We Were Methodists

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7

A seminary friend of mine, serving in another denomination, shares this story with us: This summer we were Methodists. We worshipped at a small Methodist church in the little town near our cabin in northeastern Oregon.

What did we find? Basically, we found the church being church – and it was a blessing to us.

We were warmly welcomed. Mostly. There was Sharon who sat down next to me one Sunday and told me I was in the place where she had sat every Sunday for fifty years, but I was welcome to stay if I moved over.

We prayed together, sang together, heard the story of Jesus, and were drawn into common labors. One of those was working at the “Magic Garden,” where the church grows vegetables for the local elementary school and town food bank.

One Sunday in August there was an emergency plea. A farmer, Gene, had died suddenly, a brain tumor. Gene’s family needed help right now with this year’s crop of beets, carrots and potatoes. Three dozen folks – Methodists, Catholics and maybe a Buddhist or two – showed up to work. It felt sort of like an old-time “barn-raising.”

There were the usual foibles. The announcements went on too long. When the microphone was passed for prayer concerns, some folks took the opportunity the make yet more announcements, after which the rest of us said, “Lord, hear our prayer.” Our real prayer was, “Don’t let that person have the microphone again, please Jesus.”

It was all pretty ordinary – an earthen vessel – and yet somehow the extraordinary power of God really was/ is at work in that church.

As a bit of an outsider I saw more clearly how amazing church is. It may not seem like much, but really it is. I wonder what my friend, Tony, would have experienced in our church? If it is some of the ones I have served, I know he would have found Jesus present in those churches.

Dear Lord, give us eyes to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, to see the beauty and power in the church, in our church, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


Jesus Wept

1174831_10151632886487947_607091026_n“Jesus Wept!”

I never thought I would hear what I heard on TV News tonight… not in North Carolina… Not in America.

It seems that in Raleigh – our State capitol – it is against the law for churches to feed people – homeless people in downtown Raleigh – especially one area of Raleigh. It is true. Over the weekend three churches were feeding the homeless downtown and a policeman came up to them with the warning that if they did not stop feeding the homeless he would have to give them a citation. He would arrest the church for feeding the homeless in an open place in downtown Raleigh. 

This is the  same Raleigh who voted (legislature) to end extended unemployment and reduce the amount of they would get overall. Don’t they know that if you take support away from those who are unemployed they will become homeless – there will be more homeless people? Cutting the funding to Community Colleges which get more people back to work quicker than the four-year colleges, and making it even harder to get help through government sources just adds to the problem. For them it seems to be about money and not about people.

Here is what Raleigh is more worried about… in the news piece the business owner being interviewed said “these homeless people could hurt their business.” Isn’t that what it is really about… money and not compassion… possessions and not people??? I think “Moral Mondays” and “Moral Wednesdays” should turn into “Moral Everyday.”

Even more severe is the news coming from Columbia, South Carolina. Columbia’s proposed new homeless program called “Columbia Cares” is giving the homeless in the city of Columbia three choices: 1). Agree to be relocated (out of the city to a rural area) to a homeless shelter; 2). Leave town on their own, or 3). Be put in jail. This to be built homeless shelter is not funded and the council expects the churches to take care of the homeless.

Do you hear what they are saying: “We don’t want people to see that there are homeless people in Columbia – don’t stain our pristine look – get out of sight – especially the historic district. And the money to support them is to be a “Budget-Neutral” situation. That means the city is not going to pay for it.

Haul them out-of-town, make it illegal to be homeless and feed homeless out in public. Doesn’t the legislatures of North and South Carolina realize that we are called to help those in need. 

I have done a lot of things wrong but I, knowingly, have never pressed that button to make it against the law to feed the poor in a public area. I think my finger would catch on fire.

I pray that people’s voting fingers catch on fire the next time they vote for anyone who voted for this law (those who take that safety net from the poorest of the poor).

I honestly believe Jesus looks down on our lawmakers and what they are doing to the poor and those of us who remain silent, and his heart breaks. Jesus not only wept at the death of a friend, I believe he weeps every time we ignore those in need.

Dear God, if there is anything that makes Jesus weep it is our blindness when the poor come around and we want to run them off rather than care for them. Lord, we need some help down here now… our government is going crazy. Touch our hearts and melt them… cause the scales to fall from our eyes till we can see the poor and take steps to help them in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


Once The Door is Open… It is Open

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near.” – Ephesians 2:13

In one of the churches I served every once in a while I dropped in on one dear, sweet member without warning. As I stepped through their habitually unlocked door, she would always say: “Well, look what the cat dragged in!” Now, if you have an outdoor cat, you know the sorts of things real cats drag in—half-dead mice and string, wadded up balls of stinky moist things that appeal only to cats, but which they long to share with you.

Mostly you wish they wouldn’t. But here’s the thing—once a door is open, it’s open; whatever comes in, comes in. There’ll be all sorts of surprises, amazing gifts. There’ll also be some bloody little messes to clean up now and then. But you’ll learn a lot about what a cat thinks a treasure is, even if it would never have occurred to you to want it.

