Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I am Thankful for a Gift I Cannot Give Away

Last evening I was reflecting on this practice of giving thanks daily. My post yesterday was on preaching, a topic I have written on before but from different angles. I have attempted to be unique every day, to not repeat a specific thanksgiving. That self-imposed requirement has in some ways skewed my reporting. There are some things for which I am very thankful on most of the days of my life, yet I have only written about them once. Similarly, the writings might include indications of the intensity of my thanksgiving but I suspect in most cases it is not clear how thankful I really am.

What would this series of thanksgivings look like if I reported every day on the things for which I was most thankful? I suspect a handful of relationships, memories and experiences would be repeated over and over with a few special entries for surprise blessings. What if the list included those thanksgivings I am not comfortable sharing with others? There are some things that are just too deep and personal to post on a blog. There are things I enjoy that others might consider odd or even childish, beneath the dignity of a Ph.D.

There are some blessings that would be profaned by a public display of gratitude, gifts of grace the giver prefers hidden. Perhaps it is those unmentionable thanksgivings that most shape my disposition toward thanks, those private and intimate exchanges that define my innermost being. These gifts overwhelm and humble, demanding gratitude beyond words or actions. They call forth a thanksgiving that is pure and true, inexpressible yet fully communicable between the receiver and the giver. These are gifts that flow from soul to soul, the gifts by which we know and are known. Combined they create one of the greatest of gifts, intimacy, and intimacy cannot be given away; it must be shared within the boundaries of the givers united in love.

And so this bond is indestructible, as long as the knowers cherish it. No one can steel it, or break it. It can be harmed only by neglect and abandonment. And when it is cherished it bears fruit. “I am the vine and you are the branches.” For this knowing, I am thankful beyond expression.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 31, 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

I am Thankful for the Grace to Preach

I am an extemporaneous preacher. I would prefer to be a good manuscript preacher. I would like to have every word carefully chosen in advance. My presentation would be more fluid and consistent. My arguments would be tight. Every point would have an appropriate illustration. I would be more effective, or so I dream.

I cannot be a manuscript preacher because I must maintain eye contact. I am driven toward a perception being heard and understood. I must have visual confirmation of that. For me preaching is more than proclamation; it is communion with the saints and the Word of God. My compulsion is to bring people and God together in a shared attention to the Scriptures. I have seen great manuscript preachers accomplish this divine/human koinonia. Hollis Gause is of course the premier of the list with Cheryl close behind. I lack the gifts needed.

Never-the-less, I am blessed to preach by the grace of God. There have been a few times I have preached as if in a Godless vacuum and God has worked in spite of my mental void. But most often I sense God’s presence and favor when I preach. Many times I have been lost in a valley of desperation, abandoned by any sense of God’s favor until I step to the pulpit. By His grace He meets me there and keeps His promise given so long ago, “If you will take up the burden, I will anoint you.”

Whatever else I am, whatever else I may become, I am a preacher of the Gospel. I suspect that puts me way down on the list for Heavenly rewards. It does keep me in a state of thanksgiving, not to be a preacher, but to know I serve the Lord in the role to which He called me. And He smiles on me there.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 30, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

I am Thankful for the Atonement (Part II)

The atonement is more than a legal action on our behalf. Justification is more than a declaration by God of His forgiveness of our sins. The atonement of Christ is the eighth day of creation. In Him God started creating again. In the resurrection Jesus, Son of God, Son of man, the second Adam, began making all things new. And it all centers on humanity. In the incarnation God became human. In the resurrection humanity is invited into a new order of creation, the incarnation itself. Having conquered death, Hell, and the grave, Jesus welcomes believers into His body. In Him we are joined to God and destined to fill His very image and stature.

Thus, Christ, who is the propitiation for our sins, reconciles us to the Father, imputes righteousness, imparts holiness, making us righteous and plants in our hearts the hope of glory. That glory hidden in our earthen vessels will be revealed on the day of our final redemption, the day of our transfiguration when His glory in us breaks forth to shine from everlasting to everlasting. In Him I share in this whole new order of creation. It does not yet appear what I shall be, but what I shall be I am in Him. I know this by the Holy Spirit who dwells in me the first fruit, down payment and guarantee of my destiny. Oh what love the Father, Son, and Spirit have for us. I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 29, 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

I am Thankful for the Atonement

How does one begin to give thanks for the atonement of Christ? The incarnation, suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of the Only Begotten Son of God constitute the single most significant set of events (which are theologically one event) in the history of creation. It is by the atonement that eternal life is provided for the elect. It is through the atonement that all of creation is being recreated, healed of the presence and influence of sin. By His blood we are bought out of depravity and into heavenly citizenship; by His stripes we are healed; by His suffering we are being perfected; by the mystery of His incarnation we are made to be the body of Christ.

I choose tonight to give thanks for His suffering. Christ suffered at the hand of humanity and the hand of God. In His suffering He was perfected as our redeemer. In His suffering He fulfilled His identification with us and made possible our identification with Him. Peddlers of cheap grace move quickly beyond the atonement trying to shift the focus away from the humiliation, suffering, and death and onto the resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ.

Herein is the offense of the gospel, Christ suffered and died. This is an offense not just because it reveals a God who suffers but because we have been called to follow Him into suffering and death. If you would live you too must choose to suffer and die. It is through suffering we are made to conform to His image and likeness, through suffering we are perfected in righteousness, through suffering we are transformed into His bride and body.

Thus, the irony of the atonement is made evident. It is only through suffering that healing comes. By His stripes we were healed. In His suffering He has made provision for the healing of creation. Because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ the Day of the Lord has broken forth. What shall be already is; the old is passing away. In the words of the Church of God, “Divine healing is provided for all in the atonement.” This is not a triumphalistic statement denying the realities of life between the times; the old is not yet gone and the new is not yet fully here.

