Singing songs of faith can become a cause of controversy. Paul and Silas undoubtedly agreed on which songs to sing in prison (Acts 16, the focus of last week’s sermon and they probably agreed on the key and tempo, bound as they were in stocks, bruised and beaten. But not all of their spiritual heirs have been so harmonious. Sometimes singing hymns of faith can really make people angry. Here’s a story I wanted to tell last Sunday, but I just couldn’t fit it in:
“Back in 1849 one Methodist congregation was split by controversy when it proposed to print music along with the text of hymns in a revised hymnal.
“Records of the Chester-Bethel Methodist Church (not far from Wilmington, Delaware) reveal that a splinter group crossed into Pennsylvania and formed another church.
“Complained one dissenter, ‘Anybody with common sense ought to know that it will not help the voice to look when you sing upon those things that you call keys and bars, with black and white tadpoles, some with their tails up, and some with their tails down, decorated with black flags and trying to crawl through the fence. It’s all the work of the Devil.’”
I suspect the church began arguing about hymnody not long after hymns to God were first composed and published. The work of the devil has little to do with squirmy tadpole-shaped quarter notes and much to do with our susceptibility to the wily one who would turn God’s good gift of music into another theatre of war. Come, Lord, tune our hearts to sing your praise!
I look forward to seeing you this Sunday when we will rejoice (11 a.m. service) with our confirmands who will confess their faith and join the church. It will be another great day of celebration!
The immediate past CEO of the Georgia Lottery Corporation recently spoke to the Rotary Club of Savannah, touting the joys of the lottery. Anticipating that I would hear a one-sided story I resolved to remain silent, never an easy thing for this preacher. I succeeded, though it almost killed me and now I make a few remarks about our lottery.
||I reluctantly tip my hat to the Georgia lottery for establishing almost universal pre-school for our state’s children. We are a leader in the US, thanks to the lottery. Pre-school is proven to be one of the best investments we can make in our children. We have the HOPE Scholarship, too, another good thing. I contend, however, that the program would remain solvent indefinitely if we limited the scholarships to those who have excellent grades AND demonstrate a strong financial need for the support.
||The speaker used a number of rhetorical flourishes to convince the audience of the respectability of the lottery.
||She said 80% of Georgians play the lottery, telling this highly educated professional class, “People like you play the lottery.” This is one of the oldest ploys in the book: convince people that everybody else is doing it and that those who oppose it are rare. I would like to see the statistics. Maybe 80% of Georgians have purchased a single lottery ticket, although I doubt it. I suspect a zip code analysis would show that far fewer tickets are purchased at the Landings and Buckhead than in the poorer regions of our state.
||She said lotteries have been around since the 1600s in our nation. Prostitution has been around that long, too, and cannibalism was practiced at Jamestown. So much for the historical argument.
||She said that the lottery was used in the past to build churches. When did this happen? Where? Why? What kind of lottery? Her statement was a subtle way of trying to undercut church opposition to gambling.
||She quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying the lottery is a “tax on the willing.” Most of us know that remark in a different form: “…a tax on the stupid”. I am saddened that our state suckers people into a venture with almost zero chance of payback.
||She cited Benjamin Franklin as having printed lottery tickets in Philadelphia. I’m not sure the point of this remark, other than to wrap the mantle of the Founding Fathers around the lottery. It didn’t work.
We live in a democracy and the voters of Georgia have long ago – and decisively – approved a lottery. As far as these things go, the Georgia Lottery seems a cut above that in other states. My own sons received HOPE Scholarship money for awhile. Even so…even so…this pastor and citizen wishes there were a more legitimate way to fund these vital services.
I’ll see you this Sunday…looking forward to a wonderful Mothers’ Day at Wesley Monumental!
One distinctive mark of United Methodism is the process by which we receive new pastors. I’ve been meaning to review how this works.
Some churches operate under a called system. That’s not us. In a called system, the congregation hires and fires its pastor whenever the leaders decide and the pastor can freely resign: church and pastor are “free agents.” When there is a vacancy the church forms a “pulpit/search committee” and interviews applicants.
