A birthday tribute to the late KCR and ATR, Jr.

There are probably only two dozen birth dates I have remembered through the years, and this post comes precisely between two that have always stood out in my memory.  109 years ago last Wednesday, my maternal grandmother was born.  Two weeks later, my maternal grandfather was born.  Here they are in a well-worn photograph, at approximately the age I remember them best.

Kathryn Delma Cullum married Andy Thomas Ritchie, Jr. in 1933, and they had been married barely 50 years when the latter succumbed to congestive heart failure and other circulatory concerns (presumably related to diabetes).  Both of their fathers had been influential Christian leaders.  The two met at David Lipscomb high school and also attended David Lipscomb college (now University) in Nashville.  Their early life together included stints in radio and church work in Texarkana, Nashville, and Washington, D.C.  They would soon move to Searcy, Arkansas, where they would reside for the rest of their earthly lives.  Grandmother taught math at Harding Academy, and Granddaddy led the Harding College (now university) Chorus for approximately a decade, then taught Bible courses for the remainder of his career. 

After their children were grown, they took a voyage across the Atlantic—the trip of a lifetime—making stops in the Holy Land and in Scotland.  My perceptions of the two are limited since I saw them but once or twice a year through my childhood and teens, and I did not take enough advantage of their presence while I was a student at Harding.  Still, I can attest, based on second- and third-hand interactions, to the fact that their lives had impact on a great many people.

Grandmother played the piano well, often accompanying Granddaddy’s bass-baritone voice.  She had exceptional responsibilities for his care, since he was not only diabetic but also legally blind for the latter half of his life.  In hindsight, one of the things I would say she was known for was “juggling” a full-time teaching position, the raising of four children, and the care and support of her husband.  Rare would be the Harding Academy high school student who did not respect Kathryn Ritchie’s math teaching capability, her intelligence, upright living, and Christian devotion.  The College Church’s congregational singing included her strong alto for decades.

Also rare would be the spiritually attuned Harding College student in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s who did not hold Andy T. Ritchie, Jr., in the highest regard as a deeply, genuinely pious Christian and a devoted, humble servant of his Lord.  He led quite a few summer evangelistic campaigns in the Northeast, preaching nightly, and he worked in Christian camps, as well.  As a church leader, he was known for preaching and also for leading congregational singing, emphasizing high-quality songs with good poetry.  He led worship in song long before the term “worship leader” was fashionable.

I recently unearthed a song for which I’d written the music long ago.  I had set a poem that Granddaddy favored when performing weddings, including a few family ones.  Below is the complete poem by Richard Wightman:

Of course, the question how far will you go with me? and the ultimate notion of “going to the end of the lane” rise well above the sophomoric.  Grandmother, a late-in-life cancer victim who outlived Granddaddy by almost five years, certainly “traveled the lane” with devotion, and the two were a pair until the end.  Since I have no recording available of Granddaddy’s voice reading this poem, please accept two of my favorite songs from his solo record as a consolation prize.  At the point at which he recorded these, his voice and ear were probably a bit past their prime, but one can still perceive the talent and the storytelling ability.

Big Bass Viol

Little Boy Blue

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Youth, service, and “God time”

In connection with what gets labeled as “God time,” I think of two youth group “mission trips” to Mexico.  I was not involved, so I know only second-hand of how the lives were affected, but I suspect those who went on the trips would agree that it was an entirely positive experience in terms of relationships with each other and with God.  If you asked Bret or Mark or Matt or Holly or any number of others, I’m sure they’d echo the last sentence.

Thom Schultz’s (Group Publishing) polls show that young people tend to draw strong connecting lines between service opportunities and relationship with God.  There is a downside, though.  Schultz mentions how these “service opportunities” are typically framed:

With all this ministry firepower working for us, you’d think we’d be dialed-in to the discipleship possibilities that service trips generate.  Instead, the actual experience most-often compartmentalizes the service part of the trip away from the “spiritual” part of the trip.  I mean, the work kids do to serve is framed as simply “helping people,” while the program (morning and evening gatherings, and devotion times) is billed as “God time.”

Well, the Kingdom of God is not organized into compartments.

– Thom Schultz (Group Publishing, Holy Soup blog), “De-compartmentalizing your Disciple-Making”

Right he is.

Of course, the Kingdom of God is not equivalent to the church or the institutional church, either (heavens, no).  Not one of those should be thought of as involving pigeonholes.  Even the institutional church is better conceived as having a reach outside the walls of a building.

Despite the influence and good intent of songs such as “Take Time To Be Holy,” it should be understood that no devotional or church assembly is inherently more holy or more “God timey” than helping people.  This reality does not downgrade the assembly or prayer or listening to Christian radio or studying the Bible.  It does, however, allow a higher berth for other Kingdom activities.

Story and narrative

It’s an age-old problem—distinguishing between stories on the one hand and stories on the other.  (Yes, that’s what I meant to say.)  The problem is precisely that the word “story” can be used in more than one way!

“Let me tell you a story about the storied history of a three-story house.”

Do you think a story that begins that way would be just a story, or will it be history?  The plot might thicken, or it might not.

