Sunday, October 31, 2010

I am Thankful for my Dear Friend Dianne Hodo

“Occupy.” Dianne had shared with me on several occasions in recent months that this one word was the only thing God had told her in the face of terminal cancer.

“I don’t know exactly what it means,” she would continue. “But I guess it means I should busy myself doing what he called me to do, and that was to prepare myself to be a counselor.”

Dianne came to seminary later than most. She had worked in the justice system for many years until an election found her having been hired by a politician from the wrong party. Approaching the age of retirement she felt a strong call to address the social ills she had seen in public service through a counseling ministry. For the past four years she was Dr. Doug Slocumb’s graduate assistant which meant she worked at a desk just outside my office. All of us who work in our suite of offices in “B Building” are good friends. Students and others often comment on the “family” and peaceful atmosphere. Dianne was very much a part of our special community.

Cheryl and I have known Dianne, her husband, Joe, and their two daughters for thirty five years, every since we were all at Westmore together in the mid-eighties. We knew way back then that Diane was a special person. She was the daughter of a Nazarene pastor and came into the Church of God having married the son of one of our pastors in Alabama. She was a Spirit-filled, holiness woman, but not exactly our brand of holiness. Her kind was measured slightly more by inward character and slightly less by outward appearances than was ours.

What I discovered decades ago was that she had a deep love for God and an unshakable spirituality. I was fascinated by her thirst for knowledge and understanding. She simply wasn’t satisfied with pat answers or past experiences. She hungered for a ever deeper relationship with God.

I left Westmore in 1988 and had virtually no contact with the Hodo’s for almost twenty years until she enrolled in the seminary. And there we were working together and catching up on life as if no time had passed. Cheryl especially became close to Dianne. They were kindred spirits who had married into the Church of God. Many times Cheryl spoke to me of how Dianne was a gift from God.

It was just about two years ago when Dianne had emergency surgery and they discovered cancer. The diagnosis was very bad; if just one cell was left behind it would be terminal. There was no effective treatment once the initial tumor metastasized. A short time after the initial surgery the cancer was back.

We all prayed fervently, all except Diane. She didn’t feel free to pray for healing. Her mother was living with her and Joe and the elderly saint was not doing well. After her mother passed on to heaven, Dianne felt released to pray for her own healing, but she never got an answer, just the single word “occupy.”

She kept coming to classes, completing her assignments, and working for Dr. Slocumb as if there was no problem. She completed an internship and was being supervised counseling others. Last summer she began to bleed internally requiring trips to Vanderbilt University for assessment and blood infusions. A day or two later and she would be back full force on campus occupying her place and calling.

A couple of weeks ago her doctor told her she was amazing. Her scans revealed multiple tumors several of which were huge. She should have been in extreme pain and immobilized. She said it was as if she was looking at two different women. Dianne should not be living a near normal life.

One week ago last Friday night, Dianne and Joe were at our house with a group of friends for dinner and a game of “Clue.” It was clear she was winded moving about our house, but frankly no more than most of the rest of us. Before she left she mentioned her heart was racing. Our hearts sank; she had mentioned to us many months ago that the end might come when her heart just gave out from the extra work.

She was at school early the next week, but by Wednesday she was back in Nashville. This time the prognosis was dire. The tumors were pressing against all of her internal organs including her kidneys which were shutting down. They sent her home on Hospice care. Still, she told Doug she was going to take the weekend to be with her family but she would be in for work on Monday. That would have been tomorrow. But while at Gatlinburg she took a dramatic turn for the worse (vomiting, racing heart, shortness of breath).

They brought her home. Dr. Slocumb called us in Virginia this morning to tell us she wasn’t doing well. By the time we got back in touch with him he was at their house and she was going fast it seemed. She was alert but on strong pain meds. Dr. Land was there presenting her with her diploma for her master’s degree. The faculty had planned to have a special graduation service for her next Tuesday. She had more than enough hours for the degree. She only really lacked a couple of required courses, one in Church of God history and polity. It seemed good and proper to wave that requirement for Dianne.

Sometime early this evening, while we were driving home with plans to see her tomorrow, she exhaled her last breath of sin-tainted, earth-bound atmosphere and inhaled the pure and undefiled breath of God somewhere inside the Pearly Gates of Heaven. She occupied every moment of this life with faith, courage, grace, and ministry. We will miss her greatly, but I suspect she is right now putting in a good word for us and cheering her heart out for us to finish our course. In a little while we will see her, only let us occupy until He calls or comes.

Cleveland, TN
October 31, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I am Thankful for Camdyn's Birthday

Today was Camdyn’s seventh birthday. That is hard to believe. Seven years ago she was born in the Methodist Hospital in Memphis (Germantown), Tennessee. I was in the room, the result of poor planning and a speedy delivery. As the labor progressed at a normal pace I had sat in the corner of the birthing room learning how to upload pictures to my new computer and then to the internet. I wanted everyone to see my first grandchild the day she was born. I sat there with two cameras, a laptop, and ten feet of wire in my lap. The previous exam had indicated it would be hours before the birth. But thirty minutes after that the staff was scurrying around saying “she’s here, this baby is being born.” By the time I got untangled she was “crowning” and I had my video camera going in time for her to be placed in the warming basinet.

The last thing on my mind that morning had been the possibility I would be in the room when Camdyn was born. Neither was I prepared for the impact of her birth on me. I had anticipated great joy and a sense of pride, not to mention relief if all went well. I knew my life was going to change. What I didn’t expect was an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I felt just as responsible for her as I had for Alethea and Karisa when they were born. Only, now I also had a keen awareness I had no real voice in the major decisions of her life. I was responsible, but I had no authority; all I had was the possibility of influence and the influence of prayer. That day I became more keenly aware of the influence of my mother’s prayers on my children’s lives.

As seven years have unfolded what I have discovered is that the birth of Camdyn was just the down payment on one of God’s greatest gifts. I have been privileged to watch her life unfold and to marvel at her beauty, grace, sensitivity to others, considerable talents, and most importantly her love for God. Seven years ago I prayed she would be born healthy to grow to know God, love Him, and serve Him with all of her heart. When I first held her I whispered into her ear, “I love you and you are loved by God; you can be anything you and He desire for you to be.”

