Author Archives: buzzs1

MOMENTS OF HOPE AND TERROR IN OUR MINISTRIES

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination day I learned he began to fear daily that he might die when he was about 33 years old. He was slain when he was 39. I knew he lived a terrifying life but I did not know that the preacher may have thought about dying day and night throughout the rest of his ministry and life. I wondered how much time he gave to his weekly sermons under such pressures. Maybe he managed to turn out great homilies because of the threats.
It occurred to me that our ministries need to have an element of fear when it comes to caring for the culture and the world and that will always be challenging. We clergy will definitely have moments of panic at times within our local churches but expanding beyond our temples can be much more demanding and terrifying.
It struck me that I might be able to handle fear in my ministries but not terror. Two years before I attended seminary, Henoc Mwamba, a Congolese student, finished his degree and was summarily killed when he returned home to his country. Many Africans were murdered after attending graduate schools and pursing political aspirations. A year later I was fortunate to become an emissary to Africa to meet his family in his country.
My escort to Africa was a highly regarded missionary from Arkansas named Jon Guthrie who was known throughout the denomination when he frequently risked his life during the war helping Congolese families out of the country and across borders.
I heard about one of his hazardous ventures when he was attempting to enter a Congo border. As he moved up to the gate he saw two Canadian missionaries who had just been shot and killed. Jon did not have a visa card on him but he had a typed letter from his girlfriend and handed it to the young militant. The kid held it upside down, looked it over and allowed Jon to pass through.
He was going back to save a few more clans. I assumed he thought I could help him by risking my life on the job but I was a ‘basket case.’ I happened to know that the term means a person who has all his limbs amputated.
We met in Brussels, flew for 12 hours from Rome to Nairobi, Kenya and landed in a country when the blacks were taking over and the whites were pretty angry.
A stern British airport cop asked for our passports. “No good,” he bellowed, “get back on that damned plane for your next flight out of this country!” Jon was cool and when I turned to go back to the damned plane he covertly pulled me back and said to the agent, “The second in command of the U.S. Embassy is meeting us here. Let me write out his name on a piece of paper and you ask at the gate.” Somehow, Jon sensed our host person would call it out and he did. He was a colleague of Jon, a foodbank director and not a diplomat. It turned out I had to part from Jon to get to Kenya. Fortunately, Henoc’s family had moved from the Congo to London to live; thank God for them and me losing the chance to visit the Congo.
When I spent a month at a Methodist seminary in Salisbury, Rhodesia, I was asked by a missionary if I might go with him to visit a prominent potential President who was arrested along with his supporters and sent to a remote detention camp. I was told that few people attempt to visit him but I didn’t ask why. The hostage was a middle-age graduate of Harvard and had been in the prison for over a year. When he spoke so calmly, openly and articulately I calmed down but as soon as we started to leave by car my host began looking back and forth and admitted we might get caught. I was panicky and wanted to go home… like to Los Angeles.
My next flight took me to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was met by two Congregational ministers at the airport. After a brief conversation one said “We need to stop first to join a demonstration against Apartheid racial discrimination on the steps of the Capital. We urge you not to go with us. If we are arrested, we may be in jail for a few weeks but you, being from out of country, would likely be there for the rest of your life.” I chose to stay way back but I was still frightened.
The next day a pastor picked me up and asked if I would like to attend a bible study meeting at a home in Pretoria. The pastor said “I need to tell you, there will be blacks and whites and if we are caught we could go to jail.” I sat through the whole meeting in a cold sweat and kept watching the door.
I had heard about the diamond mine shacks where 17 to 18 years-old-boys are virtually slaves. Chaplains can visit the crammed cabins but others are not allowed into them. I was asked to preach and, again, I was warned on site that I might be jailed by being out-of-country. My colleagues kept telling me at the last minute about the agenda. I wanted to know if I might get jailed or shot at. I was terrified for a few hours but not for a few years!
When I served my first church in 1965 my classmates, Elias Galvan and Ignacio Castuera and I, were spending a lot of time demonstrating in the streets of L.A, over racism and education needs. They were OK marching on the outside edges of the marches. I chose to stay in the middle of the crowd where there was less spit and middle-finger waving. When we were in a rally on one occasion a motorist yelled out that Martin Luther King had just got shot and killed. Those protests were not only energizing but fearful at times. However, when we are in with a crowd the terror can be less frightening.
I am still in awe of those unwavering missionaries who chose to put their lives in danger to confront xenophobia but now we are warned that racism is emerging its horrid head more than ever in the world. Professor Kathleen Belew claims, in the New York Times, that white power never disappeared and ends her column by stating “…It was known but not forgotten. We must, collectively, recognize its strength and history, or our amnesia will make it impossible to respond to such activism and violence in the present.”

