Friday, December 12, 2014

I Walked Past the Salvation Army Bell Ringer

I admit it.  I walked right past.  I didn't toss in any change.  I didn't slip a dollar in the kettle.  I walked right on into the mall. 

But I had a reason. 

Actually, several reasons.  I never carry cash...I didn't have any change...and it was cold.  I walked right past because the young man ringing the bell was between me and Starbucks.  We nodded at each other, offered each other a quick Merry Christmas, and I made my way through the crowd to Starbucks.  This time, the hot beverage in the recycled cardboard cup wasn't for me, though.  I got in line, ordered a hot chocolate, and headed back toward the front doors of the mall...back to the red kettle...back to the young man ringing the bell and wishing strangers a Merry Christmas. 

The look on his face as I handed him the cup of hot chocolate said exactly what I had hoped it wouldn't. 

"Nah, I'm good."
"It's for you.  For real.  It's cold out here."

I haven't mentioned yet that our skin colors were not the same, but they weren't.  I saw a young man donating his time for one of the biggest charities in the nation, but I'm not sure what he saw.  Uncertainty.  Distrust.  Honestly, I don't blame him.  I don't know how I'd react, either, if a stranger handed me a cup of hot chocolate...especially today...especially given the differences between he and I...especially after all of the mess that's been the news lately.  

I grew up after the Civil Rights movement of the 60's, so I missed the tensions and wars of that time.  I'm a child of the 70's and early 80's.  My kids are growing up now, in the 21st century.  Things are different, but at the same time, not really.  I wasn't taught hate as a kid, but some were...some still are.  Instead, I was taught the cheesy little song, "Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world..." and I believed it...still do...and it's led me to make decisions that I might not have made otherwise.

I've walked away from an organization that I loved because I couldn't bring an African American friend with me.  After years of struggling with the dichotomy of being a pastor on Sunday morning, and a member of this organization on Thursday night, my conscience finally won out and I stopped paying my dues.  I knew I would be suspended but I just couldn't do it anymore.  My parents did not teach me to hate, or to sit around telling off color jokes, or that I was better than because I'm white.  They just didn't, and I thank God for that.   

Sure, he and I were different, but in so many ways, the same.  I'm a guy.  He was a guy.  I'm raising my family.  He's raising his.  I donate time to charities.  He was donating time to a charity.  I cuss when I stub my toe.  He probably does, too.  I'm sure he gets impatient sitting in traffic just like I do.  But...I know that I'll never be able to fully understand what thoughts run through his mind because we do have different life experiences.

Hate?  I can't do it. 

As I got in my truck and drove away, I looked back at the front doors of the mall and saw the cup of hot chocolate sitting on the sidewalk at his feet.  It wasn't going to help warm him up that way, but it said to me that there is still so much work to be done. 

What's the answer?  Honestly, I don't know.  It's going to take a hell of a lot more than a cup of hot chocolate to fix what's wrong.  It's going to take some honest conversations, and a lot of changed hearts.  It's going to take realizing that, by dang, the cheesy little song is right.  Jesus does love the little children...all of them...  It's going to take repentance and forgiveness.  It's going to take more time. 

But in the meanwhile...there are small things we can do to show that not everyone hates any who may not look exactly like we do.  We can pray "Thy kingdom come," and actually mean it.  We can extend a hand and offer peace.  We can listen more and scream less.  We can stop focusing on the differences and celebrate all that we share in common: 

Children of the Living God.
Sons and daughters of Abraham.
Co-heirs with Christ.
The beloved of the Almighty. 

My prayer this season is that a gesture as simple as offering a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day be the beginning of the end of hate. 


Monday, December 1, 2014

The Visitor Book...Why every long time member of a local church needs to be a visitor somewhere else.

In the last 15 years I can count on both hands the number of times I've not been in my pulpit on Sunday morning.  Sometimes it was for retreat, once because I was sick, and three for vacation.  This past Sunday was one of those.  The first lady and I needed some time away.  It had been over 3 years since the two of us had been able to get away as a couple (and to my clergy colleagues...DO NOT underestimate how important this is for your marriage.)

We planned our trip, made the reservations, and I made preparations to be gone on a Sunday.  The weekend was great, with the exception of a little vehicle trouble, but even that worked out.  Sunday morning rolled around, our last day on the trip, and I said to my first lady; "I think we need to check out the little UMC in town this morning."  I knew that it would be nothing like we were used to but I felt the need to worship, especially after the events of the day before. 

Neither of us packed "church clothes," so there was no small amount of trepidation as to how we'd be welcomed in jeans and sweatshirts.  In fact, there was no small amount of trepidation about the whole experience, and here's why.  We've had our fair share of church changes, but the difference for me is that when I walk into a new church, I don't walk in as a visitor.  I walk in as the one in charge, the resident elder.  This time was different.  I wasn't going to tell anyone I was a pastor in a different Conference of the same denomination.  I just wanted to be, and see how we would be welcomed.  Part of that, I admit, was critique.  I wanted to see how this particular congregation practiced radical hospitality. 

As we approached the front steps, they were beautifully decorated for Christmas.  It was a quaint little building with that small town charm that so many fall in love with.  There was a smiling face at the door to greet us and hand us a bulletin.  (Score)  The sanctuary was starting to fill up so we chose a spot that could have been someone else's seat and I wanted to see how they'd react.  Within a few minutes the pastor came over and welcomed us (Score again) and asked if we were local or visiting (It is kind of a seasonal town).  Within a few minutes we were welcomed again by the obvious matriarch of the church and evidently got her approval.  There was a lady sitting behind us who had been ringing the Salvation Army bell at one of the local businesses the day before and she remembered us and spoke (Score again).    A couple other people spoke, but for the most part folks left us alone.  Since my anxiety level was already elevated, that was actually fine with me.  They were welcoming but not suffocating.  Then it happened...

