filled in a few times at Concord UMC, and told her to stop by the kitchen and say hello, and she did that – after I’d slipped out. Clare Doyle passed this information on to me.

Yes, Clare Doyle was in the kitchen. As a pastor’s spouse, she should, by all rights, have been out in the fellowship hall enjoying herself with the other pastors and their wives and husbands. We tried several times during the afternoon to convince her that she needed to do that, but to no avail. Rev. Lloyd Doyle (who had also tried to convince her to stop and enjoy herself) was out playing the congenial host while Clare was back with us dishing up plates of food.

I got the chance to observe a pretty amazing pastor’s wife by the name of Carrie Carney through almost 40 years of my parents’ shared ministry. I know how demanding that position can be. If anyone in the building tonight deserved to be sitting down at a table relaxing and fellowshipping, it was Clare Doyle. And yet, Clare thought her place was back in the kitchen helping us cook.

She was wrong, of course, but we love her for it.

And now I feel even worse about slipping out early.

The next leg of my relay

In August 2010, we lost my mother, Carrie Carney, to pancreatic cancer. Prior to that, she had been a survivor of breast cancer.

This year, for the first time, the church of which I’m a member, First United Methodist in Shelbyville, fielded a team in the American Cancer Society Relay For Life, and I’m proud to say I was a part of it. I had a blast! If you’ve never been to a Relay, you need to go. You don’t have to be a team member to attend – in fact, since many of the teams are selling some sort of concession, they’d be more than pleased to see you and sell you something. First UMC, this year, sold steak sandwiches, as well as squares on the cow patty bingo board.

The casual visitors, of course, drift away as the night wears on, but team members continue walking the track all through the night. This is symbolic of the way cancer patients go through the dark night of treatment and pain before, hopefully, emerging into a new day of recovery. At least one member of each team must be on the track at all times.

The event is overwhelmingly fun, enjoyable, upbeat and hopeful. But it also includes moments of honor and remembrance. It opens with a “survivors’ lap,” featuring those who have survived cancer. And there is also a ceremonial remembrance of those who, like my mother, ultimately lost the fight.

I stayed for the entire event, which ran from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m.:

I shot most of this myself, but handed the camera to someone so you do see a shot of me walking at one point.

Now, it looks like I’ll be involved in next year’s Relay in a different way. Today, our county Relay For Life chairman, Samantha Chamblee, and the ACS staff person whose district includes Bedford County, Harriett Stewart, stopped by  to see me at the newspaper. By the time they left, I’d agreed to become a member of the local event committee, serving as publicity chairman. I attended my first committee meeting tonight – and it was a whopper, lasting more than three hours.

“I hope we didn’t overwhelm you,” said Samantha.

Well, a little. But I didn’t mind.

ACS does a ton of great work. Some of that involves research – trying to find cures for various types of cancer. Some of it involves assisting people who have the disease now. For the newspaper, I toured the Hope Lodge several weeks ago.

This is a great program. I hope that I honor my mother’s memory by participating in it.

Long day

It’s been a busy week, with the start of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, but today I was on a different track. As a certified United Methodist lay speaker, I have to take an advanced lay speaking course at least every three years. A few months ago, I thought I needed to take one this year – I had actually miscalculated and could have waited until next year. But, no matter – the courses are always worthwhile.

At the training being held this weekend at Fellowship UMC in Murfreesboro, there’s a basic lay speaking course and a choice of two advanced courses. I had already taken one of the advanced courses. You can repeat a course as often as you like, and it often turns out to be a different experience depending on the teacher and the periodically-updated curriculum, but in this case I decided to try the other course, on the topic of public prayer.

I left the apartment early this morning – which is a good thing, because I went to the wrong place. I thought I had a general idea where Fellowship UMC was, but when I plugged the address into Google Maps I decided I had been mistaken. I followed the directions to 2511 Highway 99 and … there was nothing there.

That’s because I was on Highway 99 east of Murfreesboro – Bradyville Pike – not Highway 99 west of Murfreesboro – New Salem Highway.

Because I had given myself plenty of time, I wasn’t actually late. But it felt late, and I barged in flustered and with a bit of a cloud over my head. It dissipated as the morning went on. Linda Powell, a former member of First UMC who now lives in Smyrna, is one of my classmates. the Rev. Miriam Seyler was our instructor today, and she’s excellent, although a funeral which she must officiate means someone else will have to teach the remainder of the class tomorrow.

It was a good day, but a long one. I decided not to go to the Celebration tonight, although I will stay up long enough to post the winners of the stallion classes on the newspaper web site.

To infinity … and beyond!

When I Facebooked that I was getting ready to watch “Toy Story 3” at our church’s family movie night (held each Wednesday in August), my sister-in-law in North Carolina responded that I should have a hankie handy. Well, I had a bandana, but I’d worn it as a sweatband on the walk from my apartment to church (more about that in a second) and it was so wet I had to rinse it out and it was draped over a chair on the opposite side of the fellowship hall when I needed it.

And, yes, I needed it. Call me an over-emotional sap, impugn my manhood if you like, but I needed it. The Pixar people have a grasp of storytelling that is almost unique in Hollywood. They know what a story is supposed to do, they care about their characters, and they write and rewrite until they get it right. I’ve heard that you have to have a thick skin to work there; it’s not mean-spirited, but their work process is brutally honest, and if your idea isn’t good enough it will be shot down.

Our annual “Movie and a Meal” event is fun, and it’s allowed me to see a lot of great family films that I didn’t see in the theater. I will, however, probably skip “It Takes Two” next week – I saw enough of Mary-Kate and Ashley back when one of my nieces was going through a Mary-Kate and Ashley phase.

The August 24 movie intrigues me – I’d never heard of it until this week. It’s a 1993 movie entitled “Rigoletto,” described on its Wikipedia page as having thematic elements similar to “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Man Without A Face,” and “Phantom of the Opera.” It’s not directly related to the Verdi opera by the same name (which would be a strange choice for family movie night).

Anyway, back to my walk. The first half of last week, I was recovering from a cold. The second half of last week, my brother and sister-in-law were in town, and between the two of those I didn’t make it to the rec center at all last week. I resolved to do better this week. I made it to the rec center on Monday, and today I thought it would be good exercise to walk to church for the movie – a good 25-30 minute walk each way. I left about 4:40.

It was good exercise, but man, was it hot. I and my bandana were sopping wet by the time I got to church. The walk back was still kind of warm, but not quite as miserable.