October 2009


When I became interim pastor for a nearby church, I was given a set of keys by the clerk of session during worship on my first Sunday. Being granted access to everywhere and anywhere in the buildings was, of course, a sign of welcome and great trust.

But there were and are lots of keys. One for the front door of the house where my office is and one for the back. Another for my office door and yet another for my desk. And one more for the front door of the church building. I added the ministry key ring to my already existing wad of car key, house key, parents’ house key, and storage unit key, in addition to the keyless remote for my SUV. Pretty soon I began to worry that I would wear a hole in the pocket of my pants from carrying all those keys.

I was considering getting one of those old-fashioned key cases like I used to have years ago. I told Susan about my plan, and as usual, she came up with a simpler solution. I didn’t need to spend time looking for a case or money to buy one. All I had to do was consider what keys I had to have daily and put the rest away. Or take them with me, but not in my pocket.

What a great idea that was, and it’s working out great! And what a model for solutions in so many areas of our lives. So many of us seem to be wired to approach a problem or need by throwing money at it or buying something. We spin our wheels looking for an answer when the one we need is right before our eyes, if we would but open them.

Thinking outside the box these days means looking at life and organizations with the basics in mind. Not how we can spend more money, but how we can enhance relationships. Not how to build bigger buildings, but how to build self-esteem and confidence. Not complicated, wordy liturgies, but worship that touches people on an intuitive,experiential level and transports them into the presence of God. Not the first solution that comes to mind, but creative options that take a little thought.

As Occam’s Razor says, all other things being equal, the simplest answer is most likely the right one.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.—Philippians 2:3

You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!—2 Timothy 3:1-5

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.—historic Presbyterian principle

I have been disturbed recently by some stories I have either read or heard that point to the selfishness of people who think they are entitled to foist their beliefs on others, no matter how hurtful the consequences. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked or dismayed that folks act this way in our day of “my” this and “personal” that, niche marketing and customization to make sure you or I have exactly what we want. But these stories particularly struck me because they all involve people in positions of authority and responsibility who have abused those positions to promote their view of reality.

This one was on the national news. A justice of the peace in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage license or peform a wedding ceremony for an interracial couple. Such marriages are legal in Louisiana, but the JP substituted his personal belief for the law. He said that he felt such marriages were bad for children, and he would not apologize for what he knew in his heart was right. The couple got married by another JP, but not before the bride was reduced to tears by the insensitivity and outrageous behavior of the official whom they had asked first to help them.

Another story I read in the local paper. Students at a high school were having their pictures taken for the yearbook, as is common. A lesbian student who always wore masculine clothes wanted to appear wearing a tuxedo, like the guys, rather than in a “drape,” like the girls traditionally wore for photos. There was nothing in the school regulations that prohibited this young woman from doing so. However, the school administrator did not permit the girl to appear in the publication in a tuxedo, citing his “conviction” that she wouldn’t be in the yearbook so dressed. A lawsuit is in progress over the matter.

Finally, a friend told me this one. A little girl’s cat died. The family buried the animal in the back yard, saying appropriate kitty cat funeral words. The girl went to her “Christian” school the next day and told her teacher about the funeral, and how glad she was her beloved pet was in heaven. The teacher replied: “Cats don’t have souls. Your pet isn’t in heaven.” The little girl was reduced to tears and deeply hurt.

What sort of cold, insensitive teacher lectures a child on theology instead of acknowledging her pain and comforting her? What kind of school permits such behavior from its faculty? What possible secular educational purpose is served by an official forcing a girl to deny her developing gender identity because of his “conviction”? How much time and energy has been and will be spent on this issue that could have been better used on helping students acquire marketable skills? And even if the official in Louisiana felt it violated his conscience to marry people from different races, could he not at least have acknowledged that his actions caused pain? Or did he not believe these people worthy of such consideration?

If by their fruits you shall know them, then those officials and that teacher were all selfish. Without egos or self-esteem of their own, selfish people have to feed off the feelings, especially the hurt, of others to be sustained. They suck the life from their neighbors’ egos in order to feel good about themselves. They always have to be right; they never back down unless forced to do so. I would say they are a species of emotional predator.

This sort of behavior is bad enough when encountered on the street in the driver who blocks two lanes turning left out of a parking lot or the boss who eats all the Christmas cheese ball. But when we find it in public officials and those who teach children, we need to be particularly alarmed. My tradition says that wrongs committed by those in authority are “aggravated” by their public position (see Larger Catechism Q&A 151 for a full list of such “aggravations”). Such people should be held accountable and required to make whatever reparation may be possible.

That’s my conviction.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

PS I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the kitty cat that little girl grieves for is even now being cared for by the Lion of Judah.

 

For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?—Matthew 16:26

Speak to us once more your solemn message of life and of death. Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.—classic funeral prayer

My sister Carol Ann died a little over a year ago from cancer. But while she was still fighting the disease (and apparently winning), she and her husband David saw The Bucket List. She recommended it to Susan and me, and we put it in our Netflix queue, though below some others we wanted to see a bit more. The film finally made into our DVD player last week.

Directed by Rob Reiner, The Bucket List  is about two older men, Edward and Carter, who end up sharing a hospital room. Edward (Jack Nicholson) is a corporate mogul who owns the facility; Carter (Morgan Freeman) has been a mechanic for 45 years, but wanted to be a history teacher. Whatever their differences, they now share the common bond of suffering from cancer.

During their stay, the two men develop a friendship, and ultimately decide in the time they have left to do all the things they always wanted to do, but had neither the time, inclination nor money to achieve/see/enjoy. The list they follow is the titular one, with “bucket” being the proverbial object we kick when we die.

