Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good, Very Bad Sunday…

With Apologies to Judith Viorst:

 I woke this morning with an empty feeling in my stomach and my head hurting.  I tripped over my shoes in the middle of the floor and couldn’t find my toothpaste so I had to brush my teeth with baking soda.  I got in the shower, and just when I got shampoo in my hair, the hot water cut off.  I hate cold showers.  I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I went by Starbucks on my way to church.  The drive-through line was long, but I waited anyway.  I ordered a caramel latte with whipped cream.  I got an iced mocha frappuccino.  I hate iced mocha frappuccino.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I pulled into the church parking lot and looked for a space.  All the good spaces by the door were gone.  There were guest parking spaces, but there were also people there hanging out like vultures.  I hate vultures.  So I pulled around back and found an empty piece of grass.  I hate parking on grass.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I went to the nearest door.  It was locked.    I went to another door.  It was locked, too.  I hate locked doors. The third door was open.  When I went in, I didn’t know where I was.  I looked for a sign.  All l saw was a poster encouraging me to “Win a Million More in ’54.”  It was old.  Something smelled bad.  I hate things that smell bad.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

A man walked by in a hurry.  I hurried after him, asking, “Where is the worship service?”  He gave me a dirty look.  I hate dirty looks.  He said, “It’s that way.”  I wasn’t sure which way he pointed, so I just followed him.  He went through a door marked “Men.”  I found what smelled bad.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I heard music.  I followed the sound.  I found a door with light shining under it.  The music was on the other side of the door.  I opened the door and walked in – right in front of the congregation.  Everyone stared at me.  I hate being stared at.  I tried to duck into the first pew I saw.  Someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed.  I turned and saw the sign “Reserved.”  I hate reserved seats.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I moved to another pew.  The music leader talked on and on and on about the next song we were going to sing.  I hate music leaders who talk instead of sing.  Finally, we started to sing.  Then he paused and said, “If you love Jesus, raise your hands high.”  I hate raising my hands. I’ll bet they don’t make you raise your hands if you love Jesus in Australia.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

We were told to greet our neighbors.  I turned around only to find everyone behind me had turned around and were laughing and talking with the people sitting behind them. I stood there like a dummy.  I hate standing like a dummy.  Then a man told us to sit down.  He told us about a trip, a meeting, and something called “Women’s Auxiliary.”  It sounded like a place you keep spare women.  I was bored. I hate being bored.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

The preacher got up.  He told us about his burden.  He told us how he had asked God to not make him deliver this message.  Then he started to yell.  He yelled for 45 minutes.  I hate being yelled at.  He kept telling us to “repent”, but he never told us what it meant to repent.  I hate it when I don’t know what things mean.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

Then came the offering.  The usher came and stood by me with a plate.  I didn’t have any cash so I shrugged my shoulders.  He gave me a dirty look.  I hate dirty looks.  I’ll bet they don’t take up offerings in Australia.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

The service ended.  I waited for someone to say something to me.  No one did.  I waited a little longer.  I saw my neighbors from across the street.  I thought they would come over and say they were glad to see me.  They ignored me.  I hate being ignored.  It was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I found my way back to the smelly bathroom and out the back door.  I drove off.  It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sunday.

I thought church was supposed to be about “Good News?”

I sure could use some.  I don’t want any more terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.  I especially don’t want any more terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Sundays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Squash Die.. by Pastor Clay Smith

In a fit of confidence, I set out tomatoes and squash this year.  My tomatoes have done great.  Nothing like home-grown tomatoes.

My squash, however, died.  I got two squash off four plants.  Not a good return on investment.

Most gardeners I know grow boat loads of squash.  In one community where we lived, bags of squash and zucchini would appear on our door step over night.  People weren’t being kind.  They just wanted to get rid of the stuff.  Zucchini bread multiplied.  I seriously thought we could add a room onto the house if we got just a few more loaves of zucchini bread.

If the stuff is so easy to grow, why did mine die?  I watered the plants.  I made sure they got fertilizer.  I did everything I needed to do.  Right?

There is a disease called “bacterial wilt.”  A cucumber caterpillar feeds on the plants and injects a bacteria which causes wilt.  Once wilt starts, nothing can be done.

