Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Unless...

I'm frustrated.  This is long, but stick with me.  I own up front that this is mostly rant.  

In January of 2009 I got a phone call that has forever changed my life.

"Jen is having some kind of seizure.  They're taking her to the hospital by ambulance.  Get here."

Two months later I choked back tears as we sat in St. Louis Children's Hospital at Washington University.  I was handed a business card, and I looked up and asked the nurse practitioner, "Why are we in the epilepsy center?"  She looked at us and said, "Because your daughter has epilepsy."  Light faded to dark.  I could feel hope disappear.  Flashes of the life we'd hoped for her ran through my head.  The first image that came to my mind was from the third grade, as I watched a girl in the 4th grade laid out on the gym floor at Cuba Elementary, flopping like a fish out of water.  That had been my only exposure to epilepsy.  I will never get that image out of my mind.  I remember her hobbling around school on crutches because she couldn't walk well.  I knew she was in the "special" class.  In 1980 there was a taboo surrounding epilepsy and I was so afraid that there still was.   

Not my daughter.

This can't be real.  I kept hoping for the "Because your daughter has epilepsy, but..." from the nurse practitioner but it never came.  That appointment was followed by God only knows how many more, so many tests, so many disappointing results, and a total lack of answers as to why this was happening.

Then the theologian in me kicked in and I started an eight year theodicy struggle.  In the scriptures, most of the references to demonic possession were actually cases of undiagnosed epilepsy.  Those stories talk about the "demon" throwing kids into fires to try to kill them, or God only knows what else.  How could God let this happen?  Why her?  Why now?  She's so young and this is going to change her world forever.  She'll never drive a car.  She'll never live independently.  What about brain damage?  What about memory loss?  Will she ever be able to have kids?  What's this going to mean for any future career?

Anti-seizure medications by the handful.  Side effects I don't even want to think about.  Mood changes.  Weight gain.  Hair that fell out in clumps.  This stuff was all happening to our baby girl and we were powerless to stop it.

So we started reading.  We read everything we could find on epilepsy.  Medical journals.  Chats.  Forums.  Websites.  Anything that might offer some hope as to a way to control this disease, because there is no cure, we read and re-read, hoping for some connection.  Yet every possible connection, every new hope, everything we tried...we'd wait...then the seizures would come again.

Picture with me for just a minute.  I'm standing in the kitchen cooking breakfast one morning and she walks through the room with that tell tale stare.  I knew what was going to happen, so my first move was to get her on the couch.  That way, when the seizure hit, at least she wouldn't fall and hurt herself.  The next thing I see is my 18 year old daughter standing in front of me crying, with blood running down her face and off  of her elbows.  I cleaned blood out of her carpet for an hour and a half that morning.  Every time I thought I had it out, more blood would come to the top.

Then there was the time she seized and fell into the entertainment center.  I grabbed her by the feet and pulled her out into the middle of the floor so that she would stop beating her head against the shelves on the bookcase.  Or the time she seized in the shower and it was just she and I there.  I pulled her out of the shower so she wouldn't drown, and there was my daughter, on the floor, flopping like a fish out of water...the exact same image I had in my head from 1980...playing in front of me in their bathroom.

Those are just some of the times this demon has disrupted her life.  Her mother could tell countless other horror stories.

I'm saying all of that to say this...we as a society are so quick to jump into someone else's world and offer advice.

Don't.
         Don't.
                 Don't.  It's not helpful.  Don't offer any cliche's.  Don't make a big deal of a seizure, but don't ignore it either.  Don't say "Well, it could be worse."  Absolutely do not say, "You just have to have faith that she is going to be healed."  It's not that simple.  Don't say, "At least it's not..."  This one is less than helpful, "If I were you, I'd..."  Why?  Because you're not me...or her...

See, we know all of those things.  We know it could be worse.  We know that there are folks who struggle with things way worse than epilepsy.  We know what other folks have done and tried to treat this demon of a disease.  We've read just about everything that has been written on every possible treatment.  Don't argue politics about what's legal and what's not.  And for the love of God don't argue theology with me.

What you can do instead, and that might actually be helpful, is encourage.  Remind those who are struggling that they are loved and supported.  Offer to help if you know it's been a rough day. Talk to them about it, not about them to someone else.  Let us be angry and/or frustrated.  Be there.  That's all you need to do.  That's all we ask.  Be an ear...be a calm presence...be a source of hope...

I'm writing this, choking back tears, as we start yet one more treatment today to hopefully find her triggers.  If we can just find the triggers, we can begin to control this damnable disease.  As we do that, please be encouraging.  That's all we have left.

One last thing, unless you've been where we are (and I insert anyone here who is struggling with anything) do not offer me advice. 


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Who Will?

"There's an opportune time to do things, a right time for everything on the earth..." (Ecclesiastes 3:1, The Message)

I believe in seasons.  Where I live, in Western Kentucky, we get to watch them change with a sure sense of consistency.  Winter is followed by spring.  Spring by summer.  Summer by fall.  Fall by winter.  Then the cycle starts all over again.