Tonight, I wonder what her future will hold. I am concerned about the trials and temptations she will face. Satan has a whole arsenal of weapons that were unknown in my youth. Yet, I have great confidence in God and her. Together, she will become everything he intends for her to be and that will be magnificent; it already is.

Haymarket, VA
October 30, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

I am Thankful for a Safe Drive to Virginia

Cheryl and I got up early this morning (5 AM) and drove to Haymarket, Virginia for Camdyn’s seventh birthday tomorrow. I should reflect on the occasion later. Tonight, I am sleepy and incoherent after an evening of “Candyland” and video games with Charlie. I am thankful for the safe drive. We did not see an accident even though the traffic was heavy at times. Also, I am happy to announce the recession appears to be over. I know this because the state of Virginia has invested huge sums of money in blue lights; they are everywhere. And the answer is no, I didn’t pick up any green-stamps personally. (If you are too young to understand the metaphor, ask your grandparents.)

Haymarket, Virginia
October 29, 2010

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I am Thankful for Tom Offutt

Today, we went to another funeral. On Saturday morning, Reverend Tom Offutt died instantly of what appeared to be a heart attack. He was at home and his wife literally caught him and eased him to the floor where he died in her arms. He was 72 years old.

Tom graduated from our seminary with honors a couple of years ago with the Master of Divinity degree. He had come to Cleveland to work for the Church of God Chaplains Commission.

I didn’t know Tom well. His office was in the same building on campus as mine. We crossed paths in the hallways often and greeted each other, but we only had one extended conversation when we were seated next to each other at a meal function. In that conversation the pieces began to come together.

What I had known about him was that he came to Cleveland to work with the chaplains program because of his commitment to help hurting people. He was retired from some kind of business, having accumulated considerable wealth. He didn’t look, talk, or dress like a wealthy man. He had the appearance of a retired Drill Sergeant or factory foreman.

I had heard that he donated large amounts to ministries of compassion, but I never heard any dollar figures. I didn’t know if people were talking about tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I still don’t know except that someone mentioned yesterday that he once gave two hundred thousand to a local church to complete a benevolence building. I also knew he would quietly cover expenses for students.

Frankly, it just didn’t add up. He didn’t look or act wealthy. (He refused to fly business class because it was a waste of money.) He didn’t have a gregarious personality; his demeanor was more “matter of fact, let’s get down to business.”  His donations were always anonymous. 

What I heard at that meal was the story of his salvation in 1976 when a Catholic Priest prayed with him. I also heard how his wife was miraculously healed about a decade ago and how that led to their seeking for and receiving the baptism in the Holy Spirit. They shared how their lives were changed and how they had entered into ministries of compassion.

In short, I didn’t know Tom well but I knew him well enough to know I respected him greatly. He was a man of integrity. He wanted his life to glorify God and he wanted to help people. He wanted to be his best and do his best because that was the right thing. He was a Christian who didn’t bury his talents; he used them well for the cause of Christ.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 27, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

I am Thankful for American Democracy

Midterm elections for the US Congress and some state political offices are a week away and we are all surprised it has gotten dirty. Negative ads work. Unfortunately, they also obscure the issues. [By the way, I have reviewed some of my observations and predictions about the Presidential election two years ago and I plan to review them shortly, but not tonight.]

I don’t like the current political atmosphere. I am somewhat concerned that America is more and more polarized and the polarization centers on moral issues. The culture wars are heating up. Liberals are more aggressively liberal (dare I say socialistic) and conservatives are more aggressively conservative (dare I say fundamentalistic). And the swing votes are switching sides faster than pancakes are flipped on the grill at IHOP.

I regret the current conservative revolution centers on taxes. Taxes are too high; government spending is too high. Our current patterns cannot be sustained. The Tea Party seems to have tapped into a growing awareness that the Obama class wars against the rich will inevitably destroy the middle class, the very group he promised to protect and expand. My regret includes the fact that nobody is truly concerned about the poor and the afflicted.

Perhaps more than any other election in my life time, this election exposes the fundamental problem with democracy. In the past two years liberals have governed and enacted programs aimed predominantly for the middle class (me). Certainly, healthcare reform will benefit the lower end of the middle class more than others, but the thrust was to ensure the middle it would be taken care of.

In this set of elections the Tea Party appears to me to be focused on the upper end of the middle class. They are concerned with economic security. Those who have don’t want to lose it. And so we have the problem with democracy; it is the same problem that plagues capitalism, sin, especially the sin of greed. Democracy entices a society to be self-serving. More often than not, especially in periods of economic uncertainty, we vote for our pocketbooks. At least we think our vote will help provide for our personal welfare and prosperity; whatever is good for me has to be good for everybody else.

And therein lies my appreciation for democracy and capitalism. I trust people to look out for their own best interest and when people share the power the result will be the greatest common good short of the reign of God. Further, I trust the image and Spirit of God to nudge humanity toward justice. Therefore, I believe democracy, tempered by representative government that ensures deliberative and graduated change is the best assurance for personal freedom and social order.

The great American experiment in representative democracy is cumbersome and flawed, but it is a gift from God that has been essential to our nation’s greatness. I am thankful for our system of vacillating democracy.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 25, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Mystery Party

I’m not a party person. I never have been. When I was a kid Mom would give Shirley a birthday party every summer. As my birthday approached in September she would give me a choice, a party or a better present. The present always won; I had to attend Shirley’s party anyway. A boy should only have to endure one round of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” a year.

I never learned to like parties. In reality I am a shy person with the hint of some underlying insecurities, perhaps even a little neurosis. I know; my ministry puts me in front of people six days a week and I love it. Cheryl says I “send out my stage persona” or alter ego. Being up front allows me to control the interaction and not have to risk rejection. That sounds like pretty good psycho-babble to me and gives me a good excuse to not like parties.

Last night we had three couples over for a “Mystery Party.” Cheryl developed characters and a plot and placed clues throughout the house. She prepared a great meal and afterwards the couples started trying to solve the murder by finding and interpreting the clues. Okay, the party was on my turf and I always enjoy entertaining at home, or almost always.

