Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Got the Feeling I've Been Here Before

Part of unpacking is coming upon those things that were already packed away anyway and not looked upon in a long time.

I came upon one of those pocket folders stuffed with pictures the other day. During my stroll down memory lane, I happened upon this one.

A somewhat younger version of me in the pretty brand new Covenant sanctuary, playing with Glad River on a Sunday night in the spring of 1997.

As memory serves, that was one of our best nights, top to bottom. Good crowd, lot's of support from the churches we were serving at the time - Colonial Park, St. Luke's and Asbury - and some of you Covenant folks were there, too. Wow, where does the time go?

And speaking of Glad River, coming soon, my definite post on the history of the band - (with pics) what we were, how we came to be, what we are, and my prayerful hope that there may yet be a trickle left in our incarnation of the River whose streams make Glad the city of God.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Didn't Beaver Cleaver Live in Mayfield?

I lived in Mayfield, Kentucky, from June of 1970 until the second day of January, 1976.

I turned 6 a month after moving there and moved away in the middle of my 6th grade year.

Mid-year appointments...ahhh, ain't they great? Especially on the psyche of children who change schools in midyear?

Did I say that out loud?

Anyway, as I've alluded in other posts, those years were significant for me. Those were my Wonder Years.

Whatever Mayfield really was back then, it was the place I grew up. I knew it for what I could get from it.

Hill's BBQ ( I went to school with Molly and Mary)
K&N Rootbeer in Frosty Mugs brought to your car.
Summer days at the club swimming until water logged and learning to play golf (preacher's family had a membership).
Mayfield Cardinal Football games at War Memorial Stadium.

Friends and neighbors always near.
An easy walk to and from school.
A quick bike ride to almost anywhere that mattered.
And I was the preacher's kid at Mayfield First Church. Or, at least one of them. Dad was the Associate, and Mayfield was our home.

It’s what I knew.

I've rarely gone back over the years. I'm not sure why that's the case. Well, that's not entirely true. Initially it was the case because clergy don't go back to the places they've left---right?

It's just not done, and if you grew up with Jeffords as your last name, you're darned right it wasn't done.

And that was hard for me. I had a niche' of friends with whom I went to school and church and often those two groups were one, but not always. Whatever code of clergy ethics there was to abide by, I didn't know about it or care...I just missed my friends.

It's a pattern that has repeated itself more than once in my life, both as a PK and as a P in my own right.

It's a hard thing--probably necessary only because we clergy cannot be trusted to behave professionally toward one another--an indictment on all persons of the cloth and God knows there's far too many horror stories of preacher's past who can't and won't let go even though there is no longer any official authority to be pastoral in a former context – making it difficult for the new pastor and confusing for congregants.

The problem with that is PK's get caught in the vice between what was and what must now be.

A life lesson, me thinks, and one that's tough to take sometimes.

Well, over the years my contact with those who were my childhood friends has lessened and lessened to the point of being nearly nonexistent.

The people I knew and called friend are that only in my memory of what I knew them to be – almost 35 years ago.

I've always felt that Mayfield was an aborted chapter in my life. Maybe it would have been different for me to have left at a school year's end. It would have had some appropriate finality to it. And true enough, with each new appointment then and now has come the opportunity to be in relationship with wonderful people. And that has happened again as recently as my move this Summer.

Well, a couple of things have occurred that have reacquainted me with that place.

My sister has lived in Mayfield longer than anywhere else in her life, I guess. Beyond our time there are a family, she has lived just outside of town with her husband for the whole of her marriage. Earlier in life it was easier to get up there and visit. As my life has become more and more complex, the more difficult it has been to go.

Last week for the holiday break the family loaded up and went to Mayfield. It was the first time I have spent any meaningful time there, which is to say more than driving through on my way to Paducah, in about 5 years.

Jerriann and Colin moved into a new home last year, and she's been itching for us to come up.

It was a good visit and time I needed to spend with my sister. It's a hard thing, though. I know I'm not the brother to her that she had in Jimmy. I couldn't be that if I tried. So I haven't. But I've always known I could be better than I was.

We spent a couple of nights there. On July 4, she and I drove into town, needing to load up on cookout stuff, and I saw the town I once knew as home in the light of day.

My own sense of what I saw didn’t square with my memory. Maybe it’s that my memory, pre-life experience, is devoid of interpretation of what things mean in their realistic context.

What I saw was a small town that seemed smaller than I knew it. And it may, in fact, be smaller.

The General Tire plant is long since gone. The KT plant is gone. I don’t know what industry there is that generates the economic energy for the town to circulate around. I was left to wonder if Mayfield is hurting or if it has adapted to economic pressures and doing better than it seemed to me.

Well, since she and I drove into town to go to the store and because it takes only minutes to drive from one part of town to the other, we decided to go see the places I knew of as home in my childhood.

