Archive for the ‘Christianity’ category

Between Brews and Baptists

August 22, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          August 22, 2017

                                

Carol and I joined a group of American Baptist pastors and spouses at a Colorado Rockies baseball game last Friday night. They were playing the Milwaukee Brewers, and brew was a prominent part of the evening.

Not for the Baptists, but rather for the group of young guys who were sitting in front of Carol and me. Since we didn’t get there until the second inning we were on the fringe of our group, so we were between the Brews and the Baptists.

It was interesting, and somewhat amusing, to see the different ways the two groups enjoyed watching the game. The Baptists would exit and come back with nachos, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and hot dogs. The Brews would exit and come back with…brew! No food, just brew! Or they would summon the beer guy walking up and down the steps and buy it from him. “Give me three!”

The Baptists were polite in their cheering, like religious high society folk. The Brews were raucous and amusing. One of their group wore his Brewers shirt, which meant any Rockies success (They won 8-4!) resulted in the rest of his group mocking him, while they gave high fives to one another. A Milwaukee home run resulted in the Brewers fan finding another Brewers fan ten seats and four rows away and giving him a high five. Success was followed by celebrated fandom, while failure was accompanied by “F” bombs.

The Baptist pastors talked about church work, the approaching Sunday sermon, how summer church camp and VBS had gone. The Brews talked about where the baseball was going to end up at the end of the inning…because they made bets about its placement. Someone would take the location of the pitcher’s mound, someone else that a player would carry it into the dugout, someone else that it would be tossed by a player to a fan in the crowd, and someone else that it would be given to one of the umpires. Dollar bets were made each time, followed by discovery and disappointment. There were also bets on whether a home run would be hit by the Rockies in an inning, and any other unusual way that bets could be made. Would a pitcher take off his cap and wipe his head? Would a batter spit on the ground? Would there be a double play? Would someone with a last name that starts with a letter between A and M hit a single? Would there be more batters with beards than batters who had shaved, or more batters with beards than batters who had shaved heads? Anything that prompted a bet, but also bleacher victory dances was fair game!

I enjoyed both groups! It was Friday night fun, or, for the Baptists, fellowship! Both groups were accepting. Carol asked one of the Brews to explain their betting games, and he went into great detail with her even though she was drinking Sprite. I talked to Mary Beth about their new pastor and the exciting things happening in her church. We enjoyed our conversation, although the cheering around us made it difficult to hear from time to time.

In essence, Carol and I were part of the Baptists touching the Brew Crew. There’s something in there for followers of Jesus to learn! We follow Jesus and we converse with the world. Some church folk believe in Jesus and turn their back on the world, but the more I think about it I believe if Jesus happened to show up for the baseball game that night he would have been sitting in, or close to, our seats. If he changed water into wine he may have even turned lemonade into beer!

Contemporary Simla

August 17, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         August 17, 2017

                                

Bill Hale, my co-conspirator….err, partner in ministry, bought me lunch yesterday and then told me about his previous Sunday’s experience at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado. Bill, another great guy named Ed Stucky, and I have been filling the pulpit at the Simla church for the past year and a half.

Now, a couple of things about Bill! He is a retired school teacher who happens to be nine days younger than me, loves country music, and has a keen wit. He and his wife Sylvia have directed our regional denomination’s camp week at Quaker Ridge (Even though we’re American Baptists!) Camp for the past several years. The past two summers I’ve come alongside them, kind of like Larry came alongside Moe and Curly! On the last night of camp this past July Bill dressed up as the Tooth Fairy. I have pictures!

Simla First Baptist is a small congregation of 25…maybe! That’s if everyone, plus their pets, come to church! They have done the best they can, not having the financial resources to pay a pastor or make many improvements. One of the things they haven’t had is an organist, pianist, or even guitar player. So they make do with what we simply call “a music machine.” The music machine plays the background organ music for whatever hymn the congregation is struggling to sing. More times than not it plays the wrong music, or plays the music too slow or softly. Every hymn we sing is a potential Saturday Night Live skit. When you don’t have what you’ve never had you don’t know any difference!

