“Similarly, the spirit also helps us out in our weakness. For example, we don’t know beans about praying, but the Spirit himself speaks up for our unexpressed concerns. And he who x-rays our hearts understands the Spirit’s approach, since the Spirit represents Christians before God.” Romans 8:26-27 The Cotton Patch Version
Clarence Jordan (translator of The Cotton Patch Version) is right. I don't know beans about praying. Prayer absolutely blows my mind: God, the creator of the universe, wants to be in communication with me? I really can't grasp that.
But I pray anyway. I pray to music. I pray Scripture. And I pray for loved ones. (Names changed.)
Yeah, I gotta tell ya. I don't know beans about praying.
But thanks be to God, knowing is not necessary. Romans 8:26-27 (NRSV) says “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (emphasis mine)
And when I read that I sigh: a sigh of relief. I sigh because suddenly I remember, I’m not alone. I sigh, I breathe, remembering that Alma is not alone, and Beatrice isn't and neither is Carol. The Spirit is sighing with me, magnifying those sighs, translating them into words that I can't seem to find, building them into bridges from the hearts of the hurting to the very heart of God. I sigh knowing there's a bridge for Denise and Elmer and all grieving parents and that Karl and Jenna can cross it too. And I sigh so deep within my spirit, beyond the flood of tears that chokes my heart for those living in the grip of poverty. I sigh with relief because as I do, I find that the Spirit is already there; the bridge is already built. Everyone has brand new boots with nice long straps. I don't have to find the words to the perfect prayer; because “. . .God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes” for me.
Even though I don’t know beans about praying.
What’s the deadline for New Year’s resolutions? I mean, are we supposed to be all resolute before the ball drops or do we have until, say, Feb. 1?
The reason I’ve not written my resolutions yet is that I really don’t know where to start. There are so very many things about me that need fixing. I need to eat more healthfully and exercise more diligently. I need to do a better job with time management. I want to read and write more. My house, my office, my car — each needs a thorough cleaning and a sustainable organization system. I need to be more committed to daily quiet time. And of course I’ll also resolve — as I do every year — to read the Bible through (I practically have Genesis memorized).
Holy moly — it’s a lot. And here’s the thing: when I look at this list, I get so overwhelmed that I want to clear off a place on my couch, curl up with an entire turtle cheesecake, and binge-watch The Golden Girls.
Of course, if I did make and manage to keep all those resolutions, I’d be perfect. Only problem? There’s no such thing as absolute perfection. I learned this in a machine shop, of all places. I was working at a community college at the time and was with a group of students who were interested in our machining major. As we toured the shop, the department chair explained to our group that students would learn to use equipment to manufacture parts that were identical to within a fraction of a millimeter. He went on to say, “Of course, no two things are exactly the same; there’s no such thing as perfection. We just get as close to that as possible.”
I was astounded! What I heard him say was: “Do your best. Don’t be careless or unprofessional. But when you’ve done your very best, be content with the result.”
Recently, I heard echoes of this ideology while reading Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. A self-titled researcher storyteller with a Ph.D. in social work, Brown says: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. … [It] is not self-improvement … [or] the key to success. … Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an unattainable goal.” (Maybe she is a machinist in addition to being a university professor and a world renown scholar. Just a thought.)
Brown takes issue with perfectionism because she considers it to be one of the barriers to true connection. She believes “connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” And connection, according to Brown, cannot happen if we hide behind a façade of perfection. She says that in order to form true community, to connect, we must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be imperfect.
That makes sense right? I mean, who wants to be around someone who (we think) is invulnerable and perfect? It’s irritating. Plus they make us nervous. Being around flawless folk causes our vulnerabilities to leak out all over the place.
So if Brown is right and we must embrace vulnerability to make real connection, what does that mean for the church? Surely we should be able to find authentic community, real connection, in the church, right?
Yes. Absolutely. I believe that God calls us into community from the Garden to the Revelation. We, the church, are the Body of Christ. How can we be the Body if we are not connected? We can’t.
The problem, though, is that too often we come to church wearing our costumes of perfection. We come with our beautiful families, our harmonious marriages, our successful careers. We know we’re wearing costumes; we sit in our cars picking the lint of shame off of them before we enter the sanctuary. What we don’t believe is that anyone else is wearing one. We believe they (whoever “they” are) have everything together. Their kids are always so well-behaved; their careers are upwardly mobile; they read through the Bible every single year. We look at them and our shame deepens and we become convinced that we have to work harder on our costumes, shine up our shields of perfection.
Let’s don’t, though, OK? Instead, let’s set aside our vain attempts at perfection. Let’s agree that each of us is broken in countless ways and let’s be OK with that. Let’s resolve to be vulnerable. Let’s be the Body of Christ.
*This piece was first published on January 11, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I'm delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.
Edith Grace Mitchell Storey, (87) passed away October 23, 2019, 36 years to the day after her mother left this world for the next one. Earlier this month, Edith mentioned in conversation with her brother Joe that she would be seeing her mama really soon. Though she had not yet had the stroke that took her to heaven’s gate, she had seen a glimpse of the near future and faced it with hope.
Born in 1932 when women wore their hair in Hollywood waves and men slicked theirs back with Brylcreem, Edith was the fourth child and the third (and last) daughter born to Naomi Carter and James Powell Mitchell. Within the next 15 years, the Mitchell family added four more boys, bringing the total to seven children, following the tragic loss of their oldest daughter in the mid 1930’s.
Even in her youth, Edith entertained family and friends by playing the piano. Throughout her life, she played for church and for loved ones. Memories of singing around the piano as Edith played span decades and generations; oh “the joy we shared as we tarried there …!”
After graduating from Brinson High School, Brinson, GA, in 1948, Edith went to work as a telephone operator before marrying in 1951. Soon after, she graduated from beauty college and eventually had her own hair salon in her home. Nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren, made magical memories in that garage-made-parlor full of beauty. Plastic curlers became finger puppets, perm rods took rubber-band wars up to a whole new level, and few could resist climbing into her chair for a dizzying spin.
Edith cut and styled from bouffant to mullet, from pompadour to buzzcut, and from Greg Brady tight perm to Farrah Faucette feathered bangs. But in her beauty shop, Edith did much more than hair; Edith made magic. Clients and friends might arrive burdened, but they left hopeful. They might come beat down, but they left built up. They might enter feeling unworthy, but they left feeling loved.
As an adult, Edith developed her artistic skills through painting. Seeing the beauty in the world was an innate gift of Edith’s, so it only made sense that she would excel at translating natural wonders into artistic masterpieces. Her painting was not just a leisurely hobby. She took her craft seriously and worked with a variety of media—acrylics, oil, watercolor—and surfaces—fabric, wood, metal—to create lasting representations of the world around her. She realized the value of her work, so while she gifted plenty of her works of art, she sold a good many too. Edith and beauty: they worked well together.
Edith’s first marriage gave her two children, four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and 5 great-great grandchildren. As matriarch of her family, Edith saw to it that her beloveds knew Jesus Christ. Each night up until very recently, the family—all who were close enough to make it—circled around Edith for family devotions and prayer time. If Edith said she would pray with you, she meant it--she and her whole family would.
Edith’s second marriage to George Storey (1987-his death in 1998) brought her four step-children and 11 step-grandchildren. It also brought her the love of her life. Shortly after they were married, she remarked, “We love taking care of each other so much that we bump into each other in the kitchen trying to get the other one coffee!” Following George’s passing, her grief was surpassed only by her gratitude for the gift of this late-in-life love.
Once during a difficult time in her life, Edith remarked about her circumstances, “You know, this is not what I had planned for my life, but just look at the blessings around me!” She gestured around her one room apartment, “When I set my easel right there, the light is just perfect for painting! And look at the yard. It has plenty of room for my little dog to run around and play. And when I pull this curtain, I have two rooms, not one.” Because she saw the beauty, everyone else could see it too. “Pray for what you want,” she told us. “Then trust God to give you what you need.”
