Tuesday, June 23, 2009

harder than I thought!

I'm discovering something about myself - I'm much better at resisting than I am at persisting. I really fired off lots of stuff when I first starting this blog. That's when I was resisting nearly everything. Now, that I am trying to discover "that at which I would persist, no matter where I am" the ideas are much harder to come by.

So far, here's what I've got:

  1. Music - I love playing guitar, though I am only almost good. I love iTunes. Is there a 12-step program for downloading music? I need it, because I am powerless to control my habit.

  2. Crossword puzzles - I've done one every night for the last 7 years. washingtonpost.com has my favorites. Where else can I use my knowledge of the arcane? Heck, nobody around here will play Trivial Pursuit with me! I can only shout answers at game shows for so long before I'm carted away. For instance, where else can I show I know the name the Nick and Nora Charles' dog? Asta. I also know who Nick and Nora Charles are.
  3. God's arms are open wider than we can ever imagine - Seems like churches always want to limit who God reaches. No, I promise not to bash my church! I think it's just human nature to want to share a faith with someone who is like you in other ways - dress, politics, football, skin color, etc. Often, the ones who are the most exclusive forget to read the Gospels. Jesus did not make any disctinctions, in fact, he went out of his way to tear down ALL distinctions.

So, I think, no matter where I go as a pastor, I would always play guitar, do crossword puzzles, and try to reach out. Sounds wierd, huh?

more to come . . .

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whoa! What happened?

Yeah. I changed it. My guru (Stewart Jackson) posed a question - again! Dang him! "How much have you said about who you are?" he asked, between clouds of incensce.

"Everything!" I answered.

"Ah, my child, but isn't 'Resistance' just telling everyone what you are not? Instead of what you are?"

Like I said - Dang him! He was right. That's good, because you don't want gurus to be wrong.

So, the question remains - In what would I persist, no matter the time, the place or the circumstance? For those of you into Family Systems theory, it's a matter of Self-Differentiation (defining self, staying connected to others).

Who am I? How does who I am help me minister to my congregation? I suppose that's the biggest question of all.

So, those of you who have navigated here hoping to hear me rant about one thing or another, will have to keep browsing. From now on, I will be exploring persistence rather than resistance.

Friday, April 24, 2009

What Are You Afraid Of?

Here's my sermon for April 26, 2009. After re-reading, it's obvious I was preaching to myself!

Luke 24:36-48 (New International Version)
36While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you."
37They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."
40When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."
45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

What was it like for the twelve between Good Friday and Easter, between the moment they knew Jesus was dead and the moment they knew He was alive?

Were they hurt? Probably. Jesus was dead. Their hopes were dashed. They were most likely sad; not only had they lost a Messiah, they had lost a friend. Spend three years with someone and you’re bound to feel close to Him. His death changed all that, and there was loneliness to their gathering.

They most likely began to doubt everything they believed when Jesus was with them. Maybe God wasn’t as powerful or loving as they thought? Rome had won the battle and probably the war. Jesus just “clammed up” and took on the cross. Where’s the power in that? Jesus argued with the Pharisees; where was that Jesus when his life was on the line?

Luke tells us clearly that they were afraid. Afraid of what? An uncertain future? Could you go back to fishing or tax collecting after three years like they experienced? Afraid of punishment? If Pilate could get Jesus, he could surely get them!

I doubt you could find a more confused bunch of folks than these twelve men (and maybe a few women) – unless you look around our sanctuary this morning. We often find ourselves stuck in the same sort of “funk” that the disciples were in. We’re in that “in-between” time, too. For 40 days of Lent, we looked forward to Easter; we talked about how great it would be. It was! We got a glimpse of what a full sanctuary looks like, families were reunited, both nuclear families and spiritual families. We felt God’s glory through the worship at sunrise, the fellowship of breakfast, and the beauty of the lilies.

But now? Where’s the Easter Jesus when you need him? A couple of weeks later and its back to the same old grind. Kids go back home. Lilies wilt. We struggle to make it to pay day. There’s work to do. Glory never lasts!

Are we hurt? Scared? Lonely? Sad? Could be. But, then, there’s a knock on the door, and into our rooms of drudgery and disappointment comes Jesus – the Risen Lord!

His first word to us is the most important – “Peace!” In the midst of turmoil, he brings peace. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, “Touch me. Shoot! Go ahead and hug me! I’m no ghost!”

His second word is just as important, “Got anything to eat?”

In these two statements, we hear a remedy for the lost and lonely times in which we find ourselves:
  • Touch – Have you ever felt as if the touch of a loved one’s hand is all you need to feel better? When emotion is welling up inside of us, the touch of a hand is all we need to feel supported and loved. Holding a hand is often a “release valve” for all those emotions. Touch lets us know another’s presence is real, that their love is tangible and warm.
  • Food – I’m glad I serve a church that knows how to eat together. In a few minutes, we will go into the Fellowship Hall and share a meal. Never underestimate the importance of eating together! That’s where we talk, where we laugh. While our bodies gain nourishment, so do our spirits.

Yet, when times get hardest, these ways of connection are often the first casualties. Some of us withdraw from others when bad times hit. When we are overwhelmed by bad feelings, we shut ourselves off from friends and family. When things get rough, more often than not, we refuse to let others know. We stay home from church. We don’t go out. We certainly don’t invite anyone to a meal. The very thing we need is the very thing we avoid.

After Jesus reminds them about presence and the fellowship of a meal, he gives them a purpose: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

It’s not enough to feel the loving touch of a fellow Christian or to share a meal together. To truly defeat the sadness and confusion of hard times, we must have a purpose. We must be about the work that Jesus has given us to do. Repentance and forgiveness must be proclaimed, starting right here! Starting with us! The Great God of Life needs the Good News to get out and we are just the ones to do it!

Even though we suffer, even though we might be sad, we are the ones called to proclaim the Good News. We are the witnesses of the Living Lord!

Even though we are filled with shortcomings and failures, even though we doubt, we are the perfect messengers because we know the power of the Risen Christ!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Wife, My Daughter, and Jesus

Last week, I was sitting at the feet of my Family Systems guru, Stewart Jackson. Between fetching him cups of herbal tea, I said, "O Master, help me to understand these people to whom I minister."

"Ah, Grasshopper," came the ever-calm reply, "I see you as a missionary to another culture."

"No, I'm not," I thought, "I'm a Methodist Preacher!" He was right, of course. He always is. Upon further reflection, I realized that I am a missionary caught between two cultures.

For the past seven years, I have served small-town churches. Reform and Carbon Hill are each the size Birmingham-Southern was when I graduated. Before that, the smallest town I lived in was Gadsden, AL. I come from a genteel people whose lives centered around cocktail parties and the country club. Fortunately, I have attended, and earned degrees from, two of the finest educational institutions in the South (probably why I use words like "genteel" and "institution"). I know that sounds "snooty," but it has given me a very different set of values than the "hard-livin'" folks who surround me (to borrow Tex Sample's apt title). Here are a few examples:

  • Not long after I arrived here, I was in the Jasper McDonalds. I over-heard two girls talking about a mutual friend. One said to the other, "You know him! Brittany whooped his ass at Maw Maw's Christmas party last year!" We need not even analyze that one to see on how many levels it is "just plain wrong!"

  • One day, we were shopping at JC Penney's. One of my daughter's friends said, "I don't usually shop anywhere this nice." I didn't tell her that I once bought a tie that cost as much as her whole back-to-school wardrobe.

  • Before Walker County was "The Bingo Capital of West Alabama," it was known as the place to hire an affordable hit man, or to hide the body when he was through.

In my church, and among their friends, it is a different story. As is typical, the United Methodists (and the Presbyterians and the "First Baptists") tend to be on the high end of the economic ladder. They don't attend Christmas parties that degenerate into an "ass-whoopin'." They don't play Bingo, though one of them owns a Bingo hall. They are lawyers, business men and women, professionals. I find it easy to relate to them. That's not the problem!

The problem is that I am called to relate to all these "other people" that my church would rather just ignore. Last week, a church member said to me, "Around here, it's always been 'the less you know, the better'." That not just a custom, its a survival tactic! When your neighbor might be a criminal (or know one who owes him a favor), it's safe to ignore.

