Leaves of Three

During my childhood, I learned the doggerel in Cub Scouts: “Leaves of three, let them be!” Forewarned should be forearmed. However, experience always provides Poison Ivylife’s best-learned lessons. During childhood, it took several close encounters with plants of the three-leafed variety before I learned the importance of leaving the leaves alone.

People react in various ways to poison ivy along with its relatives, poison oak and poison sumac. The toxic plants do not affect some people. Others get a mild rash. A few react violently.

Unfortunately, I am highly allergic to all plants with the first name “poison.” Just standing downwind of the toxic vines makes me itch.

During my boyhood, I could count on a bad case of poison ivy every summer. In the days before air conditioning, video games, cable television, or computers, we actually stayed outside during the day and most of the evening. The boys in the neighborhood often played in the woods across the street. Inevitably, I suffered from a brush with poison ivy or one of its noxious cousins.

For those who have never suffered from the malady, words do not suffice. The angry red rash causes an infernal itch. Scratching the inflammation aggravates the itch.

Back in the day before cortisone lotions and shots, Calamine Lotion provided the only temporary relief. However, it felt like fighting a forest fire with a water pistol. The creamy salve barely treated the symptoms. Time proved to be the only cure.

Despite medical advances during the past decades, prevention remains the best cure. Over the years, I have become quite adept at spotting “leaves of three” from a long distance. It doesn’t matter if the plant disguises itself as vine, shrub, or sapling.

During walks in the woods, I constantly scan the ground for any form of poison ivy. I keep a supply of herbicide on hand for any toxic plant that dares raise its ugly head in our yard.

In my spiritual journey, I have found that temptation shares many characteristics with poison ivy. Both can be beautiful to the eye and nonthreatening to the touch. Each easily blends with its background and gives no hint of potential harm.

It requires diligence and vigilance to note poison’s proximity. Sometimes it takes time before the consequences of our actions are revealed. The best antidote is to avoid what causes the ailment.

In 1749, Charles Wesley wrote the words of the hymn “I Want a Principle Within.” The first stanza declares: “I want a principle within of watchful, godly fear, a sensibility of sin, a pain to feel it near. I want the first approach to feel of pride or wrong desire, to catch the wandering of my will, and quench the kindling fire.”

When it comes to three-leafed plants and alluring temptation, the same principle applies: LEAVE THEM BE!

Air Conditioning

During my childhood, I grew up in the suburbs of Decatur, Georgia. Our humble home on McAfee Road contained two bedrooms and a single bath. My father eventually converted the carport into a family room. The original den became a third bedroom for yours truly.

A few upscale houses in the neighborhood possessed central air conditioning. However, my friends and I never knew to miss it. We did not have AC in our cars or schools. During summer vacation, we actually played outside during the day and most of the evening.

We cooled our house in warmer weather with an attic fan. The belt-driven mechanism rumbled like the propeller on a plane during takeoff. Standing under the vents in the hallway produced a wind tunnel effect. Propped open windows welcomed any cool breeze blowing by.

During my ninth grade year, we moved to Woodstock, Georgia. My parents neglected to include central air conditioning in the new home they built. I attended Cherokee High School where the only air conditioned building (well, other than the front offices where the principal and secretaries ruled supreme) was the library.

Then  I went to Berry College for undergraduate work. My freshman dorm room featured radiator heat and paint-stuck windows. The next dorm I occupied had been built decades later with central heat but no air. My roommate and I felt like gypsies in the palace when we finally scrounged a box fan for the one window.

After seminary, the bishop appointed me to two churches outside Newnan, Georgia. A wood stove heated the parsonage IF the preacher cut enough wood. An all too familiar attic fan in the hallway provided the only source for cooling. During my fourth year at the church, my wife and I married. THEN the church installed a dish washer and a single window air conditioning unit.

The next church we served owned a parsonage complete with “central” heat. Well, at least the heat source was located in the center of the house—a gas fed furnace shot torrid blasts of heat from a waffle-pattern floor grate. This particular home didn’t even boast an attic fan.

After three years of committee meetings, the church eventually installed a new heat and air system. At 32 years of age, I finally enjoyed the comforts of central air conditioning for the first time in my life.

Only a few decades ago country congregations vehemently argued whether to install air conditioning. The progressive elements argued that people wanted to enjoy the same degree of comfort at church as they did in homes and malls. The fiscally conservative countered that the money could be better used for missions and funeral home fans.

Seriously, I’m not making this stuff up. Today no one would even consider building a church facility without all the modern amenities.

We live in a prosperous era. What were once luxuries are now considered to be necessities. I am certainly not advocating a return to the past. Years later I still recall how hot, humid, sticky, and muggy those “good old days” of the summer truly were.