...One of the sweet little ladies of the church walked over to us with this God awful huge folder in her hand and said..."We kind of dropped the ball since we have been decorating for Christmas but usually our visitor folder is on the table by the door.  Would you sign in please?  We don't want phone numbers or addresses, and we won't come to your house, we just want to know where you're from." 

As a pastor, I totally get that.  I want to know our guests at Grace Church as well, but between that huge folder and the pastor calling us out from the pulpit to welcome us, I was beginning to break out in a cold sweat.  I just wanted to be.  I just needed to worship.  Thank God he didn't ask us to stand so folks could welcome us.  This was enough.  Turns out we were the first visitors in that little chapel in over 6 weeks and I expect that they were genuinely tickled that we were there.

As the service progressed, it was time for the Hanging of the Greens and the pastor told everyone to stand up, come down front, take a Chrismon ornament, and hang it on the tree.  OH, HELL NO!  Folks started getting up and making their way down front and we just stood there...until folks started noticing that we were standing there.  Then one sweet little lady behind us broke me down..."It's ok.  Come on.  You're part of us today." 

Now, here's why I'm writing today.  In my pulpit this would be the "big so what."

If you are still reading this, and if you are a long time member of your particular body of believers, it will be a great help for the Kingdom, your congregation, and your pastor if once a year you visit a church where you know no one.  Don't go to your friends' church, or your sister's church.  Go to a different town, and find a congregation where the only people you know are the ones who rode with you.  Why?  Because it's easy for us in the Church to become "visitor blind."  We forget what it's like to walk through our doors for the first time.  We underestimate the anxiety people feel when they finally make the decision to visit us on a Sunday morning.  We don't recognize the things we do, or don't do, to our guests and/or how those things make them feel. 

It takes a huge amount of guts to walk into a church for the first time.  I'm a 43 year veteran of the church and an elder in full connection, and it still made me almost physically ill to climb those steps yesterday.  Imagine how it must feel for someone who doesn't have that kind of experience in the church and is just looking for that peace, hope, and healing we're always talking about. 

So, from our experience this weekend, and from observations I've made over the years, here's a short list of things we can do to make our guests feel more welcome.  Some of these we are already doing at Grace Church.  Some of them we need to work on.

* DO have someone with a smiling face at the door to greet them.
* DO have that person introduce themselves and ask if they can help your guest find a seat. 
   Perhaps they know someone and would like to sit by them.
* DO have signs directing your guests through the building...restrooms...nursery...etc.
* DO ask them if there is anything you can do for them while they're there.
* DO have EVERYONE wear name tags if you ask your guests to
* DO have EVERYONE sign in if you ask your guests to. 
* DO welcome them often but DO NOT call them out from the pulpit.
* DO let them have your seat.  Let me repeat that one.  DO let them have your seat.  If they sit down
   where you've sat for 30 years, deal with it and find another spot.
* DO NOT use language they don't understand (Grace Church we need to work on this one)  Instead
   of saying UMW for example, say our "United Methodist Women."
* DO embrace the fact that they may just want to worship and aren't ready to interact much.
* DO NOT force them to do anything.. 
* DO welcome them back, but DO NOT be pushy. 
* DO offer them the opportunity to encounter the Divine at their own pace and in their own way. 

Now, if you're a long time member, and haven't visited a church where you know no one in the last few years, give it a try.  Print this little list out, see how the congregation does, and how the things they do or don't do make you feel, then take that experience back to your own congregation. 

There's much truth in the fact that no matter how well we do things, there is always room to do them better. 


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why We Didn't do a "Fall Festival" at Church...

Let me say up front that I'm all for any church doing anything they can to come into contact with the folks in their communities...and...calling it whatever they want.  I think it is an awesome witness to see a church, and it doesn't matter what size, do something...anything...that brings about the possibility for them to get to know their neighbors just a little bit.  Now, please understand that I'm not trying to disrespect anyone, honest.  I honestly and seriously applaud any church that does anything to get out into the community.   

For too long, too many churches have become so inwardly focused (yada, yada, here he goes again) but for some reason the Halloween season seems to turn that around...a little...even if just for one night.  We seem to get out more on that night than many others, and that's a start. 

You've seen them, I'm sure.  There's probably one or two churches at least in your community who sponsor a fall festival, or harvest festival, or fall family day...or something like that.  But we didn't.  Not at Grace Church.  We didn't do a fall festival, or a harvest fest, or fall family fun day...or anything like that.  We did a Trunk or Treat, and were intentional about calling it a Trunk or Treat. 

"Jamie, you idiot.  You must really be hurting for something to write about."

No, not really.  This just hit me today and I thought I'd take a few minutes and write (Besides, my baked potatoes are in the oven and I have a few minutes of down time.)

The devil has had Halloween long enough, and at Grace Church, we took Halloween back this year and kicked his butt with it...Kicked it hard...Gave him a real good spanking.  And it was fun.

I don't know why some folks in the church are so terrified of Halloween, really I don't.  Oh, I know, it was born as a sacred holiday (All Hallow's Eve, or the night before the day set aside to honor the memory of those who had passed away in the last year) ...and I know it has somehow been taken over by eveeeeeel...and I realize that maybe that's the problem...ghosts, goblins, witches, werewolves, zombies, and the occasional superhero or Disney character are everywhere.  Sure, it can be a little, well, bloody.  (And that's just gross)   Maybe we just can't get past the fact that it's just come to be known as the devil's holiday, I honestly don't know.