I'm learning that the same is true in life and in my work.  Good times are followed by bad times.  Bad times are followed by good times.  Lows are followed by highs, and highs by lows.  In my work as a pastor, there are seasons of great growth and spiritual renewal, followed by seasons of doubt and exhaustion.  It happens.  It's the nature of things.  It no longer surprises me.

However, when we find ourselves in one of the down times, and we will find ourselves there if we do this work long enough, we have two options, really.  Either we continue on, waiting for the morning when we feel the winds begin to change, we notice the brightness of the colors outside our office windows again, and we find our purpose being restored...or, we give up and quit.  Folks say that no pastor should ever resign on a Monday, and I get that, but they didn't say anything about a Wednesday or a Friday, and if we're honest, we've all been tempted.

I've realized over the past 18 years of pastoral ministry that there are just going to be times when you want to throw in the towel and do something else.  This is a tough work we are called to.  There are times when the phone rings and it sends chills up your spine, or someone stops you to say, "Do you have a minute" and it makes you grit your teeth.  I know that biting your tongue to keep from saying what you may want to say at times becomes exhausting.  And, there are times when you are just one more meeting away from throwing a backpack in the truck and driving off into the sunset.  BUT...I've also realized that this, too, is just part of it.  

Today something hit me like a brick between the eyes.

This is the Saturday after Easter and Easter, for a pastor, is the busiest time of the year.  I've spent this past week trying to get caught up on the things that had to wait while we were getting ready for Easter.  My body is tired.  My spirit is tired.  My emotions are tired.  Again, it's just part of it and I knew that when I signed up for this gig.

What hit me today was actually something that I say every Sunday without fail.  It's my benediction at the close of our worship service at Grace, and this week it became a reality for me.

There is so much hurt in our world.  There are so many people who feel like no one cares.  There is so much wrong with so many systems.  Our county's demographics paint a picture of struggle on a fairly large scale and, honestly, there are no easy answers.

Because of what I do I find myself in situations that, before I went into the ministry, I'm not sure I even imagined as being real.  Sometimes there is such a sense of need and urgency that it really can be overwhelming.  Years ago, during a very similar season, I asked my mentor, "What do you do when the weight of carrying  your people's burdens gets to heavy?"  In an attempt to draw me out of the valley he said, "You go crazy like the rest of us."

Today, I have found myself climbing out again.

It started with a text.  "Can I call you?"
"Sure"

I won't offer any details but the pain on the other end of the phone was real...more so than other phone calls I get.

After I hung up the phone, these words hit me...

"If we don't go...who will?"

That's my benediction every Sunday as we close worship at Grace.  I always tie it into whatever the message was about and I will say something like, '"they' don't know that there is a loving God just waiting for them." Or "'they' don't know that they are not the sum totals of their past mistakes."  Or "'they' don't know that grace, forgiveness, and a new beginning can be theirs."  Then I will say this, every week...

"How will they know if they're not told?  How will they be told if no one goes?  And if we don't go, who will?"

After I hung up the phone I almost began to weep because the God who called me into this work asked me that very same question as I was walking across my living room.  "Jamie, they're hurting, and if you don't go who will?"

Here's why it hit me...  This really is exhausting work, but I don't mind the exhaustion.  Three times this past week, that I know of, I've lost my patience in three different situations and it showed.  I have seriously had to guard my words.  I have had to just walk away for a few minutes.  I've wanted to quit.  It seemed like nothing matter, and in a very self-serving way I've wanted to ask, "What's the point?"  Today, God began to restore my compassion, and it was very much needed.

Occasionally, even we need that.  We have given our lives to the work of the gospel, the Good News.  We have taken vows to shepherd our flocks.  We study.  We listen.  We pray.  We plan.  What I have found though, is that sometimes, the ones who need us the most get lost in all of the busy-ness that comes with our calling.  Lately, that has happened to me, and for that, I ask forgiveness.

I'm not even going to try to justify it by saying that I'm only human.  I am.  But that's not the point.  I had forgotten why I got into this in the first place...it wasn't to fill up church pews or lead awesome meetings...it was because I could see how folks were hurting and I wanted to do something to help.  I knew that something could only be found in the one who had called me.  

So, my clergy brothers and sisters, I feel your frustrations and your exhuastion.  I know you cringe sometimes when your phone rings, as do I.  I know our work seems to be never ending at times.  But my prayer for myself and all of us is that we remember why we do what we do.  Yes, we have mission statements and catch phrases, but there's also a word full of hurting people just outside our doors.  How will they know they are the beloved of the Almighty if they're not told?  How will they be told if no one goes?  And if we don't go, who will?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Grace in a guitar case.

Monday morning...

I walked out to my car after I got up, opened the door, and saw that it was gone.  The "it" was my Epiphone DOT ES335, Gold Tone.  Beautiful guitar.  It's a semi hollow body, with gold knobs and tuners.  Tobacco sunburst.  Absolutely gorgeous...for a guitar.  The strap was a Father's Day gift from my kids.  Gone.  I knew what had happened instantly.