The thing about this party that made it special was the guests. If I recall correctly, this was the first time in many years we entertained people who were not from New Covenant, or family or from out of town. We really enjoy having children, youth, families, and staff from the church in our home; that’s always like a family reunion. We also love having family and professional friends from other places stay with us. We are rich in relationships that matter.

But last night different; they were friends we have known for many years and see often but we never have time for fellowship with them. It was like adding a missing component to our relationships. I am reminded of how important it is to spend time with friends when the agenda is not about doing something, but rather just to have an enjoyable time getting to know each other better.  I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

I am Thankful God Provides

When Cheryl and I got married we were quite naive and full of faith. I had a Ford Pinto my parents had bought me and forty dollars to my name. We knew we were supposed to go to Wheaton and we were confident God would provide. Until the day before our wedding we didn’t have a place to live in Wheaton, but we were going none the less. So we packed everything we owned in a 4X6 U-Haul and headed north.

I had no doubt God was going to provide. A few weeks before the wedding my Dad uncharacteristically approached me about my plans. He wanted to know how we were going to survive and pay for school. I boldly assured him he didn’t need to worry; God had told us to go and He would provide for us. Later, Dad let me know he told a lot of people what I had said and how God did provid.

When you’re young stepping out of the boat is not that hard. Even if you sink it’s always a good day for a swim. Then reality hits; the water is cold and the waves push you under over and over again. A couple of months into marriage and graduate school we were up against the financial wall. Our final tuition payment for the quarter and our rent were due. We needed $670.00. As Cheryl and I knelt by our bed praying, God spoke to me saying the money was on its way. I looked over at Cheryl and told her God was going to provide. In my imagination I saw dozens of small gifts arriving in the mail over a period of a few days. I was confident, but I was not prepared for the mail on the next day.

Cheryl had gone through her under graduate program on veteran’s benefits due to her father’s war injuries. They had sent her a couple of checks after we got married and when we called they said she would have to return the money. She did not qualify for further benefits. But the mail that day brought a letter and check from the Veterans Administration. The staff person Cheryl had talked with was misinformed. She did qualify for six more months of benefits. The check in the envelope was for the three months they had withheld her payments; it was for $671 and some cents. We paid our bill and went to out to celebrate; we went to McDonalds where we split a burger, fries and a shake.

We have had other times of financial despair but never again has a check arrived in the mail the next day so closely tied to the amount for which we prayed. We have worked and borrowed and repaid. We have struggled to beat checks to the bank and been late on more than one payment. But we have never been truly delinquent. God always provides, just not on our time table. In His tardiness He nudges me toward a better understanding of the currency of His Kingdom which is not houses, land, cars, or American dollars. The currency of Heaven is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). These are the gifts of God which He provides without limit; the ones which will remain for all eternity.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I am Thankful for the Eye of the Storm

Life is a journey. We don’t get to stop until the final benediction. In my youth I had a saying when asked how I was doing. “I’m going to keep on keeping on until I can’t and then I am going to die and go to Heaven.” The journey is full of storms and beautiful blue skies, hazy mornings and glorious sunsets. Of late, I have considered that perhaps I am traveling in the eye of one huge storm. There is peace in the eye of the storm; there is also a danger blowing close by.

Sometimes the storm presses in suggesting I am moving too slowly. Often I get to lift my head, stare into the sky, and rejoice in the beauty of creation. And the storm moves on. As it moves it spawns more storms. Sometimes these storms are all about me and those I love. Often they are none of my business but they swirl and hurl threats none the less. I need not be the objective of the storm to qualify as collateral damage.

My point is not woe is me. My point is that we all live in the eye of storms. Sometimes the furry overtakes us and we huddle until it passes praying to just survive. But most of life is spent in the calm, knowing the storm moves along with us but keeps its distance until a most inopportune time.  Sometimes life is so rich there we forget there ever was a storm, but it lingers yet.

It is in the storm we discover peace, not the absence of violence but wholeness in the face of destruction. It is in the storm we learn to trust. It is also there that lessons in humility are most effective. The eye of the storm offers rest and beauty, but it also keeps us in the tension between calm and tornado. Perhaps we can best live life to the fullest in the eye of the storm. I know the journey there is never boring and almost always full of blessings, blessings unnoticed without the storm.

Of late, I am thankful for the eye, but I am also aware some are caught in the dangers of the fierce winds.  In the calm of my centered world may I remain vigilent in my efforts to care for those lost in the hurricane.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 21, 2010

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I am Thankful for Deacon’s Meetings

We don't have a Church and Pastor's Council like most congregations in the Church of God.  I made the decision decades ago to never have one for two reasons.  First, the are a strange conflation of the Biblical offices of elder and deacon.  Secondly, until our last General Assembly women could not serve on a Church Council.  I resolved to conduct all business in church conferences open to all members.  Then a couple of decades ago the Assembly authorized congregations to use Deacons and Elders without placing restrictions on membership.  Most of our deacons and elders at New Covenant are women.

I often hear pastors complain about their councils or deacons.  It is as if the lay leaders of their churches are their enemies, and maybe they are. I don't know.  At New Covenant our deacons and elders are outstanding, mature, responsible, and cooperative brothers and sisters in Christ and I am thankful.

We had a deacon’s meeting this evening. A couple of years ago I delegated these meetings to our Assistant Pastor, Kim Belcher, because I was over extended at the Seminary. Frankly, I was negligent of my duties. I keep a close eye on the congregation’s expenditures and I know where we are financially, but I wasn’t staying in touch with these church leaders and the financial processes as I should. I would attend only when there was a critical issue demanding my attention. Our Assistant Pastor moved last summer to accept a residency as a hospital chaplain and I haven’t called a meeting since she left.

Our deacons are conscientious about their duties and understanding and patient with me, usually. The meeting tonight was to reorient ourselves, schedule regular meetings, and consider a request to purchase a van for our youth and children’s ministries. The Youth Pastor and Children’s Pastor had made the request having located a used van. I entered the meeting with a strategy to get the van; the two ministries would accept responsibility for raising the money to repay the church for the van over time. (We rent vans enough that it would have paid for itself in less than two years.) The plan was to assure the deacons we are fiscally responsible. Within the plan I had some reserved funds I could release to help cover the initial cost.

