April 2010

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2a)

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: ‘Alleluia!’” (Fred Pratt Green, 1972)

Scott Hill is a student at Columbia Theological Seminary, my doctoral alma mater. In a marvelous article in a recent school publication, Mr. Hill, a forest ranger turned pastor, tells about his internship in two rural yoked field churches in South Carolina.

His first Sunday, he stammered and sweated through the liturgy, forgetting a great deal of it. He says he was “painfully bad.”

Besides worrying about how he did in worship, he wondered “what else am I supposed to be doing?” as he worked down the visitation list assigned by the pastor. He came to the important insight that simply being with the folks in the church was “what else he was supposed to be doing.” One church matriarch assured him: “‘Scott, bless your heart, it doesn’t matter if you get all the worship service just right. You just keep loving us. We can forgive a whole host of warts. Just love us’” (“Tools for the Trade,” Vantage, Winter/Spring 2010: 10).

Fortunately, Mr. Hill has learned what matters before he even graduates from seminary. I was too stubborn to be so blessed.

In my first pastorate on my own, I tried to take very seriously the historic role of the Presbyterian minister as teacher of theology. I fancied myself the “theologian in residence.” (Yeah, I know; you’re rolling your eyes.) And where did most people get their theology? I asked. Not from denominational standards, listening to young upstart preachers or even from the Bible. It was from hymns.

Or so I thought. I fought hard to get “good” hymns sung in worship, and regarded accomplishing that task as one of the most important things in ministry. It was something that mattered deeply to me.

After expending considerable emotional resources and finding myself no closer to “victory,” I called off my crusade. I’m thankful that I finally grew up enough to know that my energy can and should be directed to better, more fruitful pursuits. What really matters is not hymns or liturgy. It’s glorifying God with heart and soul and voice, whatever hymn that voice is singing. It’s helping people feel cared for, letting them know it’s safe to be themselves and share what they feel, being there when the inevitable crisis comes and loss and tears are the order of the day. In short, as Mr. Hill was reminded, loving them.

Anthony Siracusa, who founded a bike ministry called “Revolutions” at a UCC church in Memphis, then went on to graduate from Rhodes College with honors, reflects on his experience with the congregation. “‘Growing into my life with this church,’” he observes, “‘I have found a life that matters’” (Elaine Blanchard, “Free-wheel Offering,” The Christian Century, March 9, 2010: 12).

What a gift of God it is when, like that young man, we can find out early on what matters, whether in ministry or in life.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham



And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright—Genesis 25:30-34 KJV.

My old friend and Southern Baptist pastor the Rev. Jim Evans has an excellent blog on Ethics Daily. Visit it here: http://www.ethicsdaily.com/news.php?keyword=Jim+Evans. Jim is a compelling and thoughtful writer whose comments on faith and politics, among other things, make me anticipate each week’s post.

Recently, Jim wrote about esteemed evangelical Prof. Bruce Waltke, who was sacked by Reformed Seminary’s Orlando campus for daring to say that one could believe evolution is true and still hold to the “inerrancy” of Scripture. Quoting a USA Today piece, Jim reports that Waltke said “If the data is overwhelming in favor of evolution, to deny that reality will make us a cult.” He fears that Christianity will become “some odd group that is not really interacting with the world. And rightly so, because we are not using our gifts and trusting God’s Providence that brought us to this point of our awareness.”

My Masters of Divinity is from the original Reformed Seminary in Jackson, MS. Though I repudiated my connection with the place long ago, it still bothers me to read stories like the one Jim has shared. While RTS may have deserved from time to time the sarcastic moniker “Deformed Illogical Cemetery” some of us gave it, I still learned some important and life-changing things there.

For instance, though I grew up in a Presbyterian church, it was at RTS that I first heard the historic slogan “Reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God.” In other words, God is never finished with us this side of eternity. We may have our tradition, but ironically the very tradition itself declares the future open to revision and question in light of new circumstances and needs.

