The Pastor's Buzz

Pastor Buzz Trexler's blog for God's people in The Meadow.

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Name: Buzz Trexler
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Journalist for 29 years; married to Donna for 28 years; parent of David, 27, and Elizabeth, 24; pastor of Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Alcoa since 2002.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Journey Through The Desert: Who Are You?


Who are you?

If you’re South Korea's Kim Yu-na, then you are also “Queen Yu-na,” and perhaps rightly so, given that Thursday night she scored 228.56 points, winning a gold medal and beating dthe previous world record by more than 18 points – a world record held by Queen Yu-na, who is a mere 19 years old.

Who are you?

If you’re Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, it’s a bit more complicated.

Part of his identity is wrapped up in a pretzel-like maneuver called the Hurricane that he does while soaring some 50 feet in the air on skis. It netted him a silver medal Thursday night.

But four years ago he was the guy who finished seventh at the Olympics in Turin, got into a street fight and was sent home.

He was also the man who watched a friend commit suicide in front of him; a victim of sexual abuse; an abuser of alcohol who fought depression and thoughts of suicide; and someone who lost his 5-year-old sister to a drunken driver.

Speedy Peterson, who prior to Thursday night was defined by triumph and tragedy, is at this point at the pinnacle of triumph for him, having won the silver medal: Peterson says he may even retire the Hurricane.

At 28, it seems he is ready to embrace a new identity: The overcomer.

Listen to what he told a reporter for The Associated Press, as tears streamed down his face:

“I know that a lot of people go through a lot of things in their life, and I just want them to realize they can overcome anything. There's light at the end of the tunnel and mine was silver and I love it.” ("Peterson lands a Hurricane, wins a silver," Eddie Pells, The Associated Press; February 26, 2010)

Who are you?

If you’re Nicodemus in today’s text (John 3:1-17) , you come into the story as a Pharisee. You’re a teacher of the law. You’re a member of the Jewish religious leadership; the Sanhedrin. The name Pharisee means “the separated one,” because Pharisees “were those who had separated themselves form all ordinary life in order to keep every detail of the law of the scribes.”

It’s believed there were never more than 6,000 of them. ("The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Vol. 1," 1975, William Barclay, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.; pp120-124)

If your name is Nicodemus, you weave your way in and out of the Gospel according to St. John.
In the 3rd chapter of John, you come to Jesus slinking through the dark of night, but affirming Jesus by saying, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the God-pointing, God-revealing acts you do if God weren’t in on it.” (Most Scripture citations are from Eugene Peterson's "The Message." Exceptions are from The Revised Standard Version)
“Jesus said, ‘You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — to God’s kingdom.’”

And then Nicodemus — the Pharisee, the teacher, the religious leader — engages Jesus in this wonderful discussion about childbirth, when the Rabbi is talking about something totally different.

He’s talking about spiritual rebirth, not physical rebirth.

The last words we get from Nicodemus are, “What do you mean by this? How does this happen?
Jesus replies, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?”

Who are you, Nicodemus?And that’s the last we hear from Nicodemus … that is, until the 7th chapter of John. Turn on over to Chapter 7, verse 45, if you like.

In between this Chapter 3 discussion about physical and spiritual rebirth with Nicodemus and Chapter 7, Jesus has fed 5,000, walked on water, and explained, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

He tells his disciples, "no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."

And some of them leave him.

Some in the crowds identify Jesus as a “good man.” But others are saying, “No, he is deceiving the crowd.”

“Who are you, Jesus?”

And the possibilities of his identity are thrown about:

“This is really the prophet.”

“This is the Messiah.”

“No, he’s merely a Galilean.”

And many call for his arrest.

Then here, in Chapter 7, Nicodemus the teacher of the Law becomes the defender:

“Does our Law decide about a man’s guilt without first listening to him and finding out what he is doing?”

And then the chief priests and Pharisees ask Nicodemus, in effect, ‘who are you’:

“Surely you’re not also from Galilee, are you?”

Who are you, Nicodemus?

Let’s move to John 19, because that’s where Nicodemus surfaces again.

Jesus has been crucified.

He’s said, “It is finished.”

And Scripture says, “Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

The soldiers have pierced his side.

Look at verses 38-42.

It would seem that along the way, throughout this journey that we find in the Gospel According to St. John, Nicodemus moves from the seeker in the dark of night, to a disciple who dared to be seen in the daylight.

"Who am I?” Nicodemus now answers, “I’m a disciple who loved my Lord, and I’m here to pay tribute to him.”

Incidentally: We only find Nicodemus in the Gospel according to Saint John.

This man is found in no other Gospel record by name.

There’s another man in Scripture who comes to Jesus.

We find him in Mark 10:46-52.

He’s generally referred to as Blind Bartemaeus and he’s a beggar sitting by the roadside.

Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho and Bartemaeus heard it was Jesus who was passing.

And the blind man shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

But the story says, “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more louder.”

To the people around him, Bartemaeus’ identity lay in the fact that he was a blind beggar.
Bartemaeus was anxious, because he had heard of hope.

He wanted a different identity.

The people around him tried to hold him down by telling him to be quiet, but he shouted all the louder.

How many times do we have people in our lives — even family and friends — who pull us back when we try to get to Jesus?

If you are struggling with something, and you’re trying to overcome it — to get well, to break the bonds of some sort of addiction, some besetting sin — don’t you know that there will be people in your life who need you to continue to struggle, to be “sick.”

Maybe it’s because if you’re sick, it makes them feel better about themselves.

Amen?

Some people need you to match a negative profile — “always the bad boy, always the bad girl, the wild child.”

There are sick family systems that need someone in the family to be the “bad one.”

The bad sister; the bad brother; the bad seed.

And so they send those messages, and you’ll have to pardon me, here, but these the words some people use:

“You’re no good."

“You’re a no good husband."

'“You’re a no good friend."

“You’re a no good wife … son … daughter.”

You hear these messages … these lies … and you’re stuck …

("Tuesdays With Beebes.")

What we believe about ourselves, and what we believe about our relationship to God truly defines who we are.'

And this is one of those yes-and-no statements.

Yes, from an orthodox Christian perspective, in that our relationship to God is defined by our relationship to Jesus Christ.

This is classic atonement theology: We’re separated from God because of our sin, but Christ paid the price for that sin through His death on the cross. Our acceptance of that makes us “at one” with God.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us the certainty that he lives, and that we, too, will live in eternity with God.

When we have a healthy understanding of this theology, it has a transforming effect on our life and what we believe about our self.

Granted, there are some sick-puppy preachers, teachers and churches out there who promote some unhealthy understandings and that, too, impacts what we believe about our self if we are in such an environment.

But what we believe about ourselves may not truly define who are. The reason: We are have a relationship with God even when we have not accepted Christ. Like Nicodemus, you may ask, “How can that be?”

Well, it’s not the same two-way relationship as when we have accepted Christ, but it’s a relationship nonetheless. Because God shows God's love for us even before we “know” God.

This is a classic Wesleyan understanding of grace.

God pursues us like a smitten lover, seeking to shower us with a reckless, furious love before we even know God. God is constantly knocking on the door, desperately wanting us to open up our hearts to God’s loving grace and a transformed life.

If in our cognitive self we believe we are no good, it does not negate the truth that our identity is still a loved child of God.

We've merely let someone, or some thing, steal our understanding of the true identity.

If you’re that “bad seed,” it may well be that it’s something that has been imposed on you. It’s your activity; not your identity!

If you’re in that sort of family system, and you come to Jesus, and you get well; if you were blind, but now you see; all hell can break loose in that family because of your wellness. ("Tuesdays With Beebes.")

And so, Blind Bartemaeus shouts all the louder, and Jesus heard him.

Why?

Because God always hears the cry.

