January 2013

You may have seen an article or two about a pastor who decided that leaving a sanctimonious note along with a failed attempt to erase an already added gratuity was somehow a good idea or taking a stand or something. Plenty of posts have been written and I suppose I could add more here to voice how ludicrous it was to write such a thing, but I’ll leave that be. I think this post pretty well sums up my view on the matter. Apparently, the pastor in question has responded with an apology for the snide comment and that she didn’t intend to erase the gratuity, so there’s that. I hope she apologized directly to the server too. And let us be people of forgiveness, too, for even pastors make errors in judgment and sin from time to time, too. (Shock, I know!)

But as I witnessed news of another embarrassing moment for Christians in the marketplace (often in the restaurant/service industry), I was taken back to my own time of waiting on tables during seminary. And I also considered the livelihood of a dear lady in Camden who passed away this week. She was the sister of a friend of mine at Post Oak. Her name was Joyce and she was a server at a restaurant in Paris (TN). Joyce was loved dearly by those with whom she worked and according to many testimonials by those whom she served.

Reflecting upon these things has me wishing that we disciples of Jesus can somehow overcome or turn around our notoriety for the way we treat those in the hospitality industry who wait on people. It is often a thankless job and unfortunately church-going folk are the biggest contributors to the thanklessness of it. One would think we should know better but perhaps we have forgotten about a crisis that existed early in the life of the church recorded in Acts 6:1-6, which in part tells us of the blessed nature and of those who are called to serving food.

Before Carrie and I got married, her dad asked me one thing: to get a job even though I was going to seminary. Hence, partly out of fear (:)) and partly out of curiosity for how it would be to work at a restaurant, I applied for a job as a server and got it. Little did I know at the time that my tenure as a server would be as integral to my theological education as the seminary classroom. ‘Seminary’ is the English word taken from the Latin seminarium, which means “seed bed.” A seed bed is a place where seeds go to die so that they may bear fruit. Hence, one’s theological education should be in some way, a process of learning how to die. (Morbid, I know!)

In a sense, my experience waiting on tables was just that for me; a part of my process in learning how to die. It was so not only because of the conversations that took place over rolling silverware and in those dead moments where there were more servers than guests in the restaurant, but also in learning how to put others before myself, how to serve, how to give, how to fight, how to multitask, how to ask for help when I’m “in the weeds,” and how to listen. Lessons I’m still learning and haven’t perfected, but lessons that train about as well as any about the art of pastoral living. By the end of my time there, I was beginning to think of my 4-table section like a 4-church charge (for non-United Methodists out there, a “x#”-church charge is when more than one congregation have the same pastor at the same time).

But beyond the tasks associated with the waiting on tables, it was the relationships I formed with my coworkers and my oft-returning patrons that I saw as formative for me. Working in that environment helped me see as E. Stanley Jones described it that we Christians sometime have the tendency to unfortunately “separate the material and the spiritual.” In the process of serving while in seminary, I died to my own tendency to view this as a “less important job.” I died to my own tendency to be heard and instead to listen to the stories of pain, fear, expectations, and hopes of my fellow servers. I died to my own tendency to just do the tasks asked of me and instead help another server in the weeds or to share a few more moments with customers who needed an ear to hear or a shoulder to cry on as much or more than a hand to bring them food or a refill on their drink.

I’m not sure if he was right or not, but E. Stanley Jones viewed that the disciples in Acts 6 made an error in relegating the distribution of food to be done by seven “others” so that they may devote their whole time to God’s word. A casual reading of the passage may not indicate there was a problem with their choice, for God worked through, though we might say in spite of, their decision by adding to their number. Jones said, “They separated what God had joined. In the Incarnation the material and spiritual were one – the Word became flesh. Here the Word became word. The material and the spiritual were separated.” That is, they “turned life into two compartments – the sacred and the secular” (see pages 80-81 of his devotional ‘Mastery’) and the compartmentalization exists to this day, each time we think of feeding hungry people and the mission of making disciples as two separate entities.

