The Other Side of the Church Coin

Yes, Christians and church can sometimes show us the worst side of Christianity. But they can also show us the best side of Christ.

 Thanks to all of you for taking time to read the ramblings of (arguably) the “World’s Worst Pastor!” After the first two posts, a couple of you have taken me to task—perhaps rightly so—for being a bit too harsh on the church and Christians in general.

This week, I want to present the alternate take.

Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I was immersed in this church gig from the day I was born. I’ve pretty much seen it all in church, including the warts and brown spots and skeletons in the closet.

But I have also seen the good, the life-changing events, the heartfelt and uplifting spirituality that comes in a Christ-centered community.

Yes, church can be hard, and Christians can be infuriating. But there are also people, places, and relationships that continually lift us out of the muck and mud to a place where we genuinely see Jesus at work, through unfailing love. I would like to show you that side of the church coin as well.

A few weeks after my unfortunate and untimely demise into “Worst Pastor” status, I got a text from David Burgess, my friend of 20+ years who lives in Camden County, NC. I served as David’s pastor at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist Church, in my first experience as the head honcho. David served as my chair of deacons and occasional partner in crime in leading SCBC into the future.

David’s contact was a simple offer to come to Camden, stay a few days, be with old friends and clear my head. There were no queries into what was happening or why, just the extended hand of fellowship and concern.

I got to take him up on that offer on Father’s Day weekend (not an easy thing for me either), escaping the moment for a joyous journey to the past.

It was a glorious homecoming. I celebrated the graduation of students that I dedicated as infants, on the same weekend 18 years previous. I saw a 19-year old who was my daughter’s childhood friend playing the guitar and singing his own songs on stage. It was amazing watching this same kid who used to run around our house looking for “Abbie-baby” belting out his own tunes!

64359696_2207231959314232_3372892608446595072_nPrivileged to be there when they were born, dedicated, and graduated. 

For a pastor, few experiences match that of your first church. Whether it’s good or bad, that taste stays in your mouth for years to come. And you never quite forget it.

Fortunately for me, my time at Sawyer’s Creek was a wonderful journey of growing together with David and others. I was 27 when I took the position as pastor, and David took over as deacon chair at the age of 30. Our lessons learned in that early era are influencing people at SCBC even today.

I got to David’s house very late (as usual) on June 14, about 1:35 a.m. Even in the dark, the first thing that strikes you when you see Camden County is the land, a flat palette of golden wheat fields ripe for harvest, mixed among glowing green corn and soybean plants with months to grow.

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Home.

These fields weave a pattern between woodlands and swamps where deer and bear and wild boars run free.

Wind from the coast and inland sounds blows fluently across the paper-flat landscape. The stars are brighter than anything you can see within 10 miles of a city, a glorious sky unencumbered by the glow of any urban sprawl. These stars brighten the fields across from David’s house, and I am swept up in the night breeze and the waves crashing across ripened wheat.

The minute I stepped out of the car to feel the night wind, I know that I am home. And I ask myself:  Why did I ever leave this place?

The short answer gets right to the point. We left because of our sense that God was calling us in a different direction. The longer answer is that we never left this place.

I’ve had two “Stone Tablet” moments in my life that I can clearly identify, where the call of God on our hearts was so clear that it was almost audible. The first was when we decided to go to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The second was when we decided to go to Sawyer’s Creek.

Through a wide range of circumstances, we discovered three amazing couples and some younger folks willing to walk this journey with us. David and Laurie, John and Dina, David and Sissy, and the Williams boys (fresh out of high school) got together to form the Young Adult Class at SCBC.

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A few of the used-to-be-young adults:  John, Me, David B., Chad Williams

Offering an accurate picture of the bonds we formed is almost impossible. This is surely a church that raised me from a raw, know-it-all kid into an actual pastor (recent events notwithstanding). Suffice it to say that, in so many ways, ALL of us “grew up” together. As we raised our children, labored together, and shared the trials of life, we saw a church full of children and youth evolve into a mission and ministry of love.

We banded together to fight more than one or two church battles—and lost a few of those. But the lessons learned have led to a new era for Sawyer’s Creek.

Now, these same sisters and brothers are the ones who are leading the congregation as it fosters another pastor into a new era of people growing up together. It was exciting to go back and see so many people in church that I knew when I was there.

It was that much more exciting to see a ton of people that I did not know, as people had to scrunch and fight to find a seat in that small historic sanctuary (circa 1790). It was a place of laughter and fun and joyful expressions on the faces of the people.

And that’s where we see the shine on the other side of this coin. While there may be so many in the church who are hurtful and judgmental and destructive to faith, there are that many more that will call us and lift us and raise us up when the struggles of life crash down on our heads.

IMG_5086The view from our kitchen window, every morning for 6 years.

It filled me with misty tears and nostalgia to see the same view that I caught outside the kitchen window of the church parsonage every day for six years. But the hugs and the laughter and the joy of these people who saw me through so much gave me something that I’ve been missing for a while:  Hope.

It would take too many pages to mention all the names of the people in this place that made a huge difference in our lives. As much as the geography of this narrow county moves me, nothing speaks to my soul quite like the hearts and lives of those who molded us and formed us through the ongoing bonds of love.

And this is what church is supposed to be. It’s not an organization, a building, a town, or the ridiculous minutia that turns our hearts and heads away from what is truly important. It is the people of God, seeking to follow God by loving one another.

It is the knowledge that there are those who will wrap their arms around you, no matter where you are or what you do or how badly you mess up. That’s something that we all need, not only in the hard times but at any time in our lives.

Just knowing that those people are there, whether 450 miles away or right down the street, gives us hope to turn the good to great, and the unbearable to manageable.

As much as the church of Christ misses the point, there are always those that remind us of the goodness that God brings in relationship with others. We can find hope in knowing that a piece of our heart remains in every community, and that loving others is never a waste of time. That love continues in them and in us, if we are willing to let it shine. As the people of Sawyer’s Creek, Camden County, and so many other wonderful places continue to do for me.

That is what makes a real church. While it is sometimes hard to see this bright side of the coin, it is a view that makes the fight to follow the Living Christ more than worth it.

Why the “World’s Worst Pastor?”

Last week’s blog certainly drew way more attention than I ever expected. Let me thank you all for taking time to read, comment, like, share, and respond to the ramblings of (arguably) the “World’s Worst Pastor.”

While many people liked the blog, the title apparently bothered a few folks, and it gives me another post. Why call it the “World’s Worst Pastor” blog?

For starters, it’s already worked. People, especially those who don’t know me or don’t necessarily share my faith tradition, get an enormous kick out of the name.

Hey, my friend Jamie Wright made a great cottage industry writing as “The Very Worst Missionary,” so I just thought I’d add Pastor to the mix. And for the record, I asked Jamie’s permission before hijacking her shtick.

Am I the World’s Worst Pastor? That might depend on who you ask, but probably not. Do I think I am a bad pastor? On some days yeah, I certainly do. But most of the time, I think I’m a pretty good pastor. And I have worked extremely hard at being a good pastor.

In all seriousness, some people—maybe a LOT of people–would disagree with my assessment of my own pastoral abilities. Some folks just see “pastor” through a specific set of lenses, and I do not (and likely never will) fit into their view.

Do you remember your school days and your first taste of standardized tests? Back in 2nd grade, we had to “bubble in” the scan-tron sheets filled with circles or ovals. The teachers threatened us with a near-death experience if we did not have 17 No. 2 pencils on hand, or if we DARED to fail to make perfect bubbles for our answers.

Failing to fill in the complete bubble or daring to go outside the bubble lines would result in our answer being marked WRONG!

I will never forget our Room Mom coming to my desk, saying in a soft yet kind yet ominous tone, “Make your circles good.” I was so diligently trying to stay inside the lines that I did not make a complete bubble. Then I was corrected for making my bubbles too big and going outside the lines. Then I was finally corrected for taking too long to fill in my perfect bubbles and not finishing the test.

And that’s what makes me, in some circles, the World’s Worst Pastor. I am sick of wearing myself out trying make the perfect bubble.

It’s time for a faith that colors outside the lines and bursts a few bubbles along the way.

Churches and Christians that are spending so much time trying to make their perfect bubble that they are failing to finish the test. We are so wrapped up in the church calendars, the events we do “every year,” and making sure that Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones don’t get upset that we cannot even consider following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

Following Christ is a messy business. Christ tried to start working in the church (i.e. Synagogue) but they kicked him out. They did this because He wasn’t concerned about how the church bulletin looked. He wasn’t worried that a song was too contemporary or traditional. It did not bother Him that someone sat in the wrong seat or that something didn’t happen “every year.”

Jesus sought ministry that was dirty and messy and chaotic. It was walking along filthy roads, hanging out with a group of 12 guys—smelly fishermen, murderers, tax collectors, and traitors–who probably would not even speak to each other if Jesus had not called them. And Jesus did this because He had zero interest in creating any kind of perfect bubble.

The mantra of the “World’s Worst Pastor” fits because I usually do not meet many of those typical, traditional images that people have of a pastor. I am certainly not the least bit interested in trying to color in their perfect bubble image.

Here is one example. People have regularly complained to me that I care too much about serving others, feeding the poor, overcoming racial barriers, etc. One former church member even said to me, “All we hear about is feeding the hungry and helping the homeless, and we just get tired of that every Sunday!” She proceeded to say that was all well and good, but she had never heard a pastor who talked so much about that “stuff.”

What she failed to realize is that I took this as a compliment.

If Jesus does anything in His life on earth, He teaches us that serving others is not just a part of the Gospel. It IS the Gospel. If preaching too much about these things makes me one of the World’s Worst Pastors, I am more than fine with it. I hope love for others always comes before perfecting our bubbles.

In dealing with people, my first move is not to call people out because they use a few four-letter words or have a few beers or smoke cigarettes. Nor is it to judge their clothing, question their sexuality, investigate their past, or ask them, “Are you a Christian?” In fact, I try not to ask that question. Ever.

(Even worse, I must confess that I like beer. And sometimes a whiskey. And an occasional cigar—all of which really boost my Worst Pastor rating).

What I try to do is get to know who they are and what they’re about, and I attempt to give them a genuine look at who I am. It’s not always pretty, on either side. But it is real and genuine, eye-opening and life-giving. And I think that is exactly what Jesus tried to do, while calling us to follow the example.

Jesus’ coloring abilities fall far afield of our preconceived lines. But perfect in our eyes was never His goal. Perfect bubbles for pastors are our creation—a defense against the messy, dirty, gut-wrenching life that Jesus calls us to live.

Please keep in mind that I am not saying, in any way, that my definition of Pastor is perfectly in line with Jesus. It’s quite the opposite. Yes, I am sometimes even the worst at being the Worst! I’m simply trying to learn to pursue Christ more fully in my life and work, rather than some notion of pastoral perfection.

No, I am weary from trying to make the perfect bubble. I am interested in those who fall short, or far outside the lines. This is where Jesus was, and is, and where I hope to learn to be. That’s why some people might call me the “World’s Worst Pastor.”

All things considered, that title might not be so bad

Education Reform Is More than May 1

Teacher salaries stink. In the south, they stink worse than just about anywhere else.

Depending on which statistical analysis you read, five of the 10 worst states at paying teachers are in the south. And it is virtually impossible to find any list where a southern state makes the 10 best in paying their teachers.

Many voters in our communities are aware of this, believe this, and even support changing this. They talk about how terrible it is that teachers get paid peanuts to educate our children, while someone gets millions of dollars to throw or catch or hit a ball.

It’s just over a month since a group of 10,000 teachers marched on the state house in South Carolina, seeking that level of respect that they richly deserve. Unfortunately, the person who should fight with them and for them let the moment of truth pass by completely disrespecting those that she partially represents.

Molly Spearman seems like a competent educator and provides some solid work for the students and teachers of this state. But her dismissive rhetoric towards this teacher’s March on Columbia demonstrates that our government leaders, even now, just do not “get it.”

Spearman made quite a production by flaunting her willingness to substitute in classrooms while teachers marched in Columbia. In so doing, she pulled out jargon that is typical of a second-grade teacher reprimanding a student for chewing gum.

“…I cannot support teachers walking out on their obligations to South Carolina students, families, and the thousands of hardworking bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, aides, and custodial staff whose livelihoods depend on our schools being operational” (Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, April 29).

Side note:  I wonder if Superintendent Spearman is this concerned about bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, aides, and custodial staff at budget time, when she needs to be fighting to have more of them and to pay them a living wage?

This is a stunning example of a missed opportunity—again—by educational and government leaders in this state. Mrs. Spearman’s comments come across as condescending and tone-deaf. At best, they show us how our “leaders” in Columbia just don’t get it.

Here’s the proof:  Where was Mrs. Spearman on the Thursday following the march, when school districts across the state ran short on substitutes for teachers who were sick or had family emergencies? Did she make herself available to drive or ride a bus because there is a shortage of bus drivers? Did she offer herself as a teaching assistant, or give teachers a bathroom break, or grade papers, or fill out those forms that teachers all love?

This grandstanding and showboating in opposition to the people who serve in these conditions, day in and day out, is exactly why we continue to fail both our students and our educators in the state of South Carolina. And it’s time to stop.

I still remember Governor Richard Riley’s “penny sales tax” initiative in 1984. This would solve our funding issues for South Carolina schools, improve our test scores, and “raise the bar” for public education in the state. It probably helped; but, like most single-answer solutions, it was a temporary fix for a long-term problem.

Year after year, the status quo remains. And year after year, people continue to miss the greater point that teachers want you to understand. This is not just about money. It is also about RESOURCES and RESPECT. While efforts such as Governor Riley’s initiative address part of the issue, we cannot expect to do one thing to fix such a complex problem.

For decades, teachers asked nicely for this to be fixed. The time has come for them to act, and we should reward their patience rather than critiquing it. The only people who have ignored their obligations are the people who should have fixed this decades ago, and that includes Mrs. Spearman.

State legislators declared this the “Year of Education” in South Carolina. They then went about proposing legislation that included limited or after-the-fact input from the educators themselves. And when I say educators, I am not referring to the bureaucrats and politicians and administrators who think they understand what’s happening in the classrooms based on some data sheet. I’m talking about the TEACHERS who live and work and carry this burden each and every day.