United Methodists operate in an appointive system. A bishop, advised by his/her district superintendents and by the churches under his/her care, prayerfully examines the needs of the United Methodist congregations in that region (South Georgia is our area). Then the bishop selects and appoints a pastor to serve the congregation. The congregation can make suggestions and so can pastors. But the bishop makes the final decision.
We Methodists sometimes envy a congregation whose beloved pastor has served for 25-30 years. Sometimes Methodists wish they could “fire” their pastor at will and sometimes a pastor would love to tender a “2-week notice.” But United Methodists really don’t want to serve on pulpit committees when it’s time for a change. Methodists really don’t want to get involved in messy firing and confrontation, either. And most Methodist pastors prefer to be appointed rather than “auditioning” for a pulpit. When Methodist laity or clergy realize it’s time for a change they talk to the bishop and the transition is usually orderly.
When I announced my retirement our Staff Parish Relations Committee (10 members, Pam Culberson Chair) identified the traits we were looking for in a new pastor, met frequently with our District Superintendent Mike Huling and then met with Bishop James King to describe our church and paint a picture of leader we needed.
Last month Bishop King informed us that he will appoint Dr. Ben Martin to be our new senior pastor. The Staff Parish Relations Committee is elated with this news and so am I. Ben Martin is precisely the kind of leader this congregation is seeking. I will write more about Ben in a few weeks.
Long time United Methodists appreciate our way of sending and receiving pastors. We don’t claim it’s perfect, but we prefer it over other systems. I have been very, very impressed with how our congregation is moving through this transition. The fact that we are assured of receiving such a skilled, dedicated leader makes these next few weeks very stress free.
What issues would a pastor address in one’s closing weeks? Parishioners in every church I’ve served have been passionate about a few Sunday morning issues. My thoughts on 3 of them:
“I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
This common and genuine concern is voiced in sanctuaries smaller than ours. If you have trouble hearing you are in good company. My thoughts:
(1) Fine sound systems are expensive. Often the church is reluctant to or cannot afford to invest in this infrastructure. Church sound systems/microphones are often embarrassingly archaic.
(2) Audio enhancements can help. Wesley Monumental has such instruments but people don’t always know they’re available and won’t always wear them. Even worse - sometimes our batteries are dead!
(3) Some people with hearing difficulties refuse to visit an audiologist or wear hearing aids.
(4) Sometimes pastors/liturgists need to enunciate better.
(5) The simplest solution is often rejected out of hand: sit nearer to the pulpit where space is plentiful, sound is better and lips can be read.
“I’M TOO HOT! I’M TOO COLD!”
A side effect of God making us unique is that each has his/her own internal thermostat. I suspect Jesus probably once said, “Wherever two or three are gathered, one of them is too cold or too hot.” My thoughts:
(1) See #1 above. The finest heating/cooling systems for sanctuary space are prohibitively expensive.
(2) Sometimes we (the church) get it wrong. People are uncomfortable because it’s our fault.
(3) Sometimes equipment fails at the worst possible moment.
(4) Sometimes worshipers could wear different apparel. Travelers choose a “layered outfit” when they’re unsure of the temperature. This may not be fashionable in church, but it beats shivering or sweltering.
“I CAN’T FIND A PARKING SPACE!”
A top secret committee is devising a revolutionary plan whereby every single parking space will be situated right outside the front door of our church, but implementation is decades in the future. My thoughts:
(1) Misery loves company. Every downtown church and business in Savannah winces with us over parking.
(2) The only churches with no parking problems are shrinking in membership.
(3) The simplest Sunday solution is modeled on Paul’s scolding early arrivers in the Corinthian Church who selfishly devoured the common meal before others arrived. Translating his advice to Sunday morning parking might look like this: (a) depart from home earlier (b) Be considerate and ignore parking spots closest to the church. The elderly and latecomers need them. (c) Be patient…there are plenty of spots within a block or so of our church.
That’s enough for today. I’ll be interested in your feedback on these subjects. In retrospect I probably should have tackled some safer issues: the definition of marriage, gun rights, immigration, etc.
Hot or cold I’ll see you Sunday! The Holy Spirit will be present; I hope you’ll be there, too.
