Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are You That Important?

Last weekend, as I was driving home with my wife after making a hospital visit, we witnessed an amazing sight.

We heard the sirens long before we saw the ambulance. It was moving toward us with a full array of lights and sirens going. Somewhere there was an emergency.

Now, at 16, while learning to drive, I was taught that emergency vehicles had the right-of-way. That means I should get out of the way so they can pass.

During the course of 31 years of driving, I have had the opportunity to talk to police officers and ambulance drivers who advised, "Just stop where you are. If you try to move to get out of the way, it's harder for us to get safely around you."

Good advice. So I sat tight.

But apparently other drivers in Memphis were never taught this. Even as the ambulance entered my field of vision, a driver in the turn lane decided to jump across the intersection - in the direct path of the ambulance - to beat it. That seemed to be a successful move, so a second driver jumped through the intersection.

At this point, the ambulance had to come to a complete stop. And still, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, a third car turned across its path.

The sounding horn from the ambulance drowned out the EMT shouting, "Get the F*** out of the way!"

A similar occurrence happened today, so I know it's not limited to those three drivers. I was stopped at a traffic light when I heard the siren. Again, I couldn't see it -- I didn't know if it was coming up from behind me, or over the hill in front of me, or to one side or the other. My traffic signal turned to green -- I was free to cross -- but again, I sat tight.

Suddenly, a speeding police car crested the hill to my right, again with a full array of lights and sirens. 

Right then, in the lane to my right, a car jumped into the intersection. I braced for the collision and said a quick prayer: "Lord, please don't let flying debris hit my truck!" 

Fortunately, the police officer was paying attention -- he's probably experienced this a hundred times -- and he slowed down to let the car pass.

Suddenly an SUV also bolted through the intersection, forcing the police car to come to a complete stop while the cars drove on through.

Friends, this is more than a pet peeve. This is life-or-death serious stuff.

What if that was your grandmother in the back of that ambulance? What if the police officer was responding to your call for help?

I just want to know from those inconsiderate drivers: Is what you were doing more important than the work of these emergency responders?

I don't think so.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Just Do... Something!

I know most of you are tired of me talking about Jimmy Buffett all the time, but this one is significant.

At least I think so.

By now you have perhaps heard of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of gallons of oil from a damaged oil rig are pouring into the gulf. One estimate put the leakage at the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez every two weeks.

You do remember the Exxon Valdez, don't you? Back in 1989, this giant oil tanker ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and leaked some 10.8 million gallons of oil into that pristine landscape. Back then we saw a lot of pictures like this.

Twenty-one years later, Prince William Sound has still not fully recovered.

Pictures like this are again on nightly newscasts as the oil from BP's Deep Horizon well spreads across the Gulf.

This photo of the Gulf was taken a month ago from the International Space Station:

Like Exxon before them, BP has botched this one. Despite several failed efforts to cap and contain the well, the oil continues to flow. And now it has begun arriving on beaches along the Alabama and Florida coasts.

Interesting side note: Jimmy Buffett was about to open the new Margaritaville Beach Hotel & Resort in Pensacola the week tar balls started showing up on the beach there.

Anyway, as a lover of the Gulf Coast, Jimmy saw an opportunity to help out. A boat-builder named Mark Castlow came up with a plan to build wildlife rescue boats capable of going into shallow waters. Called "Shallow Water Attention Terminals" (or SWAT for short), these boats draw only 8-10" of water, have a small trolling motor to quietly move up on the injured birds, and are equipped with cleaning tables so oil-soaked wildlife can immediately be attended to.

Jimmy Buffett, through Buffett Holdings and Landshark Lager, is paying for the first four boats, about $47,000 each. The boats are being donated to Southern Mississippi's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory to aid in the clean-up. 

Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story.

Castlow has run up against bureaucratic red tape from BP's Incident Command Center.

Note to BP: This is more than just an "incident". Time to start taking it seriously!

It seems everyone wants to help, and many have inovative ideas and machines they want to offer -- some for free, others for money. For instance, sometimes-actor Kevin Costner owns a company that has a centrifuge-type system that could separate the oil from the sea water. He'd be happy to sell some to BP.

So, for now, the SWAT boats sit idly by as more and more of the Gulf coast widlife dies a slow, ugly, and unnecesary death.

But I want to say, "Thank you" to Dragonfly Boatworks and Jimmy Buffett for at least trying. 

For more about this story, read the report from AC360 here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

How Not to Solicit Donations

On the wall of my office hangs a diploma recognizing my successful completion of a Master of Divinity degree from the Southern California School of Theology at Claremont. That was 1989. At the present time, I am still the only member of the Memphis Conference to have attended ST-C.

Alumni lunches can be quite lonely.

Originally the School of Theology at Claremont was part of the program of the University of Southern California, a school with historic Methodist ties until 1952. In 1957, the School of Theology launched out on its own to a scenic campus in Claremont, just down the road from other prestigious California colleges like Scripps, Pitzer, and Harvey Mudd.

ST-C, recently renamed “Claremont School of Theology” (or “CST”), is one of the “Big 13” official United Methodist seminaries.