Another phrase I heard and took to heart was “All truth is God’s truth.” I’m certainly not smart enough to come up with that jewel on my own, so it must have been in my RTS training that I was taught it. So whether it’s the truth gotten by the scientific method or the truth found in some other faith or the truth that we know intuitively, it all belongs to God and comes from God. No better affirmation of God’s sovereign freedom, a central tenet of Reformed faith, can we find.

It’s regrettable that RTS has apparently abandoned its heritage in favor of literalistic fundamentalism. If they were truly Reformed, Prof. Waltke would still be teaching, since the hallmark of good Reformed scholarship is creative and forthright engagement with the real world. And, like it or not, the scientfic consensus is that evolution is a fact. I hear Waltke, as quoted, saying that evangelical and even farther right Christians must deal with that.

He’s the one who is truly Reformed, it seems to me; though I don’t know him, I wish him well. RTS has lost its way, selling its birthright for the momentary clout and popularity of the Religious Right.

A mess of pottage, anyone? 

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Like most people these days, I want to get good value for my dollar. The best value, of course, is free. So I love Amazon.com for books, CDs, whatever, with their low minimum order for free shipping. Sweetwater.com, the online musical instrument store, is even better; every order ships free, from the cheapest accessory to the most expensive PRS guitar.

What I hate is the sort of free, like the offer from the Presbyterian Foundation for bulletin inserts for Wills Emphasis Sunday. The inserts are free with an *. When you check the note, you’re told that while the inserts are free, the shipping is not. So you end up paying probably $5-7 (if past experience is any indicator) for your inserts. A rep told me Monday that the Foundation did not offer the inserts for free PDF download. Not cool.

Food purchases are another area where you can get ripped off or, alternately, find really good value. For example, those typical chain burger places like Hardee’s and McDonald’s offer Angus burgers which are pretty good. But once you pay for a combo, especially if you substitute a shake or upsize to medium, you’ve dropped $8 or $9. For a burger, fries, and a drink! On the other hand, I ate at a popular Mexican restaurant in Amory, MS Sunday and got two pieces of catfish, rice, salad, sliced avocado, a whole jalapeno, flour tortillas, and all the chips and salsa I could eat, and the bill was, with tip, $7. Yes, I had water to drink, but I got a much better meal for less than I would have paid in a burger place.

As I congratulated myself on being a savvy food consumer, I began to wonder about whether churches offer good value, especially for church “shoppers” and “patrons,” AKA Sunday worship guests. What might be the “metrics,” as they say?

One would certainly be the sense a visitor has that he or she is receiving something beyond the expected. The typical (formerly) mainline worship service is pompous, dull, and wordy. But what if the language and music were fresh, the message relevant, and the rituals doorways into the mysterious presence of God? Suppose that instead of getting lectures in church school, members and guests could be part of small groups that tackled real issues from the news and daily home life. Wouldn’t such experiences add value and make attendance worthwhile?

Another would be the level of personal attention given to guests. I love Sweetwater for musical instruments because they assign a representative to each customer, someone whose name you know and can call on if you need gear or have a question. What if churches matched a mentor with every new member, ushers took time truly to greet and speak with guests instead of merely handing them a bulletin and guiding them to a pew, and the preacher handwrote a note or sent a personal email to each newcomer? Wouldn’t that set the church apart?

A final possible measurement might be the porousness of the congregation. By that I mean the openness of the church to new ideas, the ease with which new members move into the mainstream of the congregation’s life, and the number of “doors” and “windows” in the walls tenured leadership put up to keep newcomers and younger folk from the inner circle. In a Presbyterian church, an index of porousness might be the mix of men and women and long-term and newer members on the session (local governing body), as well as how many people under 35 or even 25 are serving on it. Another could be how flexible the terms of endowments are, so the money can actually be used for something when circumstances change. (I heard the other day in a meeting that endowment rules are made so strict by some people because they don’t trust their children and especially their grandchildren to administer the funds years from now!)