Condolences for the family may be left in the online guestbook at www.watsonhunt.com. Watson-Hunt Funeral Home has been entrusted with the arrangements.
My dog Isabella has a toy that she absolutely adores. We call it Zingo (official name: Wacky Zingoz™) and if you know the popular Webkinz™ toys from the early 00’s, you may remember it. It’s essentially a triangle with a face and arms and legs. In its original form, Zingo has a voice; when you press its center, it says one of its phrases in a high pitch voice. (Note: Rare is the voice box that is a match for Isabella’s adoration; she loves the sound right out of most of her toys before they can get on my nerves, thanks be to God!)
Isabella absolutely loves Zingo. When she was a puppy, we had to make sure we had one with us on trips or she would be so agitated we could do nothing with her. The problem? You can’t get Wacky Zingoz™ in stores any more. The only place you can find them is on eBay or some other such used-goods site. So, occasionally I go online to search out Zingos. I’ll buy one or two whenever I can find them so I have extras–just in case.
Of course, Isabella knows none of this. Isabella just knows
that Zingo makes her feel better. She doesn’t know that if she lost the one she
has now, I would just give her the one that I have as a backup. Isabella thinks
Zingo makes her life whole. The truth is, I am the one who provides her with
Anyway, I’ve used this example in sermons because Isabella’s love for Zingo makes a great illustration. You know: the power is not in the toy, but in the toy provider. In the story, Zingo plays the idol that distracts humanity—played by Isabella. And yeah, I play the loving provider who indulges beloveds. Not a bad gig if you can get it, amirite?
Recently, I used this story as my children’s message and
took a couple of Zingos as props: Well-loved (aka smelly and gross) Zingo from
Isabella’s toy basket and Brand-new Zingo that stays hidden in my closet. To
protect the congregation, I slipped Well-loved Zingo into a plastic baggy so that
it could keep its aroma to itself. When I got home, Isabella spied her Zingo in
plastic and couldn’t wait for me to get it out. She took matters in her own
paws and I videoed the exchange.
A decade ago when I was in divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, I completed an assignment for my Pastoral Care and Counseling class that was insightful at the time and continues to prove useful to me now. The task was to complete a systemic model for care in the church using Erikson's Stages of Development.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about pastoral care for those in Erikson's last stage of development: Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair. I pulled up my project to review the thoughts I had back then when I was elbow deep in pastoral care textbooks. In my opinion, these ideas are helpful to anyone who desires to show love to people in this late-in-life stage.
I offer that portion of the project below with one caveat: it is more academic than what I usually post here. SO . . . If it's more than you want to read, would you just do this one thing: check in on
my father-in-law a senior adult you know. For example, offer a ride to Tuesday morning Bible study at the church. Or plan a breakfast outing; maybe the senior adult you know loves to go out to breakfast. Talk to them. Find out what his or her interests are. Ask for help; it's so nice to be needed. Don't forget about him, whoever he is. I bet it's really hard on his family who aren't local. I bet those who live locally would really appreciate co-travelers in this grief journey. You know, whoever they are. My 97 year old friend Mary said it best: "Just don't forget about us. Remember us."
(Watch for an upcoming post with specific how-to ideas and feel free to comment and offer ways you would like to see the church meet the needs of senior adults or ways you've seen this kind of ministry done well.)
PASTORAL CARE: A SYSTEMIC PLAN
(completed for Dr. Doug Dickens, PC&C, GWU, 2010)
Mature Adult, ages 65 +, Ego Integrity vs. Despair.
Mature adults need pastoral care to help them feel connected and valued. Pastoral care at this stage includes care for the children of the mature adults and often care for their aging parents as well. Mature adults must be cared for so that they do not despair.