But what I learned in the seminary of the classroom and the restaurant is that the two go hand-in-hand, or at least they should. Isn’t it intriguing that one of the seven (Stephen) set apart for distributing food ends up delivering one of the most powerful sermons ever delivered (see the very next chapter for proof)? Maybe the author of Acts was subtly wanting us to catch the irony of Stephen’s doing both food service & the ministry of the word. Stephen’s acts, as they point back to the Christ who both taught AND fed people, who both preached good news AND healed people, who both offered forgiveness AND raised people from the dead, should serve as an important message for us Christians, especially pastors, that even though it is wise to delegate responsibilities, that does not mean you should not participate or follow others’ lead in those activities. That’s why it’s good, for example, when a pastor goes and serves food to hungry people, even being willing to follow the orders of those who are charged to lead in the distribution. That’s why it’s important for me to offer to get a loaf of bread or a tank of gas to someone who is sick or grieving, as well as praying for/with them and offering words or silence of comfort. In this process maybe we can grasp with ES Jones that “all legitimate life has to become sacred again. And all legitimate occupations a manifestation of the Kingdom.”

That’s what waiting tables in seminary taught me.

I want your feedback and/or help on this. I’m still in the early stages of developing this, but am in the process of putting together a “dream team” for each of the two churches to which I am currently appointed. No, I’m not speaking of finding a way to bring the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team to Camden, Tennessee.

Probably the greatest basketball team that ever competed. Front row (L to R): Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley; Second row (L to R): Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, Michael Jordan; Third row (L to R): Christian Laettner (ugh, I can't believe I am actually inserting a picture including him into a post on my blog...after what he did to my beloved Kentucky Wildcats on that fateful night in 1992), Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, David Robinson. Photo credit: hypervocal.com

Probably the greatest basketball team that ever competed. Front row (L to R): Clyde Drexler, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley; Second row (L to R): Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, Michael Jordan; Third row (L to R): Christian Laettner (ugh, I can’t believe I am actually inserting a picture including him into a post on my blog…after what he did to my beloved Kentucky Wildcats on that fateful night in 1992), Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, David Robinson. Photo credit: hypervocal.com

No, it’s not ^^that^^ kind of dream team I’m speaking of. Instead, I’m talking about putting together a group of 10-15 persons at each church to begin making dreams for the next 5, 10, 20…years.

Last week, 75 young clergy in the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church met in Dickson along with our new(ish) bishop Bill McAlilly. The event was sponsored by the Turner Center for Church Leadership & Congregational Development, which particularly is honing in on training young clergy for leadership as the dynamics of our culture(s) continue to change. At the conference, we explored the tension between the emphases of mission laid forth in Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 and how we as leaders could assist our congregations in developing their own identities in relation to their own mission fields. (A lingering question I had but never asked aloud was about the nature of the relationship between the narrative content in between those passages and the missional focus of the passages we did explore. In other words: What, if anything, is the relationship between the Passion & Resurrection narrative and our mission as the Church? I like where that question could take a discussion, but I’ll have to explore that in more detail in another post at another time.)

Although the picture we’ve been given about the status of the UMC is quite bleak, I left the conference hopeful that God has greater things in store for the United Methodist Church(es) in the Memphis & Tennessee Conferences, even as I was unsure specifically how I would begin to steer the churches to which I am appointed in the direction of discovering our identities & visions and how those relate to the mission field around us.

On the day following, Carrie and I took a trip to Jackson to get some much needed household items. Instead of taking the usual way home on Interstate 40, we drove the scenic route of US 70 all the way to Camden. It was nice for a change and only took an additional five or so minutes to get home than the normal route. On our way home, I began to share with Carrie processing through the gist of the conference I attended at Dickson and seeing how I might begin to raise questions to the folks at Liberty & Post Oak about our future. Within minutes we were talking about what it would look like to bring several youth & young adults and an accompanying older adult or two together and dream big about what God might want to do through us.