I immediately checked the other cars and the camper, then the garage.  My car was the only one hit evidently.  I came in the house, sent my neigbor a text and told him to check his vehicles.

I was shaking.
Furious.

I knew what the guitar and strap cost, and knew it would be pointless to call my insurance company.  They were gone.  You hardly ever get things back once they've been stolen.

My first stop was city hall.  I needed to file a report.  I told them about my car.  Told them my neighbor's truck had been hit, too.  While the clerk was on the phone with the sheriff's office, she told me that another neighbor had been hit, too.  The thief actually broken into his garage.  At least he didn't try to get into my house.

After a pretty lengthy conversation with a deputy sheriff, and our city police chief, we started to put a few things together that might lead to an arrest.  It was a long shot, but at least it was a shot.

What really bothered me wasn't the guitar.  I can buy another guitar.  What bothered me was the fact that we were all asleep inside the house while someone was in our driveway going through my stuff.  My sense of security was gone.  You can't replace that.  The police can't get it back.  You can't buy it at the store.  I've loaded my shotgun and put it within easy reach, made sure all of the windows are locked, and left the outside lights on, but that sense of security is still gone.

Then I got a text from our police chief yesterday.  They caught him.  They found my guitar.  My first thought was "I wonder how long they'll lock this guy up for?"  Then I got a name.  Then I looked him up on social media.  Then I saw his face.  He's just a kid...with a brand new baby.

Suddenly, and for reasons I can't explain, everything changed. I wasn't mad anymore.  I should have been.  This kid came into my driveway, stole my guitar out of my car, and took away my family's sense of security.  I wasn't mad anymore.  Instead, I started thinking about that baby, and the picture of him holding her was seered into my brain.

This morning I called our county attorney.  She's a friend of mine.  I told her that I wanted this kid to know, and I didn't understand why, but I wasn't mad at him; and that, as the victim here, I wanted to see him in rehab instead of jail.  Monday morning I wanted to lock him up myself, but not now.

The anger was gone, and today I want to see this kid get some help.  I'm even willing to walk with him through the process.

Now, before you start saying, "Look at what a good guy this dude is..."  Don't.  I'm not.  If I had walked out Monday morning when my dog started barking and actually caught him in my car this story might have a completely different ending.  It's just that something happened last night, and this morning, that I can't explain.  Yes I can.

See, church folk have this annoying little habit of just throwing bible verses at folks willy nilly.  It enfuriates me.  Many times, though, it's what we're known for.  This week I've had the "turn the other cheek" text, something from Ephesians, and a general statement about the fact that I'm a pastor and I'm not supposed to let folks know I'm mad thrown in my face...by church folk.

Screw that.
It's not helpful.  At all.
And I promise you that it had absolutely nothing...zero...zilch...nada...to do with the fact that I woke up feeling differently about this kid today.  

Yes, I know that I'm held to a little higher standard, as screwed up as that is, but I just needed to be mad for a while.

What church folks are not so great at sometimes, is compassion.  Not just for folks who look, act, and live like we do...but for folks who feel that the only way they can get something to eat or a place to sleep is to steal from someone else.

See, my job deals with grace...a lot.  I talk about the God of second chances, third, fourth, fifth chances.  If you're at Grace Church on any given Sunday morning you're going to hear something about grace.  Why?  Because that's the Good News.  I deal with alchoholics, addicts, folks in recovery, folks with long criminal records, and folks still in jail.  I've been lied to, lied about, thrown under the bus, called names, had my own name dragged through the mud, and that list goes on and on.  But because of what I do, I try to look past that.  Forgive and you shall be forgiven, right?  It says something like that.

Monday morning, I wanted none of that, though.  Just being honest.  I wanted this guy caught and punished to the fullest extent of the law.  I wanted to hear the judge hand down the absolute maximum sentence.  I felt violated.  I was scared.  I felt like I had lost all sense of control.

Then last night I thought, "Maybe I can help this kid turn things around so that baby doesn't grow up without a daddy."  I don't know if I can or not, but that's not the point.

The point is...my anger, for reasons beyond my understanding, has turned into a sense of compassion for the very kid that stole from me.  It makes no freaking sense.  None at all...but that's where I am now.

This Sunday's message is about community and kingdom accountability.  We hold each other accountable for our actions.  The things we do affect more than just us.  But within community there is also support.
  
The lesson for me in all of this is more than the fact that I'm the pastor and I'm not supposed to cuss when I'm mad or scared.  Some folks think that.  The lesson for me is that when folks are at a point in their life when the only path they see is one of illegal activities, or if they've been caught in addictions, or if they've finally hit rock bottom and actually survived, that's when they need us the most.

WWJD?