You know how time warps perspective? How is it possible that a place that seemed so expansive was the exact opposite?

Here's my first house. 1301 Longview. We lived there for the first couple of years. That spot in the front yard is a place a tree used to be- one I climbed and played in almost daily.

The curb in front is the one I hit my head on when I was 7 when I wrecked my bike after speeding down the hill coming from right to left in the picture. I think I see the indentation from here. A scary thing - concussion. What I remember about that is wanting to sleep, and my folks not letting me.

A couple of years later, we moved to 204 Heritage Drive.

Jimmy and I shared a room and the last window on the left, which is barely visible in this (drive by with your iPhone in hand) photo, was ours. The window just to the right was Jerriann’s room, and the reason we know it’s her window is that she spent more than a little time climbing in and out of it at all hours of the night! But that’s another story.

It was a brand new house in a brand new subdivision. It was so new that not all the houses around us were finished yet, and there were no houses behind us, only woods. To play in those woods was to enter into a world of another kind. In the heart of the woods was a creek - and much time and mischief ensued there. My stories of that place were less than the Hundred Acre Wood and much less than the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but they were meaningful to me nonetheless.

I went to Longfellow Elementary School. We were the Tigers. Hmmm, seeds were sown early, I guess. I played football for the Tigers in grades 4, 5 and 6. I was starting center in 6th grade. In those days, we could chop block, and I was pretty good at it.

My mother still has the picture of me in Gold and Navy uniform. My footwear? Cleats? Nope…Red, high top Chuck Taylor’s. Nice.

Somewhere along the line, schools in Mayfield became something very different than what they are now. There were several other elementary schools back then – Washington and East College, I think. Now, there’s one brand new beautiful elementary school in town. Graves County schools didn't exist back then, at least not in the way they do now.

Longfellow is gone. The building is now being used as the Health Department on one side and an adult education facility in the back along the hallways where the upper grades once met. Other than my home and neighborhood, this was the building I spent more time in than anywhere else during those years.

If pushed, I think I could recall all my teachers from those years---I think.

This very bad picture is of the Church in which the soil of my spirit was tilled. First Church, Mayfield was a special place to me. I was confirmed there. It was from that pulpit that I was most powerfully aware of the art of preaching. It was there that I heard a voice from the pulpit other than my father’s.

I have vague recollection of Joe Leggett’s presence in the pulpit. What I recall more than his preaching was his crew cut, and during football season he’d ask Mayfield's golden boy, known to you as the Rev'd Dr. Gregory Waldrop, to stand up and announce how many touchdowns he had scored at the previous Friday night's football game, or how many points he had scored playing basketball. Greg and my Dad's relationship was powerful in those days. Dad was in Greg's life when Greg was sensing the call to ministry and he helped Greg to hone it as it was taking shape within him. There were many, many nights you'd find Greg at our home, late at night, popcorn popping and deep life conversations commencing. I remember Greg’s first sermon from Mayfield First's pulpit. It was titled “Go!”

But the voice from the pulpit that captured my attention in those years, other than my dad's, was Jerry Carr's. He was and is a master of the craft. His use of language and sense of presence in the pulpit had me riveted.

And there I'd sit. Very often I'd be on the second pew, pulpit right, sitting beside Chuck Stallins - who was the definition of a helluva guy.

I loved that Church. It was because of it that we lived in Mayfield. And when we left Mayfield, we left that Church.

Only in the recent past has some reconnection with Mayfield come about with folks other than family. One of my buddies in those days, Kenny, lives in Reidland and goes to church there with my friend and clergy brother, Sky, as his pastor. There was an email reconnect there, and that made me glad. Recently Kenny's dad died. A good man, as I recall, and I was thankful that Sky let me know that so I could convey my sympathies to Kenny. And I was thankful for a ministry peer I knew and trusted who could walk the difficult days of grief with them.

And then, dare I say it, there’s Facebook.

Liz was my closest buddy in those days. We went to school together, church, our families socialized. It was never boyfriend/girlfriend. Had we been in each others’ lives at another time, maybe? But we were buddies, and there’s always been a soft place in my heart for her.

Other than the rare news about each other communciated through our parents, we've not been in each other's company, or made direct contact, in a long, long time.

A few weeks ago I had a friend request from her, and I thought, “Ok, now I see the value of Facebook.” She still lives in Mayfield and has a great life. She’s helped fill in the blanks of folks I’ll never see again and always wondered what sort of life they ended up living.

My Mayfield trip was cathartic in ways I never expected nor thought I needed.

But I was wrong, I did.

It was good to be with my family. My boys loved being there with their Aunt Jerriann and Uncle Colin.

Don’t know when we’ll get back – although I doubt it’ll be 5 years from now.

We need those places, don't we? Wonder places for Wonder Years. Truth about them is never fully what we remember and was never really what was actually true. The value of the place and the meaning we attach to it is not dependant on that.