Rev. Hale (as of his ordination service this past May 7) is a bit bolder than me. (We have coffee at Starbucks, but he brings his McDonald’s Diet Coke cup! Radical!) Last Sunday he brought a projector, a laptop, and a screen to Simla. The last projector Simla First Baptist had was the type that you connect a reel of film to and thread it through to connect to the back reel. He set up the screen and the projector and his laptop and, using DVD’s, had the congregation sing praise songs with music and words. For the Sunday message he used a power point to illustrate his sermon, plus a video clip! It was like a tsunami washed over the congregation…and they loved it!

This Sunday I’ll be joining Bill and Sylvia in Simla. They’ve got me doing the children’s story! He’s bringing the projector and screen again and we’ll see if they can bear two Sundays in a row of “the new stuff.”

The Simla church is like many small town churches (SImla’s population has shrunk down to around 500). The possibility of closure is greater than the hope of continuing. They remember in days and decades gone by when the sanctuary was close to capacity. Those days have long since disappeared, and yet in recent months this small congregation has done some amazing things. They paid for and sent four kids to the Quaker Ridge camp week, and  gave a gift of almost $2,000 to help a young couple raise the needed financial support they needed to begin their new venture as missionaries in Chiapas, Mexico. the church also committed to supporting the young family of four with a monthly financial gift. Those have all been great things, but…the music machine needed to have a “come to Jesus moment!” In other words, go on to the sweet by and by!

Bill Hale said something at lunch yesterday that resonated with me. He said, “They deserve better!” Churches like Simla have often been content to settle for less. They’ve settled for less for so long they may not even realize they deserve better.

Don’t get me wrong! Bringing a projector, a laptop, and a screen are not going to transform this little church. I think they’re already in the midst of transformation, ever so slowly, but still they are changing.

I’ve told them several times that they have allowed me to fall in love with the church again…even though on most Sundays we wouldn’t need a whole pot of chili to feed the entire congregation. But you don’t need a huge number of people to love the church. You simply need a group of people who are committed to one another for the journey. The Saints of Simla, as I call them, are great people…who deserve more!

Now it’s getting them to believe it! All things are possible with God! He can even use a 63 year old man who likes to dress up as the Tooth Fairy!

The Loudness of Stupidity

August 13, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    August 13, 2017

                                 

While visiting my dad in Ohio recently I drove him one morning to a doctor’s appointment across the river in Huntington, West Virginia. The waiting room for the physician was “intimate”, meaning that there were about eight chairs positioned in a way so that you could see everyone else, whether you liked it or not!

Two men unfortunately became part of this setting soon after we arrived. They were loud! Now, my six year old granddaughter is also loud, but she’s six! We remind her to use her inside voice! These two men, however, were loud and…stupid! They trumpeted their stupidity to let everyone know that they were “life stupid!”

I know, I know…you’re thinking that I’m being very judgmental here. I guess I am. Yesterday morning when I sat down to eat some scrambled eggs that had been sitting on the counter for a few minutes I made the judgment on the first bite that they were cold. Sometimes judging a situation is easier than deciding on a score at an Olympic diving competition. In this situation the two waiting room individuals made it known to everyone in the same zip code that one of them was about to enter into his eighth marriage, while the other hadn’t followed simple pre-visit instructions that were going to result in his sharing his life wisdom for the others around him for the next four hours. A woman who was evidently related to them kept referring to them as “Dumb and Dumber.” They seemed to take it as a compliment. These two did nothing to change the stereotypes that people have about West Virginians!

The problem in our society is that some forms of stupidity are disguised as how things should be. People don’t see their prejudices and bad behavior as ignorance. They think that’s how the world should be.

And so racism gets portrayed as natural, and white supremacists LOUDLY proclaim that their warped view of the world is normal. Last week someone or someones who were committed to being stupid in life defaced the outside of a Jewish synagogue in Colorado Springs. Stupidity doesn’t just happen east of the Mississippi or in a Huntington physician’s waiting room, or at a Charlottesville, Virginia rally. People do stupid all over the place loudly!