God does heal; healing is carried in the wings of our Savior. It is a sign Jesus has indeed risen and conquered death, hell and the grave. It is normative in the presence of God and thus should be normative in the life of the church. I believe it is not normative because we refuse to identify with the sufferings of Christ. Life comes to those joined to His death; healing comes to those joined to His suffering.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 28, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

I am Thankful for Thelma’s 94th Birthday Party

Cheryl and I drove over to Fountain Inn, South Carolina for her mother’s 94th birthday celebration. [See Family Johns for photos.] It was a long but good day. When we first arrived there was a long meeting with the care team at the nursing home reviewing Thelma’s current status and recent history. In general she is doing well but she had a “step-down" episode last week, probably another mild stroke.

She has regained her strength, was alert, upright, and looked good. However, there was a noticeable decline in her mental acuity. She was non-conversant and more engaged with things than with people. On the other hand, she seemed more relaxed and happy than I have ever seen her. There was a smile on her face most of the time and when I could get her attention there was good eye contact and a real sense of connection.

She never used my name or Cheryl’s, although she did introduce Cheryl to a staff person as her daughter. I spent a lot of time close to her trying to communicate; I got a lot of smiles and a couple of chuckles. Once she reached over and took my chin in her hand and said, “We’re getting older, but we’re getting wiser.” She repeated, “Your getting wiser.” I’ll take it.

Later on she took my face in both of her hands, looked deep into my eyes, and smiled. It was the most tender expression I have ever seen from her with anyone. I’m not certain what was going on during these exchanges or even if she knew who I was. It was very good to see her serene and reaching out to another human with gentleness.

She said one other cogent thing to me. With an intense look into my eyes she stated, “I’m angry with God.” I asked what she was angry about and she responded, “He can’t make up His mind.” I probed but got no further explanation. I wondered if she was referring to her health and coming demise.

I think the day was stressful for Cheryl: the family conference, challenges with Medicare and her mother’s bill, etc. It was also difficult for Cheryl and her sisters to realize they were slipping out of their mother’s consciousness, although no one stated it that way. I believe the long good-by has settled heavy upon the family.

I am thankful Thelma is receiving good care and is in a pleasant environment. I am pleased Cheryl’s sisters are in harmony with her about their mother’s care. I am thankful for a pleasant time together. It is always encouraging to talk with Josh about his ministry and passion for the work of God.

It was a long, but a good day.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 27, 2010

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I am Thankful for Routine

My life is full of the unexpected. You just can’t schedule your own crises, much less the unexpected traumas of others. Pastors are specialists in facing crises, keeping in mind that facing them seldom requires solving them. It is often enough to just be present with the wounded as a reminder of God’s presence with them. But the ministry of presence is most significant when the need is most unexpected. Crises erupt at the most inopportune times.

Education operates on cyclical time. School years are divided into semesters and breaks of varying lengths tied to holidays and a forgotten agrarian calendar. Like the seasons of the year the world of education cycles forward in predictable pulses and lunges. There is a routine to the cycle that ensures repetition and progress. As I noted in an earlier post, the beginning of the fall semester is a season of renewal and excitement for me.

I find routine very comforting, the routine of recurring seasonal cycles, the routine of a linier work schedules, and the routine of daily events. My routine extends to what I order at local restaurants: chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel, chimichanga at any Mexican restaurant, etc..

Stated in the negative, I don’t like interruptions. I guess that’s the reason I married Cheryl; if I would have been left to myself I would have drifted into the doldrums of meaningless existence. As it is I am joined to one who’s idea of routine ends with having one egg for breakfast. Beyond that, everything is up for grabs. The one thing that tops the comfort of normative routine is the routine of the unexpected. Every day I get to shoot the rapids and ride in the draft of a supersonic transport. I’ve learned to anticipate the unexpected and therein to shape my own sense (delusion) of routine. Just, please, don’t make plans and change them at the last minute.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 25, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I am Thankful for Completed Projects

Over the weekend I completed an article for the Church of God Evangel. It was due last Friday; I emailed it yesterday (Monday). I sent in a minor revision today (two words added to one sentence). I am not satisfied with it and I am pleased at the same time. Overall, I think it is well written for the intended audience; it is clear, tight and covers some heavy concepts without unnecessary verbiage. There are some transitions that could be clearer. I am most frustrated with the summary conclusions; they lack the practical punch they needed. I could keep working on it for some time and never be entirely satisfied. I went over my word limit but could have used a couple of hundred more to smooth out the argument and add a few details. Perfectionism is a heavy burden to bear.

And yet it is such a good feeling to be finished with a project even if it seems imperfect and incomplete. I am not certain the extent to which this feeling is common to the human race and the extent it is a product of my upbringing. I am just thankful for it. It is especially rich when the project will potentially be a blessing to others. Writing is a ministry. I often feel God’s pleasure when I do it.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 24, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

I am Thankful for Calm in the Storm

I have always loved rain. There is nothing better than a good thunder storm. I have been in a couple of hurricanes and found them strangely soothing. Admittedly, I have never been in a storm that did significant damage to the place where I was or injured my loved ones. There is something about the power within creation that makes me feel close to the Creator.

Emotional, mental, relational, social storms are another matter. Of late, Cheryl and I have had our share of riding the psychological rollercoaster. We’ve been sitting on a family secret – the good kind. We’ve been caught up in some surprises by God – the “what’s He up to” kind. We’ve been caught up in the issue of women in leadership in the Church of God – exalted as heroes by some and slandered as “educated idiots” by others. I could, but won’t, continue this list with some other things that consume our attention. The sum is that we have been living in an emotional storm, not the we’re depressed or manic kind of storm. Rather, it’s like life is swirling around our heads.

In the midst of all that is I have had a strange calmness. There is one issue I wish would be resolved quickly; I’ve been waiting years for some closure. Other situations signal new beginnings, actual and potential. In all of it I feel like I am in the eye of the storm. Everything is blowing in the wind and disasters are imminent, but all is well. Nothing can touch me that is not orchestrated by God for my good.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 23, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I am Thankful for Coke Floats

Some of life’s greatest pleasures are the simple ones and the majority of those are desserts. Peanut butter was invented by George Washington Carver and it was a great gift to humanity. I have no idea who first blended cocoa with sugar to produce chocolate; surely he or she was also a great humanitarian. But whoever first dipped chocolate in peanut butter was either a culinary genius or an angel sent from God.

Let the same be said about ice cream and Coca-cola. Was it necessity, or an accident, or brilliance that combined milk, cream and sugar, stirred them vigorously in a canister surrounded by ice? Coke, that best of medicinal drinks, is the taste that refreshes. The soda jerk that first poured the caramel colored, carbonated syrup over a scoop of vanilla ice cream deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor and a statue in the Smithsonian.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 22, 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I am Thankful for a Sound Mind

Justin Knowles wrote me this week and asked that I reflect some more on the experience of writing this series. Justin, Donna, and Jude are the kind of people who make ministry exciting. Multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary, dedicated, humble, faithful, and the list goes on. I am thankful for them and for a host of other young (at least they use to be) families with whom we have been blessed to share the Christian journey.

I haven’t had time this week to reflect much on this experience, but one thought has crossed my mind several times recently. It is a gift of God to have a sound mind. There are days when I don’t feel thankful but find writing easy. There are other days when I am flowing with thanksgiving and writing is nearly impossible. Sometimes words flow and other times I can’t seem to find the word I’m looking for. It’s as if it dropped into the bottom of the file drawer never to be retrieved. The thesaurus is sometimes helpful, but there are times when I can’t even think of the first word to begin the linking process.

In short, writing this blog almost daily has caused me to be aware how fragile the human brain is and how close we all are to senility. I can usually trace my mental struggles to a physical or emotional cause: allergy medicine, fatigue, stress, etc. And I don’t think I have early onset anything. But I am now more fully aware how blessed I am to be able to read, deduce, induce, construct, deconstruct, articulate, meditate and otherwise use my brain for self-directed purposes.

I don’t believe anyone in my family has suffered with any form of dementia, if you don’t count drug or alcohol induced problems, or those associated with hormone deficiencies. All other diseases known to humanity, mental and physical, can be found in my family tree. I realize I could be the first to slide into the long good-by but I am trusting God to help me not make that journey.

For as long as I am able to formulate complex thoughts of thanksgiving I plan to keep on doing so. And should I lose that ability I pray thankfulness is so woven into the character of my being that it is somehow expressed on my face.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 21, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

I am Thankful for My Education

Neither my mother nor my father finished high school. Dad made it through the tenth grade but dropped out to help support the family. Mom dropped out at sixteen for reasons tied to her mother’s menopausal health and emotional issues, and soon married my Dad. Yet, they valued education. For Dad it represented financial security, “I want you kids to get a good education so you want have to work as hard as I have had to.” Mom never said (that I recall) but I think for her education was tied to being better able to serve God. They never asked us if we were going to college; their question was always “which college are you going to?”

My parent’s commitment to higher education was out of character for their families; I think three of my fifty-plus cousins went to college. All four of us siblings went. When I was a student at Lee one of my aunts asked me “why are you wasting your Daddy’s money going to school; you should be out preaching and winning souls.”

My home church in Jacksonville, Florida was also pro-education in that many of the youth went to Lee College or local or state universities. To my later surprise, my home church was an abnormality in many sectors of the Church of God. My high school years in Alabama introduced me to some who were anti-education but there were also pastors who had graduated from Lee. I was not prepared for the intensity of the disdain for higher education I would find elsewhere.

When Cheryl and I were first married and attending graduate school at Wheaton College we were confronted with a church that considered education the enemy of the Spirit. One of the elderly saints walked up to me in the isle after service one morning, put her finger in my face and asked, “do you want to know the difference between you and me?” I chuckled and asked her to tell me. She explained, “You depend on your education and I depend on the Holy Ghost.” I replied, “My problem is that it is the Holy Ghost that told me to get this education.”

A few years later we were in Kentucky working on our doctorates. We were immediately bombarded with prejudice against higher learning. Before moving to the state I was offered a pastorate but I insisted on meeting the people and allowing them to vote before the appointment. Cheryl and I visited and I preached. The Overseer sent an eighteen year old, high school dropout as the other candidate. They voted for the dropout.

I accepted a position at the Dixie Valley Church of God as Minister of Education. On my first Sunday they had a guest speaker for the evening service. I was introduced to him beforehand as a seminary student. His sermon included a diatribe on the “pea-brained intellectuals” who were destroying the church. One of the good-natured members of the church had a tee shirt imprinted with “pea-brained intellectual” and gave it to me. We felt loved at Dixie Valley, but they didn’t seem to understand why we were going to school.

A couple of weeks later I was introduced to one of the District Overseers in Louisville. He looked at me and said, “I hear you’re going to the cemetery; I went to college once, but I learned better.” After a couple of years I started candidating for pastorates. I think I hold the record for most consecutive “no” votes in the Church of God. At every church I took time to help them talk about what they wanted and needed in a pastor. I enjoyed those visits and believe my conversations with them were helpful in their search for the right pastor. In every case it was clear they were intimidated by my education.

I knew a retired pastor at one of the churches where I was scheduled to tryout. He called me a few days before just to let me know they had talked as a church and agreed they were going to vote for the best preacher. He wanted me to know that so I wouldn’t get my feelings hurt. On that Sunday I had the flue with chills and a fever. I figured at least this time I had an excuse for not getting the vote.

I heard through the grapevine they chose someone else, but a few days later my elderly friend called and asked to come for a visit. As we sat at the table and drank coffee, he proceeded to explain, “Brother Jackie I just wanted to come by and apologize. I told you we had agreed to vote for the best preacher. When the Overseer came to meet with us we all agreed you were the best preacher, but we also agreed we just don’t want no educated preacher. I wanted you to know I didn’t mean to lie to you. We really had agreed to vote for the best.”

After I completed my doctorate a prominent pastor in Tennessee interfered with my appointment to a pastorate. (That’s another long story for another blog.) I went for months without a position of any kind. When I was told of his actions it was reported to me that he had said it would do me good to learn to live by faith; I had had it too easy, spending all that time getting my education.

That was secondhand information and I wasn’t there to know exactly what was said. I do know coming from a prominent minister in the Church of God it was the most foolish and hurtful thing ever said to me about my education. Every program we entered was with a certain sense of God’s call. It was by faith Cheryl and I moved to Wheaton without jobs or scholarships and less than a hundred dollars to our names; we worked our way through. The same faith led us to Louisville, also without jobs or scholarships, but this time with a daughter for whom we needed to provide.

