Twenty First Things

The first thing to know about God: God is love.
The first thing to know about Jesus: Jesus fully shows us God’s nature.
The first thing to know about the Spirit: The Spirit of God gives life.
The first thing to know about people: We are all broken and hurting and longing.
The first thing to know about hope: Hope is persistent. You’d have to work to snuff it out.
The first thing to know about love: Love is kind, and durable.
The first thing to know about church: The church is God’s doings, not ours.
The first thing to know about church people: They are common folk undergoing renovation.
The first thing to know about forgiveness: Forgiveness is the most difficult necessity in life.
The first thing to know about yourself: You are not, and never will be perfect.
The first thing to know about life: In every instance, it is a most priceless mystery.
The first thing to know about pain: It has no memory.
The first thing to know about sinners: They like to hide in mirrors.
The first thing to know about evil: It is real, and it is hollow.
The first thing to know about peace: It does not depend on external circumstances.
The first thing to know about resurrection: It changes all the rules of the game.
The first thing to know about serving others: You end up getting more than you give.
The first thing to know about healing: All cures are temporary; only healing endures.
The first thing to know about salvation: While for you, it’s about a lot more than you.
The first thing to know about joy: Joy is shy, showing up when you’re busy with something else.


An Odyssey of Faith, Hope and Love

An Eulogy for Joclair Ellenberg Taylor

October 24, 1928 – July 17, 2014


Amazingly, for a small-framed girl, the youngest of nine children, born on a non-descript farm, in the impoverished rural upcountry of South Carolina, Joclair Ellenberg’s life became an epic journey.  Although she did not travel the world, she traversed regularly a vast landscape of faith.  Though she did not subdue mythical beasts, she saw her family through many trials with unwavering hope.  And though she did not brandish a sword to conquer, she won many hearts with selfless love.  Her life was an odyssey – of faith, hope and love; these three, the greatest of which was her love.

Much has been said recently of her adventurous spirit.  Of course, for an 85 year old, being told by the oncologist that cancer has spread through your body, then taking off on a “bucket list” trip to New York, and in the span of 24 hours riding a four-wheeler, a Bobcat, an Amish buggy, and a Harley motorcycle, would generate such comments.  (As an aside, when she began to have hemorrhagic seizures in New Jersey, I knew one thing:  I had to get that Southern lady back to South Carolina, or else she would haunt me forever.)

Joclair did have an adventurous spirit.  She was continual learner.  She wanted to experience new things and to go see what was around the bend in the road.  She was not afraid to “live large,” as they say, but that’s not why she took the risky trip to New York.   She knew it would accomplish two things:  she would see three sets of grandchildren she might not otherwise see, and even more importantly, she wanted to demonstrate to all her grands, that you don’t give up.

Such an attitude characterized the journey of her life.  You took what life gave you, you discovered its beauty, you trusted God, and furthermore, you improved what you could.

She had such a strong sense of determination that sometimes, it showed up as stubbornness.  But don’t be mistaken, that resolve was built on hope, the belief that things could be better.  It’s what got her through the sudden death of her father at age 14.  It’s what led her to learn to walk again and even play the piano again after a major stroke.  It’s what got her through her losses as those so close to her died.  “Southern steel,” some might call it: you don’t quit.

Her journey was indeed one of adventure and hope, but that’s not what she would want to be remembered for.  We could talk about her love of music.  She played the piano so effortlessly, improvising and transposing a hymn to any key.  She taught each of us to play as well, and insisted we practice.  She would call out from somewhere in the house if we missed a note, or had the wrong tempo, or simply needed to clean up a passage.

At Christmas and other occasions, the only present she really wanted was to hear us sing together.  Taylor gatherings have been legendary as musical events, all because that’s what Mom enjoyed, and expected.

We could talk about Joclair’s creativity.  Children of three generations have gone to sleep with amazing bedtime stories.  She drew, cut out silhouettes, wrote poems, and expressed herself eloquently in letters.

To her chagrin, we could talk about how prim and proper she was.  Even around the house, she was not going to be dressed shabbily.  And each outfit required some appropriate piece of jewelry.

We could talk about the love of her life, Houston Taylor, their 65 years together, and her devotion to him in his career and ministry.  We could talk about family and what a godly mother she was.  But, what she would want us to talk about, would be faith.  And with your forbearance, that is what I will do.  I will highlight the five pillars of Joclair Taylor’s faith.


First of all, she had a Solid Belief in God’s Providence.  This was the bedrock of her faith.  She knew without a doubt that God IS concerned with our lives, that God is ABLE to provide for our needs, and that God WILL provide according to his good will for us.