My plan worked, maybe too well. One deacon protested we should just purchase the van and let the children’s and youth departments use it “they are just as much a part of our church as we are.” I was extremely proud, but I couldn’t let it show. I challenged them we need to commit to raise the money. The specific van under consideration had been taken to a mechanic for inspection and found wanting so that our discussion was about locating a good used van and purchasing it. The deacons authorized up to $1,300 more than was initially request.

Our deacons are dedicated servants of God and the church. At times they are a little too fiscally conservative for me, but I prefer that over a Board that throws money around. They are also sold out to ministry. I am proud of them and thankful for their dedicated service.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 20, 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I am Thankful for the Hope of Heaven

[This entry is an adaptation of my sermon last Sunday, October 17, 2010. My text was John 13:36-14:11. Revelation 21 was read within the service as a parallel text. I also drew upon Isaiah 65-66.]

John 13:36 - 14:11 36 Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, where are You going?" Jesus answered, "Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later." 37 Peter said to Him, "Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You." 38 Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times. 1"Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3 "If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. 4 "And you know the way where I am going." 5 Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. 7 "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him." 8 Philip said to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." 9 Jesus said to him, "Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, 'Show us the Father '? 10 "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. 11 "Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.

Whatever became of heaven? There was a time not that long ago when we sang about it in almost every service, and talked about it and preached about it often. Today, it is a vanishing concept, no longer considered important to the Christian life. Perhaps we have backed away from this sacred promise because we have allowed the skeptics to intimidate us. They have bullied many into believing heaven is just a crutch for the underprivileged, a dream to counter their miserable lives. In the long shadows of the age of reason we need not hope in the unseen celestial city with healing leaves from the tree of life; we are comfortable and supplied with modern medicine. Others may find it more comforting to imagine a disembodied liminal state as our final destination; heaven is a state of mind or spiritual condition void of the burdens of the material world.

However, heaven is a central component in the Biblical account of the incarnation. Before He ascended back to Heaven, fully God, fully man, to be seated at the right hand of the Father, Jesus gave the promise that if He went away He would prepare a place for us that we might be there with Him. In His Father’s house there are many apartments or dwelling places and our destiny is to live in them.

In order to fully appreciate Heaven we must consider some other good news. God is at work judging His creation. In time, all of creation will be judged. The earth will be scourged with fire; Satan and all who rebel against God will be cast into the Lake of Fire never to escape everlasting judgment. Death will come to all. And this is good news. God’s judgment announces His grace; His judgment is always toward the redemption of His creation. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God and the wages of sin is death. Believers do not escape death. They die in Christ, who died for their sins that they might live in Him. God’s judgment builds toward that great and final day, but make no mistake, it has already reached its pinnacle at Calvary where Christ embraced the cross and purchased the redemption of all.

Every act of God’s judgment is toward the redemption of His creation. God has not given up on the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve; neither has He given up on Eden. Jesus came into this world to reclaim all that was lost to sin. In the fullness of time all of creation will be gathered up in Him to be placed at the feet of the Father. Everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to Him and shall be restored to Him. This is good news because in His judgment God will reclaim His creation as His habitation. He will dwell on earth with humans.

Both in Isaiah 66 and in Revelation 21 to 22 the promise of the New Jerusalem is tied to the promise of everlasting punishment for the wicked, punishment in flames that do not quench. As hard as that may be for some of us to accept, it is this final judgment that makes evident and secure the reign of God on earth. The New Heaven and the New Earth are not simply free from the presence of sin as if sin never existed. Death, sin, and Hell remain forever conquered, a testament to the power of the love of God and a witness to the extent of His mercy.

Perhaps we have lost sight of our glorious destiny because we have become weary with the wait. Heaven is more than a place up above where our disembodied spirits go when we die to enjoy the glory of God forever. Heaven is not an escape from human history, no; it is rushing toward us from eternity to enter into our world as the epicenter of God’s presence with us. That day may be far off but it is breaking in even now.

Let us remember the story and the promise worth waiting for. Christ, crucified, buried and resurrected, has ascended to the throne room of God where He intercedes for us. When they die, those who are in Him go to be with Him; to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ. With the Apostle Paul we all proclaim, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” But there is more; Christ is returning. When He does He will bring the sainted dead; they will be resurrected and those who are alive in Christ will meet them in the air. After a great battle, Satan will be bound and Christ will reign on earth a thousand years. Afterwards, Satan will be loosed and lead a rebellion after which there will be a final judgment. Satan and all the enemies of Christ will be cast into the everlasting lake of fire. Finally, there will be a new Heaven and a New Earth and a New Jerusalem will descend from the heavens and the throne of God will be on earth and He will dwell among us. Heaven will be on earth. That is our destiny.

Heaven is not a myth; it is not the mere product of human imagination. Heaven is our home, beckoning us forward into the reign of God over all of His creation. I conclude with three aspects of Heaven for which I rejoice and give thanks.

First, Heaven is home for the children of God. My idea of heaven on earth has been dominated by majestic mountains and flowing streams and to be honest the absence of people. I went to New York City when I was nineteen and promised myself I would never return. I felt threatened on every street corner. Just stopping to purchase fuel made me feel like I was being mugged. Cities are overcrowded with sinners. They are unsafe and inhospitable. Not so with Heaven.

There will be no sinners in Heaven, no one and nothing to fear. All will be safe as lion lies down with lamb, the child plays at the hole of the asp, and there is no war, hatred, bigotry, envy, strife, or bitterness. More importantly, Heaven will be home. All of eternity will be one grand family reunion absent the embarrassing behavior of a distant relative. Beginning with those we knew and loved in this life and extending undiluted outward to all the redeemed, we will know as we are known. No longer will we see through a glass darkly. Love, pure and undefiled, will bind us together so that we fulfill all that it means to be the body of Christ, the family of God, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.

Second, Heaven is drawing us by its majestic beauty. Yes, I believe there will be streets of gold and gates of pearl. The foundation will be lined with the most precious of jewels. The river of life will flow and the tree of life will bear its fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations. I will not be discouraged if when I get there I discover these to be figurative literary devices. I already know the description pales in comparison to the true grandeur of that celestial city.

