Loving Your Calling

This time of the year I remember Andy Anderson. He always sent my family a ham for Christmas. It was an unnecessary gesture. For two people who often had opposing ideas, we got along very well. He gave me the gift simply because I was his Pastor. I still have a Christmas wreath his wife made for my family. I received many gifts from that family.

One of the best gifts was when my father suffered a heart attack. Andy drove to the hospital to sit with my extended family (God love him just for that). Later I was told he had said, “Pastor sits with us when we have something going on, who sits with him when his family has trouble?” He got in his car and went to the hospital.

Andy was one of those Christians who was ready to help. His actions were guided by his study of the Bible and by what he had been taught. I knew of other actions he took for other people. He did not tell me about them either. He was generous with his time. He was generous with his possessions. He even took a shift each day caring for his ex-wife when she was dying. He once told me when the church youth group was having a pool party at his home. “No one needs all of this. It’s why I share it.” It was a good lesson to remember.

Andy told me he really loved my Bible studies. I enjoy teaching Bible studies. They are fun to develop. I try to make the discussion lively. When Andy died an untimely death, his widow said, “Andy always loved arguing with you.”

Sometimes the students can do more than their teachers. I am always glad to hear someone has put my advice into practice or took a lesson I gave to heart. Granted, I don’t have that satisfaction with everyone. Neither am I everyones idea of a teacher. I love to do it because sometime the point will come that I taught someone something that will make a difference in their lives.

I got the taste for this type of teaching early on in my life. Camp Buck Toms Boy Scout Camp in Rockwood Tennessee allowed me my first effort in teaching. I taught the Emergency Preparedness merit badge. The lesson plan was merely the list of requirements to earn the award. The only taxing part was getting everyone to pay attention while they fulfilled the requirements. We got to do some pretty cool stuff for emergency situations. The best lesson we all learned was that emergencies are never the same. One has to learn to think on one’s feet and to act quickly. I learned years later that one of the scouts that took my course kept a friend of his (and mine) from bleeding to death following an automobile accident. Usually when an emergency presents itself I keep my head well enough to take care of what needs doing then. I get emotional after the crisis has passed.

I knew though from that experience I wanted to teach. I was ordained an Elder which charged me to ministries of Word (Preaching and teaching) and Sacrament (baptism and holy communion). I did not become a school teacher. I have done some guest lecturing. And, obviously, I do some writing. I spend time learning so I have something to teach to someone else. It is really a good calling to have. A calling stays with a person throughout their lives even if it becomes an avocation.

When a person can’t fulfill that calling he or she tends to fall apart as a person. I have witnessed this in former colleagues and in people who simply cannot do the jobs they love anymore. It is said that until the day of his own death Stan Laurel wrote skits to be performed by him and his friend Oliver Hardy fifteen years after Oliver died. It was what he loved. He knew it would hasten his own demise not to write the skits and jokes even if they would not be performed. I personally would like to see those performed by some comedic pair. I bet they are wonderful.

How do I know for a fact teaching is my calling? That’s an easy one to answer.

Years ago in Oak Ridge I taught a course for “lay speakers/servants” for local United Methodist Churches. I joked that up to that point my appointments in the church had to be near a lake because I like fishing. After one session, a fellow came to me and said, “Our church is right on the lake. Maybe you will be sent to us.”

“Oh yeah. Which lake?”

“Watts Bar.” He replied.

“Oh, I have already live on that one.”

“When?” He asked.

“When I was a teenager I taught during the summers at Camp Buck Toms.” I said.

His face lit up. “I knew you were familiar!” He said excitedly. “You taught me Emergency Preparedness.”

We Are Not Racist!

Several years ago I wrote a post titled A Deep Sin where I describe the plague of overt racism that continues to infect white evangelicals. Today I wish to confront the sin of internal and unexamined racist beliefs. This is not a critique of ideological racism. I would hope that I do not need to do that.

There are numerous examples I can supply. Some I should not use because of issues of confidentiality as a member of the clergy. Other examples are not as clear as one that built up during my time working in a factory where I listened to my immediate supervisor.

Pam (not her real name) was upset, to say the least. Her daughter worked on another line in the plant and was having trouble. Mama Bear was out for blood. When asked what was going on, she replied, “There’s this black girl that is causing a problem for  Tammy. She is pulling bundles.” (emphasis was hers) When a coworker pulls bundles in a clothing factory, that person is taking pieces of clothes that are often smaller and easier to handle. If a factory pay-scale is based on numbers of bundles processed, then it means faster work and more money. If the pay is based on hours worked, then it is a matter of more quickly fulfilling a daily quota. A person who practices that is a jerk. There is no way he or she could be anything else.