One of my earliest memories was Mom teaching God’s providence to my brother Houston and me through the story of the Exodus.  I was only five, and Houston had to stay home from school as we both battled the measles.  For a week, the extended sleeper sofa became the land of Egypt and the Middle East.  Plastic Army men became the Hebrews and the Egyptians, and they traveled on carts and chariots made of construction paper.  A blue towel was the Red Sea, which indeed parted at the right time.  A ball of cotton led the Hebrews by day and a flaming candle stood over then by night.  Bread crumbs fell from the sky like manna, and all the way, God provided.

Mom did not underline or mark many passages in her Bible.  I wrote down the twenty or so that she did.  One was Psalm 27:13-14which expresses her solid belief in God’s Providence:  I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.  Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

God’s faithful provisions, however, didn’t mean you that you could waste anything.  Growing up during the Great Depression and years of wartime rationing, she knew the importance of making things last.  As her children, we were schooled in reduce, reuse and recycle, long before it became fashionable.  We know how to re-flatten tin foil, wash and reuse bread wrappers, and save everything.  She taught us to tear napkins and paper towels in half so they would last twice as long.  She made a six-pack of Coca-cola serve our whole family by tricking us into believing that a glass of one-half Coke and one-half sweet tea was actually delicious.  God provides, but don’t waste.


The second pillar of Joclair’s faith was a dependence on the Word of God.  She loved the Bible.  To her the scriptures were dear friends and a means to commune with Jesus.  Like the revolutionary Mary of Luke’s gospel, she sat at the feet of Jesus, choosing to be a disciple, ignoring social norms if necessary, in order to learn more.

One of the things she greatly missed after Dad’s death, she told me, were the times they would sit together, usually after breakfast, and discuss the Bible.  She was so inquisitive.  I know, because she began “saving up” her queries for my visits: questions about universal salvation, the purpose of the sacrificial system of the Temple, the means of sanctification, and a right reading of the early Genesis stories.

The scriptures sated her thirst for God, as expressed in Psalm 63, one of only four psalms she marked in her Bible:  Psalm 63  “thirsting for God”

1  O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

2  So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

3  Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

4  So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

5  My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

6  when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

7  for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

8  My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.


The third pillar of Joclair’s faith was an attentiveness to the needs of the least.  A hallmark of Jesus’ ministry was his attention to the poor, the oppressed, the lost, and the least of these.  (Luke 4:18, Luke 15, Matthew 25)  Joclair demonstrated a similar focus in her own journey.  In a large family gathering, you would find her seeing that the little ones were taken care of, or she’d be on the floor playing with the youngest.  For her, fairness didn’t mean equality, but that the differing needs of each person were met.

She was always alert to identify and resolve potential problems, before they became problems.  She taught us to give, especially to those who could not give in return.  She taught us to be in mission to others.  In their younger years, she and Dad led summer camps for youth, and in retirement they were site leaders for a couple of years at a Salkehatchie camp.

It is beyond my ability to count the number of mission trips that have been taken by and led by members of the Taylor extended family.  Mom probably didn’t know the number either, but she would remember the trips you’d been on.   She supported them financially, prayed for them, and when you returned, she wanted to be debriefed.  In the van on our trip to New York just last week, she sat looking at pictures on Lauren’s computer of Lauren and Daniel’s recent trip to South Africa, asking question after question.

She sought imitate her Lord with her attentiveness and service to the least and the lost.


The fourth pillar for Mom was her assurance in knowing Jesus as her Savior.  One scripture underlined in her Bible was Romans 5, verses 1 and 2:  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

In fact, of the 17 New Testament passages she had marked, nine had to do with the assurance of salvation and the Holy Spirit bringing others into saving grace.  Early in my ministry she was still worried about me no longer being of the Pentecostal faith.  She wasn’t sure how liberal I had become as a United Methodist pastor.  She would regularly ask me, “Are you preaching salvation?  Are you telling people they need to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior?”

She had an evangelical heart for others, but she despised revivalist manipulations.  Once we talked about the way preachers in some traditions would try to get people to come to the altar.  We’d also been talking about reaching young people with the good news, and so I asked her about her experiences of altar calls when she was a teenager.

She shyly smiled and said, “Well, remember I had asthma, and so I had an acceptable excuse to leave the worship service.  Whenever they’d start will all that, I would just start coughing real bad, and then go outside and sit in the truck until they finished.”

