Top Ten “Hoosier” Things I Will Miss

Top Ten “Hoosier” Things I Will Miss

We are off to San Diego in August.  Interim lead pastor at San Diego First United Methodist Church, I am nervous and excited.  Well-meaning friends upon hearing these plans say, “Oh, lucky you, it is such a beautiful city with great weather, you are really going to enjoy it.  You will probably get out there and not miss us at all.  You’ll not want to return.”

Well, at this age and stage in life, I know that although my friends mean well, they are both right, AND they are wrong.  Yes, we plan to enjoy San Diego to the full, make new friends, discover great culinary and cultural experiences and share ministry with the good folks.  As much as we are looking forward to this odyssey, we also know that there will be things we will miss.  I have made a list the top ten things I suspect I will miss:

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1. Indiana grown, Non-GMO sweet corn, fresh from the field, available at our GRAND farmer’s market each week.  Yes, I know they have fresh sweet corn in California.  I have lived there, twice, and loved it.  However, nothing brings back my childhood like field fresh corn (along with watermelon).  And, for Elaine, she will miss fresh from the garden Indiana heirloom tomatoes.  Each one of these is “summer candy” and a rare delicacy on hot, humid Indiana days.

 

 

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Winston and Sue Shindell at Christmas 2017

2. We will miss friends made and nurtured over the decades who are a lot wacky and all the more to be loved.  Do they know how to party!  There are dozens of them — we have stood by them in times of joy and sorrow — and they have stood by us.  It is a dangerous thing to start listing Indiana friends — so, I won’t.  It is sufficient to say that Elaine and I would be lost without their laughter, wisdom, patience with my mistakes and willingness to forgive.  And they know too many secrets to allow them to think we wouldn’t return!

 

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Friends at the Amerson’s 4th Annual Trifling Picnic, August 2017

 

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Maria Gonzalez, Bory Colin, Ruben and Isaiah, June 30, 201

Each year we host our annual “Trifling Picnic.”  About 75 to 100 friends normally show up.  Yes, we will host the picnic again this year, just before we head to California.  What is a “Trifling Picnic?  Well, John Wesley counseled that pastors should not be triflingly employed. We offer an opportunity for folks, clergy and lay, Methodist or not to break this rule.

3. We will miss new friends like Maria Gonzelez, Bory Colin, Joshua and Isaiah.  This was the dedication of their new home on June 30th. Monroe County Habitat for Humanity will build and dedicate its 200th home later this summer.  We will miss that and I will miss the wonderful friends I have on the staff and board of this affiliate!

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4.  I will miss colleagues in Ministry.  Pictured here are Revs. Metheny, Mather, Moman and Beck.  We are friends who worked together at Broadway UMC,Indianapolis in the 1980s.  What a team!  What memories!  These colleagues inspire, challenge and allow me to grumble much about the church, particularly our denomination.  They know that I refer to the Indiana Annual Conference as the “Northern Dixie Conference” (with apologies to my southern friends).  Yes, I will miss grumbling about the foolishness of the latest church development techniques while our congregations are hungry for relationships and respect for the gifts they bring.

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5) We will miss the GREAT MUSIC!  In Bloomington, much of it free or very reasonable in cost.  There are literally hundreds of concerts each year at the Jacobs School of Music at I.U.  We recently heard the Student Pops Symphony Orchestra.  It was FIRST RATE.  Over the holiday week there will be a free concert in the park by our friend and marvelous musician Carrie Newcomer.  Then, next week it is violinist Joshua Bell who is in concert on campus.  This fall will be the Lotus music festival we will miss.  And if you are lucky, our friend ,the incomparable, Sylvia McNair will be featured in a fundraiser for a local charity.  Wow… I will miss all of this — and I haven’t mentioned the live theater or the restaurants or performances at the auditorium all in walking distance from our condo!

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6) We will miss cheering for the World Champion Chicago Cubs.  (Hey, I know that was back in 2016 but we waited a century for this win and should be granted a few years to claim to be champions out of respect for the suffering of Cubs fans over the years.)  The Cubbies are looking good in 2018.  We will miss what should be an exciting pennant race at Wrigley Field.  Elaine and our daughter Lydia Murray in picture — the Cubs won that day!

 

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Revs. Mary Beth Morgan and Jimmy Moore, Ash Wednesday, 2017.

 

7)  We will miss our fine pastors, Mary Beth Morgan and Jimmy Moore at St. Marks UMC in Bloomington.  We will miss all of our friends in the congregation as well.  What a great congregation and place filled with fond memories.

