Lucky Ducky… That’s Me

I have just got to share with you this bragging word: “I am the luckiest guy in the world.” The reason I say this is I had the best vocation in the world… I was a United Methodist Pastor. I got to spend forty years serving churches all over Western North Carolina – from Murphy in the west to Greensboro in the east – Eden in the north and Midland and Asheboro in the south. I have served a church that had seven (Yep 7 members) and some having six hundred members. I have had some mighty good times and some horribly bad experiences. I have witnessed great joy and unbelievable sadness. But that is the life of a pastor. You win some, lose some, and some get rained out. Do you know that as lovable as I am, not everybody agreed with my own personal opinion of my gifts and graces. Through it all I found that not taking myself so seriously was a grace that all pastors need to understand and develop.

What brought all this to my pea brain tonight was a while back I was honored to be asked to return to a former church and celebrate the wedding of a young lady who was just one of the precious children we enjoyed at that church. She was funny. She was her own person. We all just loved those kids. I made it a habit in those days of having a children’s message. I loved doing that… felt like Art Linkletter at times – because I loved these kids and I loved the wonder in their eyes and the honesty of their thoughts. Many a Sunday I have had my sides hurting from laughter from something one of the children said. It not only happened in that church, but in every church I served where I did a children’s time. I know some pastor’s do not do that and that is fine… but we lose a lot when we do not spend time with the children. Take the time to laugh with them, visit with them, talk with them about stuff they enjoy. I know you will be amazed by what they know and what they say.

As I said, I returned to a church I served over twenty years ago to celebrate the wedding of one of those children who sat at my feet during five years of children’s messages. And believe me she was a hoot… on top of her game… ready for me every Sunday. Today she is all grown up and marrying this very nice young man she met in college. You can see in their eyes and in the way they speak with each other that they are really in love and really respect one another. Boy was I ever honored to be able to participate in her life in this special way.

All of this got me to thinking about the good times we had in that church. What a great spirit of love, family and cooperation in that place all those years. We were a growing congregation – not by great numbers – but a steady growth each year. There were a few people that were real characters who got my goat all the time. One was and man named Buren. At the parsonage on moving day… Shirley and I were moving in. Buren was there along with some other men from the church to help us move in. I noticed burden was gathering up some empty boxes. He looked at me and said: “Preacher, we are going to keep these boxes in a safe, dry place. Just in case we don’t like you there will be plenty of boxes for you to use moving out.” I almost fell on the floor laughing.

The second thing he did (which I can share) happened during Sunday school assembly one Sunday morning. Carl, the superintendent, was leading us through some thoughts on stewardship saying: “I’ve always heard that if you are experiencing a drought it is because you aren’t paying the preacher enough.” Buren chimed in saying: “We are paying him he just ain’t sending it in.” Again, rolling in the pews.

Another man in the church was a big-time fisherman. Thurmond would always brag that he once caught a fish whose shadow weighed two pounds. He took me fishing one day at the city lake in Asheboro. We were in his little John boat. I was fishing with a cork, sinker and hook. He was fly fishing. That meant that in this little six-foot boat with us sitting opposite ends, I had this fly (a feather weight lure with a hook hidden in it), swinging back and forth over my head. Suddenly, he caught me in the ear with that lure. That kinda finished the day. The next Sunday I made the announcement from the pulpit that “Thurmond was indeed the greatest fisherman I had ever seen. Just the other day, out at city lake, he hooked a two-hundred-pound big mouth bass.” Everybody got a kick out of that. 

There were plenty of other people and many experiences that continued to bring us together as a family and attract people to our congregation. It was a good church with great people. We hated to move but we knew it was time.

I will always remember this place with great appreciation that they allowed Shirley and me to spend five short years in their midst as they accepted us into their hearts and homes. Thank you, Guys… for all the great times.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Being Hung Out To Dry

I have often heard that sometimes we are all wet and that sometimes we are hung out to dry. You know, I can say: “Been there, Done that!”