At some point, the Cat dragged each of us over the threshold into new life in Christ, and into the church, the trophy case for the cat’s eclectic finds. The Cat didn’t hunt us down and kill us, of course (which is where the metaphor breaks down), but scavenged us from lives half dead or all balled up to become the cat’s purred-over prizes. The cat lifted us by the nape and dropped us into each other’s laps for discovery, safekeeping, and delight.

Having been brought like this from the outside in, how ungrateful we would be to curl up smugly and dream our dreams, while out there so many weird and wonderful treasures wait to be discovered, to be cherished, to be carried proudly home.

Dear Lord, open up our lives and our churches. Let whatever comes in, come in. Teach us to purr over your prizes, to love our neighbors as treasures, and to scavenge the world from death to life, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


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An Open Letter To Dr. James Howell

600832_3828551964210_854904400_nDear Reverend Dr. Howell and the members of Myers Park United Methodist Church.

I retired as a UM pastor on July 1, 2013 (at annual conference). Someone asked my wife, Shirley, and me where we would be going to church? Jokingly, I said for the first month we will be attending the “Church of The Holy Comforter.” Some caught it –  after 40 years of preparing for worship, liturgy, sermons, prayers, etc. for the first month in retirement we were going to pull the comforter up around our neck on Sunday morning.

Well, we didn’t do that. I have subscribed to your podcasts at Myers Park for over a year now, and participated in your worship every week. James, I love your intellect, creativity, cutting edge thinking, and your love for what you do… introduce us to Jesus and help us walk along side him. Shirley and I joked about going to the church of the holy comforter, but we ended up finding Holy Comfort, Godly Challenge, and Spiritual Inspiration as we participated in the worship every Sunday morning at Myers Park via my computer.

I want to take the time to thank the people of Myers Park, clergy and laity alike, for your vision to intentionally reach out to include people all over the world in your worship every Sunday morning. I hope you realize how powerful and far-reaching your worship service really is… it literally reaches around the world.

To all of my friends, Facebook, church, family or otherwise, I invite you to listen to the Reverend Doctor James Howell by podcast each week. Just google Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC and subscribe to the podcast of sermons. If not there, go on iTunes, do a search for Myers Park and sign up there. These will come to you on Tuesdays.

For all of my friends who oversee church websites, I invite you to examine the website at Myers Park UMC. All should include what they offer. I remember getting a call one day at church. The person on the other end of the line said: “I saw your web site and I will NOT be coming to your church. You have pictures of events on there from 2009 presented as if they are current (2012). Nothing is up to date – calendars, sermons, bulletins, newsletters.” I don’t know if this person was a website salesperson or not, but he did manage to make me feel bad about our site. It was not touching people like the website at Myers Park does.

Take a trip to Myers Park on the internet. Spend some time walking through their church and mission. Pay particular attention to Jesus speaking and working through that church. And finally, know this – that can be your church website if you will get caught up in intentionally drawing people to the love of Jesus (you proclaim each Sunday) through how you present your love of Jesus through the web-site.

You, too, can become the Church of The Holy Comforter – touching people with the Holy Comfort of God.

Thank you Myers Park. Thank you James.

Grace and Peace


PS: I am not saying stay home and watch James in your PJ’s. I am saying watch his podcast during the week. It will comfort, challenge and inspire you. As it does, bring that inspiration to your own website and mission.

Let me ask for you to respond to this blog by saying where you are as you read this blog or as you watch Dr. Howell’s podcast. Let’s see how far the reach is. Forward to people so that this travels around the world.

The Gold Edged Bible

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”Acts 2:41

Eight men sat in a small dimly lit room in a rural Chinese village home. Seven were preachers and their eyes were glued to the Bible held by the eighth man. It was a leather-bound zippered Bible with gold-edged trim on the pages.

The western visitor suddenly became aware that the seven men were staring intently at his Bible. One of them generated enough courage to say, “What a beautiful Bible. May I look at it for a moment?”

“Of course,” he replied. The Bible was gently handed from person to person as though it was made of eggshells. They asked how much it cost. And their faces fell when they learned it was the equivalent of twenty dollars.

Then the visitor received an inspiration. He decided to make this a personal ministry project. The qualification for receiving one of these Chinese Bibles should be so high that these leaders would be inspired to greater achievement. Yet, at the same time ensure that he would not need to provide a great number.

He told them, “If a person is mightily used by God, then I will bring him one of these Bibles.”

“What do you mean mightily used of God?” the preachers queried eagerly.

Thinking fast he replied, “Those who have led at least 10,000 people to the Lord and discipled another 10,000.”

To his astonishment the preachers burst out laughing. They said, “Oh, this is too easy. There are five of us here who can now qualify for your zippered gold-edged Bible, and we know ten more.”

After his trip the visitor chuckled, “I’m bankrupt.” But more seriously he added, “I’ve been working in China with house church leaders for many years. But one thing never changes…I am literally taken by surprise during each visit at how fast the church is growing.”