The problem continued for a few weeks. Each time my supervisor complained about it, she said, “This black girl…” The question a person could ask is simply this, “Why do you emphasize her race?” Literally everyone knows a person who pulls bundles is a jerk. If a union steward or boss is notified, the problem should be quickly resolved. The shop steward takes as dim a view of the problem as anyone else. The task of representing the person is merely one where the violation is explained.

Given the considerations just mentioned, why emphasize the race of the miscreant? Why mention her skin color at all? Is her being black somehow making the situation worse? Is it because a black person has even less cause to be a jerk than anyone else? What about the very personable white male in our own department that does the exact same thing? Does his personality let him get away with it? (This went on at the time) Of course not. Even my supervisor would have to admit when confronted that the skin color of the other woman (not girl) had nothing to do with it. She grew up making the distinction as though it was a necessary description of the person. And that distinction really matters to many white people in our country.

I could not help but notice the response when during another discussion I made the point that no black people were in our department with our higher paying jobs. The same person defensively said, “We are not racist!” It is true that one had to pass a test to get into out department. On paper, that was the only requirement. The company was obliged to give the test to anyone who bid on the job. The only reason given for a person passing the test and losing the seniority advantage was that worker was on a final disciplinary notice. It was how I got moved into the department. The woman who would have gotten it based on passing the test and seniority was under such an action. I have no idea who that person was. I was called by Human Resources to tell me I had the job. The other information came later. There was an appearance of bias because the people in our department were all white. There was actual bias that was evident in the way these people talked about people of other races or ethnicities (including the latinx people who worked in our sister plants in Texas).

The distinction that mattered mentioned earlier was as built in our personalities as our given names. It was there. And it could be changed if we knew it was not a necessary part of who we were. This is the issue. A person need only examine his or her own thinking to see where the bias is involved. It is not easy. It requires honesty.

Truth is hard to find when we do not want to find it. People usually avoid this kind of self-examination for this reason. We often lie to ourselves that it is more important to protect ourselves than to express any sentiment that would leave one open to criticism. In attempting to hold onto this type of identity, we lose all prospect for integrity.

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation. Evangelicals, charismatics, and mainline Christians do not use it that way. A cultural bias is involved that believes the only sin of the season is “missing the true meaning of Christmas,” what ever that is. The irony is that we attempt to make a holiday “meaningful” with elaborate decorations and family gatherings. We attempt to make the meaning by insulating. Times of preparation on the church calendar are meant to get our hearts and minds in order to celebrate light overcoming darkness and resurrection overcoming death. Christians are tasked with dealing with the darkness in our own persons. And that includes the darkness that allows us to be biased, to tolerate structures in our communities that promote prejudices, and to set up barriers against the promotion of light.

We defend ourselves when we sit in darkness. We prefer it all too often. “We are not racist!” We shout. “People are just too sensitive.” We whine. “We are the ones who are truly picked on.” We say. They are all lies. The worst lie is, “We don’t owe anybody anything.” We owe ourselves the truth. We owe other people grace and mercy. And we owe discernment with love to the world. The light is uncomfortable. Yet, it heals.

The Gift of Imagination

It has often been said that Tom Godwin’s story The Cold Equations is the best science fiction story ever written. It is a story about how wishful thinking simply does not work. No matter what we would like to have happen cold hard facts will always win out in the end. The space ship only has enough fuel to safely land carrying up to a certain amount of mass. The stowaway on board must be ejected into space if the craft is to land safely. There is no getting around it. Force is not a mystic energy of the universe. It is mass times acceleration. The stowaway must be sacrificed.

The story is fiction with good science driving the plot. America’s space program lost a great deal of romanticism when Neil Armstrong was asked what he would if he could take with him to the Moon. His reply was, “More fuel.” There is a fatalism in the scientific enterprise that makes us gloomy.  Yet, as some other critic pointed out, while Godwin’s plot may be driven by good science, it is bad engineering. Yes, there are limits to what can be done. But name one designer that does not plan for possible problems to arise. If the spaceship had better design, then it could potentially accommodate the extra weight. Wishful thinking is one thing. Better planning is a difference.

I know it is odd to write a religious/philosophical reflection on the topic of engineering. Ask yourself this question, “what is the point of human living without planning?” Human beings possess imagination that allows us to look just a little bit into the future. If I throw the rock at the bird and miss, it will likely fly away to escape the danger. Therefore, my aim needs to get better. I must practice my throwing. That very thought occurred to somebody in prehistory. I guarantee it. The Olduvain hand axe is a prime example of how to aim better and make it count. A human made that weapon. A human used it. And modern humans figured out how it was used. There is one other most important point to be made here. It did not work on the first try. How do I know? Because human thought and knowledge is nothing more than trial and error until one succeeds ( or dies trying).

All human religions, philosophies, and belief systems are arrived at the same way. We have arrived at them by trial and error. An ancient King may have decided to take some action. The successor of that monarch either continued it or changed it. The action (or tradition) either succeeds or not. But, human beings also make contingency plans. Imagination has helped us survive, build, conquer, conserve, preserve, and steward. All too often, we think we have the final and better plan. And that thought is destroying humanity.

Human life is facing an extinction level event of our own making. We have, since the industrial revolution, overused earth’s resources. We appear to only be dealing with this problem by trial and error. Imagination is the only tool we have. And as the most advantageous tool, imagination is very limited.  We cannot see all the contingencies. We are looking at a process that is very difficult to comprehend. Humans crave security and stability. We want our lives to be regular and predictable. We want assurances that we aren’t making errors that cannot be corrected. We really want cold equations to tell us what must be. Unfortunately (and thankfully) that is not life.

Our religious traditions are often thought of as programs of stability. One only needs to look at where the saints and sages were to know that is wrong. Monasteries do not often make Saints. Sages must learn how to live in this world as it is. First, though, they must really see the world as it is and not what they assume it to be.

The world is a gift. Life in this world is a gift. Technology is a gift. Other people are gifts. Our institutions are gifts. All human being have to do is figure out how to use those gifts. When humanity learned to make use of the energy released by wood, charcoal, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy we failed miserably in viewing these avenues to energy as gifts. Instead we think of them as a curse when we see the negative effects of using these avenues. The Saints and the Sages would tell us that we misused the gifts and for some reason blame it on the gifts.  All that has happened is that we refused to allow imagination to continue being used. A great irony to ponder is how we use technology developed using fossil fuels to produce devices that allow humans to use renewable sources of energy.

Consider this then, Robert Thomas Malthus envisioned an extinction level event derived from the misery of overpopulation. He published his work on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. His prediction did not come true because the world as he knew it changed.  He was not wrong. His imagination was limited. And he was only looking in one direction.

How did our prehistoric human decide the bird would fly away if he missed it? Because that person (and the tribe) knew that was how birds react. They saw it happen too many times before to doubt it and even told one another about it. Imagination is governed by wisdom. Wisdom is from the past.

Our religious and philosophical traditions are built on recorded history. The era of Western modernism sought to explain, examine, and dismiss outmoded traditions. The methods of thinking developed were based on the traditions. Then the methods were questioned and dismissed because they rested on old foundations. Fortunately, people from other cultures saw the value of wisdom. Western culture is rediscovering that sense of traditional wisdom. This is not the first time one culture rescued another one. Averroes, a Muslim scholar, helped Medieval Europe rediscover the roots of its civilization. The gift of the Six Nations was to impress on English colonists in the Americas the importance of communities. The colonists arrived from cities. I am sure there are other examples.

The Christian Church, with all of it’s faults, contributed to Western Culture the idea that life, the world, food, water, shelter, indeed everything worth having, as a gift. It is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible.

We have come to believe that each of us must overcome all obstacles in order to reach the promised reward of life. I am sorry that I once thought that way. I now realize that we have gifts we could not have imagined. And that we can imagine how best to use the gifts. I believe we can change the culture of death to a culture of life by remembering that we cannot force anything by dictating how it must be. We can learn again to appreciate the gifts for what they are.

The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

Annual Conference this past summer was very different for me than it had been in previous years. I attended a few sessions. I was and am still on medical leave. I was automatically excused from attending any part of it. I attended when I could. I prayed, sang, listened, and took part as I could. I was also a witness to what could very well be a final united Annual Conference. Depending on what the General Conference does next May, our next Annual Conference could involve talk of how we will separate as a church.

I have read enough material and spoken to enough people to know the consensus is that the denomination should either dissolve or separate. What I find interesting is that few people who agree that the denomination should separate also agree that their home congregation should not dissolve or separate. It is enlightening to know that many people realize there will be pain and recriminations if congregations separate. They simply do not see pain and recrimination if the denomination does. The reason is obvious at least to me that regardless of how one views the issues on which division is based no one wants to lose their friends, the people with whom they experience a connection.

Connectionalism is the feature of United Methodist polity that has made the denomination what it is. I once worked within a denomination that was based on the “call system” of ministerial leadership. The ministers in that denomination were not really friends. They were actually rivals. If a minister announced he was leaving a certain church, many resumes and sermon tapes and videos would begin arriving the next day. The itinerant system of The UMC cut down that sense of rivalry and allowed friendships among clergy to blossom. Itineracy has problems as well. The phenomenon of the “Kitchen Cabinet” among clergy was all about envy and covetousness. Who was getting what and whether or not they should was the issue. And there is no denying that motivated the people who took part in it. Another problem of itineracy has been that congregations did not believe they were getting what they wanted in a pastor. I never heard a Pastor-Parish Committee express what they needed in a pastor. For all of its faults connectionalism works fairly well. The failure has been among those who were selfish and craved power. Human beings make up the church after all.

My experience in the last Annual Conference was very heartening though. I got to spend time with clergy members and the lay delegates that I knew. The most important discussion I had was with one colleague in particular. I was walking back to Stuart Auditorium when this person stood up. He appeared excited to see me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Brother, you keep doing what you have been doing.”

I was surprised. I knew what he was talking about. I just didn’t know he knew my situation (even though I have been open about it on social media and other places). And there we stood on the sidewalk, my reconciling ministries rainbow ribbon on my name badge while he had his WCA pin on his, and he was encouraging me to keep getting better as I recovered from my addiction. I won’t name the person here. I will never be able to forget him or his gesture.  Our differences over church polity and denominational direction did not matter. Issues surrounding “justice” and “biblical authority” and “inclusion” became words when we two beings that used words used them to support one another. He was retiring. I was encouraging him to continue serving in a new capacity. He was encouraging me to stay alive.

I said that was the most outstanding example. Other times there were examples of kind words exchanged, meeting a friend who was battling cancer, talking to a colleague and apologizing for something I did, shaking hands and hugging people I had not seen in a long while. Recently, a colleague said to me, “I have been keeping up with you and pray for you every day. I have agonized with you and celebrated with you.” My congregation, my home church, is the Annual Conference. And, like any congregation, we have times we don’t get along. Most of the time we do. And I will be sorry to lose it or any part of it.

I understand the issues that are dividing us are important. Still, I believe our biggest issue to overcome is our own self-importance. If the denomination divides, we will all require repentance for this point. I will go where my conscience requires. I will also grieve the loss of the connection.



One congregation I served hosted a Thanksgiving meal every year for clients at our local food bank. This dinner was almost always done on the Saturday before Thanksgiving day. That one night the church would serve anywhere between two hundred to three hundred people in our area. It was a massive, exhausting, frustrating, and yet rewarding work. I recall one young lady who came in that night on her dinner break at a local Wendy’s. She told her coworkers that she wasn’t hanging around there for break. “I am going to eat a great meal.” She said.

I cannot say the dinner was better than any other that could have been put on. It was (and I hope still is) an amazing experience to witness. Eighty-something year old people guided young adults in serving while the middle-aged adults cooked, wiped down tables, and washed utensils the whole time. I marveled how I could not get my oldest son to pick his socks up off the floor while an eighty-three year old lady could have him carry heavy serving trays of food. And I was proud of him for doing it too. I wonder what he would have done if he knew I was watching?

Being the Pastor, I was usually in three places at once. I might be greeting people as they arrived. I was easily recognized by food bank clients because I helped there every week. Or I may have been helping to clean or carry out garbage. Or I could be sitting at a table just being company to someone who otherwise had no one else there. Once-in-a-while I would be helping those lay persons who were managing the whole program cope with some problem.

After one meal ended, the person coordinating serving said to me, “I was afraid we would run out of food. But there are two turkeys back there we haven’t even carved yet.” I replied, “I once heard a similar story about loaves and fish.” Her response was, “Had to be.”

One year we added a thanksgiving dinner to the one we already did. I for one do not like the idea of churches feeling like they need to do something every holiday. I never thought much of “trunk r treat.” A congregation is more than a service organization trying to get its “brand” out there. A church is most of all a community of those people who want to be disciples of Jesus as Christ. Many times that means acting as a community for one another. I do not mean merely doing activities as a group. I mean acting in ways that support each other. That is where the added Thanksgiving meal came in to our work.

While I served that congregation we lived more than a few hours away from our extended family. We did not live far enough away to make a major trip home to stay a few days. If we went “home” for Thanksgiving, it would mean spending most of the holiday on the road. We usually stayed home. Something really wasn’t right about that either. We talked to some other families and individuals at church to see what could be done to remove the burdens of traveling or isolation. We learned there were quite a few of us. And we learned that some of the older church members would be alone on Thanksgiving day itself. We decided we would have Thanksgiving day at the church fellowship hall for people at the church who wanted to come and to bring friends if they wished.