And so, Jesus called him, asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Blind Bartemaeus says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

“Go; your faith has made you well.”

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Who are you?

“I am no longer blind Bartemaeus; I am now the seeing disciple.

Who are you?

“I am no longer just Nicodemus the Pharisee; I am now a learned disciple.
Which raises the question, “Who are you?”

Come forward and pick up a promise in the desert.

Maybe you’ll find a new identity in Christ.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

The Prayer of the Black Eyed Peas

Somewhere in the cosmos there is an unwritten law of nature that says along about the 12th or 13th year of a child’s life, the adolescent must choose a style of music that irritates the parents.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was rock ‘n’ roll, a style of music that was loud with sometimes suggestive, drug-fueled, raucus lyrics. It was something of a combination of urban blues, country and gospel music, with roots that can actually be found as early as the 1920s … the, uh, “Roaring 20s.” (Thanks, Wikipedia, for that synopsis.)

Everybody from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to psychologists were being quoted as saying rock 'n' roll was "corrupting" our youth. ("Those Crazy Rockin' Teenagers.")

Some of us cut our teeth on rock ‘n’ roll and couldn’t understand what all of the fuss was about … until we became parents, too, and our own children entered into those pre-teen and teen-age years.

We, however, decided that we wouldn’t be like our parents. We’d give our kids’ music a chance and not be arbitrarily condemning.

Incidentally, last August, on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the Pew Research Center released a poll on the so-called generation gap. Its conclusion was that while young and old are still not on the same page, the "the differences seem not to matter anymore."

And as for music, The Associated Press story on the Pew study says this: "Rock rules across generations, and the Beatles are high on the list of every age group's favorite musicians."

When it comes to the music scene, maybe giving new styles of music a chance helped. After all, wasn’t it John Lennon and Yoko Ono who sang, “All we are saying, is ‘give peace a chance.’”

In the Trexler household, our kids grew up with different styles of music: Pop, rock, country, contemporary Christian. Still, we had this rule: If you wanted to listen to something different, something new, then mom and/or dad had to listen to it, too.

After all, monitoring media is merely responsible parenting.

Most of the time it was bubble gum music … stuff like Boyz 2 Men.

But then hip-hop came on the scene.

My instant reaction was … “Yeck.”

Working in the media, it wasn’t long before I was thoroughly educated on the negative aspects of that music. Now, lest you think I’m narrow-minded about this, there’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll that I would have kept away from my kids as well.

According to one account, hip-hop culture was birthed in the early 1970s by African American and Latino youth living in the economically depressed South Bronx. The music was revolutionary in its exposure of social problems like drug abuse, racism and gang violence in their neighborhoods. But somewhere along the way, as often happens, the revolution gave way to capitalism. The music became more about getting more money, getting more sex, getting more drugs and the resulting violence.

As recently as 2008, a University of Washington psychologist noted the growing exploitational nature of hip-hop music:

“Black girls are not seeing positive images of who they are and what they can be,” said Carolyn West, associate professor of psychology and the study of prevention of violence at the University of Washington. “Looking at the sexual imagery really impacts on the functioning of teenage girls.” …

“What's changed over time is the greater sexualization of hip-hop. Initially, it started off as a revolutionary form of music. Now, large corporations produce images that sell, and there is a blatant link between hip-hop and pornography,’ Dr. West said.

“When young black women listen to lyrics and watch images that promote sexual conduct, they take on the persona that is illustrated in the music and treat themselves as sexual objects.

“It sets the foundation for future victimization and causes teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases,” Dr. West said.

When David starting listening to hip-hop while in high school, I took time to listen as well. If I remember correctly, it was a bit more tame as opposed to today’s hip-hop, but I still kept an ear on it.

I really didn’t like that driving, repetitive back-beat bass and drum and would tell him, in true 1950s and ‘60s parental fashion, “I don’t want to hear it coming down the hall.”

One day, David told me he was writing a paper on the life of Tupac Shakur, a rapper who was killed in 1996; in fact, it was not long after Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas that David decided to write his paper.

As a teenager, David was informed enough to be able to tell me the back-story of the hip-hop music industry with its labels like “Death Row Records,” “Flesh Bone Incorporated” and “Gangsta Advisory.”

Royalties were big; and greed was rampant.

Violence would sometimes erupt.

So, we sat down on the Internet and started reading about Shakur and we came across some of his poetry. Check this one out:

“Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature’s law is wrong it

learned to walk without having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams,

it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else ever cared.”


We read that poem together; I looked at my son and said, “David, this guy was an artist. He had talent, but he sold out to the money and the violence … and it got him killed.”

That was probably a lesson to my son, but it was also a lesson to me: Don’t judge an artist by one song or a group of songs, or you may miss a relevant message.

I’m not alone in this parental lesson.

Chuck Cerny is a friend of mine who happens to be a General Sessions judge in Knoxville. He’s also part of the Great Smoky Mountain Emmaus Community.

He served on this last men’s walk with me and gave a talk on changing our world through exercising our Christian beliefs.

Chuck had a similar story concerning his son, Chase, and hip-hop music. Chuck said they were riding down the road and he was getting a taste of The Black Eyed Peas, a hip-hop band that formed in Los Angeles in 1995.

Chuck and Chase had a deal: Chase would start a song, and if Chuck decided it was too risqué for some reason, Chase would have to fast-forward through it.

“You need to fast-forward this song, Chase,” Chuck would say, maybe explaining why.

Chase would start another song; they’d listen for a bit, and then Chuck would say, “Naw, Chase, you need to move past that one, too.”

Chuck said this went on for a few songs and then it came one that he continued to listen to … and at some point, tears started streaming down his face.

“What’s wrong, Dad? Do I need to fast-forward this one?”

Chuck said, “No, Chase, that one is OK.”

Now, all I am saying, as we listen to Chuck’s song and watch this video … well, rap may not be your thing, either, but give Peas a chance.

Take a few minutes and check out the video, "Where is the Love."

“People killin', people dyin'
Children hurt and you hear them cryin'
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love The love, the love”


In Isaiah 62, we find the people of Israel returning from exile, living and worshiping in the midst of ruins. They are hungry, discouraged and desolate, crying out, "We are God's chosen. How did this happen to us? Why are you silent, God? Where is the love?"

And the prophet Isaiah comes forth, saying, “For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”

Israel will be given a new name: “You will be called Hephzibah (which means, “My Delight is in Her”) and your land Beaulah,” which means “Married.”

“As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

Where is the love?

There is the love.

There is the love.

Isaiah speaks words of encouragement, not discouragement to the broken peoiple.

Zion will be Yahweh's treasure, “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

“Where is the love?” cries Israel.

There is the love,” says Isaiah.

This is extravagant love poured out upon Israel, the bride.

It’s the same sort of extravagant love that Jesus lays out at the wedding in Cana after the vino dried up. Mary tells Jesus to do something about it, but the Messiah hesitates, saying, "My hour has not yet come."

But mom presses on, and Jesus relents. Still, he doesn't mix up a vat of Boone's Farm, but top shelf wine, lovingly pressed together and poured out for others.

Where is the love?

There is the love.

In a matter of weeks, we will remember that in his final hour Jesus again offered up wine during a final meal with his friends, sharing words that undoubtedly left them puzzled:

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

“Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And within 24 hours of speaking those words, the Savior of the world would pour out the last drops of wine in his body.

Where is the love?

There is the love.

Jesus poured out his life for us, calling us to pour out our lives for others.

Where is the love?

When the ground started shaking in a poverty-stricken island nation, among the tens of thousands who perished, and likely even more who were injured, were those in the family of Christ who were giving themselves for others.

Where is the love?

There is the love.

Broken and poured out amidst the concrete ruins of Port-au-Prince.

And continuing to be broken and poured out as the body of Christ mobilizes in the midst of chaos and ruins.