The two start out doing wild things like skydiving, driving fast cars, and globetrotting to exotic locations. But interwoven with the tale of their travels is the story of their relationships—Carter’s with his wife, to whom he is a stranger; Edward’s with his daughter, with whom he had had a falling out over some problems she experienced. And it is relationships, not doing this or that, which ultimately prove to be the most important items to attend to on the bucket list.

As they sit viewing the Great Pyramid at Giza, Carter tells Edward about the two questions that Egyptians believed they would be asked upon crossing over into the hereafter: What joy did you know in your life? What joy did you bring to others? I can think of few more profound questions to ask ourselves.

But let’s not wait till we suffer from a terminal disease or the death of a loved one brings us face to face with our own mortality. Each of us can start today to live as those prepared to die, and in so doing, truly experience the joy of living.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour (Matthew 25:13).

I travel the same road twice a week to work as an interim pastor in a town about an hour north of Starkville. Except that it’s never really the same road. One day there might be more than the usual number of 18-wheelers or I’ll see some housetrailers being hauled. Sunday might be smooth sailing or a sunny day, but Wednesday it’s pouring rain or I get behind a slowpoke on the two-lane. Of course, I never know what sort of construction there will be; on one trip the northbound left lane somewhere along the way might be closed, the next time it will be open, but something else is going on. And the wildlife is always interesting to watch for. Deer might be grazing in one of the many open fields or a hawk perched on a wire, scanning for dinner. Another time, nothing at all.

Our lives are often routine. We do the same things day after day, and maybe we complain about the lack of variety or excitement or challenge. But truth be told, like my road, no day is the same as another. Each presents its own challenges and opportunities, which sometimes are the same thing. Yes, they may be variations on a theme, but different from the day before or last week, nevertheless.

Staying alert, as Jesus advised his disciples to be, is the key. The little details in each day make it different from the one before and the one to come after. Small choices might have big consequences. And, certainly, some days turn into something that we label with a capital “D.” The transformation from routine to memorable might come unexpectedly or even be planned, but the fact that some days become Days reminds us that anytime can be the moment of transformation, the time of God’s action, the day of his coming.

© 2009 by Tom Cheatham

Last Sunday was Evangelism Sunday across my denomination, so I preached on the theme in the church where I serve as interim pastor. In a message entitled “The ‘E” Word,” I said that we often regard “evangelism” as a dirty word, rather like those others we refer to only by their initial letters. Perhaps we do so, I observed, because we have witnessed or experienced abuse of the practice by TV preachers and cold-calling tract-readers. Or it could be we simply believe in the mainline church that religion is private, and we shouldn’t invade anyone else’s space. The point of the sermon was the recovery of the word as a good and proper one that Presbyterians could and should embrace as their calling.

After worship, a member invited me to preach a sermon sometime on “semantics,” as he put it, how some words have been taken away from us and need to be recovered. He didn’t say what particular words he had in mind, but the idea so intrigued me that I decided not to wait for an opportunity to talk about it in a sermon, but to comment here.

Three stolen words immediately came to mind: “liberal,” “conservative,” and “Christian.” All of them were once good and honorable terms. But it seems to me they have had their meaning so perverted as to render them nearly useless. They are so dependent on context and the prejudices of the speaker and/or writer that I’ve almost quit using them.

Liberal,” for example, comes from the root “liber” (free). Specifically, it meant “suitable for a free man, a gentleman,” or something not tied to a trade, a sense that survives in “liberal arts,” which are intended for the general broadening of the mind. Another meaning has been “generous” or “abundant.” But today it’s become a filthy epithet in some quarters, associated with wastefulness or even, as in the case of actions depicted in the ACORN videos, support of morally questionable endeavors.

The same can be said of “conservative,” also once a good and commendable word or quality. To conserve is to store up, preserve, protect from harm, keep for the future. Conservative estimates are cautious and thoughtful; a conservative dresser is modest and not flashy. The term even once meant what “moderate” means now. Earlier generations were conservative when they lived within their means instead of on easy credit, when they waited for things instead of insisting on acquiring or experiencing them right now. I dare say if our nation had learned those lessons from earlier days, we wouldn’t be in the financial mess we are now, having to remember those traditional values of thrift and savings. But, as with “liberal,” “conservative” has come to be a pejorative term for some. Conservatives are depicted as mean-spirited, angry, and uniformly fundamentalist in religion.

Which brings us to the third term, “Christian.” As a minister, I’m troubled by the way this word is used today even more than the redefining of the other two terms I’ve talked about here. The original name for the Jesus movement was “the Way,” but by Acts 11:26, the followers of Jesus were being called “Christians.” What I have always heard is that the name was not chosen by the disciples, but imposed. It means “little Christs,” and was intended as a term of derision. “Look at those little Christs,” the skeptics and pagans would say. “Who do they think they are?” But the followers of Jesus accepted the name and wore it as a badge of honor, just as their Lord had accepted insults and criticism during his ministry. To use for yourself a term coined by your opposition was a way of turning the other cheek, as Jesus had taught. It was a witness to the humility and gentleness of the One crucified and risen.

But today, “Christian” has become associated almost exclusively with a particular position on certain hot button issues, like evolution or gay marriage or abortion (usually all of the above). Attempts at pointing out that there is more than one “Christian” perspective on some issue are either drowned out by angry voices or else ignored by the media. We favor simplistic, sit-com answers, and are impatient with the nuanced discussion that admits more than one faithful and informed opinion.

I have all but given up on calling myself a “Christian” because of the abuse of the term these days. I prefer “believer” or “follower of Jesus.” But really in the end, what I’m called doesn’t matter as much as the way I act and the words I say. I intend for both to be faithful to my Lord, knowing that he will always be faithful to me. Others may take away and co-opt the historic term for my commitment, but they can never rob me of the presence of Jesus.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham