Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Eternal and the Personal

This week, I spent an afternoon at a continuing education event at the State Funeral Directors Association.  I am not a funeral director (but it was cool to see the new model hearses on display), but one of the general managers at Thompson Funeral Home invited me to an event for clergy.  It was a time with Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, the authors of a new book entitled The Good Funeral.
It was a great time of discussion as the two Toms talked about funerals, dying, and how things have changed in the funeral profession and funeral ministry.

It is fair to say that often a funeral is a balancing act.  A funeral is not just an anonymous and ancient liturgy;  it is a holy moment of recognition for one who has journeyed through life.  It is a time to speak of things Eternal even as we claim a life that spanned only a few decades. What language do we offer that is authentic, pastoral, and honors the deceased while claiming the Eternal in a way that reflects the integrity of the one who presides?

The liturgy is there to remind us that we are not alone, that countless others have journeyed here before us.  These are words that ring true that reflect our hopes, doubts, and fears. These words, along with the scripture readings remind us of  the Presence of God with us in death and in life---we do not travel this way alone. As I walk down the center aisle of a crowded but silent church followed by a casket and a grieving family, I recite the words offered by pastors in that place before me and in a million other places and times: "Dying Christ destroyed our death..."  That page is well worn in my Book of Worship.

For all of the faithful, ancient elements of the funeral, we also seek the personal.  Who died?  How did they live and love and find meaning?  How will they be remembered? A good funeral weaves the Eternal and Personal into a tapestry of hope, love, and remembrance.  It connects the limited one to the Imminent and Transcendent Holy.  The person is not lost in that moment beneath the weight of God nor is the deceased magnified over God.  We need personal funerals, not personalized  "celebrations of life" that forego deeper meaning than whether the deceased never missed a Carolina football game.  When we personalize we make the funeral a social event rather than a meaningful moment that equips us to live lives of purpose.

I commend to you The Good Funeral by Long and Lynch.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Looking Beyond The Empty Skies

The first chapter of the book of Acts is the story of the Ascension of Christ and the faithfulness of the disciples in the ten days that followed.  As Christ ascends, the disciples watch him rise until he is out of their sight.  For a time, they stare into an empty sky.  Waiting, perhaps, for Jesus to come back or for their preferred version of the restored Kingdom of Israel that they asked Jesus to reveal to them before he ascended. It is then that two messengers dressed in white, two angels, asked the disciples why they stood there, looking to the sky.  Soon after this question, the disciples leave the Mount of Olives and return to an upper room in Jerusalem.   In that safe and familiar place, their waiting would not be idle or empty.  The eleven disciples, together with about one hundred and twenty more, would be about the work of Christ through prayer, holy conversation, and a discernment of the next steps for the new Christian movement.

In these days, this scripture offers us a good word. Perhaps it simply reminds us that we cannot stand idly and look to the heavens waiting for the kingdom we prefer, for things to get better, or for Christ to come again.  There is, after all, the work of the Kingdom of God to be done, even as we wait for the fullness of time. It is a scripture that is all the more relevant as we struggle with the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the ministry and doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  We are waiting for resolution of this pressing issue.  We do not know when or how resolution will come. Maybe it will come in 2016 and the next session of General Conference, maybe not.  It is the hope of the faithful that resolution happens in a way that reflects the will of God and not the convenient politics of the moment.

In our particular time of waiting we aren't simply staring into an empty sky.  There is a deep, unmistakeable line being drawn on the issue of homosexuality and the church. On one side of the line, there are brothers and sisters quoting scripture and claiming the new thing that God is doing and the new path we are called to take.  On the other side of the line, there are brothers and sisters quoting scripture and reminding us of the constancy of God and the ancient path we are called to follow.  With the deep and unmistakeable line, there is the alliance of the like-minded on "our" side of the line and the alienation of "those people" on the other side of the line---those who don't agree with the correct understanding of how the Kingdom of God should be.  Yes, there are people on the line itself, those souls who see both sides.  They too are often preoccupied with sides and outcomes, fears and futures. This is the way many of us wait in the 21st century for the next chapter of our life together in Christ; we work for the victory of our preferred outcome as much as for closure or for resolution.  We worry more for what may be different in our future rather than the missed opportunities of the present.