“I don't know how much longer we can hold out,” Dee Leahy told an AP reporter. Leahy is a lay missionary from St. Louis who was working with nuns handing out provisions from their small stockpile. “We need food, we need medical supplies, we need medicine, we need vitamins and we need painkillers. And we need it urgently.”

Where is the love?

There is the love … as the church responds with prayers, gifts and presence.

Thankfully, the positive response of the church to this great crisis has overshadowed the comments of one TV preacher who reportedly said Haiti has been “cursed” because of a “pact with the devil” in its history.

Truly disappointing words … words that inspire choruses such as …

“People killin', people dyin'
Children hurt and you hear them cryin'
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek …
Where is the love (Love)

Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)”

If we’re going to be extremists, let us not be extremists in the form of TV evangelists or Midwestern anti-homosexual preachers who protest at the graves of our fallen soldiers, claiming these things are the wrath of God.

Let us be "extremists of love."

If the church is going to be a prophetic voice – which the church is, indeed, called to be – let it be a prophetic voice calling each of us to acts of mercy, love, compassion, and justice.

If we do this extravagantly, we lessen the chance that the world will question of us, “Where is the love?” but instead point to us, once again, and say as in the days of the early church, “There is the love.”

Where is the love?

There is the love!

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, for taking part in civil rights demonstrations.

While there, King wrote a letter using newsprint and scraps of paper. His audience was intended to be eight prominent Alabama clergymen who had urged King to cease his program of nonviolent resistance.

The audience eventually became the world.

King writes:

“Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’

“Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’

“Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’

“Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’

“And John Bunyan: ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.’

“And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’

“And Thomas Jefferson: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal ...”

“So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?

People killin', people dyin'
Children hurt and you hear them cryin'
Can you practice what you preach
And would you turn the other cheek
Father, Father, Father help us
Send some guidance from above
'Cause people got me, got me questionin'
Where is the love (Love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love (The love)
Where is the love
The love, the love …

Where is the love, church?

The love is here, in this community of faith.

And it is there, digging through the rubble of Haiti, pouring out water, pouring out their lives for others.

And it is here, on The Lord's Table ...

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Be-loved of the Father ...

The story goes that on June 16, 2004, David Goldman said goodbye to his son, Sean, at Newark Airport, not knowing that it would be the last time he would see the boy for years. It was the beginning of an international child abduction case.

By nearly all accounts, David Goldman was a caring, loving father. The outcome, though more than six years in the making, was that father and son were reunited on Christmas Eve 2009.

In the midst of that journey, David Godlman told NBC News, “Every day that I’m missing my son, and my son is missing me, is nothing sort of a tragedy.”

Any one who followed this story at all, even the greatest cynic, would know that

Sean is the beloved of his father, David Goldman.

It was seen in the eyes of the father.

And it was heard in his words.

“I love you Sean. I love you. I love you.”

As I was preparing for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I was struck by the words of one of my favorite conteporary theologians, the late Henri J.M. Nouwen, who was a spiritual member of a community of people with mental disabilities. In his message, “The Life of the Beloved,” Nouwen says he “learned a lot from people with disabilities about what it means to be the beloved.”

“Many of the people that I live with hear voices that tell them that they are no good, that they are a problem, that they are a burden, that they are a failure. They hear a voice that keeps saying, ‘If you want to be loved, you had better prove that you are worth loving. You must show it.’

“But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says something else, that says, ‘You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.’”

As baptized children of God, we need to embrace our belovedness, for as co-heirs with Jesus Christ, we, too, are the beloved.

Nouwen reminds us that it is only in embracing our own uniqueness, our blessedness, and our own brokenness that we can bless others in their brokenness.

In a thank-you statement released on Christmas Eve following the reuniting with his son, Sean, David wrote:

“Please know that my love and the rest of Sean's family's love for him knows no boundaries and we will go to the ends of the Earth to protect him and shower him with every ounce of love that we have.”

That’s what God longs to do for God’s be-loved: To shower us with his unending love that knows no height, nor width, nor depth.

Grace and peace ...

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And then the Spirit fell ...

I had read Adam Hamilton's book "Leading Beyond the Walls" as part of an evangelism class. I believe it was two or three years ago.

So it was that I was prepared for this afternoon's session at Holston Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska, N.C. I had even shared some of that book with the community of faith that worships at The Meadow, during worship as well as a Sunday morning small group that one of my congregants leads. I included some of the questions it raised, on behalf of the church as well as those we seek to reach:
  • Would it matter to the commuity if your church was not here?
  • What do you say to someone who asks, "Why do I need Jesus Christ?"
  • What do you say to someone who asks, "Why do I need the Church?"
  • What do you say to someone who asks, "Why do I need this church?"
Still, even though I was familiar with some of the material, there was much offered this afternoon that sent my head spinning with challenges and possibilities for the Green Meadow community of faith.

Tonight, his words concerning preaching and worship were even more thought-provoking and challenging, but they were also somewhat convicting -- to use some religious-speak. I thought it was just my normal tendencies toward self-flagellation for wanting to do more in terms of ministry but feeling constrained by time and my other full-time vocation. Still, he was teaching -- nay, preaching -- on what has long been my most favorite and most studied aspect of ministry: Worship. And it was as if I were a grade-schooler sitting at the feet of a teacher and learning for the first time.

Quite honestly, it was most disconcerting and nearly disturbing. I was asking myself, "This is not the first time I considered some of this. When did I forget these things? Have I been going through the motions on some Sundays?"

Hamilton turned it over to the Bishop and I followed the writer and preacher out to the book-signing table where I purchased a long-overdue Christmas gift for my brother-in-law, as well as a couple of books for myself before returning to the auditorium. Trinity UMC's praise band was already into the final worship set. I joined the rest of the congregation in a moving time of worship in music.

When it ended, we were all packing up to leave when Bishop Swanson stepped out in the Spirit, offering pastors the opportunity for prayerful reflection upon the teaching we had received before leaving Stuart Auditorium. He called Trinity's praise leader back to the keyboards and asked her to play softly as he made the invitation. One by one, an untold number of pastors moved to the front, some kneeling and others standing, possibily joined by some lay people. The Bishop prayed and -- believe me, I do not use this phrase lightly -- in my humble opinion the Holy Spirit fell.

It's hard to guess what was happening to others, but when I opened my eyes and moved out of the crowd it was obvious many were moved in one fashion or another. For me it was a powerful moment that I intend to reflect prayerfully upon for the remainder of tonight and likely for some time.

It may be a turning point in this ministry I am engaged in for the sake of Jesus Christ and the transformation of the community in which I serve.

At least, that is my prayer.

Will it be your prayer as well?

Grace ... and peace.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas: When Love Came to Town



The story goes that a boy and his dad were walking through the woods one day when they came upon some ants working furiously to clear a path, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.

The bod and his dad watched the ants work for a long time. At some point, the boy looked at his dad and said, “You know, Dad, if I could become one of them for a short time, I could help them.”

God loved Creation so much, that he injected himself into Creation as Jesus the Christ. C.S. Lewis writes, “He loved us not because we were lovable, but because He is love.”

That is essential for us to understand: God is love, and because Jesus Christ was God incarnate, Christ was love. And because Christ has risen, Christ is love.

English poet Christina Georgina Rosetti penned a number of poems, including two that have found their place as hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

In her poem, “Love Came Down at Christmas,” Rosetti writes:

"Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.

"Love was born at Christmas — star and angels gave the sign.

“Worship we the Godhead, love incarnate, love divine.

“Worship we our Jesus — what shall be our sacred sign?”

When I think of that song today, I think of a song that U2’s Bono and blues legend B.B. King once teamed up to perform: “When Love Comes to Town.” Here’s a taste of the lyrics:

"I was there when they crucified my Lord.

"I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.

"I threw the dice when they pierced his side.

"But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.

"When love comes to town, I’m gonna catch that train.

"When love comes to town, I’m gonna catch that flame.

"Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down, but I did what I did before love came to town."

Because love came to town in the God-man Jesus Christ, the world has never been the same.

Because love came to town, a handful of disciples followed an itinerant preacher, and the world was turned upside down.

Because love came to town, the hungry have been fed.

Because love came to town, the naked have been clothed.

Because love came to town, the imprisoned have been visited.

Because love came to town, we have been challenged to love our enemies — and given the power of the Holy Spirit with which to do so.

Because love came to town, this community of faith has embraced teen moms and given them an opportunity to build a better life for the children they have brought into this world.

Because love came to town, several communities of faith in Blount County have joined together to shelter homeless families in a new organization called Family Promise of Blount County.

Because love came to town, workers recently banded together to help put food on the table, gas in the tanks, and a few gifts under the trees of colleagues who have been laid off.

I dare say that when love comes to town in your heart, you look at Christmas as something far more meaningful than the change of celestial seasons. You may even see it as an incarnational event that has transformed your life. I know I do.

When we think of the baby Jesus, lying in a manger, we think of love. Yes, love came to Bethlehem town: Love was eventually rejected; love was beaten; love was crucified on a cross; and love was buried in a borrowed tomb — but love rose again.

And because love came to town, my sins, your sins, have been forgiven.

Green Meadow United Methodist Church has a place in cyberspace, it’s called TheMeadow.org.

I couldn’t help but put the U2 and B.B. King video performance of “Love Comes to Town” on our church’s Web site as we lead up to the Christmas Eve worship experience. (I’ve since moved on to another video, but you can find the U2-B.B. King performance on YouTube.)

During that video rendition, Bono says, “B.B. King not only invented the blues, he’s got a cure for the blues.”

To which B.B. responds, “Yes, my cure for the blues tonight is love.”

“I said my cure for the blues tonight is love. Is there love in the house tonight? Is there love in the house enough tonight to make you want to help somebody? Is there love enough tonight to not make you want to hurt anybody?

“Then … there’s love … in the house tonight.”

"I was there when they crucified my Lord.

"I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.

"I threw the dice when they pierced his side.

"But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide."

The divide between us and God has been bridged through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. The great gulf of death has been conquered by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.

“Love was born at Christmas — star and angels gave the sign."

It’s my prayer that love will come to town in your heart in 2009.

Grace and peace ...

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas and Conspiracy in The Meadow




As I began worship services for Advent at Green Meadow UMC, I stumbled upon the Advent Conspiracy. I led off with a worship experience with a Conspiracy theme, and introduced the congregation to the idea of an Advent where we sought to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All -- the idea behind the Advent Conspiracy.

As we moved through Advent, I believe we actually did those very things:
  • The Wednesday before the 1st Sunday in Advent, The Meadow conducted a charge conference where the community agreed to formalize our cooperative mission with Family Promise of Blount County, which includes renovations for the purpose of housing the day center under a lease agreement to be negotiated by the trustees of Green Meadow and Family Promise of Blount County.

  • On the 1st Sunday in Advent, the community held its annual benefit auction and dinner, raising about $1,400, with half going to help with renovations for Family Promise of Blount County Family Day Center, and the other half going to School of Hope.

  • The community of faith at Green Meadow contributed just under $200 out of $1,500 that was raised to provide for families whose bread winners had been laid off by a local company. (Pastor Buzz and Donna made deliveries to eight families, ranging from Rutledge to Niota.)

  • The Rev. James R. Green led worship on two Sundays in Advent, allowing Pastor Buzz to attend to daughter Elizabeth's graduation and relocation.

To be sure, this was a different season of Advent and Christmas. And while I believe it was unintentional, for we were merely living out life as a community of faith, the people of The Meadow lived out the Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.

Grace and peace ...

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Choose Wisely



“Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua 24:15

As I was reading these words the day after we elected Barack Obama — and I say, “we,” because it was our political process — there is a scene from an Indiana Jones movie that sprung into my mind’s eye. You may have seen the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”

Toward the end of the movie, Jones meets the ancient Knight Templar who guards the “Holy Grail.” Christian legend maintains the Holy Grail was the cup used by Jesus during the Last Supper and it is said to possess miraculous powers. The root of the legend is a 12th century writing in which Joseph of Arimathea is given the Holy Grail by an apparition of Jesus. The cup is finds its way to Great Britain.

Later writers pen accounts where Joseph used the Grail to catch Christ’s blood while interring him and that in Britain he founded a line of guardians to keep it safe.

And then we have King Arthur’s search for the Grail and so on, and so on, until finally we come to Steven Spielberg’s adaptation where Indiana’s search for the Holy Grail has ended in this room filled with many choices of chalices: gold cups, platinum, silver, terra cotta and wood.

The Knight Templar tells Indiana, "You must choose, but choose wisely, for as the real grail brings eternal life, the false grail brings death.”

But Indiana isn’t the only one searching for the Holy Grail, of course, as there's a bad guy involved.

The bad guy comes in, looks around, and spots a glittering golden cup.

"Truly the cup of a king," he says, and drinks from it.

Shortly afterward, he goes through this metamorphic transformation to a nearly mummified figure before turning to dust.

The Knight Templar looks at Indiana and the bad guy's female companion and simply says, "He chose poorly."

Indiana spies a wooden cup, and says, "The cup of a Gallilean carpenter."

Still, he has that trademark Harrison Ford look of fear before he drinks from the cup.

"You chose wisely," says the knight.

He chose wisely.

We’ve just come off a week where tens of millions of people across USAmerica stepped into the voting booth and made a number of choices, one of which was the choice of who will lead this nation for the next four years.

I put in about 12 to 14 hours on Election Day.

I arose, went to Bluegrass School and voted. It took me about 30 minutes and, for some reason, I got the sense that there was a different feel at the polling place.

Since I was working election night, I went home and was prepared to get to work on this morning’s service, but all I could think about was election coverage. We were actually doing some live video feeds over the Internet, so I decided to go in early to make sure we were on task.

I went to the Post Office and then stopped by a coffee shop. The only way to put it is this: There was an air of jubilation, and no one had to tell me that these were Barack Obama supporters. The discernment came through loud and clear.

I knew then that the day was going to be different.

Many of us saw the crowd at Grant Park in Chicago when President-elect Obama gave his victory — some would say his inaugural — address Tuesday night.

There were tears of joy.

There were hope-filled eyes, and certainly hopeful hearts.

There were, actually, in some cases, expressions of worship.

It’s safe to say that millions of people have invested a great deal of emotion, a great deal of hope, in this one man, Barack Obama.

In campaigning for the presidency, Obama's laid out his reasons for such hope:
  • An end to our involvement in Iraq, having all troops removed within 16 months.

  • The lifting up of those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, bringing them to the middle class.

  • Providing accessible, affordable coverage for all, and reducing health care costs for families.

And more.


The hopes, the dreams were cast … and USAmerica made its choice.


And now, President-elect Barack Obama has begun making his own choices as to how he will fulfill the hopes, the dreams of the millions of voters who put him in office.

Will he be able to do that?


Well, New York Governor Mario Cuomo puts it this way: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”


It seems that, once they get to Washington, even the most humble and well-meaning public servant finds his or herself corrupted or influenced by corrupted forces. Too often, they end up making choices that are counter to the hopes, the dreams they promised when campaigning.


Because the basic choice is this: They must choose each day whom they will serve: Will they serve the gods of special interest, the god of self-interest, the gods of political dogma, or … well, I was going to say “the voters," but it occurs to me that Obama, and the nation, would be better off if the interests of God were served first.

Joshua is talking to the people of Israel at Schechem, in what appears to be a convocation, presenting themselves before God. We only read part of it, but what Joshua does is go through a review of Israel’s past on the part of God. We know this because Joshua uses the phrase, “Thus says the Lord …” When we read that, we know serious business is ahead. And the serious business begins at Verse 14.

This is a serious choice.

This is not, “Do I have decaf or regular?”

This is not, “Do I want special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickle-onion-on-a-sesame-seed bun … or do I want them to hold the onion?”

This is not, “Do I want to watch Indiana Jones tonight, or do I want to watch a chick-flick??

This is not even, “Do I vote for Barack Obama, or do I vote for John McCain … or Chuck Baldwin … or Bob Bar … or Charles Jay … or Cynthia McKinney … or Brian Moore … or Ralph Nader … or maybe I should write in Pastor Buzz …”

We get consumed with choices … even the choice of what church we attend.

“Do I want the rituals of Episcopalian, or do I want the passionate worship of the Pentecostals?”

There’s this scene in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” where the devil Screwtape happily discerns, “Now, this is an achievement. They’re busy all the time making choices about things that don’t matter. We’ve got them now. They’re terminally distracted.”

But this choice that Joshua sets before the people is not one of those choices … decisions that have no eternal consequence.

This is a choice about what god the people will serve.

He says, in effect, “The time has come for you to make up your mind about who you’re going to serve. Which way are you going to go? Are you going to the left, or to the right, or are you just going to get off of the highway all together?”

“Are you going to serve those worthless gods of those who came before you, or are you going to fear the one true God?

“Will you give yourself totally over to him in worship?

“Will you get rid of the gods that your ancestors handed down to you?

“Will you choose to worship God?

“Now, you may not want to, but you’ve to decide right here. Right now.

“This ain’t no time to play around.

“If you decide you can’t, that it’s a bad thing to worship God, then choose a god you would rather serve — but do it today.

“Choose the god of your political party, or the god of the empire, or the god of self-interest.
“But as for me … as for my house, my family, we will worship Yaweh. We will worship God.”

Sisters and brothers, we all face that choice, of standing at the crossroads of faith and having to make the ultimate decision.

You’ve got to put something old down, in order to pick something new up.

There were a lot of nasty e-mails floating around ahead of the election.

One of those was that Barack Obama was Muslim.

There was a January interview with Christianity Today in which Obama addressed that particular rumor. Here is what he said:

“I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life. But most importantly, I believe in the example that Jesus set by feeding the hungry and healing the sick and always prioritizing the least of these over the powerful. I didn't ‘fall out in church’ as they say, but there was a very strong awakening in me of the importance of these issues in my life. I didn't want to walk alone on this journey. Accepting Jesus Christ in my life has been a powerful guide for my conduct and my values and my ideals.”

He will, indeed, face many choices in the coming four years.

And regardless of political affiliation, President-elect Barack Obama and our nation needs fervent, heartfelt prayer that the decisions made in regards to those choices will be made with God in mind.

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” because our decisions matter —particularly because we do not know the full impact of those decisions.

And so, in this morning’s text, the people of Israel rise up and say, “We will never turn away from God! Never! We’d never reject God for other things, for other gods! He’s our God!”

Then Joshua said, “Naw, you can’t do it. You don’t have it in you to worship God. He’s a holy God. He’s a jealous God. He won’t put up with your shenanigans. When you desert him for other things, for other gods, he’ll rub you out."

But the people were insistent: “No! No! We worship God!"

And so, Joshua relented: “OK, you are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to worship God. So be it.”

And they said, “We are witnesses. So be it."

And so, the decision was made.

But it didn’t last.

We read later that the people of Israel were not content with having God lead them, they demanded a king so they could “be like the nations.”

It appears the people weren’t content to live with their own choice; they wanted to rely on someone else’s choices.

In some manner or fashion, sometimes in ways we do not even recognize at the moment, we make decisions that reflect whether we have chosen to serve the Lord, or not serve the Lord.

We face the call of “choose this day whom you will serve.”

Joshua reminds us that we owe all that we are, all that we have, and all that we will be, to the God who brought us where we are today.

We must put away the many other gods that keep us from following the one true God.

We must cast aside decisions and choices that distract us from making decisions and choices that matter.

In the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, found in Matthew 25, we read that five of the women chose not to take oil with them. They grew drowsy and fell asleep. When the bridegroom came, they were not ready.

They chose poorly.

In that same parable, five of the bridesmaids took oil in jars along with the lamps. They grew drowsy and fell asleep. But when the bridegroom came, they were read to come out and meet him.

They chose wisely.

We were given a few cups to choose from in this presidential election, and we pray that we have chosen wisely.

But that was not the greatest decision that we face.

The greatest decision that each of us faces is this:

“Whom will you serve?”

“Choose this day …”

None of us wants to come to the end of our days and, as with the five foolish bridesmaids, hear the Lord say, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Grace and peace ...

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gecko Judgment




One thing you’ve got to say about Hollywood: It never misses a moment to capitalize on a current event -- even if that current event is the result of Americans paying the price of capitalism running amuck.

In September, we saw several large U.S.-based financial institutions fail, merge, and otherwise instill a lack of confidence. It wasn’t as if business journal prophets had not warned of these things to come, mostly pointing to sub-prime mortgage issues.

But they were like Old Testament prophets standing on the wall, shouting, “Woe! Woe! Woe!” Or, maybe it was “Whoah, Whoah, Whoah!” as in “Stop! Stop! Stop! You’re heading for a train wreck!”

But then, the train wreck came: Large financial institutions began to fall, and the wave rolled across the ocean, and moved around the world. Governments have now stepped in to help lay a little track, hoping to get the global economy back on track.

In the midst of all of this misery, Hollywood is moving forward on a sequel to the 1987 film, “Wall Street,” the 1987 film directed by Oliver Stone.

In that movie, Charlie Sheen plays an ambitious young stockbroker named Bud Fox. His idol is an unscrupulous corporate raider, played by Michael Douglas, whose character is given the unlikely name of Gordon Gekko.

Gekko is idolized by Bud Fox, whose father, Carl, is played by Martin Sheen. Carl is a maintenance worker at a small struggling airline, Bluestar. Bud gives Gekko some inside information on Bluestar that can make a stock trade profitable, while saving the company in the process. Gekko uses Bud to get more inside information, including concessions from the labor unions, and then decides to cannibalize the company -- selling off its assets and leaving the employees out of work.

The iconic line that Gekko offers in the film is this: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” (These days it's difficult to tell whether life imitates art, or whether art imitates life.)

It's beautifully ironic that the greedy bloodsucker in the film “Wall Street” is named “Gekko.” While spelled differently, a "gecko" is a lizard found in warm climates around the world. There are about 2,000 species worldwide, with some unique characeristics:
  • All but one of the species lacks eyelids.
  • As a defense mechanism, they expel a foul-smelling material and feces.
  • Some species change color to blend in with their environment.
Gecko is seems an appropriate mascot for the lizards of Wall Street.

"Greed," the Gecko says, "is good."

Chameleons that excrete foul-smelling substances.

I think Amos knew something about Geckos.

Amos was an 8th century layman prophet -- not one of those professional preachers -- from the southern kingdom of Judah. He was a sheep and fruit farmer of sorts who had the audacity to go into the northern kingdom of Israel and preach.

He starts out with a roar, proclaiming words of judgment against Israel's enemies for atrocities committed in war. You can just hear the crowds yelling, “Right on! Preach it brother! Don’t hold back! Let ’em have it with both barrels.”

But then, Amos turns to his own homeland, Judah, the southern kingdom, and proclaims God's judgment -- not because of war crimes, but because of idolatry and a failure to follow the Lord.