I have noticed, though, that in some places if a church does do something as a group for Halloween, they have to tone it down or "Bible-ize" it to get it past those in authority.  But why?

I can hear the board meeting now: "Well, I guess we could do something for Halloween and everybody dress up like bible characters or something."  Come on.  "Oh, wait, what if we all set up bible scenes around the fellowship hall?"  Really?  Not that I'm not for those things.  I am.  Honest.  I have given my life to telling those stories and doing all I can to convince folks that the only way to the Father is through the Son.  Those stories are the stepping stones for making that possible.  But what are we afraid of? 

Are we afraid of being accused of "Being of the world" when Jesus told us to be in it but not of it?  Are we afraid that we'll be seen as selling out to the world if we dress up as whatever?  Are we afraid that putting on a mask and talking to our neighbors while we hand their kids candy is going to send us to hell?  I don't know. 

Confession time, though.  I used to be one of those.  I had sworn off Halloween 20 years ago.  I hated it.  I would turn my lights off and lock the doors.  I wouldn't buy candy to hand out.  I would mouth, "Get a job and buy your own candy" when I saw headlights pull into the driveway.  I'd even pretend I wasn't home.  Then I went into the ministry. 

It's been a gradual process, taking 15 years so far to get me to where I am.  What I have discovered over the last 15 years, is that most folks...most folks, not all...just want a church that's real.  They are looking for a place that's full of real in the real world...trying to live out this Jesus life in the midst of God only knows what...and are willing to take some time to get to know them.  Halloween did that for me.

So...Grace Church hosted a "Trunk or Treat."  And we painted our faces.  And there wasn't a Moses in sight.  And we had ghosts, and zombies, and axes, and...wait for it...pirates (Arggghhhh).  And this little tribe of church folk in rural western Kentucky got to welcome 700 of our neighbors in a town with 1800 in the zip code.  Totally.

Now please understand that I'm not saying you have to do things the way we do, or that our way is the only way to do kingdom work in your community.  Good heavens, no.  How arrogant would that be?  I'm just saying, don't be afraid to take a risk.  Step out on a limb.  Take a chance.  BE REAL.

Get down on one knee, face to face with a  zombie and talk to them about how you did your makeup.  Take a second and ask that kid with the broad axe where he got it, because you think it's cool.  The kid that's running around, chasing people with a plastic sword, may just be a leader in your church in 20 years if you play your cards right.  Don't be afraid to be in the world but not of it.  BE REAL.  Have I said that already? 

If your church hosted a fall festival, or harvest fest, or family fun day, thanks be to God!!!  I am so thankful that you took a step and got out into your community.  Woot!!!!  If your church didn't because it's Halloween, and you were afraid of whatever...don't be.  Now is the time to start planning for next year. 

As a Wesleyan, I can only imagine how it must have made John W want to hurl the first time he preached out in a field.  Folks just didn't do that...but because he did...because he stepped outside of the accepted norm...thousands and thousands of people came to know Jesus as their personal savior.  How cool is that? have 364 days...what are you going to be for Halloween?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Out of the Valley of Death...

I honestly don't know why I'm doing this, but something inside me told me to write about this...right now. 

Maybe it's because of all that's happened in the last few weeks.  Maybe there's just someone that needs to know they are not alone in their struggles.  Maybe it's just a compelling need for some transparency...a moderate amount of transparency.  Whatever it is, it won't go away, and I've learned that when that happens all I can do is write.  So, in the spirit of transparency, or in light of all that's going on in the world right now, or in case someone just needed to know they aren't alone, here we go. 

Let me start by saying that even though I'm a pastor, I don't have it all together.  I have ups and downs just like everyone else.  I have days when I think "What the hell else can possibly go wrong?" just like everyone else.  I have times when I just want to toss a tent into my truck and point it toward the setting sun...or I used to.  Then I've had the really bad days, and I think most of us have been there.  I think that is what I'm supposed to write about today, but to say it makes me very uncomfortable is the biggest understatement since Moses said, "Hey y'all, let's go for a little walk."

About 10 years ago I was diagnosed with clinical depression like probably 75% of the rest of the country, and tried one med after another.  Some made me fat.  Some made me sleep.  Some kept me awake.  Some had side effects that I don't even want to think about, but I kept trying new ones because I knew that something had to work.  Things had to get better.  I tried to just "snap out of it" like so many well meaning folks told me I should, but I just couldn't.  It seemed the harder I tried, the worse things got. 

That continued cyclically for years.  There would be a couple years where things were okay followed by a few months, a year, or a couple years where they weren't.  My schedule was crazy busy.  Life was happening.  Our kids were born and started growing up, way too fast.  Some churches I pastored helped me heal at times, some tried to tear me down.  Up and down...up and down...constantly.  It seemed as if I'd get my feet back under me just long enough to stand up and take a look around before they got knocked out again. 

Then I entered a really dark time about this time last year.  The church I am serving was starting to grow.  Things were looking up.  I really do have the dream appointment for me (in the United Methodist Church "Appointment" is what we call an assignment to a church).  I don't really know what it was or what caused it.  From all appearances, I was a rising star pastor and should have been on top of the world.  The funny thing about appearances, though, is that usually you don't have to scratch very deep below the surface to see that all is not as it appears.  My inner self was a mess.  I was, still am, a people pleaser and can't stand for someone to be upset with me.  I was, still am, terrified that somehow I'm going to screw this church up (as if I'm really in charge of that at all).  I had taken the sense of safety out of our home because I was always so on edge that my girls were afraid to speak around me.  Maybe it was one of those, or all of them.  I don't know.  Long story short, I was exhausted.  Physically.  Mentally.  Emotionally.  Spiritually. 

Folks were saying, "You need to take some time off," and I was going to, but I had a plan for my vacation and it wasn't time yet.  I bust my tail during the year because I'm a hunter and want to save vacation for deer season.  Just me and my bow... or rifle... alone in the woods... watching... listening... waiting for a decent shot.  So the second week of November I clear my calendar.  No meetings.  No office.  No phone calls.  No email.  Very few texts.  I hunt.  From before daylight until after dark.  I look forward to it every year now. 

Last year, though, it was different.  I still enjoyed it, but not like I used to.  Instead, as I sat there in the blind, breathing quietly, moving only my eyes to look around, and paying attention to the crunch of every leaf, I started thinking things that scare the hell out of me now.  I'm not sure I was even conscious of it at the time, but looking back I remember doing it. 

See, hunting for me is a lifelong endeavor.  I started following my dad into the woods at 7 or 8, but not packing a gun.  All I got to pack were the squirrels by the tail as we walked back to the truck.  At 10 or 11 I started climbing into the deer stand with him.  At 12 I drew first blood and dropped my first deer.  At 13 dad gave me the Marlin 30-30 I still hunt with today.  For over 30 years that rifle and I have climbed up one frost covered deer stand after another.  Looking back at last year's hunts, I remember looking at that rifle leaning up against the blind and thinking, "What a tragic hunting accident." 

It would have been so easy.  Just lean it up against my chest.  "Click..."  It's over.  I told you that I was in a bad place.  You may have been there, or may be there right now.   

No more stress.  No more worry.  No more despair.  No more struggling with the pain my bad decisions have caused.  No more bills.  No more running out of money before I ran out of month.  No more hopelessness.  No more depression.  No more.

No more chance of life ever getting better, either. 

Fast forward 10 months.  Today, I'm living proof that life can get better.  Even when you think there is no way in hell you can take one more day, life can get better.  This summer has been pure hell, I'm not even going to try to pretend it wasn't.  June 5 of this year I hit rock bottom...absolute rock-freakin'-bottom...and I have thanked God every day since that I did.  What they say is true...when you're at the bottom, the only way to look is up. 

Oh, sure, I could have wallowed in self-pity just about as long as I wanted to.  God knows there was plenty of it to wallow in.  I could have thrown up my hands and said, "Way to go, Jay, look at the damned mess you've made this time."  I could have walked away from everything, thrown that tent in the truck and just took off.  Mexico was always an option.  The food is great, by the way. 

However, when I woke up on June 6, I took my first step out of the valley of death.  It wasn't easy.  Swallowing your pride never is.  Admitting you were wrong sucks.  In fact, the next three weeks were just as, or more painful than realizing I had hit rock bottom.

That was three months ago this week.        

It's been a long road, but you know what, life has gotten better.  Believe it or not.  10 months ago, if someone had told me that today I would still be here and actually beginning to get my stuff back together I would have called them a liar.  I didn't see how it was possible.  I didn't see how there was anyway I'd ever be happy again, or that life would ever again hold anything that resembled the man I used to be.  But I am.  I'm happy again.  I still have rough days, but the good ones are starting to outweigh the tough ones.  I'm enjoying life again.  I'm enjoying my job again. 

I'm finding my focus again. 

This past month I finished two projects that I started a few years ago and published my first two books.  I'm actually a published author now and that, to me, is pretty freakin' cool.  10 months ago I was ready to give up.  Now I can search my name on Amazon and there it is. 

I'm giving my girls more of myself than I have in a long time and they are noticing the difference.  We had a water balloon fight a couple weeks ago just because.  We hang out and just watch TV together sometimes and I'm realizing that I enjoy it again. 

I have a leadership team at church that watches out for me and doesn't mind calling me to task when I'm spending too much time at work, and I have others who love me enough to do the same.  The difference is this time I'm listening.

Deer season opens Saturday...and I can't wait.  Not so that I can look at my weapon of choice and think "What a tragic hunting accident," but because, by damn, I love hunting...again.  I even  have a hunting buddy who is putting together a set of jugs so that we can catch some catfish if the weather is too hot to be in the woods and I'm clearing a day soon to just fish and  hang out. would be so easy for me to say this: "Well, I did it.  I came back from the abyss, so you can too."  But I know it doesn't work that way.  I know that if you are struggling right now, there is no magic switch that will turn the struggle off.  But I do know this, the sun will come up tomorrow and the God who created you would love for you to be here to see it.  That first step in your climb out of the valley of death is waiting for you.  Then the next.  Then the next.  Then the next.  Then after a while you'll look back at the place from whence you came, and hopefully see hope where there was none and a future filled with forgiveness, grace, and the unconditional love of God. 

If you need someone to talk to, someone who has been there and made it through, here's my cell number. 270-748-9619  Shoot me a text and we'll get together and talk. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Goodbye, Patch...

"What’s wrong with death sir? What are we so mortally afraid of? Why can’t we treat death with a certain amount of humanity and dignity, and decency, and God forbid, maybe even humor. Death is not the enemy gentlemen. If we’re going to fight a disease, let’s fight one of the most terrible diseases of all, indifference."
Hunter – Patch Adams
I know I won't be the first, or only writer to do this.  Yesterday a man I had never met in person, but whom I've grown up with, took his own life.  At least that's what they are saying.  I grew up with Mork from Ork, as many of you did.  I cried when I listened to him read "O Captain, my Captain," as many of you did.  I loved him in his hilarious, yet sometimes stupid roles, and I loved him in his serious ones.  Rest in peace, Robin Williams.
Here's what bothers me about his passing.  Not only did the world lose one of the greatest actors it's known, but it didn't have to happen.  It could have been prevented.  On the outside, Robin Williams was a carefree, funny man with an uncanny knack for making you laugh and cry in the same movie.  But evidently, funny and happy are not the same thing.  From what I read last night, Robin Williams reached a level of despair that few of us ever know, and the ones who do know that kind of hopelessness usually don't survive it.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  
I'm not necessarily a movie buff.  It's just too much of a time commitment for me, but I bought Patch Adams for a sermon I was planning a couple years ago and have to say it was probably the greatest movie I've ever watched.  I know that it wasn't autobiographical for Robin Williams, but looking back today, I can see how he was able to get into that character so easily.  The scene on the cliff is the one standing out for me right now.  
Now, certainly, I don't have all of the details that led to that moment in his life from whence there was no return, and I don't claim to understand what was going through his mind at the time.   However, having been in pastoral ministry for 15 years I've seen people in a similar place as he, and I have also been witness to the response from people around them.  It doesn't have to be that way.  It just doesn't.  
Depression is real.  It leads to addictions to drown out the pain.  It leads to isolation.  It leads to despair and despair leads to hopelessness, and hopelessness sometimes leads to that place from where there is no return.  
Now, some colleagues might take this opportunity to talk about the sins involved with suicide, waving their bibles, shouting about all of the many different routes to hell this can take one down...but that's wrong.  It's just wrong...and may God have mercy on their souls for turning a tragedy such as suicide into a soapbox for their fundamentalist beliefs.  
What Robin Williams needed, and what others contemplating the same need, is not bible waving, narcissistic mouthpieces telling them that suicide is the unforgivable sin because there is no way to repent of it after the fact.  I'm throwing the BS flag on that one, and here's why. From my experiences, when a person reaches that level of despair, there is no way they can be making rational decisions.  
What they need is compassion.  Wait...let me rephrase that.  Since I have been there myself, having almost gotten my wish on two different occasions, let me include myself with the "They." What "We" need is compassion.  
We need someone to notice that something isn't right in our lives and spend the time with us that it will take to help us find healing.  
We need our families to love us, especially now. 
Sometimes we need someone to just talk to...someone who will listen without trying to "fix" us.
Sometimes we need a phone call or a text just to ask us how our day is going and to let us know that someone cares.  
Sometimes we need professional help, and if we know that you love us, we might not fight the suggestion.  
Those are just a few of the things we need when we find ourselves in the valley, with no obvious way out.  There are, however, some things we don't need.
We don't need you to yell, "Snap out of it!" at us.  Believe me, if we could we would.  
We don't need folks talking about us behind our backs.
We don't need to hear that we're going to hell, or that God can never forgive us for taking our own lives.
We don't need a spur of the moment "intervention."  That will probably just drive us farther away from you.  
And for the love of God, please don't tell us, "It's just in your head."  We're already struggling with the demons running loose in our heads and don't need you causing us any more self-doubt.
We don't need to be ignored, but we're not just "looking for sympathy" either.   
What we don't need is for you to act like it's no big deal.  It is to us, but we just don't know how to fix it.  Please don't be indifferent.   
If you know someone who you may even suspect is at a similar place, please, for the love of God, don't blow it off and think they'll be ok.  Your phone call may be the one thing that stops them from pulling the trigger or swallowing the pills.  Please, if there is someone you love, whose behavior has changed inexplicably, ask them if there's something going on.  They may be ready to talk about it or they may not, but they will at least know someone cares.  If you suspect depression in a friend or family member, take them to lunch and just let them talk.  Then keep what they said to yourself unless you sense that they are in immediate danger of hurting themselves or someone else.  
Depression is real.  I've been there.  I've thought things I shouldn't have thought.  I've even made plans.  But thanks be to God someone loved me enough to pull me to the side and say, "I'm worried about you.  Are you ok?  Really?"  When that person was someone I actually trusted, I was able, for the first time, to say, "Not really."  
Robin Williams, you'll never know the impact you had on millions.  You made us laugh.  You made us cry.  My heart breaks that we missed the signs.  May you now, finally, find rest for your soul.  God speed, Patch.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

1166: A Pastoral Letter

1166. I'm not blowing my own horn, but that number has some significance in my life.  That's the number of friends I have on Facebook.  Now before you say, "That arrogant so and so..." and stop reading, let me tell you why I'm doing this.  It's not that I have that many super close friends, I'm really not that popular, but that is the number of people I have the potential to make contact with by just a few clicks of the keyboard.  That's big.  Why?  It can either do great good...or it can do great harm...and it can do good or harm en masse.

I'm a fan of social media, let me just go on record saying that now.  It's allowed me to reconnect with people I haven't seen in over 20 years.  It allows me to stay in contact with my flock.  It also allows me to invite nearly 1200 people to church every week.  That's pretty cool.  Imagine how long it would have taken to reach that number of people just 50 years ago.  It's powerful...but what is it "they" say about power?  "With great power comes great responsibility."  True, true.

So, in the style of pastoral guidance, let me offer some suggestions about social media.  I'm not the first to address this, and certainly won't be the last.  I'm also not the first to address it from a pastoral angle.   I'll also confess that I have been guilty of some of the very things I'm about to discuss, so...Lord have mercy...Christ have mercy.  Here we go.

#1  "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me."  BUMPKIS!  Words do hurt, and the wounds they cause go deep.  When something is posted on social media in the heat of the moment, whatever that moment may be, all it takes is for a few eyes to see it and it spreads like wildfire.  What does wildfire do?  It burns like hell.  Before you hit "post" stop and take a breath.  Think about who may see what you just wrote and about the collateral damage it may cause.  Then decide if it's really worth it.  99% of the time it won't be.

#2  Facebook is not the OK Corral.   It is not the place to air out your personal grievances.  Why?  A couple reasons.  One, nobody needs to know.  And two, and please don't take this wrong, but most folks really won't care.  The ones who will are already looking to start something anyhow and will be more than happy to spread your private life all over cyber creation.  So you had a fight with your girlfriend...I'm sorry it happened, but calling her a bunch of trashy names on Facebook is just going to make you look petty and childish.  Grow up, for crying out loud, and handle your differences like adults.  Face to face, and in private.  Who knows, you just might save a relationship.

#3  Save the drama for your mama.  This is just a personal observation, but I have enough drama in my life without being slammed with yours.  It's not that I don't care, really I do...I care about all of the folks on my friends list.  I care greatly about my flock as well.  When they hurt, I hurt...honest.  Here's what I've noticed, though.  There is evidently a certain type of personality, and I wish I had paid more attention in Psychology class in college, but evidently this type of personality craves the attention that is given when personal drama is poured out over cyperspace.  I wish I understood more about the inner workings of that kind of thinking.  Alas, I don't.  To reinforce the importance of #3, refer back to #1 and #2.
Don't be that type of personality.  If you're hurting, or have been hurt, please... please... please... reach out to someone, or several someones, but maybe a private message to a select group would bring better and more positive results than painting your page with negativity.

#4  TMI... Practical aspects aside, too much information is, well, just too much information. Forget about the potential criminal surfing facebook to see the vacation pics you posted 2 minutes ago from 1200 miles away, (Do the math, they can get to your house way before you can)...I don't need to see pictures of your puss filled staph wound, nor do I personally need details about your love life, what you ate for dinner, or who ticked you off in the checkout line.   While those things are important...again, refer to #1 and #2...they're important, but most of the time, also very private.  Now, you could say things like, "Well, just don't look..."  "It's my page, I'll post what I want..." or my personal favorite, "Well, if you don't like it, just unfriend me."  Easy, tiger.  Let's don't get hasty.  Some things are just better left unsaid and kept at home.  Which leads me to #5.

#5   "Just because I can post it, doesn't mean I should."  I wish I had come up with that, but I didn't.  I heard them first from a colleague from Florida.  That one really doesn't require much explanation.  You're absolutely right, it's your page and you can post whatever you want (as long as Facebook allows it) and you're also right in saying I don't have to look.  But that's not the point.  The point is, there is power in that "enter" button or that "post" icon.  Once those words are gone, they're gone.  You can delete them, but more than likely you can't do it quick enough to keep SOMEBODY from seeing it, and that somebody may be the one person who needed to see it the least.  Then the damage is done and there is little chance of undoing it.

Ok, so there's five ways social media can bring harm to someone's life.  But...It's not all bad.  Personally, I love Facebook.  I'm more careful about posting things about my personal life on there now, but if I see something that I think is funny (remember, I have a sort of warped sense of humor) I may post it.  If it offends, I apologize.  That was not my intention.  Here's the brutal truth though...and I'm doing this in the spirit of transparency...those 5 things above...I'm guilty of all of them at some point.  For those it offended, I apologize.  I think I have matured some over the last few years...ok a little...ok maybe somedays...ok...every now and then...but I'm trying.  Now I try to think about how what I'm typing will be taken and how it will affect the ones who see it.  I don't always get it right, though.

Facebook can be a great thing.  It can be fun.  It can be a great ministry tool.  It's a great way to veg out for a few minutes (just a few, though).  But every good thing, if used for the wrong reasons, can be dangerous.

So, what can we do?

Take some time to think about what you're typing.  Do you really want to say what you're saying?  I mean, really want to say what you're saying?  If not...don't.

Change your password on a regular basis to lessen the chance someone will hack your account.

Change your settings so that you personally have to see and approve any item that is posted to your page. Unless you've changed the default, probably any one of your friends can post anything to your page without your permission.  This should not be so.

Change your settings so that you can't be tagged by just anybody, also.  Nothing can start a fight quicker than you going to the grocery store, but being tagged by some blonde at a restaurant by mistake (unless your wife is blonde and y'all are at a restaurant after you go to the grocery).

Oh, and here's a thought.  Pray about it.  I know... "What??!!  Pray about a facebook post???!!!"  Why not? I'll bet you prayed over the final four.  Oh snap, Jamie, you didn't go there!

Bottom line is this.  Social media can be one of the greatest things to happen in the last 50 years, or it can be one of the worst...depending on which side you're on of who's posting what.  As a pastor, it has been one of my best tools, and one of my worst enemies.  It has helped me do ministry in a way I would have never thought possible 7 years ago, but at the same time, it has caused me more stress and sleepless nights than most things in my ministry.

So, facebook friends, I'm so glad we connected or reconnected.  I love keeping up with what's going on in your families and in your ministries.  You make me laugh.  Bonds are built.  Relationships are built.  But, relationships can also be damaged, so be careful.  Guard
your heart and your keyboard.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Dangers of "Contemporary" Christian Music

This one wouldn't let me sleep the other night, and as I laid there flipping from one side to the other, trying to get some sleep, I couldn't stop thinking about how dangerous what has come to be known as "Contemporary Christian" music really is.  Now, if you know me, I know what you're thinking: "But that's all you do at Grace on Sunday morning."  I know...  I know... But that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous.  

Now, let me tell you what I mean.  "Contemporary" really only means "right now."  If  you've heard it used to describe a certain type of music, let me offer a definition:

Definition of Contemporary:
1: Of the same time: existing or occurring at or dating from the same period or time as         
     someone or something else.
2:  Existing, in existence now
3:  Modern in style: distinctly modern in style.

Definition #3 is the only one that would come close to the proper use of the word "Contemporary" in describing music in the church today.  But, then again, chanting the Psalms during worship 500 years ago could have been considered "Contemporary" also.  

Ok, semantics aside...on to the reason for this post.  

I serve a growing church.  Our worship is wide open on Sunday morning and is so by design.  Our praise band does "contemporary" worship music 95% of the time with the occasional hymn plugged in for the offertory.  I have learned over the last month or so that this "contemporary" worship music is dangerous.  

I grew up on the old Cokesbury Hymnal and a little green paperback hymnal with a picture of the gates of heaven on it but I can't remember the name.  They were packed with songs like "Amazing Grace," "The Church in the Wildwood," "Ivory Palaces," and "Victory in Jesus."  I remember Scotty standing up front and belting out those tunes loud enough for the church across the highway to be able to sing along with, and folks were clapping their hands and tapping their toes.  

I'm a United Methodist pastor, and was born into a United Methodist Church, but it wasn't until I was 16 or 17 that I was even introduced to the United Methodist Hymnal.  I know that the songs in our Hymnal have been carefully chosen to teach our theology, but when we started singing from that hymnal, and this is just my observations, the hand clapping and toe tapping stopped.  There was theology in them, but little fire...we knew them...they were safe...they were comfortable...and they told our story.

Then in my early 30's I was introduced to "Contemporary" Christian music...and I hated it.  I didn't know any of those songs...I had never heard any of those songs...and I'm not talking about songs like "Kum ba yah."  (I actually had one church member tell me one day that we needed to be doing more upbeat and contemporary music in church, and when I asked, "Oh?  Like what?" Her answer seriously was "I don't know, like Kum ba yah."  #Facepalm ...not a fan...)  I'm talking about drums, electric guitars, floor thumping bass, keyboards, and multiple vocalists...

Now, you may be asking, "Jamie, why do you think it's dangerous?"  Good question.  It's not because it's loud and we shouldn't do loud in church.  It's not because of all of the instruments instead of the organ and piano.  It's not because it may seem undignified to some.  David, in the Psalms, wrote about all kinds of musical instruments and about how undignified his worship could become.  It's because it's sneaky.  

When we sing from a hymnal, we know that we are getting theology and doctrine.  Sometimes it moves us, sometimes it doesn't.  When we sing along with a "Contemporary" worship song, we're just singing along, and then BOOM!  we're singing a prayer and don't even realize it.   Not that this can't happen from a hymnal, but for me it hasn't happened from a hymnal.  

"Contemporary" Christian music is dangerous because it leads folks into prayers they may not even be aware they're praying.  One example for me, just recently, was "Keep Making Me," by Sidewalk Prophets.  For a couple months, I sang along in my truck with them, then I woke up one morning and God had actually answered the prayer that I had been praying and didn't even realize I was doing it..."Make me broken, so I can be healed.  I'm so calloused and now I can't feel.  I want to run to you with heart wide open, make me broken...Make me empty, so I can be filled.  Cause I'm still holding onto my will.  I'm completed when you are with me, make me empty."  

It's not Church in the Wildwood, but God answered that prayer in a huge way in my life and I didn't even know I was asking for it.  Dangerous, I tell you.  Sneaky.  But it works.  

"Show me your glory" by Third Day...prayer.
"I will follow" by Chris Tomlin...prayer.
"Hold us Together" by Matt Maher...prayer
"I need a miracle" by Third Day...prayer.
"Let them see you" by JJ Weeks Band...prayer
"Lord, I need you" by Matt Maher...prayer

...and that classic contemporary song...

"Sanctuary" by Randy Scruggs...Prayer...are we sure we really want God to prepare us to be a sanctuary?

Sneaky.  Dangerous.  If we sing along with them, we need to be ready for God to answer those prayers.  Sometimes I don't think we realize what we're doing as we buzz down the highway with the radio on.  

Now, I'm not dissing the UM Hymnal at all.  It's my theology...but for this 43 year old rebel preacher, it just doesn't speak to me like some of these others.  Maybe it's not the hymns, maybe it's been my experience with the presentation of those hymns... piano... organ... about half tempo... trying to stay awake until the end... oh my God are we singing that one again this week... but this month, I had an epiphany, and that is this: for the last 13 years I have been praying prayers that I didn't even realize I was praying and this month God answered one of those, sending my sand castles tumbling down.  

So, if you still want to argue "Contemporary" verses "Traditional" that's cool with me.  What I have realized lately though, is the danger in singing a "Contemporary" worship song.  I will always love the old revival hymns I grew up on.  "Ivory Palaces" is running through my head right prayer life has been taken to a completely different level through some of these new fangled contemporary songs...and I'm not alone.  

Now, if you are a fan of contemporary worship songs, and contemporary worship bands, do me a favor...check out the lyrics before you sing along with them because some of them are prayers, and when God's people pray, God listens whether we realize we're doing it or not.  

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Teaching Old Dads New Tricks...

Ok, I haven't done this in a while.  Life has been crazy busy, but inspiration hit last night and I thought I'd share some thoughts this morning.  Get your Kleenex ready.

I'm a dad.  Have been for over 18 years now.  My oldest daughter, Jenni, just graduated high school two weeks ago, and my youngest, Hannah, will be a freshman after Friday afternoon.  I think it was some divine practical joke that I wound up with two daughters.  God must have grinned and said, "Hey, Jay...remember that teenage boy you used to be?  Wouldn't it be a hoot if you got to be the dad of two teenage daughters?  I think we should do that."

The problem with having teenage daughters is that, eventually, they attract teenage boys.  Most dads are just like I am and are very protective of the apples of their eyes.  Occasionally, we have to remind some teenage boy just how precious that little girl is, and sometimes we have to leave them with no doubts whatsoever.  Every now and then one will come in the door all puffed up, saying things like, "I'm not afraid of any dads..." and it is our duty to show him the error of his ways.

...Then there's the ones that absolutely blow your mind.

...Like Kyle...

Yesterday was a very long Wednesday for me.  When I finally got home last night, I went out into the backyard and lit a bonfire.  Kyle was at the house with Jenni, and they came out and sat on the ground by the fire with me.  As I sat there watching them, it hit me that this may be the one.  Who knows?  Here's the deal, though... Jenni has epilepsy.  She was diagnosed in March of 2009.  Kyle is blind.  He has had prosthetic eyes since he was a little boy. Watching them together melts my heart.  It's exactly what every dad wants for his little girl.

Why?  Because I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Kyle is not after my little girl for what's on the outside.  He sees on a level very few others can. He sees her for what she is on the inside.

If she is having an off day, he texts me to find out how she is doing.  If she is having an absence spell, he texts me to let me know that she's not acting right.  If he's down, he'll ask me if he can some see her because she makes him happy.

Every now and then he'll tell me, "Hey bro, I need to borrow your eyes for a minute," but most of the time, the kid is unstoppable.  I never called any of my girlfriends' dads "Bro."  Hell, I was terrified of most of them.
I was a pretty good drummer in high school, but this kid blows my mind when he gets behind a trap set.  He can completely rebuild a computer and has never seen one.  He knew his way around our house within 20 minutes of getting there the first time.

But more importantly than all of that, he loves my little girl for who she is and not what she looks like.  His mom even told me that he had told her once, "I know I can't see her, but I just know Jen is beautiful."

Now to the title of this entry.  See, here's the thing...Since April 19, of 1996 I have been dreading, and at the same time looking forward to, the day when I could be the dad that I was always afraid of.  I had it all planned out.  Then that country song came out, "Come on in boy, sit on down, and tell me 'bout yourself..." and that was just going to make it even easier.  I even downloaded it to my phone so I'd have it ready anytime I needed it. I had the speeches ready, and the hard looks...and the snarls...I was going to be that dad... because nobody was ever going to be good enough for my little girls.

Last night, I had to rethink all of that.  Every bit of it.  She's happy, and it's his fault.  My baby girl has been through hell for five years...then here comes this kid wanting to see  her...and he doesn't care that she has seizures, and she doesn't care that he can't see...and she's smiling again.  So I sit back and think, "You know what, I'm ok with this."

So...dads of little girls...this ol' dad has learned that not every teenage boy who comes to my door is a wolf.  Most of them are, yes.  But if I had done all of the things I had planned on doing when my oldest started dating, she wouldn't have been sitting around the bonfire with me last night, laughing with a boy who loves her for her.  I could have run all of them off...I'm the dad...but in trying to keep the bad ones away, I just might have caused her to miss a good one.

Jen, you make me proud, baby girl.
Kyle, you're a good kid, and thank you for making my baby girl laugh again.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

"Come Away With Me to a Quiet Place and Get Some Rest..."

Ok, this may sound
stupid but I just had surgery Monday and I've been looking forward to it for months.  Not just because the surgeon came in for the consult a couple months ago, pulled my CT scan up, and said, "I don't usually say this, but that's one messed up nose."  I knew that.  I've been looking forward to it because I knew it was going to knock me on my butt for a few days.  And boy, howdy, has it.  Thanks be to God.

I'm a work in progress, like most of us.  I'm stubborn.  I'm hard headed.  I can't sit still.  I've been told that I'm ADD, OCD, and probably some other letters I haven't heard of yet.  I've worked since the summer I turned 9 years old and my dad told me, "One of these days, boy, you're going to want to drive.  You'd better go to work and start saving money for a car."  Watching a movie is almost impossible because it requires me to sit down for 2 hours...2 hours, really?  But...I'm a work in progress. 

Which means...I'm better than I used to be.  After I got home from surgery Monday afternoon, I took the pain meds the doctor sent home and hit my recliner.  Every four hours, another pain pill like the doctor ordered, and back to the recliner.  Tuesday morning, I popped my copy of "The Hobbit" into the DVD player.  Three hours later, I popped "The Fellowship of the Rings" in.  Three hours later, "The Two Towers..."  For ten hours I sat in my recliner and watched hobbits, elves, and dwarves try to save Middle Earth.  And you know what, it didn't bother me. 

One of my favorite passages in the entire gospel story is found in Mark 6.  The disciples have been running all over God knows where, and as Jesus calls them back together they are climbing all over each other trying to tell him how busy they'd been doing all that he had sent them out to do.  He seems unbelievably unimpressed.  Totally blows them off.  Doesn't even seem to acknowledge how busy they'd been and how proud they were of that.  Instead, do you remember what he does?

"Come away with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."  That's his answer to their busy-ness.  Talk about busting some lead pastor bubbles. 

2013 was a hell of a year.  Thank God and greyhound it's gone.  So, as 2014 rolls in, and I'm still pretty much confined to my recliner for a couple more days, I think I'm going to take JC up on that invitation.  Not just for this week, but for this year.  I love my job.  I love to work.  I may even slip into the office for just a few minutes today, but I am going to rediscover how to rest and play this year. 

Life is just too damned short to stay stressed all of the time.  That's not what we were designed for.  Jesus knew that, and that's why he did what he did to the disciples.  Sure, there's lots of stuff that needs to be done.  Sure, there are going to be long days for all of us.  There will be long weeks and overtime.  There will be doctors visits and phone calls to keep the creditors at bay.   Things are going to break and we will want to pull our hair and scream. all of that, I am going to work harder this year at hearing that voice, "Come away with me by yourself and get some rest."