About a month ago, a meth lab blew up in Carbon Hill, no big surprise for any of us who live in rural Alabama. Was is surprising and dismaying to me is its location - two blocks from the parsonage! It was just behind the home of everybody's favorite retired school teacher, a woman who is the epitome of genteel. The man who ran it, after the explosion, grabbed his step-kids and high-tailed it out of there. An amazing feat, considering he had third-degree burns over most of his body. One step-son had to cover his younger brother's face, so he wouldn't see the horror story behind the steering wheel. The other step-son called 911 on his cell phone before they got out of town, after the guy realized he couldn't drive anymore. The step-dad later died from his injuries. You can see why the good Christian people of Carbon Hill want to ignore things like this.

I think my church would like it if I ignored them, too. But, I have three people in my life who force me to deal with these things. They are my wife, my daughter, and Jesus.

First there's my 14 year-old daughter. When she was little, we had a club called "Puppy Protectors." It was small, only two members. Every time we saw a stray dog or cat, we would investigate. Over the years, we've probably helped about two dozen of them, four of which still live with us. She's still taking in strays (thank God she still feels that amount of care for others), only now it's teenagers instead of puppies or kittens.

Since March of '08, we've looked after dozens of teenagers. They eat with us, stay the night with us, and do many other things with us. "Can so-and-so stay the night?" That's how it starts. Even though I play the "Grumpy Dad" role, I never win. Before long, a night becomes a week. In one case a night turned into 6 months!

Then, there's my wife, Belinda. I suppose she is now the President of "Puppy Protectors" (I'm more like the Sargeant-at-Arms). She attracts teenagers like rappers attract gold chains, or flat-brimmed baseball caps, or whatever they're wearing these days. I walked in the other night and she was surrounded by 4 or 5 kids talking about sex. The things these kids were saying to her sounded like Seth and Evan in "Superbad" (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about - locker room stuff). The best part was that they were listening to what she had to say about it, encouraging them to think more highly of themselves, like God thought of them.

So, even if I wasn't on a first-name basis with the Savior of the World (Jesus. In case you weren't clear on that), I'd be forced to relate to this "other element" of Carbon Hill socciety. Mostly, I find myself acting more like Jesus cleansing the temple than Jesus letting the little children come to him.

  • At a recent funeral at my church, after seeing a "mourner" pass some illegal prescription drugs to the widow, I took him outside and threatened to beat his ass like Brittany at a Christmas party! Illegal prescription drugs were what caused the funeral in the first place, so I was a little sensitive.

  • I had to go all "Jerry Springer" on a teenager a couple of weeks ago. He tried to trap a kid on our church basketball court, to make it easier to catch him before he beat him up. He, just a week later, beat up a youth group member and stole his cell phone. I forcefully removed him from our church property. He, too, threatened to "beat my ass" (what is it with these people and asses?)

I know. That's nowhere near a Jesusy thing to do. WWJD and all that jazz! Just the week before, Belinda had confronted the same kid. She told him she prayed for him and his victims, that God loved him no matter how crappy his life was (said it just like that, too), and offered to pray for him right there on the church parking lot. She's a much better Christian than I am. But, we do work out our own sort of "Good Cop/Bad Cop" thing. Maybe "Good Jesus/ Bad Jesus"?

I wish I could ignore, like most of my church has learned to do. Life is easier with blinders on. So, O Wise Stewart, my question is, "Just who am I a Missionary to? My safety-conscious church members? or the "at-risk" teens?"

Help me Obi-Wan. You're my only hope!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sorry, no pictures!

As for the diagrams, sorry. I thought they would transfer. Picture a roller coaster hill. It goes up a little bit to start on the left side of the page, then starts the downhill slope where all the negative emotions are. It hits bottom, and we decide to stick it out or leave. Then, it goes back up on the right side, and we move into a changed "world."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Letter to the Bishop

I post this now because I hand-delivered it to the "Bish" on Thursday. (There were even diagrams. I don't know if they will show up in this post, though.)

Bishop William H. Willimon
North Alabama Conference
898 Arkadelphia Rd.
Birmingham, AL

March 31, 2009
Dear Bishop Willimon,

As I finished reading your latest weekly letter (“The Sending of Pastors,” March 30, 2009), I was happy to see your request for feedback. There is an enormous need for communication between the leadership of this conference and the “rank and file” pastor. In the days following the Birmingham First appointment, I engaged in a flurry of e-mails with pastors in my district (Southwest). We all seem to have the same questions and complaints.