“Great beings, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have managed themselves to meet it.”
Emerson, The Conduct of Life, 1860

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A TIME TO SELL … WELL

When I was assigned to my first church in 1965 I learned that Miss Mae McCamley, in her late 80s, was one who took charge with about everyone and everything in the congregation. Two of my predecessors warned me about her.

The grand dame let me know rather soon that the women’s committee will be meeting monthly in our parsonage next door to the church. She often opened and read her mail during the meetings and would fall asleep after a while and snore loudly. No one had the nerve to disturb her.

She was a star within our annual conference. She remained single and drove a 1925 model-A truck in her young years and made numerous trips carrying bricks to help build her church.

Within a month I made a big mistake when I left her name off the list of the oldest members celebrating the 75th anniversary of the church. She had broken her neck and was in rehabilitation. I got a call right away by a member who said “You made a huge gaffe and Miss Mae will want to see you right NOW, good luck!”

I rushed to the rehab site and peeked into her room.

“You will stay out in the hall, Willard, until the therapist is through with me!”

“Yes, Mam.” Why did I leave the aircraft industry job?

“OK, Willard, come in and sit down. Did you know what you did to me?”

“Yes, Mam.”

She smiled and said “You’re doing well as our pastor so don’t mess up. I guess you know about my commitment to my church and how crucial it is but it’s just a building. I am concerned about what we Methodists do within our community nearby but I am more anxious about our ministries that go beyond our neighborhood and on to the country and the world.
***
When I was assigned to my third church, Clarence Newell, the chair of the finance committee and a longtime member, reminded me of Miss McCamley. I was attempted to be reassigned. He came at me on my first day. This was his welcoming gesture:

“OK, Pastor, you must know that you are responsible to help us pay our apportionments yearly and on time. We are starting to drop in attendance and funding and your job is to pounce on the congregation whenever you can to keep us afloat!”

I whined and replied “Will you also do some pouncing?”
“Not as much as you will be.”

He was a lot like the pushy royal at my first church.

He stated “We like having you here but”…there is always a ‘but’ when it comes to getting instructions on how to pastor a church.

He continued “…but, I’ll be on your back when our apportionments are due at the end of the year. And you know why. That’s the funds that we commit to our ministries beyond our local church, and that’s why I became a Methodist.”

My hunch is those who have been Methodists for 60 or 70 years in our pews, realize more than others, that our weakened churches are having to sell off their properties and some may know the funds will wind up in conferences that are likely not able to buy expensive lands for new starts.

Before they die, we ought to comfort those apportionment lovers by making sure a portion of the sell-off funds make it to ministries that go beyond local church assets.

I continue to be in awe of Miss Mae and Clarence with their determination to keep us on what John Wesley had in mind.

“The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”
Thomas Henry Huxley, 1877

‘A TIME TO GET, AND A TIME TO LOSE’ … AND A TIME TO SELL

I was awed by the gutsiness of the congregational ancestors at First United Methodist Church Tucson where I served. The church was built in the late 1800s in the old downtown district. They voted in early November of 1929 to relocate the church across the street from the main gate of the new college in town. The primary purpose of that plan was to honor the importance of secular education as a contribution to society. It was not an attempt to gain an advantage to evangelize. They had in mind Wesley’s proclamation…that of caring for the welfare of all beings. It was a highly controversial proposal for the church at that time, partly because the campus was more than five miles outside the city limits in those days. So, they lost a number of members over that vote.

At the end of that month the stock market crashed and they felt a need to revisit their vision and take another vote. A few more members departed but the dream held. The hard economy made it virtually impossible to make the transition, but the church women saved the day and generated funds by selling toilet paper door-to-door. I got in a little trouble by pointing out at their 125th anniversary celebration that that’s how they made ends meet back then.

…But, but…No wait…I should say ‘and, and’…A testament to the success of their dream, the Methodist dream nationwide, was that 16 public schools in Tucson were named after members of that congregation. The church remains to this day across the street from the main gate of the University of Arizona. The Tucson Church vision under-girded a wider dream held by Methodists across the country in those years. As we know there are now over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges founded by the denomination; among them USC, Emery, Northwestern, Boston University, Southern Methodist, Drew, Duke, Ohio Wesleyan, Illinois Wesleyan, Nebraska Wesleyan, Vanderbilt.

My guess is masses of university faculty members, administrative staff and public school teachers were drawn to attend Methodist churches because of those grand contributions to society. They may not have been attracted initially to the worship or educational aspects of church life, but they liked the Methodist image of caring for society with no faith strings attached.

A number of those great establishments have medical schools which dovetail with another huge Methodist dream over a hundred years ago, that of building some of the most prominent hospitals in the country and the world, such as the famous Methodist Heart hospital in Houston. And then there is Good Samaritan, the esteemed regional hospital in Phoenix. I have been telling about the dream of a single soul of First Methodist Church in Phoenix related to that grand enterprise. Her name was Lulu Clifton, a Methodist Deaconess and dreamer, who is credited with founding Good Samaritan Hospital. Scores of medical personnel began attending Methodist churches out of sheer admiration for our efforts to meet the physical needs of the masses.

A few years ago Bill Moyers challenged a graduating class at Southern Methodist University in his commencement address. He concluded his remarks by saying

“I know something about the DNA in this institution – the history that created this unique university. Although most of you are not Methodists, you can be proud of the Methodist in SMU. At the time of the American Revolution only a few hundred people identified with Methodism. By the Civil War it was the largest church in the country with one in three church members calling Methodism their faith community.”

I believe Moyers is a Baptist, but he ended his presentation by proclaiming “No institution has done more to shape America’s moral imagination. If America is going to be fixed, I believe someone with this DNA will be needed to do it. It’s possible.”

I think many of us may strive to remain Methodists because we have a nagging notion that we do our best when we rely upon our congregations to nurture courageous dreamers who find ways to contribute to the health and welfare of the masses. It’s an audacious gesture but that’s just who we are and who we’ve been.

We have dying churches across our country that are down to a few dozens in the pews with full-time pastors having near $100,000 packages and sitting on million dollar-plus properties. I honestly did little about that when I served as a district superintendent. Please, Lord, let someone else deal with it. Now I can dream big in my retirement.

What if we were able to urge those small congregations across America to sell off their property and attend other churches and have those proceeds go to severe needs in our culture? What if those profits were to go to national or global educational needs, environmental disasters or health care for the poor? Bill Moyers would be proud of us and there might be citizens who learned about the projects who might choose to attend our churches.

THANKSGIVING MOOD

ETERNAL LOVE…AND EVERLASTING RAGE

Throughout much of my life I assumed fury merely popped up periodically among families but over the years I’ve learned that it can have staying power. It struck me when a woman in her sixties attended my church for a few weeks. She finally said “I grew up in the Baptist church and now I want to become a Methodist but I will have to wait until my 95-year-old mother dies.” I thought she was joking until she assured me her mother still had fits of anger over her faith. Six months later the daughter said “OK, Pastor, she died and I’m ready to be a Methodist!”

I heard about a prominent author who chose to stop worshipping with his family’s faith community. When his father was dying, the last words he uttered to his son was “Go to church, dammit!”

A seemingly gentle lady in another church revealed that she has six grown kids, three are progressive and three are ultra conservatives. She revealed that she was at wits end trying to calm them down about issues during the Thanksgiving dinners. She decided to tape on her front door one year a statement that read “If you plan to be become infuriated over politics or religion today you can just turn around and go back to your own homes!” They did but they were so ashamed they sent notes of remorse and promised to behave next time. I don’t think the offspring believed their mother could be enraged but she admitted to me that she felt it full bore every year.