We had a time of devotion before the meal. I told the story of how Thanksgiving observances began from The United Methodist Book of Worship. It was not the story of the pilgrims and native Americans we often tell. Then we ate, talked together served each other, and cleaned up together. It really was a fun time for everyone. I thought it had been a good idea and a good plan executed. And then I found out it was something more.

One older couple that attended our church usually spent their summers traveling the northeastern rural areas of the United States and the plains of Canada. They had an itenerary of churches they visited every year to host Vacation Bible Schools. The work they did was not a “retirement project.” No. This was a mission for them. And they worked very hard at it. They were able to be present for the Thanksgiving dinner.

I saw him sitting there appearing to contemplate what was going on. I walked over and asked, “What do you think?” It was then I saw his eyes were red.

“This is the way Thanksgiving always was for my family when I was little.” He said. “We ate at church.” He went on. “I never really knew my Dad. He was a very violent and vicious man. He had children everywhere. He didn’t take care of us. I don’t believe he was legally married to my mom. We weren’t the only family he abandoned. My mom did the best she could and the church always helped us. We always had Thanksgiving at church.” He said.

I nodded. “I am glad you got to be with us this time.” I said.

There were a lot of people in the church who believed he and I would never get along. I was seminary educated and well-read. He was not seminary trained. He was pretty much a fundamentalist in how he thought. He could be a little awkward. Some said he was arrogant.

He turned out to be one of my best supporters at the church. He took notes during my sermons. He attended every Bible study that I taught when he could. He showed me the materials he used on what I thought of as his “missionary journeys.” He asked if I had any advice or ideas that could help him. If he had friends visiting, he made a point to introduce me. “This is our Pastor Don.”

I have tears in my eyes now just thinking about the friendship we shared. That Thanksgiving meal became the one of the best I have attended because it meant so much to him.

The hosts of a podcast I listen to asks their guests questions. The last one is “Assuming Heaven is real what do you want to hear God say?”

My answer is “Charlie has been waiting on you with the others.”


It happened again today. What was it? A lesson for me to ponder came to me today. A lesson that points out a true weakness I possess.

I was leaving the grocery store parking lot when an elderly lady pushed her cart alongside the driver’s side of my pickup. I saw her mouth move. I rolled down my window.

“I said, ‘you got in your car too fast.’ I was pushing my buggy up here as fast as I could to get you to help me pick this up.” She pointed to a bag of kitty litter in her shopping cart.

“Oh,” I said as I turned off the ignition and got out of the truck. Generations of southern Appalachian heritage, Boy Scout training, and practical ministry all made my response automatic. I quickly got the medium sized bag into the backseat of her car.

Only when I got back into my car did I realize she said something else. “Usually I just stand here and wait for someone to come along.”

The thought of this woman waiting in a parking lot for “someone” to come help her meant she possesses one virtue that I am not known for – patience. She had to practice patience in order to wait with peace of mind until a person would show up to help her. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do that even when the time comes that I have to do it.

My father taught me the following prayer. “Lord, grant me patience and hurry it up!” One motto I live by is “let’s get started and get it done.” My mother used to say, “I am not a doctor so I don’t have to have patience” (yes, it is a terrible pun). I can safely claim I come by this lack of patience in my life honestly.

Now, if we join that lack of patience with my tendency to procrastination, we have a very disturbing situation indeed. I tend to experience guilt for not doing some tasks in a timely fashion. And I further procrastinate by beating myself up emotionally for procrastinating. As insane as this sounds keep in mind I used to use alcohol to help with depression. Try not to think too long about that.

Getting back to this lady who stopped me earlier today, I can guess that her patience is a part of a plan she makes. She has to consider what time of day someone is most likely to be in the parking lot who can and will help her. I know having a plan and putting it into play is important to having peace of mind. The real question is what if the plan does not work when it meets with reality. How is it possible to keep peace of mind with it?

I recalled the time in my teen-aged years when I often stopped at a convenience store in Alcoa named The Pantry. I was there one day when, after I got in line for the register, an older man came to me and asked, “Can you make me a hot dog?”

I quickly saw his drawn up and paralyzed arm would keep him from getting one of the hotdogs from the rollers and placing it in the bun let alone get any toppings for it. “Oh,” I said, “Sure.” I got out of line and followed his directions for his hotdog. When I was done, he said, “Make yourself one too.” I begged off saying it was getting late. And there would be supper at home. Then, I thanked him for the offer. As I said previously, generations of southern Appalachian culture and Boy Scout training were involved here. I had no idea how much money the man had to live on. I wouldn’t take any from him.