Academically, ST-C has always drawn well-respected names to its faculty: John Cobb Jr., Burton Mack, Jim Sanders, and Marjorie Suchocki, just to name a few.

Wait a minute! I just discovered while looking at the school’s “Wikipedia” entry that they haven’t added my name to the list of “Notable Alumni” yet. Hmmm. With "Wikipedia" - the collaborative, web-based encyclopedia - that's easily remedied...

Financially, however, the school has always struggled.Face it, asking UM clergy for financial contributions is usually not very fruitful. It didn’t help that during my four-year stay, two different comptrollers were found to be embezzling school funds.

But I digress… as I often do.

Two years ago, the Trustees voted a new direction for CST. Calling this new initiative “The University Project”, the school has created partnerships with the Academy for Jewish Religion and the Islamic Center of Southern California, to begin training clergy for those religions as well.

The idea here is “to rethink classical models of theological education in an effort to promote interreligious cooperation and ethnic integrity in the training of religious leaders for a variety of religious traditions…”

…Christianity apparently being just one of many.

The School hopes to expand even farther and eventually become a center of learning for Hindu and Buddhist spiritual leaders, as well as a host of others.

I have problems with this approach – theological as well as pragmatic: some of these religions (like Christianity, for example) teach that adherents to these other faiths are lost and in need of the salvation that only they can offer. So how does one school – historically a United Methodist Christian seminary – train such a wide variety of religious leaders with integrity?

Will they water down the teachings of each religion to omit the exclusionary parts? Think ‘Rodney King’: “Why can’t we all just get along?”

Somewhere I read that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Oh, yeah. That was Christian scripture… the Gospel of John 14:6. Look it up.

Will we see “Infidel” scribbled on the walls of Methodist housing? What will happen to the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center, which has an original photo-reproduction of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Who will get to use Kresge Chapel, the centerpiece of the physical campus?

I’m not the only one concerned about this move by CST. Recently, the United Methodist University Senate, which oversees our seminaries, cut off about $800,000 of funding to CST until it can thoroughly review this new approach and reflect on it with Wesleyan eyes.

Anyway, last week I received an email from Dr. Jerry Campbell, president of CST. He has set “a bold goal” of raising $350,000 by the end of June to help further The University Project. Since I am an alumnus, don’t I want to “help strengthen the School”?

“Your gift will support Claremont’s students, faculty, library and technology so it can remain a strong and vital partner in The University Project.”

Oh, Jerry, where do I begin in telling you how wrong your approach is?

First, don’t ask me for money via email. I know we live in an electronic world now, but if you want my money, I want something from you, something to hold in my hand. For that kind of money, the least you could do would be to waste a non-profit, bulk-rate postage stamp on me.

Second, the language of your plea needs to change. I will not respond to the insincere “alligator tears” that “talk radio, the blogosphere, and even a fellow seminary president… [Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to be precise] …are actively working against the success of our project.” Frankly, the Southern Baptists have always had a problem with the liberal teachings of Claremont.

Third, and perhaps most important, you probably shouldn’t have previously told us that “The University Project” will be funded by $10 million in pledges that have already been secured. I know every little bit helps, but I think I’ll keep my little bit this time.

While I disagree with this new direction for CST, my diploma still hangs proudly on my wall.

Right there next to my undergrad diploma from Lambuth College. (Don’t get me started.)

I am proud of my “liberal” education from Claremont. There I was challenged to “think theologically”. There, during many “dark nights of the soul”, I wrestled with the faith of my childhood. There I could buy a 4-liter jug of Gallo for only $3.99.

And I am the better pastor for it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

That's Not Funny!

The following editorial cartoon was drawn by Nick Anderson for the Houston Chronicle.

(Used without permission, of course.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Day in the Life

For those of you thinking about pursuing the ministry, proceed with caution. The following events – all true – don’t happen every day, but sometimes… yes.

The last vacation I took was a weekend jaunt to see Jimmy Buffett in concert in Nashville. That turned out to be an historic weekend as torrential rains pounded Nashville all weekend and the “city on a hill” flooded. (You can read all about it here.)

So I should have been careful about declaring my next vacation – taking a week to drive to Maryland and back to participate in my nephew’s wedding. One thousand miles there, and one thousand miles back.

The wedding was beautiful, held at a beautiful new Catholic church. The priest was a bit cranky, but he was kind enough to let me participate in a significant way. Being in Maryland, he knew (and liked) a lot of United Methodist pastors.

After the service, he even told me I had used sound theology in my remarks.

After 20+ years, um, thanks?

There was one little tradition at the reception that bothered me though. I haven’t seen this one before. The bouquet was thrown, the garter was thrown. But then, the woman who caught the bouquet was seated and the man who caught the garter was encouraged to put the garter on the woman’s leg. “For every inch above the knee, that means 10 more years of good luck for the bride and groom.”

If this is true, my nephew and his new bride will enjoy many years of good luck!

I mean, a gynecologist would have blushed at this exhibition!

Moving on, as we headed for home the next day, my cell phone rang. I had given my secretary strict instructions to not call unless the church was on fire or a member had died.