“All Wet” can men completely wrong about something or you don’t have enough information to come in out of the rain. It also refers to being stupid, to be ineffective, non-athletic, socially inadequate, etc, etc. So, it is someone who cannot get the job done… whatever that job may be… they do not have the “right stuff” to complete their mission.

I remember this “hung out to dry” feeling from my college days. I was serving a student appointment (that means I was a college student while serving a church). It was a church that I was sent to in order to help them build a parsonage because I had help rebuilt one church from the ground up and renovated another not long before this. Well, the building process (committee and commitments) was moving rather slowly. On Saturday, I received a phone call from my District Superintendent (this is an Elder in the church appointed by the Bishop to supervise a group of ministers in a certain area known as a district). He said: “Steve, I want you to tell that building committee at the church that if they don’t get this parsonage underway quickly, I will not send them a pastor next conference year.” I replied: Ok, I’ll do what you ask.” Sunday morning, I relay his statement to the building committee and the chairperson asks me to call this DS and set up and appointment for him. I called the DS to inform him of the request and his reply was: “I didn’t say that. If you say I did, I will have you in the Bishop’s office by noon tomorrow and have your job.” Hung out to dry would have been an understatement of how I felt.

This setup and threatening style of leadership almost caused me to leave the ministry and the church. I never told this DS how demoralizing his behavior was, how deeply he hurt me, or how un-Christian his actions were. I never trusted that man ever again.

In his little political one-up-man-ship manner of doing things to those under his charge, I felt “All Wet.” No, I did not know what game he was playing, how to play it, or why to play it. I was stupid, inadequate, not up to the political task before me. Why can’t we just tell the truth? Why can we just be honest with one another? What I needed was not a lousy intimidating General… I needed a pastor, a mentor, who would seek to help me become a pastor – not another politician.

I believe the church fails badly at mentoring new, young pastors in training. We have inserted the term “mentor” in the process of becoming ordained, but I don’t believe we really have mentors (real mentors) who are trained, compassionate mentors who care to make sure pastors are built from the inside out. What we have, most of the time, are mentors who are politically in line for some kind of recognition – and this gets them recognized by the Conference Board of Ministry – which most clergy want to be appointed to, because it says I am on the right track to be one of the fair haired boys/girls (the ones chosen to be put on the fast track).

We are called to be servant leaders not CEO’s of the Church. Our present-day paradigm for leadership is the corporate one and not the servant one. I am sure I would have been a better pastor had I had a real mentor/pastor rather than a CEO/General.

My word for all the young pastors is don’t let the CEO leadership style drive you from the ministry or the church. Ask for… seek out a mentor you know who has a shepherd’s heart and a mindset to lift you up and help fit you for service in the kingdom.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Jesus, Pope Francis, and a Protestant Walk into a Bar

I saw this book title the other day and I thought how clever it is… how it must make people laugh and then want to pick it up… at least to see what it is about. Below I have included some of the front matter of this book in an effort to perk your interest in wanting to read more about these lessons for the Christian Church.

“Pope Francis has taken the world by storm, captivating Catholics, Protestants, and non-Christians alike. Sneaking out of the Vatican at night, washing the feet of inmates, and taking selfies with young fans is certainly unlike any religious leader we’ve seen in a while, and some of the religious establishment is uneasy about it. The revitalization Francis is bringing to the Catholic Church is not without precedent, however. Jesus had a similar effect in his day, drawing crowds with his humility, kindness, and wisdom–even as he drew the disapproval of established religious leaders. The things that have brought Francis such media attention are the same things that made Jesus so peculiar and attractive in his day.

Thoughtful examination of Jesus’ example and legacy, as well as an honest look at the similarities and differences between Catholic and Protestant faith, invites reflection on the heart of Christianity and how we relate to our fellow Christians. Readers will discover the power of heartfelt joy, radical love, and passion for justice to shake people out of religious complacency and into dynamic, contagious faith. Jesus, Pope Francis, and a Protestant Walk into a Bar looks at what is universal among Christians, what is unique to Catholics and Protestants, and how all Christians can practice understanding and cooperation across differences. Perfect for individual or group use, discussion questions are also included to encourage further thought and conversation.”

