A Trip to Old Salem

Moravians are a small denomination of Christians from the pietistic tradition who began as a protestant group in and around Bohemia and Moravia in Europe (specifically in modern day Czech Republic).  Founded around 1457, they, of course, were met with persecution in their early days, and found a friend a couple centuries later in Count Nicholas Zinzendorf who gave them refuge at a settlement called “Herrnhut.”  With his backing and support, the church took seriously the call to spread the gospel and many Moravians migrated to North America, some settling in the Wachovia settlement in North Carolina around Winston Salem.  The old Salem community exists today (Salem is a biblical word that means “Shalom” or roughly, “Peace”).

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Old Salem community at Winston Salem.  It is a remarkable district where a women’s college is rooted and where the old buildings of the Salem community still stand as windows to an earlier time.

Central in the Old Salem settlement is the Home Moravian Church, a beautifully preserved building that still houses the headquarters of the southern province of the denomination in the US.  Worshipers gather there and participate in such beautiful rites as the Love Feast, which influenced Methodist founder and teacher John Wesley a couple centuries ago.  The Christmas services feature a beautiful hymn that is often sung by children called “Morning Star.”  It is an anthem to the star that shone, announcing Jesus’ birth, and beckons worshipers to shine the light of Christ into the dark world.

Nearby, in a quiet part of the Old Salem community lies “God’s Acre,” the cemetery of the Moravians.  Here are buried many of the members of the church through the decades since the Wachovia settlement took place.  Gravestones look very similar to one another, regulated by the community’s preferences.  As death is the great equalizer of us all, no one’s stone stands out more prominently than anyone else’s.  All lie on the ground with the words pointed up to the sky.

In walking through this beautifully kept cemetery, where men are buried with men and women with women, I discovered the gravesite of one of my ancestors, Martin Cloud.  I don’t think Martin was a Moravian originally, but by the time of his death in 1880, he apparently had become connected with the group, as he was shown in the census as residing with his daughter in Forsyth County, NC, somewhere in or about Winston Salem.  He is the father of my aunt Jennie Cloud who married Peter L Wimmer.  They were the couple whose discovery of gold in California led to the great Gold Rush of 1849.  But rest assured, none of us inherited any of it.

I give you pictures of the cemetery and scenes around Old Salem.

Here’s a sample video from the organ in the church:

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You Can’t Fake Authenticity: The Call for Real Christian Faith

People seem hungry today for authenticity.

I personally get worn out when I’m around folks who are projecting contrived versions of themselves.  This is a difficulty plaguing American Christianity in our time.   Some have posited that it is the reason churches are declining across the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the US.  We have projected a false notion of what it means to be faithful, and that version of Christianity just isn’t resonating now.

The greatest example I can give is that for the past few decades, especially in the venue of TV evangelism, a version of Christianity that has been known as “Prosperity Gospel” has been much ballyhooed.  Even preachers’ names, like “Creflo Dollar” make this theological bent seem a little too focused on the material.  The Jim Bakker fiasco of the 1980s (who was caught practicing a complex ponzi scheme in regards to his Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC, and subsequently imprisoned for breaking federal law), and many more versions of his story that have surfaced with different preachers and different ministries, have chipped away at the trustworthiness of those who take to the pulpit in our churches across the land.

Add to that the radical liberal agenda of those preachers who almost remove the entirety of Biblical faith in order to forward social agendas (scrapping the centrality of the cross and the sacrificial atonement in order to construct alternative theories based on Marxist social ideals) and you have our present situation where preachers are about at the level of car salesmen on the scale of trustworthiness.  Lately I’ve seen several attacks on social media against megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, whose smooth style and lack of deep Biblical teaching have drawn crowds to his church, but whose salary has been the source of criticism.  This is but one symptom of the desire for authenticity that is noticeable in our day.