Children’s bedtime stories might include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Curious George Goes to the Fair” and “Peter Rabbit” and “Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and Bible stories and something about pigs and pancakes.  How will a child learn to distinguish and interpret all this?  (Then there is the comparison between stories about Santa Claus and stories about Jesus, but that’s another story.  I worry about this off and on, but I don’t recall having trouble separating fact from fiction as I moved into preteen years, so I guess my son will be okay, too.)

As skeptics are quick to point out, not every element in a biblical story may be “true” as a 21st-century western mind conceives of “true.”  To be sure, some discrepancies and inconsistencies appear.  I think some of the difficulties may be traced to textual provenance and editing concerns—i.e., we don’t have the original text or even a 2nd-generation copy of it, so we can’t pinpoint how a new word or different spelling crept in.  Other incongruities indicate that ancient writers weren’t concerned with the accurate reporting of “fact” in the same way we are.  Yet the narratives in our Bibles were written to convey important truths, and they are largely structured around historical realities such as the Herodian dynasty, the 2nd/rebuilt temple, the Philistines, or ancient Egypt.

In interpreting narrative, it is both important and helpful to pay attention to the tools of the storytelling trade, such as . . .

  • the presentation and development of characters 
  • the pacing of a story—where it slows down and spends time, and where its gaps occur
  • the setting 

In the area of “setting,” I recommend this short video produced by The Bible Project

More meditations: membership, ministry, & making connections

I am more committed to Christian togetherness than might be assumed by a casual observer—in part, because I don’t actually talk about it much.  To consider aligning with, regularly assembling with, and working alongside others is no light or inconsequential undertaking!  It can be wearisome to explain the mental, spiritual, and physical toil involved in searching for a group of Christians to which to belong.  This enterprise runs deep, requiring thoroughgoing thought and enduring energy.  The very idea of passively allowing geography, denominational history, or the availability of “programs” to make a choice for me is not really an option.  I shared prior thoughts in these two posts:

The crisis of ministry

Musings on ministry and membership

Reactions to those have been mixed, and I’ve wished at times that I had quashed the inner drive to speak “prophetically” and the desire to be understood in this sphere.  I didn’t have to make this so publicly explicit by blogging about it, but it is not out of character, given my “earnestly speaking” modus operandi, to attempt to say something that I believe is (a) important and (b) on the right track.  Words like these can be misread—or perfectly read and sincerely criticized.  Critical attention is never any fun, although it can be helpful.  Something in me craves new or renewed connections with various souls, so the effort is worth it to me.  It might at times be that two will talk past one another or simply turn away, coming from vastly different vantage points.  Perhaps simpatico and/or a potential for synergy might be revealed.  In a rare case, could someone actually be taught or influenced for good through a blog?

Sarah, a friend of nearly ten years with whom our family has shared a great deal, wrote something I want to spotlight:

“Struggling with similar things lately too. I think there is so much to be said about attending the church in one’s neighborhood regardless of minor differences to be connected to those who are literally one’s neighbors and to be serving in one’s physical community, but I don’t know if that’s enough for me. I think I feel guilty about that. The churches in my physical neighborhood feel uncomfortable…preaching that is shallow at best, congregation lacking young families, significant theological differences, and worship style and preferences that leave me bored and/or cringing. We have been attending a church 45 minutes away that just instantly felt like home in every aspect, but it’s hard to be involved and active while living at a distance. Tough. Do I sacrifice the potential for far greater spiritual growth and vibrant fellowship for the sake of what I think I’m “supposed” to do (plug in to The Church as it exists in my neighborhood)? How will that choice affect my daughter as she grows?”

Probably no surprise to anyone who read the first posting, Sarah’s response reverberated in me at a forte dynamic level.  Poignantly and succinctly, she has touched on concerns such as standards and traditions, geography and distance, guilt feelings, service/ministry, preferences/styles, and the intersection of church choice with parenting.  Here, I’d like to echo her good thoughts (con forza e con espressione!) and say a little more before putting these topics to rest for a while.

Communities and neighborhoods.  I know something about Sarah’s locale, but I don’t know her family’s neighborhood intimately.  I can really only speak to my own area, also drawing from past experience in other regions.  I perceive, sometimes to my shame, that my neighbors (in the most obvious sense) are not often the types of people to whom I readily, naturally gravitate.  The lifestyles of some appear to be undesirable or overtly sinful, or their families are broken because of criminal drug use, or their properties are not cared for, or their children are unkempt.  Of course they need friends and they need Jesus, but it’s not always the easiest proposition to deal with that need.  Children that behave poorly require too much of the attention in school, and it’s not exactly easy to put one’s child (or oneself) in the middle of more bad-behavior examples in the neighborhood.

Further complicating these critical feelings in me, I sometimes detect a “boot straps” self-sufficiency and a leave-me-alone quality in many residents of my area.  I don’t know whether it’s the Germanic heritage, the effects of windy or stormy weather, the legacy of a historically agricultural setting, or what, but I find many people unapproachable.  Put another way:  it’s at least as difficult as it is in East Coast Suburbia to get to know my neighbors.  One more thing: where we are, the preponderance of Roman Catholic and Lutheran heritage appears to breed a steely unwillingness to consider anything else.

