Recent Distance: Twenty Years

I drove past Tri-State Livestock Market yesterday, and I could hardly believe that twenty years have passed since I stood in its sawdust or leaned against its office counter. Twenty years–nearly half my life! It’s remarkable that I’ve been away so long simply because it was such an important place for the first twenty-three years of my life.

My grandfather, Lloyd Blair, was the market’s founder. It was his little domain, and he was the unquestioned king. On sale days, he sat in the auction box facing the buyers and sellers, occasionally turning to the full-size window behind him to oversee the action in the barn. At times throughout the day, he would walk along the catwalks over the barn–lit Pall Mall in hand–looking every bit the commanding officer inspecting the work of his troops in the pens below where they sorted and herded the livestock into and out of the sale ring.

During the week, the office was his throne room, where he held court with the office staff and with the clients and customers who came to pay or to be paid. Here at the market, he was the tough version of himself. Here, he spoke with authority and with words I never heard him use when my grandmother and mother were around. Here, everyone knew him, most respected him, and some probably even loved him. Here, he was king, and because I was his only grandson, I felt a little like royalty at “the market,” as we always called it.

In the office, I reclined, revolved, and rolled on the squeaky office chairs. I used the rubber stamps to mark dates, “for deposit only,” and “PAID,” on checks and invoices. He teased me because I couldn’t seal a pile of envelopes nearly as quickly as he could. He let me turn the dial to the last number and lift the latch to open the safe, and when no one else was around, he let me make fake announcements on the public address system. I must have put thousands of pieces of scrap paper through the time clock, just so that I could hear the “thump” of the time stamp, and I knew that I should never, ever touch the security alarm button on the underside of the office counter.

In the barn, I ran down the sawdust alleys between pens, dodging the manure piles! I swung (that really is the proper past tense of “swing”) on the heavy wooden gates. As my granddad would have said, I “clumb” (that’s not the proper past tense of “climb”) on the tall wooden fences. He weighed me on the cattle scales, and we walked along the catwalks above the pens together. We proudly called it the largest volume livestock market east of the Mississippi River.

There at the market, I got into the livestock business myself when I bought my first calf just after my ninth birthday. Granddaddy did the bidding, and I used sixty-five dollars of birthday money to buy Puddin’. Over the years after that, I bought and sold several others. In fact, I sold a calf at the market in 1991 to buy the college class ring pictured on my hand at the top of this blog. Soon after that, I worked at the market a few summers to earn a little extra for my college and seminary education. There, in my granddaddy’s kingdom, I was kicked, stomped, butted, and knocked down by nervous animals on several different occasions. I remember thinking how much easier it was in the childhood days of running, climbing, and swinging.

Once, my grandfather sent me down the hill to chase away some penhookers–people who came to buy livestock directly off of someone’s truck before they could be sold in the market, thus depriving the market of its commission. He said, “J.B., you’re the biggest employee I have, and they don’t know you’re in seminary. Go run ’em off!” I did it, but I was glad that they didn’t know I was in seminary and really didn’t want to fight!

Still, I was proud to walk down that hill both as an employee and (as I thought then) as an heir apparent to my grandfather’s life work and legacy. I walked down that hill not only because I worked there, but also because I belonged there.

Things changed, though, and the last day I worked at the market was the last time I was there. That was in the summer of 1994 . . .


Just before I drove by the livestock market yesterday, I visited another place that reminded me why I haven’t been to the market for twenty years. Only a few hundred yards away, on the hillside at Forest Hills Memory Gardens, my grandfather’s name is on a bronze marker right beside my grandmother’s. Under his name are two dates–January 20, 1921 and November 14, 1994. How is it possible that tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of his death?

In some ways, nothing has changed. I can still imagine the sound of his voice. I can still smell the mix of Pall Mall and Old Spice. I can still see his face. Occasionally, he still shows up in one of my dreams.

In some ways, everything has changed. He never met Suzanne or my children. He never knew me in what I now consider my defining roles–father, husband, pastor. He never saw me with gray hair or no hair.

Though the market is still there, it has changed over two decades. The formerly blue building is now brown. Now, the insulation hangs in shreds from the roof of the huge barn. I grin as I remember the motto: “Every hoof under a roof.” Maybe it’s still the largest volume market in the region. I hope it is, but I just can’t make myself care whether it is or not.

It was easy to walk down the hill that summer day long ago because it was his market. It’s difficult to drive up that same hill now precisely because it’s not his market. His absence makes it foreign. Honestly, I don’t even go back very often to the farm where I grew up, because it just isn’t the same without him either. Lots of things aren’t . . .

2nd Lieutenant Blair, I saluted your memory this week on Veteran’s Day.

Mr. Blair, founder, manager, and king of Tri-State Livestock Market, I remembered you with pride yesterday as I drove past your domain.

Granddaddy, I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll always love you. I wish we had gotten to spend more than twenty-three years together our first time around. I still blame and hate Pall Malls for that.

My consolation is this–as good a time as we had in twenty-three years in your little kingdom on the hill in west Abingdon, just imagine how great a time we’ll have in The Kingdom that never ends.

I’ll see you there.


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Teen: The New Four Letter Word in My Life

Over the weekend, a scary four-letter word became a much more real part of my vocabulary: t-e-e-n! On Saturday, much sooner than I could imagine or prepare for it, my older daughter Grace became a teen, and though I am so proud of the young lady she is becoming, I’m also a little nostalgic for the little girl she no longer is.

Grace was born on the morning of September 13, 2001—almost exactly forty-eight hours after the first of the 9/11 attacks, so of course, for the first few days of her life, news cycles were full of stories about disaster, destruction, death, despair . . .

When I called to tell her that Grace had arrived, my grandmother said, “What a world for a child to be born into!” She made a good point. It was the saddest, scariest, and most anxiety-filled of our nation’s experiences during my lifetime. I remember the feeling–shared by many, I’m sure–that everything had changed, and not for the better. So, maybe we could have wished for a different and better time to welcome our first child into the world.