But that isn’t all.  People want to meet real Christians in church (or in daily life for that matter).  The image of Christianity is a little suspect it seems.  If you want to close down conversation and relationship, it seems like the best way to do that is tell someone you’re a Christian.  It isn’t popular or desirable right now in our culture.  We are told that millennials are the most skeptical generation that has appeared in quite some time.  As they are coming of age, they are loudly questioning the authenticity of those who claim to be heralds of Christ.  Those who have stayed in the church have made known their displeasure with the way some of us hide behind a facade of faith when the rest of our lives project a different image.  Ask someone under 30, and test my claims.

In Methodist practices, from the earliest time, our founder, John Wesley, ordained in the Anglican Church, pulled small groups of believers together to create authentic Christian community, in settings where they were expected to get real with one another, holding one another accountable for their walk with God.  The practice of the Methodist class meeting has largely fallen by the wayside in most Methodist churches, substituted with Sunday School classes where a lecturer brings information and everyone smiles and nods and goes home without sharing anything personal (for the most part).  Many nondenominational churches have risen up in recent years who practice a version of the small group Wesley modeled in his Methodist movement.  They are better at practicing the Methodist way of being Christian than Methodists are anymore.

But to practice this kind of discipleship requires that we are authentic.  This is a difficulty in most of our congregations, because people don’t want to reveal too much of their lives and hearts to their fellow congregants.  It would ruin the image they have tried to build of themselves and their reputation in the community if they get too real.  Yet that is what is required if we are to encounter the living God.  We have to be real.  Growth and change won’t occur until we are.  That’s the genius of the system Wesley created.  It brought to the surface in each heart the need to be authentic and honest about who we are, how well we’re following Jesus and how much we’re struggling with the demands of the gospel.

People are longing for the kind of authenticity that was practiced by previous generations.  In an age that has come up short in practicing any constructive morality, in other words, at a time when everyone is simply doing what is right in their own eyes (even though their actions just underscore the sin in their lives, and repeat that pattern over and over), we need authentic Christians to appear on the scene, folks who know that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means more than a slick formula for personal success or wealth.  It means that our lives will be reformed, and our sinfulness will be transformed and our character will be shaped by the cross.

We need to gather with other Christians and share the answer to the question:  “How is it with your soul?”  In the give and take of answering that question (and others such as “Are you obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit?” and “How have you practiced the means of grace this week?”) there is the seed of transformation.  We grow as we become real.  Dropping the facade of our fake selves before the reality of authentic Christian community, our hearts change and we begin to bear fruit in the world for the kingdom of God.

Let’s get real.

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Can We All Just Get Along?  A Consideration of Race and Human Relations from an Appalchian Perspective

I was once accused by a supervisor of “having a thing for black people.” Apparently, in his mind, that was a sin, and I was guilty since I was attending seminary at Duke and thought his racist remarks were out of order, and was bold enough to tell him so. Shameful how honest we mountain people can be sometimes, ain’t it.

Racism is a subject that is running at high volume through our culture again. In spite of the efforts of many good hearted people to unify the races, to mitigate our differences, to cajole those who cling to symbols of division that threaten, and in spite of a recent cultural trend toward celebrating heterogeneous unions and blending of DNA across ethnic lines, there still seems to be a strong undercurrent of racial resentment and even hatred that has leaked out from the polite containers of human hearts and minds.

In the midst of one of our loudest election campaigns in recent history, one that follows the two terms of our nation’s first noticeably racially diverse President, we have heard a lot of noise about race. Both major political parties have included diverse voices on their convention stages. Neither has found a way to sustain the controversies or appease the supporters of the “black lives matter” movement nor that of its detractors.

And so I found it enticing that this summer a meeting was planned for folks interested in studying issues related to the “Melungeons” in southern Appalachia. It was held on the campus of the Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. I was able to attend the preliminary meeting, and enjoyed it immensely.

For those of you who don’t know, “Melungeon” refers to an historic group of people found living in the region where Virginia and Tennessee meet. This group are thought to descend from an admixture of races, possibly three, (thusly known as “tri-racial isolates”). They were sometimes described in official records as FPC (“free persons of color”) or “mulatto” denoting of mixed racial ancestry. Much has been published on this subject in recent years, although it still brings up a host of emotionally driven responses from persons thought to descend from these folks.

