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. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

My Journey to the Left

I'm a liberal.

There, I said it.  Among my family, I'm one of the few.  In my friends circle, I'm one of the few.  Among my colleagues, across denominational lines, I'm certainly one of the few...but I haven't always been.

I was born into a conservative, southern family.  I grew up in a very conservative, small country church.  I was taught a very conservative interpretation of scripture; the bible says what it says in the letters on the page, end of discussion.  It was all I knew, therefore, I never questioned it.

I'm proud of the way I was raised, honestly.  My parents instilled in me a set of core values that have continually shaped who I am today.  I was taught respect.  I was taught to work hard for the things I wanted or needed.  When I was 9 years old my dad did one of the best things a father could do for his son.  He told me, "Boy, one of these days you're going to want to drive a car.  You'd better go to work."  So, I did.  At 9 years old I started hiring myself out to the local farmers and when 16 came, I was able to pay cash for my first truck.  I've worked hard ever since.

I was taught the value of life, not just human life, but all life.  The men in my family were hunters, but we only killed what we were going to eat.  There was no such thing as pulling the trigger just for the trophy.  We raised a garden, and we all helped in it.  Summers were spent with my parents, and grandparents under the shade trees shucking corn or breaking beans.  It's just what we did, and I wouldn't trade anything for my upbringing.

Then, as a grew through my 20's and began to realize that what I had been feeling for years was a call to ordained ministry, my thinking began to shift.  I would read something in scripture and think, "That can't be right."  I would hear conversations in the church and think, "I'm not sure Jesus would agree with that."  I would see the things going on around me in the world, how some in the church responded to them, and think "I know Jesus wouldn't agree with that."

Then social media became a thing, and suddenly, people had a much larger audience among which to spread their ideologies and opinions.  The more I watched, the more I studied, the more attention I paid to the struggles of others...the more steps I took to the left.

In nearly 20 years of pastoral ministry, I've heard one scripture quote after another being used to support less than Christ-like behavior.  Yes, the bible does say those things, but context is everything, and it falls to each generation to, through prayer and study, try to figure out what God is saying to us today.

I'm no longer a literalist.  I don't take holy writ at face value.  If I am studying (exegeting) a text, I want to know when it was written, who it was written to, and why it was written.  This prevents me from taking one verse from here or there and using it to support my own personal agenda.  (Which is closer to eisegesis than exegesis)  It forces me to look at the big picture.  It requires of me a level of patience that has always been a growing edge, as I try to discern what it is God would have me hear.

It's changed my political leaning.  Growing up in South Graves County, you had no real choice but to be a democrat.  During the Clinton years, that no longer worked for me, so I changed parties.  Now, the Republican party bears very little, if any, resemblance to the party I felt would be a good fit for me nearly 15 years ago.

After reflecting on this for a while, I'm honestly not sure if I became more liberal, or always was and just didn't know it.  Either way, as a liberal in the UMC, which is way too liberal for some folk anyhow, I will continue to stand up for those on the margins. I will continue to call out our government for the way they are handling the immigration crisis that they, by the way, created.  I will continue to stand with my brothers and sisters of color and condemn racism for the vile, hate filled institution it is.  I will continue to fight for the addict because we are all sinners saved by grace.  I will continue to proclaim that God does not, in fact, hate gay people and that we are all people of sacred worth.

And...if that makes me a bleeding heart, or a snowflake, or any other term folks use to describe folk like me, I'm totally cool with that.  Why?  Because, after nearly 20 years of studying scripture, exegeting texts, creating outlines, and watching the world spin around me, I keep going back to the time Jesus said that there were two things that summed up the Law and the prophets; Love God with everything you have, and love your neighbor just like you love yourself.  For me, that's enough. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Screw the Church

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

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

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

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


Thursday, April 26, 2018

All Religion is Political


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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

When is it okay to be an angry Jesus freak?

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

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

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

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

The short answers are: Yes and No.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Church, we have a job to do.

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

So, I'm a little angry.

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

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

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

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