I looked at the timing of Grace’s birth a little differently, though. In the midst of all that suffering, my little newborn brought a little hope and, well, grace into one of our nation’s darker times. We had chosen her name months in advance, but it took on a deeper meaning and significance in the wake of tragedy.

A couple of years later, Suzanne and I sat in a fertility specialist’s office as he shared some disappointing news: we shouldn’t expect to have another child, short of significant medical intervention like in vitro fertilization, which would improve our chances, but would still leave us with only a chance. I was equally confused and upset. How could he say that we couldn’t have children? Didn’t we have empirical evidence to the contrary? I asked him how he explained the existence of my two year old Grace. His response was, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

At first, I was hurt and angry. Had he just dared to call my precious girl a fluke!? Gradually, I absorbed the weight of his words, and I realized that he had just told me that I never really had a right to expect my sweet, beautiful little Grace. The absolute greatest gift in my life to that point had come to us completely against the odds. In only a partial voice, because it was all I could muster at the moment, I said, “In my vocation, we call those miracles.”

And she is a miracle. I know every child is. But she’s my miracle. Through her early years, she has been a bit of a daddy’s girl. She has wanted me near. She has wanted my help. She has enjoyed spending time with me.

Lately, the change that always seemed to be out on the distant horizon has grown closer. She is as tall as her mother (although Suzanne will argue that point when she reads this). She has grown more independent. She no longer needs my help as often as she once did. Though she still tolerates it quite well, she doesn’t seek my company quite as enthusiastically as before. Far more frequently than in any previous season of her life, she worries that I will embarrass her.

In short, now she is a teen. In only a matter of days (or so it will seem), she will learn to drive, and a few brief spins of the earth after that, there will be graduations and college dormitories and a wedding all the unknowns beyond.

As we enter these teen years, I understand that I may be headed for some heartbreak. Friends and relatives tell me that I will soon know very little, but my father assures me that I will be quite smart again once she faces adulthood and all its responsibilities.

Uncomfortable days are ahead as young men notice my young lady. I plan to stand uncomfortably close to each one who comes calling, giving him no other option than to notice my size. Ever the protective father, I will question their motives and intentions, and if they break her heart, I will want to break parts of them.

As she becomes (or imagines she is becoming) increasingly self-sufficient, she will necessarily become (or imagine she is becoming) decreasingly dependent upon me. There will be times when she resents the boundaries I impose and resists the counsel I interject. In the heat of those moments, no doubt she will tell me that she hates me, and in the moment, she might actually believe she does.

I realize it’s coming. I’m trying to enter into these teen years with my eyes wide open. In those painful, hurtful moments, it will be crucial that I remember another four letter word: l-o-v-e. After all, it’s the word that most easily comes to mind as I reflect on the first thirteen years she and I have shared.

Grace, this is what you were meant to do! You were made to grow and to become that beautiful lady that God envisioned when he miraculously knit you together in your mother’s womb! You are uniquely gifted to play a special role in God’s unfolding drama of sharing love and grace with the world! There is a space in this world that only you can fill, and we’re all counting on you to do what God made you to do and to be all that God made you to be!

I confess that I will sometimes miss the little girl, but I also promise that I will always try my best to cherish the young woman that you are becoming. I guarantee that I will always be your biggest fan!

Teen. Even though that word has come into my life before I was prepared, I’m grateful to God that I get to explore that word and season of life with you, sweet Grace. We’re stepping into unknown territory together, but God is already there.

Blogger’s note: an abbreviated version of this post appeared in State Street United Methodist Church’s September newsletter.

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The Difference Between Educating and Teaching

For the first time in thirty years, I talked with Mrs.Compton last Thursday!

Although I have often talked about her, I hadn’t actually spoken with Pamela J. Compton since 1984, when I was in her seventh grade class at E.B. Stanley Elementary School. As we spoke by phone last week, the sound of her voice–once part of the daily soundtrack of my adolescence–turned some key in my memory, allowing me to reoccupy for a moment my plastic seat with chrome legs, which glided almost effortlessly across commercial green carpet to its place beneath the black metal desk with the wood veneer top. I could envision the room’s geography, easily recalling the placement of my desk, Mrs. Compton’s desk, the chalkboard, the flag, the pencil sharpener, and other prominent features.

In fact, I couldn’t help remembering the place so well. It was the setting in which Mrs. Compton changed my life.

At that time, our county had no middle schools or junior high schools. So, we were in elementary school from Kindergarten through seventh grade, after which we moved across the hill to high school for eighth through twelfth grades. During the 1983-84 school year, my classmates and I were the big men and women on campus at E.B. Stanley–we were seventh graders! From our Kindergarten classes adjacent to the gymnasium, we had proceeded from first through third grades down one of the schools twin corridors and from fourth through seventh grades along the other.

By that spring, we were in our eighth year in the building, and we had reached the school’s academic and social summit. One day as we made our way from the gym down that long corridor to the seventh grade “pod,” we stopped at the water fountains just outside the auditorium or “little theater,” as it was called at E.B. Stanley. About that time, a Kindergarten class passed by on its way to the cafeteria, and one of the Kindergarteners was so impressed with our size and status that he said, “Wow! College kids!”

As impressed as he was with us, I may have been just as impressed with myself. By the spring semester, seventh grade was coming to a close, and I was practically in high school. I had learned that I could get by academically without investing a lot of effort, and besides, one of my classmates had started calling me “Mr. A+.” Since I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted that nickname, I reached a point at which I didn’t invest much effort at all. I was merely getting by academically.

It’s safe to say Mrs. Compton was not impressed. As she returned our graded papers to us one day, she stopped very deliberately right in front of my black metal/wood veneer desk and made eye contact that practically commanded my attention. I had not performed well on this particular assignment, and her eyes said so.