Darlene Wilson, who was once known as the “Web-spinning Granny” was a featured speaker. She told that though many had tried, no one to date has established a biological definition of who or what makes someone a “melungeon.” She gave a brief history of the Melungeon website she once kept, which she put into someone else’s care, and watched it disappear with all the valuable information she had obtained. Her reasoning was that people were still afraid, apparently, to be lumped into this category since the tri-racial nature of this group could possibly include black Americans. She recounted a particular time when the Melungeon Union meetings were focused on DNA evidence as a way to definitively determine the origins of these mysterious people. The results were disappointingly non-determinative. This means that there isn’t just one story, one origin. Instead, the existence of mixed ethnicities and mixed origins means that the people of the area even today can trace their origin to people from a variety of places with a diversity of backgrounds, who maintained piecemeal practices from a variety of cultural influences that shaped their descendants and the region as a whole. It means too that our myth of where we came from is just that, a myth. We probably have a lot more diversity up the genetic “woodpile” than many of us know or have been told.

Part of the problem is that in for a good part of the twentieth century the commonwealth of Virginia was served by an official who was in charge of the state’s vital statistics office who was a rampant racist. This official (whose name I refuse to use because I feel he should not be so honored) was a consultant for Hitler’s Nazis. And yet he was funded by American tax dollars. This man didn’t want anyone with even a hint of anything but purely white blood (and I thought blood was red!) to be considered a full citizen of the state. This policy caused much of the racial and ethnic identity of previous generations to become hidden simply because to talk about it could threaten your voting rights, your citizenship, perhaps even your life. Many went to their graves with concealed identities rather than entrust the truth to their progeny whose lives could be altered if facts fell into the wrong hands.

Today there is a resurgence of interest in ancestral origins. DNA tests are widely available and give some answers to questions people have about their background, even if a good deal of it is inconclusive. What is being found is that human beings have a lot more in common with one another than not. This means when one group is crying out for recognition of injustice and perceived hurt, we all need to listen. We are closer kin than we might have once thought. It means, too that we need to discount the “otherness” of people we consider different. Appalachia has long been known by scholars who have studied it as “a strange land, a peculiar people” (as in Shapiro). Perhaps the strangeness is inherent in us all, the peculiarities more common than we know or are willing to allow.

Perhaps one day we can celebrate the diversity that exists throughout the human race even as we embrace our commonality. Perhaps.

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Ode to Dr Ralph Stanley

A legend has gone to glory.

God was preparing me for this.  I’m probably the biggest Ralph Stanley fan there is.  Ever.  There was just something about the sound of his voice, the ring of his banjo, the humility of his words and actions that spoke deeply to me.  

I had to be at a funeral at Clintwood this past Sunday.  Since I was over in that area I decided to go through St. Paul, Virginia to visit some friends there on our way home.  I traveled the route through McClure, Nora, Trammel, and Dante (for you furrinners, that’s Daynt, not Dan-tay).  I traveled past the Carter Stanley and Dr Ralph Stanley roads.  I remembered the time I got to attend a “Hills of Home” festival put on by the claw-hammer banjo-ist.  I actually got to speak to him like anybody.  He was just as plain and down to earth as could be.  

In “O, Brother Where art thou?” Stanley sings an ancient ballad depicting a contest between the soul and death.  It was placed in the movie at a point where the characters find themselves in the middle of a KKK rally.  It was a perfect placement of song and cinema.  This inclusion got Dr Stanley renewed notice by the music world and he enjoyed several years of extended touring from it.  

But his collection of recordings contain even more gems that can be mined by anyone willing to give them a serious consideration.  My personal favorite is “A Robin Built a Nest on Daddy’s Grave,” an uplifting song that builds hope after the experience of loss as the singer intones the truth that springtime points toward resurrection.  

Many Ralph Stanley songs can be found on YouTube and other sites, including iTunes.  I’m going to miss the man.  His grandson, Nathan and son Ralph Stanley, II, will try and carry on his work.  But there will be no one that can replace him.  

Brother Ralph, thank you for your songs, and thank you for a life well lived.  See you in Gloryland.  

