Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I am Thankful for my Mother's KJV

My mother loved the Bible. She loved teaching the Bible and preaching the Bible. When I was very young she taught preschool children in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. As time progressed she moved up to older children, then youth, and finally adults. She studied some throughout the week, but Saturday evenings were devoted to lesson preparation. She would open her commentary and her Bibles on her bed and kneel beside them and study. She had every English translation available: King James, New American Standard, Revised Standard, New International, Living Bible, Good News For Modern Man, and multiple copies of some of them. She had parallel translations and interlinear Hebrew and Greek copies. There would be copies of the popular study Bibles, and Naves Topical. Squeezed in between them would be one volume commentaries such as Ellicott’s and Matthew Henry’s. She read and prayed over every one of them every week.

Fast forward several decades and my mother is visiting with us. After the Sunday morning service, following a great meal, we are talking, she complements my sermon and continues “Son, why don’t you preach out of the King James Bible.”

I responded with an informed critique of King Jimmy’s appropriateness for our times. In short, there are more accurate translations that reflect the English language as we currently speak it.

“Now Son, you know the King James is the real word of God.”

I replied, “Momma, you’re the one who taught me to read other translations. You read every translation known to the English speaking world when you prepared your Sunday School lessons.”

“Son, you know good and well I only read those Bibles to help me understand what the King James was saying.”

I love the King James Version of the Bible. It is poetic in rhythm, style, and form. It is simply beautiful. Unfortunately, it is based on less than the best ancient manuscripts and it uses an archaic vocabulary, much of which is lost on the modern reader. It gives me great pleasure to quote the KJV on those occasions when it offers the better translation (i.e., the one I prefer) in that forgotten Shakespearian style.  I especially cherish my mother's KJV Bible stuffed with notes and marked on every page.

And that’s my view from somewhere close to Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 30, 2010

I am Thankful for a Visit with my Friend

We went to see Cheryl’s mother yesterday. She recently had another “step down.” When one of these events happens she becomes nonresponsive for a few days and gradually improves, but never to the level she was before the event. I was thankful she recognized us and called our names. She was conversational but not coherent. There were no connected clauses or clear flow of thought. She was slumped to her right side and unable or unwilling to sit up. Yet, she was in enough control to hold (in the sense of balance on the table) a container and drink from a straw.

She was in good spirits and again seemed to focus on me. I sat next to her and we smiled at each other. Keep in mind this is the woman who refused to use my right name for the first ten to fifteen years that she knew me. After a while Cheryl and her sister, Ruth, stepped to Thelma’s room to take care of something, leaving the two of us together in the activity room with several residents who were watching an old Van Johnson movie (For those under fifty, I have provided the link).

Thelma looked at me, smiled and spoke, “I like looking at you.”  (Perhaps, with her dimmed eyesight, I favor Van Johnson.)

I chuckled nervously and responded, “Thanks, Thelma, you and I have had some good times through the years.”

She looked puzzled and replied, “What are you saying?”

“I think we have had some good times, don’t you?”

She shook her head, frowned and added, “You confuse me.” I guess our sparring matches have not been as meaningful for her as they have for me. The irresistible force met the immovable object and eternity will tell who won.

When Cheryl and Ruth returned I shared the exchange with them. Thelma buried her face in her hands like an embarrassed child and she chuckled.

If you have known me long or read this blog consistently you may remember that Thelma’s first words to me when we met in the spring of 1974 were, “Sonny Boy, your hair’s too long.” To which I replied, “Sister Girl, yours is too short.”

Over the past couple of years Thelma has on occasion stroked my short hair and asked if I liked it “that way.” I always said that I did and she always offered, “It’s all right.”

As we were visiting yesterday, Thelma kept reaching up and brushing the front of her own hair. Finally, she spoke, “Your hair is too short.” We have come full circle.

I have found that in these excursions into the twilight of consciousness, I often find illumination; Thelma has come to like me even if she will never like my blond, straight hair. I once told her I would be the best friend she had if she would let me, but I would not let her boss me around. Perhaps it is self-delusion, but I want to believe that in the recesses of her self-awareness she has finally come to accept me as her friend.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 30, 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I am Thankful for the Gift of Hope

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, 2010. Cheryl directs our special services and works with a team of talented persons. We agreed to follow the traditional themes of Advent with today focusing on “Hope.” I have received multiple complements on my sermon; I am not really pleased with it. It is often the case that if I feel disappointed with my content and/or delivery, God seems to be working overtime to speak into the lives of the congregation. Actually, this morning I was not overly disappointed since I had feared embarrassing myself and was pleased just sense God’s presence and help. I guess the sermon itself was a demonstration of the theme, hope.

Part of my disappointment was that I didn’t share a couple of points that seemed very important when I was preparing. I offer here a summary of the sermon.