At the General Assembly just past I, and my peers who with me supported women in leadership, was called on the floor an “educated idiot.” Can it be that in 2010 there remains such a strong hatred for higher education? Apparently, it does.

I once calculated how much it cost us just to get our doctorates. Including school fees, books, other expenses, and reduced income for the period of full-time enrollment it came to about $270,000.00 (if I remember correctly) that would never be recouped. In calculating lost income I used the Church of God pay scale for a church with a hundred members.

We didn’t spend so much time as students because it was easy. There were many days our electric typewriter was never turned off, sometimes for three or four days straight. We typed in shifts. While I was working on my dissertation and on staff at Westmore full-time, for over a year I averaged three hours of sleep a night. Many nights I worked through the night, showered, and went back to the office.

It was a road filled with trials, want, and challenges. It was long and arduous. Yet, I cannot imagine choosing any other path. I cherish the knowledge and skills I gained. More importantly, I learned much about myself and what I can do. But beyond any doubt, I am most thankful for my education because it was the path God chose for me. Obedience is better than sacrifice. In the words of an old gospel song, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 20, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I am Thankful for God’s Discipline

I am writing a piece for the Church of God Evangel on God’s discipline and discipleship. At least I am supposed to be writing such a piece. The deadline is tomorrow. I have at least reviewed the Biblical text I was asked to consider as a bases for the article. I have also reflected on discipline.

It just doesn’t fit with our modern sensibilities to think of God taking a belt to our softer selves. But that is exactly what Hebrews says he does to those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6). Our Heavenly Father disciplines us just the way our earthly fathers do (or in my case mother), only His motives are entirely pure.

It would be nice if God’s discipline was always direct, just between Him and me, but He often chooses others as His instrument of correction. Troubles, trials, and/or tribulation may in fact be God’s instrument of correction. It would also be comforting if His correction was only when I slack off but He has a knack for paddling me while I’m up to my neck resisting sin and trying to do good (12:4-5). He sometimes reminds me of Mr. Waits, my high school band director.

Mr. Congeniality had been in the University of Alabama marching band: 1st chair, 1st part, trumpet player, and student director. When we practiced marching he carried a paddle, the same kind shop teachers made. You know the kind, four inches wide, one inch thick, two and a half feet long. If anyone got out of step or out of line he would run up behind them and give them a good smack in the rear. More often than not they were surprised by the sudden pain, being completely unaware they had done anything wrong.

The truth is that God doesn’t just correct us for consciously doing something wrong, that is, when we sin. He disciplines us toward perfection in righteousness so that we might share in his holiness (v. 10). He is not an absentee father who out of guilt pampers his children with gifts. He is actively engaged in every event of our lives, working for our full redemption, conformity to the image and stature of His only begotten Son.

The question is, can we recognize God’s presence in the negative events of our lives? Can we hear His voice in the clattering noises of life? Can we recognize His discipline? If we can, and submit to it, He has promised to bring us into the perfection of His Son.

I don’t enjoy His discipline, but I am thankful for it.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 19, 2010

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I am Thankful for Tranquility

Life is full of too much worry and stress. The list of things we can worry about is endless. I tend to worry about my children and grand-children and other family members. Finances are like a creaking sound in the night; you know it’s just the house settling, but what if there are economic monsters under the bed. My Dad drove truck for Ryder Truck Lines. At one point they tried to get him to buy his own truck and join the Ryder Ranger Division. The potential profit was significant. He replied, “No, thanks. I want to leave my worries parked in your lot. I don’t want to drive them home with me.” Pastors and seminary professors don’t get to leave their worries at the office. They follow you wherever you go. Modern communication makes that a certainty.

When Karisa was in her pre-adolescence and Alethea was in high school. I was over extended in pastoral ministry. Our church was small but we had a high concentration of deeply wounded people including two or three with borderline personality disorder. I was on the phone constantly and people were at our house almost every evening for counseling. We didn’t have a church office. It was rare for us to have an uninterrupted evening meal. One night the phone rang while we were eating and Karisa blurted out, “Dad why can’t you just let it ring. You don’t have to answer it while we’re eating.” I responded that I needed to answer because people needed me.

The call was from a church member who called several times a week to talk about her family issues. As I settled in to hear it all one more time, it dawned on me, it is not a sin to not answer the phone. It is not a sin to not answer the phone. My life was forever changed. I have no moral compulsion to answer ever phone call. I need to be available but not on instant demand. That night I announced to my family that I would no longer take phone calls during meals. I would just let it ring. If it was an emergency they could call back in a few minutes.

Two nights later while we were eating, the phone rang. Karisa jumped up to answer it. I reminded her that we didn’t take calls during dinner anymore. She responded, “I have to answer it Dad. I’m expecting a call from a friend who has a problem and she needs to talk.” Thus it began, Karisa, the pastoral counselor, opened for business with frequent incoming calls during dinner.

I have often regretted I didn’t learn that lesson earlier. I suspect Alethea and Karisa have felt at times I put the church above them. I didn’t think I was. I was just trying to help hurting people and failed to establish healthy boundaries around my family. I did want my girls to know it is important to open up your life to others. It seems they got that part of the lesson down pat. Both are caregivers.

In the fifteen years since then the boundaries of our lives have been punched full of holes by technology. Car phones were introduced a couple of years later and have since given way to the ubiquitous cell phone: telephone in the house, telephone in the house and car, telephone in your pocket.

Email is an abomination. I was on AOL when it was AOL 1. I didn’t know anyone to whom I could send an email. I sent one to the president of AOL but he didn’t respond. I couldn’t wait until I could email friends. Now, I consider ending friendships when I’m flooded with needless “pass-this-on-and–be-blessed” chains. People send me emails in the middle of the night and expect a response by 8 A.M. Some people send email in the early evening and expect a response before I go to bed. Don’t hold your breath. My general practice is to not check my work email after hours or on the weekends; people seem offended.