Why are we so reluctant or afraid to release some of our ire among our families and church members? I’m not sure but there is another annual battle zone that begins on Thanksgiving among shoppers. It’s known as the Black Friday Mob when and where we may find our neighbors and church friends who might get punched. Shoppers will take things from another’s cart and manage to bash each other every year.

Will our not-so-nice subterranean impulses ever vanish? Here’s hoping that Bruce Bliven, when he penned these words, was thinking of us.
“Human nature can be changed with the greatest ease and to the utmost possible extent. If huge…dangers lie in this, it also contains great hope for the future of humankind.” Forbes, 1956

RAGE, ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Experts claim we need to keep our rage in check by playing soothing music while driving on crowded freeways. I tried it with country western music but it didn’t seem to work for me. Johnny Cash can drive you crazy.

Road rage has increased big time in recent years. My first experience with it occurred on an L.A. freeway in about 1956 when I was attempting to avoid a large metal box in my lane by moving over to the next one. An angry motorist would not let me in. He was screaming at me and offering a signal that is not to be found in the motor vehicle handbook. To my surprise he was wearing a clerical collar. I figured it was a costume, given it was near the Halloween season. After becoming a minister I met several colleagues who admitted they too used that signal, along with me.

Statistics report that most angry motorists are men in their thirties and that’s about the age I was when I used the middle digit to make a point. What if cars owned by young adults have to listen only to relaxing music?

I’ve wondered if the motor vehicle department might offer courses for road-rage motorists who are addicted to being explosive on the highways. If the angry attitude is increasing why not try to come up with ideas on how to calm down such hotheads?

Of course I would tend to rely upon one-on-one bonding if at all possible. I have alluded to road rage scenarios in my essays in the past but I think the theme needs to be lifted up again now that I have three grandchildren who are beginning to drive.

I commuted for a time in San Diego by taking interstate-five in the early mornings. The six lanes were jam-packed with motorists driving 95 miles per hour and slowing down to 10 miles per hour several times at 5 mph and back to 95 with bikers weaving in and out. I recall on my freeways years ago most drivers were doing 80 miles per hour so I slowed down, out of revenge I guess. I got several nasty signals.

You readers may not want to bond with motorists as I did that morning. I followed the last angry flasher until he left the freeway and drove to a Starbucks store. I walked in behind him and stood in a long line. I asked where he lived and where he was born and raised. He talked about his town and his grandma for about ten minutes. I didn’t mention how he had greeted me just before our little sweet talk. If I had not met him in that store I would have hated him for about five or ten minutes.

Now, when I have mean motorists who give me that naughty symbol, I smile at them and wave vigorously as if I know them. They quickly go from being mean to nice because they assume I may be their neighbor or one of their bosses at work. A few of them will go ahead and wave at me apologetically with happy fingers.

We have experienced animosity on our highways for decades but now it seems we are living with anger in our country like never before. My hunch is, given our attitudes on politics, we will have to risk bonding with our neighbors, coworkers and church members. We have stayed away from them for too long. We can try meeting in groups to air our opinions but bonding one-on-one will likely be more effective.

Running deep with those who are at odds with us is much more difficult than bonding with strangers. But what if we feel our country is going to hell in a hand basket and we hold back from what we truly feel? And what if we are not as right about the issues as we think?

Groucho Marks had an interesting and final word on politics. “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” Groucho Marks, recalled on the occasion of his death, August 19, 1977.

David Brooks, the columnist for the NY Times, may appreciate Groucho’s death bed musings when he contends we are under a siege mentality in our culture. Brooks believes “…we’re in a traditional moment and the very foundations of society are now open to question.” He admits there is no easy solution to overcome the siege.

Ah, but why not risk drawing close to our rivals and going deep enough that we may discover we are the one diagnosing things incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies? And here’s hoping it will not be our final words.

WHEN RETIRED PASTORS PLAY IT SAFE

“Courageous risks are life giving, they help you grow, make you brave and better than you think you are.” Joan L. Curcio.