Texts: Psalm 139:43, 49, 74, 81, 114, 116, 147; 130:5; Ezekiel. 37:7-14; Romans 8: 19-27.

Why is the message of hope so overlooked in the modern church? For the early church, hope was a central human affection that evidenced the presence of the Spirit. But the Western church seems void of reference to this great gift of God. Could it be that to profess hope is to acknowledge need or weakness? If I admit to living in hope, am I admitting to some inadequacy?

In the Scriptures there are multiple Hebrew words from which the English word “hope” is translated. The Hebrew language is very visual with the roots of words giving significance to the meanings of words, their emphasis or thrust. For example, one Hebrew word for hope seems to come from a root word for “chord” possibly suggesting that hope is tied together with a promise given in the past and the expectation of its fulfillment in the future. Perhaps we have little hope because we know so little of the promises given in the past.

Another Hebrew word for hope flows out of the concept of “waiting.” Persons who hope are waiting on the fulfillment of a promise. Still another, and perhaps the most significant word for hope, is grounded in the concept of trust. To hope is to trust someone will be faithful to the commitments they have made. All of these words convey a sense of expectation.

Hope is that inner expectation that promises made will be kept. The Psalmist makes that clear. His hope is tied to the Word of God. It is the Word that causes hope, even, no especially, in times of despair. Thus, the hope of the believer is grounded in and focuses on the Word of God.

In the Valley of dry bones Ezekiel come to know this on a deeper level. The great challenge to Ezekiel is to believe the dry bones can live. The even greater challenge to him was to believe the dry bones were Israel. [Note: one of my disappointments with my sermon was that I fumbled the sequence of events in the Biblical account.] God asserted he was going to raise Israel up from the grave and return them to the Promised Land. When all hope is lost, God speaks and gives hope. That which is dried up and dead in our lives will live again if God has declared it. In those cases hope is both a gift and an expectation; we must hope.

The Apostle Paul challenges us further in this journey of hope. Hope is the fruit of the Spirit’s presence within us. This hope planted by the Holy Spirit sees what has been promised and groans within us for the final day of our redemption. All of creation groans with us in expectation of the coming Day of the Lord. The Spirit who convicted us, convinced us, baptized us into the body of Christ, and sealed us as members of the household of God makes the promises of God alive within us. Hope is our character, the affection of our heart toward the fullness of God’s presence.

Thus we hope for His appearance when all around us is weary and threatening. And we hope still when all seems well. In hope we know our journey is toward the city whose builder and maker is God. The blessing of this life are but appetizers for the eternal banquet of his reign.

I am thankful for hope, God’s gift for the good times and the bad. I am thankful for His assistance in my preaching. I am more thankful for his grace bestowed in the face of my frail attempts to speak His Word.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 28, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

I am Thankful for Thanksgiving Leftovers

It is the day after Thanksgiving. So far, for lunch I had a ham sandwich. For dinner, I had a plate full of sweet potato casserole, dressing with gravy, and turkey. At various points I have indulged in fruitcake and pecan pie. It was all good, almost as good as yesterday.  I have felt no guilt. I have extended my thanksgiving for the blessings of God. It is He who feeds me, clothes me, and provides shelter. He gives me family and friends. He gives me a thankful heart and cause for thanks. Leftovers are a reminder the blessings of God are extended from day to day. They are also a promise there will be another Thanksgiving. The blessings of God don’t have to be new in order to be renewed every day. Okay, I know there is a limit to this metaphor, but I am thankful for the leftovers, at least I am thankful today. Tomorrow I’ll work on transformations; turkey and  dumplings anyone?.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 26, 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I am Thankful for Thanksgiving

We had a wonderful Thanksgiving today. Jimmy, Iris, Mike, Shirley, Ryan, and Andrea were here. We also had Leah Pannell and Michelle Kinjorski with us. The food was great. Cheryl did most of the cooking but my stuffing and gravy were worth a five-star notation. Shirley's sweet potato casseroles (that's right two) were also worthy of a place in the cookbook hall of fame and Iris's offering of my mother's fruit cake was heavenly. Both turkeys were prepared to perfection by Cheryl.

We played a game and enjoyed conversation. A good time was had by all, unless I missed something.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 25, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Gas Fireplaces

When we moved into our house nearly thirteen years ago I was excited to have a fireplace. We had plenty of trees to fuel the fire. Chopping wood is great exercise. Before our first full winter I was looking for a good used fireplace insert. I looked at one not far from our house. The family had it sitting out on the car port. It was a cold day and so we stepped inside to talk a little.

Once inside I noticed gas logs in their fireplace. I asked the man why he decided to switch to gas. Without a word he raised his hand to eye level and made a twisting motion with his thumb and forefinger. I guess he recognized the puzzled look on my face and repeated the motion while stating “It’s just a whole lot easier to do this” once again demonstrating, “than this” followed by a chopping motion. I got the picture.

