Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Grief is holy

It's been a while since I did anything with this page.  For the last 15 or 20 years, I discovered that I processed through writing, but life got busy and time for that became less.  

Yesterday, my wife lost her mom.  She was the matriarch of the family, friend to countless people, Momma, Grandmommy, Gaga, sister, wife, and as the saying goes, the glue that holds the family together. We are all broken-hearted, and we grieve, but as resurrection people, not as those without hope.  

As I laid down to go to sleep last night, a thought hit me...grief is holy.  Let me explain.  

We grieve much because we love much, correct?  I think we can all agree on that.  If we grieve because we love, and if God is love, then God also grieves with us.  If God grieves, and if God is holy, then, by extension, I feel safe in saying that grief is a holy experience.  

At the death of Lazarus, Jesus wept.  He didn't pontificate.  He didn't offer platitudes.  He didn't pat the folks in the crowd on the shoulder and say, "This is part of God's plan."  He wept.  Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Firstborn of all creation, the Prince of Peace simply wept.  He grieved the loss of a very close friend.  It was a holy moment.  

Now, I understand that in times like our family is experiencing right now, and that your family has experienced as well, it's not easy to find any amount of comfort or peace.  We are way too human to be expected to find anything else.  Grief is a very human emotion, and very much merited when someone we love enters the church triumphant.  Yet, there they are.  Standing in the background, quietly off to the side, peace and comfort are watching and waiting for just the right moment to walk up and put a hand around our shoulders.  For me, that moment hit when I went to bed last night.  

It had been a very long day.  We've known this was coming for over a year, but didn't think it would come this soon.  I've been distracted at work this week, and it showed.  Steph, my wife, had been with her mom as much as possible for the last 10 days, hoping against hope that the doctors were wrong and that mom would rally.  She had gone home to take a quick nap when her sister called me.  I dropped my tools, closed the doors at the job site, and headed home to tell her.  As I sat beside her on the bed and whispered, "Mom's gone," what I saw was holy grief.  She wept, as any of us would, and she grieved much because she loved much.  Still, it was a holy moment.  God draws near to the broken-hearted.  

To a grieving family, folk will say things like, "You know heaven is celebrating today."  I get the sentiment, I respect what they're trying to do, but it's not helpful.  Heaven may be celebrating, but we're not.  And, do you know what?  That's ok.  It's ok to hold on to our humanity during times like this, even though, as the saying goes, we are spiritual bodies having a physical experience.  It's ok to allow grief to flood over us as we say goodbye to someone we love.  It's ok to weep, uncontrollably even.  It's ok to ask hard questions, like; "Why?' or "Why her?" or "Why now?"  or even "God, why did you let this happen?"   Yes, we are people of the resurrection.  Yes, we have the hope of eternal life.  But, and please hear this, we don't know anything about those things from personal experience.  What we do know, is that someone we love will never pick up the phone and call us again, and in our case, Steph's mom will never make her famous beefaroni again, or her Christmas lasagna, and that hurts.  

Now, to every coin there are two sides.  Grief is holy, but grief is not part of God's plan.  At least, I don't think it is.  And I know, with every fiber in my being, that it is not part of some perfect plan.  I'm convinced, and I may be wrong, but I'm convinced that in the first days of creation, God did not plan for us to grieve.  God planned and created the day and night, the fish of the sea, stars of the sky, sun, moon, animals, plants of the land, and finally us, but I haven't read in that account where grief was figured in.  Perhaps it's there and I just missed it.  However, after the fall, grief and loss found their place in the world.  

As a pastor, theologian, husband, father, and now grieving son-in-law, I ask this one thing of any who would offer their condolences, now or at any time in the future.  Don't say it.  Just don't.  I know you mean well, I know your intentions are pure, but please don't say things to us, or any grieving family, like "You have to accept this as part of God's perfect plan."  No, we don't.  I cannot believe this feeling was part of some original, divine plan.  Or, "God needed her/him more than you did."  No, God didn't.  We need them here with us, at least for a little longer.  We need to hear their voice, hug their neck, or drink coffee with them.  Please don't say, "God knows best."  I don't argue that theologically, but contextually it doesn't hold water.  Please don't say, "God needed another flower for his garden."  No.  God didn't.  If God was able to speak the entire world into creation, God could do the same with one more flower in the garden.  In fact, you don't have to say anything.  Just be there.  Be that peace and comfort standing off to the side, just waiting for the right moment to slip an arm around a grieving child's shoulders.  Just hold them and let them weep.  Be a safe space for them to be honest with the things they're feeling; with the unknowns, the pain, the anger, the denial.  Allow them the space to process as they are able.  

Why?  Because I feel that is exactly what God would do.  Weep with us.  That's all we ask.  And, actually, God, in the person of Jesus, did just that.  

Sunday, January 22, 2023

As for me and my house...

Have you ever had a friend, family member, or someone else you genuinely cared for who was about to do something that you knew was going to be painful, but there was nothing you could do but watch and hope for the best?  If you have ever experienced that, you have a basic understanding of how it feels to be clergy in the United Methodist Church right now.  

Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you've no doubt heard about the mess that is currently going on inside the United Methodist Church.  Some folks are saying we're splitting, but we're not.  We are, however, splintering, and the splintering is leaving shrapnel stuck in people I know and love.  

I am one of those life-long United Methodists.  When dad was discharged from the army and mom and dad moved back here from Columbia, South Carolina, I was a mere nine months old.  The cross and flame is all I've ever known.  When Steph and I married, we embarked on a journey to find "our" church; not mine, not hers, but ours.  We went to mine for a while, a little country UMC.  We went to hers for a while, a small town southern baptist church.  We had plans of visiting others.  Her church turned me away from the communion table one day and I told my new bride, "I'm going back to my people and I'd love for you to come with me."  She did.  That was 30 years ago.  