“Feeling uncomfortable.”  Beyond the neighborhood, there can be a palpable sense of discomfort in a sanctuary or church hall—or, on the other hand, one can just as easily experience an inviting, energized vibe.  I think that some personalities tend to minimize these factors.  It is not insignificant for others of us.  This is not really the type of discomfort that Sarah referenced, but If I feel like a fifth wheel or an alien within a given group, I feel a tremendous inertia when considering either serving/ministering or being ministered to.  Such discomfort is just a part of the picture, and it’s partly mental, but it’s no less real, and sometimes, the chemistry just isn’t there.  Sometimes one just gets a feeling upon walking into a place. We’ve had instantly positive ones (at least one each in Sheridan, Searcy, and Atchison areas) but also instantly negative ones, some of which led to hasty exits.

A lack of families.  A family that moved away was one of three with a child roughly Jedd’s age.  We haven’t been back since, and I feel that we could be viewed as shallow ourselves since we were ostensibly going there partly for that relationship.  How childish of us.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s more about the “vibrancy” to which Sarah referred—and the deep desire for connection.  It is not necessary to have organized youth groups or children’s Bible school programs or senior citizens’ programs, but it’s generally a sign of health if a congregation has a range of ages and a balanced demographic.  Families with young children should be careful not to regale middle-aged or single folks with constant talk about their children, thinking it’s all about them, but it should be acknowledged that, for young families themselves, the likelihood of connection is increased if there are multiple young families in a group.

Shallow preaching.  Shallowness has sometimes played a role in narrowing our choices.  It would be unthinkable for us to align in any sense with a church that regularly featured shallow teaching; the churches that stand out positively in our minds do have fairly strong public teachers/preachers.  I fully recognize that many churches are not blessed with gifted communicators, and I lament with Sarah the prospect of having to try to gain nutrients from the tripe or high fructose corn syrup offered from some pulpits.

It might seem a strange question to some, but I nonetheless feel the need to probe. . . .  Because of preaching’s ubiquity and the proportion of time it typically receives, it typically garners a lot of attention when a family is trying to decide on a church.  Notably, the church groups spawned after the Protestant Reformation are distinguished from Roman and Eastern churches by an emphasis on public teaching as opposed to liturgical ritual.  Luther, Calvin, and others therefore played significant roles in the rise and eventual enshrinement of preaching and preachers.  I judge that preaching as a method is greatly exaggerated and has itself become an institution within the institutional church.  It is what it is, but the reality continues to warrant reconsideration.

Theological differences.  Within some churches of my heritage (not necessarily those I’ve been a part of myself), “theological differences” might be reduced to “worship style” wars or other puddle-depth considerations such as whether to have a kitchen in the building or whether to support para-church agencies.  But Sarah is one who knows well that there really are significant theological differences that tend to affect many things.  For instance, I experience sea-depth differences with a person who is interested in starting Bible study opportunities at one of the five churches I wrote about, and I know that there would not be room enough for the two of us in such an enterprise.  I could not even sit in a class with him.  Everything this person says smacks of a bent I cannot accept, and vice versa.  This fact does not damn either of us, but it makes it nearly impossible to work together in the same place.

Distance.  In our case, a couple of churches, including one I didn’t mention, are 25 or more miles away.  There are additional options at that distance—larger groups that would offer us more spiritual food and, in one case, more opportunity for corporate worship output.  We have traveled 40 miles one-way for more than year, and 65 miles for the better part of four years in another location.  Now, one church under current consideration is a 10-minute family walk away.  What are we “supposed” to do with that?

Cringing.  I was initially surprised when I read that Sarah sometimes cringes, because I know her enthusiastically positive demeanor.  But I know she is a thinker and a devoted disciple who also has some opinions once in a while . . . so my “hmmm” reaction turns out not to be paradoxical after all.  It’s rare in my experience that someone uses the term “cringe” to describe feelings and inner reactions to church, but I myself so immediately get this that I want to stand up and shout, “Amen!  There are others of us out here who cringe inwardly and sometimes outwardly when your churches do weird, meaningless, or adulterated things in the name of God!”

Thus ends this series of membership and ministry.  Perhaps in the future I’ll document some experiences from gatherings in Kenya and at camps, in rec rooms and at retreats—or perhaps I’ll point longingly to the open-fellowship chapel groups in Jefferson City, MO or Alfred, NY.  Even more likely, I’ll continue to move in the direction of simple/organic church.  Those who don’t really share the feelings and longings shared in this three-part series are in a large majority, and I don’t even mind if you pity me from afar!  If you don’t “get” or can’t support our struggles, that’s okay.  Perhaps you could consider it an illuminating experience in someone else’s sandals.

Musings on ministry and membership

I have learned a couple of things since posting “The Crisis of Ministry.”  For starters, I learned that I should be more careful in using words like “crisis.”  (I am not in a psychological crisis )¹  It would also have been ill-advised to call it a “crucible” of ministry.  Would anyone accept “psycho-social locus of moderate melancholia and partly floundering quizzicalness”?

I also learned that I underestimated the effect of the lack of recent, face-to-face relational time.  A common background goes a long way, but if I haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time with people in a long time, there’s a likelihood that we’ll both misunderstand or talk past one another when describing some things.  Despite the best intentions and the best of hearts, some comments did not connect for me.  Perhaps they spoke to readers; if so, that’s good.

Internet media can seem to whitewash things sometimes.  A quick comment after a fairly quick read of a somewhat hastily conceived blogpost won’t always be on target.  And I must’ve subconsciously overestimated the capacity of the intentionally written word to overcome any communication gaps.  A few might be able to read between my lines or interpret what I really mean or how I feel about it all, but a topic like this was probably better discussed face to face than blogged about.  I regret aspects, but can’t really say that I repent, because I’m about to sin similarly again.

I’d like to return to a few things so I can perhaps explain or respond to a few suggestions—or even answer “objections,” in a couple cases.  In no case am I intending to take anyone to task, and I’m intentionally moving Facebook and other comments around, so it’s hard to trace who said what.  I am using isolated sentences as a springboard to clarify and illuminate.  The quotes from friends appear in blue below.


Someone said,

We always tended to go somewhere close and just see where we could serve.”

This is as practical as it is good-hearted.  I have had this goal in mind, too, and actually, this is precisely how we started out in our current location and others.  We simply have not found that place we could serve.  We want to do this.  Maybe we are blind and/or deaf, but it has not worked out yet.

“I get the feeling you are looking for the perfect place to minister.  It’s been my experience it doesn’t exist.”

My experience, wider and longer in this respect than that of pretty much everyone I’ve run across, bears out that there is no ideal.  Truly, I have no ethereal dreams anymore and am not looking for a non-existent group.  After visiting scores² of them in the last decade+, I am all too aware that no perfect place exists.

“I find it hard to locate someone really on my wavelength.  I am just glad Jesus didn’t really wait to find someone on his own wavelength before trying to minister!”

Agreed on both thoughts.  What should “wavelength” matter if I find myself near a genuine person wants to please Jesus, learn scripture, and be in a community of disciples?  As for imitating Jesus in serving:  it is always good to think about the one we call “Teacher” and “Master.”  This makes me think about other things (i.e., all of them) that I don’t do as well as Jesus.

“Jedd definitely needs some church friends.  Maybe you can give him that without being totally satisfied in what you need.”

I can appreciate this.  I’m not sure how to weigh the church friends factor alongside others, but I’d rather that Jedd had some.  He does have friends at a Wednesday afternoon church-sponsored activity.  He had one other one that moved away.  He also has friends in our home group (adults plus one toddler).  It would be nice if there were a little quartet of 8-to-10-year-olds that could pal around together once or twice a week.  Maybe a couple of them would see each other at school, too.  But that “perfect group” doesn’t exist for Jedd, either.

Karly is better at “going along” than I am, but she is discontent and wondering what to do, too.  If our parental goal is to have Jedd maybe see two or three kids his age weekly, a line of questioning forms in my heart:

Should we go to a place where. . .

  • . . . we cannot conscientiously participate in some aspects of worship?
  • . . . we have been rejected (and even mocked a little, in one case)?
  • . . . we cannot “join the community” according to its present terms?

Is it really valuable for Jedd to be with a small motley crew of kids when he knows his parents are struggling upstairs, and when sometimes all he remembers is how crazy another kid was acting?  I’m actually unaware of any better possibility at the moment (given distance and other factors).  I suppose having regular “church ‘friends'” is valuable regardless, just like anything “stable.”  I don’t know.

“Church is not trying on people to see if they fit, instead it is looking at how God will use you with the people he has surrounded you with.  Ministering at home is part of God’s plan, but so is ministering to others in a local community.  I would say that if there is something you feel needs to be changed at a local church, first see if it is you who needs to change in your heart.”

Please recall that I am “ministering to others in a local community.”  We happen not to have a “church home” that most others would call a church home, but the lack of recognition does not in itself preclude that what we do have (or search for) can be pleasing to the Lord.  In other words, if our group doesn’t measure up to someone else’s standard, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid “local community” in God’s eyes.

Now to the “heart.”  More than one person said something about this, and it took me at least a week to quell a negative inward reaction in order to respond as best I can.  The “heart” is a curious symbol.  Linguistics and historical cultural concepts aside, I would all too readily admit that my heart is not in great shape.  I intended to imply that confession in my expression “maybe it’s just me,” but it wasn’t clear enough.  In the third and fourth paragraphs in the original post here, I confessed that I am not who I once was in terms of the inclination to serve others.  I probably should have said more about that later in the first post, after specifically describing a few churches.  I don’t need to be informed that my heart needs examination.  I’m not blaming anyone for not knowing this, but honestly, for me, that “change your heart” verbiage is reminiscent of certain “multiplying ministry” (Crossroads/Boston/L.A. CofC) phrasings with which I was once associated at arm’s-length.  The leadership of that sect used to say you “had a bad heart” if you questioned said leadership.  Well, maybe or maybe not.  (Often, I think those questioning things were not the ones with the heart problems.)  In my case, my heart is certainly in need of some defibrillation or de-calcifying or something.  I don’t think my heart is so bad as to need a transplant, but maybe.  My heart is not as healthy as it was in say, 1981 or 1987 or 1991 or 2002.  My heart needs shaping.  My heart needs conditioning.  Give me an Rx, and it might or might not be the best one . . . but, yes, I do know my heart can use some help.

