I was a sophomore in high school when we moved to Tupelo and joined First United Methodist Church.  Bruce Lesley was the part-time music director at Tupelo FUMC and led the youth choir, of which I was a part.  I had sung a lot when I was in elementary school, participating in church and community choirs and theater, and I was a boy soprano, but as my voice changed I went through a period where I did not sing other than in church choir. One day I remarked to Mr. Lesley that I was having trouble hitting the higher tenor notes.  He brought me up to the piano and started playing lower notes for me to sing.  He kept going lower and lower, and I kept hitting every note.  He immediately moved me to bass.

Later in my sophomore year I took part in the school play, Fiddler on the Roof.  In an interesting twist, I played the Rabbi!  My friend Jonathon Cohen even taught me an authentic Jewish blessing, and I used it in the scene where the Rabbi blesses the sewing machine.  Mr. Tim Coker was the head choral director at the high school, and I really enjoyed working with him.  Mr. Lesley’s was the junior high choral director.  I had decided to join varsity because I had so much fun in the play and because they were very good.  Tupelo had a top-notch program under Mr. Coker.  However, when it was announced that Mr. Coker had been hired as the new director at Millsaps, and if you ever heard the Millsaps Singers you know what a great director Dr. Coker was, .  I debated whether or not to join because I really liked Mr. Coker, but I decided to join the when Mr. Lesley was hired as the new high school director because I liked him, too.  It was literally a life-changing decision.

Mr. Lesley was rare in his ability to combine humor, discipline, skill, tenacity, boundless energy, and joy in his teaching, and he brought all of that out in you.  Any student who had him, especially in high school, can tell you about how he would get before competitions, and you knew there was going to be a “come to Jesus” moment (or two or three!) as we were getting close, especially when he knew we were not giving it his all.  But any student of his can also describe to you the look on his face when it all came together- that grin, giggle, and rubbing his hands together when he knew we had nailed it.  And nailed it we did every time in every competition the two years I was there.  We literally won every competition in every category in which we competed during those two years, and that streak continued for some time after that. Because as good as we were, the succeeding choruses and groups were even better.  One particular story illustrates it.

For reasons which no one will ever know, one year the girls wore black dresses with white block collars, which make them look like we were re-enacting a Thanksgiving play.  The other choral groups made fun of us by calling us Pilgrims.  But then we swept all 8 categories with the lowest score among the 8 groups being a 95, and we were the ones laughing.  A few still called out to us on our way to the bus by calling us Pilgrims, but we replied, “And we are talking all our trophies home on the Mayflower!”

He demanded the highest effort and performance out of us, and no one wanted to let him down.  He could be tough on us, especially close to competition time, but most of the time it was a lot of fun in the midst of very hard work,  and I and most students he taught would have run through a brick wall for him if he asked us to do so.  Even today if he had called and needed something from me, I would have done my best to help.

I was so involved in church and band in college that I did not sing in college other than as an active member of the Starkville FUMC adult choir.  But when I went to Candler, I discovered after my first semester that there was a group similar to madrigals called the Candler Choraliers.  I remember that the director, when I auditioned and he invited me to join the group, asked me about my musical background.  He was surprised when I said that I had sung in church choir and had been in high school chorus.  He kept waiting for more, but I explained to him that we had this teacher in high school who was amazing, who taught us so much about how to sing, and who did it while we didn’t even realize all he was doing for us.

A common comment Mr. Lesley would receive from other choral directors was, “How do you get your boys to sound like grown men?”  We didn’t think about it, really, and while we knew we were better than everybody else and sounded different (we were all just a bit cocky about it, too!), we didn’t wonder about why we sounded like we did.  We wondered why the other choruses DIDN’T sound that way.  We just did what Mr. Lesley taught us to do.

I can’t accurately put into words how profoundly he impacted me during that time in my life, but the impact lasts through to today.  It lasts not only in the mechanics of singing, the attention to details such as proper breath at the proper time, full sound, phrasing, and perfect tone quality, but also in the joy I have while singing, the pride in a job well done, and the determination to be the best I can be in all I do.  Now, truthfully, my dad taught me long before I met Mr. Lesley about work ethic, effort, and striving for the best in whatever I do, but Mr. Lesley was one of the few people who truly enforced and encouraged that along the way to the degree he did.  He never let us settle for anything less than the best we had to offer, and it showed not only in our performance but in our practice as well.

One more thing, and this is also what made him such a great teacher.  He would listen.  He might chew you out in practice, but if there was something on your mind, if you had a suggestion about the music, if you had music you wanted him to listen to that you had recently discovered, or if you had a personal problem, he would listen.  He didn’t care where a good idea came from if it was a good idea.  One day in chorus, I was standing next to Sterling Wright, and we were singing this beautiful song called “Hear Our Prayer, O Lord.”  I can just about sing it to this day.  At the end of the song Sterling and I were messing around a bit, and since he and I were the two basses with the lowest voices in the chorus (Sterling was probably 6`4” and a big guy while I was 5`9 and weighed 120 pounds, so we made an interesting pair), we dropped the last note down an octave from a “D” on the staff to the low “D” well below the staff.  Mr. Lesley immediately cut off the choir, looked our direction, and asked who had just done that.  Sterling and I sheepishly told him it was us.  “Love it,” he said. “Keep it in.”

I think about those mentors in my life outside of my immediate family who meant so much to me.  Three of the biggest influences- Dr. Kent Sills (band director at MSU and choir director at Starkville FUMC), Rev. Dr. Prentiss Gordon, Sr. ( lifelong family friend and senior pastor at Tupelo and Starkville FUMC whom my father served with in the 1970s and I served with in the 1990s), and now Dr. Bruce Lesley are all gone.  I miss them very much, and would love to have just one more conversation with them about old times, how I am doing now, and just to tell them Thank You for what they meant to me in my life.