 

 

 

 

 

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Judge Sarah Evans Barker, photo from the Indianapolis Monthly

8)  I will miss GREAT HUMAN BEINGS in so many categories: carpenters, plumbers, farmers, janitors, teachers, physicians, service folks, lawyers, barkeeps, administrators, and a few rogue preachers.  I will especially miss our great civic and judicial leaders.  Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker is among the BEST.  We have many other such fine civic leaders — Mayor John Hamilton and his uncle, retired Congressman Lee Hamilton. 

Indiana also has folks I consider to be less than worthy of admiration (no names please).  However, I will miss working for the election of some good folks to replace them.  We have persons running for election this fall more committed to creating the beloved community than practicing the fear laced demagoguery evident in our national body politic these days.  Some of the demagogues are, sad for me to say, “fellow Hoosiers.”  Hopefully we can offer them a free ticket home from Washington this fall.  Yes, we are keeping our residence in Indiana as our votes are needed here.

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9)  I will miss places like New Harmony a wonderful retreat, place for long walks and great educational experiences.  There are many such places in the state…. Indiana University in Bloomington is one I count as among the best.

 

 

 

AND # 10 on the list?

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Okay, I confess, I am going to miss snow — not the slushy grey-February-type snow.  I will miss the bright snowy days of fall and spring when our streets and fields are festooned with new garments of white.  Such snow is often gone by afternoon or the next day and that is alright with me.  In the meantime — I will enjoy the sunshine of San Diego!

That Dumb Preacher and the Gift of Embarrassment

“That Dumb Preacher” and the Gift of Embarrassment

Fifty years ago this past summer I was provisionally ordained as a Methodist pastor.  Young and determined to change the world, I was “set aside” for ministry by Bishop Richard C. Raines in a pomp-filled ceremony in the Indiana University Auditorium.

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I. U. Auditorium

I was ready to change the world — and I was so little aware of the way the world would change me.  Now there is time to look back, to reflect, to laugh and learn anew.

These past five decades as a clergy person have been filled joy and sadness.  All in all, it has been good ride, especially as I came to value the whimsy in life.  It has been good, in part, because of many moments of embarrassment.  Yes, I said embarrassment.   It keeps one humble.  One sees in these times both the stodgy excesses of organized religion and one’s own foolish efforts at vocational perfection.  Here is my top ten list — memories of times I played the role of “that dumb preacher.”

