Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Different Kind of Christmas Story

 (This is my Christmas letter to Grace Church)

            It was a hot day in June of my 12th year.  I had been away at summer camp all week.  On Friday afternoon mom and dad met the bus to pick me up and take me home.  As we got ready to pull into the driveway, I saw my border collie, Tippy, lying in the road ditch.  I hoped against hope that he was just taking a nap while he waited for me to get home.  Unfortunately, Highway 94 in south Graves County had claimed another family pet.  As my dad made ready to lay Tippy to rest, I walked the field behind the house...a complete and total mess.  That day I swore to myself that I would never, ever, never love another dog.  What was the point?  I'd just get attached and something would happen to it.  So at 12 years old, I gave up on having a dog.  Forever. 

            Over 30 years later, something began to change.  Every now and then I'd find myself thinking about Tippy and thinking that it might be nice to have another one.  But I didn't want to go through that again, and since I was allergic to short haired dogs, that was a good enough excuse.  I'd see one and say, "Stupid dog."  I'd hear someone talking about their dog chewing up the couch I'd say, "That's why I have cats.  Dogs are stupid.  Cats don't care if you're there or not."  I tried hard to hate dogs.  The truth was, though, I was just scared of losing another one.         

            Then the desire got strong enough that I actually started looking for one, but it was going to have to be the right one...the perfect dog.  It couldn't make me sneeze.  It couldn't bark.  It couldn't chew up my house shoes.  It couldn't go ripping around the house, and it couldn't dig up my yard.  I figured that if I set the requirements high enough, I'd never find the perfect dog, and I could say, "Well, hey, I tried."

            Well...I found one.  But he wasn't perfect.  He didn't make me sneeze, but he barks some.  When I went to meet him, he was a nervous wreck.  He couldn't control his bladder.  He cowered.  He wouldn't come to me.  As the shelter director told me his story, my walls started coming down.  He had been mistreated all of his life.  He didn't trust men.  He was malnourished.  He was dirty.  He needed to be loved.  After 30 minutes or so, I thanked them for letting me meet him and left.  All week long I kept thinking about that stupid dog.  I spent the next several days going back and forth between wanting to rescue him and give him a shot at a decent life, and thinking that the last thing I needed was a dog to take care of.  Then late this week I said to myself, "What are you so afraid of?  Just do it.  He needs you."

            Now, why have I written about that in a Christmas letter to the church I serve?  There are a couple reasons.  One, this time of year brings to mind a great many hurts in our own lives.  Many of us are dealing with grief that will never go away, and the best we can hope is that time will somehow ease our pain.  Nothing that anyone can say or do will make that just go away, and I want to honor that place in your lives.  Well-meaning people will, to their error, try to convince us that it's time to just move on.  However, some of the things we are grieving can never be replaced or forgotten, nor should they be. 

            Still, this is also a time to remember that there are, walking among us, an immeasurable number of people who want one be loved.  They're not perfect.  Many have things in their past that have separated them from family and friends.  Some are struggling financially.  Many have experienced some great loss in their lives this year.  For people who find themselves in any of those situations, this season only amplifies the effects of depression and anxiety.

            The baby that we gather this week to celebrate grew up to tell us that those were the ones he came for.  We may have never thought about it quite that way, but the very reason there is a Christmas season is because there was, and will always be, someone who needs to be loved.  Since Christ's presence on earth now is no longer a physical one, the work of bringing love, joy, peace, and hope to a hurting world falls squarely on our shoulders as his followers.  This season calls us to be even more intentional about doing just that.

            At Grace, our mission statement is to "Connect people to Christ and to each other."  It's not just a catchy slogan that looks good on the sign out front.  It's at the center of who we are...the work we've been called to...our very reason for existing.  We are here for the ones who feel that, for whatever reason, they aren't loved.  If you would like to partner with us on this awesome task, we can help change the world one relationship at a time.  It's not an easy work that we're called to...but it can be life changing.  By helping support the ministries of the church we can bring hope, joy, peace, and love to a hurting world.        

            His name is now Perry, and he's so ugly that he's cute.  This week he found a new home.  The first four years of his life have been filled with fear and suffering.  This Christmas, he has shown me that love really does conquer fear and I'm going to do all I can to make sure that for the rest of his life...he knows that he's loved.  We, as a church, can do the same for any who cross our paths. 




Grace Church LaCenter
PO Box 330
LaCenter, KY 42056

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sitting on the Fence...

I'm torn.

I've kind of shied away from doing anything like this lately, but it's starting to bother me, so I'm just going to throw it out there...the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That's nothing new. It's been happening for hundreds of years, maybe longer.

People are scared...and rightly so.

We have become ill at ease while engaging in the most basic things of life...meetings, shopping, going to the movies.

The level of trust for any who are different has nose dived...and again...maybe rightly so.

We've circled the wagons, and the rhetoric coming from our newsfeeds has tighened that circle.

Over 16 years ago, I answered a call that has forever changed me. I'm not the same person I was then. Oh, I'm no saint, don't get me wrong. In fact, sometimes I can be an absolute ass...but I think differently about things now than I did while I was still driving nails every day.

Things that I would have never given a second thought to saying out loud then, give me pause now. I was a hard man then. I had very little tolerance for any who didn't share my views, and if you worked for me, you had better tow the line. I've fired guys for things that seem so trivial now.

I have two daughters now, who are almost grown, and that has changed me as well. I think about how to keep them safe, who they're talking to, what they're doing, but especially about how to keep them safe.

I watch the news just like everybody else. I see the images. I hear the stories. My heart breaks.

I read the stories from our faith, study them, expound on them every week. And that's where I'm torn. So in the spirit of transparency, the reason I'm torn is that while I'm a pastor, I'm also a man.

The pastor in me knows about the call of Christ to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. That's what I preach. It's what I try to live...try to. The man in me knows that to do that opens myself, and any around me, up to all of those things we fear. The struggle is indeed real.

Then I remember part of the liturgy of the table in my denomination:

"Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

I'm torn. And I own that. I haven't always heard the cry of the needy, nor sometimes do I even want to. Yet, I'm not 100% sure that I'm free for joyful obedience all of the time.

I realize the call to welcome. I understand that I'm supposed to love unconditionally as I have been unconditionally loved. I've heard over and over again that if I claim to be a follower, I'm also claiming to be a messenger of peace. Hell, I've even said that, over and over. But...

...but I'm also a man, living in the reality that there is indeed evil afoot, struggling to find any sense of balance between who I'm called to be and my human nature...and I'm not alone. This is a very real struggle among those of us who claim to follow the Prince of Peace. We want to honor our faith, but at the same time, we're scared. And I get that.

So what do we do?

With the presidential campaigns in full swing, I'm seeing a mix of fear mongering and denial. It makes me wonder if we're seeing some of the same kinds of things in the church, and in those who make up the church. 

What does the Church do in the face of terror attacks? 
What does the Church, the followers of Christ, do with mass shootings? 
What does the Church do with gun control?
What does the Church do with the Prince of Peace?
How does the church balance our instinct for safety and survival with the call from the itinerant rabbi we claim to follow?

These are very real questions, and we can either openly and honestly struggle with them or we can stick our heads in the sand and pretend that our people are not genuinely afraid of the times.

There have been calls to arms...part of me gets that. There have also been calls to peace...and part of me gets that. But what about those of us who are finding ourselves stuck in the middle...on the proverbial fence, if you will?

Do I own firearms? Yes. Would I use them to protect my family? Without batting an eye. Am I willing to take the risk of welcoming someone who may wind up doing me harm? I think so, but wouldn't do so knowing that was their intention. I don't think many of us would.

Do I want to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked? Yes. Is it because I really want to, or because Jesus tells me to? Honestly, it depends on the situation. Am I afraid to do that?

Sometimes. Yes.

But that doesn't negate my call to do those things. Fear does not undo the reality that, as a pastor...whether the man within me wants to, or not...I am called to seek peace. Why? Because that was the example Christ left us. It wasn't just some catch was the way he lived...and died. 

So for now, I continue to struggle. I guess I'm still sitting on the fence, and some may say that's a coward's way out...but I'm just being honest. I know who I've been called to be, what I've been called to do, but I also know how unbelievably dangerous it can be. I know that my fears and struggles are real, and many of yours may be as well. 

This could absolutely blow up in my face, or...there could be someone who reads this and says, "Thank God I'm not alone."
I welcome conversation, as long as we can keep it focused and civil.