And then comes Facebook with personal messages and wall posts and groups to keep up with. Of course we are now responsible for anything anybody posts on our wall. The Actscelerate.com group got bent out of shape last week when one of them saw a picture one of my former students had posted on my wall. He was at a museum on women’s suffrage standing behind a statue of a gagged women. One person in particular purported to be greatly offended by the caption “Women in the Church of God” and proceeded to denounce me for the picture and caption. It wasn’t my picture or my caption.

We are bombarded with things to think about in rapid-fire succession. Much of that data is threatening to ourselves, our loved ones, or things we care about. I have resolved to enter spaces of solitude on a regular, if not daily, bases. I have always found that solitude in manual labor. Cheryl often wants me to get someone to help me with my projects. She has a hard time understanding; I don’t want help. I want tranquility.

Today was a very busy day. Yet, I was reminded that there can be calm in the midst of the storm. Busyness does not have to rob us of our sense of wholeness, our shalom. Tranquility can be found in righteous relationships, meaningful work, and trust in God. The noise around us does not have to rob us of the quiet within, at least not always. Today, I am thankful for the tranquility of knowing God is still Lord of my life.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 18, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I am Thankful for a New Semester

Tomorrow we register new students for the fall semester. We will then join them for an orientation retreat. Classes begin next week. I am looking forward to this semester for several reasons; I’ll mention third. First, it will be my first semester since I joined the full-time faculty in 1995 that I have not had administrative responsibilities. When I began I was half-time Director of Institutional Research and half-time instructor. The DIR role quickly morphed into Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Director of Reaffirmation of Accreditation. When we finished all of the accreditation follow-up reports in 2004 I was released from Institutional Effectiveness as I had requested and assigned the role of Director of the Doctor of Ministry program as I did not request. When it was time to start the reaffirmation of accreditation process again I was moved back into that role and relieved from oversight of the D.Min. program. Reaffirmation with SACS and ATS consumed much of my energies from 2006 until last spring. We have now been reaffirmed by both associations for ten years. I am now officially just a faculty member, which should keep me busy but less stressed.

Second, we are involved in some exciting projects at the seminary. We are in a major curriculum revision project which potentially will revolutionize Pentecostal theological education. I said potentially. I do expect it will make us more effective in preparing Pentecostal ministers. We are also in an institution-wide Quality Enhancement Plan designed to help us better prepare missional leaders. If we are able to fully implement the plan it will make every aspect of our school a learning experience compatible with the time in which we live.

Third, it’s just always exciting to begin over. There will be new students, new experiences, and new challenges. As a teacher I get to be a life-long learner. I get to try to improve my methods and present more relevant material. I get to fellowship with some of the most brilliant scholars in Pentecost and some of the most exciting ministers of all ages. It’s a great job. [The romantic in me is allowed to skip over all the irritating and mundane aspects of theological education at the PTS not to mention the institutional politics. We’re just a little slice of heaven, only don’t look too close.]

I have always said that teaching and pastoring are the perfect mix for me. I am a bi-vocational pastor; I am just blessed to have a ministry as my second job. I sometimes say “I teach to keep me up-to-date and grounded, while I pastor to keep me relevant and sane.” The truth is, I do both because God has called me and given me the opportunity. In my grand life-plan I would have retired from one or the other by now and dedicated myself to writing as my second vocation. I started this blog to help me begin that transition. My commitment to write on thanksgiving everyday this year was in part an attempt to sharpen my skills and discipline as a writer. My problem is I don’t know how to stop being a pastor and I enjoy being a teacher. We’ll skip the part about needing filthy lucre to survive and prepare for old age. It’s my blog; I get to be as spiritual as I want.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 18, 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

I am Thankful for Today

If the past is ever with us and the future ever before us, it is in the present we live, the precipice between what was and what might be. Today has been peaceful and encouraging. It included good fellowship, shared dreams, and strategic plans. We received a letter from a former student that renewed my hope for the Church of God. And to top it off, there was a manual labor project completed. It was a good day. Most importantly it is the Day of Salvation. The presence of the Lord was with me.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 16, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I am Thankful for Yesterday

If tomorrow is the repository of our hopes and dreams, yesterday is their fountainhead. If tomorrow is always just beyond our reach, yesterday lives not in the past but ever in the present. All of our hopes and dreams past flow through our present on their journey to tomorrow. On that journey they are imprinted on our eternal present where they merge with memories of events past.

In the late seventies I was teaching at Northwest Bible College and Brother George Alford visited the campus. Brother Alford was famous in the Church of God for quoting entire books of the Bible. I invited him to one of my classes to talk about Scripture memorization. He had a built-up shoe and walked with a limp. I gave a glowing introduction and invited him to the front to share his thoughts on the subject.

Talking in a raspy, southern draw with his jaw cocked sideways like a life-long tobacco chewer, which he was not, he responded, “Well, the way I figure it, there are two things you are always going to remember, the things you hate and the things you love. If you’re having trouble remembering the Bible, you just don’t love it like you should.” With that he shook his head and left the room. I have reflected often on those words with a sense of guilt.

There are other things we remember well: fear, tragedy, transforming moments, to name a few. Yesterday morning I put a saddle on Rose and led her around with Camdyn mounted high. I doubt I will remember it for the heat and humidity. The image of the old mare pausing to munch on fallen apples may not linger long, but I think I shall recall Camdyn’s recurring reply, “No, Papa, I’m not ready to get down yet. Can I ride for just a little while longer?”

I was dripping with sweat but happy to be there. Camdyn might not think about the ride past a few days, but I will long cherish the morning I did something with her that she cherished and did not want to end. Yesterday is sweet to the taste buds.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 15, 2010

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I am Thankful for Tomorrow

Tomorrow is ever before us. It contains our hopes and dreams, even those that will never come to be. Faith focuses on tomorrow for tomorrow is framed with the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Yes, there are days and seasons when tomorrow is draped in doubt and fear, but even then we posit in tomorrow an end to our suffering.

I am looking forward to tomorrow. Cheryl and I have begun an adult Sunday school class series on the Song of Solomon. We have talked about this for years always agreeing it needed to be done, yet wondering how it would be received. It all started about fifteen years ago. I was teaching a class with Doug Slocumb on Family Ministry. We had a session planned on human sexuality and I was contemplating reading the book to the class as a discussion starter. But my Victorian upbringing was standing in my way.