I am convinced that if newcomers and young adults sense that there is value in the church because they are valued, then they will be active. But if not, they’ll desert the church like video store renters switching to Netflix.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people did not answer him a word—1 Kings 18:1.

Long before Baal was a character on the TV series “Stargate SG-1,” he was a very popular Canaanite deity, both among his original constituency and his new one upon their conquest of Canaan, the Israelites. The reasons he should be so revered are easy to understand. The worship of Baal involved sex, and lots of it. (All those high places mentioned in the Old Testament were places of “sacred prostitution,” a central element in the Baal cult.) Baal promised lands, good crops, fertile livestock and wives. And he was a tremendous role model for would-be masters of the universe or at least of their homes, men who wanted to be strong and virile and dominating. Baal was usually depicted in idols as a bull.

In short, Baal was the ultimate god of materialism and getting what you want. But his worship died long ago.

Or did it? Check out the following story.

A megachurch in Texas, in order to draw in worshippers on Easter Sunday, decided to hold a drawing. The grand prize was a new BMW; other goodies included big screen TVs. The atmosphere was like a game show, with a big rotating drum full of cards to be drawn for the prizes, and the BMW winner rushing excitedly down the aisle like one of those audience members on some classic and silly TV competition. To her, as I recall from the report on “The Early Show,” “the Lord” had given her the car. See a video here:

But which lord? Certainly not Jesus. The gospel of prosperity being hawked by that Texas megachurch runs exactly counter to that proclaimed by the true Lord of all. “Those who seek to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” says 2 Timothy 3:12. Yes, Jesus did promise rewards, but only after his followers had gone through persecutions and hardship. And Paul urged us to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ, who emptied himself and served and died after being tortured on a cross. Only then came his exaltation.

The problem with that, of course, is that it doesn’t sell. It’s not popular, and the church desperately wants to be popular. The promise of suffering doesn’t get people in pews or bucks in plates. But turning worship into a game show, with a chance to win a luxury car and other prizes—now that will pack ‘em in!

How fitting, in an ironic and tragic sort of way, that Baal should be revered anew by the people of God on Easter. That day, you may know, was named for Baal’s consort, Astarte. Except under her Celtic name, Oestre.

Elijah’s challenge is just as fresh and urgent as ever. But this time the people have spoken, at least in a church in Texas. Baal is the lord.

God help us.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham


“What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain; mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain…” (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded", attr. Bernard of Clairvaux [1091-1153]).

A remarkable story of heroism has stuck with me ever since I heard it on the news recently. It seems fitting to share on this Good Friday.

A 22 year-old nanny in Shelbyville, KY named Alyson Myatt rescued her charge, 5 year-old Aden Hawes, when the house caught on fire due to a faulty bathroom ceiling fan. She ran through the 400-degree flames to get to the boy. Alyson suffered second- and third-degree burns on her right hand and both feet. But despite those terribly painful injuries, she grabbed Aden, got out of the house, and drove to a neighbor’s for help.

In an interview, Alyson continued to show herself a hero: "I’m just happy Aden’s OK. That he wasn’t on fire…. I didn’t even think about me getting burned. I care for the kid a lot."

Aden’s dad has observed: “There’s no words to put how grateful I am to have my son with me, how grateful I am to have Alyson in our world, and it’s just one of those things you can’t put any value on…. There’s no price to be paid. It’s a debt that will never be able to be repaid”

Contrast Alyson Myatt’s actions with those of so-called “leaders” in the Church and the churches whose main agenda seems not to be to save others or care for their hurt, but to cover their own failings or those of their superiors, protect the bottom line or insist on some rule or irrelevant doctrine. Which, I ask, is the more Christlike: what Alyson Myatt did or what is all too common in the institution that is supposed to be the body of Christ on Earth?

I think it’s a no-brainer.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham