Thursday, May 10, 2018

Screw the Church

     Ok, now that I have your attention, I don't really mean screw the church.  I love the church.  I've given my life to serving and leading the church. I just wanted to get your attention.  Pastor is as much my identity as husband and father.  But...from a few things I've seen on social media lately, there does seem to be a growing number of folks who have taken that attitude about organized religion, so through theological reflection, or rant, or some of both, I'd like to take a few minutes and address that. 
     First, I've never considered myself an apologist.  I don't think the Gospel needs me to defend it.  I certainly don't think JC needs me to have his back like we were kids on an elementary playground.  However, I do feel that the church just might.  Here's why I say that.  Over the last couple weeks I've noticed not one, but several social media posts blaming the church for everything from ignoring homelessness, to turning a blind eye to abject poverty, to being self-serving, to tax evasion.  I wish that I could say that none of those things existed in any church setting, but I'm sure that somewhere out there are churches who are guilty of one, if not more of those.
     Let me assure you, though, that this is not the case everywhere.  The church isn't like any other organization in the world.  We don't sell a product.  We can't increase production to increase income.  We rely entirely on the generosity of those who gather with a shared vision as part of the holy community every week.  In addition to that, we feel called, nay, mandated to do all that we can to end poverty, end homelessness, end racism, end discrimination, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the prisoner, and see that our neighbors have their most basic human needs met.  Do we always succeed, Good Lord no.  But we try.
     I've waited several days to write this so that my words would be rational, relevant, and not emotionally charged because, let me tell you, my last three weeks have been anything but quiet.  I have dealt with folks who see the church only as an ATM.  I have dealt with extreme mental illness.  I have dealt with folks who have stumbled in their walk to recovery.  I have dealt with people I've never met expecting me to pay their utility bills.  I have dealt with transients.  I have dealt with rudeness as we handed out a plate of food.  AND I DON'T MIND.  It's just part of the job.  This is what I get up for every morning.  Preaching on Sunday morning may be my favorite part of the week, but prep time aside, it's a very small part of my week.
      To the folks who would condemn the church on social media, may I ask this?  When was the last time you were part of an active community of faith?  Now, I'm not talking about some back woods, ultra-fundamentalist, "You're going to hell if you don't change your ways," let me guilt you out of hell and into serving, kind of community.  I'm not talking about a mega church where the pastor has a six figure income, and you can slip in and out unnoticed on Sunday morning.  I'm talking about a midsize, active congregation, who sees what's going on around their community, and is actively trying to make a difference?   
    See, that's my context.  That's where I work and live out my faith...a midsize congregation, in a rural community, surrounded by an epidemic of addiction, poverty, and declining demographics.  Folks in my community are struggling.  I mean really struggling.  There are very few employment opportunities around here and it's beginning to have some major impacts. 

     To those who would condemn the church for ignoring homelessness, poverty, hunger, addictions, whatever the criticism of the day may be, may I brag on my folks for a minute? 

     Our average attendance bounces from 120-140 on Sunday morning.  We have a budget that is at the upper edge of what we can support.  Some of that is salary, modest salaries by the way, but most of it is just the expense of doing ministry...utilities, programming costs, supplies, VBS materials, paper plates, food for our feeding program, and things like that.  We are very careful to be good stewards of what we have been entrusted with.  But, with that goal in mind, my folks are doing some amazing things. 
     Twice a week we provide a hot meal for anyone in the community who wants to come.  It doesn't matter that I saw them walking out of the liquor store with a case of beer under their arms.  That's not for me to judge.  Once a week we host Celebrate Recovery so that folks can get the tools they need to help them step into a brand new life.  We have a very active Relay for Life team.  In fact, I'm not sure we don't have two Relay for Life teams now, who are working to see that everyone gets another birthday.  We offer utilities assistance through His House every month.  My folks support the food pantry, not just through food donations, and dollars, but by actually going down there and helping hand out food. 
     We dreamed big and built a 4 1/2 acre lake so that folks in our community could have a place to hang out with their families and we could work with at risk kids in the school, which is right across the road.  Next year we'll open it up to the public for catch and release fishing.  We kept dreaming and built a walking trail around the property.  It took 400 tons of rock, but we wanted to give something to the community because we know that physical health and spiritual health go hand in hand.  It's 8 tenths of a mile long and open all day long to anyone who wants to use it.  This summer we're building some primitive campsites on the property so that we can increase our mentoring programs. 
     When the school approached me and said they were afraid they were going to lose their after school program funding, we began working to get a plan together that would let us pick up the slack.  This gave birth to our Quest program, one afternoon a week. 
     Last night, I met with some of our gals in the church who started a support group a few years ago for those struggling with fertility issues and/or adoption.  Last night, they went over grant applications and awarded $4500 in grants.  This started with the dream of 3 of my gals.  $4500!

     I know that I'm leaving something out, but the point is, Grace Church LaCenter is doing everything we possibly can to follow the gospel example and ease the suffering of those around us, and we're not the only church doing exactly that. 
     Could we do more?  Could any church do more?  Absolutely!!!!  However, over the last few decades, the number of folks sitting around saying, "Screw the church" has surpassed the number of folks gathering each week and saying, "We are the church."  If more folks would give us a chance, (I know that many of you have tried a church and been hurt.  For that, my heart breaks,) and if the ones who would give us a chance would support the ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness the church could do so much more. 
     We could not only feed folks, but we could give them tools that would help them get back on their feet.  We could not only help folks with recovery ministries, but we could attack the systems that cause folks to pick up the needle in the first place.  We could not only help with utilities, but we could begin the look for ways we could be involved in rebuilding our local economics.  We could do more than just put folks up in the motel for a night.  We could build tiny home like homeless shelters. (which, by the way, we are trying to figure out how to do already) 
     See?  It's not that we don't want to, but at the end of the day, we are limited in what we can do.  I'm not just a theologian.  I have to have some basic business skills so that we can take what we've been entrusted with and stretch it as far as possible.  This is one of our foundational prayers.   
     So, before you say, "Screw the church," and start slamming her on social media, come check us out.  Give me one week to change your mind about the role this church, and others like her, play in bringing the kingdom and I guarantee you I can do it. 

Peace,
Jamie

Thursday, April 26, 2018

All Religion is Political

“ALL RELIGION IS POLITICAL” 

DISCLAIMER:  I know the title may be off-putting to some, but I promise it’s not what it seems.   