We could go to the bottom line of the Christian faith that says that all people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but, quite frankly, that often gets used as an excuse  for deep-seeded evil and deliberate cruelty.

Stupidity finds a comfortable home in a number of people, snuggles into their decision making, and reveals itself with a blow horn!  There is nothing rational or reasonable about it, and yet multitudes seem to follow it’s enchanting call.

In the midst of our culture’s shouts of lunacy I keep repeating to myself the words of the prophet Amos, “…but let justice roll on like a river, righteous like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:24, NIV) In reading those words I envision the thundering sound of a rushing river drowning out the loudness of ignorance!

That is my prayer more and more these days!

The Sound of Squeaky Shoes

August 10, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         August 10, 2017

                                   

A couple of Sundays ago I was walking up the sidewalk to my sister’s front door. She was trailing along behind me and she said “Your shoes are squeaky.” We had just come back to her home from church and I was wearing my “Sunday-go-to-meeting shoes”.

I hadn’t noticed a squeak until she said that, and then I noticed…yes, they do squeak! Of course, at that point all I could hear for the next few minutes WAS the squeak…every step…every high squeaky octave of their connection with concrete, carpet, or wood.

“You hadn’t noticed the squeak?”

“No, not until you called my attention to it!”

My wife and I have a similar situation at home. I like a fan on at night when I sleep. The coolness and the background noise helps me fade off into a slumber filled with dreams of dunking a basket, eating Vietnamese egg rolls, and winning the Pike’s Peak Ascent…well, okay, not really the egg rolls. I just threw that in there because I’m thinking about them right now! Carol likes quiet at night, meaning no background noise. She hears the sounds, but I don’t! Ironically, during the day if I’m reading I like quiet, whereas she likes the TV on during the day for the background noise. Call us weird, but we’ve been okay with our quirks for 38 years now!

All of us have “squeaky shoes” in our lives that go unnoticed. Being a retired pastor I now have the opportunity to visit other churches besides the one I had spoken at for so long. So I notice things that probably go unnoticed by the “regulars” of that congregation. For example, I notice the usher/greeter who is handing out bulletins to people who are entering the sanctuary for worship and seems like he put a “grouch patch” on that morning. Or how fast people seek to leave the building following the worship service! Or how much “insider language” is used in the worship service! Or if there is a clear understanding as to what families with young children are to do, or are they just expected to know! If there’s coffee available (And you usually know because a few people are walking around with coffee cups in their hands!) is a visitor invited to have a cup of coffee?

Every church has a few squeaky shoes that go unnoticed by the “wearers”, but are revealed to the new “hearers”. New hearers don’t know the history or the circumstances. They don’t understand why a congregation stands and reads the church covenant every first Sunday of the month, or why Baptists are prone to celebrate communion on the first Sunday of each month, or why only men seem to be the ones involved in positions of responsibility but those involved with children’s activities or care are always women?

Some squeaks just are, and others have reasons! Although ‘’squeaks” are rarely based on some kind of doctrine, once in a while a congregation’s “squeak” is the weirdness of the sermon or some kind of issue that the pastor just won’t let go of. There’s a difference between a driving force or a passionate cause and an annoying squeak! Many years ago I remember a pastor chastising his congregation over the fact that the wedding reception of a church family the night before had included alcohol. I got the feeling that he would have been annoyed by Jesus turning the water into wine. Forty years later I still remember the “squeaky sermon” that was excessively guilt-based!

That Sunday I went in and changed shoes right away, taking off my squeaky dress shoes and putting on my Nike’s. There was no squeak, although I always have to check to see if they are leaving a trail of mud. Slinging mud, however, is another issue entirely!

The Grief of Living Long

August 5, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        August 5, 2017

                              

Long life seems to be congratulated, celebrated, and strived for. It is tacked up on the bulletin board as a goal, a destination.

