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A Pastor’s Education

“A Pastor’s Education” © 9.17.17 Theological Education/Seminaries Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let me begin by sharing with you a sobering but not surprising statistic. According to a 2011 survey by our Board of Pensions—the latest figures available—between 75 and 85% of PC(USA) clergy will be eligible for retirement by 2030. That means the majority of our ministers are baby boomers or early GenXers and are aging just like the rest of the denomination.

At the same time, Millennials and younger GenXers are not becoming candidates for ministry, leaving a vacuum of leadership in churches, not-for-profits, and the academy. Lee Hinson-Hasty, who directs the Theological Education Fund of the Presbyterian Foundation, has noted: “There simply are not enough seminary graduates to replace all of the retiring pastors expected in the next decade” (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/July-2017/The-key-to-more-pastors-mentoring-and-affirming.aspx). He recalls a conversation with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry member at a recent event. “He told us their Presbytery has no candidates or inquirers right now. None. And that Presbytery includes a major American city with a population over two million!” (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/July-2017/Big-Tent-Takeaways.aspx). There are only half as many candidates nationwide as of December 2016 as there were as recently as 2010, 658 vs. 1200 (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/March-2017/Will-there-be-enough-ministers.aspx). Just for comparison, our presbytery had three candidates and one inquirer as of last spring.

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An Abiding Astonishment

“An Abiding Astonishment” Deuteronomy 6:1-25; Psalm 78:1-8; Matthew 13:51-53 © 9.10.17 Christian Education Celebration Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last Sunday afternoon Susan and I were in Geraldine, AL, where state route 75 crosses 227. We were looking for Buck’s Pocket, an obscure park that according to Google Maps and the few road signs we had seen should have been just off 227. Well, not so much. Susan’s instincts told us we had gone too far when we got to Geraldine, so we stopped in a gas station parking lot, and I got out my phone. I pulled up Google, searched for “Buck’s Pocket,” and unexpectedly ended up with a computer voice telling us to turn around and go so many miles until a left and so on. I should have looked at the website instead of asking for directions. It turns out the park was permanently closed, which we discovered when we got there, after all that trouble and time.

Like much, if not all, of our technology, from the fabrics we wear to the cars we drive to the surgeries we have done to the food we grow, my phone that talked would have seemed like magic to the ancients, including the sage who penned Psalm 78. To us, blessed with science and understanding that gives us new tools and medicines and techniques at a dizzying pace, all is as it should be, normal, no particular cause for amazement or its flip side, fear. The only things we may call a marvel anymore are the movie studio and comics of that brand. We no doubt say “been there, done that, got the T-shirt, tired of the T-shirt.”

But I have to wonder, at least when it comes to spirituality, if the folks in the tenth century BC can teach us something. They believed God did astonishing, miraculous works. So is it that God is doing less in our day or we lack the capacity to see, to appreciate, because our lives are filled with devices and capabilities that would have astounded those of old, that would have elicited the cry “‘Tis a wonderment”? Yes, we can still be surprised or filled with awe, whether at the size of a storm or the ferocity of someone’s hatred, but I suspect those times are few, and our feelings fade as normalcy returns.

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“Who Do You Say I Am?”

“‘Who Do You Say I Am?’” Matthew 16:13-20 © 8.27.17 Ordinary 21A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Among the many things that make us uniquely human, surely the ability and the impulse to ask questions has to be near the top of the list. Almost as soon as they can speak, kids start asking “Why?” Even the Alzheimer’s patient, robbed of so much, still asks questions, even if they’re heart-breaking ones, like “Do you know me?” It’s no accident that autocrats and dictators don’t want anybody engaging in activities that implicitly or explicitly raise questions. They try to discredit, intimidate, even jail and kill journalists, preferring state-run media and official statements. They squash art, jazz, and literature, forms of expression that encourage non-conformity, fresh ways of looking at the world. It’s not surprising that authoritarian, hierarchical churches try to silence those who ask “Who says?” and “Why not?” and that dysfunctional families insist that everybody do things the way the patriarch or matriarch decrees, not ask about traditions or try to open closets and bring out skeletons. All these people and institutions are bent on reducing us to things, taking away our humanity, our voice, our wills, our imaginations, so they may impose their warped visions on us.

Jesus spent a good bit of his ministry asking questions. In doing that, he affirmed our humanity and expressed his own. We become conversation partners with God himself, here with us in flesh in our Lord.

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The Importance of Punctuation

“The Importance of Punctuation” Genesis 45:1-15; 50:15-21 © 8.20.17 Ordinary 20A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a poster and meme easily found with Google that reminds us of the importance of punctuation. The pictures and drawings vary, but the first line always reads: “Let’s eat Grandma.” The next says: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The final sentence proclaims: “Punctuation saves lives.”