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Life After 50

I read the other day that only a couple generations ago, it was not unusual for lifespans to go just a little past 60.  That makes the subject of this post all the more interesting.

My family does interesting things after age 50.

I was in seminary when my mother turned 50.  She was living in Garden Creek, Virginia, a pastor’s wife for a couple of United Methodist Churches there in Buchanan County.  I found out that she took a brave step and enrolled at Southwest Virginia Community College to begin work towards a degree.  She moved soon afterwards to Fries, Virginia, along the New River in Grayson County, and finished her schooling at Wytheville Community College.  She graduated with an associates degree.  Her children were extremely proud of her for making this brave step.  She had given up on school when she married our dad and found herself raising us three kids.  First as a military wife, while my dad was in the US Air Force at Rantoul, Illinois (Chanute AFB), where my yankee sisters were born, then back to Scott County, Virginia where I came along a little later, she made her life as a mother and homemaker.  Those are not to be scoffed at as jobs either, mind you, but we were glad to cheer her on when she began to “set her foot down” to finish an education.  She was able to make good grades, too.  She was a studious learner.  Later that degree helped her get hired as a legal secretary, in which capacity she worked until her retirement a few years ago.

Not to be outdone, my mother’s inspiring adventure at age 50 compelled my oldest sister to also start learning in the more mature years of life.  Having raised her two sons, part of the time as a pastor’s wife in Harlan, KY, and later back at Kingsport, she entered a nursing program at ETSU, where she finished upon her 50th year, and took honors.  She now works as an RN for the Wellmont system in Kingsport.

My other sister, upon getting her five kids all grown up, began her long-anticipated career.  The first to be educated in our family at Emory & Henry and Scarritt Colleges, she was equipped to be a church musician, and finally took to the choir loft and a Christian School as an instructor around the time she entered the 5th decade of life.  She still teaches, plays an organ, leads a praise band, and directs singers in services at a Lutheran church in Hampton, Virginia.

Being the only boy in the family, my 50th birthday took me a different direction.  I graduated with my doctorate from Memphis Theological Seminary the year before I turned 40, and kept preaching in churches to which I was appointed.  But my health was deteriorating.  Stresses of church leadership and poor self care had led me to a place where I was battling extremely high blood pressure by my 50th birthday.  I was back up to a weight that was not healthy, having waged a lifelong battle in that area, seeing limited success getting it back off.  On December 19th of that year I entered a CrossFit box in Bluefield, Virginia, where I began a journey toward health.  I’m now 52 and have dropped 90 pounds, 10 inches in my waist size, and discontinued all blood pressure and cholesterol medication.  I feel a great deal better and have energy I couldn’t have imagined before.  The CrossFit community have lifted my spirits as well.  My coach, Terry, and the group who work out with me at 5:45 am each weekday are constant inspirations.  I even ran a 5K this past April for the very first time in my life.  I came in around 36 minutes, which isn’t bad for a starter.  I’ve even enjoyed dropping in on gyms in other towns when I’ve had to travel.  The camaraderie is enticing, and I learn something each time I drop in.


Me, finishing my first 5k, April 10, 2016

All which is to say, even though people give us grief at those birthdays that end in “0” we can embrace new things and begin to live the next part of lives with gusto.  Don’t be scared of a number.  Dream big, and move forward.  And AARP does give good discounts!

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What a Wonderful World It Would Be . . .

Click Here to read a story on a Unity March at Emory & Henry College

I’m thankful for the student body at my Alma Mater, Emory & Henry College, for coming together to witness to the ideal that we should practice unity amidst the diversity of people in our world.  We need that witness.wXHCoZui

Racism and other “isms” have been around a long time.  It will take quite a while to eliminate them.  In fact, I wonder if we ever will.  After all, we live in the era of post-fall-from-grace humanity.  The “Adam and Eve after the Serpent’s Temptation” era.  This means, try as we might, (and try we’d better, by the way), we will never completely eliminate any sinful part of the human condition so long as we live in this sinful and broken world.  Yet, what a wonderful world it would be if we could make just a little more progress, at least.