And that's a good thing.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"The Ministry of Presence" Pentecost 5, Mark 6.1-13

The Ministry of Presence
Mark 6.1-13

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense* at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

I was 22 when I received my first pastoral appointment.

In May, of 1987, I had just graduated from Memphis State, had served for the previous couple of years as youth director at Emmanuel Church, had a new girlfriend (who would later become my wife), and was preparing to enter The Divinity School at Vanderbilt that Fall.

I moved only a couple of weeks following graduation as the appointed Associate Minister of Old Hickory United Methodist Church. Now for the uninformed, Old Hickory is Nashville. However, for those who have any sense of decency, or if you are at least a resident of Old Hickory, you would never confuse to the two.

Old Hickory is a mill town village. It sits on what was farmland which was secured by the US Government in 1917 during the war effort to establish a plant which would fabricate and produce smokeless gunpowder. DuPont was awarded the contract and built a plant there.

As it was for many companies in those days, in order to maintain a sense of camaraderie, morale – for a projected workforce with families of upwards to 35,000 people, and for a plant whose product had military implications, meaning security was an issue, they built a community. They built a village – consisting of houses, recreational facilities, school, general store, and churches.

The upshot was this – Old Hickory was a self contained world. People worked for DuPont, lived in houses DuPont built, educated their children in schools DuPont built and worshipped together in churches all within the confines of the same relative geographical area. They were Old Hickory. Not Nashville.

By the time I arrived in 1987, times had changed rather dramatically. No longer the pressing need of concerted focus of the populous that World Wars bring, the plant’s focus had shifted to the commercial application of the products they generated - things like Teflon. The houses were still there, occupied now by the residents who only decades before had labored in the plant, but were now retired having been given a favorable price to purchase the company houses they had lived in for so long.

Folks worked at the plant now who didn’t live in Old Hickory. It was a hard thing for the old timers to watch.

They were a loving, caring, gentle people. They loved their church, they enjoyed their memories and the stories they prompted in recollection of how things were. They watched over each other, and they were patient with a kid who had come to be among them for his first pastoral appointment.

As a preacher's kid who has lived all over the Conference, including the Tennessee Conference, my life is a collection of chapters. Each move is one such chapter, and I'll reflect back upon them from time to time to frame the stuff of our conversations now.

1987 was a seminal year for me. Because my Senior Pastor was in failing health, and often hospitalized for extended periods due to his severe diabetes and congestive heart failure (he actually died during that year) not only was I to work with forming and growing a youth group, but I took on all the pastoral duties for a church of folks who were, on average, more than 50 years older than me.

I loved Jesus, sure.
I was called to preach, of course.
I cared about people, but I had no experience with dealing with people who were so different than me. My story was not theirs. So, I did that which happened quite often in those days, I called my dad, then very active in minister in our Conference, and now retired, and sought his counsel.

I said, “Dad, I go and visit with these sick folks in the hospital and I try to be encouraging and they look at me like, ‘Boy, what do you know about life to tell me anything?’ (and one dear older woman actually said that to me as she lay in the hospital writhing in pain from the cancer that had consumed her ) and you know what, they’re right. What do I say to these people?”

Now with my father, life’s lessons are not long drawn out pontifications. Usually, they come in the form of a question for me to wrestle with---for there is within us all some sense of what “Truth” is, we just have to be open and honest with ourselves enough to claim it.

He said, “Son, what makes you think you have to say anything?” “Just be there. And if silence comes, that’s o.k. Silence is your friend, not your enemy. Don’t fill the quiet spaces with noise, just be present. You are there are a representative of the Church, of Jesus himself. Your presence is its own ministry.”

I learned the ministry of presence from my Dad. It was confirmed and broadened by wonderful teachers and mentors across the years. True presence with someone else is its own ministry.

Jesus was in his hometown. They knew him. That’s not always a good thing. Ever go home with people remembering only who you were and not who you are?

John Dominic Crossan’s exhaustive study on the life of Jesus talks about Jesus’ role and place within the social strata of his hometown. As a carpenter, he was of the artisan class, which means he was just above the most undesirable and expendable and many, many rungs below the upper crust. For him to come and behave in any way other than that which was expected for someone of his station was to give meaning to the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What they knew of him was not in sync with the person who stood before them speaking, teaching and behaving as one with authority.

Humanity's history is full of pejorative labels for those who achievements in life extend beyond the expected boxes those of more notable station put them in. "Uppity" is one such label.

Katie Huey makes the point this way – “does anyone really want to listen to a hometown boy, especially one whose parentage is questionable ("son of Mary" instead of "son of Joseph"), and "just" an artisan at that? (How could he possibly have the learning needed to preach to us?)

