Knowing When

as in: Knowing when to say what you’re thinking, and when not to.

Call center operator

I called 6 times before an actually person picked up. The message I received the first five times indicated I had called outside of business hours.

Business hours began at 8 am. I started calling at 8 am.

I cannot tell you how ready I was to lay into this unwitting employee when she finally answered the phone. A variety of versions of the script was rolling through my head.

Even so, that was secondary. What really mattered was the point of the call: getting a medication question answered for someone important to me.

The person who answered, as it turns out, was incredibly helpful and understanding not only in helping me solve the problem, but also in helping me understand the problem.

So much so, in fact, I decided not to bother with my lecture about being available to answer the phones the very second posted business hours begin.

Punctuality is a pet peeve of mine, and leaving an answering service on 4 minutes into the work day is not a good business practice.

Taking really good care of customers (or patients, or congregants, or visitors) IS a good business practice. It’s more important than punctuality.

Had I begun the conversation with rage, frustration, anger, condescension, it could have derailed the purpose of the call.

I think it is also a metaphor. Our denomination, the United Methodist Church, is on the precipice of division. Incivility dominates our denomination at least as much as the culture around us.

At least some of this, I believe, is because we don’t let less important things go in favor of more important things.  We are all sometimes Martha, and distracted by too things. (Luke 10:38-42.

Thanksgiving is Good News

t is gn.jpgThere’s this funny thing about being United Methodist in the 21st century. Do you remember 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? The pop culture version of our connected world. Back in the 50s (pretty soon we’re going to have to say “1950s”, someone did a study of how many connections it would take to link a person randomly picked from a phone book in one city to another person randomly licked from a phone book in another city. 6 was all it took.

And the big takeaway from that is really, “when was the last time you used a phone book?”

Anyway, the funny thing about being a United Methodist in the 21st century is that number is, I’d say, 3 or 4 at the most.

We are more connected than ever as a society, and United Methodists even moreso!

Geoff and I went to highschool together. We were also in UMYF and Boy Scouts together. Then we went off to school – me to Southwestern and him to A&M.

I saw him once after that – he happened to be passing near Wilmore, Ky., when I was in seminary there, so we had a visit. In the late 80s. Next time I heard from Geoff was following 9-11. He had been at the pentagon when the plane hit it. He was safe.

Then, another decade or so, now we’re connected on social media. You know how that goes, a flurry of interaction, then pleasantries, then back into regular life.

Then Geoff messages me. He’s retired Navy, settled in Georgia. I said we had been in scouts together. Well, the message was that his son’s troop had sent a team to Philmont scout ranch in northern NM, and one of the kids had sickle cell anemia, which doesn’t react well with high altitudes. So that boy, half a continent from home and family, had been rushed to a hospital in Albuquerque.

Did I know someone who could check on him?

Why, yes; my mind went quickly to several United Methodist clergy friends in Albuquerque. And also, as it happens, to my mother in law. A deeply committed, lifelong United Methodist, and certified Spiritual Director.

Donna Berry, Rachel’s mother, my mother-in-law, visited the scout in the hospital.

Thank God for connections and connectedness!  Thank God for opportunities to do small things with great love for people you haven’t seen in 2 decades and for people you never have and never will meet!

I have no doubt you have some similar story; We live in such a connected world that if we simply pay attention, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God can work in us and through us to bless and encourage and comfort others.

And, of course, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God works in others to bless and encourage and comfort us.

But this is 2017. Almost 2018. We travel without a thought. Few of us have lived here all our lives, and those who have have likely visited lots of other places. And met many other people.

So, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was quite a traveller, but he didn’t have social media. To be fair, he did, but his social media was letters and couriers.

At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. He has travelled much of the empire, and he has planted churches.

He has travelled to Jerusalem – headquarters – to argue for accepting the gentiles into a faith that started entirely Jewish. His argument won the day, we learned last week, against those who said new gentiles Jesus-followers had to obey the law of Moses. “They and we are saved the same way; by the grace of Jesus.”

So, now, in the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, why does he thank God for the Romans? He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know them.

As you know if you have spent any time in this letter to the Romans, Paul has some things he wants to teach them. He is committed to helping them clear up some misunderstandings.

But before correcting them, or even beginning to teach them, he gives thanks for them.

Do we give thanks for people we have never met? Do we give thanks for people we feel obligated to teach, to correct and direct and educate?

Today, we do. If we want the gospel to be good news for us, we do. If we want the Gospel to be good news for others through us, we do. We give thanks!

Our willingness to give thanks helps make the gospel good news.

And let me be clear, because giving thanks too easily degenerates into listing the stuff or benefits we have.

Giving thanks is not just being able to list stuff – as though our relationship with God, or our mental or spiritual health rises and falls with what we have.

In another of Paul’s letter, Philippians, he thanks for Philippians for their support:

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.)

Then he expands upon his thankfulness:

11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

Paul isn’t grateful simply for the collection the Philippians have taken up and sent on. He is grateful for the connection with them; the encouragement he received from knowing them and spending time with them.