Evidently I had no clue what it might be like to retire fully. I waited a year before I attended my last church. When I did show up a dozen members greeted me on the patio. It felt good to have that kind of attention. A month later about six members embraced me and the next time two greeted me and others waved at me while heading to the sanctuary. The office of the pastor shifts rather quickly and I was not taking it very well.

There are retiring pastors who have hobbies, art work or gardening chores to look forward to when making a graceful exit, and life is fine for them. I tried jigsaw puzzles, gardening and art classes and failed in all three. I wound up not finishing the puzzles, killed my plants, and having to draw ridiculous pictures of potatoes and pliers for the art teacher! What’s with that?

It struck me that I needed to have a creative edge in my pensioned years, something that matters deeply in my life. A newspaper columnist in my last church who had published several books suggested that I find a way to write three pages a day until something unique comes to mind. I assured him I had been writing four pages a week on sermons for over 40 years. He claimed that the daily pages might be another form of creative writing, and that turned out to be true.

The author also said daily writing can bring forth something fresh, original and valuable. It occurred to me that the daily writings made a difference in how I distinguished things that I missed while pastoring my churches,

Ralph Keyes, in his book “The Courage to Write,” claims most authors, whether novelists or non-fiction writers, hold back what they honestly feel. I knew I was not revealing what I felt in my sermons. I tipped-towed around my deepest emotions when writing my sermons. No, that’s not true, I would edit out the juicy stuff before preaching it.

When I reflect back on my self-published book it struck me that I didn’t have the courage to reveal what I truly felt about my ministry and life. I played it safe and I wish I hadn’t. Keyes suggests that fear has to be a critical factor in honest writing.

What if I had exposed what I was thinking and feeling during my tenure? I waited until I retired before I risked running deep with my sermons, thinking I would be more daring by preaching at other churches.

Ah, but I did find a way to deal with subterranean sentiments after retiring. I led several retreats with Methodist men from someone else’s church. We dealt with rage, affairs, fear and porn, passions we pastors hold back on our own turf. They were successful ventures that would likely not be revealed to their friends and possibly their loved ones. There had to be members in my churches and other congregations who were dealing with secreted mayhem that we preachers don’t know about or choose to not know.

This is what jumped out at me, and I’m still trying to comprehend it. After I retired I learned that several members in different churches I bumped into in markets or malls were living in hellish relationships. Three women claimed they were being stalked and acting mean-spirited by their prominent husbands in the community. There was no physical abuse but they were definitely living in fear with no way out until divorcing.

I never came across that level of mistreatment among members before retiring. Was there less such tragedies in the past in our laity or has the culture moved us to a point of anger and chaos? Sociologists are finding that fear in our culture is pervasive in our time.

When I served as a street chaplain on Skid Row the encounters reached the deepest emotions in us. I had never experienced those profound bonds in my congregations. I wished I could have bonded with my church members at that emotional level. When active clergy see me coming now they go the other way. I get it.

A NEW SOCIAL FABRIC

David Brooks states in a NY Times column that “After World War II the Protestant establishment dominated the high ground of American culture and politics.” I was privileged to have emerged out of that high ground as a Methodist pastor in the 1960s and I have experienced the steep decline in our mainline churches over the last few decades.

The setback hit me like a brick wall while serving as a district superintendent in California a few years ago. A colleague was giving an audit on the attendance for his district churches. When he came to a congregation that had 1200 in attendance, when I was in seminary in 1965, he announced that there were only 70 members in the pews. I sat there stunned and saddened. The other superintendents were used to it.

In my retirement it struck me that we church people, along with most everyone else in our culture, have seldom bonded deeply with each other. We resist revealing our fears and anger but we manage to not hold back on road rage.

Brooks claims “… a new social fabric will have to be woven, one that brings the different planets back into relation with one another.” Our Methodist churches are deeply divided over the gay issue and politics, and in need of relating with one another. We will have to risk bonding deeply one-on-one among our members to turn a corner on finding that high ground again. The social fabric could also start with Congress members getting back to engaging with their counterparts.

Here’s a thought for starters. “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinion of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.”

Katherine Mansfield (d. 1932),Journals