I thought the price on his used insert was a little high and so I left without it. thinking to myself, “I hope I’m never that lazy.” A couple of weeks later I found a good buy at a home out in the country. That man was proud to say he had paid cash for his gas logs and the first tank of propane. “What’s wrong with this world,” I thought.

With the help of Larry McQueen I got the monstrous hunk of steel moved to my house and installed. I did enjoy it. It felt good to split logs into the right size using an ax and maul. It was also great seeing the electric bill go down during the winter. One fall the heat pump went out and we decided to not replace it until we could pay cash in the spring. I heated our whole house all winter long with the wood burning fireplace insert. Now that’s something a man can brag about.

I only had one problem with the insert and Cheryl had another. Cheryl’s recurring issue was the mess that was made bringing wood in and taking ashes out. My problem was worsening allergies. The chimney wasn’t built properly so that when the winds blew small amounts of smoke were forced down into our house. It was never enough to see, but always enough to smell.

Five or six years ago I agreed to put a ventless gas fireplace in the basement. It made for a cozy environment and allowed us to better control the temperature without wasting heat when we weren’t down there. I thought that would get Cheryl off my back about the messiness of the wood-burning insert on the main floor. Self-induced naiveté is a comforting delusion for the stubborn male ego.

A couple of years ago I finally acquiesced and agreed to purchase a set of gas logs. I did my best to not like it. I wanted to grumble about the cost of the gas. We all know it just ain’t natural for the logs to never burn down into a warm glow of embers. But, Cheryl pays for the gas and glowing embers aren’t all their burned down to be. I have come to recognize the wisdom in owning up to the timeless truth that it’s easier “to do this” than “to do that”. Now-a-days I get my exercise in the basement where it’s cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

That’s the news close to Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 22, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

I am Thankful for Cooking

I am comfortable in the kitchen: slow, messy, limited, simplistic, but comfortable. I don’t cook a lot. It is a family tradition for me to make pancakes on Saturday mornings. When the girls were young, eggs were erroneously labeled a major contributor to high cholesterol and clogged arteries. I decided to experiment with oatmeal as a substitute for eggs in my pancake recipe. I have settled on a fifty/fifty ratio of self rising flour to quick oatmeal (one cup each), add a quarter teaspoon of salt and a heaping teaspoon of baking powder. I add a couple of other special ingredients, two heaping tablespoons of sugar and two heaping tablespoons of vanilla yogurt. If I have it, I use a cup of buttermilk and add enough milk to create the right consistency.

I am known for my cobblers. I’ll share the recipe later. I also like making chili and soups. I use to bake a lot of breads, but that was thirty pounds ago. There are a few other dishes that I enjoy making, but not often. Cheryl is more the cook in our household, but that has been an acquired talent.

On our first weekend in our first apartment, two weeks into our marriage, Cheryl announced she wanted to fix me Sunday dinner, fried chicken. I offered to help but she wanted to prepare it for me, things were looking up in this marriage thing. She disappeared behind the plastic accordion kitchen door and I a grabbed a book; we didn’t own a TV. A good fifteen minutes later, the door slowly opened and she asked in a gentle voice, “Jackie, do you know how to cut up a chicken.”

I laughed, went into the kitchen where the bird lay on a cutting board with the knife resting beside it. Having grown up helping my mother and grandmother butcher chickens was coming in handy and this time we didn’t have to ring its neck, scald, pluck the feathers, and singe the pin hairs off. The task accomplished, I offered again to help but she ushered me out of the room; she wanted to do it herself.

The door expanded, closed behind me and I returned to my book. Fifteen minutes later the door opened again and Cheryl appeared with another question. “Honey, do you know how to fry chicken?”

I laughed too loud, entered the kitchen, and showed Cheryl how to batter and fry chicken. She ushered me out again and thirty minutes later she opened the door and started bringing out a lovely and tasty Sunday dinner. It really was good. The point is that Cheryl has forced herself to become a great cook because she sees cooking as an act of love. She doesn’t especially enjoy cooking; she likes having cooked.

As long as the girls were home, we had our evening meals together. Cheryl cooked most of them. Now that we have an empty nest we have shifted to lunch being the main meal and the highlight of my days. We eat at home as much as possible, but schedules require us to eat out at least a couple of days each week. In the evenings Cheryl snacks (healthy) and I fix myself something simple: egg and rice, fried egg sandwich, omelet, oven fried steak, leftovers, etc.

In sum, I am thankful Cheryl loves me enough to be a wonderful cook. I am thankful I am a decent cook who can feed myself if need be and show off every now and then.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 20, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

I am Thankful for Friday Nights

TGIFN, Thank God it’s Friday night. Friday night is my night to debrief. Usually, I kick back, watch a little TV, and just relax. Some day it is going to be our date night and we do on rare occasion go out. Actually, we frequently plan to go out but sometime in the afternoon Cheryl offers “Why don’t we just stay in and kick back.” And we do.