I opened my Bible this past Monday morning to begin working on this Sunday’s sermon. The text is John 10: 27-28, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” The morning’s work was fruitful; the words of Jesus offered so much promise for this Sunday. Then later that afternoon report s began flooding in about blood, death and mayhem in Boston; Jesus’ words took on even deeper significance.
This Wednesday evening (April 17) we’ll have our Wednesday Night Supper together at 5:30 p.m. We are the people of God. We are the family of God. We’ll share this weekly meal together and then we’ll vary our routine. At 6:30 p.m. we’ll gather in the sanctuary for a brief service of prayer. We will remind ourselves of the mercy of God in a world where wolves would try to destroy the flock. We will pray for victims and we will again throw ourselves on the grace of God in this violent world. Even if you can’t come to the evening meal, you are invited to the sanctuary for this 30 minute service.
Sunday morning a baby will be baptized at each service of worship. We’ll affirm our faith together, sing the songs of faith, read and meditate on the words of Jesus and remember that this is our Father’s world and though the wrong seems oft so strong God is the ruler yet.
I’ll see you Wednesday and then Sunday.
Our oldest son Jess and his wife Beth are teachers in Daegu, South Korea, where they’ve lived for almost 3 years. They love the country, the people and the food and have made many friends, Korean and ex-pat. Bonnie and I enjoyed a ten day visit with them last April.
As you can imagine we read with interest every bit of news about South Korea. I followed the Korean presidential election last fall and keep current over the tensions between South Korea and Japan over a few rocky islands they both claim. Mostly we are concerned by the escalating rhetoric between North and South Korea and their surrogates China and the United States. The latest cover of The Economist provocatively depicts Kim Jong Un, his finger perilously close to pushing a large red button.
When your child is involved in something the parent/s usually take a crash course learning the same thing. It might be ballet, soccer, a swimming team, scouting or the debate squad. This involvement continues throughout life, although parents of adult children have far less control than we once (thought we) did!
As to the Korean Peninsula our long distance young adults assure these fretful parents that the least worried persons on the planet are the South Korean citizens who have endured 60 years of living next to North Korea. Frightening reports here cause little anguish in the city of 3 million where our children live. This powerless father hasn’t decided whether to be comforted by our son’s assurances, but that’s about all we have to go on.
I’m praying fervently for peace on that peninsula, realizing this elusive goal is a far more complex process than demonizing and bullying the North Koreans. But that’s not the point I want to make today: I’m grateful for parents who stay involved with their children at every stage of life. Our children never stop needing their parents even as we parents continue to pray that our children are thriving.
P.S. I look forward to being back in the pulpit this Sunday. Don’t forget the Wesley Gardens workday Saturday morning.
Most United Methodist congregations celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first Sunday of every month; when we postponed this sacred feast on the first Sunday of March many of you noticed. This Sunday we return to our traditional communion service. As you await your turn at the table and see our congregation make their way toward the chancel rail to receive the sacrament, perhaps you can profit from these words I have adapted from the Anglican Digest:
PRAYERS WHILE PEOPLE COME TO RECEIVE COMMUNION
Give thanks for grandparents, parents and children who go to communion, praying that families may be knit together in affection.
Pray for those who parent alone and those who live alone.
Pray for those who have recently had a death in their family or circle of friends.
Give thanks for those who make an effort to come to church in spite of difficult and challenging physical circumstances.
Pray for all those you see who have great responsibility in the Savannah business community.
Ask God’s help for those facing personal or family troubles.
Rejoice over the children, youth and young adults who come for communion.
Thank God for those who live routine lives with dignity, good humor and responsibility.
Bless God for the newly married, the new parents, the newcomers.
Pray for the stranger.
Lift up those who endure incredible burdens.
Give thanks for those who – over the years - have come to the Lord’s Table for pardon and renewal, for solace and strength, with faith and thanksgiving.
Remember with thanksgiving somebody who is missing from the communion rail today.
The pastors are not the only – or even the most important – persons who can pray during communion. Your prayers during this service can be transformative for our congregation. I’ll see you this Sunday!