The first and foremost complaint can be summed up by my new “motto” – “Everybody wants to ‘start a conversation’ but nobody wants to sit down and talk anymore.” It seems “Start a Conversation” is the new catch phrase around the Cabinet table. I’m not sure what this phrase is “code” for; perhaps it means “I’d like to phrase a thoughtful response to your questions, so please put it in writing.” However, most of us are afraid it means something more sinister. There seems to be the fear that any feedback calling into question your decisions might reflect negatively on the pastor.

Throwing caution to the wind, I write in hopes that the phrase is code for something good. It has always been my experience (you may remember, I have sent you a few e-mails) that you do respond well to the written word. As a matter of fact, one of your e-mail responses I even considered an answer to prayer. I write this letter with the same spirit, and the same hope for response.

I whole-heartedly believe the changes you and the Cabinet seek to enact are positive ones. We have long needed criteria other than a “salary ladder” for making appointments. Placing the local church needs in front of the pastor’s need is also, I believe, the proper prioritization. While the ends may be better, the means leave something to be desired.

As we front-line pastors have discovered, wholesale changes cannot be made in a church (or even in a conference?) without much communication and information. While you send weekly e-mails, maybe what we need to do is just sit down and talk. I think some good two-way conversation, in which you and the Cabinet listen to the feelings of all us pastors in the 40-60 age range, would do wonders.

My feedback covers three areas: where we (your pastors) are in relation to the changes being enacted, the StrengthsFinder assessment, and salaries.

The Roller Coaster

In Gil Rendle’s book, Leading Change in the Congregation (Alban Institute, 1998), he describes the “Roller Coaster of Change” (Chapter 5, pp. 105-131).

You can see the downward slope is filled with all sorts of negative feelings. These are necessary, Rendle says, “The fact is that in order to make the transition into the new goals or plans of the congregation [or conference?], people first need to do the work of letting go of what has been.” (p. 114) As I hear my sisters and brothers in the ministry, I believe we are all on the downward slope. We may buy into the changes, but we have some mourning to do first. Many of us mourn the fact that just as we learn how to operate in the system, the rules change! Many of us mourn the fact that just as we enter what used to be the prime of our ministerial life, younger clergy are being given the appointments normally given to men and women our age. In short, lots of us just don’t know what’s going on anymore! It scares us and discourages us.

Here is the most important piece of feedback I could give you now – Rendle’s suggestion for the “Appropriate Leadership Response.” In responding, it is important to know which side of the roller coaster you are talking to! On the left is the “letting go” and all its negative manifestations. On the right side is all the hope, looking forward, and the positive manifestations the leader hopes for. So, which half are you and the Cabinet talking to?

A common mistake leaders make, according to Rendle, is to always speak from the right side of the roller coaster: “Leaders in congregations [and conferences?] quite often tend to hear the feelings and issues on the left half of the roller coaster and respond by talking to people about the hopes and actions on the right side of the roller coaster.” This is a problem because the two sides speak different languages – the left side speaks “feelings” and the right side speaks “logic”.

The appropriate leadership response to a congregation (or group of preachers?) on the left side of the roller coaster is listening. “Leaders and members who are on the left half of the roller coaster need to be listened to, not convinced,” Rendle says (p. 120). It is not easy for left-side people to deal with logical persuasion when they are dealing with feelings. I think perhaps the Cabinet has done a lot of talking and persuading, but how much listening have you done? It looks like your letter of March 30 was probably written from the right side of the roller coaster, but we left-side preachers won’t hear it! We just want you to listen to us!

This is Rendle’s diagram of the appropriate leadership response:

Rendle is careful to point out that “Listening is listening. It is not agreement. Listening means being able to be clear about the concerns people are raising and being able to demonstrate that the concerns have been heard, considered, and perhaps resolved” (p.120). I think, if you will take time to listen to us, hear some of our valid points, mourn with us over our losses, we might be able to help these positive changes come about.

Notice at the bottom of the slope is the “decision to stick with it (or leave).” We all must go through that point. If we are to climb the next hill with you, then we must decide to “stick with it.” In order to do that, we must be listened to!


Much has been written about the StrengthsFinder. I just have one question about that: How will the Cabinet match a pastor’s strengths to the proposed church?