Third, Heaven is the fulfillment of our created destiny. Fully human, forgiven, purged, cleansed, healed, transformed, and full of the Spirit, we shall see God face to face and dwell with Him forever more. We shall be and we shall proclaim His glory. The Father and the Son will be enthroned, and we will worship the Holy Trinity without inhibition and without end. With them we shall dance the dance of their embrace, choreographed before time began. We shall sing the song of the redeemed and all of creation will be our orchestra. And we shall cast our crowns before them crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

I am thankful for the hope of Heaven. It is not a delusion into which I escape. It is a siren calling from the throne of God for me to embrace my humanity and God’s creation, to lift my head and proclaim our redemption draweth nigh. Soon, and very soon, God will make His home among us.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Pastoral Staff

One of the great joys of my life has been to work with a pastoral staff at New Covenant. We are a small congregation with even smaller financial resources. Our staff members are all part time. They serve out of a sense of call and sometimes with a desire for experience and supervision before stepping out into full time ministry. Located in Cleveland, Tennessee we have a host of ministerial students from whom to select. Typically, we choose staff that first chose us as their home church in Cleveland. Occasionally, we must recruit from outside.

In addition to Cheryl and me as co-pastors, we currently have a Youth Pastor, a Children’s Pastor and a Worship Pastor. Our Children’s Pastor, Vernice Blackaby, works for Church of God World Mission; she has been a member of our church for many years and Children’s Pastor for four or five. Our Youth Pastor, Brian Dalton, has been a member for five or six years and our staff member for most of that time. Our Worship Pastor, Justin Spears, joined our staff a few weeks ago; He is a student at our Seminary.

I am full time at the Seminary; I preach most Sundays, provide pastoral care, provide oversight to all ministries and oversee the fiscal aspects of the church. Consequently, I can’t provide close supervision for the staff, especially in the last three or four years as I have directed the seminary’s reaffirmation of accreditation efforts. Imagine this: without my close supervision the children’s and youth ministries have expanded their programs and enlarged their numbers. More importantly, God is doing great things in the lives of our children and youth and those who minister to them.

Over the years we have had some outstanding young ministers: brilliant, gifted, devoted, visionaries. Some, like me, have been less than stellar in their skills but made up for it in faithfulness and devotion. Virtually all have ministered effectively out of both their strengths and hurts. They became significant members of our church family. They edified us as the Body of Christ, and we felt great loss when they moved on to other ministries. At least one found us less than stellar, void of a “spirit of excellence.” He just couldn’t grasp that church is far more than a weekly event.

I am truly thankful for everyone who has served on our pastoral staff over the years. We are so very proud of them. It is an honor to have walked and ministered beside them. Even the one who left us disappointed by our perceived lack of support for his ministry, gave us his gifts of service that touched our lives.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 18, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I am Thankful for the Completion of a Hard Week

I have fallen way behind in my task of blogging about thankfulness. Unexpected changes to my Doctor of Ministry class consumed my energies for the past couple of weeks. Last week Cheryl and I taught our D.Min. course, “Leading Worship and Discipleship.” I found it quite enjoyable as usual. These are students are experienced in ministry who come together with a lot of insight to share. We met from 8 to 5 Monday through Thursday, including having lunch.

We also taught our regular schedule of classes. We covered for each other during regular hours. For me that meant teaching from 8 A.M. to 8:30 P.M. on Thursday. We also had other responsibilities. On Tuesday I had a community meeting until 8 P.M. On Wednesday evening I had to catch up on my taxes. On Friday I completed my taxes and worked outside. Yesterday, I worked outside in the morning, we went to a wedding in the afternoon, and I did the bulletin and worked on my sermon in the evening. Today was church. I preached in the morning and evening I taught on our Declaration of Faith.

Okay, that’s my set of excuses. I’ve been too busy to write about being thankful. But, I have been thankful. The class went well. My community meeting went well. My taxes went very well (if the IRS agrees). God blessed in our morning worship. I preached on “The Hope of Heaven.” We rejoiced and tarried in the altar.

After the service I was talking with “the trinity,” three of our older, close-knit teenage girls. One of them I assisted in her parent’s wedding almost 20 years ago and Cheryl and I were at the hospital for her birth and we dedicated her. The oldest has been in our church for six or eight years and is now a college freshman. The third has been at New Covenant for three or four years. It has really been a joy to watch them mature in life and in their walk with God. Some time back they told me I couldn’t retire or leave New Covenant until I performed there weddings. Today, they informed me I couldn’t retire or die until after they died. I made no promises and I pointed out that when they reached sixty I would be a hundred. Never-the-less, I pray I never let them down and I am thankful to be their pastor.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 17, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I am Thankful for my Recliner

Actually, we have three recliners. One is quite old and uncomfortable. One is an electronic recliner. Cheryl bought it for me when I broke my collar bone a few years ago. It is comfortable but the electronics do not always work. My other recliner is one we bought several years ago. It was inexpensive, but very comfortable, curl up and go to sleep comfortable. It’s where I sit to write this blog and check my email, etc. A comfortable recliner is an inalienable right and a necessity for creativity – a necessity for, not a certainty of.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 12, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

I am Thankful for Survival

We are in the midst of teaching a Doctor of Ministry Course, 8 to 5 this week.  It is stressful but fun.  There are a few other things going on this week.  We will survive.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I am Thankful for the Unexpected, Sometimes

When I went to bed Sunday evening my next day was planned. I was going to sleep in late, have breakfast, dress, go to the office for a couple of hours, and come home and work outside. We were on fall break. But I got a phone call at 8:05 the next morning and everything changed.

An adjunct professor was not going to be able to meet with his Doctor of Ministry Class and the director of the program was calling to see if I would cover for him. I was (am) scheduled to teach the same group of students next week. The problem was that I wasn’t ready. Cheryl and I are teaching the class together and because of some miscommunication between the Seminary and the students (they had not received their syllabi and therefore had not completed their pre-class assignments) I was in the midst of restructuring the entire course. Cheryl was in California speaking at Fuller Theological Seminary.