They are right when they suggest that the Pope is one of the more interesting religious leaders to come in a long time. Even, we Protestants are speaking of Pope Francis in uplifting and admirable ways. He is a different sort – not a religious politician but a man who lives the lifestyle of a humble servant with a truly Servant’s heart. I applaud this Pope for his refreshing and healing spirit.

I have always admired the Catholic Church and their missionary heart. Certainly, we don’t agree on theology, but we do agree that the Church is called to be the sanctuary that uplifts the human spirit and opens a portal for grace and healing to take place in all the dark places of the world.

When I first read this title I couldn’t help but think: “What is the punchline of that joke?” We’ve all heard the jokes about three men walking into a bar… told in many ways with many different punchlines. What if the punchline of this joke is… it isn’t a joke. They actually do walk into a bar. They sit together at this big round table. They have a drink together. They talk together. They invite a Jewish brother to come over and join them. Then they welcome a Muslim brother, a Buddhist, a Hindu, and many, many more. They even invite and welcome an atheist brother, an agnostic brother, and even a self-righteous brother.

The table is filled with representatives of all faiths, walks of life, all races and nations. To these people Jesus says: “Welcome my Brother. My prayer for us all is that we may be one.”

And so, should we…

Grace and Peace
Steve

Why Was I Spared?

It was Easter Sunday 1968. I was a Marine machine gun team leader in Vietnam. Our idea of celebrating Easter was to retake hill 881 for the fourth time. I remember it was a cold, wet morning as we moved into place at the bottom of the hill. As we traversed up the side of the hill mortar fire was directed toward us. I was about fifteenth in the column. The mortars hit about fifty feet in front of our point man. The next one hit our point man. The next one hit about seven men back in the column. The fourth one would have been in my lap. It didn’t come. Why? I have no idea. There were bullets whizzing through the grass next to our heads as we hugged the ground.

That afternoon, after the battle was over, we were all counting the cost. All around us were the dead NVA soldiers uncovered and disrespected. Back down the hill, in a neat row, respectfully covered were our men who had been killed.

I remember praying: “God, I have seen enough, I am ready to go home.” What an uneducated and presumptuous prayer. However, the next week I was wounded and airlifted to Japan. After a month in the 106 General Army Hospital and two months on Okinawa, I was sent back to the states. I later learned that many in my platoon were killed in a battle at “Happy Valley.” Why was I spared? I am sure those other guys were praying just like me. Some who died were within days of going home. It bothered me for years. I tried to put it out of my mind. It kept coming back. Even at Hinshaw Memorial UMC, in Greensboro back in the 90’s, there was a lady, Ruby Wall, who lost her son in that war. I could never be around her without having feelings of guilt. I came home but her son did not.

I wish I could tell you that the clouds opened up and God gave me the answer. Even to this day I still do not know why I was spared. However, in my prayer and devotional life, in seeing people live lives of faith and courage, I have come to know that there are some things I will never know…. Some things will remain a mystery. I have concluded that since I have been given this second, even a third life to use it the way God would have me use it – to give myself to God daily, that through me God may uplift the lives of those who need the touch of our heavenly Father. In the movie “Saving Private Ryan” Captain Miller was fatally wounded. Most of Miller’s men had also been killed. As Reiben sought aid for his dying captain, Miller’s last words to Ryan were, “James, earn this. Earn it.” I know I cannot earn God’s love, mercy and grace, but I can live in that grace in a grateful manner… realizing that I am still here and because I am, I should live in a more intentional and grace-filled way.

Dear God, help me to know that I will not know all the mysteries of faith. There will always be questions. Rather, help me to not let those questions keep me from being your disciple today and sharing your love and grace with those I meet. Help me to live by faith. Amen

Grace and Peace
Steve

Don’t Run Away and Join The Circus

When I was little, and I got upset with my parents, they would say, “Well, don’t run away and join the circus.”