However, it wouldn’t hurt to be thankful for our present blessings that past generations never even imagined. Thank God for the hot summer weather outside, AND praise the Lord for the air conditioning inside.

America the Beautiful

Fourth of JulyOn July 4, 1776, our nation’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence. The Philadelphia document formalized the American rebellion against British rule. Next week the United States of America observes its 240th birthday. Independence Day celebrates over two centuries of freedom with parades, flags, picnics, and fireworks.

Many will also ATTEMPT to sing our National Anthem. Every school child knows the story behind The Star Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key was a gifted poet who found himself unexpectedly detained on a British frigate. He witnessed firsthand the English attack Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. After the night’s artillery bombardment, Key peered through the dawn’s early light to see the American flag still flying proudly.

Inspired by the sight, Key scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope. His musings evolved into a four stanza poem. On September 15, 1814, a Baltimore newspaper first published The Star Spangled Banner.

Ironically, Key suggested the poem be sung to a popular BRITISH tune entitled To Anacreon in Heaven. The melody was originally composed for a gentlemen’s music club in London. The song quickly became popular across America. However, Congress did not actually make The Star Spangled Banner our National Anthem until 1931.

Although our national anthem is inspiring, the tune is somewhat, uh, challenging to sing. Amateur and professional vocalists alike struggle to do the tune justice.

In recent years, some have suggested changing the National Anthem to America the Beautiful.  It is a powerful hymn with moving imagery; AND it is much easier to sing!

Katherine Lee Bates wrote America the Beautiful in the nineteenth century. Dr. Bates, the daughter of a minister, became a professor of English Literature at Wellesley College. In 1893, she stopped in Chicago during a trip to Colorado Springs. Both the natural beauty of Colorado’s “fruited plains” and the “alabaster city” of the Chicago World Fair inspired her to write the well-known hymn.

Regardless of one’s national origin, all of God’s people can sing some of the lines together:

God shed his grace on thee,

And crown thy good with brotherhood,

From sea to shining sea.

 May God thy gold refine,

till all success be nobleness,

and every gain divine.

On the Fourth of July, we pause to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy. Our liberty is a precious gift dearly obtained. The star spangled banner still waves over America the beautiful. May God continue to bless our nation—land that we love.

Happy Independence Day!

First Impressions

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

This adage has been attributed to both Oscar Wilde and Will Rogers, but no one can cite a source.  The earliest confirmed use of the maxim occurred in a 1966 ad campaign for Botany Suits. Regardless of origin, the proverb recognizes the importance of first impressions.

According to the eccentricities of the United Methodist Church’s appointive process, I officially became the new senior pastor of Northside Church last Thursday, June 22, at 1:00 p.m. On Sunday, I preached my inaugural sermon at the two Traditional Services and the Contemporary Service.

Over the past weeks, I have fretted away many anxious hours, worrying about first chances and impressions. In such self-centered moments, I forgot that it’s not about me—it’s about faithfully serving the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place.

So I began thinking about the first impressions Northside Church has made on me.

  • A vibrant United Methodist congregation in the heart of Atlanta
  • Warm, loving people who profess and practice hospitality
  • Dedicated staff members with an amazing array of gifts and abilities
  • Entering the Sanctuary or Chapel, one steps into the very presence of God
  • Traditional Worship that exemplifies the best of mainline, Methodist worship
  • Contemporary Worship ROCKS—what an amazing worship team
  • NO debt!
  • Mission-minded Christians who know to whom much is given, much is expected
  • 15 acres in the middle of Buckhead
  • A Transition Team that has crafted a graceful process

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Based on my experience, Northside doesn’t need a second opportunity to make an eternal difference.

First Words

First words are important.

After all, well begun is half done. A carefully-crafted opening provides a proper introduction to an author’s thoughts. So I spend an inordinate amount of time on the first word, sentence, paragraph, and page.

Some days the words flow like a fast moving stream. Other days the syllables ooze like molasses in January. I find myself staring at the blinking cursor on the computer screen, wondering why the inventor didn’t call it a CURSER!

First words are difficult because an author must CHOOSE. Out of an infinite number of beginnings, there can only be ONE first word, sentence, and paragraph.

This Sunday I will preach my first sermon as the new senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. Like Jacob at the Jabbok ford, God and I have wrestled over the past weeks about what to say . . . and what not to say . . . and how to say it. After all, first words are important because they form first impressions.

Over the past weeks, those adolescent first-day-at-high-school-anxieties have welled up inside. Will they like me? Will the other children play with me? Can I get my locker open? Where’s the bathroom? What if I get lost?

Time and again the Holy Spirit whispers in my soul: Peace, be still. Then I am reminded that the Lord IS the First and Last, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. All of life occurs within the context of God’s providential grace.

