Saturday, December 31, 2016

Princes and Princesses

As 2016 winds down and we reflect over the past year, people around my age (I’m currently 51) are sadly cataloging the pop cultural icons from the 70’s and 80’s that we lost. We grew up listening to David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Glenn Frey, Prince and George Michael. My television brought Grizzly Adams (Dan Haggerty), Carol Brady (Florence Henderson) and the White Shadow (Ken Howard) into my living room on a regular basis. My imagination was sparked on the silver screen by Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher. Muhammad Ali, Pat Summitt and Arnold Palmer set high standards in their respective sports. Elie Wiesel and Harper Lee wrote words that will forever resonate with those who read them. We also lost genuine American hero John Glenn. These are just the biggest names in a long list of familiar faces that passed away in 2016.

My first thoughts about “famous” deaths are usually about how no amount of fame or fortune can keep anyone from that grave appointment with the grim reaper. Then I ponder about how odd it is for thousands of people to mourn the deaths of those they have never even met. I guess they seem like family because they have made us laugh and cry and cheer on the public stage. More than this, however, I believe losing the idols of our childhood remind us all too clearly of our own mortality. When the celebrity dies, we are reminded there is no escape for any of us and that day is looming ever closer.

Death was thrust into my life at an early age. In 1977, at the formative age of 12, I lost my 9 year old brother to leukemia. That’s the same year I first saw Princess Leia race through space with Luke and Han. Travelling to that galaxy far, far away in my mind was one of the ways I could temporarily escape the pain of this world. As my years now seem to pass with light speed, I have to face the fact I am more Kenobi than Skywalker. On this New Year's Eve, I am thankful for all the artists and icons that have made my life fuller along the way and for all the people I actually know and love that have made it worth living. 

I would wish you all luck in 2017, but as Obi-Wan says, “In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.”

Graphic by Mike LeMieux

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Mountain Memories

One of the ways I deal with things is to write. I started this the day after wildfires raged through the city of Gatlinburg and the surrounding hills as a way of giving expression to my grief over what was happening in that unique mountain town. I did not originally intend to share this, but here it is 4:00 AM and I figured some of my memories might trigger some for others.

This is not an exhaustive list, but just the first thoughts that came to my mind when I think about a lifetime of visiting Gatlinburg and the surrounding area. 

My first recollection is a youth trip to the Mountain Mall in early 80’s where I discovered for the first time something called “White Chocolate.” I remember being fascinated by the big Jesus who watched me no matter where I moved at Christus Gardens.

One of the buildings destroyed in this fire was a restaurant named The Alamo. When the structure was first built, it was called "T.G.'s North of the Border Cafe and Cantina" after its owner, country singer T.G. Shepperd. My college roommate and I went there not long after it opened and were underwhelmed with the food. A fellow stopped by our table to ask what we thought and we were both "Meh." We did not realize until later that it was T.G. himself. 

I picture my buddy David and I people-watching while sitting on a stone wall in front of the Methodist Church. I can still smell the candied apples and see all the airbrushed T-shirts. I recall the fun of the Sweet Fanny Adams show along with entertainment co-workers from Silver Dollar City.  

I still think about trying to speak words of comfort to a crowded gym at Gatlinburg-Pittman High school following the tragic death of one of the youth from my church.

My wife Becky still teases me about not dancing with her at The Social Club and getting mad when she danced with someone else. We were “just friends” at the time and years before dating.

After work one day at Silver Dollar City, my friend Hank and I took a couple of train groupies to play Hillbilly Golf and then rode the rinky-dink two-person Sky Lift up for a pretty neat view.

Gatlinburg was a welcome return to civilization for my best friend Jay and I following a nearly disastrous tubing excursion in the National Park during flood conditions. 

My wife and I had our “Reception After the Reception” with our closest friends and spent our wedding night at the Edgewater Hotel. Some time later, I would spend many evenings killing time waiting on my new bride to finish work at Humdinger’s yogurt shop.