When I was in seminary, I had a professor who made that statement in class one day.  She was known for going for the shock factor, so initially I thought that was all it was.  The more I thought about it, though, the more right I realized she was.   
If we read the gospels, I mean really read them, we will see that Jesus was not a moderate in any sense of the word.  He saw the damage that was being done by the systems that had been in place for years.  He saw how it allowed some to live very comfortably, but at the expense of those who struggled on the very edges of survival.  He realized there were double standards in place depending on how one was born, and that there was very little chance of upward mobility in their society.  Generally, if you were born into poverty you died in poverty.   
Jesus was very intentional about everything he said, everything he did, and much of what he said and did flew right in the face of those who held the power and who eventually became his critics.  He stood up for women and children, widows and orphans, those on the margin, and those who were considered outcasts.  He ate with sinners and comforted those no one else wanted anything to do with.   
This wasn’t just because he was a great guy.  He knew that creating a society where equality was the norm instead of the exception was part of his mission and part of the kingdom of God.  Anything less just wouldn’t do. 
So, Grace Church, since we are in the middle of election season this year, what is the Church to do?  With so much going on that affects so many people, probably more so this year than we have seen in recent history, do we ignore the things that are being said and done?  Do we follow the example of Christ and make a stand for the more vulnerable among us?  Do we make our voices heard?   
In nearly 19 years of ministry I have never once voiced any kind of political stand in a Sunday morning message.  I won’t.  That’s not the place for it…  But, engaging in politics, especially where our religion is concerned, is about more than voicing support for one candidate over another.  That I won’t do.   
But…as followers of Christ, everything we say and do as a church carries political connotations for the simple reason that we are called to care for the weak among us, or those who, because of their station in life have little means of protecting themselves.  If we don’t, who will?   
It’s so easy to apply labels to folk during this season…Conservative, Liberal, Moderate, Republican, Democrat, Independent, Ultra-right, Ultra-left, rich, poor, gay, straight, white, black, and we could go on and on.  When we do that, though, we remove a level of humanity from those to whom we apply the labels.   
As the Church, with a Capital “C” we have but one name, one label…Disciple of Christ.  His example is the gauge by which we measure all that we say and do.  That name goes with us from the worship service to the polling place, and everywhere in between.   
Handing out care packages is wonderful, but what system causes them to be a necessity?  Helping folks with utility bills is wonderful, but what system causes it to be a necessity?  Preparing meals and supporting the food pantry are wonderful, but what system causes them to be a necessity?  Recovery ministries are wonderful, but what system causes them to be a necessity?   
The Church should be asking those questions and looking for gospel examples of how Christ dealt with those who had the power to institute real change.  We have the power and the calling to do that just as Christ did.  The problem is, it got him killed.   
So, Grace Church, I promise that, as your pastor, you will never hear me endorse one candidate over another from up front.  That’s not my place.  But, I may push us to look at ways we can bring real change to our community through the power of the vote.  That’s not just politics.  That’s Kingdom of God kind of stuff.     
“May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly, and love deep within your heart.  May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.  May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.  May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.”  (A Blessing of St. Francis) 

Monday, August 14, 2017

When is it okay to be an angry Jesus freak?

I saw the images on the news.  The same images you've probably seen this week.  Those images were of men carrying torches down the streets of a small town that, until this weekend, most folks had never heard of.  I hadn't.  The audio bytes and video clips allowed us to hear them chanting things that remind us of a time in world history we had hoped and prayed was over at the end of the Second World War.  I've seen the video of the car that plowed into the crowd, knowing that at that instant, a life had been taken and nearly two dozen others had been injured.  My heart breaks.   

I'll not label the men walking the streets this weekend.  I'll not call them names.  I'll not voice hatred or wish them harm.  I understand, I think, their anger.  Change was coming to that small town, and change as we all know, can sometimes be ugly.  However, it can also sometimes be very necessary.  Was the city government right in their decision to take down the statue, causing the events of this past weekend to take place?  I don't have an easy answer for that.  Were they, as some have claimed, trying to erase history and downplay heritage?  I honestly can't answer that one, either, nor do I try to.

I'm not even writing about what happened this weekend, directly.  Indirectly, it has caused to resurface something I've struggled with for years.

What caused me to sit down and start typing was an article I saw this afternoon written by Russell Moore, titled, "White supremacy angers Jesus, but does it anger his church?"  Actually, it wasn't the whole article that caused me to sit down at the laptop, it was just a few lines: "In a time like this, Christians might ask whether we should, in fact, be angry.  Should we not instead just conclude that this is what a fallen world looks like and pray for the final judgment to come?"

The short answers are: Yes and No.

Yes.

Jesus followers should be angry at any injustice raised against another member of the human family.  Whether it was the events of this weekend, human trafficking, drug pushers, the systems that keep our brothers and sisters trapped in poverty and/or homelessness, governments who don't have their peoples' best interests at heart, bullies...anything that causes one human to inflict harm on another should make us angry.  And yes, I believe those things anger Christ as well.

No.