I can't say for certain, but I have a feeling that he would have looked at this kid, said "Don't do it again," and gotten him some help.  That's just a guess.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Different Angle

Have you ever had one of those days that had you scratching your head nearly constantly?  You know what I mean.  One of those days where it seems like everything you see makes you want to just close the curtains, lock the door, and forget that you're part of this spinning orb...even just for a little bit?  It's not been anything earth shattering, but I've been told that I can't post anything on social media tonight, so I'm going to write for a few.  If you need a distraction because life is treating you like a repeat root canal, or you just can't figure out...well, never mind.  If you want to keep reading, come with me and see where this goes.  If you don't, Big Bang is on TV and it's a great episode right now.  I'll still love ya.

So, here it goes.  It's no secret that I'm a pastor, and have been for over 17 years.  It's also no secret that I'm a non-traditionalist.  Honestly, I have no clue where that came from.  My mom and dad raised me right.  I was born into a very traditional, very rural, very conservative, wonderful little church.  I loved those folks and they loved me like one of their own.  We had a slight falling out during my teen years and I moved on to become part of another congregation.  Then, years later, I was actually sent by my Bishop back to that little country, conservative, traditional, rural church...of which I had been born into years before...to serve as their pastor.  It was great.  I could not have asked for a better place to spend my first year in ministry.  That being said, I honestly have no clue why I am the way that I am.

I am a non-traditionalist.  That doesn't mean that I don't value tradition.  I do very much.  It was what formed me in the faith during my growing up years.  It's just that I think I've gotten to a place in my life where I don't idolize tradition like I once did. Now, I think that I just view things from a different angle.  Honestly, sometimes that makes me feel somewhat the freak.  Bear with me for a few and I'll explain.

I don't accept everything at face value anymore.  Before seminary all of my training and education were in the sciences.  My Bachelor degree is in biology.  I spent most of my college career in the streams, forests, and fields of Western Kentucky, catching insects, fish, and reptiles, and classifying plants.  I think that caused me to go into my theological education with a desire to know the where, why, how, and when.  So, as a pastor, I've tried to carry that into my conversations, leadership style, and preaching.

I'm also not a very deep thinker.  Systematic theology?  I stink at it.  Jesus said, "Love God with everything you have, and love others the way you love you."  That I can wrap my head around.  Paul's eschatology, or his resurrection theology, are a little more of a struggle for me.

Now, that being said...I also feel like I may be in the minority.  Because of that I feel like the kid that no one wants to play with sometimes.  Not that it's completely a bad thing...it's just a struggle sometimes.  It's wonderfully freeing for me, because I feel like I am finally at a place in my life where I understand a little of what's going on inside my head.  Yet, at the same time, it can be terribly frustrating.

As a pastor, my job is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, who then go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  But part of my job is to also lead the church to which I am appointed.  Part of leading the church to which I am appointed involves trying to figure out ways to bring the gospel to a hurting world, and maybe, if I'm lucky, see folks start coming to worship.  Granted, that is a by-product, and not the goal, but still.  It kind of is.

The struggle is this: church signs and social media.  Sometimes they make my job next to impossible because folks see things on church signs, or posted on social media, and think "If that's what the Church is like, I don't want any part of it."  What I'm trying to do is show folks that it really has nothing to do with the church as an institution, but about how different their life can be once they say "Yes" to a relationship with the God of all creation.

Today, true story...I saw a church sign that said, "He was born.  He died.  He rose.  Your turn."

Honest.

Now, as a theologian, I think I understand what they were trying to say.  Christmas is the time we celebrate the birth.  Good Friday is when we recognize the cost of our salvation. Easter is when we celebrate the fact that death does not get the last word.  I get that.  "Your turn," is an invitation to make a decision on living a new life because of what Christ did on the cross.  I understand.  Honest.  But...a four line church sign saying that, where folks are going to see it at 55 mph, scratch their head and move on...really isn't helpful.  "Your turn..."  Wait, it's my turn to be born, die, and rise again?  What?

And then social media.  Help us, sweet Jesus.  It absolutely breaks my heart to hear about the total devastation that happened this weekend in Eastern Tennessee.  Such loss of natural beauty, not to mention the loss of wildlife, and the cost to rebuild.  Forest fires wipe out everything in their path.  So do tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, straight line winds, earthquakes, and the list goes on.  They are destructive on a level that most folks can't even comprehend unless you have been affected by them.  I can't imagine, personally.  What they aren't however...they're not necessarily of God.  For the souls whose lives are lost in any natural disaster, God's heart breaks.  I believe that.  What I can't believe is that God would take a life, be it human or lower animal, and use that to convince folk to "Get ready," if you know what I mean.  The wildfires that just destroyed a huge chunk of the Smoky Mountains, and this is just a guess, were probably caused by some idiot with a match, and fueled by 80 mph wind gusts.  They were not a sign of the end times, nor were they a judgement on humanity.  But that's just Jamie.  

Since this was titled "A different angle," I feel that I now have to present one.  One line church sign sermons are never a good idea because so often they are scriptures posted that are taken completely out of context, or worst case, they're just cheesy.  Folks see through that, and will probably be even less likely to give your worshipping congregation a shot.  If you have a sign and need to post something, try this, "Come and see."  It's the invitation Jesus gave two of the would be disciples, and because of those three words, two men went on to help turn the world upside down.