But I can’t do that.  What I can do is re-commit myself to be the kind of influence on others that they were on me in my life, out of gratitude for them to be there for others with the same servant heart they showed to me and to literally thousands of other people.

Well Done, Mr. Lesley.  Heaven’s Chorus just got an amazing new heart and voice.

In this area, I learned quickly when I moved here in June, 2015 that there are five seasons of the year in Neshoba County, not four.  There is winter, spring, and fall, of course, but summer is divided up into “before the Fair” and “after the Fair.”  When I first arrived at Philadelphia First UMC, I was surprised that we have an Administrative Board meeting in May but then not again until late September-early October.  I asked the secretary about it, and her reply was “Well, you can schedule a Board meeting in July if you want to, but nobody is going to come.  Once July hits, folks are getting ready for the Fair when they are not on vacation.”  It was wise advice borne of years of experience!

I also quickly learned that the feelings about the Fair range from it being the highlight of the year for some to a feeling by others that is a bacchanalia which no self-respecting person would attend.  Like most things, I think it is somewhere in between.  A lot of the older folks go out to the Fair during the day for lunch or early supper, or they will listen to some of the political speeches, but then they come home at night.  “The Fair is for the younger folks,” they will tell me.  On the Sunday in which the Fair is going on, our attendance drops from around 200 down to 60, and those who have been around for a while remember when the attendance used to be no more than 30.  Usually, the only children there on that Sunday are of those who are on our Tech Arts team who drive in to run the sound and cameras, usher, etc.

I have to say that I really enjoy the Fair, or at least what I see as the heart of the Fair.  I just completed my 5th Fair, so while I am far from an expert, I have been enough to see the highs and lows.  Certainly, the Fair has earned its reputation, both good and bad.  I like to say that I go to the Fair during the day and stay for supper with friends, and then head home about the time the crazy people start to arrive for all the concerts.  I am not so naive as to believe that none of  my church folks engage in certain activities to certain degrees during this week in a way that they don’t do at other times of the year.  I know they do, in part because I have stayed on occasion out there at night and have seen some of them even if they didn’t see me!  And while they might not post pictures on their Facebook page, their friends do!  My favorite nickname for the Fair is “Republican Mardi Gras.”  It’s an earned and true nickname.

But there is also a gospel singing led by First Baptist Church on Sunday evening on Founder’s Square, a youth-oriented worship service later that night at what is called the Show Barn which had around 250 there this year, loads of children’s activities led by different churches as well as organized by the Fair Board, a youth worship time led by our church at one of the member’s cabins which had 50 or more present, and individual churches hold many different services throughout the week for their church members at different cabins.

And, I still believe at its heart that the Fair isn’t about all that stuff that goes on when the grandstand lights come on.  What I hear people talk about through the year, and what I overwhelmingly see throughout that week, is that the Fair is primarily the time in which folk get together to fellowship, eat a lot of good food, and strengthen those bonds of family and friendship.  Class reunions happen at the Fair.  Friends who grew up together maintain friendships in part because they have a chance to visit extensively at the Fair.  Grandparents play with their children at the same cabins as their grandparents played with them.  People sit out on the front porch in the middle of the day sweating even with fans on them just so they can visit with family and with those who come walking by.  There is always someone offering you a bottle of water to help you out as you are walking by.  To some extent, time stops at the Fair in a way it doesn’t any other time of the year.  Sure, people take their kids to the Midway to ride the rides and play the games.  They go to the concerts, there are the horse races,and someone has to take the time to fix all those great meals.  But it is also the case that they take time off work to sit and visit with family and friends.  It is also the case that they invite you to come in, have some cake, get a bottle of water, and sit a spell.

Now, the Fair is not equivalent in any fashion to the Church.  But it is a place where hospitality abounds, where family and friends are able to be together, to share each others joys and woes, to celebrate a child’s first Fair, and to remember the first Fair without loved ones.  It is also a place where people sometimes get upset about unimportant things, especially if traditions are violated, and where imperfect people sometimes do imperfect things.Like the Church, though, I choose to celebrate and help build up the good things that take place instead of spending my time complaining and scolding the things I don’t like.

This year, I tried to keep track as best as I could of members of the church with whom I had some sort of personal interaction, be it five minutes or 2 hours. Due to some schedule issues,  I didn’t make it around the entire fairgrounds as much as I have in the past. And yet I counted over 120 people with whom I visited at least once, and many of those on more than one occasion.  This number of 120 does not include an almost equal number of family members of church members who I normally only get to see at Christmas, Easter, funerals, weddings, and the Fair.  I ate meals at cabins with those family members for whom I had done a wedding for their child or grandchild, or a funeral for their father, brother, cousin, etc.  And instead of just having a chance to greet them for a moment, we were able to truly sit and visit in way not possible at those other times.

The Fair is far from perfect, but so are we.  There are things which go on at the Fair which are very tempting which are not healthy, but that is the case in our daily lives as well.  Sometimes people do not show their best qualities during the Fair, but sometimes they do, and that is true in daily living as well.

We are now officially “after the Fair,” but the memories are fresh and though bodies are tired many spirits are renewed from the week away from regular life.

I have learned to enjoy and celebrate the Fair, and I look forward to being a small part of it again next year.

Today is Moving Day for United Methodist clergy and churches. For those who grew up in the United Methodist Church, this statement needs no explanation. Every preacher and family knows the significance of Moving Day.
 