We should not just conclude that this is what a fallen world looks like and pray for the final judgement.  Why?  Because that is exactly what the forces of evil in this world want us to do...nothing...just wait...pray and it will all work itself out...hold on just a little longer and "Poof!" we're all gone into the clouds and everything wrong will be made right.  Now, having said that I feel that I need to set up this next part...

I grew up in a very rural community, in a very rural and conservative church.  I cut my teeth on the King James Version and could recite the "thees" and "thous" with the best of them.  It was all I had ever known, but as I've grown older I find myself stepping out of the conservatism in which I was raised.  At first it scared me, I mean really scared me, but I've grown to embrace the transformation.  That transformation, however, shook me to my core.  Here's an example:

1 Thessalonians 4:17, "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever."  All of my life I had heard about how that was going to happen.  We sang about it.  I heard sermons on it.  It was something I never questioned.  That something was...the rapture.  It is proclaimed as a time when God will say "enough is enough" and whisk the church away, removing us from any and all threat and harm.  It's also, I believe, a myth.   Before you start throwing things, let me explain.

It's one verse, in one relatively obscure letter (I mean really, how many of us can flip right over to 1 Thessalonians?  I have to thumb through the NT to get to it.)  It is the only reference we have to any kind of escape plan when things around us get too tough.  Rapture theology was developed by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 1830s and has little scriptural basis.  On the other hand, though, we have multiple examples of times when Jesus told his disciples to get ready because stuff was about to happen.

Matthew 5:44, "But I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.'"
John 15:18, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you."
Luke 6:22, "Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and
                    spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man."
John 15:19, "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are 
                     not of the world, I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
Mark 13:9, "But be on your guard.  For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten
                    in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear
                    witness before them."

Then in another place he tells them to take a sword with them.  Then in another he tells them to be shrewd.  Then he tells them that he is sending them out as lambs among wolves.  Over and over again, Jesus tries to prepare the disciples for the battle in which they are about to engage.  Only once, do we get even a slight reference to Jesus saying, "Nah, I'm not going to let them go through all that."    

Church, we have a job to do.

When we say nothing in the face of the violence we saw this weekend, we say more than we think.  When we stand by and let evil walk past we have done more than we may think.  When our only battle cry is "Come Lord Jesus," we are shirking our responsibilities as kingdom builders.

So, I'm a little angry.

I'm angry that it's 2017 and we're still dealing with racism.  I'm angry that Washington didn't seem to be angry.  Honestly, after all of the things we've watched in the news I'm kind of angry that a group of white men can walk down a street carrying torches, chanting hate, and all of them were allowed to go back home to their families virtually unharmed, while a group of African American men doing the same thing might have seen a different outcome...and I'm a white guy.  I'm angry that I felt the need to choose between political correctness and what needed to be said the day after an event like this.  I'm even angry about folks in the church possibly getting angry over this blog post.

But I'm not going to just sit and wait to be whisked away when things get tough, and if you haven't noticed, things are tough now.  We have a story to tell about how God so loved the world, all of the world, even those in the world we don't agree with, and actually even those in the world who cause harm to others.  That story is a love story open to people of all ages, nations, and races...and we have been called to tell that story over and over until hate is no more.  The gospel of Christ was good news for the poor, marginalized, outcast, sinners, tax collectors, and anyone else in that time who was being made to feel less than a child of God by someone else.  It was not good news for those who were already on the inside and chose to do nothing.

A quote from the late Daniel Berrigan has haunted me from the first time I heard it; "If you're going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood."

Church, it's time.  It's time to call evil what it is, to denounce those who only want to bring hate, fear, and division.  It's time to remember our baptismal vows and stand in the gap for those who are suffering at the hands of others.   It's time to show love in the face of hate, teach peace in the face of division, and offer forgiveness even to those we think unworthy of it.  Ideological?  Possibly.  Impossible?  Maybe.  However, the difficulty of the task ahead does not give us an excuse to wait for God to fix everything.  It's time to do anything that might help another discover their sacred worth...because...doing nothing is no longer an option.

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