My recollection is that Mrs. Compton was not terribly tall–not even when she wore her gray leather cowboy boots. I, on the other hand, have always been relatively tall. So, I sometimes embellish this story by saying that we were eye-to-eye as she stood and I sat. Regardless of that detail, the rest is unquestionably true.

She stood before me, looked right into my eyes, slid my mediocre assignment across the desk, jabbed an index finger onto the paper and said to me, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this!”

I feel sure that normal daily activity continued in that room, but for me, the world stopped. There was no denying it. She was right. It felt like she was shining a bright light on something I didn’t want to see within myself or about myself. She expected more of me than I was willing to expect of myself. I felt like such a disappointment, and as much as I would love to say that I felt like a disappointment to Mrs. Compton, I had to say then and I must say now that I realized I was a disappointment to myself.

That day in seventh grade was one of the days in my life when everything changed. Thanks to that eye-opening experience, I began to expect more of myself. Academically, athletically, and in most other aspects of life, I learned that I cannot always determine outcomes, but I can determine the effort that I exert. Mrs. Compton was a crucial messenger to me about the importance of a work ethic–of being able to expect yourself to do better. Over the past thirty years, I have remembered her words countless times. Even today, in moments of contentment, self-satisfaction, or outright failure, I look at myself in the mirror–always making eye contact–and say to my reflection, “You can do better than this, and I expect you to do better than this.”

I’ve told the story of that day in seventh grade hundreds of times, but I still have a strong emotional reaction each time I tell it. Call it what you want, whether goose bumps, chill bumps, or hair standing on end, it happens every time I tell or even remember the story. Recently, I shared the story with my congregation, and then just within a few days, my daughter Grace began her own seventh grade year.

Maybe that’s why I felt the urge to reach out to Mrs. Compton last week. We had swapped email messages six or seven years ago, but this time, I really wanted to be able to express my gratitude with my own voice, and I’m so glad I had that opportunity. I got to express thanks. She got to say that she was glad to have made an impression. We both got to catch up on the past thirty years . . .

You cannot possibly imagine the heartbreak I felt when Mrs. Compton told me that she retired a few years ago because she had gotten close to burnout. Like so many others, she had grown tired of the pressure to “teach to the test,” in this era of SOLs and other standardized tests. It was crushing to hear that a person who had changed my life is no longer in a classroom to change lives because our society has changed its view of education.

In fact, I believe I can make a compelling case that our society is in the midst of a pendulum swing away from education and toward mere teaching. You may question whether this distinction is merely splitting hairs. Not to me. I acknowledge this distinction with such great conviction that I have not once referred to  Mrs. Compton as a teacher in this post.

Our word and concept “educate” comes from a pair of Latin words. One is educere, which means “to lead out,” and the other is educare, which means “to train,” or “to shape.” Notice that both of these definitions make the student the object. Education is a process of training or shaping a person. It is a practice of leading out the virtue, reasoning, and potential within the student–within each student.

By contrast, our English word “teach” comes from an Old English word tæcan, which means “to point out, to present, or to show.” Clearly, this definition emphasizes the subject matter, which is presented, shown, or demonstrated to the student. Teaching has to do with imparting a particular set of skills or a particular type of knowledge to the student. So, it’s entirely appropriate to say that today’s teachers are pressured to “teach to the test,” as they present particular Standards of Learning to today’s students.

I empathize with today’s would-be educators. I believe with all my heart that they are responding to a call and that they have a sense of vocation to be educators, rather than merely teachers. I cannot imagine their frustration! What if the church dictated to me what I would preach, when I would preach it, and what my parishioners were expected to learn from my preaching? What if I were evaluated on the basis of what my church members committed to memory, rather than what they committed to heart? What if my effectiveness were gauged by the quantity of what church people learned, rather than by the quality of their life-changing experiences? The very thought is ludicrous to me.

The problem, at least in my view, is that we are so eager to quantify learning that we have rushed into standardization, evaluating teachers, schools, and entire school systems on the basis of how well or poorly they teach particular skills and facts. In the process of standardizing learning, my fear is that we subtly discourage the creativity and attention to the individual person that are so crucial to education. Are we headed for a society in which we excel in games of Trivial Pursuit and fail miserably in the pursuit of virtue?

I can look at any variety of websites to see the body of knowledge that my children and all of their peers are expected to learn, but the only way we can train, shape, and lead out the best that is within each child is by setting teachers free to be educators. Loosen up on the SOLs! It’s far less important to be taught facts than it is to be educated to become a lifelong learner, a contributor to society, and a changer of the world.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between teaching and educating. Teaching is the transferring of information; educating is the transforming of lives.

I’m living proof. At this very moment, I can’t recall a single language arts fact that Mrs. Compton taught me. I don’t even remember what books we read that year. But as you already know, she changed my life.

As we ended our conversation last Thursday, I thanked her again for expecting so much of me. She simply replied, “I knew you had it in you.”

There’s the magic. I didn’t know I had it in me. It had to be “led out.” I had to be educated.

Thanks again, Mrs. Compton. The world needs you–and more of your kind–educating our children.

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Ten Reasons to Stay Away from Church

They’re inevitable conversations in the life of a pastor. You round the corner in the grocery store and encounter a church member who hasn’t participated in worship services or other ministries for several months, and he or she feels compelled to tell you why. You encounter the stranger in the waiting room or on the airplane, and the moment you reveal you’re a pastor, he or she rehearses the litany of reasons not to be part of a congregation. Let me be clear–I’m not talking about conversations with people who have physical limitations and yearn for the fellowship they miss in their church families. Instead, these are the stories of people who could be, but fore some reason aren’t active in church.

For years, I felt a little awkward in these conversations, afraid that perhaps I had given the other person some reason to feel guilty or defensive. I’d say something innocent and casual like, “We’ll be there when you get back,” or “We’re open every Sunday.” Now, however, I relish these opportunities to share my perspective and compassion. Across the last fifteen years or so, I’ve heard a lot of reasons to stay away from church. You may have heard and attempted to address some of them. You may have offered some of them yourself. Regardless, I invite you to wrestle with them now.