Perhaps we need to take more seriously our responsibility in sharing the Good News. Can you imagine that being true of our church in America? Why not? If we will actually get serious and expect God to empower us to be that kind of leaders… nothing is impossible with God.

Thank you Lord that Your church is continuing to grow quickly in China. May that be a reality in my country as well, in and through Jesus.  Amen.

Grace and Peace


Ignored By Friends

1557530_10152008561211475_1722441230_nToday the associate at Myers Park preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan (which is the Lectionary text for today). In his sermon he talked about being ignored by the religious of the day and the one who really cared was the one who made the movement toward the person in need and actually bound up his wounds and brought him to an Inn. The one who really cared was not the religious but the one who was hated by the religious.

Today at lunch at Jay’s Deli (Friendly Shopping Center) Shirley and I were seated beside a group (that was already seated) of people from an un-named UMC (in Greensboro) among whom were one associate pastor from that church and her pastor husband who is in extension ministry (both of whom I went to school with at Duke and worked with on many occasions). One was almost facing me. I tried and tried and tried to catch their eye to say hello, but they kept averting their eyes from me. I even caught them a couple of times looking at me only to quickly look away as I looked at them. Admittedly, Shirley and I were wearing shorts and I was wearing my Mary Philbin tee-shirt, but they could have at least recognized someone they’ve known through three of the four years in seminary, and several years of working together in the same district.

Have you ever felt invisible around people you know and who know you? Have you ever felt like you must have leprosy – were wearing plaids and stripes together – or maybe you smelled like you had just crawled out of a dumpster? Today I felt bad because my friends purposely ignored me. They had to try hard to avoid seeing me. What’s more, I felt bad about that United Methodist Church. If this is how the leaders of that church treat colleagues they have known for 30 years, how will they treat the visitor who comes among them… and what would be their real motivation? I really do have problems with people who think they are better than me, who will not recognize me around their friends – but see me only when I have something to offer them.

I think about Robert and Melanie Niblock as the opposite of my colleagues. Robert is the CEO of Lowe’s Home Improvement and a member of the church I have just finished serving for four years. They are rich by worldly standards, but they are even richer by the standards of Jesus. They are smart, humble, compassionate, friendly, caring, hard-working, and their two sons (even though they go to UNC) are two of the nicest young men I have ever met. All of them will say hello when they see you out in the world… no matter who you or they are with. Robert and Melanie are real people who allow Jesus to live through them every day of the week… and so do the rest of the people in that church. I thank God for that church.

If you are ever in Winston-Salem I recommend you go and visit a church that really cares about you… even if you are a Samaritan… Pine Grove UMC on Jonestown Road. You will feel at home the first time you enter the door… for they will consider that you are family.

Grace and Peace


PS: I will be looking for a church to attend in Greensboro… but we know one it will not be. 

Radical Hospitality

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Philippians 2:3

When tourists pick a destination to visit, the most popular country in the world is not the World of Disney but France. Last year alone the city of Paris welcomed more than 29 million visitors. Of course, there are those who say that the word “welcomed” is a stretch. They say it is a stretch because, at least in some places, the French have a reputation for being rude, standoffish and even surly.

Recognizing they have a very good possibility of losing the tourist trade to friendlier cities like London, Greensboro or Winston-Salem, the Paris Chamber of Commerce has put out a booklet, Do You Speak Touriste? The booklet, which is to be distributed to waiters, taxi drivers, and sales staff, gives advice on how they, as individuals, can improve the city’s image.

The booklet gives some very down-to-earth, practical advice. For example, it says, “The British like to be called by their first names, while Italians should be shaken by the hand, and Americans reassured on prices.”

With one in ten jobs in Paris dependent on the tourist dollar (or yen, lira, pound or mark), it is important the Parisians get this tourist thing right.

I wonder if anybody has ever thought about writing a similar book for Christian congregations. We could call it, Do You Speak Visitor? Every year our churches have many guests who have been brought to that point in their lives when they long for a relationship with Jesus. Sadly, many of these people come away thinking we are unfriendly, uncaring and cliquish.

There are two problems with that conclusion. First, many times the spiritual vitality and wellbeing of these visitors are dependent on how they perceive the church. The big problem is that when they think we are indifferent to them, they assume Jesus, who gave His life so they might have life, feels the same way.

You and I know nothing could be further from the truth.

Because God wants people to acknowledge His Son as their Savior, He has, in Scripture, given us many practical pieces of advice on how we are to deal with people we may consider outsiders. Repeatedly, Jesus told us to do unto others as we want them to do to us. He said we were to follow Him and be a servant to others.

And St. Paul, writing to the church in Philippi, said we were to count others as being more important than ourselves. That, along with a sincere smile and a pleasant, “Good morning,” will do much to advance the receptivity of God’s grace in the hearts of those visiting our churches.

Dear Lord, even as there is joy in heaven over a sinner who repents, may there be joy in our churches over a soul that comes through our church doors to begin or continue as journey with Jesus. Grant that we be people who practice Radical Hospitality with all those around us, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


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