Five or six years later, I had an experience one night coming home from a fishing trip.  A few days later, after I got home from work, I sat there reading the newspaper, folded it up and put it in my lap.  Then I looked at my wife, and mother of my daughter, and said, "I have to go back to school."  She said, "Oh yeah? What for this time?"  I looked at her, not believing the words were even coming out of my mouth, and said, "I think I need to go to seminary."  

"To be a preacher?"

"Yeah.  I think this is something I'm supposed to do."  

"Then I will follow you wherever this leads."

So, at 28 years old, in 1999, I wasn't only a member of this denomination, I was about to begin the journey into ordained ministry as a United Methodist clergy.  I began the process, and in 2011 was ordained as an elder in full connection.  I have served small country churches.  I have served county seat churches.  I have served large churches.  A few years ago I cut back to part time, we bought a house in our home town, and I decided that my girls had lived in their last parsonage.  Now, I'm serving part time and believe this is where God wants me for this season in my life.  So, as I said before, this is all I've ever known.  

Now, to the mess.  

"Disafilliation." It's a word that's on everyone's mind right now who calls themselves United Methodist.  It has recently found its way into the church I love and am currently serving.  When a church begins the conversations about leaving the denomination, that leaves the clergy appointed to serve that church having to decide what they are going to do.  Are they going to leave the denomination and stay with that church?  Are they going to leave that church and stay with the denomination?  It's a painful decision to make and one that must be done prayerfully, considering what is best for the kingdom and our own families.  

See, United Methodist clergy are not like Baptist clergy or Church of Christ clergy.  We are not hired by the local church.  We are sent by the Bishop to serve a particular community through a particular congregation.  We are appointed (sent) one year at a time, and each summer, either reappointed to that congregation, or sent to another one.  It's a system with its advantages and disadvantages, and some days, it's flawed at best.  But, it's a wonderful way to mix the gifts and graces of each pastor and each congregation.  

That being said, I, like several of my colleagues, find ourselves in a state of limbo.  We want to remain faithful to our calling, and now we're just waiting and watching for God to let us know how that's going to play out.  We love the congregations we are serving, but we can only serve them as long as they remain United Methodist, or... we surrender our credentials and leave the denomination.  We have to choose.  Let me just tell you from personal experience, that is a gut wrenching decision to have to make.  

It's gut wrenching because it doesn't have to be like this.  Because of personal agendas, strong personal opinions, false information, a myriad of "what if"s, and good ol' American individualism, no one is asking what is best for the kingdom of God in all of this.  It's only about what I want as an individual.  Churches are being split.  Witnesses are being damaged.  The world is being proven right about the "C"hurch in many instances because selfishness is leading many of these decisions.  Conversations are being had in our parking lots, behind closed doors, and in secret, and it is causing damage that only the Holy Spirit can heal.   

In the words of Paul, my brothers and sisters, this should not be so.  

Hopefully, it is not too late for the church I love and am currently serving.  Hopefully, we can see that we are better together.  Hopefully, we can become the home for all of the United Methodists in our county who did not want to leave the denomination, but their churches had the 2/3 vote anyhow.  But if not...?

Well, if not... I have a decision to make.  No, my wife and I have a decision to make.  

It reminds me of Joshua 24, and this may get me into trouble because someone, somewhere, is going to read my next few lines the wrong way.  

In Joshua 24, Joshua has gathered all the tribes together and begins to tell them what God is saying to them.  If you flip over to Joshua 24:1 and read through verse 13, you get a good list of all the things God had done for the people of Israel.  Then in verse 14, God throws down the gauntlet: 

"Now, therefore, revere the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord.  Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."  

Now...  before anyone starts throwing things or calling my bishop, allow me to tell you why that's the verse that came to me when I began to write today.  

We have become distracted.  We have lost our focus.  And by "we," I mean many in the United Methodist Church.  We are not necessarily serving the gods of our ancestors or the gods of the Ammorites, but the gods we are serving are our own wants and desires and our own agendas.  In short, the gods we are serving in all of this, is ourselves.  

Some disafilliate over the issue of homosexuality, but don't want to talk about the numerous scriptures about second marriages leading to adultery.  We want to point out the speck in others' eyes without paying one iota of attention to the log in our own.  We want to judge others as long as no one brings up our pet sins.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  

My brothers and sisters, this should not be so.  

After Jesus had left the Mount of Olives one day and was teaching in the temple, a group of angry men dragged a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery to him.  How did he react?  They knew how they wanted him to react, but how did he react?  "Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone."  What happened?  One by one, they quietly slipped away until there was no one left but she and he.  "Where are your accusers?  Didn't even one of them condemn you?"

"No, Lord," she said.

"Neither do I.  Go and sin no more."

As for me and my household, we have decided that there are way bigger things to be upset about.  We have decided that it is not our place to judge others because we cannot throw stones either.  We have struggled, prayed, and cried, trying to decide where we feel God may be calling us next.  With 23,000 people starving to death in the world every day (approximately) and the church arguing over the things we're arguing over, we (the Church) have left our one true love.      

Adding to that the fact that many of the churches that are disaffiliating are doing so because they have been fed false information, forced onto them by some with an agenda, just makes it even worse.  Folks aren't even leaving over legitimate reasons.

What's the answer?  I honestly don't know.  Folks are going to leave.  Folks are going to stay.  But that's the beauty of being a Wesleyan people; we don't have to think alike to love alike.  

So, if disafilliation is a conversation you are having, I implore you to listen past the rhetoric, gossip, half truths, and blatant lies for that still small voice of God calling to you through the chaos and inviting you to step away for some quiet conversation.  