The best way to fight bacteria wilt is to never let it start.  You get rid of the cucumber caterpillar.  I should have sprayed to kill it.  But I didn’t.  Being a lazy gardener, I thought maybe the cucumber caterpillars would leave me alone.  Maybe God would understand I was a busy pastor and didn’t have time to spray.  My excuses didn’t matter.  The squash still died.

Your soul can wilt too.

There is an infection that can wilt your ability to make decisions.  It can weaken your thoughts; it can destroy your feelings.  This infection can incapacitate your body.  It can ruin relationships.

The scripture calls this infection “sin.”  Before you dismiss the idea of sin as being old-fashioned, haven’t you seen its realities?  Haven’t you seen people with wilted souls?

The hard truth: you have wilted soul.  How do I know?  Because we’ve all invited sin into our lives.  We’ve all known the right thing to do and done the wrong thing.  Those choices – thousands of them – wilt our souls.

When souls wilt, people protest they fed their souls with art, pleasure, and intellectual stimulation.  Church people, bewildered, protest they fed their souls by going to church, studying scripture, and praying.  Protesting doesn’t change reality.

Your soul can wilt until you are left with a dried up life.  A dried up life produces no fruit.  A dried up life just takes up space.

Unlike my squash plants, there is hope for our wilted souls.  Our hope is the power of Jesus.

Jesus’ death and resurrection does not merely mean we go to heaven.  He entered our world.  He died to defeat the sin that infects us.  His resurrection means he conquered everything that wilts our souls.

Inviting Jesus into our souls brings healing.  He drives out the infection of sin.  He strengthens our weakness.  He rights our skewed feelings and thoughts.  He puts our relationships on a firm foundation.  That’s what the line in the old hymn means: “He makes the sinner whole…”

Let Jesus not only forgive your sin, but heal your wilted soul.  Then prepare to be amazed at the fruit that grows from your life.

If only Jesus would heal my squash.

 

Grace,

Clay

 

 

 

 

What I wish Mama Could See and Hear…

It’s been almost five years since my mother died.  She really left us years before, as Alzheimer’s robbed her of her mind.  Sometimes her eyes would lock on you and you could almost feel the part of her brain that was clear of memory robbing plaque trying to communicate.

People ask me from time to time if people in heaven know what’s happening on earth.  The honest answer is “I don’t know.”  God didn’t make that clear.  I do know when people die and go to heaven, they are not converted into angels.  That’s folk theology that isn’t taught in the Bible.  Sometimes I pray and ask God to tell my mother some things I wish she could see and hear.

I wish Mama could see her grandchildren now.  They are all grown and very good looking (some too good looking for their own good).  When Sarah and my niece Katie graduate next year, all of her grandchildren will have graduated from college.  She would be thrilled.  A college education to her represented a real achievement.  She’d be even more amazed that three of the eleven have Master’s degrees.

I wish Mama could hear me say to her, “The older I get, the smarter I realize you were.”  Like every adolescent in the world, I was convinced I knew more than her.  Now I know she had a wisdom that let me try and fail; that spoke her mind when she thought I was making a mistake; and that supported me even when she wasn’t sure about the path I was taking.  I also know that she must had many conversations with my step-father I never knew about, pleading my cause: “Lawrence, don’t make him go fishing again.  That’s just not him.”

I wish Mama could hear me say, “I forgive you.”  When I hear people talk about their perfect mothers, my skepticism kicks in.  I don’t know any perfect mothers.  My Mom had a wounded soul from a father who fell short and from losing a husband far too soon.  She could lose her temper and be very judgmental.  But in many ways, I think she did the best could.  She was like the injured runner who persevered, and finished the race.  As I’ve gotten older and faced my own shortcomings as a parent, I want to apologize for being so judgmental toward her and tell her “I forgive you because I know you were doing the best you could.”

I wish Mama could hear me say “Thank you.”  I never said it enough.  Maybe you don’t realize how much you have to be thankful for until your mother isn’t there.  I want to thank her for reading stories to me, for pushing me to be all I could be, for taking me seriously when I said at four years old, “I want to be a preacher.”  I want to thank her for her imperfect love, the best she could offer.  I want to thank her for being courageous after my father died.  I want to thank her for letting me go explore, which was really the beginning of my passion for next steps.

I wish I could give Mama a Mother’s day gift one more time – like the coffee mug I made for her in 3rd grade that looked like a piece of mud with a handle.  She kept it all her life, ugly as it was, because I made it.

But for me, the window of time has closed.  I can only pray that God lets my mother know these things – and lets her know I still miss her.  I don’t know if God passes on messages, but I’d like to think he does.

And if God passes on messages, I hope he passes on one more.  There’s one more message I’d like Mama to hear:

I love you.  Happy Mother’s Day Mama.

Grace

Clay

The Last Will and Testament of Judas Iscariot…

“I, Judas Iscariot, a troubled soul, do hereby declare this to be my last will and testament.  In a few moments I will end my life, because I have committed the most despicable deed and I can no longer live with myself.

Just eight hours ago, I betrayed my Master, the one I believed would deliver my people from the Roman oppressors.  Now he hangs on a cross, beaten, sure to die before the sun goes down.  I will die before him, though only God knows what waits for me on the other side of death.

I began to follow Jesus three years ago.  I had heard of him, of course.  His teaching was like no other: plain, understandable.  A power radiated from him.  When he beckoned me to follow him, I cast aside my labor, left my father and mother, and went with him.  Something in him kindled hope in my own heart.

The miracles amazed me; such power!  Could such power be used against the Romans?  Could Jesus drive them out and restore the Kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of God?  That was my hope, my dream, my passion.

I knew Jesus was closest to Peter, John, and James, of course.  But I knew I was special to him.  Soon after our journey together began, he approached me with the sack of money given to him by some well-meaning women.  ‘Look after it,’ he said.  He trusted me.

Why then did I betray this man?  I thought he was losing touch with reality.  During the past three months, he talked about his death and then coming back to life.  The words were clear enough, but we did not understand what he meant.  For all his talk about the Kingdom of God, it was plain he was not going to raise an army to fight the Romans.  The hopes I had for our people began to dim.

During this last week, it was obvious Jesus was on a collision course with our leaders.  It was on Tuesday, when he was teaching in the Temple, that something in me broke.  He spoke of being a judge, of coming back at an unexpected time.  I saw him turn his back on financial security for his ministry and watched perfume worth a great sum flow onto the floor, wasted with the dust.

The thought entered my mind: ‘What if I told the religious leaders where to find him?’ They would reward me.  Jesus would have the chance to show his power and be the Messiah I expected him to be.  Or I would realize my dreams had been placed in the wrong man.  Either way, I could force him to reveal who he truly was.

I made my deal with the religious leaders; I sought my chance; I led the soldiers to the place I knew he would be.  Then I called him “Master” for the last time and kissed him.

The soldiers pushed me aside. I stood on the fringes of his trials.  A sinking feeling began to overtake my heart.  Why was he not displaying his power?  As I watched him stand before Pilate, a wave of nausea hit me.  He was going to let himself be killed.  I knew nothing he had done was deserving of death.  A rush of memories flooded my soul: the time he calmed the storm, the way he smiled at me, the compassion in his voice when he told me last night, ‘Do it quickly.’

As they led him off to Skull Place, I charged the smirking priests.  ‘He’s innocent,’ I cried.  ‘Stop this!  Take back your money.’

With cynical smiles they smirked, ‘It’s out of our hands now, and yours.’

I threw the money at them and ran from the plaza.  I passed a rope dealer and a plan leapt into my mind.  I purchased a length of rope, enough to do the job.

Now, I sit under the shade of this tree, penning these words, in hopes that whoever finds them will learn from me:  I should have stayed with Jesus, even when I did not understand.

I leave my cloak, my sandals, and my all my possessions to my brother Justus.  May my shame not touch him or my parents.

A hangman’s noose awaits.  God have mercy on my soul.”

Will you stay with Jesus even when you do not understand?

Grace,

Clay

 

 

The Day Dreams Come True …

This Sunday is a day when dreams will come true.  I’m not talking about the Super Bowl.  I’m talking about the dream of Alice Drive becoming one church in two locations.