And he turns turns to Israel, the northern kingdom, citing crimes of violence -- not the violence of wars against nations, but violence against the poor:

"Thus says the LORD: 'For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same maiden, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.'” (Amos 2:6-8)

Amos is taking aim at the Geckos of Jerusalem, for systematically ripping off the poor.

Are not the Geckos of Wall Street doing the same today?

I wonder how God will judge us?

What we see today is that Gecko CEOS have left homebuyers, many of whom were led astray through suspect loan instruments, out on the street. Their hope for living the American Dream blinded their eyes to the fact that they simply could not afford that dream, and seeking it would actually lead them into a nightmare.

The Geckos have taken the sandals and cloaks of the poor and middle class to some golden temple of an offshore bank account, sitting on island sands while they drink!

In the Old Testament, God set His people apart to be salt and light for the world, not vinegar and bitter herbs.

I believe God had a similar plan for this nation.

Somewhere along the way, I believe we have forgotten the missio dei -- the mission of God -- given to USAmerica, or maybe we never fully embraced that mission to begin with.

Maybe, like Columbus, who considered himself God’s light-bearer of the Gospel to the New World, the prospect of getting rich got in our way.

I wonder how God will judge us?

Maybe He already is ...

Almighty God, in our desire for comfort and security, we often trample over others as we dash for the train that we believe will carry us to the American dream.

As we run for that train, O Lord, slow us down so that we might see others who have likewise fallen along the way.

Lead us through your Holy Spirit to not be afraid to reach down and lift someone else up ... even if it causes us to miss the train.

For in that way, we will become salt and light to your world.

In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Grace and peace ...

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

It's 5 o'clock somewhere ...


Now, I’m not whining, but I’ve got to tell you, sisters and brothers, it’s been a tough week for me.

At The Daily Times, we had that 126-page section to get out because it was scheduled to run today. (As it turns out, it will be inserted into the Tuesday, Sept. 23, edition.)

We had a folder break on the press. A folder is a mechanism that trims the paper and folds the sections. What that means is we couldn’t run the press until it got fixed. So, one night, we had to have the paper printed in Sevierville.

I managed to escape the worst of that deal … but, people were still coming to me expecting answers.

And I did my best …

Then, we had Charge Conference at Green Meadow United Methodist Church — which, truth be told, was actually a high point in the week for me.

On Friday, I had to take a vacation day to move Elizabeth into an apartment in Johnson City — a second-floor apartment, mind you.

But we survived that, too.

In the midst of all of that, I was working on this message.

Now, as we say in the newsroom, the work flow for worship goes something like this:

Once I decide on the Scripture, I look for words and phrases to jump out a me as I seek to discern, “What’s the message, here?”

When that hits me, I think about the imagery.

I love this text, and have spoken about it before in the terms of “The 11th Hour,” that being the time when the last workers were hired.

So, I did this quick image and was pretty much satisfied … that is, until the obvious hit me: The 11th hour was not 11 o’clock in the text, it was 5 o’clock, for that was the 11th hour in the Jewish custom and culture.

So, I reworked the image to look like this.

Well, that didn’t set right with me either, to have “the 11th hour” and the hands being on the 5 o’clock hour.”

By then, it was about the 11th hour for me — that being 11 or 11:30 p.m. — and I was getting a bit exasperated, so I just went to bed.

As I lay there with the text running through my head, the title of an Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet song hit me and I turned to Donna and said, “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.”

If you're not familiar with the song, go to YouTube.

The lyrics go something like this:

The sun is hot and that ol' clock is movin' slow

And so am I

Workday passes like molassas in wintertime

But it's July

Gettin' paid by the hour and older by the minute

My boss just pushed me over the limit

I'd like to call him somethin'

But think I'll just call it a day

Pour me somethin' tall and strong

Make it a hurricane before I go insane

It's only half past twelve, but I don't care

It's five o'clock somewhere

Now, as you can tell, that’s pretty much a drinkin’ song.

But I’m not promoting alcohol, here.

Even though I don’t think having a glass of wine, or a beer, or whatever beverage you prefer, is a sin for most people.

I don’t drink anymore. As they say in the hills of Upper East Tennessee, I was once “bad to drink.”

So, in my case, it would be a sin, because I know where God brought me from, and I know where that one glass would eventually lead.

I never drank one of anything in my life.

I’m sort of like another country and western song -- which I could have written but Blake Shelton beat me to it -- that says, “The More I Drink, the More I Drink.”

So, I just don’t … drink, that is.

But there’s something about that song — “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere” — that appeals to me that is outside of the obvious alcohol references.

Hang with me, now.

Today’s text, Matthew 20:1-16, is sometimes referred to as The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

This is a story about God's radical grace, where everyone will receive the same reward. In the vineyard, first equals last, last equals first.

The story goes that there was once a great debate in heaven as to who was the greatest monument of God's grace.

The stories were told, one after another, as those who had been redeemed described in lurid detail the sin from which Christ had delivered them.

The competition was tough, but one old fellow seemed to be winning out. There didn’t seem to be a sin that this old guy hadn’t committed. And then he related how he came to Christ on his deathbed.

But then a woman stepped up and told of how she had come to Christ as a child and had followed him all the days of her life.

When the vote was taken, it was not one who had lifted up from the miry pit who was seen as the greatest testimony to grace, but the woman who had walked with Christ all of her days.

That’s a pretty good story.

But what’s the problem here?

It doesn't match what Jesus says in Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

But that’s the way we view the gift of grace.

But the reality of Scripture is this: The economy of God’s grace says what?

First equals last; last equals first.

In the Kingdom of God, everyone receives the same reward regardless of how much work they have done.

Thank God in the upside down economy of God's grace that “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere" and the reward is the same.

Somewhere, perhaps even as you read this, there is likely someone who is coming to Christ in his or her last hour. In so doing, they’re going to get the same measure of grace, the same reward, as the person who walked with Christ all of their days.

Look at your watch, it says ____.

But it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, and that believer will arrive at the same destination as the rest of us believers.

But we never know the hour we will depart.

Know that whether you are in the third hour, the sixth hour, or the 11th hour, the same blood of Christ covers your sins.

But consider this: You may be in the latter hour … the 11th hour … do not let it quickly pass you by.

You’re standing in the marketplace and the master is calling to you: "Why are you standing here all day long? Go, and work in my vineyard."

Grace and peace ...

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Media in worship at The Meadow

Those who worship at The Meadow on Sunday mornings know that digital media is part of the liturgy used in our experience. The visual mediums could be still imagery, video imagery, or a mixture of the two.

More often than not, the experience starts with Scripture and a theme, such as with "Kudzu Christianity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." The text was Isaiah 5:1-7, a portion of "The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard." Many summers we travel south to Florida for a week's vacation. Along the way there are untold acres of kudzu. We see it around East Tennessee. For the most part, it is an unfruitful vine, but some creative Southerners have uncovered various ways of making it fruitful. Thus the image of kudzu ...



There are times when still imagery is just not enough. Maybe it's a song that comes into my head and I begin to think of that song in a spiritual context. It could be a contemporary Christian song, a rock song, or even country music. While I have my favorites, there are very few genres that I can not appreciate in some way.

I have not yet purchased a digital video camera and analog-to-video is too cumbersome and time-consuming for me. So, many of my self-created videos are still imagery set to music. I began doing this with PowerPoint and a script in 1996. Today, given that I have not yet been able to afford a Mac, I use Windows Movie Maker.

Following a tornadic rampage earlier this year that killed nearly 60, I was struck by the stories of survival and created a video for worship, using news images and the music of Casting Crowns, "Praise You In The Storm." I would show it here, but there is the possibility of copyright infringement since this is not "a house of worship or other religious assembly." A good reference for what is allowed under the Copyright Law of 1976 is "Handbook for Multisensory Worship" (c 1999 Ginghamsburg Church). Which begs the question: How do those folks on YouTube get away with all of those copyrighted images floating across their pages?

As a bivocational pastor, it is difficult to create the experience that you pray will help people experience God. There is the issue of time, but there is also the issue of resources -- particularly if you are serving a small church, such as The Meadow, where resources are scarce. Large churches often have teams of people who are either paid staff or are drawn from a large pool of engineers. In a small church, neither of those resources exist to a great degree -- that is, money for staff and a large pool of volunteers. Because of that, I long ago decided to draw upon a number of resources so that we in The Meadow can fully experience God's revealing Word:

It starts with The Word

Sometimes I use the Lectionary, which allows me to use a variety of worship planning resources, such as the United Methodist Church's General Board of Discipleship worship site, TextWeek, and Desperate Preacher, and ESermons, the latter of which is a paid subscription site. (I chose that one to subscribe to because Len Sweet, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, has material on that site. My congregation would readily recognize his name, as well as Brian McLaren, Henri Nouwen and Rob Bell.)

Sometimes God leads me to another Scripture, in which case I search for a theme or metaphor within the text. Slowly reading and looking for words and phrases that jump off the page and into my spirit. I then look to commentaries, such as those within the New Interpreter's Bible, "The New Daily Study Bible" series, or other commentaries.

Then, there are times when something I am reading will strike a chord. That is what happened with Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz." I was reading that book in the summer of 2005 and one chapter led me to create a worship experience entitled "Christian Belief is Like Penguin Sex." It was around the same time that "March of the Penguins" debuted, which certainly made it timely. It also provided much needed imagery, thanks to marketing materials. (Again, I would show the imagery here, but there is that copyright law ...

Movies and music also draw me to certain themes. The no-brainer movie theme of the past few years has been the "Chronicles of Narnia" series. I have yet to see the "Prince Caspian" release, but like many pastors I built a series of worship experiences on the former movie. The not-so-obvious movie that I built a message upon was "The Shawshank Redemption." It was a great study of hope during Advent one year. Music has spawned a number of ideas, with songs like Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'" and Brooks and Dunn's "Red Dirt Road."

In short, I believe God is open to creative liturgy and uses a great deal of pop culture to get his message across.

I'll close with a few suggested resources for visual liturgy:

Sermon Spice: www.sermonspice.com
Lumicon: www.lumicon.com
The work of the People: www.twop.
Jonny Baker Blog: jonnybaker.blogs.com

Grace and peace ...

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Elvis Cup and 'Hotel California'



I’m not the pop culture aficionado I was a few decades ago. Despite my vocation as a journalist, I sometimes get lost in the blur of names and faces that roll past the screen.

Maybe it’s age.

But I surfed over to on People magazine’s Web site a little more than a week ago and here were just a few of the headlines: “Angelina and Brad’s adoption of Pax Finalized,” “Hepatitis Scare Hits Ashton, Demi and Madonna,” and “Johnny Knoxville Recovering from Motorcycle Injury.”

You could surf over to about another half-dozen or more related stories on Angelina Jolie, and even get a glimpse of “Brad & Angelina’s Date Night.”

We obviously can’t get enough of celebrities — particularly, I suppose, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; however, we’re now into celebrity offspring.

A couple of years ago, we couldn’t get enough of Shiloh Jolie, when People magazine paid $4 million for the U.S. rights alone to shoot pictures of the baby. Within the past month, Christina Aguilera debuted her newborn son, Max, on the cover of People for a reported $1.5 million. Not to be outdone, it was recently reported that Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony were negotiating a $6 million deal for exclusive photos of their twins.

Danielle Friedland, who runs Celebrity Baby Blog, said the craving for celebrity news is fueled by the tabloid media.

“Celebrities always have children ... it's just that we're paying so much more attention to them right now,” Friedland told The Associated Press. “The more that we see of them, the more we want.”

But why blame the tabloid media? We’re the ones who can’t get enough of this stuff.

Celebrities have been turned into little gods on big screens, and now we are worshipping the children of little gods.

We live in a culture of celebrity worship, but it apparently doesn’t take a whole lot to achieve the status of celebrity. The late social historian Daniel Boorstin, who died in 2004, wrote, “Anyone can become a celebrity if only he can get into the news and stay there.”

And that is what many of them do best: They get in the news, and stay there, and we glorify them all the more … sometimes, even after death.

Refusing to let a celebrity die in peace, the culture of celebrity worship creates conspiracy theories surrounding their deaths to keep them alive. Urban legends abound maintaining that Elvis is not really dead, nor is Jim Morrison of The Doors. We assign these celebrities the status of immortality, for it is difficult to let little gods die.

Len Sweet tells about the vial of “Elvis water” that sold on E-bay for $455 a couple of years ago. The water was the property of Wade Jones of Belmont, N.C., who said a police officer gave him a Styrofoam cup as a souvenir after a 1977 show by Presley in Charlotte. Inside the cup were a few sips of water. Jones writes on his eBay posting that after he got home he put Saran Wrap over the cup, put a rubber band around it, and placed it in a freezer. He auctioned off the remaining three tablespoons of water for $455.

Later, Jones auctioned off a one-time appearance by the cup, which was won by Nutballz, a company that makes food products free of wheat or refined sugar and who used the appearance as a benefit fund-raiser. The Elvis cup was in the house for all to bow down and worship.

Celebrity worship is detrimental to our own spirits, for only God is worthy of our worship. Celebrity worship is also detrimental to the object of our affections. Look at what happened to Elvis, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janice Joplin and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. Look at what’s happening to Britney Spears.

When mere human beings made only in the likeness of God are set up as objects of worships — as little gods — it’s no wonder so many of them end up living, and dying, as classic tragedies.

And look at the lives we are setting up for the children of these little gods. We pay $6 million just to see their images. Surely there is the temptation for them to later view themselves as little gods.

The year I started college at ETSU, The Eagles released the album “Hotel California.” There was an incredible amount of urban legend surrounding that album. There were rumors that the title cut was about a Christian church that was abandoned in 1969 and taken over by an occultic group. There were even rumors that The Eagles were Satan worshippers and that the image of the Satanic High Priest Anton LeVey could be seen in one of the windows of the building on the cover.

My wife gave me The Eagles’ double-CD set for Valentine’s Day. In the liner notes, Glenn Frye had this to say about “Hotel California”:

“ … we did not start out to make any sort of concept or theme album. But when we wrote ‘Life in the Fast Lane’ and started working on ‘Hotel California’ and ‘New Kid in Town’ … we knew we were heading down a long and twisted corridor and just stayed with it. Songs from the dark side — the Eagles take a look at the seamy underbelly of L.A. — the flip side of fame and failure, love and money.”

These lyrics point to the flip side of celebrity worship:

“Last thing I remember, I was running for the door/I had to find the passage back to the place I was before/‘Releax,’ said the night man, ‘We are programmed to receive. ‘You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave!’”

Once you see yourself as a little god, once a culture has placed you in the residence of worship, it must be difficult — if not impossible — to check out of that hotel, to live a normal life, to see yourself once again as a child of God. As believers in the one true God, let’s open the door and set the idols free.

Let’s evict them from Hotel California.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Missed calls ...



Those of us who live in the world of cellular phones know the meaning of the words "Missed Calls."

You pick up your phone, see the words "Missed Calls" and immediately understand that someone has tried to reach you and you weren't available.

I wonder how many times God has called and we were either not available, or merely chose to ignore the call altogether.

For the past few years, the week after Christmas has been a time to retreat and relax after the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas dash. For the most part, I was able to accomplish that this year.

I retreated into the mountains of Upper East Tennessee and spent some time in contemplation, as well as using it as a time to just "be" with my family.

We ate. We talked. We ate. We talked. We ate ...

At some point in our sharing of stories from days gone by, my mom said, "You came home one day and told me you were going to be a preacher."

That was news to my memory and so I probed her, asking, "When was that?"

"It was when you were going to church with Uncle Russell."

That would have been 1969 or so, when I was baptized.

An older gentleman who knew my Uncle Russell had been picking me up on Sunday mornings and taking me to Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. I stayed connected to the church for about year after that, I suppose.

I don't specifically recall saying, "I'm going to be a preacher," but I have no doubt her memory is clear on the matter.

I now wonder whether that was a missed call.

Off and on in my life, there had been this sense of calling, even though I likely would have never used that word to describe the impression ­ that is, at least not until my "heart was strangely warmed" at the age of 29.

I have this theory about the large number of baby boomers entering the ministry later in life: We allowed the noise of the 1960s and '70s to drown out God -- either never hearing the call in the first place, or allowing it to fade into the distance.

Some of us might even seek to fulfill that sense of calling through other endeavors, not even considering the possibility that the drive within our spirit is a movement of God.

Twenty-twenty spiritual hindsight being what it is, it's theologically reasonable that I would have felt a move of the Holy Spirit following my baptism.

Those of us who get into such things know that this past Sunday was "Baptism of the Lord" Sunday on the church calendar.

We read the story of Jesus' baptism and understand his calling, because we know the story: John baptizes Jesus; the Father says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

The call came and Jesus responded.

He gave up his home and consecrated his life to the mission of God's Only Son.

It was a dangerous mission.

He took up the call of the cross, which he carried all his life and on which he eventually died. He became a homeless man.

Those of who have been baptized in the Christian tradition identify with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The grace that baptism makes available is the atonement of Christ -- we are "at one" with God.

Baptism involves our own dying to sin, newness of life, union with Christ, receiving the Holy Spirit, and incorporation into Christ's Church.

As I look back on my own baptism, it was far too easy to conform to the world and not allow myself to be transformed by the Spirit of God. It was some 15 or 16 years later that I allowed God to transform my life, eventually leading to the acceptance of his call.

When we truly allow the Spirit of God to move in our life, the sacrament of Baptism transforms our lives and we think, speak, live, and act in ways that "re-present" the image of Christ to the world.

But there is a part of baptism that is the calling. We receive the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit endows us with gifts that are to be used in the service of God.

As baptized believers, we are called by God.

God has a claim on our lives.

The work that many of us call "ministry" is a response to that call, and that claim, that God has on our lives.

If we can not point to such a work, then we have missed the call.

As I said, I was baptized at the age of about 13; but I believe my true acceptance of grace came at the age of 29 in 1985.

It was Christmas 1990 or so that my niece, Wendy, looked at me and said, "Uncle Buzzy, I think you would make a good missionary or preacher, or something."

I was a bit taken aback, but said, "Well, Wendy, I think if God wants me to do something like that he¹ll let me know.²

In that sweet, little Virginian voice she said, "Well, maybe he is ..."

I let it pass, not giving it a great deal of thought.

About three or four years later, I was asked to speak to the "Liars Club," a group of older men from Middlebrook Pike United Methodist Church who met weekly at the West Town Mall Chik-fil-A.

Afterward, one of the older gents said, "You know, you'd probably make a pretty good preacher. You ever think of that?"

I was taken aback, but said, "Well, sir, I think if God wants me to do something like that he'll let me know."

The old saint said, "Well, maybe he is ..."

It was still five or six years before I gave in. But in 2001, I finally decided to run with it, rather than run from it. In religious-speak, I tried to "let go and let God."

My question today is this: What is God calling you to do this year, or even with the rest of your life?

Discover what it is, and then run with it -- don't run away from it. Believe me, if my experience is the norm, you will not be complete until you do so.

And what is God calling this community of faith in The Meadow to do next?

God declares through the prophet Isaiah, "See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare ..."

In the days of Isaiah, the new thing is the new exodus out of Babylon.

In the days of John the Bapitst, the new thing is the new exodus inaugurated with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.

I sense that God is calling us to a new thing.

What is this new thing?

May we seek it together, may we discover it, and may we run with it.

To the glory of God!

Grace and peace ...

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Advent ...


I have always been fascinated with UFOs, likely due to a massive number of hours spent watching “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and other such shows as a youngster.

I had a pretty good imagination about such things and can even recall running home and telling my parents I had seen a flying saucer in broad daylight.

It was probably a weather balloon.

I have lots of memories associated with looking into the sky.

There’s this memory of my sister, Sheree, pointing into the night sky from a window at my grandparents’ house, explaining the word “satellite” to me. Was she explaining the moon as a satellite, or something NASA sent into space? My memory is not that good …

But there are also some pretty strange memories of seeing things in the sky that were neither UFOs, nor satellites.

The year was 1968 and my mother, her second husband, Jim, my sister Sheree and I were camping on Cocoa Beach near Cape Canaveral Pier.

Calling it camping was something of a stretch, since all we had was a car and blankets.

And it was probably less out of a sense of adventure than it was not having money for a motel room, but still wanting to be at the beach.

Sometime during the night we could see an orange glow on the ocean’s horizon. The glow was slowly growing larger … it may have been minutes … it may have been an hour … and we were mesmerized.

“What is it?” Sheree and I asked.

We were getting scared and feared some apocalyptic event was at hand, even asking each other, “Is the world coming to an end?”

Jim and my mother seemed baffled as well.

We watched people strolling along the beach and it seemed they were unaware of this fantastic sight, paying no attention whatsoever. The strollers’ indifference to the obvious made it even more ‘Twilight-Zonish.’

It seemed an eternity before we realized the glow was simply the rising of a harvest moon.

We felt quite foolish.

I still look to the sky in expectation.

Perhaps it’s because I never know what I’ll see.

It was Christmas Eve 1975 that I saw the most awesome cosmic event in my life to date.

I was stationed with the training squadron VA-174 at Cecil Field, Florida, and had been assigned line watch that night.

The watch zones were configured in intersecting circles so that three or four of us would meet up every once in a while. We would chat for several minutes and then continue on walking the watch perimeter.
It was sometime early Christmas morning when one of us pointed to the star-studded sky, asking, “What in the world is that?”

We all looked in the same direction to see a fiery object moving quickly toward us — and the airfield — on what appeared to be slightly less than a 45-degree angle.

It was growing larger and larger, coming closer and closer, until it appeared it was going to crash onto the flight line.

The watchmen scattered away from the flight line — that is, all except for me.

Like the orange glow on the horizon at Cocoa Beach, I stood mesmerized and watched the fiery ball flatten like a beam in a laser light show. It appeared to somehow bounce off of some unseen shield, streaking away in the opposite direction.

The sky was filled with falling stars for quite some time.

All I could say was, “Wow …”

There was a brief in a newspaper a day or two later that noted others had seen the same sight.

It reminds me of a song by Larry Norman, the grandfather of modern Christian rock. It’s called “U.F.O.”:

“He’s an unidentified flying object.
You will see Him in the air.
He’s an unidentified flying object.
You will drop your hands and stare.
You will be afraid to tell your neighbor.
He might think that it’s not true.
But when they open up the morning paper.
You will know they’ve seen Him too.”


We are ending the first of four weeks of Advent, the name for which is derived from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” During this season, we celebrate the coming of Christ — his birth, his continual coming in Word and Spirit, and whose final coming in victory we anticipate.

In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus tells us, “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

The Spirit within me watches for his “coming” in many ways — the faces of the congregation as they lift someone in prayer, the actions of those engaged in social justice, the glow on the face of a newly baptized believer, and the sharing of the bread and cup during Holy Communion. There are many other “comings” as well, and I watch for his coming in unexpected places … including the sky.

What about you?

Grace and peace ...

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