  1. One Saturday in June, presiding at the fourth wedding of the day, at the point of exchanging the vows, I heard myself say, “Will you Jennifer, take Mike, to be your husband.”  Even before I saw the confused and terrified look in the bride, Susan’s, eyes, I knew that she was not “Jennifer” and he was not a “Mike.”  And, I couldn’t remember their names.  I searched papers tucked in my Bible.  It took an eternity — probably 20 seconds before I could match the couple with their true identities.  I suspect that for years following, maybe even these decades later, Susan must have thought, “that poor, dumb preacher.”
  2. Rushing to complete my daily visits on another day, I decided to drop by the funeral home, speak words of condolence to members of my congregation who had lost a loved one.  I was not presiding at the funeral, but as pastor I wanted to support these folks.  I entered the visitation room, circulated, greeted several folks not recognizing anyone.  As I met the grieving widow and children it became clear that this was the wrong visitation — I was even at the wrong funeral home!  Turning to make a quick exit, the daughter asked, “How did you know my father?”  No words came for several seconds.  Then I muttered, “Oh, I knew of him.”  Blushing, I made my rapid exit.
  3. Oh, friends, this is an all too familiar experience for me.  More than once I have stopped by a hospital room to visit with a patient only to discover I was engaging the wrong person.  Often, in a shared room, I prayed with the roommate before learning he or she was not the person I had intended to visit.  I still smile thinking of the nice Jewish man who, after I had prayed, said he appreciated the prayer and knew his rabbi appreciated it too!
  4. Then, there are the multiple misadventures with cordless microphones.  On more than one occasion, I continued to “broadcast” when I should have turned the darn thing to “OFF.”  Let’s just say that needing some relief, I quickly slipped out of one service as a colleague was praying.  Moments later the congregation heard a great flushing sound.  These were not the rushing waters from Elijah.  These waters poured across the sound system drowning the prayer!
  5. Rarely was I more embarrassed than the time I received a call from a couple in a nearby state park who, with family and friends, waiting for me to officiate at their outdoor wedding.  We had visited earlier, done counseling together, and… yes, all was ready.  Except, I had the wrong date on my calendar!  Fortunately I was able to rush to the park (almost an hour away) in time to confirm what a non-ordained uncle had already done pronouncing them married.  I greeted everyone, heard the story of the improvised ceremony, asked the uncle to “say it again” and then confirmed it by shouting “yes, to what he said!”  I prayed a prayer, signed the wedding license and was the brunt of multiple jokes as we enjoyed slices of cake.
  6. We were celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a dear couple on a Sunday.  I broke my unwritten rule of never offering an open microphone to another.  This seemed safe enough.  Speaking to the couple in front of me I said, “It must be great to have 70 happy years together?”  The woman grabbed the mike and before I knew what was happening she said, “Well, actually, he ran around a lot on me during the first years of our marriage.”  The congregation roared with laughter.  Too late.  Nothing else would be remembered by any of us that Sunday.
  7. And, what could go wrong with wearing a new suit to worship?  Well… somehow the tailor didn’t tie off the knots along the leg seams.  As I greeted folks after the first service, I felt a breeze along my leg up to the crotch.  It was, so to speak, open territory.  What to do?  Fortunately we wore robes in the next two services.  Not many noticed my alabaster legs beneath the robe.  I wore a robe all the way home that day!
  8. I was a guest pastor, covering worship for a friend who served in a more liturgical tradition than my own.  On arrival, I was surprised to learn that I was not only to preach but also to preside at the eucharist — at all five services!  Let’s just say I wasn’t prepared.  At the first service, I realized too late I had consecrated an empty chalice.  More to the point at the end of the morning I learned that I didn’t need to empty the contents of the chalice after every worship service!  I don’t recall much of the sermon in service number five — I am certain it was brilliant, even if some words were slurred.
  9. Advice to young pastors — don’t attempt an infant baptism if your hands are already full.  As I recall there was a microphone, hymnal, the baptism certificate, a candle for the family, and… oh yes, the baby!  I thought it was all balanced and ready just as the baby’s pacifier fell out of her mouth.  Just above the baptismal font I reached to catch the pacifier.  The baby came down as well.  She was baptized on the wrong end!  The certificate, hymnal and microphone were also baptized that day.   I did catch the pacifier — after all, what is truly important?
  10. Sitting on the steps outside the door of our core-city congregation, I was waiting for a ride home.  Before I knew it three small children were beside me… then crawling over my lap and shoulders.  Snotty noses and grimy fingers were running through my hair.  The papers in folders on my lap were opened and explored.  I tried to engage the children, offering a pen to draw on my papers.  One little girl who had plopped beside me looked up and said, “You don’t know what to do with us, do you?”  Somewhere today that little girl, now an adult, must think back on “that dumb preacher.”
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Wesley UMC, University of Illinois

Much has changed over the past fifty years.  Mainline denominations, like my own, are regarded by many as more and more “sidelined” denominations.  We grow anxious, serious, more determined.  We focus on the latest organizational/leadership development programs designed to help us avoid decline.  Meanwhile we miss the larger movements of the Spirit that reach over decades.  We fail to see the basic demographics of our social settings and, mostly, we miss the joy and humanity all around, and within, us. 

Our institutions have much to be embarrassed about.  In fact, too often we seek to measure our value by the wrong metric.  Last winter I was fortunate enough to preach at one of the grand old churches of our denomination — Wesley UMC at the University of Illinois.  I had just attended an event where there was hand wringing about our need to be a global church and about worship attendance in the U.S. continuing to decline.  All of this is true.  Still, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud after the sermon in Champaign, Illinois, as dozens of international students came by to visit with me after that worship service.  I was aware that our global reach might be wider than our limited vision could see.  Too serious, too anxious, we should be embarrassed by our clumsy failures to hear the words, “you don’t know what to do with us, do you?”

I would not argue that we should not seek to be relevant.  I would, however, suggest a much lighter touch.  Some laughter might be good for the soul of the church — some acknowledgement of our embarrassing moments.  Maybe more humanity and a focus on awkward, surprising, relationships could help.   A little less certitude and a little more embarrassment is in order.  I have shared ten of my own embarrassing moments — there are dozens more I could offer.  This will do for now.  Enjoy… and consider what the little wiggly girl sitting on the church steps said.  I think she is right.   We just don’t know what to do with all the vibrant and bouncing protoplasm all around us.  I think we may miss our embarrassment of riches.

Of Blessed Memory

“OF BLESSED MEMORY”

Only yesterday I was thinking of the three words spoken all too often these days — “Of Blessed Memory.” This is a phrase that typically follows the mention of the name of a friend who is now deceased.  That list among my friends “of blessed memory,” sadly, continues to grow.

Little did I realize that today, less that 24 hours after this awareness, I would speak those words about two GREAT women — Harper Lee and LaVerta Terry. They were both 89 years old — they certainly experienced life over the same decades, yet in very different ways.  I think they probably saw the world – its joys and challenges – in similar ways and would have been dear friends had they met.  Both will remain among my greatest teachers.