I agreed to meet the class at 10 AM and to begin our course sessions. After I got dressed I hurried to the school, gathered some materials, and began the class. From my perspective it went as well as possible. Cheryl and I worked this afternoon making final preparations for next week’s sessions.

As I have written before, I like routine. I don’t like it when my plans are interrupted. Self analysis suggests one of my coping mechanisms is to simply not make plans in which I am emotionally vested except for the bigger issues of life. It’s my “who cares” principle. If the event I am preparing for is not of some consequence then why should I get all worked up about it. A leisurely morning and projects outside don’t have to be done today.

One result of this attitude is that I may not look my best. People might think I am less intelligent than I otherwise could have fooled them into thinking that I was. Responding to the unexpected often means I must forget about myself and think about the needs of others. It also means I must recognize that I don’t really control my life; sometimes the unexpected is a requirement and not just a request.

Perhaps the greatest danger of the unexpected events of life is the temptation to allow the urgent to crowd out the important. A crisis may be of little significance. The truly important may in fact most often be found in the dull routines of life. Unexpected challenges force us to choose between the better and the best. They are tests of our heart; do I have the mind of Christ?

I am thankful for the unexpected because it affords great opportunity to be creative and to be open to new discoveries. I find that when I am responding to a situation completely outside of my comfort zone of self protection, I am most free to explore and discover, to look at old problems in new ways. At least this is true when I can push through my initial panic and set sail on the sea of trust. The truth that God is at work becomes more palpable when I know that I am not in charge of the outcomes; I am just a helmsman trying to do my part while He captains the ship.

Yes, I am usually annoyed by the interruptions of life. But once I get over my initial frustration, I most often find in them wondrous gifts. I am thankful for the unmarked detours of life. This entry would be so much more engaging if I could report a Divine encounter with the class on Monday, a miracle, or at least some great discovery. I can’t. I can only say that I felt God’s pleasure and it was wonderful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 9, 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

I am Thankful for Some Broken Traditions

I team teach a course with Dr. Doug Slocumb on family ministry. We both subscribe to family systems theory. Systems theory holds in part that the family functions as a whole with each member functioning in specific ways to keep the whole working. Even when one member is unhealthy in a way that negatively impacts the family (addiction, neurosis, etc,) that member’s issues are integrated into the whole with other members compensating so that the family system continues to work even if highly misfunctional. A strange as it may seem, an individual’s problems may become so woven into the fabric of the family system that the problems become necessary for the family’s survival. For example, if an alcoholic father dies another member of the family will often develop an addiction. That family needs to focus on one member’s addiction in order to feel they are a family.

Systems theory further teaches that the patterns with which individuals relate to their family members are passed down to the next generation. We learn how to exist in family relations from the relations of our family of origin. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The sons of alcoholic fathers will often be addicts themselves, even if the addiction is to work. The point is that family patterns and traditions tend to be passed on to the next generation even if they are disguised in an alternative form.

I am thankful for the majority of the values and patterns of relationships that were woven into me by a loving and disciplined family system. There are a few patterns I wish I could have broken out of; I am a workaholic. What causes me to marvel, are the family patterns out of which my parents were able to break.   I also marvel at how they turned highly destructive patterns into positive traits. It is as if they took all of the positive traits of their family systems and amplified them to drown out most of the bad.

The apple does not fall far from the tree, but it can choose to fall in the right direction. By the grace of God we can break destructive patterns of behavior that damage our relationships. We can also identify their root causes and seek healing and wholeness. That may be the central calling of families that follow Christ. The members of Christian families must relate to each other as Christians and as Christians they must seek together to find healing and wholeness; they must build up one another, minister healing to one another, and deal with the worldly patterns that seek dominance in their lives. I am thankful Christ has made a way for us to truly minister grace to those we love the most. We do not have to live out patterns of destruction, no matter how many generations have been marred by those same patterns.

One of my great-grandfathers was an alcoholic who abused his wife and children.  Several of my uncles fit that pattern as well, at least for lengthy periods of their lives.  Others were verbally and emotionally abusive.  Some were bigoted and otherwise vile.  [There were of course many others who modeled goodness and compassion, but they are not the subject of this entry.]  By God’s grace, I have never witnessed any of those behaviors in my family. My Dad use to say he was proud of his children; they never caused him any trouble.  I know that is the fruit of a praying mother, and that is my point.  The prayers of a righteous mother availeth much; they break the stronghold of family systems.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 7, 2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I am Thankful for Good Fences and Good Neighbors

I confess, I don’t know my neighbors well. I occasionally talk with those living closest to us, almost always when we are outside working. There simply isn’t a lot of time for socializing. Most of our neighbors have lived here much longer than we have. We have never had a conflict with any of them, at least not until one of them stole my bull this afternoon. You might want to skip to the bottom to get the details.

When I was a kid we had a big, gentle bull. He would let me ride on his back as long as I wanted to go where he wanted to go. He only objected when two riders tried get on him. If that ever happened, it was rodeo bull riding down on the farm. One of my cousins loved to sneak up beside us and press down on his back just to see the bull throw me off.

I think Dad had bought Old Red from his brother, but I’m not sure. He was a fine looking bull with a mixed pedigree. Mr. Johnny Johns lived next to our farm.  Mr Johnny was actually my dad’s first cousin, once removed (he was considerably older than my Dad, and long before Dad was born Mr. Johnny’s father had been disowned by the rest of my Dad’s family over an inheritance dispute). He owned a couple of hundred acres, part of it in dense woods and swamps. His pasture was right next to our pasture and he owned his own bull, which he considered considerably better bred than Old Red.

There was a problem. Old Red was bigger than Mr. Johnny’s bull, and he was determined when it came to romance. He would jump the fence, stomp it down, or find a week place and push right through it if there was a cow on the other side needing his attention. When that happened, Mr. Johnny would get word to us and we would drop whatever we were doing to go run the bull back home.

One time we must have chased him for three or four hours, and I do mean chase. The cows had gone down into the deep woods.  We would get Old Red headed in the right direction and he would find a side path to dart down and circle around behind us. Dad and I were cutting through some thick brambles when Dad said, “Stop, do you smell that?”