She was indeed an independent thinker, but a relationship with Christ meant everything.  Quoting an epistle of John, she said many times I have no greater joy than this, but to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” (3 John 1:4)


The final pillar I must highlight was her confidence in the Resurrection.  Receiving a terminal diagnosis of cancer just three weeks ago, left her sad, but calm.  She did not want leave us, but she was ready for heaven.  After we’d called in hospice care, she said matter-of-factly, “I want to go see my Savior.”

Her confidence was rooted in John 11 (another underlined passage from her Bible).  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

On the first anniversary of Dad’s death she wrote these words:  Nov 2, 2012:

One year ago today when the hills were ignited with the beauty of death, Houston left this world. But as in nature spring explodes with a glorious resurrection of color, so also we have an assurance of an eternity with Christ and with loved ones, a beauty and joy impossible to comprehend!!

Joclair Ellenberg Taylor’s life was an epic journey of faith, hope, and love.


Let me close with this.  Sometimes in teaching I ask the rhetorical question, “If you could boil the Bible down to one message what would it be?”  For me, that one simple summation would be this:  The One who knows me best, loves me the most.

God knows us better than we know ourselves.  God knows our beautiful parts and our ugliness, our grace and our sin.  God knows the secrets of our hearts and in such complete knowledge of us, God says, “I love you so much I would die for you.”

John 15:13  No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Joclair Taylor made it her business to know you.  We experienced that as her children, and grandchildren and great-grands, but she extended such loving interest to friends and church members and even to strangers she’d meet.

She had that rare ability to focus on the individual.  In her presence you knew you were seen by her, and heard by her, even if distractions were all around you or the room was full of people.  As her children, we knew (and were told) she did not always approve of our behavior or choices, but we also knew, without a doubt, that she loved us.  She made incarnate (clothed in flesh) the great love of God, for through her love, we have learned that the One who knows us best, loves us the most.  And such love is eternal.

Thanks be to God for this petite powerhouse, a woman of faith, hope, and love.  Amen.


July 19, 2014  –  Rev. Stephen P. Taylor

Wightman United Methodist Church, Prosperity, South Carolina

Hush Now, Child

The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him!  Habakkuk 2

While pumping gas recently, I watched a young man drive up and noticed he was wearing ear buds.  I always thought you weren’t supposed to wear your ear buds in the car, at least not both of them.  Seems that instead of listening to his music, the driver might need to hear the car horn of the person behind him!  Just another instance of distracted driving maybe.

Anyway, this person got out and started pumping his gas into his car, ear buds intact.  All the while, he swayed up and down, back and forth to his beats.  The deed done, he hopped back into his car, and somewhere in his own world of music, he sped off.

I love music, and listen to all types of music.  While I’m working in the office or outdoors, I’ll have music playing in the background.  And I confess, I do have my own iPod and ear buds.  But the brief encounter with Mr. Earbuds had me thinking about the way we we’ve become unaccustomed to silence.

Music, or radio chatter, or television confusion fills our environment, whether at home or in the car or at a store.  More than any previous generation, we spend our days in a sea of sound.  And what do we know of quietness, of silent waiting and prayerful expectation?

Thomas Kelley, in his book, The Sanctuary of the Soul, writes:

We need time of silent waiting, alone, when the busy intellect is not leaping from problem to problem, and from puzzle to puzzle.  If we learn the secret of carrying a living silence in the center of our being we can listen (for God) on the run.  The listening can become intertwined with our inner prayers.

Just exactly when are we silent before God?  Is our prayer time not just a time to tell God things, but also to be in silence?  We say we want to hear from God, but do we make time to sit and listen for God?  When in worship do we fall silent before the majesty and goodness, and grace and power and mercy and mystery of God?

When the prophet Elijah stood alone on the mountain of the Lord, the Lord spoke to him, not in the great wind, nor in the earthquake that followed, nor in the fire that came either, but “in the sound of sheer silence.”  (1 Kings 19)

At our staff meeting this week, we read a passage from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   He wrote, “We are silent at the beginning of the day because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to sleep because the last word also belongs to God.”  Not bad advice, I’d say.  Or maybe I shouldn’t say.  Maybe I need to be silent now as well, and just listen.  How about you?      

Traveler’s Tea


Out in the sudden, strong slanting rain
I saw the traveler from the shelter of my porch.
“Here, come here,” I called before I considered
What my erstwhile invitation might mean.

Wariness and weariness filled his dark eyes
As he looked, then turned aside to join me.
He set his sodden pack and bedroll down
But did not remove his tattered coat, or hat.

He nodded a thank you but held his words.
I offered the other chair, but he declined,
Instead choosing to slowly lower himself
To become a wet heap upon the floor.