The dark side of long life is when everyone has dropped out of the race of life and you become the last one still running. That is, when your spouse for the life journey, all of your friends, and anyone else who used to come to your high school class reunion has passed on. All of those people you’d pick up the phone on a Sunday night to call, or would call you, and check on are now checked off. It is the harsh truth of the long-living.

I didn’t quite understand it in all of my years of pastoring the flocks of different congregations. I can remember the words of a number of elderly folk whose spouses had passed on. There was a longing for God to move them on as well. They were ready for this journey to be over and the next eternal journey to begin. I misunderstood that to be a longing to be in heaven where there is no more pain and suffering, but that longing was disguising the pain that comes with the loss of a special relationship.

My dad’s best friend, Bill Ball, passed away this week at the age of 92. The loss wasn’t unexpected, and yet sometimes we procrastinate coming to terms with its arrival. My dad is 89 and wherever he goes he is now usually befriended by either a cane, a walker, or motorized scooter. Having Bill Ball pass on was a wound to his spirit. About three years or so ago there was Dad, Bill Ball, and Ralph Carrico. Ralph passed away, a victim of cancer, and I saw how that grieved my father, but he had Bill Ball to grieve with alongside him. They supported one another through the loss of their friend. This time around he’s having to struggle through the journey by himself. Yes, his family is comforting him in the midst of the sorrow, but the reality of the situation is that the “long-living” experience a profound form of grief that grows out of the longevity.

My sister and I took Dad to the “viewing” of his friend on Wednesday night. There is something necessary for the living to view the deceased, and something painfully revealing. As my dad stood there beside the casket staring down at his old friend he wept. His body trembled as the tears found their way down his face. He knows that he is in the winter of his own life, but outliving your friends is a weight that he must drag with him for the rest of his days.

And there’s really nothing that his family…his three kids, seven grandkids, and eleven great-grandkids can do for him to make it okay.

I remember a song by Charlie Peacock from twenty-five years ago. It was entitled “Now Is the Time for Tears”, and it begins with the words “Now is the time for tears. Don’t speak! Say no words! There is nothing you could say to take this pain away!” Dad’s grief is not to be fixed, but simply to be present with.

We often talk about life as being a journey. The other part of that, however, is that life is to be journeyed with others. I can see the loss etched into Dad’s wounded face. He just finished another round of radiation treatments this week for another skin cancer episode on his nose. His nose and ears have been cut on and radiated so many times that his face has often looked like a battlefield, but this pain that I can see is not connected to any cancerous growth, or demanding treatment plan. It’s simply the look of loss, the mask of long-lived sorrow!

Naming Churches

August 4, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          August 4, 2017

                                     

My family, growing up and current, has always been a part of Baptist congregations. The church I was first carried into as an infant was Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky. It was called Central Baptist because…it was centrally located in Winchester, just a couple of blocks off the main street that ran though the downtown area.

We moved from Winchester to Williamstown, West Virginia and began our association with a series of First Baptists.  Our home churches in Williamstown, Zanesville, Ohio, and Ironton, Ohio were all named First Baptist because they were the first Baptist churches established in those communities. In Ironton the First’s were all situated within about three blocks of one another…First Presbyterian and First United Methodist. The Catholics turned up their noses at being “First” and moved right on to one of the saints, Saint Lawrence. Not to be outdone the Lutherans went for St. Paul even though they were first across the street from First Presbyterian.

Church names became connected to either “First” or “Second”, indicating their timing in the community; or a saint to indicate their…saintliness!

There was usually reason to the naming of a church. The last church I pastored, Highland Park Baptist Church, was situated in an area of Colorado Springs known as Highland Park. Interestingly, as the city has grown and mushroomed very few people know that area is known as Highland Park, but, originally, location determined the name.

My cynicism is now going to splat all over the rest of these words. It seems that a new wave of churches are looking for a “catchy name!” It’s like the intriguing name of a new development of homes that is underway. Across the highway from our subdivision there is a development called “Wolf Ranch.” I’m somewhat drawn to the name. We could be the Wolfe’s of Wolf Ranch. To the north of Wolf Ranch there is Cordera. In their publicity they make it shown exotic and sexy as they say the name, like Gloria from Modern Family saying it. Houses are being built at a crazy pace there…for a couple hundred thousand dollars MORE than what homes in our subdivision are valued at.

