Sunday, September 23, 2007

what is going on in the world

A few recent events, developments and opportunities; some are enjoyable, some call for prayer, some are occasions for learning. When time permits I enjoy watching SEC football (not ACC) on Saturdays, and the Georgia-Alabama game, won by Georgia in OT, was exciting. I am reading some of the developments related to the crisis in the 77 million member Anglican Communion, a complex set of issues, sorted out most recently in their gathering in New Orleans; the only hope for any outcome other than schism seems to be the spirit of God, and the wise leadership of Archbishop Rowan Williams. Still, I anticipate a fracture of that communion, with the majority in the global south defining that tradition's future, in reality, as the church of North America proceeds toward decline. If you have not listened to the voices of the church's global south, I urge you to read the essay by the present Archbishop of Uganda, Henri Luke Orambi. I would not agree with everything in his article, posted at First Things (seek link to the right), but I am humbled by the witnesses of the martyrs of his church. At the moment I am watching the beginning of the Ken Burns series, War, which traces the effect of WWII on four American cities: Leverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramenta, California; and Waterbury, Connecticutt. I take the Iraqi government's reckoning with the Blackwater incident (Blackwater is a private enterprise that provides security for U.S. leaders in Iraq) to be a significant moment in that country's determination of its own destiny. Some very good work was begun in our Annual Conference delegation related to the discernment of a possible candidate for Bishop. That will move forward, slowly, in the months ahead. And lastly, Jacques Lamour, the young man from Haiti who lives with us, is the subject of a feature television segment produced by Central Piedmont Community College (seek the link to the right). Congratulations, Jack!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

charles wesley at 300 and other thoughts

Our church hosted a gathering of over 230 singers from choirs across North and South Carolina, mostly from Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, over this weekend. The event culminated with a service/concert, which included a number of Charles' hymns, following the basic pattern of the liturgical year, beginning with "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" and concluding with "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus". The clinician, Andre Thomas from Florida State University, was superb: dynamic as a conductor with the choir, engaged as a speaker with the congregation. It was all very inspiring.

One of the high moments for me was the singing of "And Can It Be That I Should Gain", which is rarely sung in our congregation but which possesses a depth that is nothing short of remarkable; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has described it as the finest hymn in the English language.

For example:

"He left his Father's throne above
so free, so infinite his grace;
emptied himself of all but love
and bled for Adam's helpless race.
Tis mercy all, immense and free
for O, my God, it found out me".

In my book on Methodist Spirituality (A Way of Life In The World, see link to the right), I argue for the centrality of the Wesley hymns if our church is to retain its vitality as a movement. The concert yesterday, and a renewed engagement with these texts was a gift. Singing and standing next to my district superintendent George, with whom I once served as an associate pastor, was also a wonderful experience. I am grateful to Father Charles, but mostly to the God for whom these classic hymns were written!

But there was more this morning: baptisms in each service; a report about Family Promise, formerly Interfaith Hospitality Network, which our church hosts; an introduction of a family who are moving into an apartment because of the ministry; and the musical response to the benediction, consisting of "If You're Happy and You Know It" and "Amen", with the congregation clapping in time and Danny, one of our adults with developmental disabilities moving into the aisle and was as close as I will be, I am sure, to the Kingdom of God this week.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

you're invited to a writer's workshop

Junaluska Writer's Workshop: The Spiritual Practice of Writing the Story of Your Life

October 15 - 17, 2007

Thomas Merton, the spiritual guide and writer once reflected on his body of work: "The bad writing I have done has been all authoritarian, the declaration of musts, and the announcement of punishments. Bad because it implies a lack of love, good insofar as there may yet have been some love in it. The best stuff has been more straight confession and witness". In this workshop we will explore the basic differences between good and bad writing, and participants will be encouraged to develop as writers who approach Merton’s “straight confession and witness”. In other words, we will create a space and set aside time to write the story of our lives in truthful ways.

Such writing occurs in the midst of particular conditions, and we will reflect on the importance of these: reading, practice, time apart, feedback, discipline, more reading, more time apart, etc. We will learn from writers who teach us how to bear witness to the Christian faith, and who have spoken the truth in love. Finally, we will explore a number of contexts for writing: Sermons, Intercessory Prayers, Personal Letters, Spiritual Journals, Morning Pages, Newsletter Articles, Blog Entries, Book Reviews, Essays and Books. Advice and guidance about the publication of writing will be included in the discussion.

Ken CarterKen Carter is senior pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is author of four books, contributor to twelve others, and since 2002 has served as book editor of the Circuit Rider. In addition he has published over one hundred reviews, essays, sermons, hymns, poems and articles in a variety of periodicals and websites, including Upper Room, Christian Century, The Journal of Pastoral Care and His blog, “Bear Witness To The Love of God In This World” (, has attracted thousands of readers.

For complete course information and registration form, download the Junaluska Writer's Workshop brochure. Contact The Intentional Growth Center toll-free at 1-800-482-1442 or locally at 1-828-454-6720 or by email to

Monday, September 10, 2007

nurtured in the water of a womb (why we baptize children)

Before Jeremiah knew God, God knew Jeremiah. Before you knew God, God knew you. Before you claimed the name of Jesus, Jesus claimed your name. In a few sentences of scripture we learn much about a sixth century prophet, and also a lot about ourselves. We think it all depends on us. We think it‘s all about us. But it’s not about me. And it’s not about you.