That expression didn’t make any sense to me. For one thing, I had never been to a circus. For another, if I were to run away, it was more likely to be to the corner store a block away, because at least they sold candy. I do remember wanting to run away once and my mother, as she was laughing, said: “You want me to help you pack?” Needless to say, I didn’t go anywhere. When asked where I would go my response was “I guess I will go sit under a bridge somewhere.” I still don’t know where that answer came from. It did prove that I had not thought any of this through to any extent.

When I grew older, I asked my parents about their old expression and what it meant to them. They said it was the kind of thing that little kids said back when they were kids. When those travelling circus buses, trailers and caravans pulled into your small town, you knew something exciting was in store.

As children, they believed the life of a circus performer was one of adventure. Why, if you ran away with this circus, and snuck into one of those buses just as it was leaving, you would have a ride out-of-town, a job, and a new life on the road where your parents could never find you!

“You must have been awfully mad at your parents to want to do that,” I said. “Our parents drove us crazy,” they said. “They could be exasperating.” And that was when it hit me. These exasperating parents of mine, who often drove me crazy, had once been children themselves. And what are the odds, they too had exasperating parents?

I promised my young self that I would never become an exasperating parent. I hope that has been the case. To Shirley’s credit, as of this date, our 50+-year-old son has never actually run away to join the circus… or the Marines.

Although there are times when, as a pastor, my family thinks I actually did run away and join the circus.

Dear God, give to each generation a balance of boldness and humility, and the wisdom of thought to know that running to Jesus, even though it may seem like a circus at times, is really all the adventure our souls really need. Help me not to run away, but to run to faith, in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

You Are a Good Man, Charlie Brown

John Wayne, Sean Connery, Jimmy Stewart, W.C. Fields, Don Knotts and Bette Davis. All of these Hollywood stars have something in common. You don’t have to be looking at the TV screen to know who is talking. The voices of these thespians are unique.

Peter Robbins is such a star. No, his name is not as familiar as those listed above, but if you heard him speak, especially years ago, you would know Robbins as the voice of Charlie Brown in television specials like, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

You remember that voice, don’t you? You remember no matter how many times Charlie Brown was disappointed, no matter how badly he had been mistreated, no matter how many times his pals let him down, the voice of Charlie managed to express a tone of hope for the future.

Of course, that is Charlie Brown and that is in the cartoons. Reality is quite different. Peter Robbins, Charlie’s voice, was arrested by the San Diego Police. It seems he has been stalking and threatening his former girlfriend. According to authorities, he called this lady 37 times in a 24-hour period and in those calls told her he would kill her and her son if she didn’t return his dog and automobile.

It’s a disappointing thing when reality is at such a variance with what we hope for and what we want to believe.

Thankfully, that is not the way it is when it comes to Jesus. He is exactly who the prophets said He would be. He is who He claims to be.

When He says He is the Good Shepherd, you can trust that He is. Your confidence in Him will never be misplaced.

If He says He is the Physician of body and soul, you can believe His claim and rely on Him completely.

If He says He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we know there will never be a time when His words will be found to be false and our dependence in Him misplaced.

Jesus is our Savior; He is our Redeemer; He is the Sacrifice who offers forgiveness and salvation for all humankind.

Believe Him. His is a voice that will never change.

Dear Lord, there are many voices that claim to be trustworthy and reliable. May I trust and rely on Jesus, whose entire life is proof of His sincerity and commitment to the restoration of the human family to God. In and through Jesus we pray. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Remembering the Smiles Seven Years Ago

Pine Grove UMC – Winston Salem, NC 2013

I reminisced this morning about the last church I served before retiring… and I wanted to share this with you again.

It went something like this: This morning as I stepped into the pulpit a smile came into my heart because I knew I was back home. You know when I noticed that smile?

I noticed it when I started the opening prayers this morning and I felt God’s love inside and your love around me… I really do mean it when I thank God for this sacred space we gather in every week… it means a great deal to each one of us in our own way.

I noticed it when we sang the first hymn and the words spoke directly to my sermon.