That was Saturday and I already knew that a council meeting was set for the next day at Liberty, which would be the perfect time to officially pitch the idea to the key leaders. I also went ahead and started planting the seed to a few people before the service at Post Oak and got a council meeting scheduled for a couple of weeks from now where I’ll share more with them there (for those who won’t have read this blog post anyway πŸ™‚ ). I got some good feedback there and then when I got to Liberty for worship, I pulled my lay leader and council chairperson aside to very briefly introduce it and ask for it to be on the agenda, which was warmly granted.

At the council meeting I introduced the seed ideas of what I was wanting to do and the initial questions that I’d like to be discussed in the group. The only question I was asked was, “Are you going to spearhead it?” I answered, “Of course! But I want you to know that I don’t plan on having all the answers. I just want to ask a series of questions that we will uncover together through prayer, discussion, study, and discernment what we perceive God asking us to do.” My desire is for the churches to come up with an answer to this family of questions: What do you want [name of church] to look like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years?

And here’s how I need your help/feedback, which I asked for at the beginning of the post. To answer the main question, there are a number of other questions that will need to be considered. Some big questions that obviously need to be addressed are the theological & missional ones:

  • Who is God?
  • Who are we?
  • How has God created and inhabited our story at [name of church]?
  • Who are our neighbors?

But then there are some more specific questions. Here are some that I see as vital for my churches to be asked in uncovering a vision for how best “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (as is our mission as United Methodists) in our local context. You’ll notice that the questions provide the opportunity for the people to dream BIG dreams. And for a people who believe in a God of extravagant grace, why not push the limits? So:

  • If you had no fear of failure, what would you like to see done in this church? in this community?
  • If money were not an issue, what changes would you make or things would you add to the life of this church?
  • Is there any unused space on the premises? If so, how can the space(s) be used again?
  • What needs of the community are not being met well or at all?
  • What ways, if any, can we work with area schools, like tutoring, backpack programs, etc.?

Those are just a few. Can you help me think of other questions? Comment below and let me know!

Yes, you read that right. I have been on the receiving end of the sacrament of baptism on two different occasions. It is true that by faith and practice United Methodists do not re-baptize. It is also (unfortunately) true that many United Methodists do not adhere to the teaching that affirms on solid biblical grounds there is “one baptism” (see Ephesians 4:5).

On March 17, 1991 (I was ten years old), I went to the altar during the hymn of invitation at the end of the worship service at Oscar United Methodist Church. Having already discussed with my parents earlier in the morning the importance and necessity of claiming and professing my own faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, I took the short walk from the 3rd pew from the front…a short walk that seemed ever so long…as those gathered sang the lyrics, “Come every soul by sin oppressed; there’s mercy with the Lord; and He will surely give you rest by trusting in His word; Only trust Him, only trust Him, only trust Him now; He will save you, He will save you, He will save you now…” I spoke to the pastor in a voice slightly above a whisper so he could hear me, “I have put my trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and want to make that public today.” I hung around by the altar as the remainder of the hymn was sung and afterward the pastor announced my desire to publicly profess my faith. I did so and immediately thereafter, as was custom, we began making plans for my baptism the next Sunday.

I don’t remember all the details of the worship service the following week, but I do recall in vivid detail the expressions on the faces of my family (tear-filled with joy), the scenery, and my emotions as I was called forward and as water was poured over my head by the cupped hands of the pastor, invoking the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This experience was very heart-warming for me as is the recollection of it. And were it not my later happening upon a document from an earlier time, there would be no confusion mixed with my joy when asked, “When were you baptized?” or when told to “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

But as fate would have it, years later as I was sorting through some pictures and memorabilia from my infancy and childhood, I came upon a “certificate of baptism” that had my name on it and was dated back to when I was an infant. Not being aware such an event had occurred, I began inquiring about this. My parents responded saying that I was not baptized as an infant but that I was Christened. Infant baptism, you see, really wasn’t done much in my neck of the woods. (I would like to go into more detail defending the practice of infant baptism, but I will need to save that for another post as more space than is reasonable for this post would be required.)

Back to the language of “Christening”…Well as I would soon find out, United Methodists do not practice Christening, even though many (lay & clergy) mistakenly confuse it with or substitute this title for infant baptism. Therefore, I must readily admit that for all I know, the pastor at the time of my infancy informed my parents that the ceremony when I was an infant was a Christening. At the very least, there was miscommunication somehow as a certificate of baptism was given to my parents to later be given to me.

Now at this point you may be thinking one of several things: if you’re from certain denominations or faith communities you may be thinking, “You weren’t really baptized either time, because you weren’t immersed”; or maybe you’re wondering, “What was the first pastor thinking not being clear on what was going on?” or “What was the second pastor thinking not investigating to find out more?”; or you may be asking, “Who cares? What’s wrong with it if you were re-baptized?” or something else still. I’m not attempting to be exhaustive.

But how I process and work through my feelings and thoughts on the matter contains, as I said earlier, an element of confusion in the midst the real joy of remembering that I am united by baptism with Christ in his death and resurrection. For the confusion, I’m not sure where to determine what or who is “to blame” or even if blame should be cast. In no way whatsoever do I fault my parents, because they understood my infant baptism not to be a baptism at all but a Christening. I understand their perception of my experience is not a problem and I respect that this whole question may seem totally foreign to them. Mom & Dad, if you’re reading this, I want to say I love you and am forever grateful for the manner in which you raised me to teach me the importance of the new birth, of owning my own faith in Christ and learning to become a better disciple of His. In fact, it was my mother who would one day be the voice of reason and assurance when I was in a period of doubt and confusion, even though I was not able to perceive her wisdom at the time. But that also is another story for another day.

Regarding the question of my baptism, part of me is frustrated with the lack of clarity and/or communication on the part of the pastors who played a role in both ceremonies. The pastor who baptized me as an infant did not do a good enough job of explaining the event as a baptism (i.e., NOT a Christening). Again, for all I know, he may have said it was a Christening, but I’ve been told water was applied. As for the later pastor who “re-baptized” me after I professed my faith in Christ, he did not do enough digging to discover whether or not I had been baptized as an infant. Even if he had asked and was told, “Jeffrey was Christened,” that should’ve raised flags that would’ve led to uncovering the truth and the muddled waters could have been cleared. As it stands, I am at a sort of loss for words when asked, “When were you baptized?” because I don’t have a clear answer.

Perhaps I’m just searching for a scapegoat, but as I am positive that I’m not alone in having had these sorts of experiences, I’m pretty sure that the answer to my conundrum won’t be found in isolating the problem in one or two pastors who in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t do enough to proclaim clearly or search diligently to see if there may be a repeat that would one day cause unnecessary confusion. Perhaps one or both of them didn’t want to stir the pot too much on infant baptism or re-baptism or were uninformed themselves about the issue of Christening vs. infant baptism. But the issue, in my way of thinking, at the heart of this is either not having a clear understanding of the sacrament (which needs to be and can be answered) or of not communicating it clearly enough where people can “get” it. I hope that at least for me (and maybe for you reading this) some headway can be made on both fronts, even though this lengthy post won’t answer anywhere near all the questions that are or will be raised.

Now I will say that I believe the Christian faith can and should allow room for ambiguity and mystery for it is not as though we’re able to fully comprehend life itself, much less the God behind it all. Nonetheless, the acts of (1) our initiation into the life of God in baptism, and (2) our constant participation in the life of God in Holy Communion, are acts that shouldn’t leave us confused, even if the way in which God conveys grace through these means remains beyond our comprehension.

Baptism, as I read it put one way this week, is the sacrament of identity (h/t to Jason W. Jones, current pastor of Bethel & Brooks Chapel UMCs in Calloway County, Kentucky). And as such, it is a sacrament that shouldn’t cause confusion or be a source of identity crisis. We get enough of that already…right, United Methodists? πŸ˜‰ And if we want our identity and waters more clear then that demands excellence in communication among us who are leaders in various capacities within the United Methodist Church, especially when it comes to these holy mysteries in which God unites us with Christ and each other.

The sacrament of baptism is “something God does!” as the former Lexington district superintendent, Paige Williams, said during one of her visits to Nicholasville UMC. And that is what came to mind as I read and re-read from Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22) in preparation for last week’s sermon. Of course we know that it was John the Baptist who applied water or immersed Jesus, but if you read Luke’s version, it’s almost as if John wasn’t even there. Luke had already narrated his imprisonment and didn’t explicitly name him as the baptizer of Jesus. It is as if Luke was wanting us to see that God is the one doing the action in Jesus’ baptism…and God is the one doing the action in ours too. So it’s not about the pastor, though he or she is ordained or licensed for the function of representing God in baptizing those being initiated into God’s kingdom. It’s not even primarily about the one being baptized, for each of us when baptized are not baptized into our own “Christian walk” or our own individual identities but into union with Christ in the baptism of his death and resurrection, which, by the way, occurred only once.

That’s why United Methodists, at least, don’t re-baptize. Jesus died and was raised again only once. And as baptism is the work/grace of God in uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection, and is not the work of mortals, it is effective. We have no need to question whether the “first” time was good enough or if “it took.” If we have gone astray and want to be restored, we need only to remember our baptism, and be thankful for our union with Christ. And there are very good ways to do that without causing confusion.

I suppose I should address the whole issue of Christening and infant baptism, but to keep from rambling (if I’m not already), I’ll save that for another day. Thanks for bearing with me!

Two years ago during a brief research visit to Manchester, England, I was introduced to a litany for Epiphany that tugged at the strings of my heart & mind. It was shared by Dr. Peter Rae of Nazarene Theological College at the morning chapel. I am going to share the litany with you, but I also wanted to share some thoughts from Dr. Rae that morning that have come to mind on the occasions when the word “epiphany” has made its way into conversations and reading materials I’ve come across in the time since that morning. Of course, this day (January 6) is the Day of Epiphany. For the Churches in the western tradition (Roman Catholic and Protestant), Epiphany is the celebration in which we recall the visit of the Magi (or wise men) to the child Jesus. For most Christians in the eastern tradition, however, Epiphany is associated with the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan River, which will draw the attention of many next Sunday in the first Sunday after Epiphany. And it was this account that Dr. Rae focused upon in his thoughts at chapel that morning.
Francesco Albani's painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Francesco Albani’s painting of the Baptism of Christ. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Dr. Rae pointed out that for many Christians in evangelical circles, “Epiphany” would show up in the working vocabulary of very few of them. His own first encounter with the term was not in church but in a literature class when a story was told of a man who came to a realization (“epiphany”) of his own identity and significance. Epiphany was that “aha!” or light bulb moment that altered the way that he viewed his place in the world. Epiphany for John the Baptist, on the other hand, was not a realization of his own identity and significance so much as it was the awareness of the significance and identity of Another. “I should be baptized by you…” he tells Jesus. And “I am not worthy to untie [Jesus’] sandals…” still more, “[Jesus] must increase, I must decrease.” These are the words of the one who has had a true Epiphany…an Epiphany of Our Lord, as the day is called. With that, I share with you the litany from that morning. (Since the time of first hearing this, I discovered it was published in a book called “The Wideness of God’s Mercy,” which you can find out more about here.)
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God, Alleluia!
Shout to the Lord, all the earth, Alleluia!
With joy let us pray to our Savior,
the Son of God who became one of us, saying:
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, let your gospel shine in every place
where the Word of life is not yet received.
Draw the whole creation to yourself
that your salvation may be known through all the earth.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Savior and Lord,
extend your church to every place.
Make it a place of welcome for people of every race and tongue.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Ruler of rulers,
direct the work and thoughts of the leaders of nations
that they may seek justice,
and further peace and freedom for all.
The grace of God be with us all.
O Christ, Master of all,
support of the weak and comfort of the afflicted,
strengthen the tempted and raise the fallen.
Watch over the lonely and those in danger.
Give hope to the despairing
and sustain the faith of the persecuted.
The grace of God be with us all. Amen.
O Christ, light that made manifest as the true light of God,
gladden our hearts on the joyful morning of your glory;
call us by our name on the great Day of your coming;
and give us grace to offer,
with all the hosts of heaven,
unending praise to God
in whom all things find their ending,
now and forever. Amen.