As for me and my house... we're United Methodist.  


Thursday, December 16, 2021

After the storm

 It’s been 6 days now since our little corner of the world was turned completely upside down.  The initial assessments have been made.  Debris is being cleared.  Rescue and recovery have been going nonstop.  Volunteers have come in by the droves to assist us and help where they can.  Water and electric are being restored. Donations are continuing to pour in, and for all of this I am grateful.   

This morning, I woke up with heat and lights for the first time since Friday morning. Like so many others, I’m experiencing a certain amount of survivor’s remorse because we were so close to the main path, but relatively unscathed.  This has caused no small amount of theological wrestlings and reflection.   So, as I’ve done for years, permit me a few minutes to process all this through my keyboard.   

Why?   Why did the storm track shift a little less than a half mile from what we were expecting?   The original track was taking the tornado directly over our house, instead, it came by less than a half mile to our south and east.  

How?   Surviving this storm was certainly not because of anything I did.  No one can stand against winds knocking on 200 plus miles per hour.  I did everything I knew to do in order to protect my family, but short of installing an underground bunker, there was really nothing I could do.  It seemed to be the luck of the draw, and even typing that makes my stomach turn.  

As we listened to tornado rip through neighborhoods and downtown as it passed our house, my first thought was “Thank God.  We survived.”  It was all I could think to do.  Now for the theological reflection.  

Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica told them to give thanks in all things, because that was the will of God. (Paraphrased). We should.  Sort of.  

A lot of people are struggling with the events of last Friday night, and rightfully so.  I’m struggling with it.  I do give thanks for many things that did or didn’t happen last weekend, like so many others are right now, and I do believe that there is much, for which, to be thankful. However, there is one phrase I keep hearing that haunts me.  

“I’m thankful that God protected me.”  I appreciate the sentiment behind statements like that, but I’d like to take a minute to unpack some of the theology in it.  

“I’m thankful that God protected me,” alludes to the idea that God picks and chooses who receives protection and who doesn’t.  We don’t mean anything by it when we say things like that, other then genuinely offering thanksgiving that we’re still here.  I totally get that.  I would encourage us to reflect what it says to others, though. 

As I came out of our hallway after the immediate threat had passed, I stopped and said “Thank you.”  Meanwhile, in the couple minutes it took to pass by us, lives were lost not a half mile away.  The thought of that is gut wrenching.  If I were to say I was thankful God protected me, it would insinuate a divine hand redirecting the path of the storm away from my house, and directly over others.  I can’t serve a God who does that.  I just can’t.  A god who picks and chooses who survives and doesn’t is not worthy of our worship.  

It was just a fluke of nature that I’m even here to write this morning.  

That being said, theology is messy.  Part of the curse of a theological education is that, in our training, we are forced to recognize and wrestle with things of this very nature.  The “Why?” questions.  The “How?” questions.  And, to do so in a way that honors our God and our fellow humans.  

So, for all those who feel this week that God’s hand of protection has been removed, let me assure you that God’s heart is breaking right along with yours this morning.  Nature is a brutal force at times, and were God to directly intervene, saving some while others perished, the theological ramifications would be endless.  

The sucky part in all this is that there just aren’t any easy answers.  A friend of mine said something yesterday that stopped me in my tracks.  He said, again paraphrasing, “God wasn’t in the disaster, but lives in the response of the people to the disaster.”   

This week I encourage all of us to find something in the aftermath of this storm for which to be thankful.  I encourage us to let empathy guide our words and actions.  

God is here.  Now.  With you.  With me.  With us.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

What if?

 I'm tired.  I know you are, too.

Everywhere we look, COVID is there.  For the past 18 months it has pervaded basically every aspect of daily life.  Who has it now?  Am I going to get it?  Mask?  No mask?  Vaccine?  No vaccine?  What's working?  What isn't?  Am I essential?  Why are they essential and I'm not?  If I can't work, how will we pay the bills?  Then, add to the mix the number of social media medical experts telling us their opinions of why this or that does or doesn't work.

I'm tired.   

I have never really been a people person, and have always preferred my bubble to be fairly tight, only letting in the closest of friends and family.  Now, I find myself cringing when someone stands too close behind me in a checkout line.  Are they COVID positive?  Did they just cough?  I can actually feel my anxiety levels rising in certain situations that used to just be mildly uncomfortable.  

I remember in February of 2020, when we first started hearing about this new strain of SARS and thinking, "Oh, this isn't going to be good."  I started reading everything I could find on it, and trying to stick with articles that were from reputable medical sources.  Infection rates were higher than we usually see.  Transmission rates were higher than we normally see.  Mortality rates were already alarming.  From the looks of things, early on, it was going to get much worse before it started getting better.  We masked up in public, kept our distance, limited gathering sizes, and it seemed to be working. 

Like most folks, the idea of a two week quarantine, were one of us in my house to be exposed, was terrifying.  Also, like most folks, we didn't have funds in reserve that would carry us through two weeks, four weeks, or a couple months into some unknown future.  It was a very frightening time.  I switched back and forth from supporting one government mandate to thinking this was all an overreaction.  I mean, how could we expect to survive if we completely shut down the country?  It's a legitimate concern, and unfortunately, one that we could be facing again.  Then, earlier this year, the numbers did start dropping, slowly.  Hospitalizations were down.  It seemed like we were beginning to turn the corner, so the country started opening up, and restrictions were relaxed. 

Then, like many viruses do, this one found yet another chink in our armor, mutated, and tried again.  The new variant is more infectious, seems to be more easily transmitted, and is affecting the younger among us.  Yet, even with 18 months of COVID restrictions, infections, and loss of life behind us there is still a growing amount of resistance to methods that might slow the spread.  

See, I'm not a doctor, so my approach to this whole ordeal has not been from any type of medical background.  I do have a degree in biology, with a basic understanding of genetics, mutations, etc, etc, etc, but I'm not a doctor.  I didn't even sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night, nor do I play a doctor on television.  

I'm not an economist, so I have very little understanding of the long-term effects of last year's shut down, but I am a business owner, and I've seen how it has impacted my business.  

I'm not a historian, so I haven't studied in depth the long term effects of events like the 1918 Flu epidemic and can't liken that to our current situation with any amount of authority.  

What I am, though, is a theologian.  My response to this current global threat has, from the very beginning, been rooted in my study of scriptures.  I'm not talking about Revelation kind of stuff, like some folk who are claiming this is some end-time, apocalyptic, get right or get left behind, wrath of God event.  That's not what it is.  I'm likening it more to the leprosy that is mentioned so often in our New Testament.  I don't mean we shun folk, like they did with those who had leprosy, or send them out of the city, or cross the street to prevent even the chance of coming into contact with them.  I'm talking about how quickly this can spread, and what our response as Jesus followers should be.

Leprosy was a horrible disease.   Do a quick google search this afternoon if you'd like to see some pretty horrific pictures.  I can't imagine what it must have been like to contract that disease, and know what that was probably going to mean.  No one touched a leper.  Well, except one person.  They were no longer able to work, and had to depend on the charity of others for their survival.  Isolation would become their new normal.  Then along comes this guy, Jesus, who treated them as the humans they still were.  

Then, this morning, I'm sipping my coffee and scrolling through social media when one post after another starts popping up from folk I know to be Jesus followers, about "my rights," "resist the mandates,"  and "my kid isn't doing that."  I wanted to weep.  Not because I'm a huge supporter of emergency approved FDA vaccines, and certainly not because I enjoy wearing a face mask in a grocery store (because I'm not, and I hate wearing a mask,) but because I'm a theologian, and the first thought I had was, where has the church gone wrong in her teaching?  What have we missed?  What aspect of life as a Jesus follower did we not present often enough?   All of that led me to a reflection on one little question: 

What if?

What if they're right, and masks don't work?  What if the emergency approval of the FDA was premature?  Then, if that's the case, I probably looked the fool for wearing one into every store I entered last year, and there may be some long term side effects from the vaccine I took that I may not realize for years.  But...

What if? 

What if they aren't right?  What if masks actually are at least somewhat helpful in preventing the transmission of this virus?  What if the vaccine is safe and we just may not know for sure for a while?  Is it worth the risk?

As a theologian, as a father, husband, son, friend, and member of society, all I can say in answer to that is this, "To me, it was worth the risk."  You may ask me why, if you'd like, and I'll say this.  In all of the study I've done of the New Testament, the stories we have about the physical life of Christ as he walked among us, I can't find anywhere that says that I'm to look out only for myself.  It may be there and I've missed it, but I haven't found it yet.  Over and over we hear Jesus talk about loving others as we love ourselves, and how the first shall be last while the last are first, and how we're to care for the weaker among us.  We see examples of Jesus putting his own health and safety aside to reach out and care for those society had discarded.  I don't know why he did that.  Maybe he knew that, as the Second Person of the Trinity, it wasn't something he needed to worry about.  I don't know.  I do know, though, that for me (and I can only speak for me) deciding to follow Christ as I walk this world means that I have to, at the very least, consider the other's welfare as I do my own.    For me, and again, I can only speak for me, that meant two things; wearing a mask when I was around others, and getting the vaccine when it became available.  One was mildly frustrating, the other terrified me, but in the end, it was worth the risk to me.  

Back to the question, though.  What if?  What if we all who claim to follow Christ took it upon ourselves to do all we can do to stop this virus simply because the examples we have of the life Christ led compelled us to?  What if, we put our trust in our faith and not the opinions of those on social media?  What if we approached this virus through a New Testament lens?  And to narrow the field a bit, what if those of us with Wesleyan roots actually began living into the three rules?  Do no harm.  Do Good.  Stay in love with God.  Would that have any impact on the way we approach day to day life in a COVID world?  I certainly hope so.  

The reality is that we live in a country where we have taken our rights to be sacred, and they are.  It's one of the beautiful things about our nation.  But, we who follow Christ are not citizens of this nation alone.  Our ultimate citizenship resides in the Kingdom of God.  So, as a theologian, not a doctor, not a economist, not a historian, but as a theologian, I implore you to consider the examples of Christ in your wrestlings with the decisions we face as a society, for the greater good.  

I fully expect some push back from this, but even that was worth the risk.  I'll stand by my convictions that I have done what I could to follow the example of Christ in looking out for my fellow human.  What if I'm wrong?  That's always a possibility.  Will I be seen as self-righteous?  Hopefully not, and this will, instead, be taken as intended, written out of a concern for the other.  What the cost may be to myself down the road, I don't know, but whatever it is, I'm ok with that.  I've had a good run. 



Sunday, December 20, 2020

Am I loving my neighbor...


It's Sunday morning, and since I'm on leave from active ministry for a season, my Sunday morning routine has changed.  I used to get up around 4:00 on Sunday, fix my first cup of coffee, grab my laptop, and spend the next couple hours doing my final edits on the day's theological ramblings, then get ready and head out to lead worship.  Now, I don't.  

I do, however, still spend a good deal of time waxing theological, usually just in conversations with myself, but occasionally it is through social media.  Yesterday was one of the latter, and it bit me on the tail.  I woke up this morning thinking about it, and wondering what it was about the post that turned out to be so upsetting.  Looking back, I think the original post, and I'll share that in just a second, was laden with connotations that I didn't initially see because, after 20 plus years of pulpit ministry, it resonated with me.  