The student who comes to school with a growling stomach? The one who stays up all night playing video games because they are unsupervised? The other who is homeless and has no place to shower or wash clothes? Teachers own those issues. They bring the issues of their students home with them, and it eats away at their well-being. And these teachers know that they may be the last bridge to a better life for the children and young people of South Carolina.

To propose legislation without talking to them extensively and on every conceivable level is yet another slap in the face to an underpaid, disrespected group of people who are vital to the future of this state.

Keep in mind that public school teachers do not get to choose their students. They do not get to select the “best of the best” or hold a competition or charge a fee to go to their institution. They take everyone, and do all that they can to lead, guide, and direct—without judgment and without recourse.

That is certainly a trait to be respected and admired with an offering of adequate salary, above average resources, and the highest possible level of respect.

Here’s the thing:  We’ve discussed this issue for years with little or no results. What the teachers and their supporters did on May 1 was an outpouring of frustration for decades of inaction on the part of the state and its leadership. They waited longer than almost any other state (such as Kentucky or West Virginia) to spring into action. Why would we belittle that patience and commitment rather than rewarding it?

Mrs. Spearman could accomplish so much more by supporting teachers AND students in this decades-long battle. Perhaps try something along the lines of “I completely support teachers in fighting for what is best for the students and families of South Carolina—including their own. And I am substituting to make sure that teachers can freely attend the march on May 1.”

We’ve known for years and years that teachers deserve more respect, appreciation, resources, and salary. It is high time for administrators and politicians to recognize this reality and get busy doing something about it! And they can start by listening to teachers before inventing ideas.

Let’s be honest: EVERY year has to be the “Year of Education.” We constantly have to upgrade and adjust and prepare for what the future may bring. Doing this means paying teachers what they deserve, and giving them the respect that they earn on a daily basis. This will empower them to be what students need for them to be.

Our teachers and our students deserve that much—and not just for one year, but every year. If those in charge of policy would recognize that, then days such as May 1 might not be necessary.

My encouragement to you is this:  Do not stop writing your legislators. Do not stop protesting. Do not stop raising your voice. It is going to take more than one day to truly get the attention of government and administration. Although we’ve fought for years, we have to keep battling for the well-being of our state and its students.

We have talked long enough. Let us continue to challenge the policy makers to stop grandstanding and start doing.

An Article that Demands a Response

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect any policy or position of any other institution, affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

I just couldn’t let it go. And for that, I may well be sorry before this post is finished and all three of my followers pick it up.

Nevertheless, here it comes.

There is nothing to prompt me back to the writing desk quite like another article (one of 370,000 or so) about young adults leaving the church. The latest offering in our local papers details the reasons, and discusses the issue with ministers who supposedly work with 20 and 30-somethings.

(Note:  This appears to be curated content from the Nashville Tennessean).

Notice that I am avoiding terms like “Millennials” or “Gen-Z,” because such monikers may have devolved too far into very toxic and overblown assumptions about anyone under the age of 35. For this post, young adults will suffice.

There are a ton of quotes and points and stats in this article that deserve attention and response, the least of which is not the ongoing tone of these tomes about young adults and church. I’ll jump past the general attitude that these are cattle who have escaped the pen, and we have to heard them back while working on ways to build a stronger fence and secure the gate so they’ll never get out again.

But I digress…

The most eye-catching and, to me, troubling aspect of the entire piece was a paraphrase from the interview with Chris Brooks, who leads the Kairos young adult ministry at Brentwood Baptist in Nashville. “He loves young adults. They are selfish, but also still trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do, Brooks said. It leads to lively and challenging discussions at church, which he welcomes.”

Clearly, Pastor Brooks is engaging this group and their culture. But why must he, or the author in her paraphrase, continue to shell out the tag of SELFISH that plagues descriptions of this young adult generation? I find this tag horrifically overblown, overused, and not entirely accurate.

Here’s the thing that we miss when calling out these selfish young adults: We’re all selfish, and that includes people in the church. People of ALL ages.

Are young adults any more selfish than people who get mad because the church tries a different style of music? Or the elderly person who walks out of the church because they find out that it’s Youth Sunday and they don’t want to stay if we’re not having “real church?” (Yes, I saw it and heard it).

Are they any more selfish than the long-time member who won’t give up their seat to a visitor—or to move closer to the front, even if they can’t hear a lick in the back? Or the person who says, “We’ve always done it that way and we don’t want to change it!”?

At the church I pastor, a lady once told me about a former member (that I never knew) who was present when our church began in 2003. And this lady was fond of saying, “I’ve seen a lot of changes since then, and I’ve been opposed to every one of them!”

Now, the lady said this in jest. But we often find at least a sliver of truth in a joke–and that joke sounds like a pretty textbook definition of selfish.

After working with youth and young adults for the majority of my ministry career, I will say that their “selfish” comes across a bit differently than others. But different does not mean that it’s any worse. Maybe it just sounds worse because we’ve had longer to learn to formalize our version to not seem quite so blunt and direct. Or maybe we just think we’ve been around long enough to be entitled to our selfishness, a problem that I see very directly in the church.

No matter how we dress it up, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s there. As my dad loved to say, a little paint will make any old barn look better, but it doesn’t keep it from rotting on the inside. (And yes, I love to the honorary citations to my dad’s favorite quotes—all 12 of them!).

Young adults are pressed with more time constraints, concerns, debt, uncertainty, and baggage than many of us had to carry. Whatever argument or justification we pull from “the old days,” the church has to recognize that the new day is different—and it’s going to continue to be different.

Young adults often develop serious (and critical) questions about the Christianity they grew up learning, as Pastor Brooks points out.

I pastor a church that has a small handful of people under 40, and maybe four “twenty-somethings.” Some of them are single, some still in school, and some married with very young children. I actually consider it an honor when they come to church, because I know how pressed they are for time and energy and money. I know that they feel very unsure about who they are and where they’re going, so it’s a privilege to have a part in walking that path with them.

Do I wish we had more? Certainly. Are we fully prepared to engage them? Absolutely not! And we cannot prepare for this ministry—or actually, any other ministry–until we deal with our own selfish nature (and yes, that includes the pastor).

That means recognizing something very crucial that the article points out: Young adults are “still trying to figure out who they are…”

This is the hope and promise and energy that young adults can bring into the life of the church. It’s not about circling the wagons and shoring up the fences to keep them in, but it’s actually about tearing down those fences to let them out!

Followers of Christ should always be trying to figure out who we are, and who we are called to be in whatever place we find ourselves. We cannot be disciples if we think we have it all figured out because we cannot change and grow if we assume that we have all the answers. Age may give greater wisdom and patience, but it does not mean we’re at the end of the journey.

Instead, why not embrace the challenging, questioning generation? Why not let their questions lead us to learn, as we respectfully share our own perspective with them?

The young adults who come back to church may not be there every Sunday. They may never go to Sunday School or become a deacon/elder or even embrace many of the formalized structures or long-standing traditions. But they may well be the ones that challenge us back to a questioning Christianity, and a faith of critical thinking that can change and grow throughout our lives.

This is the type of Christianity that entices us to selfless rather than selfish, to let go of what was as we grab onto what is—and what can be.

Perhaps the thing we most need to do is quit getting angry with young adults for being “selfish” and deal with the plank in our own eye first. We might then discover that they are much more willing to give of themselves, if we will walk along with them to find out who we are called to be.

When the President Asks You to Pray…

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect any policy or position of any other institution, affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

When the President Asks You to Pray

I consider myself to be a pretty blessed human being. Beyond countless personal blessings (family, children, career, etc.), I’ve had the privilege to see and experience a lot of things.

I attended the college of my dreams. I own a conference football championship ring from that college. I saw the Sid Bream Slide in game 7 of the NLCS in 1992. I once had lunch with theologian Jurgen Moltmann. I met Jack Ham and John Smoltz. I hosted a sports talk show on ESPN radio. I ran the bases at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in the same summer. I stood on a mountain in Maine, where we were the first people in America to see the sun rise.

(My apologies for the sports “tint” in my life moments—perhaps a lesson in priorities is warranted?).

But few things will match the events of May 7, 2017.

Back in May, we decided to take a spontaneous trip to Plains, GA to see our former President and First Lady, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Mr. Carter teaches a Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. It is open to the public, if you arrive in time (which means at least by 7 am).

We got to the church about 7:15 on the morning of May 7, thinking that we could not be that late. As it turns out, the parking attendant gave us #71, which designated our place in line. As we lined up to go into the church, our place was a long, loooong way from the door. We worried that 15 minutes might actually cost us a chance to be in the room with the President.

The organizer of these pregame festivities at Maranatha is Miss Jan. She makes it absolutely clear that she is in charge, making sure everyone is single file and behaving themselves with appropriate fourth-grade courtesy and etiquette.

This makes perfect sense—after all, she was Amy Carter’s fourth-grade teacher.

Miss Jan’s role is absolutely essential, as the church tries to fit 350 people into the sanctuary each Sunday. On the Sunday before we attended, Maranatha had 28 members present and 235 visitors. Secret Service agents and bomb dogs are now a part of their pre-worship preparations. And they embrace this as their mission, as they willingly and cheerfully extend hospitality to all those who want to enter and hear. That, in and of itself, is a powerful testimony to the hospitality of Christ.

(Unless you cannot behave—in which case you will answer to Miss Jan).

As we reached the door, the church looked awfully crowded and we felt sure we were headed for the small overflow room to watch on a screen. But Miss Jan’s husband (who also serves as parking lot attendant, door monitor, and usher) said, “How about sitting in the choir loft?”

We were thrilled—a seat right behind Jimmy Carter!

Promptly at 10, we looked to our left to see that former President Jimmy Carter was in the room.

I have never even been in the room with a former or current President, much less met one. It was overwhelming to see Jimmy Carter, standing about 10 feet away from us. After all, how many Presidents (or any other politician) would invite you into the room when it does not involve a $1000 a plate dinner or some golden opportunity for positive publicity?

But it all of that was nothing compared to what happened next.

Mr. Carter’s first move was to scan the sections and ask people where they were from. It was amazing to hear people from as far away as China or Ghana, some of whom came to hear Mr. Carter’s lesson.

He followed this by asking if there were any pastors or missionaries, current or former, in the crowd. I raised my hand along with about 12 others. He then asked where we had served and our denomination.

Just as Miss Jan told us he would, Mr. Carter proceeded to seek out a pastor to lead the Morning Prayer. His first comment was, “I normally like to ask one of our women pastors to pray, but I don’t think we have any here this morning.” I was totally impressed with the former President’s first thought (as was my wife and feminist-leaning teenage daughter).

What happened next was absolutely unforgettable. Mr. Carter looked at me, in the choir loft, and said, “How about you? Would you lead our prayer this morning?”

I doubt that anyone will know the awe that filled me at that moment, other than the unfortunate person who had to dry-clean the khakis I was wearing.

It’s hard to describe my emotions when a former President looks at you and says, “How about you, son? You got something for the class today?”

I have performed this ritual a thousand times. But no prayer request ever left me tongue-tied and knot-kneed like this one. When the former President calls on you, it definitely gets your attention more than your run-of-the-mill blessing prior to the family Thanksgiving meal.

My knees almost buckled and my internal organs felt like they were shaking as I stood up. This was going to be a truly Spirit-led prayer because I had absolutely no words. It took me a good five seconds to gather myself and produce something audible–like, you know, “Let us pray.”

Lots of people kindly told me that I did a good job (although I regularly wonder what it means to do a “good job” with a prayer). I’m glad I did–because to this day, I do not remember a word I said!

This was not just because it was a former President making the request. It was awesome because it was this former President making the request.

My father is fond of saying that Jimmy Carter is the only man to use the Presidency of the United States as a stepping-stone to greatness. It is indeed this greatness that he displays after his term in the White House that made it such an honor to lead a prayer at his request.

I am as in awe of the former President’s spirituality, humility, empathy, and fight for justice, much more than his political career.Mr. Carter’s greatness is not found in his legacy as a former leader of the free world. It is found in his ongoing work as a servant leader in the current world.

Rather than using his post-political status to seek fame or fortune or million-dollar speaking fees, Jimmy Carter returned to the family farm in tiny Plains. He left the White House to start building houses–with Habitat for Humanity.

The same man who managed to get Israel and Egypt—Israel and Egypt—to sit down and negotiate a peace treaty, continues to negotiate for peace and freedom around the world. He invites others to join in this quest through the work of The Carter Center and other initiatives.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter continue as world-wide crusaders for peace, for anti-human trafficking initiatives, for fair housing, for mental health, and for equitable treatment of all human beings. I say “crusaders” because they back up their advocacy with direct action–and they call on others to join them in those efforts.

And still, on the vast majority of Sundays, they are at their tiny country church that is nestled in a grove of pecan trees, where the former President welcome a full house for Sunday School. They even take the time to snap a picture with every family or group that attends—provided that you stay for worship, of course.

(He did indicate that the hour-long post-worship photo sessions may not be their favorite thing to do these days!).

Oh, and he continues to do all of this, even as a 92 year old cancer survivor.

Mr. Carter’s unassuming, down-to-earth presence and My daughter Abbie’s assessment of the Carters was as simple and sincere as they are: “We could all learn a lot from them about humility.”

Thank God that Jimmy Carter chooses not to dwell on how history will judge his presidency, but on how he can work for a better future for all of humanity.

May we all recognize that our greatness is not found in how history judges us when the world is watching, but in what we do when no one is looking.

May we all learn to serve with gracious humility and empathy, thinking of others more highly than ourselves.

And wouldn’t it be nice if more of our leaders–on every level–would do the same? Better yet, perhaps we could all learn to lead in the way that the Carters do, with a little less talk and a lot more action.

The Closing of a Food Pantry

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

My parents raised my sister and me with some pretty clear and definitive values.

You don’t drink. You don’t use tobacco. You use manners. Maintain a well-defined list of what is and is not appropriate for public conversation.

You treat people with dignity and respect, regardless of race or creed or socioeconomic status–and even if people around you do not treat others in this manner.

You go to church on Sunday morning. And Wednesday night. And Sunday night (and no matter how hard I fought to stay home and finish the late afternoon NFL game, we went anyway). And you go EVERY night on revival weeks or any other special church occasion.

But of all the things that my parents passed along to us that really “stuck”, the value of serving others is at the top of the list. It was engrained into us, most significantly in my father’s work with the Eastside Baptist Center in Greenville, SC.

This value first took root in 1976-77, when Rev. T. Spencer LeGrand Sr. took over as pastor of East Park Baptist Church. Along with some supporting church members, he began to distribute food to the needy in the downtown community.

Pretty soon after these humble beginnings, the trickle of textile mill closings became a flood. By 1987, the needs had become far too much for one pastor and one church. Edwards Road Baptist and the Greenville Baptist Association stepped up to create a coalition, headed by my father, which now forms the Eastside Baptist Center.

The work of the Center is truly an ecumenical enterprise, involving Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, and Episcopal churches of all types and stripes, as well as interested individuals who just want to serve. That’s no small feat in this region of the South, where we are not always known for our spirit of ecumenical cooperation. It has continued to make its home at East Park—until now.

On May 31, the Center will close its doors for the final time. As East Park moves to merge with a sister congregation, Eastside Center is losing its home. My father, at 81 years old, does not have the desire to move to a new location (although I think he still has the energy).

Many people are stunned when I tell them that my father at “that age” still leads such a ministry. Many also say, “How sad!” when I tell them that this portion of his ministry is coming to a close. I will certainly miss hearing him say over the phone, “Well, I need to get to bed so I can get and go get food in the morning!”

There is much despair these days about the end of ministries, or churches, or church buildings. The inevitable, initial reaction by Christians when one of these institutions comes to an end is, “How sad!”

But I do not see this as sad. In the words of a 90s pop song, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” While my father’s work in this realm ends, his legacy of serving is still at the beginning.

It is a flawed assumption that statistical data is the primary measure of the success of a religious organization. The assumption goes like this: “Bad” ministries or churches die and fade away. The good ones last longer. They grow larger. They produce big numbers to show for their efforts—either in money, facilities, branches, well-known ministers, people, etc.

To many, the “Numbers Game” is the only one in town; and no matter how often we say it isn’t that important, we act as if it is ALL-important. That’s why we mistakenly assume that the ending of a ministry is “Sad”.

While numbers should be ONE measure of a church’s work, they cannot be THE measure.

In a day and age when most churches are actually closing at a somewhat alarming rate, I put forth that we assess the legacy of a ministry rather than its numerical “success”. This is a very relevant time for us to understand that a powerful legacy can long outlive an institution, in both years and in effectiveness.

No one is cheering the closing of churches or the ending of ministries. But the fact is that things change. Communities change. Culture changes. People change. Sometimes the need once met by that church or ministry changes, and its purpose draws to a close.

We also have to be faithful enough to believe that the end of one ministry can lead to the beginning of something new. If ministries understand the vitality of legacy, then there will be workers prepared to pour themselves into something else that is equally vital.

I doubt that those involved at Eastside Center will suddenly stop doing ministry because it is closed. My dad certainly won’t stop. He’ll keep working at his church, Pelham Road Baptist (one of the major supporters of the Center). Or he’ll add to his Meals on Wheels route. Or maybe work in some other food ministry. Maybe he’ll even share his experience with others who share his passion to feed the hungry.

When he started the food ministry at East Park, there were fewer opportunities to follow that passion. Not many food pantries existed in the Greenville area. Of all the things about my father that make me proud, the fact that the city has plenty of ministries to meet emergency needs ranks near the top. These pantries work with organizations that provide many other services to the community.

I believe my father and East Park were both major sparks for the ministries of compassionate service that exist in the city. This compassion is growing well beyond food pantries, towards more in-depth ministries that strive to address the deeper issues of poverty.

And if I may add a personal note: His example is what led me to do what I do, in helping students understand the meaning of service and the essential battle for social justice. All of his children and grandchildren are involved in some type of service to others. This is not to mention the hundreds of volunteers and donors and fellow churches and ordained ministers that benefit from his example.

There are the thousands upon thousands of people who had enough to eat because of the Center’s work. But it was never about that. It was about answering a powerful call to be the hands and feet of Christ to those who were taking the hardest hits that life could dish out. It was about doing justice and loving mercy and walking humbly, on a path that God had opened for him.

Honestly, I don’t think that my father ever had the choice to not do this. The call on his heart is just too powerful. He serves because this is who he is—and he imparts that into the people that he encounters. This is what it means to leave a legacy.

Yeah, sure, I’m expressing some personal pride here in what my father has done. Yet, I believe that the principles still apply. It is not about striving to make sure that a ministry or a church or a religious institution continues to exist. It is about passing on the compassion and purpose and desire to serve that brought such organizations into existence in the first place.

Yes, I am extremely proud of my father has done to this point in his life. But I am much more excited to see what good can come from those who choose to learn from his legacy of serving, a legacy that he continues to build.

That’s not something that goes away when a building falls or an organization dissolves. That is a legacy for eternity.

As we consider what good we are doing for Christ and one another, let us consider the legacy that we are instilling into the lives of others. Facilitating and spreading the spiritual call of a ministry is a much more critical focus than simply trying to maintain its physical existence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charleston: A Painful Call to Change the Conversation

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not in any way reflect the official policy or position of anyone my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. They are mine, and mine alone. Disagree? Feel free to contact me! (ONLY me)

It’s time for a conversation. Not more talk, but a conversation.

There is a massive gap between these two related items. “Talk” is plentiful and abundant. It is the stuff of comment sections and social media and message boards. It is about convincing others of how right I am and how wrong they are. It often deteriorates into bitterness and rage.

While talk is something we do at each other, conversation is something we engage with each other. Listening is critical to a conversation, perhaps more so than talking. It allows us to get to know the other, to engage and gather more information about the other’s point of view rather than just trumpeting our own.

It’s well beyond time that we have this conversation around the issue of race. And it is time for the church to take a leading role in it. When I use the term “church” here, I am talking about the individuals who make up the Body of Christ as well as the institution.

Several issues keep us from even getting to the starting line for this conversation. Even churches and pastors who desire to engage the difficult topic of racism are crippled because they do not know where to begin. Then there is the issue of creating space for a balanced conversation. Church is still a largely segregated entity, so how do we create a starting point that includes a variety of perspectives?

As a minister and a teacher, I have to confess my own sin here. I have avoided numerous opportunities to have, lead, or create these essential conversations. This sometimes came from fear of offending others, or losing friends, or even losing my job. But more often than not, I just could not find the starting line, and was unsure of how to create one.

In reflecting on the events in Charleston over the last week, I am still not sure where to start. But it is clear that we are well past the time of need for it, and we have to find the starting line as soon as possible.

This is a chance to shift the narrative, and to engage issues that we have long avoided. The shooting at Emanuel AME Church, and certainly the church’s response to it, can provide us with a starting point for a new conversation.

While the magnificent show of solidarity on the Ravenel Bridge also helps to create the starting line, much more preparation needs to begin before we truly begin to move in a deeper and more meaningful direction. It is a long race, and we can do several things to help us get off to a good start.

We can begin this preparation by dropping the “We vs. They” language. In regard to race issues, I too often hear people refer to “they” and “those people” and “their kind.” Worst of all is this sentence: “Well I don’t have any problem with black people, but those are just n——.”

And yes, the actual term is used.

The problem is that the call to discipleship is the call to look at what I/we need to do, not what you/they need to do. How can I, as a white person, speak to what any black person should think or feel or do when I have rarely had any meaningful conversation on the issue of race with a black person?

Christ calls us to fellowship and unity that allows us to know Him—and ourselves—much better by understanding others. The conversation cannot start by saying what “those people” should be doing. Why not begin by creating space to better understand and empathize with “those people,” because they are first and foremost God’s people?

At the same time, we would do well to drop our “What about them?” mentality when we get to the starting line. Have you ever tried to walk or run or drive a car while looking sideways? You usually do not get very far with that technique.

We cannot begin this journey by looking sideways. Pointing out the flaws of others is accusation, not conversation. This is a long and difficult path that requires us to look directly at ourselves. We cannot relieve our own responsibility by trying to point out the racism that we see in someone else.

Finally, we must begin this journey with a posture of confession. Racism is real, racism exists, and that includes churches and Christians. I have personally witnessed it. We cannot be a prophetic voice on the issue by denying it.

I have also witnessed many Christians and churches that are willing to take on this issue. This began when people started a listening conversation that led to dialogue, and dialogue that led to thoughtful and well-designed action.

It is easy for us to sit back and say that this is “not the time” to have a discussion about race or flags or social justice. I fear that is the same attitude that will keep us away from the starting line of a meaningful conversation. This is the perfect time to have those conversations, as a path to better understanding those who live a far different experience than I have ever endured.

The Christian world cannot avoid these hard conversations in the name of peace and unity among believers. What kind of “unity” have we achieved if it comes at the expense of taking on the challenges of our society? Can we claim any type of prophetic voice in the world if we avoid the hard conversations for the sake of ourselves?

If peace must come at the expense of sober judgment that can create change in our own collective life together, then we lose the ability to be a voice for goodness and justice anywhere else.

Let us begin a conversation that forces us to look more deeply at the root of the problem—and lead us to confess and repent when we find those roots growing around our own hearts.

With that in mind, I welcome your responses: Comments, emails, phone calls etc. But I ask you to keep in mind the parameters that I suggest as we engage.