Tonight we went for a power walk and did a pastoral visit. We came home and now we are watching TV. I can’t handle much more excitement than this. And tomorrow we get to work in the yard.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I am Thankful for my Students

Today was the last day of my classes for this semester. I had thought this was going to be an easy semester for me, but things got complex and it became one of those “the faster I go the farther behind I get” terms. The students made it a rewarding semester. I had a wonderful mix of students: internationals, experienced pastors, and young adults with little experience. One troubling trend is that I only had two female students, not counting a couple of directed studies.

I have not yet graded their papers but, based on class discussions, I am convinced on the whole they have a better grasp of the big issues than most classes. More importantly, they see the implications. I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 18, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I am Thankful for a Visit by Larry McQueen

Larry McQueen is our guest this week. He is in town for his graduate seminar for his doctoral program. Larry lived with us for a while shortly after we moved into this house and before he moved back home to Texas. He is family and he is a good house guest. He is also a great scholar, writer, musician, social critic, and conversationalist.

That’s the news from near Polk County,

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 17, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I am Thankful for Our New Group “Free to Serve: Men and Women Leading Together in Unity.”

Two years ago I created the FB group “Free Our Church of God Women to Serve.” The purpose of that group is “to encourage the removal of restrictions that prevent women from serving in some ministry offices in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee).” It is open to members and friends of the Church of God. There are currently 776 members of that group.

In May of 2009 we had a strategy meeting here in Cleveland. Following the General Assembly this year we began a series of meetings to pray and plan our response. It was agreed to formally organize and so we elected an organizational committee to draw up an organizational plan. I chaired the committee and it met on a regular bases this fall.

This evening we had an organizational meeting and adopted a name and bylaws. The new group is named “Free to Serve: Men and Women Leading Together in Unity.” I am hopeful this group will provide leadership for our denomination in this matter. The group will meet on January to elect officers. We are planning to conduct conferences, publish materials, operate a web page, and other means of encouraging the full inclusion of women in the leadership of the church.

I am thankful for the new organization and I am hopeful for its future. For now I’m thinking about keeping the original group as named. Many people seem to have found the name offensive. I confess, it was intended to provoke a response. But a response is needed. I am thankful to have issued a challenge to the Church of God to “Free Our Church of God Women to Serve.” We must release everyone to serve in the capacities to which God calls them; to not do so is to be against Christ. We will answer to Him for ordaining persons He has not called and for not ordaining anyone He has called. I am confident He calls women to be pastors/elders in the Body of Christ and that Biblically qualifies them to be bishops. Bishops are by definition “elders.”

That’s my view from near Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 16, 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

I am Thankful for Rat Poison, Sometimes

We live in the country. Ah, the country: trees, fields, peace, quiet, tranquility. “Green acres is the place for me.” Currently we are in the early stages of a delayed fall. After a long summer of drought and a fall of record heat and more drought the temperatures have begun to drop and the Cleveland winter rain has returned. In my first year in Cleveland it rained every day for over sixty days.

There is nothing more beautiful than rain soaked, brilliantly colored trees and there is nothing more cozy than listening to the patter of rain while resting in the glow of the fireplace. Yes, it is times like these that our country friends gather into the warmth of our modest home. Grass spiders the size of saucers squeeze their way into the basement. Lady bugs form communes on the basement ceiling like day workers gathered at the local 7-Eleven, celebrating our economic recovery by competing for less than minimum wage construction jobs.

And then, there are the furry country cousins. After a long summer of enjoying nature’s bounty they sneak in through the cracks looking for a little comfort from the coming freeze. We haven’t seen any in years, but we know they are there. They scurry up and down and all around inside our walls and ceilings. And then the pitter patter of their little feet slows to a halt. The question is answered; last year’s rat poison is still potent. Silence settles in and the sweet aroma of their slow decay wafts through the house.

There is nothing quite like that smell. It penetrates your clothes, robs you appetite, and motivates you to work a little longer at the office. Believe me, I would give the poor creatures a Christian burial if I could find their remains, but I can’t. Whoever said “out of sight, out of mind” clearly had lost their sense of smell.

That’s the news from near Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 15, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Missions Minded Church

New Covenant is a giving congregation. During this calendar year we have given over $8,600.00 to Church of God missionaries. That amount is over ten percent of our total receipts for the year and does not include the portion of tithes set aside by the COG General Assembly. A week and a half ago we had a love feast fund raiser for a Bible College in Ghana, Africa and raised several hundred dollars for the students. A few days ago we got a notice that one of our missionaries was to short on funds to come home for Christmas. One of our deacons, Pat Wells, hastily put together a beans and cornbread lunch and bake sale for today. We raised $300.00.