I don’t know when I first heard that phrase, “it’s not about you”, but I like it. It is relevant to so much about life. Someone is tailgating you and saying hostile things to you in their car, and they speed away, when you make a turn. You wonder what’s going on? It’s not about you. Someone blows up at you in a meeting at work. It’s not about you. A guy in the baseball stands is berating the umpires, screaming at the top of his lungs. It’s not about you. You get a hostile letter about something that is happening in the neighborhood. It would be easy to take all of that personally…but it’s not about you.

The central character in life is God. That’s where Jeremiah begins. And in these first verses of the book of the prophet we discover something about this God. We discover that God knows us….

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, God says,

And before you were born I consecrated you…

This is a verse loaded with meaning. To know in scripture implied the most intimate form of relationship. You only have I known among all the nations of the earth, the Lord said through Amos to the people of Israel in the 8th century. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, God says to and about Jeremiah, and before you were born I consecrated you…

To be consecrated is to be set apart, to be made holy. What does it mean to consecrate a child? We see it in the scriptures. Hannah praying for Samuel, Elizabeth praying for John the Baptist, Mary praying for Jesus. The deep, profound longing within a mother who knows that the life of her child will be special, unique.

I’ve known parents who have consecrated their children, standing at the baptismal font, holding a son or a daughter, giving them to me, and it is a holy moment because it is not about me and it is not about them. And so we baptize children into a faith that precedes consciousness, a sign of prevenient grace that goes before our response. Faith, in some mysterious way, is nurtured in the water of a womb. It is not about you or me, your choice or my decision. Grace is about something else. It is about God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come. It is about the God who speaks to Jeremiah, and maybe to us:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you

And before you were born I consecrated you…

And this reminds us of a core truth about life: you are not an accident. Before we were formed in the womb, God knew us.

The word continues: I appointed you a prophet to the nations. I have a plan, a purpose for your life, God says. This goes a little bit against our grain. We are a nation that values choice and freedom. We think we are choosing something, but what if life is not really that way at all. What if a lot about life is chosen for us. I was riding with one of our daughters in the car, this was a number of years ago, and she looked at me and said, “Dad, I don’t like school, and I don’t like church”. There was an extended silence. And I looked at her and said, “That’s very unfortunate…, you were just born into the wrong family!”

You didn’t choose me, Jesus says in John 15. 16, I chose you. I have a friend who has a graduate degree in creative writing and a background in drama and has a very effective ministry at a church in Jacksonville. He baptized our younger daughter, Abby. Once he was having a rich and full discussion with a member of his church, and finally the lady, a saint of the church I’m sure, said what she really felt: “Skip, you don’t really want to be a minister!” And it kind of caught him off guard, and he said, “You’re right, I don’t want to be a minister, but God called me to be a minister! ”.

That’s a lot like the call of the prophet. God says, “Jeremiah, you didn’t choose me, you didn’t choose this, I chose you, I chose this”. Maybe this is the way the work of God gets done in the world. If it were about our choices, it might never happen. Sometimes God chooses it for us.

I can share a personal experience, something I learned about only recently. When I was a freshman in college I joined the church, made a profession of faith and was baptized. I had not had the benefit of a confirmation experience, and I had not had the kind of opportunities our youth are blessed to have. So that’s when it happened. I walked down the aisle. I said, “I want to be a Christian”. A week later I was baptized into that church. I was about nineteen years old.

About five years ago I was talking with someone in my family. I was influenced by my grandparents, and even knew my great-grandfather. His name was Fred but we called him Grampa. He was a Congregational Christian minister. He lived into his nineties, in Sanford, Florida, but he would come up for weeks at a time in the summer.

Some people flee from the city to the mountains during the summer; he traded the Florida heat for the south Georgia heat. I was talking with someone in my family and they said, “I remember we all went down when you were very little, to Sanford, and your great-grandfather baptized you. It was a wonderful day”.

I thought I was starting something, walking down that aisle. But it had begun long before I was aware of it. Do you know the hymn:

I sought the Lord and afterward I knew

He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.

It was not I who found O savior true

No I was found of Thee. (Hymnal, 341)

You did not choose me, Jesus says. I chose you.

And here is something I have learned about life. Sometimes God chooses something for us as a door opens. And sometimes God chooses something for us as a door closes. I think of the prayer in the covenant tradition of John Wesley: “Give me the work you would have me to do. Give me many tasks, Or have me step aside while you call others”.

As life passes, this all becomes more clear. The Quakers have a simple word of counsel: “have faith and way will open”. In his wonderful memoir Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer confesses his discouragement in hearing these words: “Have faith and way will open”. He was aging, time was passing, he did not want to wait for the time when “way will open”. Then a companion shared this with him: “I am a birthright Friend, and in over sixty years of living, “way has never opened in front of me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that has had the same guiding effect”.