In the above suggestion to look at my own heart, I detect what I take as a sincere commitment to the gnat-camel and speck-beam principles.³  Yes, there might well be more wrong with me than with the people in the churches.  I’m not consciously judging anyone’s intentions or worthiness.  I’m thinking of groups far more than individuals.  As much as I can, I’m trying to separate thoughts about the people from thoughts about the institutions.  Yes, there might be “chemistry” problems that keep us from being close to certain folks, but I am speaking corporately when I say that the institutions we’ve visited recently range from “civic club” churches to sectarian maintenance groups to corpulent, opulent institutions.  (We’ve generally learned to filter out those that would impress us as repulsively off-track or comatose.)

Back in about 2012, someone I barely knew commented to someone I knew a little better that he didn’t “experience life” as she did.   Those individuals did seem to move to different drummers . . . and the way we experience church is not necessarily how someone else does.  Having lived in 8 states together in 13 years, my wife and I experience “church” out of an unplanned set of experiences.  After scores² of visits and many re-visits, the process of trying to connect and find a reasonable group to be with is exhausting.  I will simply ask that those who have lived in only one or two places try not to be quick to criticize the process and effects of “church searching.”  Some folks may always feel we need to relax our “standards,” and that might be a real need (but not in this one4 described below).  Still, where our Goodyear tires experience friction with the asphalt is here:  we have consciences and principles involved in our discipleship.  You do, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far.  To extend the metaphor, walking a few Sabbath Day journeys in each other’s sneakers would help people to understand each other—and sometimes, to prescribe for them.  Yet my sneakers don’t fit everyone else, so it’s sometimes hard to empathize, let alone help.

It takes all kinds in the world.  We are not of the kind that can sit and accept things we earnestly believe to be off-track and even wrong.  Here, we are not talking about carpet colors and “worship styles” and nursery staffing and parking lot ministries and church bulletin mistakes.  We are talking about deeper, more important things.  My frequently on-target wife commented incisively, “If everyone just went along with the status quo, nothing would ever change.”  It is precisely on this point that I will continue to lose some of you.  For me and us, it is a given that some things require change.  Other things, not so much.  In mere matters of preference, change is not often needed at all.  But it is not helpful to assume that, because you are okay with this or that, that everyone else can or should be content with it.

I can certainly relate to that calling you are feeling.  I’ve been starting to feel a sense that perhaps starting up something from scratch might be the way.  Now for the method.  I’ve lots of ideas.  We’ll see.  I don’t always wait years for an answer if I don’t get one bright away.”

Image titled Console a Very Sad Person Step 8

I too tend to look more for creating and innovating than reforming these days, but I’m also not sure if I have the gusto anymore . . . which almost leads full-circle to the sense of “crisis in ministry” about which I initially wrote.  I have a strong, inner sense of things I need to do in order to be useful.  That “list” has changed in the last 10-20 years, but remains a presence in my heart.  Too, the last decade has been chock-full of times of not doing nearly as much as I used to.  I have had those times of trying to settle into friendships and the ministry of others to us.  Or at least I’ve hoped for that, but very little has materialized, and when it did, it was all too short-lived.  The “sabbatical” of rest and preparation that one acquaintance referred to has lasted way too long, and it’s actually not fulfilled much of a purpose, as far as I can see.  (Yes, I know I shouldn’t depend wholly on my own sight.)

These days, it’s no secret that mainline denominations and other sects are losing members, generally speaking.  There are many more community churches and purportedly nondenominational groups springing up.  Most of these younger groups strikingly resemble the churches from which their pastors came, so it doesn’t seem that much new is happening.  I paraphrase my wife again here:  few are willing to step away from the traditional models—into something that doesn’t look like “church” as Americans and Europeans have defined it.

In mulling all this over, my wife and I remember knowing of some wacked-out people who had taken an evening or two to sit in lawn chairs, in the middle of a fairly busy neighborhood street, yelling at drivers to slow down around their children.  Sometimes it takes radical action like that, but prophesying against dangerous drivers that way doesn’t strike us as very effective.  (Nor do community action groups or speed bumps offer much good effect, but that’s another story.)  We don’t stand in the middle of traffic and scream at passersby that they need to leave and develop something new.  That is too stark an image, no matter how strong we feel.  Even as we continue to value individuals in all sorts of churches, along with some doctrinal tenets held and principles at work in various groups, we figure we’ll continue looking to innovate more than to join and reform established churches.

Here are a couple of places to go if you want to think more along these lines:

  1. A collection of thoughts and further links to Simple/Organic Church material
  2. A specific posting related to the book Simple Church
  3. A New Gathering of Christians—a work-in-progress document I began nearly a decade ago and haven’t thought about for quite a while

Next:  Responsive, resonant comments from Sarah, a strong friend of nearly ten years, will more or less outline the next post.


¹ Nor am I “in ministry,” in the sense that most people use that term.  Yet since I was a teenager, my confidence has been unflagging in that, in terms of the New Testament writings and more, there should be no clergy/laity distinction.  During two isolated phases of my life, I made a little motion toward becoming a paid, formally recognized minister in the institutional sense.  I once had a phone interview but pulled myself out of the running, realizing I was not cut out for it.  A decade later, I made the second cut for the worship minister position at a large Nashville church.  A year or so after that, I was almost hired as a half-time worship minister.  It seems better that none of these things materialized.

I doubt I will ever be a paid minister, and that is fine with me.  I am settled on the more important matter:  all believers, functionally speaking—by constitution and intent—are ministers/deacons/servants.

² Rough estimates of the number of churches visited since 2005:

  • 6 in Sedalia
  • 8 in Greeley
  • 35 in Fillmore (70-mile radius)
  • 8 in Kingsville
  • 6 in Sheridan
  • 12 in Searcy
  • 25 in Atchison (40-mile radius)
  • a couple dozen more when traveling (IA, WA, DE, PA, TX, TN)

³ One should not strain out a gnat and swallow a camel; one should first remove the plank from his own eye before attempting to extricate a tiny speck from someone else’s.

4 In a post in December 2016, I wrote this about one church.  There is probably an “excuse” for the existence of this group in God’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean we could or should be a part of it:

Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities.  The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those.  It wasn’t even embarrassing.  It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.

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Did that make any sense?  Didn’t think so.  The singing at this place was like that:  nonsense.  The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue.  This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader.  This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country.  “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened.  It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic.  The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion.  And no one even seemed aware.  And that in itself should be embarrassing.  Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph.  Nah.

 

Businesses that deserve praise

I don’t know what it is in my recent experiences, but I’ve been noticing several local businesses that deserve praise.

Photo of Cedar Ridge Catering & Banquet Hall - Atchison, KS, United States. Cool place good foodCedar Ridge is a unique restaurant near Atchison, Kansas.  Offering special buffet fare on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sundays mid-day, this place is a gem in the rolling hills of eastern Kansas.  The hosts/owners have established the restaurant on their farm in a barn.  From outside, one wouldn’t be able to tell what delights await inside.  Some will enjoy the eclectic, sometimes “shabby chic” decor (or even driving a mile and a half on a dirt road), and all will enjoy the well-prepared food.  We particularly enjoy the brunch fare on Sundays around noon.

 

Los Tucanes is a Mexican restaurant in Kensett, Arkansas.  Apparently family run, the

Photo of Los Tucanes - Kensett, AR, United States. Interior of restaurantprecious children take minor serving roles and do a stellar job—far better, actually, than many older servers at chain restaurants.  The food is good, the salsa is fantastic, the prices are reasonable, and the whole place is a pleasure every time.

 

The final and most extended mention here goes to Powell Funeral Home, west of Searcy, Arkansas.  Although I have sung for and attended dozens of funerals, I had never really been a “customer” before.  From the first time I walked in with my mom to the last visit to finalize a few things a week ago, I’ve continued to feel that there’s no way every funeral home could be as good as this one.  The comments below are abbreviated from an online survey I completed.

     Our experience with each staff member and the facilities has been so positive that it would not seem right not to comment.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of local establishments that I would take the initiative to recommend to others, and Powell is without doubt now on that very short list.  [Since we opted to take care of some things by ourselves as a family, etc.], we did not have as complete an experience of the funeral home as other families, but that does not in any way alter our entirely positive impression of the facility and the way the people go about the business.
     Specifically, we were without exception greeted hospitably and with an obvious willingness to answer any questions.  Members of the family visited Powell approximately six times.  Each staff member, without exception (even where we cannot remember names) was 10patient and helpful.
     The standouts in our minds at this point are Brooks Sawyers, whose absolutely excellent demeanor is combined with rare efficiency and capability in office logistics and processes.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how Brooks could have been better throughout the last six weeks, up to and including our most recent visit to the office regarding additional insurance company needs for documentation.  I’m sure you have heard this before, but it is an exceptionally significant relief to be ushered through the process of assigning a portion of a life insurance policy to pay expenses.  Dale suggested this at just the right time and worked through Brooks on the details while two of us waited with confidence that things were being taken care of.  Dale manifest both knowledge and a strong ability to gauge our needs and personalities.  Again, each staff member has been a credit to the organization, without exception, but Brooks and Dale rise to the top in our memories.
Photo of Powell Funeral Home