I think of him too as someone who went to that store planning to get the clerk to help him get what he needed. But the clerk was busy that day. So his practice of patience gave him the ability to ask someone else and to make allowance for extra expense. It is pretty amazing to be able to look at these situations that happened about thirty years apart and to reflect on what they mean.

I was glad to be of help. I knew I had done a daily “good turn.” I just wasn’t the hero I think I was. I was and am the student in these situations. I can’t say I got the real lesson yet. It has been said that the longest distance is between the head and the heart. I know this is true for me. And I am told I am a compassionate person. I try to be. I realize though intellectually that practicing patience is important if I am to grow in compassion. No if I can get this lesson impressed on my heart.

“Compassion is patient; compassion is kind; compassion is not envious, or boastful, or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way; it does not irritable or resentful.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)


One issue I have worked on most in the church is not salvation, theology, interpretation, or any of those. I have worked most in the issue of hunger. The Beatitudes, according to St. Matthew, say that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” shall be “filled.” (Matthew 5:6). St. Luke says that those who “are hungry now for you will be filled.” (Luke 6:21). A quick comparison of these words gives the reader an impression that the two are basically the same statement. St. Luke goes further than St. Matthew in explaining the meaning, “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:25a) St. Luke offers a blessing with reward and a woe with a curse. St. Matthew does not offer that.

I recall one time when I was working at a food bank when one of the volunteers asked, “Why are we always so busy at the beginning of the month? Don’t people get their EBT cards now?”

I did not have to think about my answer for very long. “Well,” I began, “our clients appear to have decided to come here early in the month to see what we will be giving them. Then, when they know they have received certain items of food for free, they can go to the store and buy the other things they need with the cards.”

He thought it was a good answer. I had not thought about the question until he raised it. There was some quick deduction on my part to arrive at an answer. After all, if I was the food bank client what would I do? My answer showed a certain amount of savvy and planning on the part of our clients. I wondered at how quickly I came to this answer.

The only way I could see that I realized what so many of the food bank clients were doing was because I had been at the food bank week after week for a couple of years before the other worker volunteered. And being present among the people who were what the USDA called “food insecure” allowed me to get to know these people. They weren’t stupid or incapable. They were in need. They were hungry. And, during these weeks while loading boxes of food into beaten up cars, trucks, and vans, I got to know the clients. I was one of the few volunteers who actually had contact with the people we were serving.

Poor people are not the best people in the world. Poor people do not need romanticizing. And, most definitely, poor people don’t need other people rationalizing about who they are and what they really need.

Hungry people need respect from other people. I recall systematic theologian Kendall Soulen asking me about this type of ministry. He wanted to know how we ministered to the poor children and their families while letting them keep their dignity as human beings – as Children of God. It was a fantastic question. It was under the heading of “no one asked me this before.” There were a number of ways of allowing the poor to keep their dignity. All of which require that I as a helper respect their dignity most of all. This point is where the two beatitudes from Ss. Luke and Matthew touch. A judgement is pronounced on those people who could have helped feed the hungry but would not do it. The judgement is also placed on those people who would lord it over the hungry and point out that they were receiving help.

It is a very sobering thought when we realize the “woe” pronounced in St. Luke applies to all of those people who are not poor and hungry. Righteousness (or, if you will, Justice) is found in the recognizing the sacred worth of all persons.

Anyone who may think that St. Matthew was somehow softening an original commandment of Jesus should consider these words. “‘Lord, when was it we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.'” (Matthew 25:45)

Hunger is a threat in every nation, city, or community in our world. We feed hungry people because they are hungry children of God.

The Fear of the Ordinary

“There was a man who lost an ax and thought the boy next door stole it. For the next few days he watched the boys movements and decided that his behavior and looks were like those of a guilty person. Later the man found the ax in a deserted area in the woods. When he got home his neighbors boy no longer looked like a thief. Whether someone is guilty or not depends on your opinion of them in the first place.” (Lieh-Tzu translated by Eva Wong)

Is there a connection between hatred and falsehood? Most definitely. The Ten Commandments tells us ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Parents tell their children this means you must not tell a lie. All too often that is as far as it ever goes. The commandment is concerns a legal problem. If someone believes he has something to gain in a lawsuit or by getting someone else convicted with their property confiscated, that person may be tempted – very tempted to lie about it. The story of how Queen Jezebel legally steals Naboth’s vineyard by having him falsely accused and executed is the most well-known Biblical example. The most well-known American example is the Salem Witch Trials.

The commandment has a further application as well. If we hate another person, we tend to believe anything negative about that person. We will wish to hear dirt. Or we might hope someone gets the goods on that person. Or they may hope that others learn what that person is “really like.” If a rumor is voiced about someone the people who hate him or her will enthusiastically pass it along. It does not matter if the accusation is true. Scoring points against that person is all that matters.