I’ll start with some of the reasons church members (or former church members) often give when they haven’t participated in a while.

10.  We can’t be there because we have to . . .
I hear this one very often, especially among families with active children, and they almost always use the word “can’t” and the phrase “have to” in their explanation, often because of some kind of sport or extracurricular activity. We can’t be there because we have to be at a soccer, swim, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, gymnastics, etc. tournament. Let’s tell the truth–when we say “can’t,” don’t we really mean “choose not to,” as in, “We choose not to be there because of the aforementioned athletic event.” Both as a former student athlete and as a father of four, I understand the lure. Nevertheless, we parents communicate value and priority by our actions that speak more loudly than words. At worst, we’re subtly telling our kids that sports are more important than faith–that games are more important than God. At best, we’re telling them that God can wait until the next season, year, or phase of life. This one is big, and it deserves greater attention, so I think I’ll address it more fully in a later blog post.

9.  Sunday’s the only day we get to be together as a family.
Obviously, this one’s very similar to number 10, and again, people almost always use the phrase “get to,” as if we’re passive victims of our schedules. A more honest version of this one is, “We’ve chosen to overschedule our lives, and so we choose sleep or time at home over worship on Sunday mornings.” Again, we parents communicate value by the choices we make, and we’re subtly telling our families that all of that busy-ness of the other six days is more important than our families’ lives of worship and devotion on Sunday morning.

What priority can we expect our children to give their lives of faith if we parents communicate to them by our actions that speak more loudly than words that all the other things that occupy our time come first, and worship is for those Sunday mornings that we don’t happen to be busy or resting? On the other hand, what better way is there to spend “quality time” as a family than in a shared life of faith? Besides, wouldn’t we rather spend eternity together as a family than risk another eternal outcome because faith wasn’t one of the most important parts of our family life?

8.  My kids just don’t like to go to church.
This comment is often followed by some statement about not wanting to “shove religion down their throats.” Hardly ever, however, do we parents have conversations with each other about whether sending our kids to school or taking them to doctor and dentist appointments is shoving education and healthcare down their throats, despite the fact that our kids don’t particularly like those experiences either. I often wonder where we Christians got the idea that we and our children are supposed to enjoy everything about following Jesus, who–by the way–told us that we should deny ourselves and take up a cross and follow him each day. Self-denial doesn’t come naturally. It has to be taught and learned. Here’s an opportunity for us to teach our kids that it’s not about us and our enjoyment. It’s about devotion to the one who loved us enough to die for us.

7.  I don’t like the . . . 
The end of this sentence varies dramatically, according to a person’s individual preferences–and I use the word “preferences” intentionally, simply because I’m convinced so many of our dislikes are matters of preference rather than principle. For many, it’s the preacher. For many others, it’s the music. For still others, it’s the time or style of the worship service. It can be almost anything, including the sanctuary, the color scheme, the translation of scripture most commonly used, the decision making process of the governing board or council, the parking lot, the denomination’s stance on one issue or another . . . and the list goes on and on. 

Nevertheless, if I may be blunt, Jesus never promised that we would like everything about his church. In fact, after he tells Peter that he will build his church upon this rock, Jesus only mentions the church once, and that is to tell us what to do when we don’t get along with each other! Somehow, however, we have gotten the idea that our participation in a community of faith should often or always bring us enjoyment, and we’re disillusioned when it doesn’t.

I have a running joke with some young people in our congregation. When they tell me what they don’t like, they expect me to reply with something like, “I doubt Jesus liked hanging on the cross, but he did it because he loves you.” Regardless of age, one lesson we continually need to learn is that our life together in a community of faith is (or should be) less about our likes and enjoyment than about seeking to love and serve Jesus and others.

Especially with our culture’s emphasis upon the rights of the individual, we tend to wonder what’s in it for us. And to be honest, the church has done little to discourage that perspective. Swept up in the prevailing consumer culture, we’ve marketed ourselves to the public, persuading people to become part of our fellowship because of all we have to offer to them or to their families. Like American Express, we’ve led people to believe “membership has its privileges.” But the church doesn’t exist to please its members. To the contrary,  the church exists to engage its members in self-denying service in Jesus’ name, like it or not.

6.  I’m not being fed at church.
I do not take this lightly. As pastor, two of my chief responsibilities are preaching and teaching, and like most pastors, I take those responsibilities very seriously. Because Jesus asks commands us to love God with heart, mind, soul, & strength, it’s crucial that the church engage heart, mind, and soul with its ministries. If people aren’t being offered good spiritual food, the church should explore that very prayerfully.

However, my friend, colleague, and fellow pastor Alan Gray recently gave me a different way of looking at this problem. Who needs to be fed  by another? Usually an infant. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food.” Maybe part of the problem is that we Christians aren’t growing up. There’s a good chance we’re starving. Imagine eating only one meal per week. We hardly consider that healthy. Similarly, if we’re not nourishing our faith between Sundays or apart from our participation in the life of the church, there’s probably no way we can be adequately fed in one hour doses on Sundays. The significant difference between our being offered food and being fed is the extent to which we’re willing to bear some responsibility for our own nourishment.

5.  Something/someone in church really hurt me.
I feel very deep empathy with and sympathy for anyone who feels this way. Because the church is a community of believers built upon love for God and neighbors, it is particularly painful to feel wounded by a congregation or one of its members. It is very difficult to return to that fellowship and allow yourself to be vulnerable, to subject yourself to the memory of pain or of the possibility of additional pain.

As we all know, some people have been deeply wounded by sexual predators who have violated the sacred trust that binds us together in the Body of Christ. I can’t imagine the depth of their pain. In their shoes, I don’t know that I would or even could return. We Christians need to dwell on their pain and let it inspire us to keep the church a sanctuary, a holy haven from the violence of the world around us. Trust is slowly gained and quickly lost. The church should be in the constant business of building and gaining trust by demonstrating love and mercy.

On the other hand, there are many who shun the church because of hurt feelings born of differences of opinion, poor communication, and a million other causes. Though we must take their pain very seriously too, we also need to hear Jesus’ counsel in Matthew 18:21-22 about persistence in forgiveness. Apparently, Jesus never expected us to coexist in his church without occasional friction. Many of us remember singing, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is people!” It’s true that I am the church, you are the church, and we are the church together. We’re human and broken, and we’re going to hurt each other at times. Rather than taking the path of least resistance and walking away from church, Jesus asks us to do the hard work of forgiving and reconciling.

Thus ends the part of this post that we might call preaching to the choir. The preceding are some of the most common reasons “church people” give for staying away from church, but many people have never been committed to or even approached the church at all, and here are some of the reasons they’ve offered me across the years.

4.  Church people are such hypocrites.
I usually respond to this one by saying, “Well, we can always use one more, so come join us!” I’m not really joking when I say that. Of course we’re hypocrites. We see splinters in others’ eyes and fail to see the planks in our own. We complain about others’ sins and rationalize our own. We fail to practice what we preach. We need grace. There’s a whole lot of truth in the bumper sticker that says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

I do, however, understand some of the prevailing frustrations with and critiques of the church. It’s sadly true that we Christians can be most vocal about what we’re against. We can be perceived as people who are “anti-” in a variety of ways. At our very core, however, we Christians are (or should be) a bunch of people trying to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In pursuit of him, we’re trying to show his love to others by loving and serving our neighbors, and that’s not a bad mission. I dare you to come join us.

3.  I watch a TV preacher(-s), and that’s my church.
This reason for staying away rests on the assumption that the church’s primary (or only) mission is to provide uplifting preaching. But the church strives to be–and is–so much more than a weekly sermon. The word translated as church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia, which means “the assembly,” or “the gathering.” Church necessarily includes involvement in a community.

Here’s another way in which the society’s emphasis upon the individual affects the individual’s view of faith. Our culture really seems to believe that faith is a matter between an individual and God, private from and exclusive of any involvement with other people. However, that’s a completely foreign notion in the Bible with its emphasis upon community, covenant, kingdom, and church.

Let me be clear–I’m so glad that churches and preachers broadcast their services and sermons. We need that little oasis of holiness in the midst of more typical secular programming on television. These broadcasts are very meaningful in many Christians’ devotional lives–especially, it seems, for older adults who are less mobile than they once were. But no television broadcast can replace participation in the ekklesia, the community of believers. The church is people.

2.  I can be just as close to God . . . 
There are probably thousands of ways to end this sentence. You’ve probably heard several of them. I can be just as close to God in the mountains, on the farm, at the lake, on the golf course, on my porch, in the garden, at the beach . . . and the list goes on and on.  I’ll grant you this one. You probably can be just as close to God at other places and in other settings as you can in a sanctuary among other people. But you can’t participate in the body of Christ on your own.

Paul wrote to the Hebrews, “let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” That can only be done in community! Again though, our culture emphasizes the individual, and we tend to think of our faith as a private matter between ourselves and God, but God created us to live in community. Jesus didn’t call disciples to follow him individually. He called them to follow him collectively.

1.  I’m not a religious person. I’m a spiritual person.
This claim is as old as the church. Literally. Influenced by Greek philosophers of earlier centuries, some first century Christians tried to distinguish between the ideal and the actual. Schools of thought like Docetism rejected the idea that Jesus actually suffered death, because they believed to admit Jesus’ incarnation was to admit his flaws. For them, the spiritual was ideal, and the physical was necessarily flawed. Similarly, I often encounter people who claim to be spiritual rather than religious because they seem to think that religion is almost necessarily corrupt, while spiritual enlightenment is more perfect and sublime.

I think they’re on to something, but I think they’re missing something. The church is flawed, but it’s the Body of Christ in the world. The church really should be less about religious doctrine and more about spirit-filled movement, but it’s the instrument Jesus chose to share his love and grace with the world. By standing apart from the church, a spiritual person may position himself or herself above the church’s corruption, but at the same time, he/she also chooses to stand beyond its grace, fellowship, and maybe most importantly, accountability.

Your spiritual sensitivity is a gift from God. Jesus says so in John’s gospel–“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” But Paul points out in several of his letters that your spiritual gift is for the sake of the Body of Christ in the world. Rather than standing apart from the church because of its flaws, come refine the church by sharing your God-given gifts and strengths. You might find  a surprising sense of fulfillment as you take your place within this Body of Christ animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

1b.  I don’t believe in God.
Well, God believes in you, and the church exists for you. Our love, our prayers, and everything we do is for you. At least it should be.

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God Bless Dr. Griffin

Almost twenty-five years ago in August 1989, I sat in a cramped basement office on the campus of Emory & Henry College meeting with my assigned faculty advisor to select courses for my first semester. Honestly, I expected the meeting to be a mere formality because I had already met with the beloved registrar Al Mitchell earlier in the summer to choose classes. Since I would be playing football and basketball and because I needed to maintain a high grade point average to keep my academic scholarship, Mr. Mitchell and I had put together an academic schedule that would help me ease into my college experience.

But in that small office on the day before registration, the man who claimed some of his students called him Dr. Death had other ideas. As he held my high school transcript in one hand and the course schedule I had arranged with Mr. Mitchell in the other, he asked, “Jonas, are you afraid of college?” He went on to tell me that I owed it to myself and to the academic community around me to embark upon a more challenging first semester, and therefore, he unceremoniously ripped up my proposed schedule, and we started over. I can’t say that my first impression of him was overwhelmingly positive.

As it turned out, however, he did me a great service. The course schedule that he helped me to assemble included “The History of Ancient & Medieval Philosophy” with Dr. Ed Damer. Left to my own preferences, I probably would not have chosen that one, but by the end of the semester, I discovered that I was a lover of wisdom–literally a philosopher–and because of my experience in that class, I went on to major in philosophy.