Social media...just because you can post it doesn't mean you should.  I will defend to the death your right to believe anything you want to believe, but promise me you'll do some biblical interpretation...no, biblical exegesis...before you post something relating scripture to natural disasters.  To do solid biblical exegesis, go to a commentary, see what was going on when that text was written...look for who it was written to...see if you can figure out why the author wrote it down in the first place.  The families of those who lose their lives in any natural disaster, or who have seen their worlds completely destroyed by the same, do not need to know that you think God was using this to get people's attention, and hopefully get them to "turn so they don't burn."

Now, why did I do this?  Not because I'm a jerk.  I may be, but that's not why I did this.  I wrote this because I'm frustrated.  I've given my life to a call to ministry and making a difference in the world.  I've seen the damage that churches can do in the lives of folks who feel that they are different.  I want people to think for themselves about who they are as children of the Almighty, and what that might meant for the way they live their lives, instead of just swallowing what is spoon fed to them.  I've seen the systems that keep folks from becoming part of a worshipping body, and want to do all I can to bring them down.  Why?  Because people, and the souls of those same people, are too important.  Feeling like you have no place to belong is devastating.  Being made to feel guilty, or less than, because you think differently is wrong.

As I've been working on this Sunday's message the last two days, one of the things that keeps coming to mind is that Jesus keeps showing up, unexpected, to the folks who feel like they are the most unworthy, but who need him the most.  Many times, it's those of us who are already on the inside, who...with good intentions, no doubt...prevent that from happening.

So, I guess this is a shout out to my fellow "outside the box" kind of folk.  Not all of us church folk are like what you see on church signs or posting on social media.  Most of us are trying to figure all of this out just like you are.  Most of us know that we are sinners in need of grace.  Many of us crave the freedom to think for ourselves but don't feel safe doing so.  We want to dig into these ancient, beautiful stories and see what they said to the people who heard them first, and what they can say to us all of these years later.  A lot of us cringe when we see things on church signs or posted on social media because we understand how it's going to make you feel.  And probably all of us ask that you don't judge us on the actions of a few.

If that's you, hit me up.  I'd love to sit down and talk with you.  I promise that I won't push a churchy agenda.  I will not judge you for the metal in your face or the color you dyed your hair.  We'll compare tattoos if you want.  I just want the opportunity to tell you about this guy who finally convinced me that I'm not the sum total of my past mistakes.  That's a church sign quote I could get behind.

Ok, rant is over.  Just don't get me started on neck ties.

Peace,
J

Thursday, September 29, 2016

When the warm fuzzies go cool

That's when I realized I was in trouble.

I'm sitting in Leawood, Kansas at the Church of the Resurrection, I think the largest UMC in the denomination.  I'm not sure.  This week nearly 2000 church leaders are sitting in this room, waitng to learn how to be better leaders.

The band warmed up.  Worship started.  The audio was perfect.   The lights went down.  The lyrics popped on the screen.  Everything that we have thought was important for great, progressive, cutting edge worship was in place.

As I sat here, it hit me...nothing.  I felt nothing.  Instead I was looking around at the folks who were trickling in.  I was thinking about all of the things I needed to do when I get back.  I don't sleep well on the road and the last two nights have just reinforced that.  I had absolutely nothing as worship started.

The warm fuzzies that have kept me going for the last 17 years were cold.  Nothing. Nada.  Zilch.  Then I thought, "I'm in trouble.  I mean, really in trouble.  Something is bad wrong."

I've been trying, honestly.  I've cut back on time spent in the office.  I'm trying to find my joy in the things I used to do.  I'm trying to take time for self care, you know, a regular day off, Sabbath rest, less of the unhealthy and more of the healthy.  But...I just now realized that I'm not sure it's working.

Now, let me clarify, I love my job.  I love the church I serve.  We are doing things as a group that I've not seen done in a lot of other churches. We're reaching people that others don't want anything to do with.  I love my God, and I'm thankful for the call on my life.  I can't imagine ever doing anything else, except for the occasional day when I'd trade my church keys for a burger stand on the side of the road.  Hey, it happens.  I just own it.

But...I know I'm not alone in realizing that sometimes the warm fuzzies go cold.  We burn out.  We crash.  We don't feel the same we did when this ministry gig was new.  We may even find ourselves questioning whether or not we even need to be doing it.  Then we have a moment where we that realization slaps us in the face, and we have a decision to make...

Do we keep pushing, knowing that we are operating at the very edges of our limitations?  Folks, that's ego.  Pure and simple.

Or, do we take that moment of realization, that epiphany, the revelation that maybe something is out of whack, and use it as a catalyst to begin some major changes in our lives?

Let me get real for a minute.  If you are a church leader, as I am...and if you are not taking the necessary time to take care of yourself...I'm not either...you are doing your people, your family, your denomination, the kingdom, yourself, and the God who called you a great disservice.

We are not all that and a bag of chips.