The church began as one church in many locations.  Acts 2:46 tells us the first followers of Jesus met in homes.  It would be decades before Jesus followers thought about having a physical location.

Over time, Jesus followers lost sight of this idea: that the church is a movement, not a location.  Instead, we were consumed with real estate.  We built grand cathedrals and brush arbors, thinking a church wasn’t a church unless it had a roof, four walls, and a deed.

The modern multi-site movement began as churches began to run out of space.  Blocked by local zoning laws or the restriction of finances, they leveraged technology to bring a service to another physical location.  Today in North America, over 5,000 churches exist as one church with more than one physical location.

For a long time, I observed this movement and thought it would not apply to Alice Drive.  Sumter, I thought, was too small.  Anyone who wanted to attend could easily reach us.  Then two things happened.  First, I saw a study stating if a person lived more than ten minutes away from the physical location of a church, their participation (attendance, service, and giving) dropped by half.  A quick mapping of our membership showed over 200 households beyond a ten-minute drive, clustered around the Pocalla/Lakewood area.

The second thing that happened was reading about Brand New Church in Arkansas.  Shannon O’Dell had a vision to serve the underserved communities in northern Arkansas by becoming a multi-site church.  He went to the least of these with a satellite truck, merging with dying churches in small towns to create a healthy, thriving congregation where none existed before.  Today, Brand New Church has four campuses in forgotten places, drawing over 2,000 people each weekend.

A whisper from God seized me.  If this could be done in Arkansas, why couldn’t it be done in South Carolina?  That day, a dream was born.  The dream was to spread the health God gave Alice Drive beyond 1305 Loring Mill Road.

In the 60 months that have passed since that whisper from God, I’ve shared this vision with our staff team, with the Vision Council, and with our Deacons.  All of them are committed to help as many as possible take their next step toward Jesus – and they saw the connection.  I think they heard the whisper from God too.

This Sunday, Pocalla Church launches publicly.  People volunteered to be pioneers, to go and serve.  People gave sacrificially so we can resource this campus.  Staff team members stepped up to go, help, and train.  On Sunday, we take our next step and become one church in two locations.  Sunday is the day the dream comes true.

This is our next step, but it’s not our last step.  All my life I’ve loved Jesus’ church.  It literally breaks my heart to see churches that once were thriving, dying.  This week, 80 churches will close in the United States.  It’s like a lighthouse that is going out of business: the money has run out for lamp oil, but the warning still needs to be given.  I believe with all my heart that God is going to open doors of opportunity for us to go to the forgotten corners of South Carolina, and be Jesus to people who lost sight of what church, Jesus’ body, could be.

Thank you for stepping up to this whisper from God.  I don’t know how it will all turn out; but I know God is leading us!

God has a dream and we are part of it. Sunday, one more piece comes true!

Grace,

Clay

Why My Daughter was in Tampa, but Not at the Game…

For those of you who have been comatose the last four days, Clemson defeated Alabama Monday night to win the Football National Championship.  My daughter, Sarah, was in Tampa, but she didn’t make it into the game.

The background of the story is this: when Abram, my oldest, attended Duke, they made it to the Final Four in Basketball.  Figuring this was a once in a life-time opportunity, we made arrangements to go.  My cousin Ned, who is well connected, got us tickets, and we saw Duke defeat the hometown Cinderella team, Butler, in the last second.

I promised Hannah that if UNC-Chapel Hill made it to the Final Four while she was a student, I would take her to the games.  Unfortunately, they never made it.

Naturally, Sarah expected the same bargain when she attended Clemson.  Last year, I asked her if she wanted to go to the National Championship Game in Arizona.  Too far, she said.  But this year, the game would be in Tampa, home to many cousins with spare bedrooms.

We held our breath after Pitt beat Clemson.  Would they climb back into contention? After winning the ACC championship, Sarah declared she was going to Tampa if they beat Ohio State.