This time of year makes me think about cruising the Winterfest lights with my girls when they were young and riding the tram (excuse me, "Aerial Tramway") to Ober Gatlinburg to ice skate with my family. We celebrated my father-in-law's retirement at Mynatt Park. 

Of course, there have been years of Holston Conference Resurrection youth events at the convention center. Going to the Space Needle and playing in the arcade at its base was a favorite pastime for many of those trips. Breakfast at the Pancake House was another annual tradition for that youth group.

Most recently, we rented a huge cabin for the whole family on Ski Mountain to celebrate our anniversary. This does not even count hikes up to the Chimney Tops where this fire originated. The last time we had a birthday party at the Chimneys picnic area, we saw a Momma Bear and two cubs.

Needless to say, the Smokies and Gatlinburg are a huge part of my life and will continue to be so. As devastating as this is, I know the people and the town will bounce back. This sounds like a eulogy, but the mountains are not dead. This is just my way of honoring what a special place it is. 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Feed Them On Your Dreams

I had the honor and privilege of serving as “Principal for a Day” at Inskip Elementary here in Knoxville this week. Actually, it was really only half a day and not a single student was sent to my office while I was there. Oh well. Instead, it was an extended look at the faculty, classes and programs at the school. I am not sure what I expected the visit to be, but I left there very encouraged about these professionals and the children under their care.

The education “system” has been under fire in recent years. Most people also realize that teachers and school administrators are underpaid and often underappreciated. I have always had a healthy respect for those who dedicate their lives to education. My sister is a teacher/literacy coach and I can also point to several milestones in my own life for which I can thank a teacher who cared. Still, my admiration for them has only grown in light of this visit.

What I found was a team made up of administrators, teachers, social workers, counselors, nurses and specialized leaders working together to help grow these young minds. They demonstrated to me a care far beyond just “doing their job” and reinforced my thoughts that teaching is in many ways a “calling” not unlike ministry. The sincere concern they showed for the students having difficulties was striking, but I was even more impressed with how thoroughly they knew the kids and their family situations. Their hopes for them clearly do not end when class is dismissed.

I got to observe a few teachers in their classrooms with the students and one of the things that struck me immediately was just how diverse they were. At a glance, each room seemed equally populated with whites, blacks and Hispanics. This is clearly reflective of the community around them. I was slightly taken aback when I heard one of the teachers describe Inskip as an “inner city” school. I am not sure where I thought the inner city of Knoxville was, but it was enlightening to realize this is where I serve also through my church. I wish more people would embrace this as the beautiful view of America that it is.

The students in one of the classes were having trouble concentrating, so the teacher had them all stand up and do a quick set of 10 jumping jacks to get the blood flowing again. This prompted me to ask about physical education. I was disappointed to learn they are only allotted one day a week in the gym officially. I would later meet the gym teacher (Ed, Phys Ed.) who would welcome having the kids more frequently. I personally think this would help test scores more than additional class time. Several teachers told me how they try to squeeze in additional activity time for the students in spite of the heavy expectations of the curriculum.

Struggling with limited funds, space and other resources, these folks still seem to be working wonders. Without a classroom of their own, special areas such as music and technology make their rounds to the kid’s rooms with a cart. I was encouraged to find at least this effort was being made to shape well-rounded young people in a system with expectations weighted toward test scores. I hope there will be space allotted for these disciplines with the proposed building expansion.

I talked at length also with the director of the “Community School” program that runs daily from 2:30 – 5:30 PM. I appreciated hearing about the opportunities for children to receive some extra tutoring as well as more art and music, Spanish Club, Girls Inc. and tennis club. I have already put it on my calendar to come see the show planned in December by the performing arts class. (By the way Knoxville folks, they were very receptive to volunteers for any of these programs!)

I was also impressed with the community garden project started by a young lady from Americorps. This is a wonderful learning tool with the potential of being a real help to the neighborhood also. One of the 5th grade teachers outlined plans for a “Men’s Club” in which boys are taught and modeled manners and other helpful social tools. I believe this type of “mentoring” effort will pay great dividends in the classroom and beyond.

I just wanted to share this positive experience because who doesn’t need an uplifting word now and then? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

My President

Donald Trump has been labeled many things by his opponents: Racist, misogynist, xenophobic, predatory. These labels are based mostly on some things he has said. Most decent folks from all sides were and should be offended by them. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, however, I ask if this is the sum of the man? Who hasn't said inappropriate things at some time or another? I am personally thankful to not have a hot mike on me all of the time.

Trump is clearly a clever man. This Yankee billionaire has managed to position himself as a "man of the people." I suspect much of his persona in this campaign was simply a strategic tactic to help him get elected. If this is true, it says more about us than him. He clearly tapped into a strong vein of anger and frustration with "Business As Usual" in Washington D.C. In many ways, this is the same vein that carried Bernie Sanders much further than anyone had expected.

I have jokingly said throughout the last year my fear was that one of these two candidates was going to get elected. Well, sure enough, my predication came true. As I write this, there are protests by some groups across the country chanting “Not My President.” Technically, this is true only until January 20, 2017. On that day, if you are a United States citizen, he is in fact your President as he will be my President. Can I suggest you hold your protests until if and when he does something worthy of taking to the streets? 

My hope is that Trump's frequent off the cuff comments are not as revealing of his true character as many are quick to believe. I sincerely hope he can utilize his business acumen and cleverness to address real issues in our government. I pray the weight of the office and the responsibilities therein will shape him into the leader our country needs for a time such as this. As I promised before, I will pray for my president and our country. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Post-Election Prayer

This is my newsletter article for my church on October 27. 2016.
I am giving you this “Post-election Prayer” ahead of time for use after November 8th.
The 2016 U.S. Presidential election is now finally over. _________________ is now our country’s President-elect to be inaugurated in January. This person may not have been my candidate of choice, but they have nonetheless prevailed through the process of the greatest democracy on earth.
This has been a bitter campaign which has either led to or revealed a deep divisiveness in our country. Lord, please heal the rifts in our workplaces, churches and even families. Help us all hear again your message of love, grace and forgiveness. Lord, help me to release whatever anger or disappointment I may have with these results. If this was my candidate of choice, help me move forward with graciousness toward those who disagreed with me.
Lord, I know President-elect ____________________ is not perfect by any means. They are a sinner as are we. Please guide (him/her) in their decisions and help them be a leader and not merely a politician. This is also my prayer for all of our elected officials in Congress plus the justices of the Supreme Court.
Heavenly Father, we are thankful for the freedom we enjoy in this great nation. We are forever indebted to those who have sacrificed so much to make it possible. I have voted and done my civic duty. I am and always will be proud to be an American. However, regardless of who my president is, help me remember Jesus is my Lord. My allegiance is to our flag and to the republic for which it stands. Yet, my heart and soul belong to heaven. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Fill In The Blank

I remember when people used to talk about how television or video game violence was desensitizing people to the reality of such horrors. Now it seems actual episodes of extreme violence are occurring with such frequency that it also has a numbing effect. I can still be shocked and grieved by such incidents, but I find myself growing weary of the predictable responses.
We collectively gasp when we learn about a school shooting or a nightclub massacre or a bomb going off in a crowded public locale. We are saddened when the police shoot someone or someone shoots the police. Then we are flooded with news reports of the casualties and the search for the perpetrator and/or their motives. Then the political finger pointing starts and the soapbox proclamations begin as we try to categorize the issue. If we cannot find a cause, we at least want someone to blame.  In the meantime, people fill in the blanks as they share on social media that they “Stand with ______” or “Pray for ________.”
Aside from the actual tragedies and loss of life, I am sick of the words when there are no words. We fill the void with empty words, angry words, soundbites and platitudes. I John 3:18 says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” Do not get me wrong; I have not given up on words. They are powerful. They can change hearts and minds. That is why I share words from the pulpit every week. But more than anything we can say, we need the Word of God.

Some people say that and mean we all need to go back to Sunday school and learn the Bible. Sure, it would not hurt if more people knew the Scripture, but that is not what I intend. I mean the Word of God that is a living thing. I mean the law of love that is “written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” I just pray they have not become so hardened that nothing can penetrate them anymore. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Gone, But Not Forgotten

As I write this, I have just learned of the passing of Pat Summitt. This is a loss not only to women’s basketball, but to sports in general and beyond. Tennesseans and Vol fans may be struck the hardest, but her loss is being felt around the country.

As a father of two daughters, I have long appreciated the leadership and example of someone as prominent and yet accessible as Pat. She represented the best of athletics and how that translated off the court. Following a difficult loss, she once said, “It’s a game, and winning and losing can be great ways to teach kids how to get ready for the real world.” Reporter Teresa Walker says, “Summitt used the sport and her demand for excellence to empower women and help them believe they can achieve anything, taking no backseat to anyone.” As I tried to instill that same belief in my girls, I appreciated the fact they could see a real world example of it in Pat.

Social media is full of Pat’s inspiring quotes and personal encounters this morning. One that stood out for me is from an old friend who is now the general manager at WUTK. Allow me to share some of his post from Facebook. “She truly put students and their academic and career aspirations first. We talked about the blessing of sharing that goal. During one of those interviews, she said ‘You know, I always believe that if you are going to do something, do it right.’ Simple, powerful words that stuck with me, and still inspire me everyday of my life. I use that quote often when teaching and training students.”

Her example goes beyond her players. We can all learn to be more disciplined in our lives. To pursue dreams with faith and hard work. To handle success with humility. To inspire and encourage others to achieve their own successes, even if that means competing with you. To keep fighting against tremendous odds. And, of course, if you are going to do it right.

The Scriptures that come to mind at this time are from Second Timothy. Pat seemed to live by verse 2, “Be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” She could do all of these things simultaneously with a single look! Now that she is gone, verse 7 provides a fitting epitaph. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I thank the Lord for a special life that had such a wonderful impact on so many other lives.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

That Escalated Quickly

I joined Facebook in July of 2008 after a colleague of mine told me it was like “MySpace for adults.” I was immediately enthralled with the ability to reconnect with old friends I thought I would never hear from again. Staying in touch with people I care about is the main reason I continue to stick with it.

Somewhere along the way, however, Facebook became less fun. There is a meme that sums it up for me. “I used to wonder what it would be like to read people’s minds. Then I got Facebook and now I am over it.” Two of the primary culprits are people’s political opinions and their “faith” stances. I have grown weary of people sharing their about their candidate and also asking me to click if I love Jesus. That and telling everyone who they think is going to hell this week.

It used to be considered a social maxim that one does not openly discuss politics or religion in polite company. There must be something about a keyboard and screen that makes people cast aside this sage wisdom. I want to scream “To what end are you doing this?” Has anyone ever in the history of history changed their political stance based on someone’s opinion? The same is true with how people cram their religious views down people’s throats. This usually comes in the form of shouting from some moral high ground. I somehow doubt anyone’s “status” has ever brought someone to the Lord.

So the thing that was intended to bring us together is now often a wedge. The court of public opinion gets played out ad nausem on a regular basis whether it is debating the shooting of a gorilla, the flying of the rebel flag or who can wee wee where. I think part of the problem is because we call these platforms “social media” people think “media” means their opinions are somehow national news. People are now broadcasting the kinds of rants that used to be reserved for their poor kids after they were three beers into watching the evening news.

I am also dismayed at how quickly things escalate into name calling and “de-friending” and general rudeness if there are disagreements. Even if Facebook or other social media were intended as some kind of political forum, it seems there is no genuine discourse these days. It’s all or nothing.

As far as religion goes, if you really want to use social media as a means of evangelism, try demonstrating love of “enemy” to the world instead of condemning whole groups of people who do not think like you do. Jesus said to work on the log in your own eye instead of the speck in someone else's anyway. Everybody step back, take it down a notch and lighten up, Francis. It's easy if you try. So imagine this blog goes viral and everyone who reads it heeds my advice and the world will live as one. 

Monday, May 30, 2016

If You Build It

There are several new church buildings along my regular routes around town. Some are recently completed and others still being constructed. Most of them are existing congregations that are relocating to a larger facility. As I pass them, I feel a peculiar ache in my heart. I have searched my innermost being to assure myself it is not just jealousy over another church having greater resources than my own. I sincerely believe this feeling is simply a disdain of priorities. These grandiose structures do not speak to the glory of God for me. They remind me more of the Tower of Babel. Perhaps there is a real demand for these large structures. Then again, perhaps they are operating on a Field of Dreams philosophy: “If you build it, they will come.”
One of my past assignments as a pastor was to help start a church. When I came on board, 200 people were meeting at a 2,000 seat country music venue in Pigeon Forge. After a while, we moved to the New Center area and met in the Triple C Dance Barn. (I still miss being able to play a game of pool before the worship service starts.) From there, we moved into an old garage that had allegedly been used as a pornography studio. We sanctified the place and redeemed it for years of wonderful ministry.
The motto for this church was “Not About a Steeple, All About the People.” Not having a regular place for church helped me appreciate how helpful it is to have that asset. It also gave me some perspective on its relative insignificance in terms of the Kingdom of God. We are to be good stewards of the resources we have and should take good care of our buildings, but there is a tendency to let them become the tail that wags the dog. I recall hearing of a church years ago that discontinued its day care program because the kids were too messy. I have served several churches where maintenance issues such as HVAC units, carpeting, painting and windows dominated far too much of my time.

All this leads me to wonder how this money could be better used to genuinely help God’s children? I have a colleague in ministry who was recently spearheading a movement to build a village of tiny houses for the homeless. Unfortunately, the surrounding residents petitioned to have the project stopped. I cannot help but believe that a good many of those folks are good church going Christians. I imagine them standing before the Lord on Judgment Day trying to explain how they believed helping the homeless might lower their property values. It just does not seem quite right. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Looking Like the Preacher

I was somewhat insulted by the funeral director as I arrived to do a service a couple of weeks ago. As I walked down the hall to the chapel, he greeted me by saying, "You look like the preacher." Ugh. That is a designation I have avoided for all the years I have been in ministry now.
When I answered the call to ministry, the Lord and I had an understanding he was getting me pretty much "as is" and not some typical or stereotypical embodiment of a preacher. I am a preacher's kid, former train robber, movie fan, Parrothead, and an avid people watcher.
I have been reasonably successful in this effort as I strive to maintain a sense of humor and humility and let my personality shine through the lens of my vocation. I take my job and responsibilities seriously, but humor has always been my default defense mechanism against the absurdities of life. I continue to resist the perception of what most people think of as "Christian" in today's world (solemn, reactionary, self-righteous, judgmental, ignorant, etc.).
Well, before I entered the ministry, I enjoyed writing. So with the encouragement (read: practical insistence) of my amusing muse of a wife, I am going to enter the blogosphere with some of my ramblings.

No matter which or how many churches I am assigned to officially, I have also developed another congregation of sorts through the years. It is comprised of a variety of people I have encountered along the way. We do not meet regularly and do not have a building. In it are old friends who would not go to church otherwise, or regularly. Some members of this church are family, and some have been in churches I used to serve, but now they do not go anywhere. It is a diverse group made up of old hippies, train robbers, Parrotheads, potheads, LGBTQ folks, and even agnostics and atheists.
Some have never had church be a part of their life or they have gotten out of the habit or perhaps even been hurt or alienated by the church. Some just have issues with organized religion. Yet, I am their pastor. I am the one they call when there is that kind of need. It is one of my greatest honors because that is a relationship out of choice and not obligation. I have performed weddings and funerals, counseled and held hands in the hospital. I have decided to call them the Rocking Flock.
One of the elders in the Rocking Flock is my best friend and local radio personality Jay Adams. He was the best man in my wedding and I in turn performed his wedding ceremony. We have gotten into trouble and gone on mission trips together. He often refers to me on air as the Minister of Movies, the Sultan of Salsa, and The Right Reverend Doyal. Thus, the name for this blog comes from the fact that those who know me best also know I am not quite right.