We watched waves of water cross the lawn,
We breathed the saturated freshness in the air.
I noticed him finally lean against the wall,
And barely heard the escape of a ragged sigh.

Just like that, he’d changed without changing –
Here was a real person, deserving compassion.
From an unknown, homeless statistic, a beggar on the street,
From a stranger on the road, to this man on my porch.

His world had not really changed so much:
Still wet and worn, without a place to be.
But now I felt more compassionately
As he became my Samaritan’s responsibility.

But I knew he was hesitant, perhaps burned before,
Like a stray kitten petted, then kicked from the door.
I excused myself to grab him a towel,
Then went to the kitchen to prepare us some tea.

I thought, he might be an angel, visiting in disguise,
Or perhaps even Jesus, here as the least of these,
So I set out the good china, on our silver service tray,
With chicken salad sandwiches, and some scones I’d saved.

He’d shed his coat and dried his gray, wiry hair.
And with cautious curiosity, watched me place the tray,
Set the table with linens, and pull up two chairs.
Then upon my invitation, sat down with me to tea.

Against the cacophony of raindrops we spoke of life,
Warmed our chests with drink, and ate relentlessly.
He was a laborer, who’d drifted with dreams and jobs,
Leaving behind family, and hope, and symbols of identity.

We talked about providence and evil and grace,
Though the words we used were of folks, kind and cruel,
Life’s chance opportunities, and the harshness of the road.
And I realized I did know him, and not just by name.

As the tea was finished, restlessness seized his hands,
And as if by his stares, the rain cowered and ceased.
He rose and reached for his garments and pack
While I took some bills from my wallet to share.

He extended his hand and looked me right in the eyes,
And this time spoke clearly, “God bless you, my friend.”
God had done so already, I knew this of course,
By sending this traveler to the shelter of my porch.


11 june 2014, s p taylor



The Difference One Makes

Earlier in March, I spent a day with my Clergy Covenant Group hiking a portion of the Palmetto Trail. All ministers are expected to be involved in continuing education and one option is to be part of a monthly small group gathering of peers for discussion of ministry issues and mutual support. My group prefers to have its discussions outdoors while on the trail, or sitting around a fire or dinner table afterwards.

Our coordinator’s email said the hike would be strenuous, but only 3.5 miles long, which was good since the weather called for a mixture of rain and sleet for the area. Actually the Blue Wall passage is 13.5 miles long. He forgot to type the “one”, and we just went right along with it.

So, our two to three hour hike up and down a mountain turned into an all day hike, half of it in mist and half in light sleet. For me, it was a real struggle. About six miles into the hike my thigh muscles began to lock up with cramps. It became painful to take each step. I had made a common amateurish mistake – in the cold weather I didn’t keep drinking water and my body had become dehydrated – and thus, my leg muscles rebelled.

If I had been alone, I would have been in a crisis situation in the wet cold. Fortunately, my fellow hikers stepped in to see me through. One took my back pack to carry and another took my camera. Another replaced my bottle of plain water with one containing electrolytes, and someone gave me a banana to eat. I was handed a walking stick to steady myself and then they all slowed the pace to match mine.

We trudged along and a couple miles later I was doing OK, tired, but my legs were working again. Feeling bad about the incident, I apologized to my friends. “What do you mean?” one said, “It’s just pay-back for the times you’ve carried our stuff.” I still felt foolish for not staying hydrated, but I left it at that, and just said a word of thanks.

Lessons from the day had me thinking not just about hiking, but also about life together as God’s family in the Church. First of all, check the route and distance for yourself! Are you relying on someone else’s preparations for life or have you taken care of it yourself?

Secondly, stay hydrated! I thought I was doing fine, but my body desperately needed water. Likewise, in our faith walk, a lot of people think they can do without worship and Bible study, and still maintain spiritual strength. Guess who’s going to end up with spiritual cramps?

Thirdly, be honest with your companions. I had to stop, admit my mistake and say, “I can’t keep on like this.” That opened me up to receive the help they were glad to offer. But how often in our church life do we mistakenly keep the problem to ourselves out of pride, stubbornness, or whatever?

And finally, be ready to step in and take action. Truthfully, my companions had to “take” my pack from me. With dehydration and the early stages of hypothermia, one’s thinking isn’t always clear and rational. They took a no-nonsense attitude with me to get me back on track.

Admittedly, this is a tough one in the church. Most of us don’t want to “intrude” or seem to be judgmental. Yet, there are times when our companions are obviously not thinking clearly, times when we see they’ve neglected the basics, or maybe times when their behaviors signal a pending crisis. Is God’s grace strong enough in us to step forward and risk involvement? For the sake of the other person, are we willing to do as my companions on the trail did for me? It’s amazing the difference one person makes.


My First Encounter with Law Enforcement

My Dad’s brother had bought a new brick ranch house on the frontage road of the interstate, situated about three miles out of town.  We were there on a Saturday evening to see the home and celebrate with them.  All I knew was that we’d had a meal together and now I was bored with the conversations of the adults. 

 My older brother, Houston, fit in age right between two of Joe and Jessie’s sons.  The three of them wanted to pal around without the six year old tag-along, me.  And usually they got away with leaving me behind, but on this occasion Mom had not given my older brother a choice, “Take Stephen with you,” she’d directed.

So out we went, me scurrying to keep up with the big guys.  We roamed around the yard awhile, then walked down the frontage road about a tenth of a mile to the overpass.  It was early evening as we stood on the bridge, watching cars speeding by underneath us.  

Who thought of it and who started it I do not know, but someone proposed dropping a rock off the bridge to see if we could time the drop to hit a car.  Today I shudder at the stupidity of the dare and the danger involved, but in my remembrance I don’t think six-year-old me gave any of that a second of thought.  All I knew then was that I didn’t want to be left out of anything the older guys were doing.

So, we found small loose rocks on the bridge and leaned over the railing, waiting for cars to come along.  I don’t recall dropping a rock myself.  I believe I was only allowed to watch as in turn the older guys stood in the prime position over the lane and timed their releases over the approaching cars.

Fortunately their timing was not good, but unfortunately, they got better, quickly.  In the first round the rocks hit the pavement after the car had safely passed underneath.  But then a rock connected, with a windshield, with a loud smack, with a screeching of brakes, and with a panicked rush of three older boys knocking me down as they took off for the woods.

I never saw it.  I don’t know if the windshield broke or not, or if anyone was hurt.  Of that fateful moment I remember most the brakes and the stampede.  I was alert enough to jump up quickly and take off after my brother and cousins, across a field and into some woods. 

I didn’t stop running until well past the tree line, and might would have kept running except that my heart was about to beat its way out of my chest.  In my hand was the rock I’d chosen to use but had never had the chance to drop.  I quickly threw it down as if it were a scorpion in my hand.

Hiding behind a tree, I listened for the others.  I was afraid to call out, but also afraid of being alone.  In a loud whisper I called for my brother.  No answer.  I listened intently, unsure what to do.

I thought I heard some movement in the woods.  Maybe I could catch up with them.  Maybe they’ve found a place to hide I thought.  So deeper into the woods I crept, moving from tree to tree, occasionally calling out in my whisper voice. 

No brother answered.  No movement was heard.  I finally realized it was getting darker as dusk progressed to evening, and I was getting further into unknown woods.  I sat down and leaned against a tree trunk, breathing deeply to hold back the panic beginning bubble up within me.

It’s up to me, I thought.  I’m on my on.  I’ve got to get out of the woods, back across the bridge and to Uncle Joe’s place before Mom and Dad start missing me.  The others will have to fend for themselves.  By age six I had played imaginary army games many times in the woods around my house and I knew I was up to the challenge. 

I stealthily began my journey back. At the tree line I paused.  It was dark, but not dark enough.  I waited for what seemed an eternity and then nearly jumped out of my skin when a car came slowly along the country road.  Maybe it was the man in the car that got hit, looking for us.  Rats, I thought, now I have to wait some more.

When another eternity had passed, and no other car had come along, I left the woods.  There was broom straw and stubble in the field and I was small, so I figured I had pretty good cover until I got to the ditch along the road.  If the car came back along I would just fall flat until it passed.

At the ditch I had to make a decision.  From there I would be totally exposed, until I crossed the bridge and made it to the frontage road on the other side.  My instinct was to run like hell.  But, I thought, if I ran, and the car came back along, they would know immediately I was running because I was guilty. 

I decided to walk across the bridge, not run.  I’d walk as if I was just walking to a friend’s house so I wouldn’t arouse suspicions.  With that resolve, I stood, crossed the ditch and began walking.  The bridge was only twenty yards away.  I can do this, I thought.

Then the lights came on, blue flashing lights.  I whirled around and watched as out of a driveway up the road a highway patrol car quickly pulled out.  I stood motionless, as if caught in a spider’s web, as it stopped beside me.

The car door opened and the officer walked around to me.  I immediately knew then and there two things for certain: first, I would lie to protect me and my brother, and secondly, I was going to jail.

The officer got my name (I didn’t have a rank or serial number to give him, but if I’d had them, that was all he would have gotten because I knew from army movies that was all you had to give them).  Instead I told him where I lived.

He wanted to know what I was doing out there at night.  Just walking to my cousin’s house.  He said he’s gotten a report that some boys were throwing rocks off the bridge and I was the only boy he’d seen.  Where were the others? 

I told him my cousins were with me earlier, but they’d gone on and I didn’t know where they were (which was the truth.)  “Why were you throwing rocks?  A man’s car was damaged and he could have been killed,” he demanded.

I knew he was angry and I realized he didn’t ask if we threw rocks.  I was guilty, caught, and condemned, but I lied.  “We were on the bridge watching the cars and we kicked some rocks, but we didn’t throw any,” I submitted.

He looked at me a long time.  Then he opened the passenger door and told me to get in.  He walked around, got in as well, and put the car in gear.  Instead of taking me to jail, however, he did something worse, he told me to direct him to my parents.

I showed him where to turn on the frontage road and pointed out the house where my parents were.  As we rode he kept talking to me about the dangers of what we had done and how we were lucky that the windshield had only cracked, but that the rock could have gone through the windshield.  It could have gone through the roof and killed someone.  

The blue lights were still flashing as we pulled into the yard, which, I thought, would have been cool if my brother and cousins had been there to see it, but in this case only added to the disaster as my Mom and Dad and Uncle Joe and Aunt Jessie and my sisters came out to see what was going on.

While my Dad and Uncle Joe talked with the officer, my Mom and sisters just stared at me. I felt alone, suspended, while judgments were being determined.  After a bit, I was questioned again, and I repeated my lie, the one about kicking rocks.  I don’t think they believed me, but I stuck with it. 

To my surprise I was not arrested and the patrolman left without me. Also to my surprise I was not immediately punished by my parents.   Some time later when my brother and cousins emerged from the woods, Mom kept me inside while Dad and Uncle Joe talked with them outside.

When we got home that night Dad had a talk with me.  I imagine now that it was about being truthful, or not following the crowd, or about not doing stupid things.  I don’t know because at that time all I was thinking about was the spanking that was sure to follow. 

But there was no spanking, and I don’t know what punishment by brother received.  He wouldn’t talk to me about it.  I didn’t understand at the time, but he had to apologize to me for not taking care of me.  He did finally tell me how they snuck across the interstate and were hiding in the woods after I had gotten caught, that’s the part I was interested in.  And I wasn’t allowed to “tag-along” with him anymore.  In fact, for a long time he didn’t get to go off anywhere to where I could have tagged along.

Thus I learned early what it was like (in my own limited way) to be on the wrong side of the law.  The downside was that it took several years, and several good encounters, for me to learn that police officers weren’t out there “to get me,” but to be a help to us all.

The whole incident scared me enough however, so that I began to learn that you have to think about consequences.  What will be the result of my actions?  Do I want to be a part of this?  I’m not saying that I ethically matured through my run-in with the Law.  I don’t even think I felt much remorse at my lies.  Alas, I may have even considered them noble in that they were to protect my brother and cousins.  But I did learn that you better think about what you are about to do!

Whenever I drive on Interstate 385 and pass under a certain bridge I am reminded of six-year-old me standing on the bridge, ready to go along with whatever, just to be accepted as part of the group.  Inwardly chagrined, I smile to myself,  hoping I have learned my lesson.

The Hidden Garden

Squash, tomatoes, string beans, more squash, lettuce, cucumbers, and more squash – these are a few of my favorite things!  And they better be, at least right now!  The harvest from my garden plot has started to come in and I have to say, there’s nothing like fresh vegetables from the garden!

This is the first garden I’ve been able to have in several years.  When you live in a parsonage, you don’t always have places to grow much more than a few tomato plants.  But this year I tilled a small plot, about 18 feet by40 feet, of that wonderful red clay we all enjoy, turned in some compost from the Elrod farm, laid out five rows, and set out some seeds.

The thing about a garden is this:  you have to tend it, regularly.  I usually get up very early, and when Cynthia gets up she will find me either upstairs in my study, or out in the garden.  There’s always something to do, weeding, watering, or one of several other small tasks.

Several years ago I was visiting with a member who was a master gardener.  We were admiring her many plants when I suggested she could help me plan a flower garden.  But, I insisted, it will need to require low maintenance, since I have very little time to devote to it.

My friend stopped, looked at me and said something I guess everyone knows, but it was something that stuck with me.  She said, “If there is going to be a garden, there has to be a gardener.”