For those not familiar, in the United Methodist Church the pastors are appointed, not hired and fired by individual churches. We are a connectional system, and those appointments occur on a yearly basis. Most of the time the pastor will stay at a particular church for 3-5 years, though some do move after one year and others may stay 10 years or more. However, the appointment is from year to year.
 
Since we are appointed, we all move on the same day, at least officially. Again, there are always exceptions. The way it works is that today the tenure of the pastor to their previous church ends at noon today, and the appointment to the new church begins at noon today, so theoretically a church is never without a pastor.
 
Over the last week or so pastors and churches have been saying goodbye to each other even as those pastors and churches have been in communication with their appointments as they prepare for this transition.
 
But today is the BIG DAY! You will see moving vans and U-Haul trucks all up and down the highways of Mississippi today as churches prepare to officially welcome their new pastor. It is hard to express the anticipation of driving down the highway and seeing a road sign that you are entering the county in which you will live, knowing that this place will be your home for hopefully the next few to several years. You have met several people from the church already, but you know that some people you meet today will end up being lifelong friends, while others may prove to be a thorn in your side in the future!
 
What you have been preparing for over the last three months is finally coming to pass, and if you have children then the emotions are ramped up even higher. How will they like the new place? Will they make friends? Is the school really as strong or weak as I have heard? How will our family be accepted? Will I as the pastor be accepted and allowed to lead, or is what looks so promising right now just a facade masking a different reality?
 
These are just a few of the dozens of thoughts and emotions as you pull up to the house in which you will live, a house you know the previous pastors lived in, a house you nope that pastor took care of and/or the church took care of, and one in which you may have even visited in years past because one of your friends used to serve that church!
 
Even now I can close my eyes and picture scenes driving up to the different places we lived, such as seeing that Yazoo County marker as we were on I-55 South headed from Tupelo to Ellison. I remember it raining the day we moved from Starkville to Columbus, trying to get that U-Haul as close to the garage as possible so those unloading would not get wet. I remember trying to get the moving van up the driveway on Evans Street in Vicksburg since our house was in the middle of a hill, watching the moving van try to go up a driveway backwards while turning and seeking to avoid the electrical wire running across the street as well as not go off the side of the hill beside the driveway.  Still not sure how that guy got it up there!  And I remember walking into the kitchen where we already had a stocked fridge and pantry because the church has asked us to send them our favorite foods.

I remember moving to Philadelphia and having Matthew Breazeale and Jackson Adams there ready to help me unload my books which were weighing down the bed of the Toyota Tacoma, how they looked silently at each other and at all those books as I asked them to go with me to the church to help get them to my office. They never said a word, and they worked hard the entire time, but I laugh when thinking about how they must have described all those books to each other and to their parents!

I am writing this today on Moving Day because I am NOT moving!  I have that luxury to write these reflections even as others are in transit or unloading their stuff right now.  We have loved every place we have served, and they have all been good churches, and it is a true blessing to be able to say that with honesty.  We love Philadelphia First UMC, and we are thrilled we are appointed for another year.

Blessings on Moving Day for all of the pastors, their families, and the churches for whom today is such a significant day.  My prayers are with you.

It’s been a long time since I have written, and I hope to do more this summer, but wanted to share some reflections on the life of one of the greatest influences in my life, Prentiss Gordon,Sr., who died on May 6.  It took me a while to collect and compile my thoughts because of the depth and breadth of his impact on my life.

Just a few months before I turned four years old, my family moved to Starkville because my dad had been appointed as the associate pastor of Starkville First UMC.  Back in those days, it was not common for someone like my dad who had served his own churches to choose to go back to be an associate.  The senior pastor had a lot of say in who came to be the associate during that time, and Prentiss Gordon, Sr. wanted my dad to come serve with him in Starkville.  Thankfully, my dad chose to accept that appointment.

We lived there for seven years, five with Prentiss and two with Allen Bailey. Those years were formative for me in many ways even though I was quite young, and I have many fond memories of that church every time I walk through its doors.  Of course, I had no awareness at that time of how profoundly this early childhood would impact me as I met and became close to Prentiss and Mary Lee Gordon.  After five years as Prentiss’s associate, Prentiss was appointed to be the District Superintendent of the Cleveland District in the old North Mississippi Annual Conference.  We lived in Starkville for two more years, and then moved to Columbus in 1979 when my dad became the first director of Trinity Place Retirement Home, changing his ministry focus from the local church pastorate to serving older adults through Methodist Senior Services.

In June, 1983, Prentiss was appointed as the senior pastor of Tupelo FUMC, and in July, 1983 we moved to Tupelo when my dad became the administrator of Traceway Manor Retirement Home and Cedars Health Center Nursing Home.  We moved to Tupelo on a Thursday, and that Sunday we joined Tupelo FUMC.  We knew that we were going to be members of wherever Prentiss and Mary Lee were serving.

We had visited them a few times in Cleveland, but it wasn’t until we were all in Tupelo together that the relationship with them was fully re-established.  Rev. Gordon, as I called him then, had been a special influence on my life as a young child, but now as I was a youth and college student, I was able to see in new ways just how special he was.  His voice was not a strong one due to some different health situations he had experienced in the previous decades, but his sermon delivery was strong, and his content was fantastic.  He had a great ability to mix admonition, encouragement, and humor as he preached solid theological content.  The church service was on television, and Prentiss had the service timed down perfectly.  He stood up to preach at almost the exact same time every Sunday, and rarely were his sermons less than sixteen minutes or more than 18 minutes.  It was usually right at 17 minutes, but he could say more in those 17 minutes than most preachers who preached twice that long.  He crafted his sermons, and that great preparation was evident in his preaching.  He would sometimes wag his finger as he preached, which meant you knew he was making a particularly strong point. Mary Lee would tell him to not point that finger, but he replied, “Mary Lee, sometimes people need a finger pointed at them!”  And you knew that when he said “Oh, dear friends…” that he was wrapping up!

