October 2010


For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope (Jeremiah 29:11).

Tomorrow, October 30, I will have been ordained to the Presbyterian ministry 33 years. As I thought about what I’ve learned over all that time, three tired but true cliches came to mind.

1.  People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I first heard that from the Rev. Harvey Jenkins, a friend who also happened to be a presbytery exec, as he critiqued my Personal Information Form (a ministerial resume). A candidate for ordination with long life experience said it earlier this month at a presbytery meeting as she was being examined. It was a nice reminder of what Harvey told me all those years ago.

I recall my first conversation with my pastor in Albany, GA about going into the ministry. I was a deeply introverted kid, and I think I saw the ministry as some kind of dodge of interpersonal relationships. I imagined that I would be preaching to big crowds, essentially hiding behind a pulpit. “I’m not good one on one,” I told him. “Ministry is mostly one on one,” he replied. I blew that off and kept on seeing my anticipated work as mostly academically-flavored proclamation. (Of course, that was the model of ministry I had seen from every pastor I had ever known; not one of them had ever been in our home for a visit, and they all used big words in their sermons.)

Over the years, it’s become clear to me, though, how right my pastor was. Even preaching is a pastoral act. I remember one particularly awful sermon I preached in a little chapel down in south Alabama near the beginning of my ordained service. It was all about Jesus’ process of self-discovery. The people were bored out of their minds. One lady sat in the back knitting!  It was a single Sunday assignment, and I didn’t know the people nor had I been given any information about them, but that experience taught me a lesson for the long haul: sermons are not academic studies, but rather proclamation of good news that impacts the real lives of the congregants. (My ever-practical and wise wife Susan has helped me to see that more than anyone, even down to reminding me to keep my sentences short.) And to know what to say (and sometimes, out of sensitivity, what not to say), you have to know the people. What are they struggling with? What are their joys? Their viewpoints? Their interests? That takes time and conversation and caring. No one is interested in what “the Greek says” unless it makes a difference in their daily lives.

2.  Bloom where you’re planted. As I look back on my years in ministry, I was never until fairly recently satisfied with where I was. I recall complaining how one presbytery official crassly applied the standards of the secular business world, with its corporate ladder and superficial emphasis on looks and charisma, to the church. But really, my carping was dishonest, because I wanted the big church and the prestige and the staff the official equated with success. It took hard experiences to teach me that God places you somewhere in his good providence, and you need first of all to be grateful and secondly to truly be present in that place. Pay attention, enter in, live into the traditions, become a part of things. As Jeremiah advised: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Holding yourself aloof from the real issues, beliefs, and needs of the place you are while a) trying to impose your viewpoint without having first heard theirs and b) making it obvious you don’t value the way things have been done (the “myth” of the congregation) is not smart, and in the end, it will not serve the gospel. 

3.  When God closes a door, he opens a window. The providence of God never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I have experienced it. My position now in Amory, MS is a prime example of how God works. I grieved when my campus ministry career came to an end due to lack of funding. But God opened up the little church a hour away to help both them and me. We have a marvelous relationship of mutual benefit. It’s the sort of place with the kind of people I have come to love: small, authentic, intimate, deeply caring, hospitable. A place where I can use whatever gifts God has given me and maybe make a difference.

Thanks be to God.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

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And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:24,25).

The ghost chile is the hottest chile on the planet, with a score of about a million on the Scoville Scale. (The jalapeno is around 8000). Yet on the Travel Channel program “Man v. Food,” host Adam Richmond once ate a burger dressed with a salsa containing four ghost chiles, plus habanero, jalapeno, and one other sort I don’t recall. After the first bite, Richmond was sweating and in pain. He couldn’t eat anything else for fifteen minutes. Yet he finally finished the hellish creation.

How? Partly because he somehow has the mental discipline (or foolish determination) to push past the pain. (Maybe banging on the table also helped.) But at least as important as any of that was the chanting of the crowd and the individual pep talks from customers. The support of those gathered in the San Antonio restaurant to watch him take on the “Four Horsemen” burger enabled him to do the impossible by the deadline.

I don’t consider consuming a fiery burger to be much of a worthy goal. And, though we watch Richmond’s show like we would a train wreck, extreme eating is an odd activity and hardly qualifies as entertainment.

But my point here is the difference made by having friends or just fans to urge us on when we attempt the impossible. When we are in a crisis, any number of factors might get us through: a cool head, training, determination. But over and over, pastoral care experts have noticed that it’s the people who have friends and family to support them that make progress toward recovery from surgery or an addiction or some personal tragedy. Those without a support system tend to spiral downward into despair, depression, and hopelessness.

There are no guarantees, of course. Even with the crowd behind him, Richmond sometimes can’t finish the huge plates or extreme dishes set before him. And despite our friends and family urging us on and being there, we may still succumb to life’s assault. But despite the end, the journey has been made better because we were encouraged along the way. We were not alone.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).

Our dog Chloe usually hates riding in the car. But yesterday she surprised us by jumping in with Susan as she was about to go back to the office after lunch. From the driver’s side floorboard, Chloe made her way to the center console and then to Susan’s lap. She didn’t know where her “mama” was going, but she wanted to be with her!

That’s devotion. It was enough for Chloe that she would be with Susan. The destination, what might come next, didn’t matter. It was the companionship, the closeness that was important.

Scripture tells us that Abraham went out not knowing where he was going, only that God would be with him. That, too, is devotion, the trust of a faithful person in the One who holds the future in his hands.

In these uncertain times, we have little we can cling to with confidence. Indeed, all we can truly count on is the constant presence of God with us. We travel our journeys, knowing not where we go, but assured that God is and will be there.

That’s fatih. That’s devotion.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:9-12).

I had checked the census at the hospital in Amory and was glad to find a healthy congregation, as usual. As I was walking through the lobby toward the exit, a young man and his mother, both strangers, were also making their way out. The man asked me “Where are you the minister?” I told him and his mom, and we had a nice conversation, especially about the community Food Pantry First Presbyterian helps sponsor. They knew a couple of our members and spoke highly of the church. I told them about the Animal Blessing that we were planning, and then we went our separate ways.

All that happened because I was wearing a clergy collar. I was recognized as a minister.

All of us need to wear our clergy collars every day. Don’t have one? Believe you’re not a minister? Yes, you do; and yes, you are. In baptism every believer is clothed with Christ and called to service in his name. It is our behavior that identifies us as ministers. The way we act is our “collar,” our distinctive clothing.

What opportunities for conversation, for ministry, for compassionate service, for witness will you have in coming days or even today because you’re wearing your “clergy collar”?

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

In a recent children’s sermon, I was trying to illustrate how much we can do when we join together in mission. (The specific focus was Project 20/20, which collects eyeglasses for medical teams to distribute in the developing world. See www.project2020.org.) I invited the children—three boys—to try to put their arms around a large rectangular map of the world, mounted on a tripod. Of course, none could, and neither could I. But then we encircled the map/tripod combo, holding hands. In partnership, we could go around the globe.

One kid, Will, the youngest, hugged the map when it was his turn. That was a better lesson than I ever could have taught! “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast ordained strength…” (Psalm 8:2 KJV). 

Hug the world this World Communion Sunday, and every day. Love it for Jesus, because of Jesus.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham