On The Back Pew

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Finally, [the spirit] took me to the inside court of the Temple of God.” – Ezekiel 8:16

Have you noticed that most people, when they come to worship, don’t sit up front? The back of the church tends to fill up first almost as predictably as the bottom of a glass will be the first to be filled with water. You have to get there early to get a good back seat. Why is that? If we are attending a concert or a lecture, we would charge down front where the “good seats” are, even pay extra for those seats. But why not when we come to worship?

I have heard a number of theories. People want to be able to see who else is there, which is easier to do from the back. And it is easier to slip out quickly during the last hymn if you sit in the back. Some say I am just more comfortable back here.

Those explanations may be part of the story, but I have heard another theory. That theory states that we don’t immediately go to the front because that would feel like a definitive declaration of faith. Sitting in the back you can still feel like you have one foot in and one foot out. To stride down the aisle and sit in the front feels like skipping right to the “your whole self in” part of the hokey pokey, and we may not be ready for that. Our own experience of faith often is more qualified, more tentative than that.

If doubt or uncertainty disqualifies us from worship, we will have many empty churches. Some of us live lives of doubt, diversified by faith. Others of us live a life of faith, diversified by doubt. And in the church there is room for us all. Even at the front of the church.

In the Temple in Jerusalem there was an inner court, reserved for the righteous, and an outer court for everyone else. Gratefully, in the United Methodist Church, it is all an inner court and we are all invited there – no matter who we are.

Thank you, O God, that your invitation to me is not based on my righteousness, but instead flows from your graciousness, in and through the love of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Grace and Peace


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


Cheers to the Church

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”  excerpts from Acts 2:37-47

I heard the strangest story that we, in the South, could never comprehend. It seems that in a northern city at one congregation this pastor, from the story, served covered-dish suppers at church did not attract many people, but she said that when we started having them in people’s homes, the attendance doubled. People loved seeing church members’ living spaces, after all those years of only seeing one another at church.

My question was that the only reason attendance doubled? Well, the truth of the matter was that some people also liked meeting in homes because you could serve beer and wine. But they were drinking wine in the book of Acts, too. From the beginning, the church knew that worship is central, but it’s also good to get people around the table, laughing, eating, having fun and praising God.

To learn about the earliest Christians, who might have known Jesus and the apostles, read the book of Acts, written by the author of Luke. Like the other gospels, Luke is about Jesus. Acts is the next chapter – what happened after Jesus ascended and left regular people to build the church.

Remember: the church has not always been a building on Main Street. Acts shows the church trying to form itself, long before newsletters, building use schedules, church covered-dish suppers and capital campaigns came upon the scene. And from the beginning, the church ate together, casually. They spent time worshipping at the temple. They also gathered in people’s homes, to share a good meal and a glass of wine. And that was church, too.


Dear Lord, help me and my church to delight in one another’s presence, whether we are in the pews or around the dinner table, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


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Handkerchiefs All Over the Place

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” – Hebrews 11:29-38

We Protestants need more saints.

In this context, I do not mean saint in the way the Apostle Paul used the term as inclusive of all of the people of God. Rather, I am referring to individuals of faith whom the church points to and says, in essence, “Pay attention to these lives.  Take inspiration from them. Try, as you are able, to follow their example.” I am thinking of Frederick Buechner’s definition: “In God’s holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief.  These handkerchiefs are called saints.”

Sometimes, when I listen to Protestant preachers (which, of course, includes me), it can seem as if we have concluded there are only a small handful of people whose lives reflect God’s glory. The Roman Catholics have over 10,000 canonized saints.  By my count, we Protestants have as few as five: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Bonheoffer. Of course, these individuals are great examples of faith.  They are saints, to be sure.  But when their names are invoked so often, and other examples drawn upon so seldom, it does not help us envision the range of ways one’s life can reflect God.

So I envy the Roman Catholics their saints because they have many people of history to whom they can point. The sheer variety of saints in the Roman Catholic tradition stretches the imagination to encompass the multitude of ways a human life can manifest the Holy Spirit.

Who are some of the saints you have encountered recently? I think back over the churches I have served in the last forty years and I see handkerchiefs all over the place. These were people of grace, love, forgiveness, and encouragement. They touched and changed my life throughout my ministry, and quite frankly, I probably would have done lesser work for God without their touch upon my life. Some of those saints may be reading this blog tonight. Thank you for walking with God and making this journey of faith. You are still continuing to make a difference.

Dear God, give us more saints. We need all the inspiration, instruction, and encouragement we can get, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


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Easy To Die

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24

Jesus was the last person Sundar Singh was looking for as a late teenager in India at the turn of the 20th Century. After all, Jesus was the “foreign god” of the Christian teachers at his school. A zealous Sikh, Sundar had publicly torn up a portion of the Bible to protest its claims.  One night as he prayed he became conscious of a light shining in the room. He looked outside to make sure it was not someone shining a light. Gradually the light took the form of a globe of fire and in it he saw the face of Jesus. Sundar threw himself on the ground and surrendered His life to Jesus.

The following months proved to be very difficult for Sundar and his family. Becoming a follower of Christ was not taken lightly by his family nor his community. He was excommunicated. He cut his hair, a gesture that did not make things any easier with his family who were convinced he had renounced his Sikh heritage.

A month after he was baptized in the year 1905, he took the vow of a sadhu. He gave away his meager possessions, put on a saffron robe and became a barefooted wandering man of God. Among Christians the world over, this barefoot Sadhu was later called the “apostle of the bleeding feet” because the soles of his feet were often covered in bloody blisters. The life of a sadhu is hard and entirely dependent on God. Sadhu Sundar Singh’s needs were met entirely through the kindness of people he met wherever he went.

Sundar Singh is credited as the first missionary to cross the Himalayan Mountains to take the gospel to Nepal and Tibet. At 36 years of age he made his last trip over the mountains. He never returned and is assumed to have been a martyr for Jesus.

In his diary left behind he had written, “It is easy to die for Christ. It is hard to live for Him. Dying takes only a few minutes—or at worst an hour or two—but to live for Christ means to die daily to myself.”

Dear Lord, help me to live worthy of the calling as your disciple. Show me the cross you want me to carry today, and to do the “hard” thing: die to myself and live for Jesus and others who need His love. 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.

Worthless Degrees

3WlC4B5W1Ge4-IWbELvA-BHizhG2nnrI1XxvjZznIYYLast night on the eleven o’clock news they reported that according to some poll that some organization had conducted they came up with the top ten most worthless degrees. I didn’t catch all the segment, who conducted the poll, what was the meaning of “worthless” in this poll, and why it was even worth airing the findings.

In this poll, Communications was the most worthless – judging by journalism on television today – I agree with this one. It has gone from the honored profession of the Walter Cronkite days to the sensationalism of the present day. Today it is not news but opinion and talking heads. Number five however, of the most worthless degrees, was a degree in Religious Studies or Theology.

(Since I did not know who conducted the poll, I googled the “top ten most worthless degrees…” and came up with many polls which all gave different rankings for all sorts of degrees.)

But I wonder how could a degree in Theology and Religious Studies be worthless, especially in the top five? If worthless means money, then you may be right. Most people in the pulpit in mainline denominations make less than people with Master Degrees in other fields – which is required for becoming fully vested members of the clergy. We have drawn closer only in the last few years. Had it not been for conferences in the church seeking to keep qualified and talented young clergy we would still be lagging far behind like we use to. The old layman’s prayer use to be: “Lord, you keep him humble and we will keep him poor.”

I honor anyone who has the intellectual honesty and moral integrity, the compassion and calling of Christ, and the maturity of spirit to know that one needs to be educated in the things of God, so that whether you stand in the marketplace, the pulpit, the home, bedside, study or at the grave, you may speak as one prepared and approved by man and God to speak with wisdom, truth and grace, and not speak as a fool.

In addition, in the United Methodist Church, before one can be ordained an Elder in the church, he/she must have a college degree or equivalency from a school certified by the University Senate, a (94 Hrs. 3-4- years) Master of Divinity degree or equivalent from a school certified by the University Senate, gone through the candidacy process with a District Committee on Ministry where we pass a fully involved background check and answer many questions concerning our call to ministry and our theology, receive approval and support from our home church and PPRC, and meet face to face in two different years with the Conference Board of Ordained ministry – where we write papers and sermons, defend those papers and sermons before committees on Preaching, Call and Disciplined Life, and Theology. These are tough committees who are charged with the serious responsibility of making sure you are ready to become an ordained United Methodist Pastor. If there is doubt you are asked to redo your papers and return the following year.

Our education doesn’t stop there. Each year we are required to continue our education through seminars, courses, and convocations. We are even encouraged to join a weekly lectionary group where we study and discuss scripture and prepare for sermons we will be delivering in the lectionary cycle.

I invite the Reverend Doctor Charles D. White, Jr. (former Conference Secretary) and Reverend Kimberly Ingram, current Conference Secretary to add to and/or correct anything I may have offered to you tonight.

You just don’t take a correspondence course, talk with a preacher or two, and they declare you are an ordained minister, at least not a United Methodist minister. One of the questions we ask is this: “Would I want this person to be my mother’s pastor?”

Is a degree in Theology or Religious Studies worthless? It is if you don’t use it and take it deeper and further everyday. But, I want to tell you that as you stand at the bedside of some dear parishioner who is moving into the heavenly country, you will let them down and feel very empty… if you don’t have that knowledge of God and that life of faith under-girding you as you lead this family though their most difficult day. I have an undergraduate degree in Religion, a Masters in Divinity, and a Doctorate in Organizing the Church for Ministry, and for me they are most worthwhile. I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for them.

Dear Lord, I thank you for college and seminary – it’s strain, difficulty and excitement. I thank you for those professors who cared so much for their subject – and that others learn well – that they were willing to teach in schools that didn’t pay all that much… but gave their lives to their students. Thank you for sending them to prepare us for the work of ministry, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


Come, Holy Spirit Prayer

Just in case you were unable to download the music

for the prayer last night I wanted to share the words

with you tonight. WOW, what a wonderful prayer for

us all as we face each day.

Come, Holy Spirit

Bryan Duncan

Come as a wisdom to children

Come as new sight to the blind

Come, Lord, as strength to my weakness

Take me soul, body and mind

Come as a rest to the weary

Come as a balm to the sore

Come as a dew to my dryness

Fill me with joy evermore

Come Holy Spirit, I need you now

Come, Sweet Spirit, I pray

Come in your strength and your power

Come in your own gentle way

Come like a spring in the desert

Come to the withered of soul

O, let your sweet healing power

Touch me and make me whole

Come Holy Spirit, I need you now

Come, Sweet Spirit, I pray

Come in your strength and your power

Come in your own gentle way

Come in your own gentle way

Grace and Peace


Come, Holy Spirit

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

“He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in dry places like a river.” – Psalm 105:41 (KJV)

Like many other countries in the throes of financial crises, Britain is struggling to revive a faltering economy. A recent survey by Abbey Banking reveals that 64% of British citizens are running out of money before payday each month. And, with corporate tax collections well below estimates and government spending well above estimates, Britain seems poised for yet another painful round of social spending cuts, exacerbating the financial worries of many.

But into this dismal national story, there gushed a flood of joy. Prince William and Lady Catherine gave birth to an 8 pound, 6 ounce baby boy on Monday, July 22, and with the announcement of that birth, the spirit of a beleaguered nation was refreshed. People all across England, as well as the 53 member states of the Commonwealth, celebrated with flowers, cards and champagne, as they joined together on one accord to wish the royal family well and to confirm the vitality of their national solidarity.

God never fails to send rivers of hope through deserts of desolation.

Through the dry places of a Catholic Church, riveted by allegations of child abuse, a river of renewed compassion for “the least of these” still flows, with the coronation of a new Pope.

Through the arid sectors of The United Methodist Church, seeking to expand its work in a world of depleting denominational resources, a river of high hope still flows – both for the restructuring of the denomination and for the re-commitment to its mission of Radical Hospitality and risk-taking Mission and Service in the world.

Through every death valley, a river of new life, new hope and new possibility still flows.

Our destinies are not so much determined by our anguish in the desert as they are by the renewal we experience down by the riverside. So, as the old spiritual says: “Let All Come to the Waters.”

Tonight as a prayer I want to ask you to spend .99 on Itunes to purchase a beautiful and powerful prayer – a song by Bryan Duncan entitled “Come, Holy Spirit.” You will fall in love with it and it will touch your spirit. Amen. (Let me know what you think).

Grace and Peace


Go Answer the Door!

Steve & Shirley

Steve & Shirley

When we were serving the church in Pleasant Garden, Shirley and Joy had a yard sale. As you know, I do not do yard sales. Nearing the end of this yard sale, a lady was browsing around the leftovers and asks this question; “Do you have anything left, perhaps inside the house?” My daughter-in-law quickly responds: “We have the lump inside.” Speaking in “womanise” this lady replied: “Oh no, I’ve got one of those. I don’t need another one.” I guess you know they were talking about me lying on the couch. And somehow without even mentioning that they were talking about a man lying on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, both of them knew exactly what they were talking about.

Today at lunch, after church, we ate at Red Lobster. Our waitress – I kid you not – was named “Krazia”. I could not believe it, but I think both parents need to be slapped. I know everyone must have nicknamed her or called her crazy.

As most of you know, the lectionary text for today was Luke teaching the disciples how to pray. Dr. Howell approached this from a very creative and meaningful way. In this text it not only talks about how to pray, but also about a neighbor coming to your door at midnight and knocking on the door asking for help. He flips this text around and places you and me, the church, on the inside of the door, and the world and its needs on the outside knocking… asking for help.

He tells the story about him and his associate walking into the sanctuary one weekday afternoon, and noticed a lady kneeling at the altar rail. She was praying, not silently but out loud. And the more she prayed the louder she got. Until she got to the end of her prayer, in which she is holding her fist up in the air, shouting at God: “God, I need some help down here”! James says we could have just knelt down and prayed with her and sent her on her way, but instead we listen to her story, we found her a place to stay, we helped her find a job, we put some friends in contact with her. In other words we answered her prayer.

Sometimes people ask if prayer works, really works. James Howell says: “It depends on if the church is listening”. He goes on to state what I have stated many, many times – that there is no reason whatsoever that there should be anyone hungry in the city of Charlotte, in the city of Winston, in the city of Greensboro, in any city in the United States of America. Because we know that the church has enough resources and enough power that hunger is a solvable problem. The problem is that the hungry, the needy, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the people who need the church are on the outside knocking, and we are on the inside sleeping – like that lump on a Saturday afternoon. We don’t hear them knocking. We don’t go to the door.

Isn’t it time we act a little Krazia and answer the door – and becom part of answering the prayers of the people of God!

Dear Lord, we thought we were the ones that were knocking and asking, but we are the church – we are on the inside. Help us to know that we are the church, and to become more like the church, get off our couch and answer the door, in and through Jesus. Amen.

Grace and Peace


Go to iTunes and sign up for the podcast of Myers Park United Methodist Church. Usually by Tuesday afternoon you will be able to listen to Dr. Howell’s sermon.

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