When I felt called to ministry in the spring of my freshman year of college, I told only a few people.  I talked with my Bible study leader Kay Verrall, with my parents, and with Prentiss, but didn’t tell anyone else for a few months as I prayed and waited and discerned whether this call was real or not.  Once I accepted that call, Prentiss was a constant source of help and encouragement, and I would discover later when I talked with others who went into the ministry that he was a source of support and encouragement to many young pastors who heard God’s call.

Even as a young adult in college, I noticed how he was able to preach so well, how he knew the names of everyone in the church, and was impressed at how he was able to lead congregations to not only dream big dreams but to achieve great goals for Christ.

Mary Lee was a major influence on Becky as they got to know each other.  She wasn’t so sure about Becky at first because she was very protective of me.  After my first year of seminary, I came home for Annual Conference weighing 123 pounds, 5 pounds less than when I had graduated college.  When she saw me and that my cheeks were a little shallow and sunken, she asked my mom, “Does that little wife of his know how to cook?!”  She wanted to make sure I was okay.  But as she got to know Becky, they became very close.  Her signature piece of advice to Becky was this:  “Read your Bible every day, and take your birth control.”

After three years of seminary, I was waiting to hear where I would be appointed when Prentiss called me and told me he wanted me to come talk with the SPRC at Tupelo FUMC about being the associate. I knew it would be highly unusual for to come back to serve at the church from which I had been approved, and even though I had not grown up in that church, I had been closely associated with that church for 10 years.  But Prentiss saw it as a positive.  Much to my surprise, I was appointed there in June, 1993.  It was very clear I was there because of his influence.  I knew that year would be Prentiss’s last year before he retired, but I knew that a year with him would be valuable to my ministry.  And, it was a neat experience to know that both my dad and I would be able to serve as his associate pastors about two decades apart from each other.  One thing I learned later which was impressive to me was that in spite of the fact that I had known him all of my life and he had watched me grow up, he called the supervisor of the place where I worked to talk with him about my attitude, work ethic, etc.  Prentiss certainly wanted to help me get a good start on my ministry, but his primary goal was what he thought would be best for the church, and it meant a lot to me actually that my appointment there wasn’t out of a sense of favor or nepotism. The fact that he trusted me to do the work meant a lot to me, and I never wanted to do anything other than validate his decision.  I wanted for him to be proud of me.

I can’t go into all I learned that year, but it was tremendous.  I watched how he handled meetings, how he led worship, and how he dealt with people in smaller situations.  I watched him call by name every child in the church, and I watched how much those kids loved him.  It was an important lesson early on that it is a falsehood to say that you need a young pastor with a family to attract young families to the church.  Those parents and those kids saw the delight in Prentiss’ eyes when he saw them.  They saw how he supported the ministries to children and youth.
I watched how he handled difficult situations such as a scholarship fund to Candler School of Theology when a major donor put in a stipulation at the last minute that females would not be allowed to earn the scholarship.  Prentiss refused to accept that stipulation and was then told that the matching funds for the scholarships would therefore not be forthcoming.  Prentiss then raised the matching funds as well, and the scholarship which was going to be named in honor of a particular person was renamed the Tupelo FUMC Scholarship Fund.

I listened as he critiqued my sermon.  Sometimes he looked bored while I preached, and having to listen to my sermons on Sunday night worship he might have been bored!  But then we would talk about the sermon, and he would break it down in a very constructive manner, pointing the good things I was doing and areas of growth as well.  It was clear he wasn’t missing a thing I said.  That was true not just about my preaching but about other aspects of ministry as well.

We lived next door to each other, and that first year Becky stayed home with David.  Most days she did laundry and spent a good bit of her time with Mary Lee.  We ate dinner with them a lot, and often Prentiss and I would go out visiting after supper.  He was 67 years old and I was 24 years old, and I couldn’t keep up with him!  He was always delighted to spend time with David, and David couldn’t wait to see him, crawling or toddling over to see Granddaddy Gordon.  He would hold David and talk with him as David bounced up and down on his knee.  David loved to stand up and bounce, and Prentiss would let him do that as much as he want, to the point that Mary Lee said to him, “Prentiss, if he keeps doing that he is going to be bow-legged!”

I watched him in many different settings so I could learn from him, but though he guided me and helped me tremendously, he let me do my job and he let me take my lumps.  He knew I needed to learn, but he had also brought me in to do a job.  He expected me to do my job and to do it well.  And then he let me do it.  He was always supportive of me publicly, and if there was something which was of concern to him, he would call me into his office, or we would talk about it over supper.

After he retired we would go and visit as we could with the kids, and the eight years we had in the Starkville-Columbus area from 1999-2007 were particularly enjoyable since we were close by.  My kids called Prentiss and Mary Lee “Granny and Granddaddy Gordon.”  Their unconditional love of our children shaped them in ways they probably won’t fully realize until they are even older than they are now.

At the visitation, one of the family members said to me, “You, Becky, David, and Sarah are like family.  You were as important to them as family.”  It says something about the character and graciousness of this family that they would make a statement like that on that day.  I looked back at him and said, “Maybe almost, but never doubt that as important as your folks were to so many people, none were more important than his actual family.”  This family shared Prentiss with literally thousands of people over the years, and the lives of those families were immeasurably enriched by Prentiss’s friendship and ministry.  My lengthy story is but one of many which similar ones which could be shared, and that is a testimony to the character of Prentiss, Mary Lee, and the family they raised.