God’s way can be an opening, or a closing. The good news of the Bible is that God chooses us, and for this reason our lives have purpose. God knows us—we are not an accident. God chooses us—our lives have a purpose. And then, God gives us a mission…

Do not say, I am only a boy, I am only a girl…Do not be afraid, for I am with you. We feel inadequate. If we sense that God has set us apart for some purpose we might very well say, like Moses did, “Lord, what about my brother Aaron”. If we sense that God is choosing us, and the way is hard, we might very well say, like Israel, on the way to the promised land, “it was better when we were back in Egypt”. We feel inadequate. We are overwhelmed. We wonder what God was thinking. We feel so insignificant in light of all that needs to be done.

Forty years ago a congregation in Philadelphia watched as three 9 year old boys were baptized and joined the church. Not long after, unable to continue with a dwindling membership, the church sold the building and disbanded.

One of those boys was Tony Campolo, who has written books, inspired people to service, advised presidents and lived a radical and evangelical Christian faith. He looked back upon his life, and that experience:

“Years later I was doing some research in the archives of my denomination, and I decided to look up the church report of the year of my baptism. There was my name, and Dick White’s and Bert Newman’s. Dick White is a missionary. Bert Newman teaches in Africa. Then I read the church report for “my” year:

“It has not been a good year for our church. We have lost 27 members. Three joined, and they were only children.”

Do not say, I am only a boy, I am only a girl…Do not be afraid, for I am with you. What seems inadequate and insignificant may be the very work of God. God gives that work, that mission to Jeremiah: I’ve put my words in your mouth I appoint you over nations and other kingdoms, To pluck up and to pull down, To destroy and to overthrow To build and to plant.

An old way of life is dying for God’s people. A new creation is emerging. It was true in Jeremiah’s time. The temple, the very center of their lives, the dwelling place of go, had been destroyed. It is true in our time. A neighbor moves. A loved one dies. A friend is ill. Children leave home. A company goes out of business, or merges. Life slows down or speeds up. Jeremiah came to remind them, and us, that God was at work, that throughout all of the changes in life God was in a relationship with them.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.

We bear witness to the astonishingly good news of a grace nurtured in the water of a womb, lived and breathed in prophets who listened for the voice and spoke to their people and speak to us, we place our feet into a river of life that is already flowing,

and who knows the dramatic difference it will make, in the life of a child or a young person who comes our way, who is taught or prayed for or encouraged… who knows the mission God might have in store for them, the way that is ahead. It is amazing to imagine, and we are limited only when we think it is all about us. But it is not about you, or me. The hymn again reminds us:

I find, I walk, I love,

But oh, the whole of love is but my answer Lord to thee.

For thou wert long beforehand with my soul.

Always thou lovedst me. (“I Sought The Lord”, Hymnal, 341).

Sunday, September 09, 2007

prophecy fulfilled (college football)

My average yesterday was 70% (7 of 10). I missed Georgia, Auburn and UNC!

Friday, September 07, 2007

ken's prophecy (saturday football)

Alabama over Vanderbilt
Georgia over South Carolina
LSU over Virginia Tech
Georgia Tech over Samford
Auburn over South Florida
Virginia over Duke
North Carolina over East Carolina
Nebraska over Wake Forest
Florida over Troy
Boston College over NC State

life lists and life expectancy

I found both of these posts to be fascinating, the first having to do with life lists (setting goals), the second life expectancy (genetics, lifestyle, diet, etc.). Click here and here. Thanks to Larry Hollon and Kendall Harmon.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

you have to read this book!

On the anniversary of the great flood, my good friend Cam had recommended Brinkley's The Great Deluge. It is a compelling account of the serial disasters under the name Katrina---the hurricane, the flood, the governmental negligence...and yet there are heroes and saints within the narrative as well. Brinkley spares neither Bush, Fema nor Nagin---indeed their inattentiveness led to unnecessary death and abuse...and yet he places the event in a larger context, one that includes us all, as Americans, as Christians, as human beings.

Our church participated in a number of ways---assimilating families, participating in the local civic response, ministering to evacuees at the coliseum, gathering housing supplies and furnishing; we attempted to keep up with some of these families, and to this day have some relationship with a few of the individuals; we continue to send teams to Biloxi. There was some visceral need for a response, but the awareness that the response needed to help the situation, and not add more complexity to it. In hindsight I am amazed at the outpouring of compassion and intelligence. We were struggling with questions about the needed Christian and humanitarian response, and beginning to question what all of this meant for us as citizens of a powerful nation with vast resources.

The UMC is hosting a gathering in New Orleans at the end of this week. There will be a tour of the 9th ward and a focus on the entire gulf region (Brinkley helpfully places his focus there as well). Reading Brinkley reminded me that "Katrina Fatigue" and moving on to the next crises are postures that will leave a number of American citizens behind, permanently, through no fault of their own. The story also questions the coherence of our nation, the ways some regions are valued and others not, and calls forth, at least for a Methodist, he importance of a renewed connection of churches and structures, for the long haul.

I commend The Great Deluge to anyone who lived through these events and wants to reflect on the aftermath that remains after the waters have subsided.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

a picture is worth a thousand words!

Appalachian State, 34; Michigan, 32