In Buckingham’s follow-up book, Go Put Your Strengths to Work (Free Press, 2007), he talks about how difficult it is to know how one’s five strengths translate into workplace performance. Indeed, that’s what the whole book is about! Yet, the Cabinet seems to think it is just a matter of matching one list to another.

For example, mine are: Intellection, Input, Learning, Competition, and Adaptability. What kind of church would be good for me?

We might be at the point Buckingham predicts: “When it comes to the strengths movement, we are stuck in the first stage. We know how to label. We don’t know how to move beyond a label and actually put our strengths to work” (p. 11).

The StrengthsFinder is probably as good a way as any to discover what our strengths are, certainly it is more quick and efficient than some other ways. But, while there has been a lot of “label” talk, there has been little talk about how this will be put into action.


If you no longer consider salaries in appointment-making, shouldn’t we create some kind of system in which salaries don’t matter?

I agree that salaries are not the best way to make appointments, but, for years they have been the only means of rewarding pastors for a job well done. Could we find another way to reward pastors, if we are indeed throwing out the “salary ladder?”

If salaries are not considered, then a pastor is as liable, even if he or she has served long and well, to receive a pay cut as a pay raise. For instance, if my skills and fruits are needed one year at a $60,000 salary, and next year at a $40,000 salary, how am I supposed to understand that? Am I being punished? Rewarded? What?

It seems that, therefore, some sort of system should be worked out whereby those with those with equal experience make about the same (within a reasonable range, allowing for changes in church’s financial strength, pastor’s performance, etc.). That way, salaries really could be ignored in the appointment process.

I know this is an enormously complicated issue; but, is anyone working on it? Here’s an idea: What if the salary went with the pastor, rather than the church. “Pastor Sally,” with 10 years local church experience makes “X amount” wherever she goes, within a certain range. She might make more than “Pastor Joe” with 10 years local church experience because her churches (or the Annual Conference) have given her certain “performance raises.” Then, when she is appointed to a new church, they pay her the salary that she earns, rather than what they paid the pastor before her.

If there were such a thing, then salaries really could be ignored in the appointment process. I don’t pretend to know how it might work, but think about it!

There are a lot of feelings and ideas out there. If you take one thing away from this letter, please let it be this: stop ‘starting conversations’ and start listening! Please!

In Christ,
Rev. Earl Freeman
First UMC
Carbon Hill
(205)924-4409 – church
(205)924-4478 – home
(205)275-2545 – cell

p.s. – If I were writing by hand, I would sign as large as John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence. I suppose all the phone numbers and the e-mail address above is the digital equivalent.

What have I got to resist?

If you are reading this, "Welcome!" If you are a friend, you've likely been "priveleged" to hear some of my many pontifications on any given subject - Conservative Christians, Walker County (where "Jerry Springer" is just another talk show!), the state of popular music, etc. As you can see, I love to vent!

Maybe it's because, at 45, I am creeping up on Crumudgeon age. I've always aspired to be that old man in the neighborhood who is crusty but loveable once you get to know him, the "Good ol' Mr. Wilson" to 21st century "Dennises."

I think, if you'll excuse any haughtiness you might read into my words, that I just expect more of people than they seem willing to give. This isn't entitlement, I don't expect them to give more to me. I just expect them to give more to living in general - give more to their own education, give more civility, give more care to their children, give better customer service (don't get me started!), give more to their faith.

So, I'm going to use this space to call us to more!

What have I got to resist? Resist the mediocre crap that most people settle for these days! I mean, why listen to rap when you can listen to people who actually know how to play an instrument (like bluegrass)? Why read People Magazine when you could at least read Newsweek or Time or, dare I say, The Economist? Anything that makes you think more than wondering what Lindsay Lohan is up to!

If you are one of my brothers or sisters in the ministry, you know we have a lot to resist. We are being subjected to the oppression of "Effectiveness." Granted, I want to be a good pastor; and, I think I am. But, the powers that be define "Effectiveness" so narrowly that only a lucky few can ever achieve it. God has so much more in store for us! God has such a huge definition of "Effectiveness" (maybe so huge as to render the word meaningless?), that our feeble attempts reek of Pharasaical judgement and idolatry.

If you read this, know that I love you. Thank you for reading. Respond, comment, share it on facebook, do whatever you youngsters do with this infernal thing! See, I've got this crumudgeon stuff down!