When we lived in the southern and western part of the state for the last several years, I didn’t get to see Prentiss often.  It was much more rare than I would have liked, but the kids were in junior high and high school, and after my parents moved from Starkville to North Carolina I was rarely in Starkville, and when I was it was for a quick weekend to take David or Sarah to a band event at State.  I regret that I didn’t spend much time with him in the last several years of his life, but the older I get the greater appreciation I have for all he and Mary Lee poured into me and my family when we were younger.

There is no one who has had a great influence on my life than my own mother and father.  My perspective, principles, and character were shaped and formed by them in ways I am still learning about and appreciate.  My dad is a retired UM minister, so he has been a constant source of guidance and counsel throughout my life.  But my dad left the full-time local church ministry in the late 1970s, and though he continued to serve churches part-time for many years after he went with Methodist Senior Services, when it came to the daily work and grind of local church ministry, I relied on Prentiss’s counsel and guidance as much as anyone else.

It is a safe statement that outside of my mother and father, there is no one person who had a great impact on my life than Prentiss Gordon, Sr.

One final thing.  That legacy of influence has continued in the son and grandson who are UM ministers.  At a particularly difficult time in my early ministry when I was going through a lot of personal and ministerial stuff, I asked Bud Gordon to come preach a revival at Ellison.  I was a mess, but thought I was doing a good job at hiding my pain.  I called Bud and asked if we could talk, and he met with me for several hours one day as I poured out where I was in my life, my struggles, my fears, and my hopes.  That conversation was a major turning point for me in examining where I was in life and ministry at that time, and later on I was able to point to that conversation as a major catalyst for my getting better and for solidifying the kind of minister I knew God wanted me to be.

Fast forward to 2012, and his grandson Brian Gordon and I roomed together on a trip to southern Spain as part of the Shepherd’s Sabbath experience.  While we were in Spain, I got word that my mother-in-law, with whom I was very close, had died. It was expected, but I had hoped she would not die before I got back home.  There were 21 of us all together, and we were at the Alcazar fortress when the news came.  We paused the tour as they gathered around me and prayed for me.  A few of them offered to go with me back to the hotel if I wanted, but I told them there was nothing we could do now, that I didn’t want anyone to miss out on a once in a lifetime trip, and that to stay occupied was the best thing for me, so we all continued to tour.  That afternoon we had a lot of free time to wander around.  Brian, Dayna Goff, and Stacey Parvin walked around with me that afternoon as we talked about this and that.  I was a bit surly in my demeanor, but they just walked with me as I walked here and there.  That time to just be with me in my grief was a gift I can never repay and will never forget.

Prentiss’ legacy continues far beyond his death in his family, in me, and in the lives of all whom he touched, and I am grateful that he was a part of my life.  For those of you who made it all the way to the end of this note, know that I could have easily written three times as much as I did.

Prentiss loved jokes, so I will finish with one of my favorites by him.  A pastor and his wife were walking with a friend one afternoon when a former parishioner came up to them, gave the pastor a big hug, and talked with them for a few minutes.  After she left, the friend asked, “She seemed very nice, but I didn’t get her name.”  The pastor replied, “Oh, well, I am horrible with names, but let me think for a minute.  What’s the name of that flower that has real pretty petals, comes in a lot of colors, has thorns on it?”  The friend replied, “You mean a rose?”  “Yes, that’s it,” he said.  He then turned to his wife and said, “Rose, what’s the name of that lady we just met?”  That’s a Prentiss joke if there ever was one.
Well done, good and faithful servant.  It’s hard to wrap my mind around a world where you aren’t in it.  You are and will be missed.

One of the phrases I used to say to people going through tough times was a common saying I had heard many others use as well:  “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  It was a way of saying that no matter what happens, a person can get through it.  But then one day I read an article in which the author said: “I guarantee you God will give you more than you can handle.”  Now, before I go any farther with this thought, let me say that I do not believe that God sends affliction upon us.  I do not believe that God gives someone cancer or heart disease or diabetes or a broken limb.  God does not cause wrecks, suicides, or the death of infants.  So, even in saying “God will not give you…,” I interpret that more as saying “You will not go through….”

Regardless of the phrasing, though, as I read the article I realized how wrong I had been in saying this statement even though it was well-meaning.  The author who wrote that she guaranteed God will give us more than we can handle talked about how if it was not for the power, presence, love, and grace of God in her life in her time of great struggle, there is no way she would have made it through that time.  The point of the article was that while there are times in our lives in which we will go through more than WE can handle, we will never go through something too great for GOD to handle.

Now, I will also say that while in the midst of the struggle, such words can sound like empty platitudes.  In the midst of great pain and sorrow, words can sound hollow.  And yet, IT’S TRUE!  Even when it is hard to accept, even when it seems impossible to understand, even when it seems like you are going to drown in the situation, and even when you express your anger to God, God is always there.  God never abandons you.  God understands.

What I have discovered in my own life, and what I have witnessed in being with others in the midst of the darkest valleys of their lives is that God’s grace and God’s strength sees us through to the other side.  It is not easy.  It is not simple.  And there is great pain along the way.  But God has a way of carrying us through these times and giving us resources to deal with difficult times which go far beyond our own capacity to handle them.

I remember a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Guss Shelley, telling a story about a professor in seminary giving the class an assignment in which they were shown a picture of a horrible car wreck, and they had to answer the question:  “Where is God in this tragedy?”  He said that while he gave some sort of answer at the time, he didn’t really have a solid answer until several years later when he was at the bedside in ICU of a church member who was near death.  That question “Where is God in this situation?” came back to him and he realized that the answer was, “God is right here, grieving with this family and all who love this man.”