God always has the first word . . . and God always has the last word. So Psalm 19:14 has become my prayer for the first word of the first sermon on a first Sunday:

  • May the words of my mouth
  • and the meditations of my heart
  • Be acceptable in thy sight,
  • O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

First words are important.

The Five Senses of Summer

SummerSummer Sights:

Children erupting from school house doors, tests and homework forgotten in the summer daze. Boats cutting crisp, curling wakes through lake water. Cloudless skies with molten gold sunbeams gilding the earth. Tanned toes curled in seaside sand with a froth of salt water whipped like meringue. High, wispy, sugar-spun, cotton candy clouds. Dawn-born day lilies brighter than Solomon’s finery but already fading by nightfall. Fireflies twinkling in the gloom while children with glass jars race across the dew-damp lawn. Sunflowers bowing in homage to their Creator as they trace the sun on its appointed track.

Summer Sounds:

  The BOING of a diving board weight driven to its limits before springing back and launching laughing youngsters into a cannonball splash. Distant thunder of sullen clouds that have absorbed the day’s heat. Sandals flip-flopping and stick-stopping on hot asphalt. A neighbor’s lawnmower jumpstarting with a roar before subsiding into background noise. Tree frogs serenading the darkness, lonely voices seeking community in chorus. The off-key jingle of a childhood song as the ice cream truck stops and starts and stops through the neighborhood. Seven year cicadas a whir with the brief joy of life. The mournful dirge of a whippoorwill bemoaning missed chances and lost dreams. Baby birds cheeping impatiently in nests, snuggled among tree branches or shrub limbs, wide-mouthed and waiting for mama’s return. A bat’s crack and the slap of leather as baseball meets glove.

Summer Smells:

 Sizzling hamburgers smoking on the grill. Bouquet breezes with an intoxicating aroma of honeysuckle, jasmine, and gardenia. The green smell of fresh mown grass that lingers in the air. Coconut oil scented lotions that evoke images of exotic locales and past vacations. Chlorine drenched children wrapped in towels beside the pool. The smell of rain still hoarded in the depths of cloud cisterns, waiting to quench a parched earth.

Summer Feelings:

  Humidity so thick that a glass of water could be wrung out of the air like a soaked bath towel. The heart-stopping chill of an early June swimming pool not yet heated by the dog days of summer. Bare feet tip-toeing through dew-soaked grass. Fan slapped air gently caressing one’s skin. Sun stung shoulders and faces, reddened and peeling from summer afternoons. Sweat soaked shirts clinging to arms and backs.

 Summer Tastes:

 The sour-sweet taste of an almost-ripe blackberry as it pops between the teeth. Dewdrops of nectar teased out of a honeysuckle bloom. Heart-red watermelon that satisfies both thirst and hunger. Homemade ice cream fresh from the churn with just a dash of rock salt from the ice. Georgia peach juice dribbling down the chin—the sweet fruit heavy on the tongue. S’more fire browned marshmallows and chocolate embraced by graham crackers. Steaming hotdogs fresh off the grill. Snow cones soaked with cherry, lime, grape, or tutti-frutti syrup. Tart lemonade in Dixie cups sold by youngsters in roadside stands.

The Five Senses of Summer:

Use your five senses this summer. See, hear, smell, feel, and taste that the Lord is good.

Last Words

Ordained elders in the United Methodist Church serve as itinerate pastors. During ordination, we promise to go where the bishop sends. It’s like signing a blank check with the currency of your life, trusting another to spend it wisely.

In April, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson announced the pastoral appointments for the North Georgia Annual Conference. She has appointed me to serve as the new senior pastor of Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta. This Sunday, June 11, I will preach my final sermon at First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville.

God has richly blessed  during the past four years in Gwinnett County. I often tell people that pastoral service resembles dog years—one has to multiple the number of years by 7 in order to obtain the true age of a pastor! Using this math, I have actually served First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville 28 years over the last 48 months.

The past weeks have been a roller coaster ride of emotions. This is home, and we love this congregation dearly and will miss the community greatly. However, we are also excited about the fresh opportunity to serve Northside United Methodist Church.

The bishop has assigned Dr. Royeese Stowe as the new senior pastor of FUMC of Lawrenceville, and her first Sunday will be on June 25. I have no doubt the congregation will welcome Dr. Stowe with graceful love. I solicit your prayers for the pastors and congregations involved during this time of transition.

Sometimes more than letters are lost in contractions. Consider the word “Goodbye.” The term actually shortens the phrase: “God be with you.” So today I don’t say farewell to Christ’s saints in Lawrenceville.

Instead, my prayer is that God will be with you . . . until we meet again.