But lest we are tempted to hop on the “jump on the disbelieving hometown people” bandwagon, ask yourself this question – “What would you think about a neighbor that you thought of being nothing more than an ordinary, hardworking person, who kept his yard well groomed and did all those things that we think leads us to believe that he is only who we think he is and nothing more - and it turns out that he's a miraculous teacher, let alone the Son of God?

And there he was. Preaching and teaching. And he wasn’t being received well. Sure, he cured a few people, but it wasn’t the fullest measure of his capacity. There’s a lesson here about the efficacy of God’s power in the face of unbelief. The problem is not God, it’s us. Barbara Brown Taylor’s image is a helpful one. It’s like trying to light a match to a pile of wet sticks. “It doesn’t matter how strong your flames is, you have got to have something that will catch fire.”

So if the message isn’t taking hold in the places of the familiar, you go out and spread the news of the Kingdom wherever you can, and that’s what Jesus and his Companions did.

Jesus’ evangelism course consists of several key elements, and one in particular.
• Don’t go alone.
• Call out that which bends us toward self preoccupation and injustice whenever you see it.
• Travel light..that is, don’t be so encumbered by your things that you can’t be effective
wherever you’re called to serve.
• And then, this. “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.” Or, as I
read it…enact “the ministry of presence.”

Be fully present in the moment you spend with any in the name of Jesus.
Look, we all know how easy it is to be somewhere, but not be there…you know? But presence fully realized communicates care, it communicates God’s loving steadfast presence that resides regardless of what we’re going through.

The best definition of hell I ever heard was this – “being completely isolated from everything that bespeaks life. “ Too many living on earth right here, right now are living in hells of all kinds for which the loving, steadfast presence of God shared by your ministry of presence can abate.

Too many of us focus on the last of Jesus’ instructions…that is, if folks are not receptive to that of God you're attempting to offer, shake the dust off your sandals and move on…or, “well, I tried.”

I would argue that we go to that way too quickly. It gives us a convenient “out” when things don’t go quite they way we think they should. And I would contend even further that the pursuit of such an option is more an indictment of us than it is the people with whom we’ve attempted to share the milk of human kindness. In those moments the first questions to be asked are not, “what’s wrong with those people?” but, “Was I really present or not?”

It boils down to this question in such a moment..."what is the motivation for my care?" Am I being present on my terms, or on God's?

Well, I started this homily in 1987. Let’s fast forward to 1992. It was my first Sunday at Asbury Church, in Fox Meadows, as Associate Minister. And yes, there’ll be more than a few stories rise up in me from those days, too. But I only want to focus on a couple of moments.

My first Sunday there was much like ours last week. Many, many people introducing themselves. Tying to employ all those name association tools are tough for me. Names, faces all a blur. Except for one. At the end of the service there was a reception in our honor and a man came up to me and said, “Hi, Johnny, I’m Pat, and I’m going to die while you’re my pastor.”

Not the typical first Sunday greeting. Unsure of where to go with that, I said, “Well, Pat, I don’t think I’m going to have trouble remembering your name!”

He said, “I’m glad you’re here, I look forward to knowing you.”

Pat was a great guy fighting the good fight against cancer. He had a brutal sense of humor, which I liked. He and his wife, Judy, were very close to Kristy as they were to the Senior Pastor’s family. He was the flesh and blood example that healing, sozo, is more than physical healing. The disease may have claimed his body, but he was healed, whole and free. Of that I am convinced. I bear witness.

He missed very little church as the battle was ebbing toward an inevitable conclusion. Toward the end, there were extended absences from worship, and when he came we could see there was a little bit more of him gone. The ministry of his presence in our lives gave evidence of God’s grace in the face of pain and dis-ease.

I was the last person to serve him Holy Communion, only days before he breathed his last.

Pat always sat in the back on the pulpit side of that sanctuary. It was a Sunday that I was preaching, so I was on the pulpit side to serve the sacrament. I was fully prepared to take the sacrament to him, thinking that there was no way he could get down to the altar rail.

The whole room watched as he rose and with some assistance, slowly made his way to the rail. And then he knelt, and placed his hands outward to receive the body of Christ.

I think everyone of us in the sanctuary that day knew we were watching something holy. Something sacred. It was then that I shared with him that enduring, never failing expression of the presence of Jesus to, with and among us – Holy Communion.

Which is why how we celebrate Communion matters so much. When you come today to receive, that is what we’re doing, receiving. We are receiving the ministry of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. Let our posture be like that of Pat, hands and hearts open to receive the living presence of our Savior.

The question is no longer being held captive by who you were, but is one of acknowledgement of who you are, and by God's grace, who you are becoming.

And from this moment, let us leave this place different than we came. Challenged, commissioned and prepared to be present in someone’s life this week. Someone who’s story may be as different from you as can be.

But be there. Be open. Be present.
And when you do you'll discover hearts and lives changed.
Maybe even yours.