Basically, it was about labels, and labels can be dangerous.  Although I'm not a fan of labels except on the homemade jellies in my jelly cupboard, maybe they can be helpful for reflection purposes.  If we find ourselves more aligned with one group or another, sometimes putting a name to that, although divisive to a degree for some, builds a sense of unity for others...good, bad, neither, or both.  Still dangerous.   

The post was from a group called Nazarenes for Peace, and although the Nazarene Church shares my Wesleyan roots, or so I'm told, I know nothing about this particular group.  Here is what it said, quoting their post: "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered liberal theology?"

Let's just let that one marinate for a second.  

Here's where my reflections came in this morning.  One of the comments, and the one that made me delete my post until I'd had time to reflect on it, and one from a brother whom I love dearly and have for nearly 40 years, was something to the effect, "So because I'm a conservative I don't love my neighbor."  Ouch.  I immediately took the post down because that was not my intention at all, and I didn't want to send a message that I hadn't thought through completely. 

That is the problem with labels, and in our current environment, particularly when applying the conservative/liberal label to another.  See, I grew up in a very conservative home, in a very conservative county, in a red state.  I was taught conservative values, (i.e. the importance of family, honesty, loyalty, etc, etc, etc.)  I was raised on conservative theology, with a very literal reading of scripture, and strongly conservative ethics taught in all of my Sunday School classes.  But...that was nearly 50 years ago.  Now, though, after 50 trips around the sun, 21 years of pastoral ministry, a Master of Divinity degree, and being forced to think outside of myself to earn that degree, I've shifted.  

Maybe it's not that I've shifted.  Perhaps my definition of liberal/conservative has shifted.  See, whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot separate our personal theology from our personal politics.  One will definitely shape the other.  We get to determine which does what, though.  Does our personal politics shape our personal theology?  OR...does our theology shape our political leanings?  For me, it's the latter.  I believe what I believe politically because of what I believe theologically, and I think that most of us do.  What I have noticed over the years is that things I used to believe in, politically, are on a completely different plane from where I am now, simply because I was forced, in seminary, to get outside of myself.  

My last post was about how seminary had ruined my life, and while that was satirical in intention, it wasn't completely untrue.  Until I was forced to begin thinking in ways I never had to before, I was perfectly comfortable in my literal interpretation of scripture and the conservative theology in which I was reared.  Then I found out that scripture wasn't written to be taken literally, that Jesus was indeed a radical that bucked every system in place at the time, that Paul's letters were not even intended for us to read, and that God's unconditional love for all of humankind is utterly ridiculous (in a good way.)

Which leads to the reason I had to write this morning.  

Back to the social media post in question from yesterday.  Since it brought up the divisive nature of liberal/conservative labels, and since it implied that one loves their neighbor while the other doesn't, I would like to try a little exercise this morning.  Given the hot button political issues with which we have been inundated of late, let's play a little game.  (And I'm trying to do this as equitably as possible)  I am going to list some of the hot button issues we've seen in the headlines lately, then I'll ask if you think they are conservative/liberal ideologies, then I'll ask if they lead us to love our neighbors.  I'm doing this here because I've already spent the morning doing it in my head.  Understand, going into this that I'm not trying to persuade one way or the other, just offering some points to ponder.  I also know that this is probably going to get me into trouble, but I never shied away from the tough questions, even when they caused some very tense moments in my career.  Here we go, and this is just for fun, and a little self-reflection. 

Pro-birth:  (In this instance, only means anti-abortion, regardless of the circumstance)   Do you think that's a Conservative/liberal ideology?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-choice: (In this instance, means a woman has a right to choose what happens to her body)  Conservative/liberal stand?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-life: (In this instance, anti-abortion, care of the child {and all human lives} taken into consideration)  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

Immigration:  We need to break this one down a little.

    Closed borders: No one gets in unless they follow our laws.  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

    Separating familes to discourage border crossing. (detaining parents and children separately) Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

The pandemic:  Let's break this one down a little, as well.

    Face masks: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Social distancing: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Possible Vaccine:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Individual rights: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Death Penalty:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Universal healthcare: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

I think I'll stop there before I really get into trouble with things like gun control, racism, gender equality, human sexuality, and a host of other questions we could raise.  

If you're still reading, what thoughts crossed your mind?  Without offering any of my answers, I've had to really stop and think about how the things I believe in call me to love my neighbor, or if they even do.  Hell, even thinking about whether I should write this or not made me ask myself, "Is doing this loving my neighbor?" I don't know. 

The easy answer is that there are just not any easy answers.  I know what I believe theologically about who Christ was in the world, then and now, and that has forced me to rethink some of the things that I thought I always believed politically.  Joseph, the guy who got to be dad to Jesus, loaded his family up one night and left the country to keep them safe.  That affects my stance on immigration.  Jesus, dying at the hands of the state as a rebel leader, affects my stance on capital punishment.  I loathe the very idea of abortion, but I can't imagine the pain of having to decide between my life and the life of my unborn child in an impossible pregnancy.  Face masks...I hate them, but if there is something to their benefit, and if wearing one MIGHT help save a life, then I'll do it.  There are too many questions with too many different answers for us to be trying to box them into just two categories...yet that is exactly what we have done.  

So, after much reflection this morning over a few cups of coffee and a keyboard, perhaps it was the words in the post, save one, that resonated with me.  Perhaps Nazarenes for Peace would have done better to say "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered RADICAL theology?"  Because, my friends, it is very radical.  It goes against basically everything we are taught as citizens of this world, and this country.  

I think it was Stephen Mattson who said, "Sometimes, being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman."  There is some truth to that.  Sometimes you can be both, sometimes you have to choose.  It was Joshua, in our ancient Hebrew text, who said, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  Doing that will sometimes make you look like a terrible citizen of this world.  I'm okay with that.  

