End of Month Report…

I made the commitment not to see the inside of a restaurant for the month of January. I thought on this last day of the month that I’d report back how the month went.

restaurantActually, I’ll confess…I went to four restaurants in January. One trip, Vanessa and I went with two colleagues, and it was a trip that we planned before I made the commitment. I suppose that counts, but it didn’t feel right to cancel on our friends. It WAS Mexican food, though! The other three trips to restaurants came in the span of three days in the middle of the month, and had to do with hosting a guest speaker that was in town. Feeding him around his speaking schedule necessitated restaurants, so I’m not going to beat myself up too much about those trips either. Besides, our guest speaker requested Burger King and KFC. Seriously, do those even count as restaurants?

There were a few benefits that came from not eating out so much in the month of January. First, I’m six pounds lighter now than I was at the beginning of the month. I’d like to think it was because I stepped up my work-outs at the gym, but that wouldn’t be totally truthful. I did meet with a trainer a couple of times and alter my work-out, but I haven’t worked out more. I’m still at my four-five days per week I’ve done since 2007, so I pretty much have to count the weight loss to not eating out so much.

Another benefit has been that our food “envelope” lasted much deeper into the month than usual. It costs a lot to eat out! We’ve saved a ton of money in the month of January on food costs. Vanessa also experimented with some recipes she’d been wanting to try. I suppose not eating out gave her more time to spend on pinterest because that’s where the recipes came from, but we did discover a couple of things we’ll have in the future. One was a chicken casserole that reminded me greatly of my grandmother’s famous chicken pie. If Vanessa hadn’t made that dish, I might be 7-8 pounds lighter this month. It was fantastic, and yes, I ate too much (this is not a blog about gluttony, so save your comments!).

Yet another benefit of the “no restaurant” commitment is that I freed up (as I figure it) about 25 hours to do other things. I read more. I worked more. I watched more TV (no redemption in that, I know). I sat on the couch with Vanessa more. How, you ask, did it free up that much time? You don’t really understand how much we were eating out. And, eating out takes a lot of time (unless you’re eating at Burger King or KFC). I’ve never been the fast food type. Most of it is just not that good. So, I figure it takes, on average, one hour to eat at a nice restaurant, and it was not unusual for me to eat out at least once a day, four or five days per week. If I figure drive time, too, that probably adds up to 25 hours or so. That’s a lot of time!

There was a drawback, though. Living in the church world, so much of what we do centers around food. I declined several invitations to eat with folks simply because it would involve restaurants. It’s not that I didn’t want to eat with them, but I wanted to see if I could keep the commitment. There is so much business that gets done over a meal, and there is a ton of pastoral care that can happen over a lunch meeting. I probably missed a few opportunities to accomplish both. Lunch or dinner is the best time to engage some of my leaders. Everyone’s schedule is so busy, but we all have to eat. It’s so convenient to schedule a lunch date or a dinner date to get some work done, or simply to build a relationship. I have missed that, for sure.

So, I’ve made it to the end of the month. Vanessa told me yesterday that she hasn’t missed the restaurants at all. I can’t say the same thing. There were a few times I wanted to throw in the towel. It’s almost like I was addicted to restaurants. I haven’t had Johnny’s Pizza in a month, I missed El Jaritto (we usually went once a week), and near the end of the month I was really craving some fried catfish. Luckily, my son and his family went to Catfish Charlie’s one evening, then stopped by my house afterwards. They had leftovers. They brought them in. Yes! I ate the leftovers. I got the yearning for catfish out of my system. That one almost made me break my commitment. Vanessa said eating my son’s leftovers counted as breaking the “no restaurant” commitment. I disagreed. I didn’t go to the restaurant, and I didn’t pay for the food. We just had to agree to disagree (and we still enjoyed our time sitting together on the couch).

I’ll also confess that I’ve missed the restaurants. I’ve missed the fellowship around the table. I’ve missed watching the people in the restaurants, and I’ve missed the food. But, I’ve proven that I don’t have to eat out all the time. I’ve proven that it can save us a ton of money, and it can obviously help the waist-line. But, I’ll still head back to the restaurants in February. I’ll probably get my fix by having lunch with church folks and colleagues, and Vanessa and I will probably eat out far less frequently than before (just because we proved we can).

Now, I’m really not sure why I’ve told you all this. Not sure you really care, but this is my blog, and one of the purposes of my blog is personal catharsis. Maybe that’s why I’ve written this morning (that, and I was up at 4 a.m., and didn’t want to work on a sermon). Maybe you can find something useful in my cathartic exercise. Maybe not.