I noticed it when Beverly played the prelude. She puts her heart and soul, her spirit into the personal interpretation of the music she selects and offers to lift our spirits to God. As usual, this morning she lifted my soul.

I noticed that smile in my heart when I gathered the children around me and they smiled and we shared something very special. For a few moments that old grandfather up front was given the privilege to speak with the children about Jesus, to see their smiles close-up, and be blessed by them.

I noticed that smile in my heart when I read scripture. What a special time for all of us as we hear God’s Word read out loud for all to hear… for we learn by the hearing of that word. And I was honored to be able to read that Word.

I noticed that smile in my heart when, during the beginning of our prayer time, I mentioned that I had been at Conference all week and had not seen anyone, so how are you doing? That was such a special and sacred moment for me as we shared how we are doing together. It is indeed an honor to be able to speak to God about those in my care. I had to smile because God was smiling.

I noticed that smile in my heart as the choir sang the anthem. I know they do not see their singing as a performance but as an offering of praise to God. I smiled because they give it their all, do their best, and offer it with grace. Plus… it is always beautiful.

I noticed that smile in my heart as I began my sermon. It is hard to believe that people will gather to hear someone talk about a shepherd boy and a giant doing battle. What in the world could that have to do with the church family at Pine Grove? Today you listened for that word from God in which God said I am with you in every battle you face, and, by the way, I have already won the war. Thank you for listening and expecting me to speak a word from God that will have meaning for your life. Thank you for that trust. Yes, there is a smile in my heart because I love being back home with you. Thank you for being my family.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Thanks for your best wishes

Since we are on the subject of birthdays… Noah’s 18th yesterday, I’m not sure I thanked you for remembering me. So, I want to say “Thank You” to all who took the time to remember my birthday back in September. Yes, you did overwhelm me… the cards, emails, telephone calls, and Facebook messages all joined in a chorus of smiles from your heart to mine.

Turning the big 72 brings its own set of smiles… My insurance agent tells me if I live to 79 I will lose all my insurance. In other words… die before the seven years are up. My body says, (with a Vincent Price voice) see how you can handle what I have in store for you… ha ha ha. My wife says “What did you say?” My grandchildren say “Aw Papaw, we thought you were 45?” My son says “Be careful… let me do that for you.” My friends ask “How are you doing?” and really want to know… cause they are going through the same aches and pains. One said “You are now officially two years into the “Old Geezer’s Club.”

I looked back and was amazed to see what was happening in 1947. It may help explain somethings about me???

I was two months premature and because of breathing problems was rushed to Baptist Hospital in Winston in order to survive.

Let’s see, alien landing, CIA, Cold War, Dead Sea Scrolls, Jackie Robinson, First computer bug, all add up to a Miracle on 34th Street… Yep, that’s me… spaced out at times, a bit buggy, somewhat secretive – especially with those choosing to stand opposed, belief in equality for all people, but my miracles have been on all streets and in all places.

Thank you for sharing your wishes with this spaced out old man… it really made my day even brighter!!!

Grace and Peace
Steve

OMG, Noah is Turning 18 Today

Noah and Abby Martin

On the thirteenth of October, 2019 our grandson, Noah, become 18 years old. We can’t talk about it without tears in our eyes. He has been such a very special blessing in our lives. From about eight weeks old we have had the pleasure of keeping him… so, for almost 16 years we have kept this little guy almost every weekday.

We were awed as he went through the Thomas the Train stage when he (not yet able to read) could name every train car in the series. We went through the dinosaur stage when he could correctly pronounce and name all the different dinosaurs… and would correct you when you mispronounced them.

We were there for his baptism and confirmation… a great meaning and significance for me to officiate at the baptism. He has been a faithful church member all his life… faithful, active, involved, learning and growing in the likeness of Christ. We are so proud of him. He has been given a gift his father nor I had… he grew up in the same community, made some really good friends, felt the love and acceptance of a community of faith in this place. Thank you PGUMC for loving our family, especially our grandchildren.