Labels are so dangerous, and perhaps what triggered my self-reflection this morning wasn't the fact that the original post was about labels, though it was, but instead about a very fundamental question we all need to be asking ourselves.  That question is not "Do I see myself as conservative or liberal?"  Instead, maybe we should be asking, "Does the way I feel about this particular issue honor the love of God through the person and life of Christ?  And does it show the world that I love my neighbor?"

Monday, November 9, 2020

"Seminary ruined my life."

Well, here we are again.  In January of last year I wrote what I thought would be my last blog post.  Over the last 11 years, this space has been a safe place for me, one where I could process the thoughts that ran rampant in my mind, and find some sense of balance, some sense of peace, some sense of... well, some sense of me.  

I've learned over the years that when I get that nagging itch to write, I need to just go ahead and do it.  I can put it off for a while, but not forever.  The last few months have given me, along with countless others, much to process.  For me, that processing always goes back to theology.  

For those who know me, they know that I spent 21 years in pastoral ministry, but in what is becoming my autumnal season of life, have gone back to what was evidently, something I never truly walked away from...carpentry.  I've strapped back on my toolbelt and gone back to residential construction.  Even during those years when I was a full time pastor, the smell of sawdust first thing in the morning never left my system.  On the flip side of that same coin, as a full time carpenter now, theology has never left my system.  I have sawdust in my blood, and probably always will, but my first true love is theology.  

Years ago, as I was still in the ordination process, a well meaning church member told me one Sunday morning, "Don't let that seminary change you." In the years since, I have come to realize that change is the very goal of theological education.  We cannot grow unless we change, and education demands that we grow.  

 In 2004, I began that journey.  As a 33 year old, I was still a young pastor.  I had finished my Bachelor degree work, getting a degree in Biology with a minor in chemistry.  I still don't know how I achieved the minor because I couldn't balance a chemical equation now if my soul depended on it.  Still, after having graduated with my BS, I began the journey into theological education.  

I chose a seminary that I knew would challenge me, because I needed to be challenged.  After checking out a few schools, I landed at Memphis Theological Seminary, a relatively small school in midtown Memphis.  The first two years changed me.  

At 33 years old, I had it all figured out.  My theology was conservative, as I'd been taught all my life.  My interpretation of scripture was literal.  Jonah literally spent 3 days in the belly of a whale.  My scientific mind had not yet begun to wrestle with that because there had been no need to.  The creation story was a story about six literal days, six 24 hour periods where all that is...was.  I had not yet discovered C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, nor had I read "The Magician's Nephew," where, as Aslan sang, the land of Narnia burst into being.  I'd had no reason, at that point in my life, to question anything.  

Then I began the classwork.  That first semester I had wonderful instructors.  I'll never forget Dr. Steve Parish walking into my very first seminary class.  I had expected an old white guy in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, but instead, in walks this old hippie with a ponytail, jeans, and flip flops.  I love the guy still.  Then I began to meet my other professors.  Theologians, all, yet not in the sense that I'd expected.  

Then it happened.  Seminary ruined my life.  

That first semester, and for three semesters after, I sat there as the walls of my theological castle came tumbling down.  There was nothing I could do, save try not to inhale the dust and hold on as the ground shook.  One after another, I watched helplessly as my walls crumbled.  Scripture is not literal?  What the hell?  Jonah could not survive three days in a mammalian stomach acid bath?  The creation story as an explanation of how our story as the people of God began?  

Helpless.   That's the only word I can use to describe it.  

Everything I had ever thought to be true was being challenged.  

You see, in my part of the world, good Christian boys and girls don't challenge anything.  I live in a red state.  Most of the folks who are my neighbors, friends, and family, hold to a very traditional, very conservative, very literal understanding of scripture.  It was how I was raised.  It was all I had ever known.  It was all I thought I'd ever need.  Then came seminary.  

I sat there, being taught that scripture was not to be interpreted literally, and was never intended to be.  Paul's letters, and the other epistles, weren't even meant for us to read all these centuries later.  Context was everything, and changed much of the way I read scripture.  When you understand who it was written to, and why, and where, and when, things change.  

Now, I'm at peace with who I am.  My understanding of scripture is no longer so conservative, nor so literal.  In fact, I'm the polar opposite of who I was 15 years ago.  I am comfortable with the reality that Paul was not writing to me, and that we put way more emphasis on Paul than we do Jesus.  My scientific mind and my theological mind are no longer at odds because, whether it was six days or 60 million years, doesn't take away from the fact that God loves us and created a world for us to live in, while at the same time giving us charge to care for it.

Theologically, I'm no longer conservative because I have been taught that the Jesus I had given my life to was a radical, an extreme radical.  He treated women in a way they'd never been treated before.  He showed concern for those no one else cared for.  He opened my eyes to the fact that no one is illegal in God's eye, whether they followed our laws to get here or not.  I saw, in the new Jesus I'd found, a path to live the life that had always been there, albeit just under the surface of what was acceptable.  

The problem came when I began to follow that Jesus.  It's one thing to sing our hymns to Jesus, in four part harmony, yet a totally different thing to actually follow him.  I couldn't sing then, still can't now, but though I may be off key I'll just sing more loudly.  What I can do, though, is follow that Jesus.  That radical, liberal, way too far to the left, Jesus.  I can follow him, has ruined my life.  

And that's ok. 

That Jesus has told me that skin color doesn't matter in God's eye.  That Jesus has asked me which kingdom I intend to serve.  That Jesus, radical Jesus, liberal Jesus, has asked me if I still love my brothers and sisters who march under the rainbow flag.  That Jesus has reminded me, "Jamie, you have prayed every night that my kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Do you really mean that?"  Yes, radical Jesus, I mean that.  