He is, in fact, thankful whether in need or having more than enough, whether hungry or full, whether having plenty or being poor.

Is that how thankfulness works?

Yes. Yes it is.

If we can learn to, and practice, being thankful and expressing thankfulness, no matter our situation, thankfulness works on our behalf.

Learning to be thankful people makes us better people. Learning to be thankful people brings us closer to God.

Did you catch what Paul said here? He is responsible to Jews and Greeks, to the wise and the foolish.

It’s like Paul has really, truly learned to be thankful in everything. He may or may not know that he’ll end up in Rome because, after his arrest, he appeals to Caesar to get his trial moved there.

This is the man who wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He has learned how to rejoice in the Lord always.

He has learned the power of giving thanks.

Like Tina Kennedy. Tina’s story comes from Christian Smith’s The Paradox of Generosity. Tina lives on welfare, having suffered a spinal injury in childbirth, and so lost her job as a cosmetologist. After giving birth to one of her children, the child’s father left her for another woman, one of her good friends. She recalls that time as a particularly dark chapter in life. It was not easy, but she did find a way to move past the pain and forgive her boyfriend, her good female friend, and the doctors responsible for her injury. Instead of letting bitterness take root, she remains thankful for what she has. “I had to regroup, regroup, re-evaluate things, where you put your priorities and things of life. But overall, TIna says, I’m blessed, and that’s why I keep my strength. I have life to be thankful for, you know?” Even though she could easily be overwhelmed by her health, financial, and romantic setbacks, she still generously reaches out to other people, by providing aid to extended family members and volunteering much of her time to local schools.

Smith tells us that “It is difficult to be angry, resentful, depressed, or fearful when one is showing selfless love toward another person. Such loving acts neutralize negative emotions that stimulate physiological responses known to adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.”

Learning to live thanksgiving isn’t just good for your physical body; It’s also good for your soul.

Learning to live thankfully, developing an attitude of gratitude, is good for body and soul – and thus, also – for the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Church!

Learning to live thankfully is good for the church!

Paul began this section giving thanks for people he’d never met. He closes this section with these words – right after he mentions his responsibility to jews and Greeks, wise and foolish, he says:

That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

He’s ready! Ready to preach the Gospel. The Gospel which is, by the way, God’s own power for salvation!

That’s some good news! The Good news of Jesus Christ, which is good news for all of us, is God’s power for salvation – for everyone!

And God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, is revealed in the gospel: that people are to live by faith.

Part of living by faith is learning to live thankfully. Give thanks this week. May this week be a step for you in the direction of living thankfully year around.

When we learn to live thankfully year around, it is good for our bodies, and our souls, and our church.

Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One….




A little change here, a little change there…

…and soon you might be looking at something substantial.

Suvir Mirchandani is a 14 year old boy from near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He has found a way for the US Government to save $136 million a year.  By changing fonts.

Mirchandani found that if the Government Printing Office changed to the Garamond font for all their printing, they would save this amount of money.

$136 million is a lot of money to you and me, but, admittedly, it is chump change on the scale of the dollars the Federal Government deals with.

I am less interested in entering a debate about government spending than I am in you and I grasping the value of available for our lives.  What may seem like a small change can actually add up to something rather significant.

During this season of Lent, what small change are you willing to make in your life that might become a significant improvement in your following of Jesus?

If it is a small change you are willing to share, please share it here: I an quite sure someone else can learn from your introspection.

Starting Again

Another year, another… new 2014


Got plans?  Resolutions?  Regrets?  Wishes? Hope? Dreams? Fears?

What will change 2014 for you?  What is it about a new year, a new calendar, a new January that gives us hope or commitment to change, grow, etc.?

Eliza, my daughter who will turn 4 this year, woke up the morning of December 26th suggesting we have Christmas again.  In fact, if the world worked on Eliza’s terms, every day would be Christmas Day.

Which reminded me of a line in a song (as so much of life does):  “Every morning is Easter morning from now on!”

I shared this lyric with Eliza and suggested Easter is an even better day to celebrate everyday than Christmas.  (She is yet unimpressed with most of the theological points I make, but I will not give up!)

What Eliza helped me realize is that each day is important and valuable and worth living.  Each day is a day full of opportunity for renewal, restart, resolve.  Eliza helped me remember again and from a different angle something Jesus said a long time ago: “stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

Extreme Life?

Felix Baumgartner is attempting to set a new free-fall world record today over Roswell.  He is doing this as a promotional stunt sponsored by Red Bull.

Marketplace‘s slant on this story begins with pointing out that many likely sponsors would avoid such a stunt like the plague, but it fits well with the image Red Bull seeking to maintain.

We are more than a decade into “the extreme.”  The “X Games” launched in 1995.  The Goo-Goo Dolls released Iris in 1998, which includes these lyrics that I’ve always been hesitant to cite while preaching:

yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive

The desire, the strongly felt need, to feel something in the midst of perceived numbness is far older than this, though

We learn to build walls to protect ourselves from hurt.  Sadly, these walls can easily become so thick and so tall they shield us from feelings altogether.