When the dismemberment of Ohio State was over, we arranged for her to stay with my wonderful cousin Marti.  Sarah put her deposit in for the Student Ticket Lottery.  She prayed for a ticket.  Last week came the crushing news that she was not one of the 500 selectees (Note to the NCAA: Only 500 student tickets for each school?  Really?  Remember it’s the National Collegiate Athletic Association, not the National Corporate Athletic Association).  She began to search for tickets on line, but they were outrageous.

She came to me with tears in her eyes, “Daddy, I’ve been praying, and Jesus wants me to go to the National Championship Game.  Will you find me a ticket?  Will you put it out on your Facebook and Twitter account that your beloved daughter will be unfaithful to Jesus if she doesn’t go?”

Sarah was claiming to have heard a whisper from God.  What could I say?  I was launch a message series about listening to God and doing what He says.  I put up the post.  I was hoping someone would respond and say, “Beloved pastor, I have four tickets, and God told me to give them to you so Sarah and her friends could go to the game.”  Apparently, no one was listening to that whisper from God.

Instead, I got an offer to buy one ticket, for $1,800.  One ticket.  Now, I could buy that ticket for Sarah, but her friends would still be outside the stadium. Plus, we just paid for a pretty nice Christmas for all.  Plus, I just replaced the front hubs on my truck, requiring me to sell my right kidney.  I was a little short on discretionary funds. I had to tell Sarah, “No.”

I expect her to start speaking to me again in 2019.

Sarah made the trip anyway, hoping against hope they would find a way in.  They did get to go to a free concert and hang out around the stadium.  No angel, however, came to their rescue.  The price of tickets did not drop at kickoff.  They watched the game from a sketchy pizza place (her words).  Still, they basked in the glow of victory.

So why did Sarah go to Tampa, but not go to the game?  Just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it is wise.  And just because you think Jesus has told you to go to the game, doesn’t mean you heard Him correctly.  Hard lessons for college kid.  Hard lessons for us all.

 

Grace

Clay

 

Christmas Travel by Clay Smith

I’ve always traveled at Christmas.  Growing up, it was going to Kissimmee to stay at Granny’s house with all the other cousins, trying to stay awake to hear Santa arrive.  I never made it.

After my mother married my step-father, our routine changed.  We did Christmas Eve with Pop’s mother, then we went to Pop’s first wife’s parents (I never could never understand why I didn’t get the same amount of presents as my step-brother and sister), then to Kissimmee, then on Christmas Evening we returned home to be ready for the day after Christmas.  In two days, we would cover over 300 miles on the highways of Central Florida.

The grandparents passed away and the journeys were modified.  There was still the Prescott gathering on Christmas Eve, but now we stayed at the ranch for Christmas morning before going to Kissimmee.

When I met Gina, everything changed.  We worked out that we would spend Thanksgiving with my family and Christmas with hers.  The December we got engaged, I drove from Kentucky to Gaffney, SC in a snow storm after conducting a midnight Christmas Eve service at the church I pastored. It was pretty romantic until I feel asleep at Christmas dinner.

When we moved to Sumter, our tradition changed again.  We would wake up Christmas morning to the delights of Santa, and then pack up and drive to Gaffney to have Christmas dinner.  The kids usually complained about trip but fell asleep on the way.  Even in their twenties, they still nap on the way to Gaffney on Christmas Day.

I know my travels are nothing compared to what some of you have experienced: traveling home from halfway around the world, praying there are no delays and hoping you make it home for Christmas.

Yet I think about the longest Christmas trip of all:  Jesus’ trip to earth.  Imagine living as an infinite being and then making the long trip into a womb as a single cell.  That’s how small Jesus was when he began.  It was a journey not to be measured in miles or hours, but in humility.

Jesus’ journey was not even about going home.  He made his trip to a hostile place.  It was the place he made, but the residents didn’t recognize him and wouldn’t welcome him.  If Jesus rated his trip on Trip Advisor, I would imagine he would give it zero stars.

But he came anyway.  He did the long trip of humility and rejection so we could have a different future, a different life –a new birth.  Given how far he came for us, does it seem such a big thing to follow him wherever he goes?

So this Christmas, while you are traveling, remember the trip Jesus made.  Tell him “thanks.”  Then ask, “So where are we going now?”