There are people in our churches who can do some of the things we think we have to do, and they can do them well.  Let them.

I know your type.  I am one.  I know how passionate you used to be about your calling.  I know how hard you worked to get through school and jump through all of the hoops.  I know how many meals get interrupted by phone calls, and how many vacations get cut short because of emergencies.

I know.
I get it.
Trust me.

I know how you've laid awake at night worrying about how your church was going to make budget, or about the metrics, or why folks are leaving.  I know what is going on in your head, and how you think that if you just work a little harder, or a little longer, or if you do this or that, things will get better.  Well, guess what...it's not about you...or me.  We are tools God is using to build the kingdom.

I know that you may be thinking now, "I'm not feeling it as much either, lately."  Why are you not feeling it?  My guess is that, like me, you've been running on empty for so long that you can't remember what it's like to serve out of your passion.  Instead you've become an empty vessel, still trying to pour out for others what you no longer have for yourself.  Know what?  You (we) can't do it.

I want it back.  I want that feeling and that passion back.  I want to serve my God and my church out of the passion I had in the beginning.  But...for me to do that, for me to reclaim that place, there are some things that have to change.  I'm not answering my phone after 5 or 6 at night unless it's an emergency.  I'm going to fight the urge to go check into the office on my day off.  I'm working on a plan that will let me take the entire month of January off for renewal.  I've had to save vacation for it, but I honestly think that it will be worth it.

I'm not a touchy feely kind of guy, even though I'm probably more emotional than most guys.  I have, however, learned to pay attention to those gut feelings, and today, this is what that gut feeling said, "Jamie, you're in trouble.  Fix it.  Now."

So church leader, you're doing great things.  Your people need you, but they need you to take care of yourself.  If you're struggling with some of the things I've talked about here, send me a facebook message.  We'll talk.

Ya know, even just writing all of this down makes me feel a little better.  Hopefully this is the beginning of my own personal rediscovery.  Hopefully, you've seen yourself in this and will become intentional about your own.  The kingdom is counting on us.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

$2 Can I get $3 - Reflections on an estate auction

I process through writing, and have for a lot of years now.


This has been an unusually rough summer.  Over three months I've had one reminder after another that nothing stays the same.  First came the loss of my hunting buddy, Richard.  He was nearly 40 years older than I am but we had so much fun together.  That was the message I tried to bring when I was asked to officiate his funeral.  Next came the loss of my Grandmother within a couple weeks.  At her funeral I tried to step out of the grandson mode and into pastor mode so that I would be able to officiate that day.  Four days later came the loss of my grandmother-in-law. Though we weren't blood related, she had been a grandmother to me for 27 years.

Today, we had my Grandmother's estate auction.  This was the second auction my family and I had gone through together, the first being the day Grandma sold their farm and moved to town.  I thought today would be easier.  I was wrong.

I'm thankful for the folks who came out for the auction, but at the same time, it was hard to see their things laid out on a table and hear those words over and over again, "Two dollars, can I get three?"  The reality is...it was all just stuff...trinkets...household items...and angels.  Grandma loved angels.  To most folks that's all it was...just stuff.  And the auctioneer, God bless him, had to work hard to even get the $3 sometimes.  Some of the things auctioned off today, I didn't even know Grandma had.  Some of it, though, as soon as I laid eyes on it, after who knows how many years since I saw it last, a flood of memories overtook me.

A corn-silk brush...I'm not sure you can even still buy those...buried in a box of kitchen utensils...took me back immediately to when I was a kid, and how summer after summer, we'd spend days sitting under the pine trees in their back yard, watching Grandma brush ear after ear of sweet corn and pick the silks off of it.

A worn and rusted putty knife...also buried in a box of other random items...made me stop and think about all of the hours that putty knife must have spent in my Granddaddy's or my Grandma's hands.  Their hands had worn the handle on that knife smooth.

A little blue rubber ball...tucked inside a tote filled with matchbox cars and children's books...made me remember the last couple years of Granddaddy's life, and how we'd sit in their living room while he tossed that little blue ball to my baby girls.

An ancient folding card table...left almost for last and just tossed in with a bunch of other stuff...wasn't just a card table, it was Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners as the family began to grow.

$2, can I get $3?

Emotionally, I'm wiped out.  Completely.  I'm man enough to admit that I have cried more this summer than I have in a long time, and it happened again today.  Maybe I'm just too damned sentimental for my own good.  Perhaps I should try to be more practical.  So in that spirit, I offer this:

It's not the stuff.  It's really not.  I probably have a dozen putty knives of my own buried in one toolbox or another.  I can pick up a little blue ball for a dollar in just about any store.  Card tables?  I already had one...and the chairs to go with it.  It's not the stuff.

It's the memories tied to the stuff.

Part of me is very thankful that the things my grandparents worked for and accumulated over their lifetimes have now been given new life with new owners.  No, really, I am.  Was it hard to watch?  Yes.  But, I couldn't  have bought everything, even if I wanted to, nor should I have.  Why?  Because it's not about the stuff.