“What?” I asked.

“Don’t you smell that smell of rotten cucumbers. Son, we’ve gotten ourselves into a rattlesnake nest. You watch where you’re stepping and let’s ease out of here.”

I watched, and we eased. When we got a few yards into a clearing Dad said, “Let’s go to the house. That bull can follow the cows to Mr. Johnny’s and he can pen him up tonight.” With that he gave out a loud whistle to signal my brother and cousin to follow us out.

Shortly after that Dad took Old Red to the market and bought a registered Black Angus bull to replace him. Mr. Johnny sold his old bull right after Dad bought the Black Angus. Whenever he needed a bull Mr. Johnny would just bring his cows to the pasture next to ours. The funny thing is he would never call us to come get him out of his pasture. Sometimes a relative would call to tell us our bull was at Mr. Johnny’s (remember, we lived an hour away). Other times we would find the bull on the wrong side of the fence ourselves.

Dad would go see the elderly neighbor and apologize for his bull getting into Mr. Johnny’s cows. “I sure hope he don’t mess your herd up. I know you never wanted Black Angus calves,” Dad said with a boyish grin you might even call a smirk.

“Oh, that’s all right Ellis. He ain’t hurt’n noth’n and he ain’t eat’n too much grass. You can just leave him if you’re in a hurry and get him the next time you’re up here. I’ll even pen ‘em up for you if you let me know you’re coming.”

“That’s right neighborly of you Mr. Johnny. You just let me know when you’re done with him and I’ll come get him.”

Good fences make for good neighbors. Registered bulls can make for even better neighbors.

When I got home this evening I looked out the back window and saw my neighbor in the woods on my side of the fence. There’s a gate between our fields. By the time I got outside I saw him leading my bull, Jackson, into his pasture. I had to go out to my barn to unplug the electric fence to get to where they were. I followed them through their pasture, around their house and into another pasture. When I got close enough for them to hear, I called out, “do ya’ll need to borrow my bull?”

“Is that your bull? We had a bull delivered today while we were down in Atlanta. We didn’t see him. When we went looking for him we thought he had jumped the fence to get to your cows.”

It seems they had just borrowed the $1,500 bull and were afraid they had lost him. About that time he wondered up from the other side of their pond. That’s when the excitement began. Two bulls, six or eight cows, and one of them in heat. Where’s the video camera when you need it?

They managed to get their herd penned and Jackson separated out. The only problem was that Jackson was in love and determined. I got him to follow me with his head buried in a bucket of feed but just before we got to the gate he raised his head, sniffed the wind and took off to serenade his new girlfriend. It took six of us close to an hour to coax, chase, and coral him back onto my piece of land.

I loved it. It was just like old times. There is nothing to bond neighbors like chasing a love-struck bull. They were very apologetic. I assured them I might have done the same thing if I thought the $1,500 bull I had borrowed had jumped the fence. They are good neighbors. They’re the same ones who helped me coral my cows and get them home three years ago last month. I am thankful for good fences and better neighbors.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 6, 2010

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I am Thankful for a Reminder to Rest

About a month ago I wrote about being thankful for a evening of rest. I commented on the need to rest.  I have not given much attention to rest since then.  Life is full.  Today, I took the whole day to rest. We are on fall break and I was supposed to go to the state ministers’ meeting in Nashville. But I woke feeling a little under the weather, and so I decided to stay in and take it easy. I reviewed some old projects that had been sidelined but I did not work on any current projects. As the day progressed I felt renewed.

Rest is essential to our well being. God ordained it from the beginning. My concept of rest has been to escape from stress by shifting between arenas of work.  It seems restfull to forget about the seminary by attending to the church, or to forget about both by doing manual labor.  I am discovering that rest is more than not feeling stress because I have diverted my attention away from the event causing me stress.  Rest is withdrawal from all work.  It is needed for our bodies and our spirits (mental/emotional) and it is critical to our relationship with God.

I have often said that prayer is work, hard work. Praying through to the presence and peace of God requires effort, but there is a correlation between the amount of effort required and the amount of clutter in our spirits. Rest is God’s plan for sweeping out the clutter, those things, good, bad, and indifferent, that threaten to become barriers between us and our Creator.

I am thankful for a day of rest but I am more thankful for the gentle manner in which God has reminded me rest is not just a commandment, it is a gift designed to renew us in our walk with Him. In this I am reminded that prayer is not so much an instrument to change this world as it is a down payment on that eternal rest into which we have been called.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 05, 2010

Monday, October 4, 2010

I am Thankful This Series Will End

Of late, I have felt mentally depleted when it is time to write for this blog. I confess it often feels like a chore. I made a commitment to myself and I intend to keep that commitment, but it is not easy at this time of the year. My work at the seminary is taxing; New Covenant is exciting but draining as well. I don’t feel especially exhausted. It’s more like I have already picked the low-hanging fruit of thankfulness, things that were easy to write about, and now it is work.

There is so much for which I am thankful about which I have not yet written, but writing about those things is requiring considerable effort. It is a challenge to try to be thankful, engaging, entertaining, and hopefully enlightening all at the same time. I’m tired, not of being thankful but of writing about being thankful. Therefore, as meaningful as this experience has been, I am thankful it will end in less than three months. Just being honest. Pray saints, pray.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 4, 2010

Sunday, October 3, 2010

I am Thankful for the Discipline of God

One of the great challenges of ministry is to discern one’s appropriate role in the administration of church discipline. As a pastor it is clear that besetting sins, those associated with the works of the flesh, must be addressed. Drunkenness, rage, unbridled greed, idolatry, and fornication must be addressed. Members who are known to indulge in these must be called to repentance, nurtured into spiritual renewal and restored to full fellowship. But other sins are less clear. How do you confront someone about gluttony, envy, jealousy, or pride?

I have had to supervise the discipline several church members in my nearly thirty years as a lead pastor. Chronic lying, spouse abuse, drunkenness, slander, and adultery are among the sins I have had to address. The results have been mixed.