It seems that the new wave of churches is looking for that name, that name that sounds like a destination, a vacation spot, or at least a weekend service spot. People aren’t drawn to the new church in town that decided on the name…First Baptist! It needs to have essence, depth, be sweet-sounding and peaceful, relevant but sophisticated! I was traveling along an Ohio Highway yesterday and passed a church that is called “The Point.” The Point is probably a happenin’ place to be, and when people say they are going to “The Point” it doesn’t even sound preachy! It sounds hip and cool and whatever other words that are being used today to indicate relevant.

It seems that there are more of The Points that are getting the point. A church doesn’t need to name itself the First Holy Apostolic Freewill United  Church of Temporary Insanity. According Thom Ranier new churches are keeping it simple and short, like a church outside of Greeley, Colorado I’m familiar with called “Grace River Church.” I kind of like that. Another one in Colorado Springs is called Hope Chapel. Short and easy to remember.

A couple of new churches that have begun recently are focused on verbs. One close to us is called “Thrive Church.” Sounds energetic! There’s another one named “Venture Fellowship!” Sounds like an entrepreneurial deal!

Here’s the thing! No matter how sophisticated or mission-focused, doctrinally-connected, or hip-sounding the church is named people won’t land there unless what happens in and through the congregation speaks to the spiritual yearning of the visitor. Sometimes the true environment of a church gives it a different name than the outside sign reads. There’s been a couple of Grace Churches that could better be named “Judgmental Fellowship.” A couple of places with peace in their name that get known more as the Church of Sunday Morning Fights. First Baptist might better be described as Bitter Baptist and First Presbyterian could be renamed “Peeved Presbyterian.”

Names are nice! They are even nicer if they are also the reality!

Impersonating Familiar Voices

August 2, 2017

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       August 2, 2017

                               

When I was a young boy growing up in the Bluegrass State our family had a Sunday night routine of going to the Sunday evening service at Central Baptist Church in Winchester, coming home and having mom or dad pop some popcorn, and then sitting in front of the Philco and watching The Ed Sullivan Show. I was always hoping for certain guests on the program like Jackie Vernon or Topo Gigio. Sometime during the evening I’d do my Ed Sullivan impersonation and say “Tonight we’ve got a really big “shhooowww”!”, and I would say “show” like the host was known for pronouncing the word. My Ed Sullivan impersonation was my best act during those days. Once in a while I’d pretend to be Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy, or John Wayne, complete with his familiar strut, but Mr. Sullivan was my go-to.

In later years I impersonated my aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even my mom, but Ed Sullivan was the trailblazer for me. My parents would express their amazement, real or pretend, at how close to the real thing I sounded. I practiced saying “Topo Gigio” frequently, perfecting my modulation and inflection.

BUT I could never quite be Ed Sullivan! Of course, in the later years when he was still doing his show he looked like death warmed over, but it wasn’t his appearance that I was after. It was his voice. I thought it was cool to sound like him.

We seem to do that with the voice of God, also! There’s a tendency to want to make something sound like it’s of God and from God. People are often impressed by prophetic voices with the right rhythm to them. They get carried away by the utterances rather than the truth!

Unlike Ed Sullivan, it seems much easier for people to be fooled by the impersonation of the Holy than some other celebrity. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become so distant from Him that we are easily suckered into a scheme that goes amiss!

Or maybe it’s because we’re so starved for a word from the Lord that we’ll believe anything! And so churches are led down a promising pathway…and hope-depraved people are given a word of potential, egotistic pastors continually hear God’s leadings that no one else can hear, and shallow believers are helpless to discern what is of God and what isn’t!

The impersonation of the things of God and the action verbs of God leave us with a church that becomes cynical towards God.

“Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!” We’ve been fooled by the impersonations of God too many times, and a number of people have decided they will never be fooled again…even by the real voice!