Duh! It reminds me of the old preacher joke.  A minister stopped to speak with a farmer who had just cut hay in a beautiful field.  Before the farmer had purchased the land, the field had been full of briars and cockleburs.  The preacher said, “Tis a beautiful pasture Robert.  God has provided you a wonderful place.”  And Robert replied, “Preacher, you should have seen this place when God had it all by himself!”

For anything to grow well, there must be someone to tend the growth, to prepare the soil and nurture the plants, to invest him or herself through “sweat equity,” and to lovingly provide the daily attention that is needed.  We could name many areas of life where this is true:  parenting, friendships, teaching, growing a business, or growing a church.

The area I’m thinking about today is the hidden garden, the spiritual garden of our hearts.  Is your hidden garden being tended in such a way that it is producing, or will produce the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, compassion, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5)?

You are the gardener of the Hidden Garden of your heart.  Yes, there are those who help:  Sunday School teachers, pastors, spiritual counselors, and Christian friends.  Yes, we are promised that the Spirit of Christ will empower and guide us.  But if there is to be a garden, and not just a field of brambles inside us, it means we have to bring intentionality and regular attention to what grows there.

Haphazard care just won’t get the job done.  If we garden only when it’s convenient, the lack of attention will readily show, just as soon as a little stress is added.  But if the Hidden Garden is tended well, then what a beautiful offering it becomes to the One who created it in the first place.  In fact, the Hidden Garden of the heart may be the only thing we really have that we can give back to our Lord.  And who knows, if well-tended, the harvest of blessings may be more than we can handle, just like the squash!

Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, and Prayer

With the events in the national news in the recent weeks, an image came to mind from the movie, The Wizard of Oz.  It was of Dorothy, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow headed down the yellow brick road through the dense forest, chanting “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!  Lions and tigers and bears, Oh My!” 

In our case the chant may be “Terrorism, explosions, and flooding, oh my!”  In other words, like Dorothy and her friends, we realize danger may be right at hand.   Evil is not just some abstract idea, but shows up in deathly ways in our quiet communities, or in the anticipated safe haven of a finish line.  Lions and tigers and bears of some sort are lurking about, and oh my, what do we do?

On the heels of the Oz image another scene filled my thoughts.  This one was of Jesus encountering his disciples just after he’d gone up on a mountain to pray.  While he had been praying, he’d seemed transformed by light and two persons from the past (Moses and Elijah) had appeared and conversed with him.  We call the event the Transfiguration and you can read about it in the gospels.

Anyway, returning to his disciples Jesus finds they are frustrated because they cannot deal with an evil spirit that seizes a young boy. The description in scripture makes us think the boy has epilepsy.  The father pleads for his son to be healed, but their efforts accomplish nothing. 

Jesus heals the boy and then the disciples ask “Why could we not cast it out?”  Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:29 RSV).

Wow!  There are some manifestations of evil that you can only deal with through prayer.  Of course that seems obvious; but think of how we turn to so many other things to “protect” us without even considering prayer as part of our arsenal.  “Only by prayer” can the evil in us (and in our midst) be rooted out.

I am grateful for first responders, who immediately put themselves at risk when evil erupts.  I am thankful for those who work in pre-emptive ways to create and maintain safe environments.  But if we are ever to truly address the problem of evil in our world, it will be through prayer.

 Prayer is not a panacea for the weak.  It is a courageous claim of God’s righteousness and power.  When wielded by mature believers, it becomes a bold offensive move against evil.  Thus in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, once he describes the “armor” of the Christian, he then says “Pray in the Spirit at all times, in every prayer and supplication.  To that end keep alert and always persevere for all believers.”  (Eph 6:18)

Pray.  It is the most significant thing you can do.  Pray for our broken world, for our country, for our communities.  Pray for the lost, for the hungry, the hurting ones, and those who feel hopeless.  Pray for the godless spirit to leave us.  There may be times we become overwhelmed with bad news and say, “Oh my!”  But let our next exclamation be, “Oh Lord our God, let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!”  Amen.

Women in Ministry Resource

I don’t think I’ve ever bought a case of the same book, but I’m about to.  It will save me from having to write one, and the list of people I want to give a copy to is getting quite long.  Needless to say, I recommend What’s Up With Paul and Women? highly, and think it should be required reading for anyone in ministry.

In the United Methodist Church we have had women in ordained ministry for a little over 50 years, and yet there are many church members (and perhaps still some male pastors) who have trouble reconciling a couple of New Testament verses with women in leadership.  Jon Zens carefully shows how these verses have been erroneously interpreted – due in part to faulty translation, but mainly to cultural bias – and thus have been used to suppress the role of women in the church.