I've lost friends.  I've unfollowed family's social media posts.  I've questioned everything I've ever known to be true because that damn seminary ruined my life.  And...this election season... don't even get me started.

Actually...seminary did not ruin my life.  In fact, seminary was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me other than my marriage and the birth of my daughters.  

No, seminary did not ruin my life.  Seminary just showed me that there's really no place for a guy like me around here. 

My prayer now is that this same radical Jesus that I've given my entire adult life to serving, show me where I belong in God's kingdom plan.  


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Shutting the Gate

I think I started this blog in 2009, but I'm not sure.  It was intended to be a space for me to process so much of the things that were running through my head at the time because I process through writing.  I think I always have.  Today, I think one more post and then it's time to shut the gate and move on. 
It's a long one, but since it may be the last one, that's ok. 

It's no secret that my world has seen some major upheavals over the past few months, but those endings have given birth to new beginnings.  There have been times of great grief, but also of great celebrations.  There have been times of uncertainty and panic, but also times of extreme, almost eerie, calm and peace.  I'm not whining or looking for sympathy, just a simple man telling a story as part of a process we all go through at some point in our lives. 

It started July 31 of last year when I got a phone call no son wants to get: "Your dad is having a heart attack and is on the way to the hospital by ambulance."  I don't even remember what I was doing at the time, but whatever it was, I dropped it and headed to the hospital.  Since I lived closer than they did, I beat the ambulance there by 10-15 minutes, and I confess those were some of the longest minutes of my life.  As a biologist by education, and a science geek, I had visions of Schrodinger's cat, in that until I saw dad, he was both alive and dead.  I just didn't know.  He'd already had one major heart attack and quadruple bypass, so I was unsure whether or not his body could handle another one.  That day began a very long journey for my dad, one that he still struggles with, because the heart attack was followed by multiple complications and two very close calls with mortality.  It also exacerbated the Multiple Sclerosis he has battled for 40 years, leaving him unable to care for himself.  Watching our parents age and grow weaker is tough. 

2018 was also the year that my supervisor told me I needed to take a spiritual renewal leave.  In January of last year, he said, "You've been doing this nearly 20 years and at this appointment for 7, it's time for you to take a renewal leave to rest your body and soul."  That caused some anxiety for me because I've never done well with resting.  It's still a growing edge for me but one that I'm more aware of now.  I brought the idea to my leadership team and they were supportive at the time, so I began to study the calendar and look for an opportunity to step away for 30 days. As June rolled around, I had decided to step away for the last two weeks of August and the first two weeks of September.  That's a fairly slow time in the church calendar because liturgically we were still in the season after Pentecost, all of the back to school events would be over, and there was time before Advent planning would need to begin. 

In July, I brought it up again and this time got some push back.  One thing I've learned over 19 years of pastoral ministry is that it's a great place for folks like me.  I've worked since I was 9 years old and had always put work above most anything else.  A church will let you work yourself to death and pat you on the back for it, which fed right into my ego.  That night I took a stand for myself and it began my downfall.  The details are confidential and really not important, but looking back I can now see that was the beginning of the end. 

Then comes August and our next meeting.  This time the mood was completely different in the room and, having been through meetings like this before, watching the gatherings in the parking lot before the meeting, I knew this was not going to go well.  I was not wrong.  Rumors had been flying all over the county about me and I was completely unaware.  For the next half hour or so it was like I was trying to sip water from a fire hose as each person in the room went around the table with one accusation after another.  Two had merit: one was an accident from two years earlier and that I had already apologized for, the other I corrected as soon as I found out it was a problem, so I don't claim total innocence.  None of us can...ever. 

In Celebrate Recovery, as we get to the spiritual inventory part of the recovery process, there is a sheet of paper we fill out describing things like, the event that caused pain, the person who hurt us, the people we've hurt, and our role in it.  It's a painful process, but a necessary one if recovery is to be obtained.  After that meeting I began my own inventory, owning my parts of the problems. 

I contacted my supervisor, told him what was going on, and said, "There is no way I can recover from this."  In my gut, I felt like my 19 year career was over.  Folks in my inner circle kept saying things like, "Don't panic yet," or "Let's don't go worst case scenario yet," but I knew. 

The timing couldn't have been worse.  Dad was still in the hospital, and I was 4 days away from a 30 day leave that was intended to rest my spirit, but there was no rest.  We had always been very intentional about keeping an eye out for any smoldering fires, but now I wasn't going to be in the position to do that for a month, and the inferno began to rage. 

I started hearing about all of the things I was supposed to have done, and it was almost comical in that I told my wife, "Evidently I have been a very busy young man."  None of them were true, but in small town life, it doesn't matter.   Blood and sex sells. 

Long story short, two weeks later, there was to be a meeting with my supervisor to discuss the situation.  As part of the renewal leave, we had scheduled 3 days of vacation in Gatlinburg, and it happened to fall on the weekend the meeting was to take place.  That Sunday afternoon, I finally got the phone call I'd been waiting for, and when I asked how it went, I was told, "Not well."  As I stood there on the sidewalk in Gatlinburg, listening, trying to keep my knees under me and not vomit on innocent passersby, I learned that I no longer had a job and that the church leadership wouldn't allow me to come back and say goodbye.  In two weeks, folks I loved dearly and trusted as part of my inner circle had turned on me.  I'd been told years earlier that a church can turn on their pastor overnight, but those kinds of things happen to other people, not me.  The problem was, this was done without the knowledge of the congregation, and had been building for months right under my nose.  I had been fired.  It was also done in a way that made it look like I just left. 