We have a loving and giving congregation. No one is wealthy. All are sacrificial and I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 14, 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

I am Thankful for a Day to Work Outside

Tomorrow I plan to work outside for much of the day. If all goes well I will complete some projects that have been on hold for a couple of months, including spreading 1,200 pounds of fertilizer, clearing some downed trees, and distributing some grass seed. It should be wonderful and I am thankful just for the prospect.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 12, 2010

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I am Thankful for the Joy of Holiness

I have been reflecting on the joy of holiness. It is common to refer to the joy of salvation and to the beauty of holiness. Those are certainly appropriate images grounded in Scripture. There is immeasurable joy in knowing one is saved, and there is no human beauty that compares to that of a person clothed in righteousness. But it has crossed my mind that both of those descriptions tend to focus on the affects of grace received. There is a joy that transcends those appropriate responses to God’s mercy, one that flows directly from Him into us, that is, the fruit of the Spirit.

To know God in the beauty of holiness is to love as He loves. God is love and we cherish the promise of living in the full embrace of His love. We seldom imagine God as joyful, that seems too human. But He is joyful. Joy arises within His Triune being and flows outward to His creation in the same way as love eminates from Him. In its most simple description, holiness is being conformed to the otherness of God. It is to share in character of the wholly other.

God and God alone is holy. His creation can share in His holiness only by direct contact with Him. Further, only that which is free from sin can be joined with God in the beauty of His holiness. There is no holiness without direct communion with God. There is no direct communion with God that does not infuse the individual with the character of God.

Sanctification is that gracious act of God whereby the individual is separated from sin and unto God. It is that transformation that frees the believer from the power of sin and infuses into the believer the very holiness of God. In this fellowship with our creator our joy in what he has done for us is swallowed up in the joy that belongs to Him alone. We share in His joy, the joy of the triune being celebrating the life they share.

In God we radiate the warmth of His love, we embrace with the unity of His peace, and we dance the dance of His joy. That is the true beauty of holiness, the joyful dance of the certainty of fellowship in Him.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 11, 2010

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Church Youth

Our church youth came over this evening for their annual bon fire at our house. There were fourteen youth and four workers. Many of the youth are new to the group. Not all of them attend our Sunday morning worship. During their devotional time they were asked to share something God had taught them or done for them recently. I was astonished at the maturity and wisdom of their responses. They are growing and learning and trusting God.

Several of the youth spoke of how they felt at home at our church; they just sensed they belonged the first time they visited. For that I thank God for our youth, youth workers, and the Holy Spirit. It was a blessed evening.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I am Thankful for a Lazy Week; I had One Once

About twenty years ago Cheryl encouraged me to get involved with the Ministerial Association. Her rationale was that pastoral ministry required involvement in the life of the community. My response was that I didn’t have time to meet with a group of pastors just for coffee and complaints. If I was going to be in a community group it had to be one that was doing something.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to ministerial groups. Pastor’s need networks of peers with whom they can identify and share their challenges. I feel I get that at the seminary. I wanted a network that connected through ministry. And so I helped start BICC and later I started the Free Our Church of God Women to Serve (FOCOGWTS) which has led to many lazy weeks like this one.

Let me review my week since last Thursday, just the special events. Thursday afternoon was spent at the General Offices in an adult discipleship committee meeting. Friday was a typical light work day except that it began with loading a steer and taking it to the butcher. On Saturday Cheryl and I participated in the funeral of our friend Dianne Hodo. Sunday was typical (preach in the morning, study & prepare in the afternoon for the evening service). Last evening (Monday) Cheryl and I went to the BICC fund raising banquet. In addition to regular work responsibilities today, I had a 2 ½ hour committee meeting for the FOCOGWTS group. This evening I chaired the Vision Commission of BICC. (Cheryl had a worship planning committee meeting.) Tomorrow evening the church youth are coming to our house for a bon fire. These are just the highlights. I have omitted counseling sessions, special lunches, classes, etc.

I am thankful for my busy life. During the last years of my Dad’s life we had a ritual exchange every time we talked on the phone. He asked, “How are you doing, son?” I responded, “I’m fine, just busy as usual.” He countered, “That’s good, stay busy and you’ll stay out of trouble.” I have concluded he was correct in moral terms, but not necessarily professional ones.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 9, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

I am Thankful for BICC

Tonight we attended a fundraising banquet for the Bradley Initiative for Church and Community (BICC). BICC is a faith-based community development organization. I am Vice-chairman of the Board of Directors and I chair the organization’s Vision Commission. BICC is twelve years old. It was started by and continues to be directed by Brenda Hughes. Brenda is a member of New Covenant. She grew up here in Bradley County, as a teen married an emotionally abusive minister, worked two and three jobs at a time to provide for her three children, and in her forties got the courage to divorce and start life over. It was at New Covenant she found the strength to dream of making a difference in our community and received a divine call to college in preparation to fulfill the dream.