This could have been the way the early Christian community chose after the eleven came down from the Mount of Olives.  Judas had to be replaced.  No doubt there were those in the community who wanted Barsabbas and others who wanted Matthias; lines could have been drawn and plans formulated to get one person selected over another.  Thankfully, that is not the course taken by the early Christians between Ascension and Pentecost.   The growing and increasingly diverse fellowship worked together and found a way forward consistent with their relationship to God even as they honored the deepening bond with one another.  Acts 1:26 says the disciples cast lots for the replacement for Judas; in other words, they placed full faith in the Christian movement as a whole and ultimate trust in the Providence of God.  What mattered was not who won or who lost, but how in that moment they were faithful to God in the context of the fledgling community of believers.
We cannot ignore the issue of homosexuality as it relates to the the ministry and doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  It is the proverbial elephant in the room.  We need our own holy conversations in safe places like that shared upper room in Jerusalem.  Yet, this needed conversation is not the full measure of who we are and what we do as a local church, an annual conference or as a denomination.  Diverse thinking around a single issue should not limit our work together or distract us from the fullness of our call.  Our Book of Discipline offers hopeful direction:

"In the name of Jesus Christ we are called to work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another. Such patience stems neither from indifference toward truth nor from an indulgent tolerance of error but from an awareness that we know only in part and that none of us is able to search the mysteries of God except by the Spirit of God. We proceed with our theological task, trusting that the Spirit will grant us wisdom to continue our journey with the whole people of God."
From: Our Theological Task located in paragraph 105, page 87 of The 2012 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church

How will we work within our diversity while exercising patience and forbearance with one another? Where are our shared safe places for holy conversation and collaboration? With our divergent understandings about sexuality and faithfulness, what will we do together to fulfill our covenant to God and one another through our loving service to, with, and for the forgotten whole of humanity that Christ died and rose to save? Dare we trust one another in ways deeper than the lines that keep us apart?

Perhaps the long and powerful stream of history has worn smooth the rough lines drawn between the choices to replace Judas just as it has other controversies in the storied history of the church.  But perhaps the way through divisions and strife is not by watching the skies and plotting our preferred version of the Kingdom.   The way forward to wholeness as well as God's desired future for us all is to choose to follow Christ and risk crossing the deep, unmistakeable lines to those brothers and sisters on the other side, working together as we move forward in discerning our next steps together as the Body of Christ.  That was the blessing for the Christian community in Acts; may it be also with us.

Once again

It has been a few years since I posted on this blog. A great deal has happened in 5 years. I am no longer in Gaffney, two of my sons are now in college, Kathy has a new appointment. My family is now in Cayce, SC. Goodness knows, there have been changes in the world and the church since then. I am going to try and blog again. Facebook notes are good. My sons use snapchat, tumblr, and twitter to connect. I guess I am looking for more than 140 characters and 30 minutes to express myself. Here goes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Going Down Memory Lane: the Burp Well Building

I remember those days well. My Wofford friends and I would walk from wherever our classes were that day to the Burwell building and the cafeteria (as I recall we called it Burp Well). It was a ritual, check your mailbox before going upstairs to the cafeteria. In the days before cell phones and email, the US Mail was it besides an expensive phone call. Back then, as we looked in our tiny mailboxes and nothing there, the response was "all I got was a rock" a line from one of the Charlie Brown/Peanuts Halloween television shows. The last time I opened my Wofford mailbox was 24 years ago before I graduated. I have no way of knowing how many people have had that mailbox in 24 years. I could not tell you how many locks, electronic devices, and other password or combination accessible items I have opened in that time.

I do know that memory and the work of the brain is a remarkable thing. Certainly there are chemical and electronic processes that happen that spark something here or there in our brains and trigger memories. What I don't understand is how it works sometimes and other times it doesn't. Why is it we can remember stupid song lyrics from 30 years ago and not our spouse's birthday?