Before we rush to Easter…and with you I eagerly anticipate that glorious day with all its splendor, pomp and elation…but before we rush to Easter, let us remember:
Thursday evening our congregation will gather in the sanctuary (6:30 p.m.) for a solemn, pensive communion service remembering Jesus’ last supper with the disciples and when he and the disciples departed into the gathering darkness of Gethsemane where the disciples would scatter like sheep before the wolf and our Lord would be arrested like a common criminal.
Friday at noon we will gather once more in the sanctuary stripped bare of all adornment to remember the crucifixion, that event so filled with horror, so full of mystery, yet promising forgiveness, reconciliation and new life for all who embrace this offering of the very Son of God.
Venantius Honorius Fortunatus, a 6th century Italian poet and priest, whose poem “Sing, My Tongue the Glorious Battle” we sing in our (page 296) wrote these words of tribute to the cross of Christ (stanza 4):
Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
Now for us the noblest tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thy peer may be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee.
Enjoy the dogwoods, azaleas, and blossoming trees of spring. But Fortunatus is right: the most beautiful tree in the world is the rude, rough cross of Christ; none can compare with this symbol of our redemption.
Easter is almost with us. Make it a point to be in church on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday so that the joy of Easter Sunday can be full.
Last Sunday I preached from Ephesians 6: 10-18, where Paul encourages the church to be well prepared to take on the world and the powers of evil. I used St. Patrick’s prayer (St. Patrick’s Breastplate) as example of how we might arm ourselves on a daily basis. Another work I came across as I prepared for last week’s sermon was written by the English Puritan pastor William Gurnall in 1655. In those days book titles were quite lengthy, so check out the title of Gurnall’s exposition of Ephesians 6: 10-20:
“The Christian in Complete Armor: The saints’ war against the devil, wherein a discovery is made of that grand enemy of God and his people, in his policies, power, seat of his empire, wickedness, and chief design he hath against the saints; a magazine opened, from whence the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armour, and taught the use of his weapon, together with the happy issue of the whole war.”
Yes, that’s the title! Some people don’t do that much reading in an entire week!
The good Reverend Gurnall’s book consisted of 3 volumes, 261 chapters, and 1,472 pages – all based on 10 verses of scripture! An abridged version of Gurnall’s work is still available.
Here is one quotation from William Gurnall that I found on the internet. Christ will bear no equal, and Satan no superior; and therefore, hold in with both thou canst not.
Speaking of the devil, we’ll be waving palm fronds this coming Sunday…such joyful acclaim of Jesus the Savior is frowned upon in the lower regions. I’ll see you in church!
Okay, I messed up. This is called “a retraction.” But that’s just a polite way of saying that I did shoddy work. I should have known better and I have many good excuses to offer. But first the retraction:
In last week’s Along the Way I cited some very moving words from the world renowned South African statesman and first elected president Nelson Mandela. They are words of empowerment and hope.
But Mandela didn’t write or speak those words, a fact I could have easily verified by using one of my favorite websites, the urban legend debunking www.snopes.com/
Now for the excuse, not that it matters: I was sick last week but deadlines don’t care. So I dipped into my emergency file folder called Quotations and Stories for a Week When You Need a Frontispiece and Don’t Have any Energy or Creativity or Time. From that folder emerged this spurious Mandela quotation that I’d long ago clipped from somewhere and threw it in the “in case of emergency break glass” folder.
Everything was fine until a good friend sent me a link to Snopes revealing these words were penned – not by Mandela – but by the immensely popular novelist Marianne Williamson, who the now-defunct Newsweek magazine identified as one of the 50 most influential baby boomers and who writes extensively about spiritual issues from a non-doctrinal perspective.
I’ve never read Williamson, nor do I intend to do so. I wonder, had I known these words were written by her if I would have passed them along. Probably not. Even sick, I’d have dipped my hand back into my emergency folder. Somehow, coming from Mandela – for me, at least –those words had real gravity and meaning.
Worst of all, the Snopes article said, “The average person could hardly be faulted… “for thinking these words came from Mandela.” That added insult to my injury. It wasn’t enough that I messed up. I’ve now been lumped by Snopes with the average person. Oh well, that’s the way some weeks work out.