I often cringe when I see some obviously false accusation made against a public figure. When I find myself tempted to believe something and pass it along, I attempt to force myself to remember that I know very few public figures personally. I hope to be fair in my judgements. I really want to know what a person actually said and make the best judgement I can from there.

All of us though have ego problems. The desire to get the goods or know the dirt on someone comes from issues we have about ourselves and our place in the world. The present era allows for much more nonsense and evil to be perpetuated by “bearing false witness.” Both Idiot America and Fantasyland are books that detail some of the worst ideas held by too many people. We can call them “conspiracy theories” or malevolent views about other human beings. Either label fits the definition of ideas that are designed and perpetuated with little factual basis that allow for the construction of evil responses. During the late eighties, I read an article by a religious leader that dealt with “Satanic Conspiracies.” I saw the author in a university café and went to him to ask why he wrote something that has been debunked that is to say proven false. He walked quickly away without providing an answer or acknowledging I spoke to him. He simply knowingly wrote something that passed along false information with the intent of improving his standing among readers in his fundamentalist audience. In other words, he “bore false witness” to make himself more popular as an author and preacher.

What motivated that preacher and other people like him? He was afraid of being ordinary. He wanted to be a star in the world in which he lived. Being once on the talk show Donahue had gone to his head. The fear that so many people have of being ordinary leads them to try to shine without any effort. Reality television and internet video has made this possible. I recently listened to an Audible documentary called It Burns. The documentary is about the quest to breed the hottest pepper. The narrator points out that there are a number of people doing internet videos showing themselves trying to eat “Ghost Peppers” and “Carolina Reapers” causing themselves to suffer the burning sensations, vomiting, and eventually endorphins. In their minds, they are no longer ordinary. They are heroes or at the very least spectacles of a sort.

Ultimately, this is the same motivation of those people who are not great talents in anything to perpetuate untruths on websites, magazines, and books. Ego, either inflated or decimated, causes conspiracy theorists to tell lies about other people. It is the fear of being an ordinary human person that makes them become the most loathsome of liars. And it does not matter if such lies are told in the name of religion, patriotism, or getting your football team’s coach fired.

It takes courage to be ordinary. It takes humility to be a saint no one remembers. One person cannot receive the affirmation of their life from the willingness of other people to believe falsehoods. People may not love you for standing in and for truth. But stirring up their hatred makes one worse than a scoundrel.

The Promise of Generations

I am privileged to have members of “the greatest generation” as my grandparents. I am even luckier to have been able to learn so much from them as I grew up. My grandparents on both sides lived until I became an adult. That benefits me in two important ways. I learned a lot from them. I was also able to discern whether or not I believed anything they were saying.

I have known many people who were never able to question what they were taught by their elders. I have been able to reject the racism, sexism, superstitions, and attitudes of persecution I learned. I continue to honor their memory. And to remember that when everything is being taken into account, I still love them. I was never harmed by them. As I said, I am luckier than some others.

Tom Brokaw gave us the term “the greatest generation.” The people who survived the Great Depression and fought the Second World War made our lives today possible. The story of The United States of America, indeed the course of the whole world, could have been very, horribly different. My grandparents generation had to do the same things I have done. They needed to learn from their ancestors and learn what they must reject from the times of their ancestors. Families that root every bit of their identity in the past become emotionally unhealthy.

The first commandment “with a promise” is the fifth one on the list of the Ten Commandments. “Honor your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land…” There is a wonderful principle of love in action in this command. When one’s parents have become old and unable to earn a decent living, the children must step up and help the parents take care of themselves. If age and infirmity require, the adult children must care for them. In this way, the people would have a long secure life in the land.

The nature of family life is preserved by the fifth commandment. My work, though, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to deal with parents that are cruel, self-absorbed, mean spirited, and greedy.  The adult children may not be capable of forgiving or tolerating abusive parents. It is never my place to tell such people what they should do. The baby-boomer generation faced the dilemma of having to choose on occasion if their attention should go to their parents or their grandchildren. It has become difficult in this modern society in the West to do what was once done.

I was told a story by a church member about her brothers problem in World War 2. They trained and reached certification as pilots in the Army Air Corps. However, they did not fully graduate with their flight class. They were to be commissioned as officers in the Army. Their commissions were delayed. It took a few months to clear the issue up. They were informed that their background checks revealed that they were related to Nazi Party Leader Rudolf Hess. Who would have guessed? My friend remembered it very well. Her grandmother often wrote to the Hess cousins in Germany. She was in fact the last real contact with that branch of the family. The pilots were given approval and served in the war. No contact was no problem.

Years later Rudolf Hess was the only prisoner in Spandau prison. He was an old man. The American and British governments wanted to release him and destroy the prison that held the surviving major Nazi criminals. The Soviet Union refused. Hess committed suicide in prison. My friend told me afterwards she was disturbed and resented the Russian government for its choice. I guess he was family after all.

It is important that the Church begin to review its teaching surrounding the fifth commandment. Modern society relieves the pressure on families by governments instituting social insurance in different forms. The Church needs to ensure that we are able as people within families that we can care for children and elders to preserve the positive connections and to change the legacies we have.

Can the Church advocate for better care of health and social life? Yes, it can. In fact, it is a divine imperative. The Church should help to conserve what matters most for human life. Christians should motivate these institutions to fulfil the promise of generations.


Allow For The Children

Garth Brooks is coming to town. It is funny how associations are made in one’s mind. When I hear the name of Garth Brooks, I think of one fan in particular. His name was Travis. He was a super fan. When his favorite singer came on the radio I could ask who it was. He would dance and yell out the name “Garth Brooks!” I could not let it go. “Who?” I asked. He would shout it again and give me that lopsided smile of his. He knew I heard him. He loved the game.

I was in college in Oklahoma City. It was a small Christian University near Edmond. I needed a Physical Education credit. It had to fulfill two requirements. It needed to fit my schedule. And it did not need to be too demanding physically. The latter requirement was not because of any health issue. I was being lazy. Gym class was never my thing. Exercise to me should involve purpose, destination, and if at all possible adventure. So I read the available course descriptions. I found something I liked. It involved playing with children from the local public schools. The catch was it required the professor’s approval and an orientation.

I was quickly approved after my interview with the “coach.” The orientation was very interesting. The students from the local schools were special needs children. I mentioned Travis had a lopsided grin. He had a cleft palate and several learning issues. He was what older people called “hare-lipped.”  I sat in orientation and listened to the coach describe the students. A few of the students were immobile. A few of the helpers would sit and hold them on the large trampoline where the students would receive some stimulation from the gentle movements. The other students would enjoy the basketball court, the multicolored parachute, the foam balls, and tricycles. We would help them with it all. Then the coach said some other things to us. He became very serious.

“The teachers tell me about the children,” he began. I cannot give a verbatim. I will never forget the points he made to us. The teachers knew that some of the children when they boarded the school bus for the special needs students would know it was “O.C” day. The students liked coming to Oklahoma Christian University for the time with us college student helpers. The reason for that, the teachers observed, was the college students hugged the children, held their hands as we walked with them, and remembered their names. The children attended some of the other local state colleges. Those students played with the students and talked to them. They never were able to show them they were loved. The students in the state colleges were restrained from touching the children in any way. Was this about policy? Were the students following instructions from their teachers?” It is difficult to say. My fellow students were loving, helpful, and joyful people. We enjoyed working with the children.

The grim side of what we were doing included the assumption by the teachers that some of their students were neglected at home. Some of the children, my friend Travis among them, went directly to the radio when their favorite songs were being played. A few children knew the lyrics very well. The teachers thought these children were sent to their rooms and listened to the music for the rest of the evening. Travis never knew the words. The fact that he knew the singer meant someone was listening to the music with him. He was not neglected. One student was in the special needs program because of severe child abuse. Another child had a terminal illness. I saw her when the make a wish program brought her wish to her. The work was going to strengthen emotional muscles.

I learned the sheer joy of working with children in that class. During my ministry I took Child Safety and Safe Sanctuaries very seriously.  Whether the work was with the church, sports, or scouting, ministry to children has been important to my life. I am saddened when children are not in existing congregations. I am equally saddened when parents leave a church because “there is nothing for the kids.”

I have to ask though. Why aren’t children and their spiritual development more important to the adults? The most well meaning parents will move heaven and earth to get their children what they need in the way of health, education, and future opportunities. And yet, the spiritual development is not as necessary. There are no spiritual practices at home or in the church. How can compassion, the healthy sense of self, and the love of the community be developed in them?

The church has failed children. We cannot seem to get it right. We either ignore children or cater to them. We do not demonstrate the love they need the most. It would be wonderful if the children approached Sunday mornings as joyful times. If the children got excited about being there would we finally live out Jesus’ call to allow the children to show us how to build the kingdom of heaven?

I think it would help us to find more ways to partner with local schools and do more outreach to minister to children. Sponsoring a classroom and teacher may be a good beginning. The ministry focus of the local church should change. It is important for the lives of the church and the local community.