This month marks the 32nd year since I preached my first sermon.  I was invited to preach it in a very small membership church, whose membership was composed of African American United Methodists.  There were 8 on the roll, I believe, at that time.  The sermon wasn’t much, after all, it was my first attempt.  But I was pleased that some 24 people came out to witness it.  Among them were friends from the college (I was a sophomore that year), and members of the church choir I was working with at the time from nearby Grace Presbyterian Church.  The encouragement I received that day will never be forgotten.  The black community in Glade Spring, Virginia is very close-knit, and filled with love and grace.

One of the members of that community was the custodian of Emory & Henry’s Memorial Chapel, where I often went to seek solace from the rigors of academia.  I would sit with him while he polished the brassware on the altar.  Dan Hounshell was a member of the Mt Carmel United Holy Church of Glade Spring.  He was filled with stories and it didn’t take much to get him started telling them.  We shared plenty during those years.  I remember his advice to me after graduating seminary:  “I’ve always said,” he started in his wisened style, “whenever you get more than eight or ten people together, you’ll have problems.”

A member of our Grace Choir, Mrs Virginia Lockhart, was another vital teacher of mine.  She broke the racial divide in that small Presbyterian Church when a friend invited her to sing in the choir, along with her granddaughters.  A fight ensued in the choir over her presence therein.  Things were said like “They have their own church.”  My buddy Scott and I stood up for her and said “If she goes, we go.”  They relented.  Although it wasn’t a piece of cake after that, we had a good alto section!  Virginia and I corresponded while I was a student in seminary at Duke.  I was enrolled in “Black Church Studies,” which was a requirement for all seminarians there at the time.  I told her I was ashamed of the way we white people had treated black folks, as I had been reading about it.  She was quick to agree, but also to point out, “Don’t you believe that there aren’t also some black folks who have done evil things too.”  I thought that comment helped me a lot in understanding that human nature is broken regardless of the context.

I spent some time in seminary with Will Campbell, the great Civil Rights preacher from Tennessee.  His works, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” and “40 Acres and a Goat” were pivotal in my understanding the work of those who have fought for justice during this era of social upheaval.  Campbell loved to get under folks’ skin.  For it’s beneath the skin that we all look the same.  He was the model after whom Doug Marlette, the cartoonist, drew Reverend Will B. Dunn.

There are many things to say about the racial divide.  We have a long way toward fixing that in America.  I cringe every time I think about how racially divided the church is.  I’ve had opportunities to worship where white, black and other ethnicities are present.  It seems so much fuller, and more faithfully driven when we’re together.  But the church is not the only segregated segment of our world.  There are others.

I have tried to befriend people who are different from me.  It isn’t always easy.  People who have been hurt by others who look like you don’t always want to try to trust another.  But that’s the only way we will move forward in this land.

Then I’m reminded as I do genealogy, that at least part of my family are referenced in documents that list people who were enslaved because of their skin color as property.  I am convicted of the sinfulness of my ancestors when I read those lists.

I hope the students at Emory & Henry continue to march for unity.  I hope many others will join them.  Hopefully I can be part of a similar effort here where I live.  Because I want to believe that if we work hard enough, we can eliminate the hate and ugliness that so often besets our prideful human life.  I hope we can follow the way of our Savior whose act of self-giving was central to how we are to come together.

Until we get there, let’s keep dreaming.

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You Can Get Your “Shout” Back

First, let me just add, I’m not a Pentecostal, but I do occasionally find myself in the position of shouting in worship.  The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that to you.  Sometimes you shed a tear, sometimes you feel a warm wave of the luminous Presence of God running through you, and sometimes you can’t hold back the shout.  Lately it has been a rare event that I’ve shouted.

It reminds me of that April when the snow began falling in great big, ole “Granny’s plucking her goose” sized snow-flakes.  I saw the snow coming, heard the forecasts about “significant accumulation” and waited.  And as it came down I paced and got nervous.  I saw the power lines and the tree limbs weighted down with the white stuff, and I wondered how this was going to end.  I woke up the next morning to the sound of “Pop!” “Fizzle!” and “Tweet!”  I popped up and started unplugging things.  My TV was making funny noises, the refrigerator was growling in an odd way, and the lights were not turning on.  A piece of the line that serviced our little parsonage had snapped.  We retained all 220 power but everything on 110 was off or severely limited.  We lost the microwave, the refrigerator, that TV and a whole big ball of nerve.  At least three feet of snow had accumulated.