The process I follow is fairly direct. If a church member or regular attender gets caught up in a work of the flesh I have a one-on-one conversation to address the situation. My goal is to clarify the Biblical teaching on the subject and assess the person’s desire for spiritual restoration. If there is no sign of repentance I instruct the individual I will not allow him or her to participate in the life of the church as true believer: no testimony except of repentance, no ministry activity, and no communion. If he or she is a member I inform the individual there will be a formal church conference to consider excommunication. In all cases they are encouraged to continue attending church. I have never had anyone to choose to continue their sin and remain in the church. I have never overseen the removal of membership from a member; I have had several to leave the church rather than submit to the restoration process.

If the guilty person confesses and expresses a desire for restoration I offer them some options. They must enter into a program of accountability. Typically this component is a disciplinary band. Bands are comprised of three to five persons who are of the same gender as the transgressor. The individual nominates the participants as persons whom they consider spiritually mature whom they trust. I reserve the right to veto a participant. If I think the sin is tied to an emotional or psychological problem, I encourage the member to get therapy with the church offering assistance if needed.

I had a case several years ago that proved futile. The young woman’s husband was approaching the end of his prison term. She had been faithful to him throughout his five years of incarceration. But as his release approached she began to question her desire to remain married to a convict. She got involved with another man and started bringing him to church; he was “just a friend.”

One Sunday they asked to talk with me. Her opening statement, “Pastor we would like to get premarital counseling.”

“Mary (name changed), I can’t do that.”

“Why, not?”

“Mary, you are already married.”

“I know, but I thought that if you gave us premarital counseling I could decide which one I wanted to be married to.”

She confessed they had been sexually active for some time and she agreed to submit to a disciplinary band. I stressed the purpose of the band was to help her get restored to Christ. She attended six weeks of counseling and accountability sessions. Afterwards, she came to me to ask if I would then give them premarital counseling. When I refused she protested, “But Pastor, I submitted to the discipline. I did everything you asked. Why won’t you do this for me?”

They left and found a church that “lived by the Bible, loved everyone, and refused to judge.” She did divorce her husband and married the other man.

The saga continued. A few years later I was leading a small group Bible study and her ex-husband showed up one night. Some of his family remained in our church. On that night he gave a prayer request. “Pastor, I need prayer.”

“What for Billy (name changed)?”

“I’m having a problem, I’m fornicating.”

“Billy, I have a word from the Lord for you.”

With sincerity, “Really, Pastor, What is it?

“Stop fornicating! It’s that simple; God wants you to stop.”

“I can’t stop. She might leave me, just pray she will marry me and everything will be Okay.”

Well, that’s ministry. Sometimes you just have to leave people in the hands of God. When you have no power or authority, all you can do is pray and hope you are a convicting presence, a voice of truth and love, and not condemnation.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 3, 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I am Thankful for a Glorious Day

It was a glorious day. The weather here in east Tennessee was perfect. The skies were clear and crystal blue; the temperature was cool. I spent the morning doing work on the computer, after pancakes with homemade blueberry syrup and sausage, of course. In the early afternoon I went to a wedding for two of our students (Cheryl spent several hours in the office preparing a lecture she will be giving at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena this week). After the wedding, I grilled burgers and then we went on a motor cycle ride. It was great and I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 2, 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010

I am Thankful for Thanksgiving

It is the first day of October and I am looking forward to Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the Holiday of Holidays. It inaugurates the holiday season. It is the first day of Christmas. Halloween is that bazaar holiday void of purpose, a meaningless opportunity to dress in silly costumes and underwrite the candy industry. As a child “All Saints Eve” had no significance for a good Pentecostal kid. I just couldn’t understand it; just do it and enjoy it.

Thanksgiving is a holiday with significance. It was the nation’s Fourth of July before there was a Day of Independence, and a Feast of Ingathering patterned on Pentecost. As a national holiday Thanksgiving dismantles the myth of separation of faith and State. On Thanksgiving we reclaim our heritage as a Christian nation even if we have evolved into a plurality of religious stew demanding to be seasoned in public with the valium of agnosticism.

Thanksgiving is perhaps the most nostalgic of Holidays. Our other holidays are activity days, opening presents, cooking out, weekend trips, etc. But Thanksgiving is the one day of the year when the focal point of life is to gather as families around a banquet table and give thanks. As such, it is our holiday that most resembles the feast days of the Bible. On this day we pause to be thankful for the core blessings of our lives: food, shelter, and loved ones.

In my childhood, Thanksgiving was connected with hog killing day. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving we gathered at my Grand-parents house and butchered a couple of hogs. Back then it seemed to always be cold weather by Thanksgiving. The conditions were right for hanging meat in the smoke house, but in truth, we wrapped it and put it in the freezer. It’s just too much work to keep a fire going for weeks on end.

Out in my barn I have stored my Grandfather’s big cauldron in which we use to scald the hogs. Before dressing a hog (removing their entrails) the hair was removed. The process required dipping the carcass into hot water (scalding), pulling it out onto the rim of the tub and scrapping the hairs off. Once the hide was clean it was hung upside down and butchered. Then it was quartered, sliced and wrapped for the freezer.

The big cauldron was cleaned and the fat was cooked down for lard and “cracklins.” Eventually, a big pot and Coleman stove were discovered to be more convenient for this task. Pork lard had to be cured to get the heavy meat flavor out. Momma always fried potatoes in the lard before using it to cook anything else. The potatoes drew the pork flavor out and thus cured it for other purposes.

For me, butchering hogs is synonymous with Thanksgiving. The extended family gathered together in a primal ritual that sustained us through the coming long winter. The sacrifice of an animal did not devalue life, as members of PETA might claim. To the contrary, participation in this most ancient communal activity heightened my awareness of the worth of all life and increased my awareness of how precious it is as a gift from God.

By the time I was a teenager we had stopped butchering our own hogs and cows. I suppose it was just too easy to take them to Wilson’s for processing. Then again there was the day when one of my uncles threatened to shoot someone before the hog, a story I am not supposed to write about. Perhaps I have embellished the ritual with unwarranted pleasant memories and downplayed the family tensions that may have contributed to an increase in the local butcher’s business.

I am thankful no one ever got shot at one of our family Thanksgiving gatherings. Not every South Georgia family can say that.

Cleveland, Tennessee
October 1, 2010