While it may sometimes seem like an empty platitude, it is a deep truth of the magnitude of God’s love and care for us that God is present with us giving us the strength, sustenance, and resources we need to make it through the joys and trials of life.  We only have to lean upon Him, and we can trust that God will be there because God loves us that much.

While it seems in many ways as if the summer just started, the calendar says differently!  Today, August 1, marks the first day for teachers in the public schools in our area to return to school.

In our area of Neshoba County, the conclusion of the  Neshoba County Fair, which ran from July 22-29, marks the unofficial end of summer and the resumption of normal work and family schedules.  While in the church we have been working as a staff to get ready for the fall season, those preparations for the fall and for the coming year will kick into high gear in the coming weeks, and will continue through Christmas.

In the midst of all that is going on around us, the temptation is to get in such a rush that we meet ourselves coming and going.  There are lot of details to cover with school supplies, new clothes, fall sports and other activities, etc.  Even if you don’t have children or your children have long since left the household, we still gain a sense of this activity and this stress as we go to the stores and as we observe the increased activity of those around us.

We are a society that places value on keeping busy.  Time spent doing nothing is seen as lazy, so we get into a habit of rushing around from one activity to another.  If we are not careful, we get so caught up in the rushing around that we forget why we got involved in all of this stuff in the first place!  This unsettledness, this hectic pace of life that is all around us also has a way of spilling over into our spiritual life.  We tend to be impatient with God.  We want God to operate on our timetable. We want God to be there at the snap of our fingers instead of remembering that what God wants is for us to be patient and operate on God’s timetable.

In talking about God’s timing and being patient, Harry Emerson Fosdick, a famous early 20th century preacher, once wrote the following words in a book entitled  Deep is the Hunger:

“I need thy sense of time.  Always I have an underlying anxiety about things.   Sometimes I am in a hurry to achieve my ends and am completely without patience.  It is hard for me to realize that some growth is slow, that all processes are not swift.  I cannot always discriminate between what takes time to develop and what can be rushed, because my sense of time is dulled.  I measure things in terms of happenings.  O to understand the meaning of perspective that I may do all things with a profound sense of God’s time.”

The biblical writer James put it this way: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.  The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You also must be patient.”

In this time of preparation and rushing around, let us pray for patience for one another and for ourselves, trusting in God’s timing.  Let us take the time to spend with God and listen for God’s voice in our lives.  Let us enter into this season with a “profound sense of God’s time,” so that even in the pace of the physical life journey, we may be calm in spirit because we have that assurance that God is with us.

The following reflection was my article on the front page of my church’s newsletter this week.  There is so much more that can and needs to be said, so even if you read this reflection and agree with a lot of it, but think that it just scratches the surface and is woefully incomplete, know that I agree with you.  However, I think we have to start somewhere.  This reflection, which is a long one for a newsletter, is an opening attempt.

We live in tense times.  Like many of you, I have struggled to put my finger on exactly why and now it seems as if our country is having such fits of violence.  Those who are willing to place blame are many, and the supposed causes of the violence are also many.  Some blame protest movements, and to be sure, there have been protests which started out peacefully but erupted into violence.  However, we are a country in which peaceful protest has been a part of our sacred values since the beginnings of our country.  There were peaceful and violent protests leading up to the American Revolution, Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, Civil Rights Movement, and many other causes of a smaller scale, and positive change has often come from peaceful protests which highlight injustice.

Others blame a culture of guns and a culture of overzealous law enforcement.  However, we also have to acknowledge that the vast majority of gun owners are responsible citizens, and the vast majority of law enforcement officers perform heroic work as they put their lives on the line for our safety and protection.  There is never any justification for violence against law enforcement officers regardless of whether or not there may be bad cops out there. In fact, it is so self-evident a statement that I feel a bit foolish having to write it, but sadly, there are those who are taking out their anger against bad cops or perceived bad actions by police officers by randomly shooting those in law enforcement.  Families are being orphaned and widowed because of the misplaced rage of a handful of deranged people, and it is beyond tragic.

Others blame media, and especially social media.  I think there is no doubt that the advent of social media and internet technology in general has made it possible for passions to be inflamed more quickly than before.  And yet, it seems that many who blame the news media and social media aren’t willing to take responsibility for their own actions and responses in such settings instead of taking responsibility for the fact that each of us is responsible for what we post, transmit, forward, “like,” and otherwise endorse vial social media and other means of technology.  I am often disheartened when I get on Facebook, Twitter, etc., at the absolute junk which good people post.  The amount of vitriol, falsehood, and outright bile frankly astounds me.  I have someone whom I love very much with whom I had a strong disagreement recently because of the false e-mails this person was sending to me.  This person thought I was offended by the e-mails because we have differing political views.  However, I was clear that while I was not offended by the opinions expressed, what did offend me was the bearing of false witness by someone whom I know to otherwise be a person of great integrity and honesty.  And yet, this person was willing to send out stories of an inflammatory nature which were easily proved to be a lie, and was unwilling to send out a retraction once the lie was demonstrated.  I think this person sent things out believing them to be true, but my disappointment was the refusal to then acknowledge the error when the e-mail was shown to be a lie.