Learned in a hospital room

I learned a few things during the hours in my father’s hospital room.  Below are a few thoughts, developed a little since then.
  1. The motion of time seems different when a loved one is in a hospital room.  Sometimes it stands still, and sometimes you have no idea where the time went and why you never picked up your book to read.
  2. One should never underestimate the relief potential of water or ice.  When you can’t have water because of pending or past medical procedures, even a moist, cool swab on the lips can be appreciated like a good meal, a neck rub, or a thousand dollars.
  3. It is possible for a large proportion of a hospital staff to be caring, knowledgeable, warmly “connected” health workers.  There might be one favorite nurse or aide.  In our case, 4, 6, or even 10 rise to the top, depending on who you talk to.  The bottom of the heap was far above average.  Exceptional courtesy and warmth of personality can also play important roles in patient care.
  4. I’m a bit squeamish when I think of some of the things medical people have to do, and I recoil even from thinking about the pain of certain procedures, but blood and fluids are things I can deal with.  We can usually manage and get through what we have to, and it certainly helps to share the experience with multiple family members.
  5. No matter how knowledgeable, devoted, and caring the healthcare professionals are, it is quite possible and even likely that communicational misfires will occur.  Some of these may affect a patient’s ultimate health or even threaten life on occasion.  I attest to the fact that, on multiple occasions, information bits were missed by pros in our experience.  It is inevitable, no matter how good the technology and intentions.  Several of us helped to connect dots on occasion, most often with the thanks and attention of the docs and nurses.  It is important to read reputable web pages and to be informed, but I think it is even more important to be attentive in the moment, in the room.
  6. Being on the night crew has its benefits, and I suspect that night medical workers also require some additional skills in order to do the things they do in relative isolation all through the wee hours.
  7. Medical machines are fancier and more numerous these days.  Various equipment and supplies¹ for patient care seem to ease things a bit.  Technology advances, but there is always, always great value in a simple hand-massage or a genuine smile.
  8. Hospitals seem to have eased up on some of the visitation restrictions of the past.  At least in some units, relatives are encouraged to be there, not shooed out when “visiting hours” are over.  Many stay nights in patients’ rooms.  At some point in the last couple of decades, hospitals must’ve begun to realize more that having your own loved ones nearby is important.
  9. Wires and tubes and machines and hums and beeps are less mysterious than they first seem.  I learned some abbreviations and initials, e.g., NG, IV IG, and NPO and could readily use medical and anatomical labels when it might help in communicating.  After a while, I started pushing the IV silence button, having learned to recognize a few of the flashing codes.  I played with the position of the tubes and felt free to take the oxygen lines out for a little while for Dad’s comfort or so we could read his lips when he spoke quietly.  When the nurses or aides saw what I was comfortable with, they would sometimes ask me to help with something.  Partnership and teamwork were and are to be valued.
  10. Compassion tends to surface in a hospital room.

¹ There are automatically inflating calf “socks,” minty swabs for oral care and comfort, increasingly automated IV machines, and more.  Packets of this and that must fill many supply closets.  Perhaps these items are not so much new as new to me.)  Sometimes, another prop pillow or extra blanket was just the thing.  I shudder to think of the expense to the insurance company, not to mention the fights that may be ahead because of duplicated procedures and things that some actuary might unknowingly deem medically unnecessary.  In the room, though, all these things were good and used intentionally.

Caregivers and healthcare pros

Words cannot express my family’s gratitude for the physicians, nurses, aides, and technicians that cared for my dad during his month-long hospitalization.  Upon Dad’s hospital admission, his lifelong friend who was also his primary physician quickly called in another specialist —an oncologist (who was not dealing with any cancer in our case).  This doc brought considerable investigative gifts to bear as he put the pieces of this “Dr. House” case together and consulted with others.  Both of these men are highly respected as skilled, caring doctors, and also as committed Christian men.  That devotion was shown in multiple ways, including their giving their cell phone numbers to us.  They asked for, and responded to, our updates, even a couple of weeks after my dad had been transferred to another hospital for state-of-the-art treatment.  The primary physician/friend later signed my dad’s death certificate and also spoke at the memorial ceremony.

A general surgeon did excellent emergency surgery in the abdomen, and Dad healed well from that.  A neurologist read the initial radiology report in great detail and spoke with another specialist who was in transition to another hospital.  Two cardiac specialists saw Dad on rounds and monitored the circulatory system (only a side issue in this case), carefully considering the possible impact of each step taken.  We have two relatives with high-level biochemistry/medical university teaching experience; it was a blessing to be able to rely on their advice.¹

I had my favorites among the nurses and CSAs (Clinical Support Associates/aides) at this first hospital, but I loved and appreciated qualities in each of them.  The charge nurse Jennifer, for instance, showed above-and-beyond, sincere concern for Dad as he was administered a sedative prior to the second attempt at a lengthy series of MRIs.  Tracy connected with both my mom and my dad, and she prayed for us, as several others did.  Alicia, serving as an aide but about to graduate with an R.N. degree, gave amazing relief to my dad with skilled tissue massage.  I cannot recall a single caregiver at this hospital who responded with anything other than attentive, helpful care and promises kept.  Sure, some were a little quicker or slightly more skilled than others, but every one was good.

Some nurses and aides seemed to travel in pairs, working closely together.  Callie & Susan and Stephanie & Emily made for great teams in the daytime, and Jason & Robert at night.  All the nurses and aides regularly asked if we needed anything, and when asked for something (ice chips, pillow, a med check, or whatever), each one responded willingly.

Brad the radiology tech stayed 3-4 hours past his shift to give my dad the benefit of his personal skill, seeing him through the 2nd painful, anxiety-laden MRI.  I don’t think we’ll ever forget Kristy from dietary, who, upon hearing Dad tease Mom in a whisper, grinned and said if her husband said that, she’d get “butter in a sock.”  It was hard to imagine that sweet person putting a stick of butter in a sock and chasing her husband around, beating on him.  With a grin, Kristy said, “It doesn’t leave marks.”  I’ll bet she’d heard that country “solution” from her grandmother.  This was the kind of personality and warmth that existed in my dad’s room for most of the time he was hospitalized.