Until next time, keep looking up…(and, wave when you see me in the restaurant!)

Early…but, not of my choosing!

I am an early riser, and it’s early as I write this morning. I’m not up early this morning because I choose to be, but because the security company that monitors the church chose for me to be. The alarm (and subsequently my phone) went off at 3 a.m. My first response was “disregard.” I thought I would go back to sleep. I didn’t, which is probably best because the phone rang again at 3:20 a.m., and the word was the motion detector was alarming once again. This time, I asked them to send the police to check things out. They did. My phone rang a third time at 3:32 a.m. They needed me to come to the church. They discovered a door unlocked. That’s why I’m up this early today. Way too early, even for me. No need to let an opportunity pass, though.

sunrise beachEarly is when I usually meet the Lord. There’s some biblical evidence that God gets up early, too. I get the sense from reading the Psalmist that God is waiting to meet us:

Psalm 5:3

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.

Psalm 59:16

But I will sing of your strength, in the morning I will sing of your love; for you are my fortress, my refuge in times of trouble.

Psalm 88:13
But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

Psalm 90:14
Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Psalm 143:8
Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.

The morning reminds me that God is a God of second chances. It’s a new day today. Everything I messed up yesterday I have an opportunity to redeem today. Every morning reminds me that God is still in the transformation business. He’s still in the business of transforming me (and there’s a lot of me that needs transforming). He’s still in the business of transforming His creation. And I still can’t believe, He wants to us you and me to accomplish the task. I suppose that’s one reason I appreciate the mission of the United Methodist Church–to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s the task. Every morning, I’m reminded that we have a new opportunity.

Morning really does give me hope. It reminds me, yet again, that we are people of hope. Hope compels us to keep moving forward. Hope prevents us from being overcome with the cares and burdens of this world. I’m not one for watching the news in the morning. I read a newspaper instead (does that make me a dinosaur?). But, I selectively read it. I look at the obituaries. I might need to know if I’m preaching a funeral. More likely, I’m looking to see how many people under 50 have died. I read the sports page. I like to do the puzzles. I don’t want bad news in the morning. I’ll save that for later in the day. The 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock news is sufficient for finding out what’s going on in the world. Watching the news brings me down. Causes a little bit of despair. That’s what evening does for me. Hope begins to fade. I become a little more weary. I don’t know if it’s because of the news, but I know the news doesn’t really help. I suppose my life is a reflection of the Psalmist when he said: Psalm 30:5–For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

Yeah, I really do love the mornings…even the mornings when the phone wakes me up at 3 a.m. It’s a distraction, sure, but how often has God met me in the distractions? Maybe that’s what this devotional writer meant this morning, too: Our Daily Bread

Enjoy your morning. Remember, it’s an opportunity to redeem everything that was wrong yesterday. Don’t waste the chance!

Until next time, keep looking up…

Looking for the Magic Pill…

I am a United Methodist, and proudly so, if as a United Methodist and a Christian I am allowed to use the word proud. I have been UM all my life, literally born into a Methodist family. Therefore, I love the United Methodist Church, and I am deeply concerned about its future.

For those who have been living on Mars (or for those who simply live there lives giving themselves to others so as to have no time to worry about such things), the UM Church has fallen on hard times in the past 45 years or so–hard times because the congregations are growing older and smaller, and if the trajectory for both continues, by 2050 (which isn’t that far away) there may actually not be a UM Church. That would be a shame.

Having served as a UM pastor for over 20 years, and having served as a mid-level judicatory official (that’s a District Superintendent!), I’ve been privy to some interesting conversations, and have been charged with reading lots of statistics, numbers and reasons for the continuing decline of the UM Church. I’ve discovered there are a lot of people who have a perspective on what’s wrong, and almost all of them have the recipe for what will fix the problem (or turn around the church, as it were). Some think the problem is theological. Some believe we’re too liberal, and the liberal theology is driving people away. Some think we’re not liberal enough, and if we could just be more open and accepting, more people would respond. Others think we’ve lost the evangelistic zeal that drove John Wesley, Francis Asbury and other early Methodist leaders to share the gospel of Jesus Christ (which is, itself, a theological problem), while still others think we don’t “take” Jesus anywhere (another theological issue).

My point is that the longer I sit in denominational meetings, the more I read commentary on the issue, the more I watch denominational agencies, the more I believe we’re looking for a magic pill. If we could just be more conservative theologically, things would begin to change. If we could just be more liberal theologically, things would begin to change. If we could just reach out to the poor better, things would begin to change. If we were more open to change, things would begin to change. If we could just reach young people, things would begin to change. If we could…you can fill in your own blank. There are a thousand solutions that have been offered to the problem, as if any and all of them are the magic pill that will cure all that ails our beloved denomination.