Brenda first attended Berea College in Kentucky and then transferred to Eastern University in Pennsylvania where she studied under Tony Compolo. Her bachelor’s thesis was titled “The CPR of Hope” and offered a model for community development that centered on the renewal of hope within the marginalized. I was able to connect her with Tina Willemsma, the Director of the Commission on Religion in Appalachia (CORA) and a friend of mine. CORA was planning to help fund the creation of community development organizations that followed a model of unifying churches in a community listening project designed to identify the systemic causes of social problems and develop programs to address them.  With the promise of support from CORA, Brenda returned to Cleveland with a vision for community development here.

The initial funding from CORA enabled Brenda to crystalize the concept of BICC and start spreading the dream among the pastors and community leaders of Cleveland. God gave her favor and BICC was born. Over the past twelve years of listening, consulting, studying, planning, and working hard, BICC has had phenomenal success in addressing social concerns in Bradley County. Those accomplishments include the creation of the Bradley Initiative Credit Union with a low income designation, a matched-savings program, a Commission on Racial Equality, the REACH Adult High School, the Starfish Program for in-home early childhood parenting education, a youth mentoring program, and a youth leadership development program. These and other projects are all the product of dozens of churches and hundreds of people working with a shared vision of building a better place for all of our citizens to live.

I am thankful to have been a part of this social miracle. I am blessed to have been Brenda’s pastor throughout this effort, blessed to witness her emergence from shame to influence. I am blessed to have traveled this journey of effective community development. I am blessed to have become friends with a broad cross section of people I would have otherwise not known; many are pastors and lay leaders from various denominations: Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Independent, etc. I am blessed to be a part of a congregation that has quietly supported this ministry, often from the shadows; tonight we had at least eighteen of our New Covenant Family at the banquet – 18 of 280.

Tonight was a reminder of God’s favor on our lives. Cheryl and I had resisted returning to Cleveland largely because of the socio-economic divide here. The wealthy and middle class seemed ignorant of the working poor, literally, the other side of the railroad tracks. When we did return, our hope was to find a way to bridge that gap. But we found ourselves struggling to survive and ill equipped to make a difference. Now, twenty-six years later I can look back and say God has let us be a part of something great that is making a difference in people’s lives. He has even let us contribute a little to the process. I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 8, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

I am Thankful for Being

Sometimes I struggle to focus on one thing for which to be thankful. Often it is when I have a general sense of peace, the kind of peace that can only flow out of God’s favor. The favor of God is an expression of His grace and mercy. I have not earned grace, peace, or even life itself; they are gifts from God. I have not healed the people and places of my existence; We share in His healing power. It is in sharing the love and grace of God that we find true peace, i.e., shalom, wholness.

The inability to focus on one blessing or set of blessings is thus not a denial of grace. It may in fact be a expression of thanksgiving for the gestalt of grace. In its entirety, life is a gift from God. Thus, all of our relationships are avenues of giving and receiving grace. In times like these, it is enough to be still and embrace the beauty of being. I am because He is and He has chosen me to be.

Tonight, I am not thinking about specific blessings; I am thinking of the blessing of existence. I am more than the sum of my experiences or all the good God has done for me. I am His handiwork and the object of His affections.

A couple of decades ago in the depths of despair the Spirit gave me a song that has been a source of strength in the darkest of times. The words include these lines:

I am my Lord’s
And He is Mine
And I love Him
Oh, Yes, I love Him
It was for me
He lived and died
Was Crucified
Because He loves me
Oh, yes He loves me

I am thankful for life, for life is the signature of God’s love. He does not love me because I am; I am because He loves me.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 07, 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I am Thankful for My Friend Dianne Hodo (Part II)

We had Dianne Hodo’s funeral today. Joe moderated the service and challenged us all that it was to be a time of celebration and not mourning. He sang with the Churchmen an opening song (“Well Done My Child”) and a closing song (“Long and Winding Road”). There were tributes by James Francis (PTS SGA President), Doug Slocumb, Cheryl and myself, Steve Land, Wendell Smith, Kelvin Page, and Dianne’s sister, Rev. Sandra Murphree. The Westmore COG Sanctuary Choir gave a glorious rendition of “Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul.” It was a time of worship, comfort, and honor appropriate to Dianne’s life but insufficient to communicate the depth and breadth of her influence.

Last week I wrote about her faithfulness to “occupy.” She was a model of living life to the fullest. During this week I have found myself reflecting on her place in my life. Each day as I entered the school I felt her absence and I grieved, frankly more than I anticipated. And so I thought about the last few years and our friendship.

Dianne began her studies at the Seminary as I was becoming highly involved directing our programs for reaffirmation of accreditation. As Dr. Slocumb’s Graduate Assistant, her work station was directly outside of my office. Our responsibilities intersected little so that we had almost no conversations about work. We talked about life; we were friends.

Decades ago she came to me on one occasion as her pastor. An issue had arisen in which she felt she needed spiritual direction. But at the Seminary, we were colleagues. We never had long conversations. Dianne was too focused on work and I was too overloaded for much small talk. There were those times when I came out of the office to get a cup of coffee or make a cup of tea when what I needed was a break. Dianne often sensed my need for small talk to clear my head and she obliged.

Keep in mind, she was not given to small talk. She was focused. She had the gift of being hard of hearing when she wanted to be. A party could be going on around her and she could stay buried in the file on which she was working, oblivious to her surroundings.

Yet, we had many conversations about a host of subjects. As you would expect, we talked about our children and other family members. She loved and was proud of Shelley and Jennifer. She was also proud of her sister, Sandra. I can’t say that she told me a lot about Joe, but neither can I imagine her speaking more than a couple of sentences without invoking his name: “Joe and I,” “one time Joe and I.” You get the picture. If ever two people became one, Joe and Dianne did and set the pattern for others to follow.

Always, she would humor me and listen to my personal stories, at least until one of our phones rang or someone else interrupted with a work related issue. In these brief talks we discovered how much we had in common. We share a love for God and a Wesleyan-Pentecostal view of life. We are both married to persons given to travel who could charm the Pope out of his rings (Mine actually did talk a Cardinal into letting her try on his ring). We are both parents of two intelligent, gifted, sensitive daughters. We both had fathers who believed work formed character.

If fact, we both had the experience of working beside our fathers cutting fence posts to be treated with creosote and then using those same posts to stretch fence. There aren’t a lot of people in Cleveland, Tennessee who can say that.

In all of her struggle with cancer I never heard her ask “why?” I certainly never felt any sense of envy of those with good health and long lives. I did hear a hint of envy when she heard me mention my tractor. She said she would love to spend a day working with one. I regret I didn’t arrange for that.

Sometimes I initiated the conversation and sometimes she did. She read my blog which often became the starting point. It seems we share political philosophies, only she more-so. Perhaps, politics is one of our strongest points of shared interest. You see, I am a self-confessed conservative Republican. Many of my close friends and colleagues are somewhere left of George McGovern (if you’re under forty, google him). I feel my calling in life is to hold on tight to the rope that binds us and lean to the right. Who knows where I’ll end up if the rope ever breaks. Dianne was a pleasant corrective; I often found myself leaning slightly to the left when we talked politics.

Every conversation was seasoned with the Lord. I have somewhere written that Spirit-filled people share a worldview that relates all things to God. We see God at work in, with, by, and through all things. If such a disposition is indeed evidence of being Spirit-filled, Dianne could be tried and convicted in any court in the land.

Having reflected on all of this I came to realize Dianne was truly my sister. We were friends who were comfortable with each other. (Then again she seemed comfortable with everyone.) We had so many experiences and opinions in common. Without my even realizing it, she became a rock to lean on, that person who shared the journey with confidence, dignity, hope and peace. In the face of death, she gave confidence to others. She will always be family for Cheryl and me, and an icon into the face of God.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 06, 2010

Friday, November 5, 2010

I am Thankful for a Night at the Movies

We don’t go to movies often. Tonight we went to see Secretariat. It is a very good movie. There is a positive theme, believe and persevere. Although it is clearly not a Christian film, with subtleness it acknowledges the Christian backdrop of traditional American culture. This is accomplished by opening and closing with an appropriate Scripture text and the use of a couple of Gospel songs as background music. There is a sense of wholesomeness throughout, no sex or violence or other gratuitous sins.

It is good to go to a movie you can recommend without qualifications, how rare.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 5, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

I am Thankful for Josiah Dalton

We had a birth celebration at church this evening for Josiah Dalton. Josiah is the newborn son of Brian and Tamara Dalton. Brian is our Youth Pastor. Josiah is about as handsome of a baby as you will ever see.

Brian and Tamera are a lovely young couple who met at Lee. She is a CPA who resigned her secure position to be a stay-at-home mom while Josiah is young. Brian graduated from Lee with a major in Youth Ministry and works a secular job to support the family.

The blessings this evening included words of assurance, hope, and direction. Josiah has been born into a home where he is loved; he will be guided, disciplined, and nurtured in the Christian faith. He was also born into a church family where he will be blessed as a special member of our community. Newly born, he is a reminder of who we are and a promise of what we shall become.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 3, 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I am Thankful for Not Being Wrong, Sometimes

Several years ago Cheryl and I were expressing our disparate, informed opinions with fervor when she blurted out “Do you know what your problem is?” To which I responded, “I think I do, but why don’t you tell me anyway.”