My first semester also included Psychology 101 with Dr. Steve Hopp, who changed my life by changing my view of learning and education. I’ve always been blessed with a pretty good memory, and I had discovered that memorization can be very helpful in test preparation. In psychology lab one afternoon, I was committing course material to memory when Dr. Hopp said these transformative words, “Don’t just memorize; conceptualize.” I’ve been trying ever since to conceptualize, to learn in context, to see the bigger pictures, the nuances, and the intricacies. Anyone can memorize. Not everyone can really learn. I might have missed that lesson if I had kept my “ease into college” schedule.

One of the beauties of a small college is that it is less institution than community. So, after we completely remodeled my schedule as advisor and advisee, I began to get to know Dr. Terry Griffin in our new relationship as professor and student. He was my instructor for the first semester of freshman Western Tradition, and I very quickly realized that he was unlike any teacher I had encountered. He often smoked cigarettes (even in class!), always with the plastic filter attachment. His sense of humor was dry, and I had the distinct impression that he enjoyed coming across as having a sense of impropriety bordering on irreverence.

Our faculty emphasized the importance of gender inclusivity and required us to write “he or she” or “s/he” or “his or her”  in cases in which gender was unspecified. One day in class Dr. Griffin suggested that we had not taken gender inclusivity far enough because in our effort to include both masculine and feminine, we had completely ignored neuter. So, he told us that it would be perfectly appropriate in his class to use a combination pronoun made up of the “s” from the feminine she, the “h” from the masculine he, and the neuter pronoun “it.” Of course, the spelling of his newly fabricated, completely inclusive pronoun was “shit.” I can still hear Dr. Griffin saying, “What?! We don’t want neutered people to feel left out!” My appreciation and admiration for him grew throughout that first semester because he was so uninhibited.  In so many ways, he was what I could not be.

Mainly because I had enjoyed his Western Tradition class so much, I decided to fulfill my foreign language requirement in his German classes. He did not disappoint. His wry sense of humor, his exaggerated pronunciation and enunciation of those guttural German sounds, and so many other uniquely Griffinesque touches made his classes equally educational and entertaining.

One day in class he furrowed his brow as he looked at me and said, “Jonas,” (because he never called me anything but Jonas), “did I teach another Jonas here a few years ago?” When I told him that my dad had taken German with him a generation earlier, he frowned and nodded. In our next class session, he very brusquely said, “Jonas, there’s only one explanation–you’re adopted.” I made As in Dr. Griffin’s class. Apparently, my dad didn’t.

The unwritten rules of social convention never seemed to faze him. If he thought it, he felt perfectly free to say it. As we studied German grammar in comparison and contrast to English grammar, he expressed his frustration that so many rules of grammar seem so arbitrary. He asked, “Who decided that sentences can’t end with prepositions?” Apparently, this was a long held and deeply held frustration because he told us about the argument he had with one of his elementary school teachers who had penalized him for ending sentences with prepositions. In protest, he claimed to have set the world record by ending a sentence in his next composition with five consecutive prepositions. In his story, a little boy asked his mother at bedtime, “Why did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of up for?” There they are. Five prepositions.

As we discussed the German language within the context of German culture, he said, “Some Germans can be so arrogant.” He went on to tell us about an experience he had one summer at a foreign language conference when he shared a meal with several professors, including one from a German university–perhaps Heidelberg? Apparently, this native of Germany made some disparaging remarks about the United States, suggesting that our society was less refined and sophisticated than German culture. By his own account, Dr. Griffin stood, looked straight at the professor from Germany, and said, “We kicked your asses in back in 1918, we did it again in ’45, and by God we can still do it today!”

Vintage Griffin–simultaneously educating and entertaining, so opinionated yet so apparently unconcerned with others’ opinions of him. Whenever I talk about my Emory & Henry years, I almost always sprinkle in a Griffin story or two. In fact, during the Holston Annual Conference back in June, I spent a couple of hours with a few other E&H alumni as we tried to outdo each other’s Griffin stories. We laughed until we cried . . .

Yesterday, I just cried.

Murder is always tragic. Domestic violence and abuse are always tragic, wherever they occur. Yesterday’s news seemed particularly tragic to me because it was so close to home. It was heartbreaking enough that the tragedy unfolded in nearby Glade Spring. It took my breath away to read that shooting and murder broke out in the home of Dr. Terry Griffin early yesterday morning.

It seems that Dr. Griffin’s son-in-law broke into the home and shot Dr. Griffin, his wife, his daughter, and grandson. Apparently, the shooter then took his own life. So, I understand that Dr. Griffin is recovering from his physical wounds in a hospital room. I don’t know how he will recover from the emotional and spiritual wounds of having his home invaded and of losing his wife, daughter, and grandson.

A couple of decades ago on the Emory & Henry campus, I saw Dr. Griffin as a mischievous iconoclast. With his gruff exterior and his intellectual bravado, I certainly respected him, and I very well may have envied him, but back then I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which I would feel pity for him.

Today, I just want to hug him. God bless you Dr. Griffin. Gott segne dich.


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Why My Dad Knows More than Anyone in the Federal Government

On January 2, 1999, my dad and I stood in the elevator of State Street United Methodist Church a few minutes before my wedding service began in the sanctuary. During that brief elevator ride, my dad said, “I guess I’m supposed to say something profound. All I can tell you is that marriage takes compromise.” After a pause of a few seconds, he added, “And sometimes it takes lots of compromise.”

He wasn’t telling me that I would have to sell my soul. He wasn’t suggesting that I would have to surrender my most deeply held and cherished values. He wasn’t suggesting that I approach marriage with the idea that I would win some and lose some. He was simply reminding me that relationships require mutual effort, and since marriage is perhaps the most important human relationship of all, it requires and deserves lots of mutual effort, also known as compromise.

Since when did compromise become a dirty word? Why is compromise so closely identified with surrender or abandonment of what we hold dear? That sense of surrender and loss doesn’t have a place in compromise’s original definition.

It’s root is the word promise, which comes from the Latin prefix pro-, which means “forward,” and the verb mittere, which means “to send.” When we promise something, we “send forward” our word about what we intend to do. Add the Latin prefix com-, which means “together,” and you get the idea that compromise consists of two or more parties “sending forward” their commitments to each other. More basically, compromising is the act of making promises together. Isn’t it appropriate that my dad used that word “compromise” just before my wedding service, in which Suzanne and I made promises together in the presence of God and our loved ones?

In today’s political arena, however, compromise has become despicable. Last spring, I watched (almost incredulously, I might add) a television news story about veteran Senator Richard Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary. I didn’t have any particular loyalty to Senator Lugar, but I was stunned to hear that a statesman known for his willingness to reach across party lines to find mutually beneficial solutions had apparently been defeated because he was too willing to compromise. In a CNN story, his victorious opponent “said he doesn’t anticipate successful compromise in the Senate and hopes bipartisanship will be defined as Democrats backing the Republican agenda.”

Richard Mourdock clearly isn’t the only one with such a mindset. Tonight, as the federal government is about two hours away from a shutdown, I hear plenty of politicians suggesting that compromise is something to be avoided at all cost–including, apparently, the cost of thousands of government jobs, the cost of billions of dollars in the stock market, and the cost of even more dramatically diminishing public trust in our elected “leaders.”

Democrats will not compromise with Republicans. Tea Party Republicans will not compromise with their more moderate party mates. The House will not compromise with the Senate. The President will not compromise with the Congress. Elected officials will not compromise their party platforms, regardless of the potential effect upon their constituents. Members of congress prize their vows and oaths to Grover Norquist more highly than they value their responsibilities to their home districts.

By all outward appearances, compromise is deplorable. Far from seeking to cultivate the mutually beneficial solutions, our politicians seemingly invest most of their time and effort in posturing themselves to deflect blame upon their counterparts in the other party.

But compromise hasn’t always been something to avoid. In fact, I can make a compelling case that our nation was literally founded in and upon compromise. The Constitutional Convention, our nation’s founding moment, was full of compromise. Consider, for instance, the three-fifths compromise. In determining the population for taxation and representation, delegates from the northern states advocated counting only free citizens. Delegates from the southern states sought to include slaves in the population count for determining congressional representation. In an effort to form a new union, they compromised and included “three fifths of all other Persons” (i.e. slaves) in the population count for determining representation.

Earlier in that same Constitutional Convention, when delegates had reached an impasse over whether congressional representation should be by state or by population, the convention agreed upon the Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise), which established that each state would have equal representation in the senate and that the representation in the house of representatives would be based upon population. Small states favored representation by state. Large states favored representation by population. They compromised and found a way to continue forward together.

Years later, when legislators differed over whether new territories and states should allow slavery, the Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise, which allowed slavery only in limited areas of the former Louisiana Territory. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery legislators, poised on opposite sides of what might be called the hot button issue of our nation’s history, somehow found a way to compromise so that they could go forward together.

Certainly, we can critique these decisions with the benefit of hindsight. We can scarcely imagine treating a large segment of the population as if it were only three-fifths as worthy of representation as another. We realize now that the compromises regarding slavery merely postponed the inevitable ideological and armed conflict that became the Civil War. Nevertheless, our nation’s very political roots are in the spirit and practice of compromise.

Somewhere along the way, however, we have lost touch with those roots. So, the “countdown to shutdown” continues, and our elected representatives draw lines in the sand, stick to their guns, fulfill their mandates, and a thousand other phrases, all of which is to say, they are too weak and small to find compromise for the common good.

If they were my children, I would tell them to grow up. I like to think they wouldn’t behave so badly if they were my children. As it is, I believe they are negligent. They are proving themselves unworthy of the sacred responsibilities entrusted to them.

Compromise. Promise together. Each makes a commitment to the common good. Compromise is not a bad thing in and of itself. It enables two or more to find their best future together. In our lives of faith, we might call this understanding of compromise living in covenant together, which is exactly what Suzanne and I were about to do on January 2, 1999.

“It takes compromise . . . and sometimes it takes lots of compromise.” See? My dad gets it. Why can’t the federal government?


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(S)election: Pope Benedict XVI and Every Denomination’s Dilemma

A few weeks ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, appeared on CNN’s Starting Point to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement and the process of determining his successor. In the conversation about the possible motivations for the Holy Father’s retirement, Cardinal Wuerl introduced a very helpful distinction that I believe I’ve always embraced but struggled to articulate.

Cardinal Wuerl identified a subtle distinction between election and selection, acknowledging that each concept has a place in the identification of a new pope. Clearly, there is a papal election in which the cardinals gather together in the conclave to vote for the next pontiff, and apparently, this process has long been recognized as an overtly political process. In 1824, John Adams lamented to his friend Alexander Johnson, “What a rattling & crackling and clattering there is about the future presidency. It seems like a Conclave of Cardinals intriguing for the Election of the Pope.”

The reason for Adams’ lament was that he thought the presidential election should rise above such political wrangling. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in First Family: Abigail & John Adams, “The more explicit style of political campaigning offended John’s personal sensibilities, which had been formed in an earlier era when any overt expression of political ambition was regarded as inadmissible” (252-3). How surprising is it that one of our founders saw papal elections as more explicitly political than presidential elections?

Even as they participate in an election process, however, the cardinals believe that God has already selected the next pope, and their responsibility in the conclave is to determine together that man’s identity. Put simply, the cardinals’ election is a process of discerning God’s selection.

Cardinal Wuerl speculated–and please realize that I’m summarizing rather than quoting–that Pope Benedict XVI may have focused on the fact that he was an elected leader of the church as he decided to retire. Perhaps he felt that he had served his term and that it was time for the incumbent to step aside and made way for the next elected Bishop of Rome to lead the church.