I bet you’re thinking by now that I am going to offer my own magic pill. That’d be a good guess, but you’d be wrong. I don’t have one. I wish it were that simple, and I really wish I were that smart, but it’s not simple, and I’m not that smart. I think there’s probably some truth in the problems, issues and solutions that have been offered, but no one thing will right a ship that’s been taking on water for 45 + years. To think otherwise is to oversimplify the issue. Now, that’s what I really think. I think the issue of denominational decline (among UM churches and others) is too complex to be boiled down to one issue, or one solution. There is no magic pill.

This point came home to me after spending another day in a denominational meeting, and after listening to, of all things, a TED talk. Are you familiar with TED talks? Here’s what it says on the TED website:

TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference and TEDGlobal — TED includes the award-winning TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.
TED conferences bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). TED Website

The particular TED talk I watched was Benjamin Bratton, associate professor of visual arts at UC-San Diego, whose entire premise was that TED talks were oversimplistic, taking complex problems and offering simple solutions. Imagine using a TED talk to say TED talks are worthless. I wonder if that was over-simplistic? Dr. Bratton did say one thing that struck me, especially as I reflected on the denominational meeting I had just sat through. He said:

“If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation. Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us.” 

Bratton, of course, was speaking of technology and innovation, but I believe it applies to transformation of the church, too. The issues surrounding institutional decline are simply too complex (like my play on words?) to be dumbed down to a magic pill. We can start with the lack of trust in the authority of institutions themselves. This lack of trust is reflected not only in the church, but also in our government institutions. No one trusts the church anymore, and no one really trusts the government, either. We can point to the turbulent (some would say “revolutionary”) times of the 1960’s as the time when this lack of trust made an entrance, but I believe it precedes even those years. The Church has done nothing to foster trust among the general population when you consider the television evangelist scandals of the 1980’s and the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in more recent years. The growing lack of trust in society in general has extended its reach into the Church. How do we address that in a simple way? Well, we could start by changing our behavior, but that might seem too simple.

Adding to the complexity of the problem is the idea that people now consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” A recent Gallup poll identified as many as 33% of the population now calls themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” meaning they are choosing to live out their spirituality in more independent ways, creating their own “buffet” of beliefs and behaviors that are rooted more in ideas of American individualism and libertarianism than in theological distinctives. They no longer need the institution of the church to help shape them theologically or spiritually. They do it themselves because it’s their faith.

Another layer of complexity is added when we consider that people are discovering community is more and more places than ever before. In the “glory days” of church growth, community was defined by life in the schools and life in the church. Children and their families went to school and they went to church. Those were the primary activities of the community. Now, there are sports leagues, extracurricular activities, social gatherings, work-related communities, on-line communities, and on and on the list could go. A growing number of people, including a growing number of those who identify themselves as Christians are finding community (as in human relationship) outside the Church. The world doesn’t need the Church to form community, and that’s a problem.

Adding yet another layer of complexity is the fact that the Church seems to be living without much of a purpose. For hundreds of years the Church was responsible for building schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages and other social institutions that helped transform society. There was a focus to the work of the Church, and there was a way to engage the community in helpful and meaningful ways. The government and private enterprise have taken the place of the church in leading social change and transformation, and with almost every increase in taxes on the government’s part has brought a decline in charitable giving to the Church. Why does the church need to do what the government is already doing? That’s a rhetorical question. I know why, but those who are outside the church (and even some within) ask that question. How many hospitals have we United Methodists sold to private enterprise or closed? How many institutions of higher education have we United Methodists closed in recent years? Those are not rhetorical questions, but having to ask seems to indicate that we’ve lost a sense of meaning and purpose. Sure, we buy lots of mosquito nets, but there are lots of parachurch organizations doing that, too. Who needs the church to buy mosquito nets? Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical.

And, don’t even get me started on the whole faith-based organization/government partnership thing. While I think it might be great in theory, it may be one of the most telling ways the Church has ceded its vision to something outside itself. The reality is if an entity takes government money, the entity must do it the governments way. Not to mention the fact there’s this little thing called sin, and how many news stories have we heard about “churches” that have been closed, or “pastors” who have been arrested for misusing funds. Those partnerships become nothing more than means of enriching the people who ran the programs, and that’s sad.