“Your problem is you can’t stand to be wrong; you just enjoy being right too much.”

I smiled and she continued, “What are you smirking about?”

I chuckled and said, “I guess you’re right. I have to admit I have never taken pleasure in being wrong.”  She laughed and we found common ground.

Two years ago I made some political projections and for the most part I wasn’t wrong. I will list here some of my more general prognostications and save ones specific to Obama for another entry.

On November 5, 2008 I predicted the following:

1. “In terms of healthcare, he (Obama) will get most of what he wants but the debates will heat up. All of this will prolong the economic downturn, although there will probably be a short-lived upturn from now through the first six months of his Presidency. Unemployment will increase.” He got what he wanted and the debates did get heated. The economic downturn continues and unemployment remains very high.

2. “The roll of minorities in American politics has been forever changed for the good. The days of the Caucasian, good-old-boys-club-in-power is over. Minorities will rise in leadership in both parties but especially conservatives in the Republican Party. – Perhaps some delusional wishful thinking here. The Parties will become more ideologically defined and stress ethnic coalitions with a greater social purpose.” Let’s think: head of GOP is now an African American, newly elected GOP governor of South Carolina is Asian Indian and a woman to boot, and the new GOP Senator from Florida is Cuban American, need I go on? How do you spell conservative ideology – TEA PARTY.

3. “The world will not come to an end on January 20, 2009. Conservatism is not dead.” No comment needed. “Sarah Palin will not vanish into the polar night…” I got a little too specific and suggested she would become a Senator but I think I deserve a win on this one.

On the next day (11/6/2010) I wrote about the useless promise of unity.

“If “change” was the central theme of Barak Obama’s campaign for the Presidency, “unity” was the ubiquitous corollary. He promised to unite us in solving the pressing problems of our time and to not allow ideology to divide us. This is a noble objective, but one that is doomed to failure. It is the same promise George Bush made (“I’m a uniter, not a divider”), and look how that turned out.

The promise will fail for various reasons. First, when Obama made it he seemed to always imply it was the political right that is bound by ideology and obstructing progress. He is a liberal on the far left of the spectrum and we are a nation where the majority define themselves as conservative and between the blue dog Democrats and the Republicans conservatives comprise the majority of Congress. He will have to move far toward the middle on social and economic issues if he hopes to be a lasting unifying force in America (I perceive him to already be in the middle on national security).

Second, while the process of shared problem solving is unifying, it works as a tool for unity only when (1) there is a shared agreement about the reality and nature of the problem, (2) there is a shared agreement on the priority of the problem, and (3) all parties believe their voice will be heard and respected. Ideology is a direct mitigating force in the first two factors and an indirect one in the third.

In short, ideology is nothing more than a systematized expression of values. We can set aside our ideology (i.e., liberalism vs. conservatism) only to the extent that we unite around a greater shared ideology, values that are threatened (i.e., liberty, justice, democracy). In situations other than grave crises it is our ideological differences that clarify our desires and the values that guide civilization. In a democracy we need healthy disagreement (disunity) in order to move forward with the best policies for all. These differences often serve not only to help us choose a direction, but to first recognize the need to move in any direction. They provide the energy for change and sometimes they save us from great error.

It is incredibly difficult to come to agreement on what the real problems are and what priority they should have, not to mention how to solve them without violating someone’s core values. It does not serve us well to view the minority voice as obstructionist and yet democracy is prewired to view them exactly that way. We can come together only to the extent we agree to honor each other by respecting our opposing views at least enough to give them serious consideration. When victory overshadows understanding we are destined to run ruff shod over the minority. It is not our differences nor their intensity, but what we do with them that divide us. This then becomes the Achilles’ heel for any President; time and passion stand in the way of considered listening and shared problem solving.

Let us choose to hope that Barak Obama is that rarest of politicians, one who will value everyone (specifically in Congress) enough to give them voice not only in how to solve our problems, but in the identification and prioritization of the problems. He seems to have the disposition for such listening.

Finally, he will fail because it will be out of his hands. The major problems of this country require Congressional action. It is the leaders and members of Congress who must learn to listen intently and with respect to each other. They must come to agree on the existence, nature and priority of our problems. And they must learn to do this with many of them having already established extreme dislike for each other. No matter how well intentioned and capable, this task is beyond any President’s ability. They all promise it; they all fail; so why do we fall for it? Perhaps it is reflective of the image of God that we continue to hope for unity. Surely it is the fruit of sin that we fight over our disagreements. Let us hope this will be that season of politicians learning to work together. Let us hope I am wrong in my pessimism.”

The one thing I missed here (and it is big) was my suspicion Obama has “a disposition” for listening. He has proven the opposite to be true. His concept of compromise can be summed up “I won; you will do it my way.”

For the most part, I was right, but I’m not smiling.

Cleveland, Tennessee
November 2, 2010