Harper Lee

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Harper Lee 1961 Monroeville Courthouse

Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Although I met Harper Lee only through her writing and the occasional news stories about her, I felt she was a friend.  We had a mutual friend, Thomas Lane Butts.  Tom who for years would visit with Harper weekly would keep me updated about Ms. Lee.  A treasured book on my shelf is a signed copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that he arranged for me during one of his weekly visits. I did meet Harper Lee’s older sister, Miss Alice Lee, at a church event over twenty years ago.  Every United Methodist active in denomination-wide activities knew of Miss Alice.  She was that remarkable lay leader and attorney from Monroeville, Alabama.

Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 which was an immediate success.  I can still remember reading late into the night while a senior in high school, caught up in the drama surrounding the trial of Tom Robinson in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It was fictional but I knew it was about real life, real bigotry, real threats, real racism.  I loved picturing Scout, Jem, Boo and and most of all Atticus Finch in my mind’s eye.

So, it was a quite a joy this past year to read Go Set a Watchman, a

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Harper Lee 2006

novel that was written prior to Mockingbird.  It was not as polished… and less idealistic.  It was not published back then.  Too bad.  In Watchman, Good and evil are not as easily separated… and Atticus?  Oh, sadly he turns out to be more true to real life as he buys into the racism of the town — for a larger “good.”  Alas.

I must say, however, that I found Watchman to be a great read, full of humor and a clear-eyed view of life.

LaVerta Terry

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Source: Bloomington, Indiana Herald Times

LaVerta Terry became my friend and mentor when I served as her pastor in Bloomington, Indiana.  You can catch a glimpse of her dignity, intellect, her direct manner and memorable presence in this brief piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRrZTKik8L8

Nothing was better for me than hearing LaVerta Terry laugh — and usually at my expense.  She would tease and I would tease right back.  She usually won. However, one evening when Elaine had other commitments, I asked LaVerta to accompany me to the opera at the Indiana University.  (The opera is one of the great gifts of I.U. and LaVerta was a fine musician.)  When we arrived at the auditorium, LaVerta looked at me and said “What will people think, the two of us out on a date.”  I was ready for her and replied, “Don’t worry, they will think you are Elaine.” LaVerta was still laughing at the end of the first act.

In 1963, LaVerta Terry was the first African American hired by Public Schools in Monroe County.  Twenty years earlier, in 1944 she had won a scholarship to the Indiana University School of Music.  The remarkably sad story is that she had won first place in auditions with the Metropolitan Opera; however, when she arrived at I.U. with her luggage, she was denied a place in the dormitory because of her race.

Sadly, the persistent racial discrimination she found led her to complete her bachelors degree at Jarvis Christian College after some study at Tuskegee Institute.  What a sad story and yet she was a great spirit.  Later she became Assistant Director and Director of the Groups program at Indiana University.  This program focused on encouraging and supporting racial ethnic minority students, most were the first generation from their family to attend college.  Her students now are in places of leadership all around the world.  When I was pastor in Bloomington, I would often meet them and hear of the way Mrs. Terry had been a “difference maker” in their succeeding at the university and in life.

Laverta-Terry-1455972308 My friend La Verta Terry taught me much.  Mostly, she tried to teach me to speak the truth about difficult things with grace, elegance and style.  I will never match her in this; but often I can hear her voice in my head cheering me on.  And, like many of my dearest friends, she knew how to be a loving critic if I said or did something she thought might have been handled better.  LaVerta, lived on the other side of the white-privilege Harper wrote about.  They both knew the bitterness of racism and shaped beauty and meaning from the ugliness.

There are many, many others about whom I speak of with the words “Of Blessed Memory.”  Mostly I speak these words about folks I knew, some very well, and folks who shaped me for the good.  People like Daphne Mayorga Solis, Carl Dudley, Earl and Ethel Brewer, Stella Newhouse, Bob Greenleaf, Clarence Jordan, Scott Lawrence, Ernie and Polly Teagle, Ray Dean Davis, Bob Lyon, Gil James, Dow Kirkpatrick, Parker Pengilly, Liz Shindell, David Stewart, Jerry Hyde, Kenda Webb, Will Counts and Jane Tews… I am realizing this list could continue on and on.  It does.  Yes, the list goes on and on.  It is called “the Community of the Saints.”  Blessed are we who have known them, in person or otherwise; blessed are we indeed.

(You can read more about Tom Butts in the February 4, 2015 post Southern Exposure.  See: https://philipamerson.com/2015/02/04/hands-of-the-strong-southern-exposure-people/)