I could probably add another layer of complexity to the situation of church anemia if I were to write about the explosion of parachurch organizations and other non-profits. There is a non-profit agency or organization for every need in the community (sometimes three or four or more). These agencies do good work, no doubt about it, but many of them are doing work the Church used to do, and they are drawing volunteers away from the Church in the process. This is not a complaint because they are, in fact, (mostly) doing good work, and many Christians are serving in and supporting these organizations, but it is another example of how the vision, focus and resources of the Church are further divided.

I’ve written way too much this morning. All I’ve written probably wouldn’t fit in a TED talk, not that I’d ever be invited to give a TED talk–I haven’t offered any simple solutions or meaningful innovation to the issue at hand. I haven’t offered any because I’m not sure there are any. Sure, we must be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and we must continue to proclaim that there is no other name given than by which we might be saved, but even that has become incredibly complex in such a pluralistic world. It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta’ do it. I pray I’ll be found faithful to the task when Jesus returns.

Sorry I wrote so much. I probably made something simple more complex than it needed to be. I keep looking for that magic pill that will make everything right, but I’ve yet to find it. I’m sure someone reading this blog will discover what it is and share it with me.

Until next time, keep looking up…

What an Epiphany!

Today is Epiphany.  What does that mean to most people? Not much, at all, but for Orthodox, Catholics, and now, many Protestant Christians, it is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the “manifestation” or “revealing” of God in human flesh in Jesus Christ. It is also the day that tradition says the “three” (?) wise men (?) visited the baby Jesus.

epiphanyI put the question marks in the previous sentence because it is questionable the number of persons who visited the Christ child, and if, in fact, “wise men” is the proper designation for those who visited. Forget the suggestion that there is no such thing as a wise man. I recall someone asking the question “What if it had been wise women who visited the baby Jesus?” The answer?

  • They would have stopped and asked for directions so they would have arrived on time.
  • They would have helped deliver the baby.
  • They would have taken the time to clean the stable.
  • They would have prepared a casserole.
  • And, they would have brought cute little outfits for the baby Jesus to wear home.

I’m not writing to unravel all that tradition and legend tell us about the wise men. Suffice it to say that we know more about them from tradition and legend than from scripture, and that can be perilous if we’re not careful. One thing we know for certain is that these “magi” came bearing gifts, and from them we get our tradition of gift-giving during the Christmas season.

I preached yesterday about gifts. I talked about the various types of gifts that we give and receive. I think it was John Maxwell who first defined three types of gifts: 1) gift for a gift, gift, 2) gift for a favor, gift, and 3) grace gifts. First, there’s the gift for a gift, gift. You get me a gift, so I need to get you a gift, too. Next, there’s the gift for a favor gift. That’s all about spreading around IOU’s. We expect something in return, just not necessarily a gift.

The grace gift is different. It can’t be repaid because it can’t be earned. This was God’s gift to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus was the first grace gift. It is ironic that the wise men came bearing gifts to He who was the gift himself, and though we talk about the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the real gift they brought to Jesus was the gift of their worship and adoration–it was ultimately, the gift of themselves.

As those who seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, is not the greatest gift we can give the gift of ourselves? While the gift of ourselves seems so intangible, may I suggest there are tangible ways in which this giving may be lived out. First, the gift of ourselves to Christ can be lived out through our worship. Gathering together regularly with the body of Christ as a means of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus Christ may be the most significant gift we have to offer Jesus. Why? Because it takes our time  and our intentionality, and in a world filled with events and activities clamoring for our attention, we must be intentional in making the commitment to offer our worship, praise and adoration to the One who offered Himself to us. Time is the most precious commodity any of us possess, and to take that precious time to gather together regularly makes an incredible statement to the world, and to ourselves. Corporate worship is a tangible gift we bring to Christ. Prayer, bible study, meditation, and fasting are other tangible ways in which we offer ourselves to Christ. These, too, take a commitment of time and intention on our part, but these are grace gifts that we offer to Christ because He has offered Himself to us.

May I offer one other tangible way we offer ourselves to Christ? Through service. When we offer ourselves to others in service, we are actually offering ourselves to Christ, too. And, there are tangible ways we do this, too. The Perceptions I recorded on Friday, January 3rd, says it this way:


Gift-giving isn’t just for the Christmas season. Generosity should be part and parcel of our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Let’s begin 2014 with a commitment to give ourselves to Jesus and to one another, and let it be a daily offering.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A New Beginning…

happy new year 2014Today begins a new year. But, you know that, and if you don’t, you’ve got bigger issues. I love the New Year’s holiday. I’m not so sure it’s not my favorite holiday next to Easter. No, it has nothing to do with the black-eyed peas and cabbage. It has to do with the inherent grace I find in changing the calendar. Not only is it a new day…it’s a new year! The New Year represents an opportunity to start over, to begin again…it offers us a new beginning. Certainly, much of the previous year goes with us, but there is an equal amount of opportunity ahead of us. It is wonderfully akin to the working of God’s grace in our lives. Certainly, all that was our life pre-Christ still influences us, and even, in some respects defines who we have been, but as God does His transforming work in our lives, all that is past remains in the past, and we are offered new life, new opportunities, and yes, new beginnings. 