(As the summer winds down, my teacher friends are gearing up for another school year. Over the next few weeks, I'll be rerunning some of my favorite posts about teachers as a reminder of how much educators do to make the world a better place. Let's all thank a teacher today; and let's vote for education reform that honors the good work that our teachers do and respects the value of every single student.)
First Baptist Church, Weaverville, NC (2014)
“What is a minister?” Zach* asked. (Zach always had a question, a comment, or--frequently--an outburst of some sort.)
It was Wednesday afternoon and seven-year-old Zach was one of about 12 kids in attendance at Kids for Christ (KFC). This program meets weekly after school and includes a variety of activities including Bible story time. The KFC’ers get off the school bus at the church and their parents come for them at 7:00 pm.
That afternoon I was helping Cozette, the Bible story teacher; we were focusing on Isaiah 66:13 and talking about mothers. (It was the Wednesday before Mother’s Day.) Both kids and leaders shared stories and talked about what we had learned from our moms. I showed them a picture of my mother and explained that she taught me a lot about ministry.
“When I was a little girl,” I told the kids, “My mother often cooked twice as much supper as we needed so that we could share a meal with another family. She also visited people, wrote notes, taught Sunday school, and did lots of other things that showed me how to be a minister.”
That’s when Zach’s hand shot up. “What is a minister?” he asked.
“Great question,” I told him. I wanted to answer accurately: the word itself could relate to positions outside a church. “A minister is someone who takes care of people and spends time with them. Like me, I work here at the church and I am the Minister with Youth and Children. So, I spend time with you guys and help take care of you.”
“And I’m a minister too,” Cozette, said. “I visit people in group homes and I help them with things they need.”
“Oh!” Zach said, nodding. “Like a teacher.”
Wow. What a response. See, Zach—a loveable and bright little guy who is eager to learn—is not the quietest fella you will ever meet. My guess is he does his share of squirming, speaking out of turn, and just generally pushing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. And yet, the description of a minister, made him think of teachers.
Teachers. Overworked, underpaid, and up to their lanyards in standardized tests.
Teachers. Who stay after school for special events and come in early for conferences with parents or students.
Teachers. Who spend their own time and money because they love what they do and they want to do it well.
Teachers. Who take time to minister to a fidgety little boy who sometimes forgets the rules.
“Yes,” I told Zach. “A minister is like a teacher.”
*Name changed for privacy.
A number of years ago, I led a youth retreat where I preached on the Good Samaritan eight times in four days. Having studied the text deep and wide, I wrote a modern version of the parable to share with the students in worship. It was a good exercise for me--and I thought you might find it helpful as well--to remember that compassion really can transcend any boundary.
Then the president of the Woman’s Missionary Alliance stood up to test Jesus. "Jesus," she said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (And everyone around got all quiet and listened because frankly, they were surprised that she had to ask such a question. Everyone knew that! For heaven’s sake, those words were printed on the city light poles, on banners at the local schools, and on the brand new welcome sign down at the local lake. It was so important, that they’d made it the town mission statement. What was she up to?)
And Jesus said to her (without any sarcasm in his voice at all), "Well, sister, what is our mission statement? How do you interpret it?"
She answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus responded, "Yep! That’s it! Just do that, and you will live a life that glorifies God not just now but for all eternity."
She had another question, though. "But Jesus. Exactly who would you say is my neighbor?"
Jesus said, “Let me put it to you like this:
"A business man was in the habit of exercising after work. At the office, he’d change from business attire to gym clothes, place his valuables in his backpack, and walk over to the downtown YMCA for a work-out before going home. One night, as he headed back to his car over near his office, he was jumped from behind and mugged. They stole all his credit cards, his iPhone, and his laptop. Then, they beat him and left him--broken, bloody, and unconscious--to die.
“Now by chance, the senior pastor of World’s Biggest Church was leaving a ministry meeting in the city and happened to walk right by the unconscious man. The thing was though, he still needed to update WBC’s website and Facebook page before he could go home; he hurried on to his office, asking Siri to remind him to look into the matter later.
“Likewise, the leader of the homeless ministry happened upon the injured man; of course, any other time, she would have stopped. (She would have!) But that night, she was on her way to B-SUB (Bible Study Under the Bridge), and she knew there would be a big crowd waiting on her. She kept walking.
“Then, an Afghan immigrant came along. When he saw the man, his eyes filled with tears, and he knelt beside the man. He noticed the guy’s t-shirt: torn and bloodied, it’s graphic and slogan spewed hate. No matter, the Afghani carefully removed his own head scarf, folded it, and used it as a pillow for the man’s head; then he took off his cloak and carefully draped it over him. The immigrant called 911, remained with the man while awaiting the EMT’s, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once they arrived and he saw that the man was getting the appropriate care, the Afghan immigrant stopped by the front desk. He gave them his credit card information to cover the man’s medical expenses and his cell phone number just in case there were any additional needs he might address.”
So, Jesus asked the woman, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was mugged?”
And the woman said, “Um, well, in that story, I guess it would be the . . . uh . . . the one who showed him mercy."
Jesus said to her, "Mercy. That’s it. Mercy.”
I learned this past Sunday that my friend Dave Miller passed away after a brief illness. Dave was a long-time member of First Baptist Church of Weaverville where I served as Minister with Youth and Children before accepting the call to pastor Ecclesia Baptist in Asheville. The incident I've described in the original blogpost (below) happened four years ago.
Wait--that can't be right . . . It was in February. 2015. So that's only . . . oh. So, yeah, four years.
The interesting thing about the story below is that it's actually the first of at least two similar occurrences when Dave had some sort of minor episode while I was preaching. This odd coincidence led to a running joke.
"I see you're preaching Sunday, Aileen," Dave would say on a Wednesday night at Bible study. (He was never just a Sunday morning church goer.) Eyes sparkling, grin hiding just behind his straight face, he'd quip, "I believe I'll play it safe and just stay home."
Or, "Hey Dave, how are you feeling today? I'm preaching so I just thought I'd check!"
"Well, I'm a little tired, but I'll get a nap during your sermon."
The last time I saw Dave Miller was my last Sunday at First Baptist Weaverville. "You be careful preaching every Sunday! Don't put them to sleep, you hear?" He laughed at his joke and I laughed at him laughing. Then, getting serious, he added, "We're going to miss you honey. We're really going to miss you."
I miss you too Dave. Give my love to Glory, and I'll see you in the sweet by and by.
February 5, 2015, Weaverville, NC
I've only been in the vocational ministry for five years, but if you count my nearly 50 years as a preacher's kid, that's a good bit of ministry--or at least church--experience. So I know of what I speak when I tell you that on Sunday, February 1, I came as close to speaking in tongues as I ever have.
I was in the middle of my sermon when an older member of the church who was sitting down to my right, slumped over in the pew. (I told him later that if he didn't want to hear me preach he could just say so and not cause such a stir.) As it turns out, he had a spell related to heart troubles and once the EMT's got things straightened out he was fine.
Anyway, there I was preaching on the weekly lectionary text like a good little girl when Dave keels over. It took me a minute to clue into what was happening but when I did, I turned back to the choir and asked a member who is a nurse to attend to Dave. She got up immediately as did another member in the congregation who is a medical professional. Our pastor, who by God's providence was seated one pew over, went to comfort Dave and his sweet wife of about 60 years.
That left me, mid-sermon, standing at the pulpit in front of a congregation of confusion, fear, and anxiety. I had absolutely no idea what to do.
But the Spirit did. It's a good thing that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26) In truth, I remember very little of what I said or did. All of it was Spirit led.
Now, it's true, I was raised in the church and have experienced tense situations before this. I've seen my Preacher Daddy deal with emergencies from the pulpit a time or two and have been in other situations where difficulties arose in unfortunate surroundings.
I've also had classes on crisis management and read books on the same topic. I've studied group dynamics and crowd behavior.
But I'ma tell you right now. The Holy Spirit scooped up all that life experience and book learning and molded it into something far greater than anything I could have accomplished. In the midst of that human crisis, the Spirit interceded and brought Peace to the turmoil.
Hallelujah and to God be the Glory!
Back in the 70's and 80's, religious tracts were printed by the truckload for eager evangelists--many of them Baptists--itching to bring the masses to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Back then, we followed a sort of scare-them-out-of-hell methodology that led to high numbers of front porch conversions, if not long-term transformation.
In time, many practitioners realized that this eternal damnation avoidance strategy wasn't exactly life-giving. This understanding led to an opposite mentality: best not to mention Jesus at all than to scare people into false faith. (All or nothing thinking. It's caused its share of problems.)
Here the good news: there is a middle ground. Think about it: we
aren't scared of sharing good news in general. For example, I think everyone
should try the restaurant Nine Mile. I don't try to find out if they like
Caribbean food before I recommend it either. It's a fantastic restaurant in my
opinion, and I want everyone to enjoy it as much as I have. I feel that way
about the Biltmore Estate too. And also Disney World. And the movie Finding
Nemo. I realize that some of these things are quite pricey and will
require some sacrifice for people to enjoy them, but that doesn't keep me from
encouraging people to try experiences that have given me joy.
Even so, I don't go through the neighborhood, ringing doorbells, and asking people if they've ever been to Nine Mile. I don't stop people in Aldi and suggest they make a plan now to get to Biltmore Estate during this lifetime. And I don't foist free copies of Finding Nemo on perfect strangers, promising them that this movie will make their lives better (it would of course, but still . . . ). However, if I'm in a relationship with you, I'm eventually going to mention my favorite restaurants, vacation spots, and movies. And if we are really close, I'll do my best to see that you get to enjoy those things at some point, preferably with me.
To me, evangelism is like that. Because I love church, I want everyone to experience it. Because I love Bible study, I want others to study with me. And because I have found meaning, truth, hope, and joy through my faith in the triune God--Creator, Son, Holy Spirit--I want people I know and love to join me on this faith journey: not because they are scared they will burn in hell, but because they are drawn into the sacred Love of God.
On March 28, I joined other leaders in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) as we listened to Dr. Tod Bolsinger share wisdom he presented in his book Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory (IVP Books, 2015).
Bolsinger’s book had been recommended to me by many when I began my ministry with Ecclesia Baptist in August 2018. I downloaded the audio version and listened to it right away, finding it both insightful and compelling. In Canoeing the Mountains, Bolsinger uses the metaphor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (in search of a northwest water route in the 19th century) to explore church leadership in the 21st century.*
For today’s church, our “canoes” are practices that have brought us success in the past; our “mountains” are the conditions that were not present at all in earlier seasons of the church. The current frustration of attracting young people to church serves as a great example. Back in the 1970’s, for many of us, church was THE only activity; in 2019, the buffet of extracurriculars is endless. When I was a teen, a church could get a new ping-pong table and attract a crowd of students instantly; today, churches are giving freebies to kids and youth to entice them to go on a free trip to an indoor trampoline park—and even these tactics fail to impact weekly attendance.
So how do we change this? That’s exactly what Dr. Bolsinger discussed at last week’s meeting. First, he noted what does not bring about change.
Bolsinger then talked about what does bring about change.
Bolsinger reminded us that change typically does not come about quickly. That is, it is more akin to the slow-cooker simmer than to the microwave zip and zap. In that same vein, he said that effective church leadership grows from a mindset that causes us to “Stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.”
Bolsinger’s presentation—and his book—contained much more insight than the bits I’ve highlighted here. And, I think all leaders facing unfamiliar circumstances (whether in the church or elsewhere) will find helpful guidance here. Check it out and let me know what you think.
*Lewis and Clark sought a water route through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and were therefore equipped with canoes and the necessary tools for a water journey; instead, they encountered the Rocky Mountains and had to form new plans in order to progress.