“I am doing well, Amanda. And if I weren’t it would be my fault.”
“That’s funny parson.”
“What’s up, Amanda?”
“What I called you about, Parson, is a friend of mine. Well, she’s not really a friend. I guess it would be more appropriate to call her an acquaintance. But, anyway, I’ve known her a while. Gracious, I guess I’ve known her for ten of twelve years. So, recently her husband abandoned her. I mean he really abandoned her. He just disappeared one day. Anyway, she’s in a horrible shape. She needs some food and some help with her electric bill. She just needs someone to help her get a new start.”
There was a pause. Silence. Finally, the parson said, “Amanda, are you still here.”
“I”m here, Parson. I was waiting for you to say something.”
“What did you want me to say?”
“Well, I thought you would say that the church would be willing to help her out?”
“What would helping her out look like, Amanda?”
“Well, she said if she could get $275 she could make it until her paycheck comes in.”
“You want the church to give her $275?”
“I was hoping the church could do that.”
The parson paused. Who knows what got into the parson. Sometimes, being the senior citizen he is, he gets cranky. Sometimes, after having served a half century in the church he gets jaded. Sometimes, he wishes the church would go take a flying leap. Sometimes he …. Whatever it might be, the parson, in this particular case, had had enough.
“Amanda,” asked the parson. “Do you remember a few months ago when we were talking about some issues in your life?”
“Yes, you were very helpful.”
“Do you remember telling me your average income was $20,000 a month?”
“Yes, I told you that.”
“And your friend needs $275 to make it to her next paycheck, right?”
“Yes, she does.”
“You’re calling me to see if the church could give her the $275?”
“I thought that’s what the church’s indigent fund was for.”
The parson’s not one to visit the “in” coffee establishments. Often when driving by one he tries to imagine the founders of Starbucks presenting their business plan to the bank from which they were seeking financing. “So, what will be the nature of your business?” the banker probably asked. “Oh well, it’s simple,” they may have replied, “we’re going to charge $2.50 for a cup of coffee.” It’s a tribute to their selling skills they were able to make the concept successful.
Today, the parson was visiting such an establishment. He was meeting a colleague, one much younger than he, to discuss a project being planned in their area. As the parson pulled into a parking place, Alex Jefferson, pulled in beside him. They greeted each other and walked into the coffee shop.
“Hello, Alex,” said the young lady behind the counter.
“Hello to you,” Alex replied. “This is my friend, the Parson.”
“Glad to meet you, Parson,” said the young lady. Then she asked, “The regular for you Alex?”
“The regular,” said Alex.
“And you, Parson?”
“I’ll just have a cup of regular decaf,” said the parson.
“We’ve got some really interesting blends of decaf,” the young lady suggested.
“That’s a fact, Parson,” Alex added. “Maybe you’d like to try one.”
“Thanks,” the parson replied, “but the regular decaf will do.”
After receiving their coffees, the two headed to a table in the corner. Both took out a mobile device on which to make notes as they discussed the upcoming project. The conversation took longer than it should. The pair were constantly interrupted by people greeting Alex. The manager came by. More than a dozen people greeted Alex as they entered and left or sat at a nearby table.
Before leaving, the parson couldn’t resist asking: “Alex, everybody who comes into this place knows you and greets you. I’m really impressed that you’re this active in the community.”
“Well, Parson,” said Alex, “I have to admit I hang out here a lot. I mean, the atmosphere is great, and they have Wi-Fi, so I can surf the web and do a bunch of stuff online. You know, Parson, I don’t want to belittle the folks at my new appointment, but it’s not the most dynamic church in the conference. Serving that congregation is not what one would call a watershed event.”
The parson downed the remainder of his decaf, now cold. He looked at Alex for a moment considering what he was about to say. And then, he responded, “Alex, you never knew Ms. Parson. She was a really astute person, always in touch with what mattered. She taught me a lot. One day, on the last trip we took together, we stopped the car beside the road, stepped out and she facing South put her left foot on the east side of the Continental Divide and her right on the west. I put my feet on opposite sides. Now, we were a crazy couple, enjoying our senior years. So we kissed. And when the kiss was over, she said, ‘You know, this is nice. But the truth is, every day is a watershed event.’
“Alex, maybe you should hang around your parish a bit more to watch the water flow.”
Being a pastor in a large denomination, a denomination where the various churches are organizationally connected to each other and where a bishop assigns pastors to the individual churches, we have more than a few meetings.
Now, I’m not as opposed to meetings as I once was. Funny, the older I’ve gotten the less I resist going to meetings. Let me clarify. When I, because of my profession, attend a meeting of the area clergy, more than likely that meeting is held in the sanctuary of a church. This allows me to slip into the back pew of the place, off in the corner. The presider at that meeting can see that I am there. But what the presider is not aware of is this is not my first meeting. And having attended them over forty years, I’ve discovered seldom do I learn anything of substance.
But, as I said, I don’t resist these meetings. I’ve found them to be some of the most productive times of the week. My son, you see, a little while back gave me this device called a Notebook. It’s sitting on my lap right now as I’m sitting in the back pew of this latest meeting for which I received a mandatory invitation to attend.
This meeting is designed to provide information on how to submit, online, the annual report of what my church has done. I submitted my first of these annual reports just a short hop this side of the halfway mark of the last century. And I’ve submitted one every year since then. You do the math. this is not my first dance.
Sitting here in my old age, I’m fascinated by our propensity for submitting and receiving reports. Reports, you see, quantify things. Reports are designed to ascertain how much and how many. That’s true of any organization. In my particular organization it means: How many folks resided in the pews during worship the last year and how much money did they drop in the plate?
I don’t think i’m being too hard on my denomination here. It’s pretty much true of all us church folks, I think. When preachers meet each other inevitably one of the other will ask, “How many members to you have?” How much? How many?
Some things, however, cannot be reduced to numbers. Some things just cannot be quantified. Picture this: A couple are working in the kitchen of the church, preparing for a fellowship dinner later in the day. A woman with a child in her arms enters. “Excuse me,” she says, “can I talk to you a moment?” She then tells the couple of her situation, no job, no food, can’t pay the electric bill. Before you know it the couple is cleaning out the frig, putting the food into a bag for the family. Then they dig into their wallets and come up with eighty dollars combined. The young mother leaves with tears in her eyes.
So, I’m sitting here listening to the instructions on how to report on how much and how many, and I’m wondering how this kind of act of compassion can be fitted into the report. Sometimes I think we focus too much on how much and how many. Sometimes we major in the minors and minor in the majors.
Well, the meetings about to wrap up. It’s been a good meeting. I got a lot off my chest.
“Parson, it’s Linda,” said the voice belonging to Linda Sizemore, the treasurer of the church.
“Hello, Linda. How are you.”
“I’m well, but there’s a situation I need to discuss with you.”
The parson removed his Chromebook from his lap and placed it on the coffee table in front of him. There was something about the tone in Linda’s voice that shouted a warning.
“What’s up?” the parson asked.
“I was going through the pledges for next year. Charlie Mason has turned in a pledge, but he’s written a condition on the back of it.”
“A condition? What condition?”
“He’s got a list of things, the main one being the transitional housing ministry, that he says his money cannot be used for.”
“Are you home, Linda?”
“If it’s convenient with you I’d like to run over and pick up Charlie’s pledge. He and I need to have a little talk.”
The parson rose, stretched, looked over at Charlie Brown, his faithful canine companion, and said, “Come.” Charlie Brown bounded off the sofa. His movement alerted his girlfriend, Princess Penny, who also bounded toward the door. Both dogs followed the parson to the car, jumped in, always ready to ride.
The parson headed toward Linda’s house. Once there he knocked and after greeting her took Charlie Mason’s pledge card from her hand. “Do you happen to have a blank one handy?” he asked. After taking the blank one from her he headed back to his car and pointed it in the direction of Charlie’s office.
Charlie Mason Enterprises was the nerve center of a several companies, including an insurance agency, a farmer’s supply operation, a tractor dealership, as well as a large cattle ranch. The parson let the receptionist know he wanted to see Charlie. She passed him on to Charlie’s secretary. The parson told her he wanted to see Charlie.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t,” said the parson. “But it’s important I speak with him.”
“May I ask what this in is regard to?”
“Certainly,” the parson smiled. “I’m his pastor. I here to discuss his sins.”
She forced a smile. “Is this a joke?”
“No, it’s not. I’m his pastor and I need to talk to him about his sins.”
“Excuse me,” she replied as she rose and turned toward the door behind her. A half minute later she stepped out of the office followed by Charlie Mason.
“So, you need to talk to me about my sin,” said Charlie. “We’re all sinners; aren’t we, Parson?”
“Ah, we are,” the parson said. “Some of us are just a little blatant about it.”
Charlie Mason motioned the parson into his office. Once inside, after the door was closed, the parson pulled the card Charlie had filled out from his pocket. “Actually, Charlie, I just stopped by to return this to you. We can’t accept it.”
“You can’t accept my pledge? What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“That’s not a pledge, Charlie. That’s an attempted bribe. And frankly, considering the vastness of your financial holdings and the amount of the bribe, it’s an insult. But you’re important to the church, Charlie. We need you. Here’s another card. Fill it out and bring it to church, Sunday. I know we can depend on you. God bless you, Charlie.”
The parson reached his hand out to shake Charlie’s. “I’ll excuse myself now. I know you’re really busy. Thanks for seeing me.”
The parson took a deep breath, following the washing of the dishes after the completion of the gourmet dinner he’d prepared (he’d provide the recipe but it would make too many jealous), then he moved into his study, powered up the computer, clicked on PBS, and then selected “American Masters: Billie Jean King.”
The program brought memories of how the parson’s life changed the day after Christmas in 1967, when his daughter arrived. Three years later, Billie Jean King convinced nine of the top professional women tennis players to organize the Women’s Professional Tennis Association. Nine of the top players - Billie Jean King Rosemary “Rosie” Casals, Kristy Pigson, Jane “Peaches” Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss, Kerry Melville, Julie Heldman, Nancy Richey, and Judy Dalton - withdrew from the existing professional tennis organization in protest against male player making ten to twenty times as much money in the same events.
Two years later, when the parson’s daughter was five, the United States Congress passed Title IX, which provided for the inclusion of women’s sports in educational institutions.
In 1973, when the parson’s daughter was six, Billie Jean King kicked Bobby Rigg’s ass.
You’d think acceptance of women in sports would by this point become a foregone conclusion.
But change in sports comes almost as slow as accepting women int he pulpit. In the 1982, because there was no female soccer team at the parson’s daughter’s high school, she tried out for the boy’s team. On the last day of the tryouts, the coach cut her. At a team meeting of the returning players from the previous year, some of the male players said to the coach, “But, coach, she was better than the ones you accepted.” The coach replied, “Yeah, but she’s a girl.”
Two days later, the parson was in the office of the Assistant Superintendent of Schools, not a good friend but an acquaintance of the parson. The parson said, “Okay, Herman, hear me out on this. First, I’ll give you a two statements. And then I’ll ask you two questions. the first statement is this: “Coach Jefferson cut my daughter from playing on the soccer team. The second statement is: When the returning players protested she was better than those not cut, he answered in front of eighteen witnesses, ‘Yeah, but she’s a girl.’ Now, Herman, here are the two questions. The first is this: Have you heard about Title IX? The second is this: Do you want to talk to me or my lawyer?”
Two weeks later girls’ soccer was institute in the system the parson’s daughter was a student. Looking back on it, the parson considers it one of his better moments.
Paula Deen messed up. Now I’m not sure of the various specifics of the controversy, but, as I have gleaned from the constant news analysis, Ms. Deen admitted to having used the “N” word in her past.
I’m no fan of Paula Deen. Gracious, I’m engaged in this horrendous battle to lose my seven decades of accumulated pouch. I can’t do it by cooking according to Paula’s recipes (although I must admit she and my Mama have a lot in common).
What strikes me is how Ms. Deen’s admission of using the racial slur pricks my memory and causes me to want to confess. You see, I, a product of a segregated South, have used that dreaded word myself. I don’t think I’ve ever used it openly, in that I expressed it verbally. But I remember my forebears using that word. I remember my grandfather, who was such a champion of the downtrodden, how delivered food baskets throughout the black neighborhoods when segregation was the way-of-life in my early childhood, using the “N” word. He used it as an adjective to describe a type of behavior; nevertheless that behavioristic description was only directed at African Americans. And I, who adored and revered my grandfather, have over the years found myself, when observing certain attitudes of a particular African American thinking to myself, “you’re acting like a ….”
It pains me to make this confession. But Ms. Deen’s recent confession brings my sin to the surface. Gracious, how can I, who participated in desegregation marches, who, when a teen, tongue-lashed the Official Board of my local church for their racist attitudes, find myself reverting to my grandfather’s horrible language? I can do it easily, for I, like you, dear reader, am a racist.
I am a racist because I have not yet reached that Christian perfection I proclaimed at my ordination I expected to achieve. I have not reached that position where I can fail to see color, gender, status as divisions among people.
A few years back the Reverend Dr. Walter Kimbrough, one of United Methodism’s most prominent preachers, was invited by me to preach at my church. During the children’s sermon I asked Dr. Kimbrough, in all of his five-foot-seventeen-inch splendor to stand beside me. I asked the kid’s: “Do you notice any difference between Dr. Kimbrough and me?” They told me they did. They said he was taller than was I. I asked them if they noticed anything else. They said the stole he was wearing around his neck was different than mine. I asked them if there was anything else. They told me he was smiling and I was not. This went on and on and on until I suddenly realized those kids just didn’t notice the difference was he was black and I was white. How wonderful for them. How horrible for me that I thought they would notice. My assumption convicts me of my racism.
Here’s my point, folks. In the paragraph above, it took a conscious effort on my part to leave the word “black” out of the first sentence, i.e., “one of United Methodism’s most prominent (“black”) preachers. It took a conscious effort because I am the child of my inherited as well as self-developed prejudices.
Maybe Ms. Deen’s present crisis is God’s reminder to me I need to keep working on it. I don’t think a Civil Rights Act, or even my marching in civil rights demonstrations gives me a grasp on overcoming racial attitudes. What Ms. Deen’s controversy has done is to remind me that being a Christian is a constant struggle to live beyond myself and to always be aware of my own sin.
the opportunity to view things from the other side of the pulpit
recently. I attended a get-together where I didn't speak; I listened.
I got to view the congregation from the perspective of a congregant.
I experienced the view of the back of heads, the distraction of
someone shuffling around a couple pews behind me, and the – well
what adjective describes one sitting two people down the pew from me
playing video games on the smart phone during the sermon?
the distractions, it was a good experience. Maybe churches should
require the pastor to sit in the pew during one worship service a
year. It would keep the ordained more aware of the layperson.
sitting there prompted me to write this little epistle. I'd like to
talk to you about proper pew conduct. Please don't take this as a
lecture from the clergy to the laity, but, rather, accept this as
some suggestions that might keep you in your pastor's good graces.
begin with the obvious. Listen folks, I know we're living in the age
of total hydration, and there are places to carry your large economy
size plastic bottle of water bubbled up from the depth of the natural
springs. The worship service is not one of them. So, I'm sitting
there in the pew, listening to the preacher trying to inspire the
congregation, and two rows in front of me, about ten degrees to the
right, this fellow lifts his bottle of water, unscrews the top,
raises the bottle to his lips, tilts his head back and gurgles down
about a third of the contents. It's rude. It's self-centered. And,
after researching this following the service, I can tell you for a
fact that not one person in recorded history has ever died of thirst
during a sermon.
of that plastic bottle of water, if you insist on partaking of the
liquid during the service and you drain the bottle, do not, let me
repeat, do not leave that empty bottle decorating the pew following
of decorating the pew, I've served churches where I could tell you
which members eat breakfast at which restaurants. I can do this
because people usually sit in the same pew Sunday after Sunday. When
there's an Egg McMuffin wrapper in the same spot where you sit Sunday
after Sunday, I become aware of your Sunday culinary habits. And,
since folks sit in the same seat Sunday after Sunday, I know who left
are a few other tips I can give you. For instance, when the offering
plate is passed around, don't, I repeat, don't make change for your
donation. I mean, if you don't put anything in the plate those near
you will think you must have given a month's offering last Sunday.
But if you make change they are going to think you're cheap.
the chewing gum. Okay, Mama said if you can't say anything nice about
someone don't say anything. So, I'm not going to say anything about
anyone who sticks chewed chewing gum on the bottom of the pew. But
the chewing gum does bring up a mystery. I've been a pastor for over
forty-five years. There's one thing about church people that drives
me to distraction. Don't ever stuff your chewing gum wrapper in that
little hole beside the pew envelopes that hold the pencils. They
can't be unpacked!
Sunday night the parson cacooned himself within the covers early. As was his custom on Sunday nights, no alarm was set to rouse him in the morning. On Monday mornings the parson crawled out of bed when the warmth of the covers no longer protected him from the day.
This night he fell asleep quickly. It had been a good day. The people had received his sermon gladly. A couple had talked to him of joining the church. And the Sunday evening Bible study had gone exceptionally well.
That Bible study the parson had resisted for years. Finally, he gave in on the condition that it be an actual Bible study. And so for the last two-and-a-half years almost every Sunday night had involved a study of the Bible. At first there had been some resistance to the parson's methodology. He had begun at Genesis 1: 1 and was proceeding through the books of the Bible, talking of the events that had shaped it, who wrote it, why they wrote it, pointing out the contradictions.
The “Bible-is-the-literal-word-of-God”-folks challenged him on the third week of the Bible. “But,” said their leader of that group, “the Book of Revelation says ….” The parson cut him off. “Look,” said the parson, “when it comes to Revelation, I will bow to your considerable knowledge. With regards to Revelation, you have read it much more than have I. In fact, I try not to read it. It involves some vision of terrible things that are going to happen in the future. I'm a follower of Christ. I concentrate on the wonderful things that are happening now. But, I don't want to ignore your point. As you're aware, we started with Genesis and we're going book by book through the Bible. We should get to Revelation in about, well, let's see, ah, about five years. So, please, hold that thought until then.”
They never came back. And so it was on Sunday night the parson and the Bible study participants looked critically at the differences in the stories told by the Deuteronomist storytellers and the Chronicler. The study had ended with the group focusing on the fact that the Chronicler left out anything that might reflect badly on David as an ideal king, especially leaving out the women. But the study ended with the observation that the Chronicler made a slip.
In 2 Chronicles 35: 25, he talks about “all the singing men and singing women” who mourn Josiah's death. So, concluded the parson and his group, the women did have a part to play after all. And supposing this was a Temple activity, the women had a more active part than the Chronicler's version led his hearers to believe.
Monday morning arrived. The parson rose. He switched his iPad on and began to surf the web for the news. After acquainting himself with what was happening, he looked for stories about March madness. There it was on almost every newspaper and magazine available on the device. There were the men's brackets, the rankings, the dark horses, all in the NCAA Men's tournament. The parson spent twenty minutes looking for the brackets, the rankings, the favorites, the dark horses of the NCAA Women's Tournament. He couldn't find any reference. It was as if Women's Collegiate Athletics did not exist.
Amazing, six hundred years before Jesus the storytellers left the women out, and still today few would admit they, also, occupied the court.
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