I think in this area many of us who call ourselves Christian have to repent of what we have said and done, and we can no longer hide under the guise of being clever, cute, or trying to be funny.  I implore you that if you use such media, please fact-check everything you send instead of thinking it must be true simply because what you post agrees with your particular point of view.  A lie is a lie no matter whether you agree with the opinion behind it, and we damage our witness as Christians when we advance falsehoods.  It is not a matter of politics.  It is a matter of honesty and integrity in all we do.  With regards to news media, there are niche news networks we can tune to which will re-enforce what we already believe, and the news networks are often more than willing to slant accepted facts to the interpretation which they believe will get them the highest ratings.  It is our duty to inform ourselves, to use our own minds to think and reason, and to then apply what we learn and believe in a productive manner.  News networks thrive by keeping us upset and on edge because we will then keep watching.  It is up to us to have a diet of the mind and heart in what we put into our minds and hearts, and how we choose to respond.

There are other sources of blame, the other large group being politicians, but I will simply say that we are the ones who elect them, so we have to take responsibility there as well, and also we have to remember that we have had great and lousy politicians throughout our entire national history, and we have survived as a country.  We have to be careful to not overreact to any one person or group, and place the blame for our ills on that one person or group.  If the country was going to be ruined by one person or one political party, we would have ceased to exist and thrive as a nation a long time ago!

So, what are we to do?  In my own prayer, reflection, and discernment, I have had to resolve to be careful in who and what I choose to listen to; re-commit myself to responding to hatred and lies with kindness, forgiveness, and speaking the truth in love; and resolve that I will seek to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  The Christian life calls us to stand up for what we believe, but to stand up not with violence of words or actions but rather with love, mercy, and justice.

A few years ago, I saw a suggestion that before you write or say something, THINK.  THINK is an acronym for us to ask these questions:  is it True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind?  If not, then let it be!  Don’t let the emotions of a moment hinder your Christian witness or hinder your relationship with someone else.

Let us resolve in these days to model the example of Jesus.

Peace in Christ,

“There’s a difference between interest and commitment.  When you are interested in doing something, you do it only when it is convenient.  When you are committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.”   -Kenneth Blanchard

I saw this quote on a friend’s Facebook post a while back and thought it was interesting, especially as we are getting at the beginning of a new year.  There is something about a new year that promises a fresh start.  Whatever the previous year brought, both good and bad, this year is a NEW year, one filled with new opportunities and possibilities.  Maybe that is the reason why so many people make New Year’s resolutions.  The list is pretty familiar.  People want to lose weight, exercise more, eat better, get more sleep, spend more time with family, be more consistent in a prayer/devotion time, read the Bible more, etc.  The hard truth, however, is that most people are more interested in these things than they are committed.  They do these things up to the point that it becomes inconvenient or a bit challenging, and then they stop.  The ones who follow through on the new year’s resolutions are the ones who are committed, who keep doing that good thing when it becomes hard and even tedious at times.

God calls us to not just be interested, but be committed.  I would like to offer, then, some new year’s resolutions that in some ways are much simpler than the one’s listed above, but in other ways are more challenging.  Each of them reflects a commitment to God that God will honor when we follow through on making a true commitment to Him.

1)      Recognize that your body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19-20), and commit to honoring God through how you treat your body.  The actions may involve losing weight or exercising more, going to bed earlier, etc., but instead of focusing on the particular action, look at the overall goal of how you can honor God.

2)      Commit to honoring God in your heart and soul.  Recognize that God has blessed you through His daily presence with you, the sending of Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We find ways to spend time with the people who are important to us.  Is God one of those whom you will find it important to spend time with in the coming year?

3)      Commit to honoring God through your relationships with others.  We are powerful witnesses of God through how we treat one another.  Do others see God’s presence in us when we are around them? What are ways we can be active in our church and community that show the love of Christ?

4)      Commit to love more, forgive more, and grumble less.

As I noted above, these resolutions are simpler than a laundry list of items we want to improve in the new year, but they are also more challenging as well.  The benefit, though, is that these commitments can become more than temporary resolutions and instead can become holy habits we continue throughout our lives.

Are you merely interested, or will you make a commitment to honor God in all of your life in this new year?

I recently began serving on the Emory Alumni Board.  I served on the Candler School of Theology alumni Board, which is my graduate school’s board, but am now one of two representatives for the seminary on the larger university alumni board.  I was very surprised and quite honored to be asked to serve, but was nervous about the first meeting and the commitment I had made to serve on  the alumni board of a university recently ranked as one of the Top 20 universities in America.

So, I went to my first board meeting and met several of the other members.  One guy is a neuro-radiologist who has his own practice and also teaches at Yale University.  Another fellow is a senior vice-president for player marketing for the National Basketball Association.  A new member i met the first day is a CPA and also has an MBA and a law degree.  She was a CPA, stayed home to raise two daughters, then went back to school at both Emory and later at SMU in Dallas.  Her daughters attended Emory and SMU respectively, so she also went to college with them!  A remarkable lady.  Another guy operates a center for human rights and civil rights in Atlanta, and they are currently working on building a museum in downtown Atlanta.  Another lady was asked by her boss to essentially take over the daily running of a law firm in which she was a partner, and in the midst of taking on this task also was going through surgeries for a serious illness.  I could go on like this for quite some time, but I think you get the point.  Folks on this board live in Atlanta, New York City, Dallas, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Boston, etc.  They are highly successful people in highly responsible jobs.

When it came time for me to introduce myself, what was I going to say?  “I have been a United Methodist pastor for the last 20 years in Mississippi and I currently serve a church in Hattiesburg, MS.”  Next.

Well, when I left that meeting, I was physically tired from the trip, and I felt WAY in over my head.  I was humbled as I listened to these stories, and I left feeling inadequate and out of place.  Now, let me say that everybody was very kind, they listened to what I had to say during the committee times as much as they listened to anyone else, and I never felt as if anybody was looking down upon me.  The inadequacy I felt was internal.  I wondered if I belonged as a representative on this board.  That feeling was my first dose of humility.  Later that evening, I was reflecting on the day, my place as a member of the board, and what I could say to these highly successful, driven people that would be a positive contribution.