I remember watching The Color Purple while a seminary student.  One scene that was designed to evoke emotion did so, and I began to cry.  I cried for 3 hours.  It may have been 4; that was more than 20 years ago now, and I find it hard to remember exactly how long that lasted.

What I remember as though it were yesterday, is the progression my tears took me through.  I had sworn off crying as a junior high student, and, now 23 or so, I revisited each episode of my life that had called for tears.  The loss of 3 grandparents.  Moving as I was going into high school. Leaving home for college.  Going out of state for seminary. Several failed relationships.

We have become people who want to feel only on our own terms.  Thus, we have developed industries around providing opportunities and experiences within which we can “feel” to make up for lives we have crafted to become devoid of feeling.

On the other hand, Jesus said in John 10 that he has come to give us “life to the full,” or “life abundantly,” or, I think, “extreme life.”  What Jesus offers, though, is not controlled opportunities and experiences where we feel to make make up for all of the numbness we have built for ourselves.  Rather, what I have come to understand that Jesus offers us is the ability to live into a life that can accept the reality of feeling as it comes.

This extreme life that Jesus offers does not look as extreme as a 22 mile free-fall.  But it doesn’t require cutting oneself to know one is alive, either.  The extreme life Jesus offers is the ability to live all the time.

Are you ready for that kind of extreme?

Money money money money

I’d like to pick up from one point that Michael Slaughter made Friday:

If it isn’t good news for the poor, it isn’t good news

This point went nearly unnoticed in my post yesterday, but it reminded me of something I posted a little under a month ago under the heading of  “THE Christian view on Health Care in America?” In this post I claimed simply that, for Christians, the question is: “Does my neighbor have reasonable access to adequate health care?”

Though this post garnered no comments here, it set off an explosion over at Facebook.  Though I made absolutely no mention of money, some people inferred that my contention meant that I was suggesting that they ought to pay for everyone else’s health care.

If Slaughter is right that if it isn’t good news for the poor, it isn’t good news, (and he is) what are the implications for Christians, both with regard to health care and to many other issues?

Is it all about money?  Is it always all about money?  If Jesus indeed said more about money than he did about heaven and hell; what does this mean for us?

You have to be Rich to be Poor

If you think the poor just need to work harder, this fine article by DeNeen L. Brown shows many ways that the poor have to work harder just to keep up, let alone to try and get ahead.  HT Alan Hitt.

Here’s the opening:

You have to be rich to be poor.

That’s what some people who have never lived below the poverty line don’t understand.

Put it another way: The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. This is a fact of life that reality television and magazines don’t often explain.


I’ve been creeping toward writing this for a week or so. Then I read John’s blip about Beth Quick’s post on transparency at General Conference. Here’s a bit of Beth’s:

As I think about the approaching General Conference for the UMC, one of the things I wish we would see more of is transparency in our actions. Cozying up to certain delegates in order to win their votes? Just say so. Offering a breakfast or lunch or dinner because you want to push a certain agenda? Please be clear about it. Attending mostly because you’ll later be running for the episcopacy? Out with it! In the end, are you going to vote based on what’s best for you personally, even if it conflicts with your stated ideals and theology? Just say so.

Here’s my related stuff. There has never been a bishop elected from the Central Texas Conference (CTC). Dr. Tim Bruster, pastor of FUMC Fort Worth, is our conference’s candidate for bishop this year.

In the CTC, the first clergy elected to the General Conference delegation is the presumptive episcopal candidate. Dr. Bruster was our first clergy elected, on either the first or the second ballot.

Don’t get me wrong; I like Tim (Dr. Bruster). We’ve known each other for almost 20 years.  I think he is an excellent episcopal candidate.  I did (and would again) vote for him.

However, he wasn’t even elected to our GC delegation 4 years ago.  Now, he leads the delegation.  I think somebody did some meeting behind closed doors and burned up some phone lines on this one.

Is there anything wrong with that?  Well, yes there is.  Officially, as we are reminded by our bishop, clergy do not and are not to politic.  We are not supposed to “run” for GC delegate.

Does it happen? Of course!  Am I merely expressing sour grapes over not being involved?  I don’t think so.  I am not opposed to deals being made and people politicking for themselves or others.  I am opposed to this all happening while we say it doesn’t and isn’t supposed to.

Thought for Christmas

One of the books I am reading right now is Deep Economy by Bill McKibben.  In the first chapter he cites another work in making this claim:

In general, researchers report that money consistently buys happiness right up to about $10,000 per capita income, and that after that point the correlation disappears.  (Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, “beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 5, no.1 (July 2004) p.30)

As we reflect on gift-giving and fighting traffic snarls and lines at the cashier, consider that most of us (at least in the US) who have regular internet access to read this are likely comfortably over the threshold of money buying happiness.

Let’s make Christmas this year less about money, and more about happiness.