Then the panic set in.  We discussed options and began looking at future plans, but my world was spinning out of control so fast that I was unable to focus on anything but that moment.  What was I going to do?  How was I going to support my family?  Where were we going to live? 

See, everything in our world at the time was dependent on the church, and I have since learned that this is a dangerous scenario.  It lulls the clergy family into a false sense of security, while the reality is most of us are just one board meeting away from unemployment.  Those of us who are set upon a pedestal by those we serve become easy targets for rumors, gossip, and lies.  Those things are not harmless words.  They are devastating and can bring destruction and death wherever they are spread.  I'm living proof. 

I was still credentialed, but there were no appointments available.  I had wanted to open a restaurant for a couple years, and I started thinking about that as an option.  I could always put my toolbelt back on and go back to driving nails, but I was 17 years older than the last time I did that and wasn't sure my body could handle it. 

The first priority was to find a house.  That is where the story begins to shift from the devastation I had just experienced to knowing my family was being cradled by the hand of God.  Folks were still talking, mouths were still running, tongues were still flapping, but I was discovering a peace I had not felt in years.  It was going to be ok.  Somehow.  We were going to be ok.  I had no idea what the future was going to look like, but for some reason, I wasn't worried about it as much anymore.  There were still moments of panic, but they were becoming fewer and farther between. 

I called our realtor on the way back from Gatlinburg and said, "Find us a house, ASAP."  Without hesitation, she said, "Don't worry.  I'm on this."  The next day we had set up the first showing.  It was a possibility, but not what we were looking for, yet it would be doable if we weren't able to find something else.  We knew our price range.  We had an idea of what we could afford and where we wanted to land, but for the next week we looked at every house on the market in the Purchase Area.  We set up a couple more showings, and the next week found the one we would go on to buy.  I could write for hours about all of the little things that fell into place for us over the next few weeks, but suffice it to say, it was nothing short of the hand of God at work.  We had everything on our end ready for closing 6 business days after we signed the contract.  The loan officer said she had never had one go through that quickly in her career.  Every time we needed something for the house so that we could move in, somehow that need was met.  Over and over this happened for the next month and it reminded me that I didn't have to be in control of this new life situation because God was.

It was a very humbling experience.

After we settled into the house, I began to look at the future through calmer eyes, and started thinking about what I was supposed to do.  For me, full time ministry was not an option anymore because I never wanted to be dependent on the church again.  However, ministry had been my life for 19 years so I didn't want to completely walk away.  The sandwich shop was going to be too great a risk, because even though it was something I would love to do, I just wasn't sure it would work or that I could even put together the capital to get started.  That left my tool belt as the best option.

I loved building houses.  I did if for nearly 10 years before entering the ministry and the smell of sawdust in the morning never completely got out of my system.  The problem was, I was 47 years old, my knees were pretty much shot already, and like many clergy, I was terribly out of shape.  I knew that if this was the path I chose, the first two or three months were going to be brutal.  On top of that, we were quickly coming into winter, and winter is the worst time of year to be a contractor.  Still, there was a peace and a calm that I had not experienced in years.  

So, I bit the bullet and put out a quick little blurb on social media saying that I was putting my tool belt back on and if someone needed home repairs, just shoot me a message.  Again, I was humbled.  Blessed, extremely blessed, but humbled.  I didn't expect the response, nor was I prepared for it.  My prayer was, "God, if you present the opportunities, I'm not afraid to work hard."  Today is January 13 and I'm scheduling for March already.  I am a very blessed man. 

Now for the theological reflection part, because without that, it sounds like I'm just bitching and moaning.  Let me start by saying that my faith in God has never been stronger.  I have experienced so many things over the last few months that can only be explained as the hand of God at work.  For 19 years I've talked to others about surrendering to God's will, but it wasn't until I hit my own personal rock bottom that I did that myself.  Once you find yourself with nowhere else to go and nothing else to lose, surrender seems to come easier.  Now, I'm very thankful for all I've been through because I feel that my relationship with my Creator is stronger than it has ever been. 

The Church, with a capital C, not so much.  And I own that.  Trust in the system and the institution has been all but destroyed.  I was born into the church and have never strayed, save a few months in my 16th year, but even then I came back.  I have given the past 19 years of my life to serving the church, only to be swept away like drink cups under the bleachers after a ballgame.  Still, I know the importance of community.  We were not created to live life alone. 

If and when I come back to pastoral ministry, and that is still very much an option, I will come back with a new understanding of the people we in the church call "the dones."  They have been part of a church, were hurt by the church, and said they were done with the church.  Their trust has also been destroyed, but the God who breathed life into them still very much wants them to be part of a community.  Personally, I have traded my vestments for work boots for a season and haven't been happier in years.  I have been to worship twice in five months and I get it.  I get why folks find it so easy to skip church to do something else on Sunday morning.  I feel like the experiences I've had over the last few months put me in a wonderful position to understand those who are frustrated with organized religion and could very well give birth to a very dynamic ministry.  That excites me...but I'm just not sure that I'm ready yet. 

I have grieved the losses and welcomed the unknowns.  I have dealt with my anger, and have gained a new understanding of forgiveness.  I have witnessed the hedge of protection so many pray for.  I have been broken down and reborn.  Would I ask to go through this?  Not on a dare.  Am I thankful for it?  Every minute of every day.  Today, I can honestly say that life is good...very good. 

I'm currently writing a book about how God walks with us through the valley times and often brings us safely through the other side.  It's not ready to be published yet, but the writing itself has been very cathartic.  As for this blog, it, too has been very therapeutic over the last ten years, but I think it's time.  It's time, at least for a season, to close the gate and move on. 

As I close the door on this season of my life and look forward to the next, I leave you with a blessing attributed to St. Francis:

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 cannot be done. 

Until God tells me it's time to write again, peace be with you.