And that’s when the SECOND dose of humility came.  I realized that I was falling into the same trap that I have warned people against for my entire ministry, the same trap that threatened to ensnare me when I was younger in ministry.  That trap was measuring my worth and value as a pastor and even more fundamentally as a person by how our society measures worth and value.  I realized that I was focusing on earthly things and not heavenly things, and how dismissive I was being of God’s blessings and call in my life.  I was humbled as I began to think about all the people I have been privileged to serve over the years in all of those different churches I have served ranging from 15 members to 1,700 members.  I thought about how God has placed me at the intersection of people’s lives, people such as those mentioned above who in their times of grief, trial, illness, etc., have turned to those who have been called to be at the crossroads of their lives when the security of the  job prestige, money, position, and possessions prove to be inadequate and false.

I realized how incredibly blessed I have been and how incredibly grateful I am that God called me to serve God in the particular way He called me.  I realized how foolish I was to be jealous, envious, or intimidated by these people who are so successful in their professions.  It was foolish in part because that was my projection onto them and not reflective of any way they carried themselves during our time together, and it was foolish because I was being dismissive of what truly matters in this world and in the world to come.

I am thankful for the amazing people I met and will be serving with on the Emory Alumni Board, and I am thankful for what I will learn from them as my understanding of the world is broadened.  I am thankful, too, that God has called me to serve in the way God has called me, and I am thankful for the amazing people I have met during my time in ministry.  They have enriched my life and the life of my family immeasurably.

My prayer is that I will not fall prey to the temptation to measure myself against the standards of society, but instead will continually seek God’s direction in my life, seeking to serve God in response to God’s gracious love and blessing in my life.

Two doses of humility in one evening for contrasting reasons.  Thanks be to God for God’s patient working in my life and in this world.

It seems that everywhere I turn the question of worship comes up in conversation.  It may be discussions with other ministers, both in this state and across the country about what constitutes worship or the essential elements in worship or whether it is possible to attract new people with traditional worship when contemporary worship seems to be so popular.  We debate about the style of music and whether or not the Apostle’s Creed is necessary.  Screen or no screen, and if you have a screen how much do you put up there?  The balance of visual vs. auditory is a big discussion.  Is only a piano needed or do we need guitars and drums? The list of debating points goes on and on.

I am perfectly willing to engage in those discussions and I certainly have my own thoughts along those lines, namely that where possible I think it is good to offer both more traditional forms of worship as well as more contemporary forms of worship.  Some new churches that have started do only contemporary forms of worship, and that is great, and some older established churches prefer to have only the traditional forms of worship, and that is great as long as you do each of them well and with authenticity.

Having said that, I think we do a disservice to the Church and to each other when we limit discussions about worship to such matters that revolve primarily around style and form.  In fact, we seem so often to forget that what we are talking about is WORSHIP.  We substitute discussions about the worship service times on Sunday mornings for discussions about what it means to worship the Lord in spirit and truth

I have known many people over the years who attended a church that did not offer the style of worship service that they most preferred, and yet they were able to come and worship on Sunday mornings because they came with open and expectant hearts before the Lord.  They worshipped on Sunday morning regardless of the style of worship because they did not confine their worship of God to that one hour of the week.  Rather, they worshipped in their Sunday School classes, small groups during the week, private prayer/devotion time daily, and in their job or other setting in which they spent most of their week.

In other words, the gathering with their church family was part of a continuation of the worship that went on throughout the week through prayer, devotion, acts of service to and with their neighbor, and in their work and home setting.  Even if certain elements of the worship service did not appeal to them at a deep level, they understood when they came into the sanctuary that object of the worship was God.  They did not see themselves as the consumers of worship or the recipients of a worship service planned by a group of church leaders.  Rather, they were with the gathered Body of Christ in that time to participate in the worship of God, and they participated in that worship of God through the particular order of service planned for that day.

Now, I wholeheartedly believe that those who plan and lead the worship services need to do so with much thought and prayer.  Those who guide the congregation in that worship time need to make sure that the different elements of the worship service are done to the best of their ability because we owe no less than giving of our best to God.  Also, I do think it is good to have a variety of worship styles because people are different in what speaks to them most.  I am more moved, for example, by a contemporary song or by one of the great hymns of faith than I am by Gregorian Chant.  I like to hear a good message preached in addition to having some silent time in prayer as opposed to total silence for the entire service.  I am fine with the raising of hands in worship and shouts of “Amen!” while at the same time finding it distracting when the preacher calls for the Amen instead of it rising organically out of the congregation.  However, regardless of the style/form of worship it is up to each person who comes to that time to come with an open and expectant heart, ready to listen for that word from God, and ready to experience God’s presence in their/our midst.

A man by the name of Bill Easum gave a great answer many years ago in a conference I attended around this question of worship.  The question was asked of him, “What is the line between entertainment and worship?”  Bill answered with the best answer I have heard to date: “The difference between entertainment and worship is what you do afterward.”  Regardless of the form of the worship service, if it doesn’t move you to spread the love of Christ in word and deed, it’s just entertainment.  It may be entertainment with a majestic pipe organ, an out of tune piano, or with guitars and drums, but if the service doesn’t call you to action for Christ and doesn’t lead you to respond to God’s claim upon your life, then it’s just entertainment.

When the woman at the well asked Jesus a question about which place of worship, Mount Sinai or Mount Gerazim, was the proper place for worship, Jesus replied that the “where” of worship did not matter.  What mattered, and what matters, is worshipping in spirit and truth.

That answer by Jesus still holds up today.

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