We were there when he came home from school with all A’s… receiving his first B in the seventh grade… a member of the Junior Beta Club and the National Honor Society in high school.

We were there when he tried T-Ball. He was so small the batting helmet would spin around on his head… ending up facing backward. He was so funny doing that and looking for four-leaf clovers in the outfield or piling up dirt on second base. When he started soccer, the first seasons of that included chasing some little girl around in circles during the match… not all that concerned about scoring or soccer techniques.

One of the special characteristics for me was when he would offer these special little sayings which we turned into a Lenten study and then into a book; “The Sayings of Noah.” He was so creative, so inquisitive, so happy. Wow, we were blessed. One the special gifts Noah gives us, his grandparents, is that he will call us sometimes at night, not asking for anything, but just wanting to talk with us. I can’t begin to tell you how special that is… a fifteen-year-old calls his old grandparents at night… when he could be doing anything else… he shares a few special moments with us. Yes, we are blessed.

Michael Weatherly tells what his grandfather use to say about him: “If you live to 26 you will find there is a good man in there.” I look into the heart of this young man and I know there IS a good man in there… and out there… coming out more and more every day.

Soon this young man will be out there in the world preparing to graduate from high school and enter college. The whole world is out there before him waiting for him to make use of the love and support that has lifted him up all these years… family, friends, church, school, community.

For us, we are excited for him… but our heads are still spinning from the years flying by so quickly. It seems that only yesterday he was saying: “PaPaw, come see what I built. A big, big church.” Treasure your time with your kids and your grandkids. It is precious time – sacred time you can’t replace.

Happy birthday… 18th Birthday… young man. We love you, support you, honor you, admire you… pray with you… and we will always provide a safe place for you to land.

MaMaw and PaPaw

The Really Good Samaritan

ANTWERP, BELGIUM – SEPTEMBER 5: Marble relief of merciful Samaritan scene in St. Charles Borromeo church on September 5, 2013 in Antwerp, Belgium

We Christians all know that parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan. We also know we should join with that unnamed good-deed-doer and be good Samaritans too. Some of us even like to think we are good Samaritans and would never pass by on the other side. I wonder how far I would go to help a stranger. I wonder if I would be as good a Samaritan as is Michelle LaPlante.

Here’s the story: Jill Fink, a mother of two-year-old twins, took off her engagement ring so she could put sunscreen on her daughter. She put the toddler in a swing and dropped her ring into the child’s stroller. She forgot to put her ring back on. She forgot for two days. When she finally remembered she did a lot of crying. Yes, she retraced her steps, but she knew the ring was gone.

Meanwhile, the ring was found by attorney Michelle LaPlante. LaPlante said, “If that had been my ring, I would have gone out of my head.” So LaPlante put up a note at the park where the ring had been lost; then she put up fliers in the neighborhood; then she took out on-line ads; then she listed the ring on an Internet list; then she took the ring to the police department.

To make a long story short, a receptionist at Fink’s office spotted the Internet list ad and, in a short time, the ring, the ring’s loser, and the ring’s finder were united.

So, let me ask, “How good a Good Samaritan are you?” We all know a person would be a lousy Good Samaritan if he were to keep the lost ring. But how far would you have gone to return that diamond to its rightful owner?

Would you have taken it to the police?  Probably.Would you have written up and posted fliers? Maybe.Would you have taken out ads? How far would you go to be a Good Samaritan?I once heard of a Really Good Samaritan, a preacher, who gave up his home – moved out – so that a homeless couple and 13 kids could move in for a while. WOW!

I do know how far Jesus went to help the bruised and battered sinners of this world. He went all the way. Every moment of His life was dedicated to the single purpose of reuniting lost sinners with their Creator. Jesus didn’t rest; He didn’t take a vacation; He didn’t take a coffee break from the cause, which would lead to His death and our salvation. He is the ultimate Good Samaritan. He is our Savior.

Dear Lord Jesus, you have set an example for all of us. Grant that we may leave behind greed, selfishness and inconvenience, so we may show ourselves as your disciples, true Good Samaritans for others. In and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

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