That’s funny and true, but for me it’s been Susan who has taught me that proper punctuation is vital. For most of our thirty-six years of marriage, she’s been an editor and communications specialist and has helped me improve my writing and speaking, while coaching me on the use of everything from an apostrophe to a virgule. Sometimes she and I lament the sad state of grammar and usage in papers and magazines we read.

But even if we know a pretty good bit about commas and em dashes and so on, there’s something else more substantive about punctuation I hope Susan and I are both continuing to learn, and I trust you are as well. It’s this: sometimes when life appears to put a full stop, a hard break—a period—in a sentence of our story, there is an overruling divine hand that wields a pen with ink red as the blood of Jesus, replacing the period with a comma. Life goes on. The end is not yet. Or as the common saying goes: “This too shall pass,” though the passage may be through many sorrows, toils, and tears. God, who stands beyond and above time, sees past, present, and future all at once—our big picture—and invites us to trust that even our suffering or that of our families, friends, and neighbors is not in vain, but somehow is a life-saving comma, a brief pause, a transition, in the larger scheme of things.

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The Power of One

“The Power of One” Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36 © 8.13.17 Ordinary 19A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“One is the loneliest number.” So goes the old song by Three Dog Night.

But if one is a lonely number, it’s also a powerful one.

You can’t be serious, someone might object. What can one person do, especially against gigantic and faceless bureaucracies, global problems, overwhelming odds or rampant evil?

What can one do? There are plenty of negative examples that ought to convince us of the power of that number. Ask the Jews of the Holocaust whether Adolf Hitler, one man, was a force to be reckoned with. What about the bully who makes school or work a nightmare? The shooter, the suicide bomber, the abuser, the distracted or drunk driver who changes lives forever by victimization, assault, injury, and death? The ruthless and amoral or incompetent and stupid politician who leads a country down the road to disaster? The unforgiving and demanding parent for whom nothing the kids do is good enough? The power-hungry and lying preacher who foments fear and its offspring hatred in his or her congregation? One person can make a big difference.

If one is such a powerful number to do evil, why is it not for good as well? Do we believe evil is stronger than good?

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Grits

“Grits” Matthew 14:13-33 Ordinary 18A © 8.6.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a scene in the old movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey as Bruce and Morgan Freeman as God are talking as they stand on water in the middle of a lake. When their conversation is finished, God glides away without making a ripple, while Bruce, now endowed with divine abilities, sloshes toward the shore, but still without sinking.

The film assumes we know the gospel story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a divine thing to do or at least something we might expect from a superhero or a person in command of incredible technology. Even my first college roommate Charles, who was not a believer by any stretch of the imagination, knew the claim about Jesus. He denied it, though, thinking that the text must have been corrupted. Instead of Jesus walking on the sea, it really said he walked by the sea. Well, where would have been the miracle or the display of divine power in that?

I would guess that those who know the story of Jesus walking on water also may recall that in this gospel, unlike in Mark and John, Peter got out of the boat and hydro-ambulated for a little while himself. His experience has become a favorite metaphor in classic evangelical Christianity. The chaotic sea becomes sin that threatens to suck us down to death. The wind and the waves are the troubles of life that distract us from gazing steadily at Jesus. Our Lord reaches out his hand to rescue us in our fear and distress from the dark and threatening deep, and all is suddenly well. Peter is held up as a model believer because of his willingness to risk having nothing solid under his feet if that means he can be with Jesus and attempt great things in his name. There was even a Christian self-help book published at the beginning of this century titled If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg, 2001). Since then, a participants’ guide and DVD have become available, in addition to the original work. For the author, water-walking is “a picture of doing with God’s help what I could never do on my own.” Get out there, do mission, focus on Jesus, and he will take care of you!

There’s just one problem. As an Episcopal priest friend once reminded me, Jesus doesn’t commend Peter.

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Southern Bread

“Southern Bread” Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 © 7.30.17 Ordinary 17A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was growing up in south Georgia, there was a popular TV commercial for a particular brand of white sandwich bread. It featured an animated character—a Confederate colonel complete with white goatee and gold braid. He would say in an exaggerated accent: “I’d even go North for Southern Bread.” (“Ah’d even go Nawth for Suth’n Bread.”)

The advertisers, of course, wanted us to believe that their product was of such superior quality that a gentleman born and bred on Tara or some other plantation would leave the red clay and beautiful hoop-skirted belles of Georgia (“Jawja”) or the distinctive delights of any of the other states in our part of the country and go to New York or Chicago or Boston if those Yankee cities were the only places to get his beloved bread. The cost in energy, time, money, homesickness, and culture shock might be great, even prohibitive. But the taste of just a morsel of Southern Bread on the palate was worth any sacrifice.

No doubt each of us could identify something we possess that cost us as dearly as a trip north (“nawth”) by a Confederate officer. But the meaning it gives us, the pleasure it brings, the mere joy of having it, the memory of the adventure and surprise of finding it—all this and more make the investment of our resources seem paltry by comparison.

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