Yesterday (from what I remember) was a good day. I had work and home responsibilities as usual. I realized in the afternoon that I forgot a parishioner's surgery yesterday morning---first time that has happened. Earlier in the day, I went to Wofford as part of my Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry duties. The meeting was on the first floor of Burp Well. I went to the Post Office. I saw a sign that said mailboxes were free---had they always been that way? I walked to my old mailbox nothing was inside---"all I got was a rock."

I could not tell you what the combination was. Could I open the box? My fingers went to the combination dial...

Memories come and go. Some we cannot get out of our heads and others we cannot hold onto no matter how hard we try. Here's hoping your memories are good ones today.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Last night, the boys wanted to eat something before they went to the movies. We stopped at the Taco Bell here in Gaffney; I paid the young lady at the register and she gave me the change. I flipped the quarters in my hands as I have done for almost ten years. One was shiny, new...maybe it could be...

For almost ten years, I have been looking closely at the change in my hands. It started when I got this cardboard map of the United States in 1999. It has the states in different colors and a pocket in each state about the size of a quarter. You may have guessed by now that I worked to collect the state quarters that the US mint began to issue ten years ago. I showed my young sons the map at that time; here was their timeless response: "Daddy, we could buy a lot of Pokemon cards with that much money!"

I know some collectors went to the bank to get their quarters on schedule and others would buy them rolls at a time. That was not my method. I got my quarters from change I got in everyday transactions (all but one, thanks Mr. Bob). Each time, I would go home with my treasure and put it in the map. These quarters have been the only thing I have collected since I sold my comic book collection to help out with my seminary expenses a long time ago.

Last night, I got my change at Taco Bell. I flipped the shiny quarter in my palm over and saw it was the "Hawaii" quarter. The lady at the register thought I hit the lottery. She gave me another Hawaii quarter so I would put one in the collection and use the other. Nice lady.

I now have the 50 state quarters---$12.50.

I am not sure what I will collect next... Pokemon cards??

Friday, December 12, 2008

Small Towns, Large Values

The busiest intersection in Hemingway, South Carolina

This past Wednesday night, I went to Wahalla, South Carolina, to visit my niece, nephew, and sister-in-law, upon the death of Kent, my sister in law's father. This is a family that has seen more than their share of tragedy in the past three years with the deaths of three very special people. My brother, Eric, always liked Wahalla; I could see why at the funeral home Wednesday night. Wahalla is a small enough town where most people know each other and treat each other like family. There was a presence Wednesday that spoke to that. I feel comfortable that my family there will be cared for daily by their church and community in ways that would make Eric, Kent, and Joan proud.

I am finding Gaffney to have that same kind of atmosphere. It is a bigger town than Walhalla but the values of community are still present. I guess I am partial to small towns. I grew up in Hemingway, which shaped me a great deal into the person I am today. I have lived in Spartanburg, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, and Charleston; but in those places the school or the local church served to convey those community values. Small town certainly face problems today--- plant closings and economic challenges, the school systems aren't as well funded and sometimes attitudes are not open to healthy change.

South Carolina is a state of small towns and rural villages, but not for long. As less people farm, and more textile operations close, the children of the small towns flock to the larger cities for jobs and educational opportunities. My hope is that with these changes we can still find ways to relate and care for one another as it was done in the past in places like Wahalla, Hemingway, and Lowndesville.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How hard can it be to find an alarm clock?

Last week, I wrote about needing an alarm clock. Turns out Mamma Deacon needed one too; her alarm clock stopped working after the 1,000,000,000th time she hit the snooze alarm in five years. We go to Wally World to purchase alarm clocks---with battery backups. We got two with a strange neon blue glow.

Glow really is not the right word---supernova would be better. Twin blue supernovas in our bedroom. It looked like the police were testing their light bars. We passed one of the clocks off on Airman We. He has wrapped it in a t-shirt and put it on the other side of his room.

Yesterday, I went online and purchased an alarm clock. It is the Cadillac of alarm clocks---three daily alarms available, each alarm allows you to wake to a different radio station. It has a "declining snooze" which ought to make Mamma Deacon happy.

Time keeps on slippin' and its supernova bright.