It wasn’t so difficult finding a way to preserve our refrigerator food.  Some milk, cheese, sandwich meat and canned drinks were all we had, and we simply dug a hole in the snow bank and buried our goods in hope we could preserve their freshness for a few days.  The most entertaining thing was watching my dog, Lazarus, try to move through the yard.  She pitifully looked toward the house several times like “Man, aren’t you going to dig me out?”  So I finally got my shovel and shoveled her a path, from our back door to the gate in the fence near my neighbors.  They had called to check on us.  They still had power so they invited us to come to them for our meals.  Since we had heat, we stayed home most of the time, but fellowshipped with them at least twice a day.

I called the power company.  I always got recordings, but I kept trying.  Once I got an operator in Ohio or somewhere who assured me that the men were on the lines making repairs.  That was my hope for the nine days it took to get our power restored.  Each day I lost a little more sanity, and worried myself to death longing to get back to normal.  I wanted it for my dog, my wife, and if they were ok, then for me.

When the truck finally arrived to check out our line, the snow had begun to melt.  The food supply was just about gone from the snow bank.  We found out we were the only house in Tazewell without power.  It was the fault of a large tree near the corner of the garage, which found itself weakened by age and the weight of the snow.  We had branches trimmed and couldn’t wait to get power restored.  I can remember when it came back, we rejoiced with “joy unspeakable.”  And we had to restore our refrigerator, and find a new microwave, and change several light bulbs.  It probably took until well into May to get back to normal.  But we talked about that April snow for years.  We also learned to appreciate good neighbors, and vowed to be better neighbors ourselves in the future.

Along life’s way, there are times when things come along that darken our days, dampen our joy, and bring us pain and grief.  No matter how hard we try to avoid these things, they come along.  Sometimes the collective pain of life can cause us to withdraw from the source of life, to retreat into a corner where we try to preserve what we still have until the storm passes.  In so doing, we lose our perspective, and we sometimes lose our joy.

There are so many things in our world today that threaten our sense of safety and security.  These things are beyond our collective control.  From Sept 11, 2001 to now there has been a steady departure from faith and joy in our land.  People have become harder, and churches have become emptier.  At the very time we should be drawing closer to God, we’ve pushed God away and chosen destructive habits and desires, perhaps in an attempt to cover our pain.

I was traveling through Claypool Hill, Virginia, the other day.  I like to tune into a religious radio station there sometimes.  I did so and heard a group of people trying to have church at the station.  They shared prayer requests, and then one of them sang a song.  This song is one I’ve been blessed by in the past.  As they sang it, in spite of the lackluster voices, and the fact they were having trouble staying in tune, I felt the Holy Spirit in the words they were sharing.  Before I knew it I was shouting.  I don’t mean just hollering, I was shouting praise to God.  I drove a little further and still had to shout a while.  This happened three more times that day.  I couldn’t stop.  I know if its fake you can turn it on and off at will.  If it’s real, though, it just comes when it comes, and stays for the time the Spirit says it will stay.  I can’t tell you how joyful it feels to get your shout back.

It wasn’t that long ago I lost a granddaughter.  Before that was a stream of well-loved relatives, and a little unborn daughter we miscarried.  That and the spiritual malaise in which so many of us are living had taken its toll on me.  But this day, this wonderfully random day, I found myself rising above the pain of life.  I found the joy of the Lord residing in my soul once again.  I couldn’t say “Thank you, Lord” enough.  The snow of my soul’s winter began to give way to the first buds of a renewed spring.  Jesus said that if you trusted in him, he would give you “life-giving water.”  That gift is ours for the asking.

I hope in this season of spring, as the weather breaks, and the birds return, and the landscape greens up again, that you will find your “shout.”  And I hope you’ll rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.

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