When we transferred Dad to a 2nd hospital, I was only there for one evening since my sister arrived then.  I personally experienced one rather arrogant internist who proved to be nearly worthless in our case, except in that he eventually called in a specialist when he finally humbled himself and listened to a few things my sister said.  We had the distinct impression that a couple of key people, including this “lead,” really needed to have read the medical chart thoroughly first.  A neurologist seemed attentive, and a physical therapist or two helped Dad sit up one time and encouraged him, but the week+ in that hospital was essentially wasted time.

On the other hand, the hospital above was very fine.  Finally, a bed had become available at this university hospital, so Dad was transferred to yet a 3rd institution.  No caregiving duds existed in this bunch.  Skilled docs with strong communication gifts included a CCU/ICU attending that we liked very much.  Jackie, a day nurse, could be slightly businesslike and gruff but also took good care of dad and had a strong hug with Mom one evening, mentioning her prayer for us.  Randy, another day nurse, holds a special place in our hearts because of his years of experience and obvious expertise, but also because of his faith statements and appreciation of our hymn singing on Thanksgiving evening.  Randy told us, “Every day I work for God.”  He also said one morning, as my dad had turned a corner positively, “I usually take care of really sick people, and you don’t need me anymore.”

My favorite nurse was Kelsey.  Her perfect pacing, her wide-open attention, and her consistent, thorough care through the night provided reassurance.  Each task (e.g., turning/wedging, leg/foot treatments, and bed changes, which she did herself instead of relying on an aide; not to mention the IV monitoring and more medically crucial items) seemed perfectly executed.  It was Kelsey who by her ways and spirit gave Mom the peace of mind to leave Dad alone for the night for the first time.  Rebecca, another day nurse, talked openly with me about Dad’s worsening condition near the end; she was very caring and attentive, as well.

After Dad’s death, a dear lady with whom Dad had worked commented, “I will even miss getting him a bottle of water every day, and the gratitude he showed.  He was a gentleman.  Completely.”  In the hospital, too, Dad’s gratitude was shown in his whispers and eyes, and most caregivers got to experience that.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more adept at showing gratitude than my dad when he was a patient.  Although his voice was weak, no one mistook his genuine appreciation.

For all the aides, nurses, and doctors, we the family members now give thanks.  We had at many points hoped to return to the 1st hospital (at least) with Dad in a wheelchair, showing them the good news that he was recovering.  That was not to be.  Now, we give thanks for the Lord’s mercy in not allowing Dad’s earthly life to continue in a difficult, depressing, burdensome way.  We grieve, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope.   While Dad’s memory will live for quite a while in those who knew and loved him, it is infinitely more important that his soul will live eternally with God.


¹ Our medical vocabularies quickly grew—perhaps too quickly for our own good, because the terms would sometimes fly over the hospital bed faster than we could take them in or jot down notes.

My father

After a complex set of illnesses and a period of hospitalized treatment by many expert physicians and nurses, Gerald Casey’s earthly frame was exhausted, but his spirit continued, even through his final hospitalization, in worshipful focus on his eternal Lord.  He died on November 28.

The son of Max and Ruth Casey, Gerald was born January 1, 1940, in Pangburn.  He is survived by his wife of almost 57 years, the former Bettye Ritchie; a brother, Lanny (Linette) Texas; three children, Brian (Karly) of Kansas; Laura (Bruce Finnie) of Pennsylvania; and Greta (Neil Floyd) of Washington; and seven grandchildren.

GWC


The past five weeks have been rather intense—and intensely rewarding, as well.  I’ll surely have more to share on this blog about relationships, death, dying, hospital caregivers, and more.

It’s sad for a child

Taking a short walk earlier this very morning, I happened to glance between two houses to see another house, and the sight reminded me of something sad.

A couple weeks ago when Jedd and I rode our bikes past that same house, he commented,

“That’s Crystal’s dad’s house.”

Instantly I thought, “That’s sad for 5-year-old Crystal.  Her dad has a different house from her mom.”  (Obviously, this happens a lot in our world, but it’s still sad for a child and for all concerned.)

Then it got worse.  Jedd followed up by saying,

“Well, her dad goes there a lot, anyway.”

And I realized that what he meant was that Crystal’s dad is probably sort-of half-living-with a woman that is not his wife.  I suspect he goes there—to the woman’s house—more than he goes to see Crystal.  These things, too, make me sad for the little girl.

And then I remembered that I’d heard Crystal herself say, only a couple weeks before that,

“My mom has gone to jail three times in a row!”

Crystal (not her real name) lives with her grandparents.  I gather that she has lived there for half her life or more.  This presumably started because neither of Crystal’s biological parents is fit to raise her.  One of them is probably addicted to illegal drugs.  Crystal’s grandparents give her food and shelter.  In fact, they give those things to two other grandkids, too (from other parents).  And two more sets of grandkids seem to be at the grandparents’ house more than at their own houses.  One set walks a few blocks in the dark, well before 7:00 every school day, to be fed breakfast and go to the bus stop near the grandparents’ house.  The grandparents are not very capable of giving a lot more than food and shelter, but they do what they can.

Crystal is growing up in a very broken life.  We are all broken, and aspects of every life manifest the broken condition of humankind.  I think what Crystal must endure as a young child is cause for great sadness.