Many students of the Bible know that the passages showing women in leadership, and in full participation in the ministry of the early church outweigh the couple of passages that seem to restrict their roles.  As always, the cultural perspectives we bring to the text greatly influence how we read the Bible.  If you believe “there is no longer male nor female” in the body of Christ, or if you have experienced women in leadership, then you should know that you stand on a solid Biblical foundation in your support of women in ministry.

If however, you come from a tradition where women are seen as inferior, or if you have never been blessed with a female as a pastor, then you most likely will turn to the “restrictive verses,”  1 Timothy 2:12  and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.  For some, the debate ends there, with a line drawn in the sand and the attitude of “you take your verses and I’ll take mine.”

Enter Jon Zens’ little book.  It is a scholarly work, but written for the person without a degree in Biblical studies.  And, I like the fact that he comes from a conservative tradition, one that would normally use these verses in a restrictive manner.  Zens explains the cultural background of these verses and shows how the restrictions placed on women are not “eternal pronouncements,” but apply to a specific situation.

I don’t want to repeat his work here – I’d rather you read it for yourself, and maybe get your small group or Sunday School class to study it.  For too long we have allowed people to live with an erroneous bias against women in leadership.  In many places, women are still being denied the opportunity to live out God-given callings to leadership, and their gifts have been pushed aside.  It’s time we know the solid Biblical ground upon which we stand in support of women in ministry.


Pastor Appreciation Month

From what I’ve read on church signs and Facebook, October is Pastor Appreciation Month.  I would think most pastors are like me in that we have little expectation that a month “proclaimed” to show appreciation to one’s pastor will result in much appreciation being expressed.  It might sell more cards at the local Christian bookstore, but realistically, who pays attention to all the other “proclaimed” identities of various months.  I Googled “months with special events” and got a long list on special months.   October alone had 65 entries, including:  Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month; National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; National Chili Month; National Go On a Field Trip Month; National Popcorn Poppin’ Month; Vegetarian Month; International Strategic Planning Month; and, Self Promotion Month!

Cynthia and I did receive a card from a former church member.  It made us feel good to be thought of, and brought to mind warm remembrances of the person who sent it.  But we know that appreciation happens (or doesn’t happen) as life is lived, not according to some arbitrary monthly calendar.  For instance, I got my “Pastor Appreciation Month” recognition just the other night.

It had been one of those “full and frustrating” days.  Because of sinus trouble and fitful sleep, I started the day by missing an early morning prayer meeting.  Feeling bad about that, I rushed through the day trying to stay on top of my list of contacts to make and things to do.  That evening I greeted people at one event at the church and then as I went into a nominations meeting, I remembered another “to do.”

A church member’s father had died and the visitation was that night, in a town about an hour’s drive away.  I still didn’t feel the best and tried to convince myself it wasn’t worth the drive, even though I knew I couldn’t make the funeral the next day.  But, determined to end the day better than I started it, I left the committee meeting early and got to the funeral home just at the announced closing time for the visitation.  Cars were still in the parking lot, so I knew I could at least speak to the church member briefly.

As I stepped inside the front door I looked into a room full of family and friends and saw the church member speaking to someone.  What happened next fulfilled all the hopes of a Pastor Appreciation Month.  As she turned and saw me, her face lit up with delight (and maybe a little disbelief) as she proclaimed, “My preacher is here!”  She immediately came to take my arm and lead me around the room introducing me to all her family members.  She was genuinely appreciative of my presence.

I’ve been in ministry long enough to know that the real impact of my presence was not me, or my personality.  As her “preacher” I fulfilled a representative role and my presence told her on a subconscious level that her church had not forgotten her, nor indeed had God forgotten her.  Her appreciation for that “presence” created in me a feeling of gratitude – a thankfulness that ministry allows me to fulfill that role, and to be with people as a small expression of God’s own faithfulness.

Now, if you’re one of those who takes Pastor Appreciation Month to heart – keep sending those cards and notes and gift cards to your pastor.  Such encouragements are powerful, and needed.  Ministry is so relationship laden.  People’s expectations are sometimes unrealistically high, and often conflicting, so that the weekly diet of every minister includes some disappointment or discouragement.  But, as important as the notes are, every pastor will tell you – we don’t do it for the cards.  We do it for the opportunity to “be there,” to participate in God’s message of love, and to experience with others the amazing assurance that comes from the awareness of God’s presence.  Soli Deo Gloria!