The historical norm among popes, by contrast, has been to focus upon their selection by God, to understand that they were chosen and set apart for their unique role at the head of the church and to believe–at least during their lifetimes–that they alone could fulfill the responsibilities for which they were chosen.

Who knows whether Cardinal Wuerl is right in his speculation about what may have motivated Pope Benedict XVI to do the unprecedented. Who knows whether Benedict XVI gave any thought to the intricacies of election vs. selection. Regardless, I believe Cardinal Wuerl is onto something crucial in regard to church leadership in the world today.

Roman Catholics are not the only ones to have walked the fine line between election and selection. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of which I am part has historically held the two concepts in a similar tension. In jurisdictional conferences around the nation and world–not so coincidentally, every four years and in the very same years as presidential elections–United Methodists elect bishops to lead the church. All candidates for the office of bishop are nominated by annual conferences, again underscoring the concept of election in our process of naming episcopal leaders. Yet many of the delegates voting in those conferences believe that God has already selected the people for the job, and the voters’ responsibility is to discern whom God has chosen.

After all the ballots are cast, we walk the election/selection tightrope again as we consecrate the men and women we have just elected to the office of bishop, an office they will hold until resignation or death. Even in retirement, these men and women are still bishops, as our Book of Discipline clearly states: “A retired bishop is a bishop of the Church in every respect” (par. 409, The 2008 Discipline). This practice suggests that we believe they are, in fact, selected and set apart by God for the rest of their lives.

We Methodists have always intertwined the ideas of election and selection. Our first two Methodist bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury are proof. Coke was content that he was named (read selected) and “set apart” by John Wesley to be a “general superintendent” of American Methodists in September 1784. Weeks later, when the Christmas Conference met in Baltimore, Maryland, to establish officially the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury insisted that the conference members confirm his role as general superintendent by electing him.

In later years, every bishop would follow Asbury’s precedent of being elected, perhaps because the constitution of the Methodist Episcopal Church was formulated in the very same era as the Constitution of the United States of America. The polity of the church and the nation share many features in common.

Regardless of any disagreement over election or selection, according to noted Methodist historian Frederick Norwood, there was little confusion over whether a general superintendent equaled a bishop. He quotes Thomas Ware, “the plan of general superintendence, which had been adopted, was a species of episcopacy” (The Story of American Methodism, 100). A major ecclesiastical question is whether Wesley, a parish priest in the church of England, had authority to consecrate a bishop or a general superintendent. As Norwood concludes, “Methodists in America have not worried overmuch about it, but they have never quite reconciled themselves to a clear interpretation. Here beginneth the definition–or lack thereof–of the office of bishop in the Methodist Episcopal tradition” (Story, 97-8).

Apparently, we still seek that clear interpretation. I’ve already mentioned how we elect/select our bishops in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. A relatively recent and unprecedented conversation and controversy pertained to how we deselect them.

In July 2012, the episcopacy committee of the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction voted to retire involuntarily Bishop Earl Bledsoe, based on his ineffectiveness as a bishop. Days later, the jurisdictional conference whose delegates had elected Bishop Bledsoe just four years earlier, voted to uphold the episcopacy committee’s decision.

On the committee’s behalf, chairperson Don House said, “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question” (United Methodist News Service, June 9, 2012). In a later report, House went on to say, “Our only concern about Bishop Bledsoe was his administrative skills, but as a spiritual leader, as a dedicated Christian, never any question” (UMNS,, July 17, 2012).

These statements suggest that the jurisdiction and its episcopacy committee view the office of bishop primarily as an elected role, in which administrative and managerial skills are paramount. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the committee’s and the conference’s action as a recall of an elected official. The suggestion that his skills as a spiritual leader are less vital to the office of bishop than his administrative and relational skills seems to presume that he was elected by people do manage and administer effectively, rather than selected by God to change hearts.

In its deliberations and decision on November 10, 2012, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church overturned Bishop Bledsoe’s  involuntary retirement and required the jurisdiction to reinstate him. According to a November 12 release by the United Methodist News Service, “The Council cited ‘numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process’ and ‘an inability to articulate’ what the ‘best interests’ of the church or of the bishop or of both would be.”

At stake is whether the bishop is an elected administrative official or a selected spiritual leader. Is the bishop ultimately chosen by people or chosen by God? Is a bishop or a pope best understood as a consecrated leader for life or an elected official for a specific term?

Some protestant denominations have arrived at clearer answers to these questions by developing  systems of leadership featuring  elections and term limits. For example, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which also claims John Wesley as its founder, has no office of bishop. Instead, an elected president presides for a one year term. The Uniting Church in Australia functions similarly but elects its presidents to three year terms. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elects moderators for its presbyteries and assembly, usually for a one-year term.

Clearly, there is great variety among denominations in their practices of electing and/or selecting leaders. To what do we attribute this? On the one hand, we lack a clear biblical prescription for how leaders are to be identified. In the Hebrew scriptures, God does the selecting and makes his selections known through various media, from burning bushes to prophets. In the New Testament, the disciples cast lots to name a replacement for Judas–trusting that God will identify his choice by that process–in Acts 1, but the early church “selects” or “chooses” seven deacons in Acts 6. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul offers counsel about the qualifications of a bishop, but he doesn’t say how they are to be chosen. In the absence of specific biblical instructions, various denominations and traditions of the Christian church have determined their own processes of election/selection.

Among protestant churches, especially in the United States, the democratic processes of electing church leaders may be an example of church imitating society or a reaction against a perceived “monarchical” hierarchy in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So, who’s right? Should church leaders be understood as elected, selected, or both? Should they be elected to serve in office for specific terms, or should they consecrated for life? The answer may very simply be: God only knows.

This much is clear. Christians of good faith and clear conscience have come to different conclusions, or at least to different points in their journeys toward conclusions. Maybe we all “see in a mirror, dimly.”

With his retirement and the accompanying process of identifying his successor, Pope Benedict XVI may have opened the door to new conversations and discernment processes toward clarity. Or he may have just muddied the water.

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