I'm so thankful that I was able to spend enough time with them, growing up, so that a worn out corn-silk brush meant what it meant to me today.  I'm thankful that my grandparents had the work ethic they did to even wear the handle smooth on a putty knife.  I'm so very thankful for that little ball, so that I can tell my girls, as long as I have breath, just how much their Daddy James enjoyed tossing that ball to them.

When my time comes, and it's coming, I want my life to be more than stuff spread out on an auction table.  I want my kids to look at all of that stuff and say, "Do you remember how he used to...?"  Or, "Do you remember how he used to use this for...?"  Or, "Do you remember how this always sat by his chair?"  It's not about the stuff.  It's about what the stuff brings to mind for those of us who are left behind.

During the auction today, I said that the whole experience was making me want to just give everything I own away and live the rest of my life out of a dufflebag... because estate auctions suck.  I think I've changed my mind...not about estate auctions themselves, they still suck, but about the emotions surrounding that day.

Was it difficult?  Good Lord, yes.  Was it painful?  At times.  But...every kitchen utensil...my grandmother had used to fix a holiday meal.  The putty knife...one of them had used it to fix something instead of throwing it out and buying a new one.  The little ball...my kids knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that their great-grandparents loved them dearly.

So I leave you with this, it's a challenge to live the rest of your days in such a manner that when the auctioneer says, "$2, can I get 3?" the stuff on the table will be priceless to your family.  Then let someone else take that $3 box and use it to do the same for their family.

      

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Theological Reflections From a Tattoo Parlor...

So, this isn't your typical preacher type thing...but I'm not a typical preacher type.

My oldest daughter, Jen, has been asking for a tattoo since she was 15.  She is now 20.  I told her all those years ago that when she decided what she really wanted, and could tell me why she really wanted it...and after she turned 18...I'd take her to get her first ink.  I also told her that I'd get another one when she did.  That would make 4 for me.

Jen was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 12, so this was something that she wanted, and a part of her life that she might actually have a little control over.  Some parents, and especially some preacher dads, might have thrown a fit over it, but it was fine with me.

Yesterday, I went to the shop where I had my other three done to set up an appointment.  Hank, the artist, asked me if we wanted to just do them last night, so I went home, got Jen, and we came back to get inked.

While we were waiting for him to finish with the client before us, I was people watching.  It's one of my favorite things to do.  I love to see how folks interact with each other in different settings, and since so many church folks have lived relatively sheltered lives (in some cases) it's a way for me to bring the rest of the world into my homiletics.

The tattoo parlor crowd isn't your typical Sunday morning crowd.  And if you lead a church, I encourage you to just visit a parlor and get to know some of the folks.  It's kind of eye opening.  Here's why...

First, the racial diversity when we got there was split just about 50/50.  Today, especially, anywhere you can find that kind of diversity and everyone is getting along, spend some time in that place.  That by itself was pretty cool.

Next, there were some folks who came in who, you could tell, struggled with the necessities of life.  Some folks might judge them for "wasting" money on ink when there were so many other things that they might need the money for worse.  In this case, though, the ink was a cover up from a bad decision earlier in life.  That reminded me to be a little slower to judge...or not judge at all.

After that I noticed a couple of young guys come in on motorcycles.  I know what you're thinking....and yes, they were on bikes...and yes, their language was more than just a little colorful...and yes, they were inked...and one of them even had a small bottle of cinnamon whiskey on him...but when they walked in, everyone in that place knew them and welcomed them in like family.  For them, that was a place where they knew they fit in, and they belonged.  That made me wonder how many churches would have given them the same kind of welcome.

Then there was Pat.  Pat looked like anyone's grandma, but in that little shop, she was treated like family.  You could tell she didn't have much.  She had lost her husband a few years ago and gotten a tattoo as a memorial.  This year she came back to get some work added to it.  Watching Hank interact with Pat while he was working and she was just standing there talking, made me wish I could talk to my Grandma again.  You wouldn't expect to see your Grandma in a tattoo parlor, but there she was, and she was one of them.  It was beautiful. 
 
Then, came a young woman from the back of the parlor.  I'd never met her before.  I'd never seen her before.  She came out to offer our artist something to eat for supper.  If you're at all familiar with the life of a tattoo artist, a regular schedule is not something they enjoy very often.  He stopped for a minute and fixed a sandwich.  Then...get this...she looked at us, two people she'd never seen before, and said, "Here, fix a sandwich.  You may be here a while."  She didn't offer just once, but three times, and was almost insistent that we fix a sandwich from the BBQ they had bought earlier in the day.  Did I mention that we had never met?  It made me stop and think about what hospitality really looks like, and what it means to really welcome the stranger.

Finally, it was our turn to get in the chair.  Jen was nervous and wanted me to go first so she could watch.  I sat down.  Hank set the template on my foot and got ready to start outlining my Jolly Roger.  The two guys on the bikes, from earlier, came back in and talked to me just like they'd known me all of their lives.  One of them joked about my pink T-shirt, and I joked back about it taking a real man to pull off that look.  I'd never seen either of them and we were cutting up and laughing like we had gone to school together.  They wanted to see my tattoo when Hank was finished with it.  An hour and half later, I was done, and it was Jen's turn.