Maybe the church was on fire.

It wasn’t.

Did I mention that upon returning to Memphis, I would only have a few hours to relax and freshen up before the Annual Conference began? The funeral would be on Wednesday, the day after the Conference ends.

No problem. Plenty of time.

Karen and I made it to the Memorial Service on time, the first worship service of Annual Conference. It was beautiful, as always. But we hadn’t had time to make contact with any colleagues and ended up eating dinner alone. We returned at 7 p.m. for the evening worship service – I wanted to hear the mass choir sing, but I was longing for my pillow.

The next morning, I was in my place at the 8 a.m. Executive Session of the Conference. I had mentored nine of the men and women to be voted on for Elders orders. They were all approved. My friend and colleague, Jerome Scales Jr., even asked me to take part in the laying on of hands that evening in the ordination service. I was humbled.

Then my phone rang again -- my secretary again. She reported that a beloved church member was just taken to the hospital. “They think she had a heart attack or something.”

Doubtful, I thought. She is only 53.

When I get a call like this, I make a mental assessment: Is this really urgent? Or has someone relayed the information wrong and I will find the patient lying comfortably in a hospital bed with a heart monitor, wondering what all the fuss is about? I checked the Conference schedule – nothing important happening right away – so I dashed off to the hospital.

To my dismay, the situation was grave. The woman had collapsed at home. No breaths, no pulse for almost 20 minutes before the emergency crew could arrive and resuscitate her. She was in ICU, on a ventilator, seizing and totally unresponsive. The family was in shock.

A husband, an elderly mother, a sister and brother, nieces and nephew, and four children – one with special needs.

We talked. We prayed. Several hours later, I excused myself and tried to return to the Conference.

Then came the follow-up call. The EEG results were back – insufficient brain activity to sustain life. The family would have to make a decision. I returned to the hospital.

After many tears but only brief discussion, the family agreed that she would not want to be kept on life-support. But they couldn’t do it today. We prayed some more.

I was able to make it to the Ordination Service that evening, and with great joy laid hands upon Rev. Scales. It was a holy moment. But I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I decided the conference would have to go on without me.

I spent the next morning working on the funeral scheduled for Wednesday. While meeting with that family, I got the call from the hospital – the other family was ready to disconnect the life-support. Again, I headed for the hospital.

She died within 15 minutes of having the ventilator disconnected.

Wednesday’s funeral went well, but I'll have to admit it was the first funeral at which I have had a "heckler". The woman's niece -- apparently left out of the will -- showed up "to make sure the old bat was really dead." Audible comments and inappropriate laughter distracted from the homily.

It was a small crowd; the deceased had out-lived most of her friends and family. Two months earlier, at age 98, she had fallen and broken her hip, and it seemed atthat point she just gave up. But she had lived a long, full life – for a time she had lived behind Graceland, so she knew Elvis and the whole family.

We celebrated her life.

Then I switched gears back to the other family.

On Wednesday afternoon, the husband, sister and brother-in-law went to the funeral home -- a prominent one in the Memphis community -- to make arrangements. To my surprise, they described the funeral home employees as “used car salesmen”; the husband was visibly upset. 

The funeral home had demanded payment up front. The husband assured them she had life insurance through his work, enough to cover. But they wanted to see the money. He contacted his work – a major employer in the Memphis area – and the appropriate persons tried to assure the funeral home they would get their money.

Not good enough.

So the employer offered to FedEx the check immediately; it would arrive in the morning.

Still not good enough.

The husband did not have that kind of money on hand – who does? So the grieving mother of the deceased ended up maxing out her credit card and writing an additional check to cover the bill so they could proceed.

The funeral was scheduled for the church on Saturday. I spent a lot of time with the family in the meantime, while also trying to touch bases with my other members who were sick or in the hospitals.

I also got up at 4:30 a.m. Friday to put my wife on a plane for California, a previously-scheduled two weeks with her family on the west coast.

Some people have all the luck!

Saturday came quickly, and the funeral was huge. A conservative estimate put attendance at the funeral at around 350, plus hundreds who came by just to visit.

Unfortunately, as my homily was ending, I noticed a commotion in the back. A woman had collapsed. Chest pains… tingling in the arm… rapid, shallow breaths… a heart attack? But seeing that several were attending to her, I chose to continue on and we concluded the service.

The ambulance arrived for her just as we were wheeling the casket out of the church.

It was almost 7 p.m. when I got home Saturday night. And I still didn’t have a sermon for Sunday. Silly me, I had decided to start a new Summer Sermon Series, so I couldn’t just pull one from the barrel. I managed to wrap it up around 11 p.m. – God is good! – then I headed for bed.

Sunday morning flew past – at least it all seemed a blur to me. Afterwards, I tried to become scarce.

I attended the consecration service of the new LeBonheur Hospital this morning, but then, I firmly declared, "I’m taking the rest of the day off." Somewhere out there is a margarita with my name on it.

But on the way to the consecration service, my secretary called…

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


What's that?

It is over?

Can I go home now?