I think that’s what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21 NIV).

Of course, the New Year is also when we reflect on the past year and make resolutions for the new. I’ve stated before I’ve resolved to make no resolutions because I always break them. I do have a few things I want to do better with in my life, so rather than make a resolution, I’m going to make them goals, and I’m even going to write them down here so someone (anyone, please!) can hold me accountable. I’m not very good at holding myself accountable. It’s too easy to make excuses to myself. I really do buy my own lies. I fool myself very easily. I’m not a very good accountability partner for myself. Besides, I heard someone say something that made sense to me this week: “A goal is not a goal until it’s written down. Otherwise, it’s just a dream.” I have lots of dreams. I need a few goals.

So, here are a few of my goals for 2014:

  1. I am setting a goal to blog more. Blogging takes time. I’ve fooled myself into believing I don’t have time to blog, but I’m remembering how cathartic it is to journal from time to time. I may not blog every day, but once a week would be a manageable goal.
  2. I am setting a goal to be restaurant free for the month of January. Honestly, this may be a much harder goal than the blogging once a week. It’s incredibly easy to meet folks “for lunch” to conduct pastoral visits or tend to administrative matters. Seriously, everyone has to eat, and if you can multi-task in the process, even better. Vanessa and I eat out way too much. It’s easy to walk in the house after a day of ministry and say, “Let’s go get something to eat.” Vanessa has been home most of the day, and she’s usually ready to get out of the house, too, so we load up and head out. I’ll be interested to see how it affects our bottom line and my waist line (which brings me to my third goal).
  3. I am setting a goal of losing 40 pounds in 2014. That’s right! I said it! 40 pounds! I’ve been in Monroe for 2.5 years, and in that time I’ve gained 15 pounds. There are a number of reasons I’ve gained that much weight. One, as a District Superintendent, I attended very few meetings where food was not involved. One of the things the Cabinet does best is eat, and we all know that restaurants are not very healthy places to eat. A second reason is we’re back close to Mom and Mom’s cooking. You know how it is, right? You go home. Mom’s taken the time to prepare all this food. You feel guilty for not eating it. After all, she might be offended, and who wants to offend their Mom? Not me! So, I eat. Thirdly, I’m not running nearly as much as I once was. I was averaging 20-25 miles per week for a long time. Now, I’m blessed if I get in 15 miles in a week. It was okay for me to say when I was running 20-25 miles a week that “I run that much so I can eat anything I want.” Not so much when I’m only making 15 miles on a good week, because I’m still eating like I was running 25.

Yeah, I know. I should set some goals around spiritual disciplines and spiritual formation, but I find those a bit more difficult to quantify (that’s probably one of the reasons I’m not the perfect pastor). Yes, I want to read the Bible more, but who doesn’t. Seriously, though. I read the Bible a lot already. Define “a lot”? Well, every day. I read devotionally, and I read for study as I prepare for worship and other related activities. Sometimes, I’ll read whole chapters. A few times I’ll read a whole book. Other times, I’ll read only a few verses. I come to the end of 2013 and I think I haven’t read enough. As I look to 2014, I think I should read more. It’d be a discipline. But I’m not quite sure how to quantify “more.” Can you feel me?

Then, there’s prayer. I should always have a goal of praying more. I should write it down (or did I just do that?), but then again, how do I define “more”? I pray a lot, and even as I say that, I’m thinking I don’t pray enough. I begin each day with a devotional prayer. Sometimes it’s long. Sometimes not. I end each day with a prayer of gratitude and a prayer for grace. Some are long, others are short. I pray with people throughout the day. I say “breath prayers” continuously. Still, I feel like I should pray more, that I should be more disciplined in the ways that I pray. But I’m not quite sure how to quantify it to write it down. Perhaps you have a suggestion for this not-so-perfect pastor.

I could go on, but the clock is ticking, and I’ve got things to do as the New Year kicks off. I’ve got to get busy achieving these goals and I have to do it now (there’s another goal I should have–learning and practicing patience–but HOW could I ever quantify that?). At least I’ve already accomplished one of my goals (to blog more–it’s been a long time since the last post on here!). That was pretty easy. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Until next time, keep looking up…