I asked Alethea, who was still a teenager, if she thought I should read the text in a contemporary translation to my class. She looked at me with a bit of shock, “Dad, listen to yourself. You’re a Pentecostal preacher and you’re asking yourself if it is alright to read the Bible to a class of seminary students.”

Shamed by your offspring into doing the right thing, I guess I was the first father to whom that happened.

The next year Cheryl agreed to come to the class and read the text with me. We have done that ever since; skipping only the year Alethea took the class.

My tomorrows past have been a fertile garden of dreams fulfilled. I have been blessed beyond imagination. I have two daughters who know and serve God, two sons-in-law who love them and God, and two grandchildren who are loving, thoughtful and healthy. My tomorrows are bright as I watch their lives unfold.

Tomorrow, Cheryl and I will continue our journey into places we have never been. We are doing something that we have thought about doing for a long time. It may not be exciting or groundbreaking, but it is our shared tomorrow.  The best is yet to come, as long as we survive.  [In my youth I had a saying -- I'm going to keep on keeping on until I can't, and then I'm going to die and go to heaven.]

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 14, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010

I am Thankful for a Day Trip to Cherokee, North Carolina

Today we drove over to Cherokee, North Carolina with Alethea, Camdyn, and Charlie. The trip was Cheryl’s idea in light of Camdyn and Charlie’s infatuation with American Indians. Camdyn has been fascinated by the Native American story for several years. She has the Indian doll in the American Girl series; Pocahontas is one of her favorite movies; she loves all things Indian. Charlie has other points of interest: cowboys and Indians, guns, knives, bows and arrows. We went to the Museum in Cherokee; Camdyn freaked out at the life size statues. We then visited the Cherokee Indian Village which includes a guided tour through a replica of an actual village with live demonstrations of dances, pottery, canoe making, weaving, and weapon making, etc. We picked up some souvenirs for Camdyn (Indian necklace and belt) and Charlie (double barrel rifle). Finally, we spent some time wading in the river.

The trip was full of happy thoughts for me. Sections of Cherokee look much as they did when I first saw them in the early sixties. The store where Mom made me buy a souvenir in 1973 is still there. The quaint, river-stone, First Baptist Church seems frozen in time. I cherish the memories of those family vacations. I took my children there when they were young and now I have taken my grand-children. Add to the mix reflections of a trip Cheryl and I made together last year, and the obtrusive presence of Herod’s shrinks on the skyline.

My favorite part of any trip to Cherokee is the mountain streams. Just the sight of them is refreshing. Together with the lush foliage all around they paint a pristine portrait primordial creation.

There are downers to any trip to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. To go there is to be confronted with the Trail of Tears and the ongoing marginalization of native peoples everywhere. Perhaps the gambling industry will provide economic development for the remnant that remains, but I can’t help but fear it will bring further degradation to a once proud people.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 13, 2010

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I am Thankful I Don’t Live in a State of Anger

Last evening I was told I was a topic of discussion on Actscelerate.com. Against my better judgment I looked to see what was being said. To my surprise some members of that discussion group had been reviewing my Facebook page and my blog. The statement that captured my attention was an assertion (not negative in tone) that I was angry about the vote on women’s ordination at the General Assembly. My surprise was that it was stated in the present tense as though I remain angry. Yes, I posted on August 2 (two days after I got home from the Assembly) an essay on anger in which I stated that because of my involvements at the General Assembly I had largely disengaged from the proceedings requiring me to deal with them after the fact. I identified some specific issues I was angry about. But the essay was aimed at understanding and dealing properly with anger. I did not consider myself to be venting about the things that had angered me.

For the record, I do not live in a state of anger. My anger about the things that happened at the Assembly subsided after posting that essay, which was the message and intent of the essay. During the week-and-one-half since I posted that piece I have been angry about other things: a serial killer, a missing child in California, being lied to and manipulated, etc. In each case the anger subsided quickly, perhaps too quickly in the first two incidents.

I am amazed at how long people on Actscelerate.com have kept this discussion going. I have been offended by some of the things said about Cheryl. The string on her continues to grow almost two weeks after it began. In my opinion, a couple of the comments have been slanderous, presumptively denigrating her in terms of attitude, emotions, demeanor, etc. [I suspect that comment will end up on the discussion board.] I have no problem confessing that each new attack on her is troubling for me. However, for the most part my response is not anger. After the initial jolt, I am more amused than I am angry. I wish the video was available; it would reveal her demeanor and vindicate her honor.

I choose to not live in a state of anger. I do this for my own well being. It just isn’t healthy to maintain anger. While I do not fully agree with the ancient text “The Shepherd of Hermas” which challenges Christians to rid themselves of all anger because prayers mingled with anger cannot ascend into the presence of God, I have found anger to not fit well with the adoration due Him.

Not all anger is sin. It is sometimes sin to not be angry. But anger that might at first have brought clarity of thought and energy to action, will soon drain our strength and blur our perceptions. Anger that lingers attaches itself to the soul and becomes bitterness. The offense that precipitated the anger becomes an open wound fused to the human spirit. And when bitterness is fully formed it becomes a bottomless pit, a starving beast that cannot be satisfied. Such bitterness shackles the self to past wrongs in a manner that prohibits forgiveness and denies healing.

I will not remain angry long lest it hinder my walk with God and destroy my soul. I believe the Spirit of the Living God who searches the depths of our being and knows all things, prays for us and ministers grace and truth to us. Thus, we are made to conform to the likeness of the image of Christ. Joined to Him, His affections become our affections, His suffering our suffering, His love our love, His anger our anger. None of these can exist when our affections are focused on our selves which is exactly where abiding anger places them.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 12, 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Fall Faculty Retreat

Joy to the world, we’re back at Fall Creek Falls State Park for our annual fall faculty retreat. The park is of course a preserve for wild life indigenous to the region. The motel is an internationally acclaimed sanctuary for several rare phyla of mold and other allergens. The restaurant specializes in all-you-can-eat southern calories and hospitality. The banana pudding is almost like home and the soft serve ice cream is better than we have at home.