She sat down in the chair, scared to death.  As bad as mine hurt, I didn't flinch or make any noise because I knew she was watching and was already nervous.  Hank set her template, they got it situated where she wanted it, and he went to work.  Jay, the other artist in the shop, came up from the back and he and I talked with Jen to keep her distracted.  Jay spent a half hour just standing there talking to us while she got her first tattoo.  That made me wonder about the other things he might have needed to be doing for that half hour, but instead, he stood there with us.  That was pretty cool.

Now for the theological reflection part.

A T-shirt covers my first three tattoos.  If I have on a shirt, you'd never know I had any ink.  That was intentional because of what I do for a living.  I know that some church folk are not crazy about their preacher having tattoos, so it's not something I push into others' faces.  When we walked in, we walked into a world that some folks never see, and probably wouldn't know how to handle if they did.  There is this stigma that, while not as prevalent now as in years past, is still attached to those with tattoos, those who are tattoo artists, and tattoo parlors.  Let's just be honest...for some, there is still this image of a tattoo parlor as some back alley underground, full of people who some see as less than, and there's nothing but drug sales and drinking going on.

In some places, that may be true.  But it's also true in some schools, grocery stores, just about any other business setting you can think of, and (gulp) the homes of some church folk.  What I saw last night, was the exact kind of welcome we read about in the gospels.  Jesus ruined his reputation with church folk by hanging out with folks they snubbed their noses at.  He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and if you've read any of the gospels, he never denied it.  Not once.  He only told stories to defend his actions.

"Let's say a shepherd has 100 sheep, just hypothetically, and he loses one.  He will leave the 99 and go look for the one, and when he finds it, he throws this huge party because he's so happy that one sheep isn't lost anymore."

"Let's say a woman has 10 coins...just hypothetically...and she loses one.  She'll stay up all night, turning the house upside down until she finds it.  When she finds it, she calls everyone she knows, invites them over, and throws this huge party because she found the one coin."

"Let's say a dad has two boys.  One of them tells him, 'Dad, I wish you were dead.  Let me have my inheritance now.'"  Then he goes off and blows it on alcohol and hookers.  When he realizes how broke he is, and that he can't even buy lunch, he decides to go back home and beg his dad to let him come back.  But...and check this out...before he even gets close to the house, his dad sees him, way down the road, and literally runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and tells somebody to start the party because his boy was gone and is back home."  

Here's the deal.  I'm a 17 year veteran of the ministry as a career.  I'm an Elder in Full Connection in the United Methodist Church.  I've served 11 churches over 6 appointments.  Last night I was treated better, and made to feel more welcome, than in some of the churches I've served.  It's just the truth.  Three of the people in that place last night, only one of which I knew his first name before I got there, welcomed us in and made us feel like we were family.  When we left, sometime after midnight, they told us, "It was cool to hang out with y'all."  Wow. 

Why in God's name can we not do that in ALL of our churches?  Why do we have to judge folks because of what they wear?  Who said a tattoo makes you a bad person? Where does it say, in any of Jesus' teachings, to build a little brick building, stack it with pews and all things religious, then decide who can come in and who can't?  I haven't found it yet.  It may be there, but I haven't seen it yet.

Just last week I was told, "You wouldn't last 30 minutes as our pastor with those tattoos."  Really?  That's what we've turned the most amazing story in the history of the world into?  In so many places, we've taken the greatest story ever told and turned into our personal possession, leaving no room for anyone who doesn't look like, think like, act like, or live like us.  I just think we've missed the point.

WWJD?  What would Jesus do?  I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus would get off of his padded pew, take off his suit and tie, put on some street clothes, and go hang out at a tattoo parlor.  I think he'd watch folks when they came in, find a way to connect, start up a conversation, and just be.  I think he'd offer them a BBQ sandwich, whether he knew their name or not.  I think he'd just stand there and talk to folks.  He'd probably talk about his favorite band.  He might even go back and get a tattoo, who knows?

WWJD?  What wouldn't Jesus do? I can't speak for Jesus, but given what I've read in the Gospels, I'm thinking that Jesus wouldn't make anyone who came through the doors of that tattoo parlor feel less than. I don't think he'd flinch much when they dropped the F bomb.  I'm not sure he would have taken the little bottle of cinnamon whiskey and told the guy that he ought not do that.  I'm not sure he'd judge them.  And I doubt very seriously that he'd look down his nose at them.

Oh, one more thing that I think he would do.  I think, that when he made a connection with someone in a tattoo parlor, and who maybe for the first time in their lives felt like they were someone of sacred worth, he'd tell someone else to go and get the party started because this one who was lost has been found.

My prayer is that anyone who walks through any church door anywhere in the world, is made to feel as welcome as we were last night in a tattoo parlor.  That's my prayer.