It is so refreshing to know you are enveloped by thousands of acres of lakes, streams, mountains, and forests. To keep the ferocious wildlife at bay we meet inside windowless but air conditioned rooms from early morning until late at night. It is enough to know the beauty of God’s creation is just a few yards away. When we sneak out for a bathroom break we can steal a glimpse of it all.

This year we are blessed to have several Board members with us. There is nothing like the presence of a Board member to ensure open and creative conversation especially when the hidden agenda standing in the middle of the room involves them. All kidding aside, I have found their participation refreshing and encouraging and only slightly stifling.

Fall Creek Fall State Park, Tennessee
August 9, 2010

Saturday, August 7, 2010

I am Thankful God Speaks Through Eccentrics

I have had my share of unusual people as church members over the years. Some have had psychological problems and needed treatment. A few were emotionally troubled and needed therapy. Some were merely poorly educated and needed to be taught basic reasoning skills. Some were simply strange and hard to categorize.

Mary (name changed) fit into the latter category. She was a seminary student in her late middle years who had come into Pentecost through the charismatic movement. She was mythic-literal in her faith. She seemed to hear God’s voice often and about the most mundane of decisions. (For example, “I was late for church because God told me turn left and a few blocks later I found a young couple with a flat tire who needed help. Isn’t God good.”) She once brought her dead dog to church looking for people to pray the prayer of faith. On another occasion she testified of visiting a woman who had a double mastectomy who desired prayer. Mary was looking for two or three who would believe with her for a total restoration of both breasts.

My girls were young and I sought to shelter them from Mary fearing she might give them a strange personal prophecy. Thankfully I was not always successful.

Alethea came home from school one day when she was in the eighth grade and nervously informed us she believed God was calling her into “a ministry of medicine.” We encouraged her that we would help her pray and if God was calling her He would confirm it beyond doubt. We told no one of the conversation. A few weeks later I saw Mary corner Alethea after church. I tried to get close enough for damage control but couldn’t make it in time. She had taken Alethea’s hands in hers and said “God wanted me to tell you these will be healing hands.” Okay, my protective antenna are lowered but not disengaged. That was so general and it could be a lucky guess. Maybe she overheard Alethea praying.

Sometime later I saw Mary corner Alethea, again. I knew Alethea was going through a trial but I didn’t know what it was. Fathers don’t get to ask their teenage daughters much of anything. There was no need for me to pry. I couldn’t get there in time but I was close enough to see a tear or two roll down her cheek. When we were in the car I asked what Mary had said. I wasn’t prepared for the response.

“I can’t tell you Dad, but I can tell you this. Last night I wrote five questions to God in my journal. Mary said God told her to tell me five things. She didn’t know if they would make sense to me but she had to tell me. The five things she said answered my five questions to God in the order I wrote them down.”

To this day I don’t know what was asked or said. But if Mary moves back to Cleveland and shows up at church with a dead dog, I’ll be the first in line to pray for it.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 8, 2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

I am Thankful for the Growing Movement for Women in the Church of God

Our experiences at this General Assembly have touched the deep longings of many who believe it is God’s will for men and women to serve as equals in His church. We are organizing and we are talking and we will work until holiness conquers our traditions and prejudices. I have sometimes felt like the lone male in this battle. I wasn’t. Lynn Stone has been a constant voice in behalf of a Biblical view of men and women. Chris Thomas has provided constant support through New Testament exegesis. Many others have been outspoken for this cause, but until now we have not united our efforts.

There have of course been many women who tried to find a platform to speak but were silenced by our polity and patriarchal ethos. Some have left for ministry in less restrictive groups. Others have stayed out of love for the Church of God and/or a sense of call to stay. I suspect they have been wounded as much by other women who have labeled them as trouble makers as by men who labeled them usurpers and power seekers and worse, much worse. 

But this Assembly has galvanized those of us who have felt called this cause, men nd women. Many who have worked in silence looking for the right time to nudge forward are now energized to fight for this just cause. We are convinced the Scriptures require it and the Spirit says now; today is the day of our salvation, the day of the Lord’s reign. We are developing strategies. We will prepare study materials. We will preach sermons. We will strengthen the feeble. We will honor those who deserve honor. All we ask is for those who are uncertain and those who oppose us to prayerfully search the Scriptures with us and listen to the blowing of the Spirit.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 6, 2010

Thursday, August 5, 2010

I am Thankful for Electricity

A storm knocked out electricity in our neighborhood for over three hours this evening. I am forced to extend my comments yesterday to acknowledge that thanksgiving is also made fresh by loss. The temperature began to rapidly rise in the house. Our phone is through our high speed internet which doesn’t work without electricity. I was surprised that the thing I missed the most was the internet. I have become dependent on the computer for communication. Electricity = comfort and communication. I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 6, 2010

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I am Still Thankful for Air Conditioning

On the 5th of June I thought I was thankful for air conditioning. I now realize I was just a little appreciative. It has been over 100 two days so far this week. I just came in from checking on a few things and letting the cows into another section of the pasture. It’s 10:20 P.M. and 87 outside. I am wet with sweat. My heart is full of gratitude for air conditioning.

I guess thankfulness can be measured by intensity, endurance, and consciousness. During weeks like this it is impossible not to be conscious of air conditioning. Cool air envelopes you as you step inside whispering “this is a good place to be; come in and enjoy the comfort.” When it is only 80 outside that comfort is easy to ignore and thanksgiving is surely less intense. Cool air becomes a right and not a blessing; thanksgiving dies a quick and painless death.

If I have learned anything in this journey into intentional thanksgiving it is that conscious, intense, enduring thankfulness is hard to maintain. I am more inclined to be conscious of new, or at least renewed, blessings. Thanksgiving is a dish best served fresh, or is it? Perhaps the thanksgiving that really counts is that which endures in our consciousness long after the fresh has wilted. I’m thinking of the thankfulness that flows through the parent of a sick child conquering the fear and uncertainty of the night. Or the thankfulness of an elderly couple gingerly supporting each other as they walk through the park. These thankful hearts are anchored in a peace planted deep in the heart. It is a thanksgiving that flows not out of external blessings but rather out of a connectedness to others. It comes to those who recognize that the true gift is always the giver themselves. The truly thankful are the ones who have learned to receive the gift of love. That thanksgiving consciously and intensely endures the greatest of disappointments; it comforts in all the conditions of life.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 4, 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I am Thankful for My Sister Ministers in the Church of God

The General Assembly was painful for many, embarrassing for most, and a great disappointment for about a third of those present. We succeeded in getting women the right to serve on the local church council, but by the smallest of margins. I continue to grieve over the insulting comments made about women. I am in shock about the intensity of the opposition to the ordination of women as bishops and the size of the margin. I know women who feel they have waited long enough and they should find a denomination that will recognize the full extent of their gifts and callings. For this I hurt deeply. I hurt mostly for them but I also hurt for the Church of God which will be diminished by their absence and I hurt for myself.

I hurt for myself because I have worked hard for the liberation of women in the Church of God and I have failed to have much of an impact. I hurt because I will lose the fellowship, wisdom, and gifts of these sisters. I hurt because the size of the vote and intensity of the opposition reveal the Church of God to have moved farther down the road of fundamentalism than I recognized. I feel we are drifting far from any vision of fulfilling what it means to be the people of the new covenant. We are in trouble.

Yet many women choose to stay and endure an uncertain future as second class members of our movement. Even if they are recognized as ordained bishops two years from now they will continue for decades to look over their shoulder and wonder which of their fellow ministers consider them illegitimate in their roles. We have come a long way in the last couple of decades: full membership in the General Assembly, full rights as an ordained minister, and now the right to serve on the church council. But this Assembly makes it appear ordination as bishops with the right to sit on the General Council and serve in all positions of the church is far off.

I cannot ask my sisters to stay but I pray they do. The loss of just one God-called, Spirit-anointed woman is to our deprivation and a setback for our efforts to bring change. We need them to pastor churches, serve as chaplains, serve on boards and attend every minister’s meeting they can and speak out on every issue. We need their wisdom; we need their presence. We need them to loudly proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, to pray fervently “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Without them we will not fulfill the Great Commission, and we will be a deformed expression of the Body of Christ.

Make no mistake about it, the way we treat the women of our church (and others marginalized by social custom) is an indication of our ability to recognize the body of Christ and to discern the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. My sisters in COG ministry are for me a sign of the Kingdom of God, an announcement of the resurrection, a promise of the coming reign of Christ, a renewal of hope for the fulfillment of our mission, and a reminder the Spirit of God moves and works as She wills.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 3, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

I am Thankful Anger is not a Sin

They say anger is a secondary emotion; it flows out of fear, insecurity, etc. That might be true but for me the journey from primary to secondary can be pretty short and the sojourn at anger can be enduring. I am thankful it is not a sin to be angry, “anger, but sin not.”

When I was a kid I had quite a temper. I attribute it to (1) the frustrations of a speech impediment and (2) having a sister who was just 14 months older than me. Water boarding would have been less torturous than being subjugated to the totalitarian rule of an imaginative preschooler. I was drug around, pushed, punched, and forced to play house ad infinitum. I could take you to the exact spot where I found deliverance. Shirley hit me and it suddenly dawned on me I didn’t have to cry and run to Mom. I took a deep breath and punched her in the bread basket. The look on her face was priceless.

I was free, but I wasn’t in control. I could fight back, but it usually came in a furry. I had an explosive temper. This continued from about the first grade through the fourth, increasing in intensity. One day Mom was at the end of her wits with my behavior, she blurted out “Jackie, if you don’t get your tempter under control you are going to end up just like your Uncle Clyde or worse. You will be in prison one day if you don’t seek God for sanctification over that temper.” I didn’t know what sanctification was but I did know I didn’t want to be like my Uncle Clyde. That was the most horrifying image I had ever had.

My Uncle Clyde was Mom’s oldest brother. In my childhood he lived with my grandparents. He was an alcoholic. I had never seen him sober that I can recall. I don’t know the source of his inner pain. He was vile and vulgar until God saved him a few months before his death. As a fourth or fifth grader the thought of becoming like him turned me into a prayer warrior. Whatever sanctification was, I wanted it. By the time I was in sixth grade I had my temper under control which meant primarily I had my emotions suppressed and anger buried deep.

The ability to control emotions can be a great gift and a great danger. It contributes to objectivity but also creates an environment for depression to brood. I tend to do well under pressure but find myself dealing with emotions long after the threat has passed. I can comfort others when I am in deep pain. Later I deal with my grief, or it deals with me. In some ways this make me well suited to be a parliamentarian.

As the debates swirled on topics I care deeply about this week at the General Assembly, I could distance myself and focus on my job. It was only when the Assembly was over that the full effects hit me and I was angry. I was angry about the indignity women suffered. I was angry about the pain my daughters suffered by viewing the crazy speeches on line. I was angry with the moderator about a few missteps I believe he made; especially the way he stopped Cheryl’s speech. In my opinion he was flat wrong.

The challenge of dealing well with anger is to not suppress it, give into it, or to redirect it but to understand it and channel it toward a positive goal. Discernment of the primary source of anger is a step in the right direction. Discernment of God’s presence in our anger is essential. God may be present to judge anger grounded in sin or to bless anger grounded in His heart. God’s anger is a primary emotion.

Thus, there are things about which we should be angry. Sanctification requires not only that we love as God loves; it births in us anger wed to the anger of God. Indeed, we must embrace God’s anger. In His grace even our anger that is self-serving can be redeemed for His purposes. God’s presence might be to teach us how to be better at being angry. I have discovered God’s presence to focus anger on systems of oppression and seldom on persons.

I am angry about the way women are oppressed in our ecclesiastical context. I believe it flows out of the fall and surely not out of Calvary. I pray God’s sanctifying grace to help me know his anger in this matter. Perhaps then I will see His promises for the Church of God. I will be working for the full inclusion of women in the life and ministries of my church.

Cleveland, Tennessee
August 2, 2010